Alsace | German & French Wine Combined

Alsace | German & French Wine Combined

Heavily influenced by Germany, Alsace is a region unique in its style and offering. Being of the Franco-Germanic culture, there is a combination of French and German traditions in the region and within the winemaking.

History

For decades Alsace was switched between being a part of France and a part of Germany, and in all this back and forth has now become one of the most under-appreciated treasures in the world of wine. Originally known as Elsass, when part of the German empire, the slight name change reflects the similar way in which the culture shifted but not to completion. The style of bottle with the long, green tapered necks is a sure sign of Germanic heritage, along with the vineyard names such as: Turckheim, Ingersheim, Sigolsheim, Kientzheim, Riquewihr, Zellenberg.
What is not characteristic of Germanic ways is the traditional winemaking philosophies, with winemakers ensuring all the sugar in the grapes are fermented into alcohol. This draws out the sweetness and results in dry, full-bodied whites, much more characteristic of a French region.

Still able to champion their aromatic whites regardless of the slowly warming climate, the Alsatian winemakers are truly remarkable in the way they conduct their vineyards and their dedication to Riesling as their favoured varietal.

Climate & Soil

Situated between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine River (that acts as the border with Germany), Alsace is a long, slim region only 40 kilometres in width. Stretching 185 kilometres long, the vines are primarily found on the lower hillsides of the mountains facing southeast. Vines were planted on these terroirs to be sheltered from the westerly wines, but while it protects from the wind it also protects from rainfall, making it a semi-continental climate with regular hot and dry weather. This favours the slow-ripening grapes of the region that need plenty of sunlight and minimal rain.

The most dense section of the mountains lay at the southern end of Alsace, with peaks reaching 1400 metres and can shelter significant amounts of weather. As these mountains shifted and evolved over the centuries, it opened up a myriad of soils for the vines to work with, including sandstone, granite, and volcanic rock down in the foothills, and the alluvial plains filled with clay-rich limestone and marlstone.

Varietals

Standing out among all the French wine regions, the varietals grown as the noble grapes, in high quantities, in Alsace are that of Riesling and Gewurztraminer. As an added blending component, the frowned upon grape of Pinot Gris is also grown. All three grapes pay homage to the region's German history.

For the Grand Cru sites, only these three varieties can be used, along with a small percentage of Muscat. Yet across the region there are many other grape varieties grown including: Sylvaner, Chasselas, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, and Pinot Noir. These in turn feed into the Alsatian way of having 905 all wine produced being white wine, with Pinot Noir representing the 10% of rustic, light bodied reds still made.

Riesling

Forming steely, tough, yet beautifully ageing wines, Riesling is highly respected in Alsace and considered the top bottling of the region. A late-ripening varietal, it is best grown in the south of Alsace where the hills are steeper and more apparent, shielding from rain and enhancing the amount of sun exposure.

Gewürztraminer

Perfect for beginners who are new to Alsace wines, it is a grape that produces full-bodied white wines with a taste that is off-dry and can stun the taste buds into a pleasant experience. Having aromas varying from gentle flowers, to that of bacon fat with rose petals, it is a truly diverse grape varietal that can be pleasantly enjoyed with typical red wine foods.

Pinot Gris

Previously known as Tokay d’Alsace, this varietal can bring forth full-bodied yet dry wines. Perfect for a late harvest, the grapes take time to ripen fully to bring forth exotic elements on the palate, making up for the minimal aromas that develop.

Muscat

Highly distinctive in nature there are three variants of Muscat: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Muscat Rose à Petits Grains, and Muscat Ottonel. The wines created from each of these grapes (or a blend of each) are ones delicately dry with an overpowering ‘grapey’ element as it retains a sweetness similar to the fruit picked from the vine. Not made in high quantities here, it is great for the locals looking for an aperitif but is not the wine for cellaring.

Sylvaner

Deemed the exception, Sylvaner is the fifth noble grape of the Alsace region considered to be acceptably labelled Grand Cru, but only if it is grown from the vineyard Zotzenberg. It is not a grape highly appreciated by all wine enthusiasts with its lean taste and fussy nature over where it is best grown to actually ripen to its full potential. These elements making it difficult to reach high prices has led to its decline over time and is only utilised by winemakers with dedication to the varietal.

Chasselas, Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois

Often grown separately but blended together, the Alsace wines labelled as Pinot Blanc can actually include a blend of the three different varieties (plus Pinot Noir deskinned). Named the Edelzwicker (noble blend), it is a wine blend of old grape varietals often includes these three wines with the addition of Sylvaner in some cases. In its own right, Pinot Blanc is a very simple and versatile grape for the Alsatian winemakers, with its broad and smoky aromas typical of an Alsace white wine but minimal body and structure making it easy to shape.

Pinot Noir

With the small 10% red wine production in Alsace, Pinot Noir makes the most of it. Considered a lot more rustic and lighter bodied than any Burgundy there will be no mistaking that you have drunk an Alsace red. Yet more recently, global warming has influenced the growth cycle and brought forth slightly more powerful reds with a darker colouring and heavier on the palate.

Appellations

Across 15,500 hectares of AOC vineyards there lay 53 different appellations, with 51 of them being deemed Grand Crus. Alongside the traditional still wine appellations there also sits the Crémant d’Alsace, the most popular AOC sparkling wine of France. This leads to all Alsace wines to be under the umbrella of three appellations: Alsace, Alsace Grand Cru, and Crémant d'Alsace.

