A brief introduction to Alsace wine

The Alsace region is one of the smallest wine producing regions of France. It has a long history of wine production dating back to the Romans. Its location bordering the navigable Rhine and with fertile valleys has meant that it has long been an attractive commercial and agricultural center. Today, Alsace can be a delightful place to visit. Villages like Riquewihr remain solidly Medieval with architecture largely unchanged through the centuries.

Politically, Alsace has many times changed control and in more recent centuries this has seen France and Germany exercising periods of control.

In brief:

1648 – 1871 ruled by France

1871 – 1918 ruled by Germany

1919 – 1940 ruled by France

1940 – 1945 ruled by Germany

1945 – now ruled by France

Throughout much of its history, however, Alsace has retained a degree of autonomy and despite the changes of ownership has maintained a sense of separate identity from either France or Germany. There is an Alsatian language. Because of its location, it has inevitably tended to often look east and many people from the Germanic states have settled in Alsace.

Today, Alsace has many village names and businesses that have Germanic names. Many of the wine companies have Germanic roots and German sounding names.

Alsace is protected on the west by the Vosges mountains which prevent heavy rainfall. The sheltered valleys tend to be drier, warmer and have a longer ripening period than elsewhere in France. Colmar claims to be the driest town in France. This tends to give added richness and higher natural sugar levels than in neighbouring Germany.

The soils of Alsace are extremely diverse. The combination of many micro climates and soil types give rose to very different wine qualities.

Understanding and choosing Alsace wine can present difficulties.

Visually, the legally required tall, slim bottle shape (for all white wine) makes Alsace wine distinct from wine from other parts of France. However, the bottle is the same shape as for most German wine and this understandably leads to a perception that Alsace and German wine are similar. On the helpful side, all Alsace AOC wines are required to name the grape on the front label. If it says “Riesling” it is 100% Riesling.

Perhaps the biggest problem is knowing the level of sweetness or dryness.

In Germany, a basis of classification is the sugar level and the from label gives the sweetness classification (Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese). In Alsace, wines were traditionally drier than those produced in Germany,. In recent years, however, there has been a tendency for many producers to make their wines less dry,by retaining some residual, I.e. non fermented, sugar. Improved production techniques facilitate higher natural sugars in the grapes but the change in actual dryness / sweetness would seem to be motivated by what producers believe the consumer wants. Some producers, however, including Hugel and Trimbach, have resisted this trend and steadfastly produce drier style wines. The result is that there is often consumer uncertainty as to whether a particular Alsace wine is dry or semi dry. This confusion is often greatest on Alsace Pinot Gris and Gewrurztraminer. These grapes have a higher natural sugar level and therefore have a greater range of dryness / sweetness. Some producers have tried to clarify by using specific terminology on the back label to indicate dryness / sweetness... dry (sec), tastes dry (se goute sec), balanced (equilibre), rich (puissant), sweet (moelleux). Other producers simply say... dry, medium dry, medium sweet, sweet.

In the past, Alsace wine was invariably drier than German wine. Today, a trend is for German wine to be drier than in the past. Therefore, there is an increasing similarity on this dimension between Alsace and German wines.

Some statistics

Alsace produces around 160 million bottles a year.

25% of Alsace wine is exported. Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and the US are the main export markets.

Alsace has 3 AOC designations:

78% of the vineyards are classified as AOC Alsace 4% of the sites are AOC Grand Cru 18% of the vineyards are Cremant d'Alsace

There are 50 designated Grand Cru sites.

90% of Alsace wine is white.

The main grape varieties are:

Riesling – 21.7%
Gewürztraminer – 18.6%
Pinot Gris – 15.2%
Auxerrois 14.2%
Pinot Noir 9.6%
Sylvaner 8.9%
Pinot Blanc – 7.0%
Muscat – 2.3%Other – 2.5%

Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat are the only varieties permitted in Grand Cru vineyards.

There are around 2000 grape growers in Alsace with an average holding of 2 hectares. The small size of holdings mean that cooperatives are important in Alsace (Cave de Turckheim is the biggest) and represent around 45% of production.

The grand Cru debate

The 50 Grand Cru sites were classified in 1973. Theoretically these represent the best sites. However, political and economic arguments may have led to some sites being classified as Grand Cru which could not be justified on the basis of the quality of wine produced. Inevitably, wines labelled as Grand Cru sell at a premium. Some notable large producers, including Hugel and Trimbach, have eschewed the Grand Cru labelling. Hugel uses three classifications for its wine: Classic, Tradition, and Jubilee. The grapes for its most expensive jubilee range are sourced from Grand Cru vineyards.

A little more on the wines

Cremant d'Alsace

Produced using the Champagne method and referred to as “Methode Traditionelle.” It can be made from a variety of grapes. Matured for a minimum of 12 months before disgorging. 30 million bottles produced per year, compared with around 390 million of Champagne. It uses the same designation as Champagne – Brut, Blanc de Blancs (white grapes only), Blanc de Noirs (Pinot Noir only).

Edelzwicker and Gentil

Approved names for wines that are a blend of different grapes. Typically, these would be every day wines made mainly from Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois. Wines made from a 100% varietal must have the name of the grape on the front label.

Riesling

Alsace's most widely planted grape. Typically, the wine is fermented and matured in either stainless steel or old (inert) barrels. They are therefore typically unoaked. Although originating in Germany, Alsace Riesling is normally very different from German Riesling. It is usually higher in alcohol, drier, crisper, and arguably more complex. Riesling is very sensitive to the terroir (and Alsace has widely differing terroirs) and therefore styles vary considerably. With age, Alsace Riesling can develop great complexity. Often regarded as the most food friendly of wines, and it works well with a wide range of foods.

Gewürztraminer

Gewürztraminer is Alsace's most expensive wine. The grape has a high natural sugar level. Usually less dry than Riesling and German Gewürztraminer. The sweetness can work well with spicy foods (Gewurz means spicy). Easily identifiable notes of lychees. Matures well.

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris has been grown in Alsace for over 400 years and it was formerly known as Tokay Pinot Gris. Plantings of Pinot Gris have risen sharply in recent years mirroring the meteoric rise of Italian Pinot Grigio and usually with greater complexity.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is the only red grape of any significance and represents less than 10% of all Alsace grapes. Many producers do not make red wine and there appears to be no red wine specialist. Red wine in restaurants is served very chilled at he same temperature as white wine and often treated as a white wine in terms of food matching. In Germany, red wine represents around 30% of production.

Vendage Tardive

Riesling and Gewürztraminer are sometime picked very late when the grapes have a higher sugar level. Vendage Tardive means Late Harvest and is broadly equivalent to the German Spatlese. The wine, aged for many years, becomes deep yellow and sweet.

Selection de Grain Nobles

As above but with Noble Rot (the characteristic of Sauterne). Broadly equivalent to German Beerenauslese. Intensely sweet, rich, and often expensive.

Summary

Alsace wine has poor distribution outside its main export markets. It can be higher priced than others and sometimes disappointing. ~At its best, however, Alsace wine can be delightfully complex and others simply wonderfully refreshing. Styles vary and the producer is often key. A specialist retailer (or restaurant) who has a good range of Alsace wines is likely to be very knowledgeable about the region and an enthusiast. Able, therefore, to give appropriate advice particularly on dryness / sweetness. Anyone wishing to explore Alsace wines might be well advised to visit a specialist.