The Wines of Alsace

In the 1st century the Romans established the region of Alsace, then part of the province of Germania Superior, as a centre of viticulture. In more recent history, Alsace has at times been German and at other times French, but at all times, and above all, proudly Alsatian. Despite the centralizing tendency of the French Republic, the region still retains a strong and separate identity, with its own language, culture, cuisine, and wine tradition, which revolves around not French but Germanic grape varieties. Alsatian wines are, for the most part, single varietal white wines, with the most prized made from Riesling,

Gewurztraminer, or Pinot Gris. As in Germany, it is common for the grape variety to be proudly and prominently displayed on the front label. If the grape variety does not feature on the front label, the wine is typically a blend of several grape varieties, sometimes labelled as Gentil or more modest Edelzwicker.

The lie of the land
The vineyards of Alsace are framed by the Vosges Mountains to the west and the River Rhine to the east, and centred on the picturesque towns of Colmar and Ribeauvillé, which is ~16km (10mi) north of Colmar and ~70km (43mi) south of the regional capital of Strasbourg. The best vineyards lie at the foot of the Vosges, forming a narrow strip that stretches from north to south over a distance of more than 100km (62mi). In general, the slopes face east, but hills and lateral valleys give rise to a number of south-facing and north-facing slopes. Indeed, many of the best vineyards have a southeast to southwest orientation. The slopes are usually worked by hand, with mechanical harvesting confined to the plains of the Rhine.

Wine map of Alsace

Alsace sits in the rain shadow of the Vosges Mountains, which provide shelter from the prevailing Atlantic winds. Colmar receives less than 500mm (20in) annual rainfall, which makes it the second driest place in France after Perpignan in the extreme south. In contrast, annual rainfall in Jurançon in the foothills of the Pyrenées is a surprising 1,200mm (47in). The winters are cold and long, as might be expected in such a northerly and continental location (although Alsace is actually south of Champagne), but the summers are hot and the autumns long and dry, which favours the finesse and elegant aromas associated with extended ripening. In some years, spring frosts and summer hailstorms can cause significant damage to the harvest.

As the vineyards of Alsace run along a collapsed fault line, the soils are very varied, sometimes even within a single vineyard. Whereas the soils on the plain are for the most part alluvial, those higher up can be almost anything. Rockier flint, granite, and schist soils tend to be associated with a mineral, petrol, and gunflint character and to be particularly suited to Riesling; heavy clay and marl soils tend to be associated with weight and broad fruit flavours and to be particularly suited to Gewurztraminer; and limestone soils tend to be associated with finesse and to be particularly suited to Muscat. Producers often choose their varieties according to the terroir available to them, but also seek to diversify their plantings so as to minimize the impact of a poor harvest for a particular variety.

Grape varieties
The seven major grape varieties of Alsace are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris (formerly ‘Tokay’), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Sylvaner, and Muscat. Over the years, there has been a trend to replace plantings of Sylvaner, once the most common grape variety, with Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Riesling.

Almost all the wines are white except for those made from Pinot Noir, which are light red or rosé. A good quality sparkling wine, Crémant d’Alsace, is also made after the traditional method, and accounts for about a fifth of the region’s total production. Grapes for Crémant d’Alsace are picked at the beginning of the harvest season, and permitted grape varieties include Pinot Blanc (aka Klevner), Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Chardonnay. Finally, there are late harvest wines, which may be classified as either Vendange Tardive (‘Late Harvest’, similar to Auslese in Germany) or Séléction de Grains Nobles (‘Selection of Noble Berries’, similar to Beerenauslese in Germany and made from botrytized grapes). Only the four so-called ‘noble’ grape varieties, namely, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat are permitted for late harvest wines, whether Vendange Tardive or Séléction de Grains Nobles. Late harvest wines account for a very small fraction of total production, even in vintages that are favourable to late ripening and the development of noble rot. Straw wine (vin de paille, a wine made from dried grapes) and ice wine are also made, but in even smaller quantities.