Alsace AOC

Representing over 70% of all Alsace wine production, the Alsace AOC was recognised in 1962. This is relatively late for such a large appellation but due to the wars around 1930s-40s there was too much border movement for the decree to be made. Leading the Association of Alsace Winemakers (Association des Viticulteurs d‘Alsace) to establish their own appellation rules before the official decree finally came through. In 2011 the AOC was provided with additional geographic names of Communales and Lieux-dits, to identify the areas more specifically while still under the whole umbrella AOC. This means that certain entities can label their wine with their commune’s name or lieux-dit from which the grapes were grown.

The wines of the AOC must be of one grape varietal and can display this varietal on the label, with some blends allowed and deemed the Edelzwicker blends. All must be sold in the Rhine-shaped bottles with the taller and tapered style, and all bottled in the region of which it was produced.

Communes:
Bergheim, Blienschwiller, Côtes de Barr, Côte de Rouffach, Coteaux du Haut-Koenigsbourg, Klevener de Heiligenstein, Ottrott, Rodern, Saint-Hippolyte, Scherwiller, Vallée Noble, Val Saint-Grégoire, Wolxheim.

Alsace Grand Cru

The mosaic of vineyards across Alsace deemed the AOC Grand Cru include 51 different terroirs, with each being finally recognised as individual appellations in 2011 rather than a collective. The wine production totals 5% of the total region, very minimal in comparison to the previous AOC but the yields are strict and work to encourage high quality over quantity. While the INAO (National Institute of Origin and Quality) worked rigorously to identify the top parcels of Alsace, they still provide much controversy, with winemakers of Grand Cru vineyards focusing on increasing the price tag rather than the bringing forth quality fine wines. Yet in recent times there has been an upswing in quality with the delineation in 2011, providing each appellation with its own AOP, allowing people to put a name to the exact appellation they enjoy drinking from.

The strict rules by which the winemakers must follow include stipulations about yield, varietals, and labelling. Yields must be kept to 55hl per hectare, with only the four noble varietals of Alsace (Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer) allowed to be grown and bottled, and the labelling of the bottles must include a mention of the appellation, lieu-dit, and vintage year of the wine.

Grand Crus:

Altenberg de Bergbieten

Bergbieten

Moenchberg

Andlau, Eichhoffen

Altenberg de Bergheim

Bergheim

Muenchberg

Nothalten

Altenberg de Wolxheim

Wolxheim

Ollwiller

Wuenheim

Brand

Turckheim

Osterberg

Ribeauvillé

Bruderthal

Molsheim

Pfersigberg

Eguisheim, Wettolsheim

Eichberg

Eguisheim

Pfingstberg

Orschwihr

Engelberg

Dahlenheim, Scharrachbergheim

Praelatenberg

Kintzheim

Florimont

Ingersheim, Katzenthal

Rangen

Thann, Vieux-Thann

Frankstein

Dambach-la-Ville

Rosacker

Hunawihr

Froehn

Zellenberg

Saering

Guebwiller

Furstentum

Kientzheim, Sigolsheim

Schlossberg

Kientzheim

Geisberg

Ribeauville

Schoenenbourg

Riquewihr, Zellenberg

Gloeckelberg

Rodern, Saint-Hippolyte

Sommerberg

Niedermorschwihr, Katzenthal

Goldert

Gueberschwihr

Sonnenglanz

Beblenheim

Hatschbourg

Hattstatt, Voegtlinshoffen

Spiegel

Bergholtz, Guebwiller

Hengst

Wintzenheim

Sporen

Riquewihr

Kaefferkopf

Ammerschwihr

Steinert

Pfaffenheim, Westhalten

Kanzlerberg

Bergheim

Steingrubler

Wettolsheim

Kastelberg

Andlau

Steinklotz

Marlenheim

Kessler

Guebwiller

Vorbourg

Rouffach, Westhalten

Kirchberg de Barr

Barr

Wiebelsberg

Andlau

Kirchberg de Ribeauvillé

Ribeauville

Wineck-Schlossberg

Katzenthal, Ammerschwihr

Kitterlé

Guebwiller

Winzenberg

Blienschwiller

Mambourg

Sigolsheim

Zinnkoepflé

Soultzmatt, Westhalten

Mandelberg

Mittelwihr, Beblenheim

Zotzenberg

Mittelbergheim

Marckrain

Bennwihr, Sigolsheim

 

Crémant d'Alsace

The appellation of dry sparkling wine, they champion the méthode traditionelle way of creating the bubbles and as a result bring forth bright, fresh characters. This style has been in the region for over a century, with their AOC status awarded in 1976. Since then the Syndicate of Crémant d’Alsace Producers (Syndicat des Producteurs de Crémant d’Alsace) has grown to over 500 producers, working together to create quality sparkling wine to challenge the beast of Champagne. Unlike Champagne, the wines are made primarily from Pinot Blanc, with some made with Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Chardonnay. Pinot Blanc brings the freshness and tenderness to the wines. Those with Riesling bring elegance and fruit-forward notes, Pinot Gris is a full-bodied contributor, and Chardonnay is the delicate touch on top of a blend. Rosés are also a small element of the production, with Pinot Noir being the only varietal used for these Crémants d’Alsace rosés.

Information Credit: Official Vins Alsace

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