Alsace is an enchanting region, a flowery wedding favor with views that seem fake because they are so beautiful, among multicolored half-timbered houses and graceful wrought iron, enamelled and gilded signs, windowsills full of geraniums and willows that lie in the sleepy waters of rivers and canals. And small caves that offer tastings of the splendid Alsatian wines. Here's what you need to know.
Today, the value of Alsatian wines – especially single-variety wines – is no longer questioned and Alsace is recognized as one of the most significant wine-growing regions in France. Let's see what there is to know about Alsatian wines.
The history of Alsatian wines
In Alsace the cultivation of vines was introduced by Romans and its development increased in the following centuries. The production of Alsatian wines experienced a phase of decline, linked both to the Thirty Years' War and to the invasion of phylloxera, two centuries later. A certain stability is achieved with the end of Second World War and the definitive annexation of Alsace to the French Republic, when the production areas began to be delimited, until the birth of the AOC Alsace , a denomination created in 1962.
The climate and vineyards in Alsace
The Alsatian vineyard stretches along just over 100 km at the foot of the Vosges Massif and enjoys a terroir unique, which is reflected in the unmistakable qualities of its wines. The waters of the river and the mountain range that protects the vineyard from rainy and cold currents are the main factors responsible for the particular microclimate of this region, which is among the least rainy in France. The climate is continental , with dry and sunny autumns which allow the maximum concentration of sugar and aromatic substances within the grapes and the harvesting of the grapes at the height of phenolic ripeness. Furthermore, the bunches can also be harvested in late harvest, when the Botrytis Cinerea has carried out its wonderful action and enriched the berries with everything that will give life to unique, incredibly fragrant wines: La Sélection de Grains Nobles.
The lands of Alsace
Another peculiarity of this territory is the suddenness variability of the soils , an alternation of granite and limestone, with a myriad of solutions in which clay, shale and chalk intervene, capable of offering the vines much more subtle and intense, fruity and mineral scented nuances.
The Alsatian wine-growing areas
There are two wine-growing areas in Alsace: the Haut-Rhin and the Bas-Rhin . The Haut-Rhin includes: Kaysesberg, Thann, Niedermorschwhir and Gueberschwhir, while the Bas-Rhin is divided into: Andlau, Eichoffen, Obernai and Nothalten.
The most cultivated vines in Alsace are mostly white grapes and give an unmistakable aromatic style. Here are the most important ones and their combinations:
- Gewürztraminer : it is the aromatic grape par excellence. When fully ripe, the bunch has an unusual pink color and the peel is a concentrate of aromas that differ greatly based on the composition of the soil and the type of harvest. The resulting wines are always soft and sumptuous, with a wide aromatic range that releases notes of ripe yellow pulp fruit, litchi and other exotic fruits, geranium and rose. Aromas that become increasingly intense in the case of Grand Cru or late harvest. This is a wine to try with fish or munster or other washed rind cheeses.
- Riesling : it is the most widespread Alsatian grape variety, capable of producing wines that are very different from those produced a few kilometers away across the Rhine border. Rieslings can be dry, light and slender wines, but sometimes they express great aroma and structure, often accompanied by a discreet residual sugar. The perfume highlights a strong mineral character with citrus scents, such as grapefruit. In the Grand Cru and Sélection de Grains Nobles versions their aromatic profile changes profoundly and expresses hints of hydrocarbons. Alsatian Rieslings are accompanied with local dishes such as Choucroute (a mix of pork, also smoked, and sauerkraut cooked for a long time in beer) or with white pork sausages or peppered salmon.
- Muscat d'Alsace : it is a vine with good aroma and nobleness but which hardly populates the Grand Cru vineyards. It gives fresh, dry, fruity and moderately aromatic wines, with hints of musk and apple. Very pleasant to combine with savory cakes flavored with aromatic herbs.
- Pinot Grigio : comes in different variations, from a drinkable wine to a more demanding one, so it can have a subtle or extremely complex olfactory profile, to the point of making one think of an aromatic wine, rich in aromas of exotic yellow-fleshed fruit . Perfect with foie gras.
- Pinot Blanc : boasts a similar production to Riesling, but its personality gives fresher and lighter wines, of medium structure, with aromas of white flowers and fresh fruit, such as apple and pear. It perfectly accompanies an aperitif and typical Alsatian delicatessen dishes.
- Pinot Noir : the only exponent of black grape varieties in Alsace, it gives rather simple red wines, with very pale colours, generally to be served chilled to enhance the aromas of raspberry, rose and a slight hint of spice. Excellent with lean meats and light cheeses.
The classification of Alsatian wines
The classification of Alsatian wines is simple.
At the base is the AOC Alsace , which includes 119 regulated municipalities throughout the territory and which represents 76% of total production. On the label, this appellation is always followed by the grape variety and the municipality of origin.
It is located at the top of the qualitative pyramid of Alsatian wines the AOC Alsace Grand cru . Wines from this denomination must be obtained only from noble vines.
Both AOC Alsace and AOC Alsace Grand cru can have two further sub-areas: AOC Alsace Vendage Tardive and AOC Alsace Sélection de Grains Nobles. The AOC Alsace Vendage Tardive includes wines obtained from noble vines whose grapes were harvested late, also exploiting the action of Botrytis Cinerea, but there are no limits relating to the residual sugar of the wine in the bottle. The AOC Alsace Sélection de Grains Nobles includes wines obtained from grapes attacked by Botrytis Cinerea, harvested over several weeks.
Another appellation is the AOC Crémant d'Alsace , established in 1976, which represents 20% of total production. These are sparkling wines obtained by refermentation in the bottle, especially starting from Pinot Bianco, but Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and Riesling can also be used. They are characterized by the particular qualities of freshness and delicacy of taste, for the fine floral and herbaceous scents. And they are to be enjoyed as an aperitif.