Alsace has for centuries been a disputed territory between Germany and France. Even today the past remains ever present when visiting the region as each empire has made their mark. You see this clearly in the architecture, language – both German and French is spoken – and most of all, you taste it in the wine.
In Alsace, vineyards are located along a very narrow strip between the Vosges mountains to the West and the Rhine river to the east. The Vosges mountains are not very high – reaching only 200-400 meters – but nevertheless provide shelter from cool westerly winds and rain. Given its northern location it is a surprise to many that the town of Colmar in Alsace is actually the driest town in France.
For the most part the vineyards in the Alsace run along the lower slopes of the Vosges mountains. The benefit here is the right mix of a balanced temperature and the slopes providing drainage as well as increased sun exposure. Because the majority of the Vosges mountains run from north to south most of the vineyards face east. However, some vineyards face in a more southern direction and because of the additional sun exposure, it is often from these vineyards that you find the very best Alsace wines.
Alsace is a region of diverse terroir, with almost 13 different and distinct soil types. Differing from vineyard to vineyard and even at times within 100 metres of another grapevine. Generally speaking, the lower parts of the plains have fertile alluvial soils (loose material left by rivers or glaciers) that allow for high yields.
Higher sloped (hillside) soils, where as you go higher in altitude soil becomes poorer and thinner and the subsoils richer with volcanic matter, granite, schist and sandstone – which many believe creates higher quality wine. Then in contrast river bed soils are found on the more gradual slopes which are often richer clay, marl, limestone and sandstone.
Historically, wines from the Alsace were traded together with other German wines, as the river Rhine provided a simple means of transport. Back then their wines were not renowned for their quality.
After World War II winemakers in Alsace took it upon themselves to improve winemaking practices and elevate quality of produce. The first culmination of these efforts came in 1962 when it was awarded an AOC.
From here, great Alsace wines began being praised by their offer of floral and peachy nuances and brilliant acidity balanced delicately between both body and texture. In many other wine regions, a wines body and texture is achieved through the use of oak in the ageing process. In Alsace winemakers tend to shy away from this practise. Instead, they work with a balance between ripeness and alcohol to provide flavour – the absence of oak adds to the renowned purity of these Alsatian wines.
Alsace AOP wines are almost entirely made up of white wines and these wines make up about 75% of all the wine made in Alsace. Wines under this label are (with a few exceptions) 100% the grape variety displayed on the label, so a Pinot Gris is made only of Pinot Gris grapes, a Riesling only of Riesling grapes etc.
This is unlike many other wine regions where as much as 10-20% of the wine may be from grape varieties not displayed on the label. This practise makes it easier to match Alsace wines with food because as soon as you know the flavour profiles of the grapes – and just a bit about the style of the wine (dry, off-dry or sweet) you have come a long way in matching food and wine.
8 grape varieties are permitted in the appellation: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Chasselas and Sylvaner – and as said, the vast majority are single variety wines. A smaller number of blends are produced, look for “Edelzwicker” and “Gentil” on the label.
Cremant d’Alsace was only officially recognized as an appellation in 1976 but the tradition of making sparkling wines – using the “Champagne method” goes back more than 100 years. It was in fact an Alsace winemaker Julien Dopff that brought this winemaking method to Alsace, after having spent two years in Champagne.
Today Crémant d’Alsace is the second-most popular sparkling wine in France, trailing only Champagne. Of the total wine production in Alsace, Cremant d’Alsace makes up a little over 20%. There are two general styles of Cremant d’Alsace: A rosé made from 100% Pinot Noir, and a blanc made mostly from Pinot Blanc – blended with smaller amounts of the other grapes in the appellation (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Auxerrois and Chardonnay).
At the peak of great wines from Alsace comes the Grand Crus, with about 4% of production. This classification was only introduced in 1975 and at the time only with 25 applicable vineyards. Since then, another 26 sites have been added so today Grand Cru comes from a total of 51 sites, each with their own unique combination of soil, topography and site aspects.
On Grand Cru labels from Alsace, you will always find the name of the vineyard and as we mentioned before the grape variety and the region, they were grown in. For Grand Cru wines, only four varieties are permitted: Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris – with one exception, Grand Cru Zotzenberg, that is also allowed to use of Silvaner.
Food and Alsace wines
Food has always been important for winemaking in Alsace – and thus Alsace wines for example long before the Germans crafted their wines to match food – has almost always been produced with fully finished fermentation, and with that turning out dry wines.
The combination of people in Alsace – German and French – has led to what some may regard as unusual food pairings. A local favourite, for example, is vin (Riesling or Gewürztraminer in particular) served with sauerkraut.
Beyond the local suggestions, wines from Alsace pair well with many types of food: Dry Riesling goes well with sushi and other sea-based fresh foods. An off-dry Gerwürztraminer is a great friend to Indian curries and foods with spice – as well as spiced desserts and flavours of cinnamon, apple and tropical fruits.
Also, let us not forget the Late Harvest wines from Alsace made with the methods of “Vendange Tardive” and “Sélection de Grains Nobles”. These delicate sweets are perfect matches for foie gras, lemon tart and blue cheese.
If you love food and wine Alsace has an endless world to offer.
It's a melting pot of cultures and winemaking practices, and it remains the driest wine region in France.What are the most popular grape varieties in Alsace?
Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Chasselas and Sylvaner.What types of food works well with wines from Alsace?
Dry Riesling: sushi and other sea-based fresh foods. Off-dry Gerwürztraminer: Indian curries and other foods with spice. Late Harvest: Foie gras, lemon tart and blue cheese.