A Consumer’s Guide: The Wines of Alsace, France
One of the things I love about wine is that every bottle is a multifaceted story. I’ve learned more geography, geology and history than I ever learned in school, since I began my course of Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) study, and pouring wine for tastings.
Imagine an area defined by the Vosges Mountains in the west, and the Rhine River in the east. Undulating terrain unlike any other place in France lies between, blanketed in vineyards.
Geographically situated at the crossroads of Roman and German influences, the landscape of Alsace is a charming mix of cultures and architectural styles, rolling hills, plains, and farms.
I didn’t know at the time that I was already in love with Alsace and its wines. The floral and stone- fruit aromas simply make me happy. Once I started doing some research on the area it was easy to see why —Alsace is beautiful!
The Romans knew a good thing when they saw it and were growing wine grapes there in the first millennium. Passionate winegrowers carried on the tradition and for centuries Alsace wines were the most prized in France. Due to the politics of being at the crossroads of two cultures, German and French, Alsace experienced a period of complete devastation. Today however, Alsace is at the top of its game.
Located in northeastern France, Alsace is protected from cold, wet winds and weather by the Vosges Mountains. It has perhaps the most perfect climate for grape growing—a combination of 1,800 hours of sunlight per year, cool continental climate, excellent soil, and the second driest climate in France. This makes it possible for Alsace to produce extremely high- quality wines that express the unique terroir of the region.
What exactly is terroir?
In a nutshell, or grape, if you prefer:
“Terroir is the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.”
“The concept of terroir can be used to summarize all the natural characteristics that give a vineyard specific qualities. Terroir is composed of geological factors, such as the chemistry of the rock and the soil, physical properties such as the exposition and slope, as well as climatic factors such as solar irradiation, temperature and precipitation.”
It is said that if you walk 100 feet in any direction you’ll find a different soil type. In fact, Alsace has 13 different soil types, more than any other region in France.
These rich and diverse soil formations are what give Alsace wines their unique minerality with a range of complexity for each grape variety. This accounts for the wide variety of wines produced in Alsace and the variation in flavors of wines produced from the same type of grape.
The different soil varieties help to express the various flavors and styles found in Alsace wines. Combined with warm spring months, hot summers and cool nights, the weather gives higher levels of refreshing acidity, balance and harmony with ripened fruit flavors. In Alsace the saying is “purity of grape, purity of place.” If you can’t make it to Alsace just now, then open a bottle of wine, close your eyes, engage your senses, and let the grapes take you there.
Not sure which wine is for you? Read on for information on the grapes and food pairings.
Alsace wines are extremely consumer friendly as this is the first and only region in France that lists the name of the grape variety on the bottle. You know exactly what kind of wine is in the distinctive tall, slim, bottle. Further, each wine must contain 100% of the varietal. The bottle label will also list the information about the appellation.
What is an appellation?
Quite simply, an appellation is the geographical area where the wine grapes are grown. In France, AOC stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. In Alsace you have Alsace AOC, Alsace Grand Cru AOC and Cremant AOC. Each appellation is governed by strict rules regarding what kind of grapes can be grown there and how they are grown.
Check out this infographic from Wine Folly to understand Alsace appellations.
A Consumer’s Guide: The Wines of Alsace
There are seven main varietals grown in Alsace: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot blanc, Gerwurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Noir, and Sylvaner.
The wines produced from these grapes range from very light and dry to full bodied and fruity.
Let’s explore these grape varieties and the wines made from them. If you haven’t found a white wine you like yet, you haven’t tried a white wine from Alsace.
The grape that best expresses the terroir of Alsace is Riesling. It is the number one grape grown in Alsace. Like Chardonnay, Riesling is a grape that has the unique ability to express many different characteristics. And due to the climate, it ripens longer and can develop more complex flavors while at the same time expressing the minerality of the exact vineyard where it is grown.
I often host tastings and the number one comment I hear is, “I don’t like Riesling. It’s so sweet.” Newsflash: Alsace Riesling is not sweet at all. In fact, it is a dry wine with notes of citrus, white flowers and distinct minerality. It pairs well with many different dishes including: chicken, fish, shellfish, goat cheese and classic German dishes, such as sauerkraut and sausages. So the next time you have a chance to try a Riesling, ask its origin. If it’s from Alsace, drink up!
Pinot Blanc is a subtly fruity wine. A delicate wine from the same family of grapes as Pinot Grigio but with more complexity and body, I predict once you try a Pinot Blanc from Alsace you’ll never drink Pinot Grigio again. You can pair it with many different foods, including seafood. Or enjoy a refreshing glass on a hot summer day all on its own.
Sylvaner d’ Alsace is a light- bodied wine with fruity citrus notes and a hint of freshly cut grass. This is the wine to replace your Sauvignon Blanc.
Pinot Gris is more full-bodied than a Pinot Blanc and can be kept longer. It can be dry or off-dry, with smoky aromas and notes of dried fruit. Serve this wine with savory foods and Asian dishes.
Muscat d’ Alsace is the same grape as Moscato in Italy but it is drier, with a biting acidity. It is usually served as an aperitif wine.
Fun fact: This wine pairs well with asparagus and if you go to Alsace during the asparagus harvest you can find restaurants devoted to serving only Muscat and asparagus.
Gerwurztraminer d’ Alsace
Gerwurztraminer is a full bodied off- dry wine with very powerful aromas of exotic fruits like lychee, roses and spices. This can be served as an aperitif wine and also pairs well with strong cheeses and spicy food. If you think you don’t like sweet wine, try this with some good Indian or Thai food. It’s a whole new world. Though I typically avoid wines high in residual sugars, the aromas of Gerwurztraminer won me over the first time I tried it. I’ll happily sip a glass of Gerwurztraminer any old time.
Finally, the only red wine grape grown in Alsace is Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is used to make Cremant d’ Alsace — a sparkling wine produced in the methode champagnoise, as well as still wines. Red berries, autumn leaves and more structure make this a wine you can pair with meats and it will stand up well to aging. This is the second most popular sparkling wine in France after champagne.
Fun fact: Pinot Noir is gaining in popularity and more land is being dedicated to growing this varietal.
If you’d like more food pairing information, Drink Alsace has a wonderful page that even includes recipes to pair with specific wines. http://www.winesofalsace.com/wines/varieties/
When are you going to Alsace?
My thanks to Wines of Alsace, a sponsor of the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California. Wines of Alsace held a one-hour workshop and tasting for those interested in expanding their knowledge of this unique wine region. Though I was already familiar with Alsace and some of the wines produced there, I was eager to learn more. Besides, learning meant tasting. And since a glass of wine is a history, geology and geography lesson accompanied by happy aromas, I’d have been crazy to miss it.
Thanks to the Wine Bloggers Conference Scholarship Fund for assistance with travel to Lodi.