Almost the entire production of Alsace is Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) as there is no Vin de Pays designation for the region (see Appendix C: The European Union and French Classification Systems). To make life simple there are only three AOCs: AOC Alsace (~74% of production) and AOC Crémant d’Alsace (~22% of production), which cover the entire region, and the more restrictive AOC Alsace Grand Cru (~4% of production), which covers 51 named vineyards, from Rangen in the south to Steinklotz almost 100km (62mi) further north. With a couple of minor exceptions, only the four noble grape varieties are permitted for Grand Cru wines. Some producers prefer to relinquish the Grand Cru designation in favour of historical names such as Clos Sainte Hune, part of Grand Cru Rosacker and probably the most vaunted name in Alsace wine. Terms such as Réserve Personnelle and Cuvée Spéciale have no legal status, but producers can include them to indicate a wine of higher quality, just as they can include the name of a particular locality (lieu-dit). Whereas bottles of crémant are the same shape as Champagne bottles, still wine is entered into tall and slender bottles called flutes d’Alsace. Unlike in Germany, this is actually a requirement of the appellation rules. The one exception is for Pinot Noir, which can also be entered into Burgundian bottles.

Wine styles
Compared to their German counterparts, the white wines of Alsace tend to be fuller in body and higher in alcohol, and also dryer—although perhaps not quite as dry as they once used to be. They are mostly unblended, unoaked, and un-softened by a second, malolactic fermentation, and therefore tend to be highly expressive of varietal character and terroir. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to gauge the sweetness of a particular wine (even a Vendange Tardive, which may be unexpectedly dry), since there is no labelling standard by which to indicate sweetness. Individual producers usually have a distinct house style: for example, Trimbach and Léon Beyer are reputed for their bone-dry wines and Rolly Gassmann for a rich and velvety sweetness. Other highly regarded Alsatian houses include Blanck, Marcel Deiss, Josmeyer, Ostertag, Schlumberger, Weinbach, and Zind-Humbrecht.

Riesling is the most aristocratic of the four noble grape varieties and also the most highly reflective of terroir. Alsatian Riesling tends to be drier, richer, and higher in alcohol than Riesling from across the Rhine. It can be steely and inexpressive in its youth, with aromas of mineral, apple, citrus fruits, stone fruits, jasmine, and honey. With age, it develops a complex bouquet dominated by pure fruit flavours and petrol or kerosene notes, typically with a long, dry finish that rides home on a backbone of high acidity.

Gewurztraminer is often easy to recognize, as it is opulent with high alcohol and smells like an oriental perfume shop! For just these reasons, it can seem sweeter than in actuality. In hot vintages, it can be flabby and lacking in acidity, and this too can contribute to an impression of sweetness. Blind tasters often look out for a pink tinge to the golden hue, but this is not invariably present or visible. Typical notes include spice, rose petals, lychee, grapefruit, peach kernel, and smoky bacon. Despite its relative lack of acidity, Gewurztraminer can be age-worthy. It is commonly used in Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles, even if most of the production is dry or off-dry.

Pinot Gris is noted for aromas of spice and pear or stone fruit with hints of honey and smoke and a certain earthy minerality. Alsatian Pinot Gris is much fuller and richer than Italian Pinot Gris (aka Pinot Grigio), which is often crisp and lean. Among Alsatian wines, it sits in the middle, combining the spiciness and alcohol of Gewurztraminer with some of the structure and acidity of Riesling. And like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, it can improve with age. Pinot Gris can achieve high levels of sugar and, like Gewurztraminer, it is commonly used in Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles.

Pinot Blanc is often blended with a similar grape variety called Auxerrois and sold as Pinot Blanc. It can be thought of as an understudy of Chardonnay, with which it shares several characteristics. At its best, it is round and medium-bodied with hints of ripe apples, pears, and spice and a clean and refreshing finish. Although distinctly Alsatian, it has less body than Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris, less acidity and precision than Riesling, and less aromatic intensity than either of the three. It is not intended for ageing.

Pinot Noir from Alsace used to be distinctly pale and thin and unripe, but, with rising temperatures, the trend is for darker and fleshier offerings. Even so, world-class Alsatian Pinot Noir remains something of a rarity.

Sylvaner is a humble grape variety, although there do exist some very fine examples. Indeed, since 2005, it has been a permitted grape variety in Grand Cru Zotzenberg, prompting some to label it as the ‘comeback kid’ of Alsace. Typical examples are lean and fresh with hints of citrus and white flowers, sometimes marred by a slight bitterness or earthiness. Wines made from Sylvaner are not intended for ageing.

Muscat is usually a blend of Muscat Ottonel and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. It is delicate and floral, with a light body and low alcohol. Although it is dry, the signature grapey aroma can produce an impression of sweetness. Other notes include apple, orange, and mandarin. The intensity of the nose rarely follows through on the palate, particularly as acidity is often lacking. Wines made from Muscat are not intended for ageing.

Excerpted from The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting (2014) by Neel Burton and James Flewellen