Join us to learn about the characteristics of the Alsace wine region. Includes special grapes and ingredients that make up the world’s finest white wines.
Where is the Alsace wine region?
The capital city of Alsace is Strasbourg. This area can be found in the east of France in a valley along the Rhine – the river that separates France and Germany. Across the river is Baden, a German wine region that produces wines in a similar style. This area is divided into two parts:
Bas-Rhin (to the North, by Strasbourg)
Haut-Rhin (to the south in the low slopes of the Vosges Mountains)
Contrary to logic, Bas-Rhin is actually to the north and Haut-Rhin to the south, but the difference between the two is in elevation. The best vineyards have long been associated with Haut-Rhin. In the Haut-Rhin is where you’ll find many of the prestigious Alsace Grand Cru vineyards.
Wines of Alsace
Alsace broke the AOC (aka Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) law. These laws regulate everything from permitted grape varieties to vineyard density (that is, how far apart the vines are from each other). So to understand Alsace it helps to understand the 3 main AOC
Alsace AOC (92% white wine)
Crémant d’Alsace AOC (Sparkling Rose and White Wine)
Alsace Grand Cru AOC (Special Limited Wine)
Alsace wine manual
Alsace’s food and wine also combine well. For example, German grape varieties such as Gewurztraminer and Riesling predominate in the French region, but in Alsace they are produced in a very different style.
We will discuss the main grape varieties of Alsace and the style of winemaking as well as some related history.
The obvious about Alsace wine
Two words can pretty well sum up Alsace even if there’s still a lot to know:
Alsace wines will change your perception of a traditionally sweet Riesling. Besides Riesling, Alsace also produces quite a bit of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Crémant d’Alsace: a sparkling wine that is as popular as mushrooms.
What are the main flavors of Alsace wines?
Alsacian wines are all aromatic. Floral and peach aromas flow out of the glass and many wines are not strong enough to pair nicely with savory chicken, grilled quail. Alsatian wines offer mild acidity but also offer a rich texture from moderate alcohol (some wines are 14 – 15% ABV). Producers in Alsace do not use oak fermentation to add spice and richness, relying instead on a balance between ripeness and alcohol to fill the flavors.
Alsace AOC 74% production
Alsace AOC loves more than 100% of the grape varieties labeled must be used. This is way different from US requirements which only require 75% (unless you are in Oregon). Alsace AOC has blends but they must be labeled ‘Edelzwicker’, ‘Gentil’ or a named wine. Until recently, Edelzwicker was considered a low-quality table wine. Alsace AOC includes white, rosé and red wines (rosses and reds are made with Pinot Noir). The AOC is also authorized to label dessert wines as “Vendanges Tardives” and “Sélection de Grains Nobles” (see description of sweet wines below). It is true that in Alsace AOC wines are allowed chaptalization (a method by which sugar is added during fermentation), but many producers are moving away from this winemaking technique.
Pinot d’Alsace This exotic white wine has a deep golden color. A blend of many different ‘Pinot’ grapes (including Auxxerois) from the region, it is one of the most uniquely flavored white wines in the world.
Crémant d’Alsace AOC 22% of production
Crémant d’Alsace is the fastest growing AOC in Alsace. This is an AOC sparkling wine that produces extremely fine effervescence using the same methods as in Champagne. Crémant d’Alsace is the only AOC that allows growing local Chardonnay grapes, however most white brutalist style sparkling grapes are made with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Auxxerois (blend with Pinot Blanc, it was called “Blanc de Blancs”) and Riesling. The rosé wine from this region is a special one because it is 100% Pinot Noir.
Alsace Grand Cru AOC only 4% of production
The rules vary quite a bit for the Alsace Grand Cru AOC. A total of 51 grand crus are allowed to use only one variety or blend only four official grape varieties. In Alsace, people often call these varieties the Precious Grapes of Alsace and they are:
· Pinot Gris
Alsace’s Grand Cru wines typically have a higher minimum alcohol content, requiring more ripe grapes. Because of this, the best locations in Alsace are on the low slopes facing south and southeast, where they receive the most sun. Grand Cru’s of Alsace is rich, rich (even when they’re dry) and aged. Collectors comment on the smoky notes of these fine wines that age them. Of the Grand Cru’s, Zoztenberg in Bas-Rhin is the only one where Sylvaner is allowed. In this particularly large vineyard (nearly 40 acres) there is also an estate of Pinot Noir, which cannot be classified as Alsace Grand Cru AOC.
Sweet Wines of Alsace
While Riesling and Muscat are made dry in Alsace, a Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer are traditionally made in a slightly sweet (dry) fashion. Of course this tradition is changing, so pay attention to the manufacturer’s tasting notes.
Vendanges Tardives means “Late Harvest” and this wine is produced with only 4 Noble grapes of the Alsace wine region (see above). The grapes for these wines can have a hint of honey that is from botrytis (aka ‘Noble Rot’). These wines are usually sweet, although some producers choose to completely ferment the sugars in the grapes to create a wine that is higher in alcohol and full of character. Vendange Tardives can be either Alsace AOC or Alsace Grand Cru AOC.
Selection de Grains Nobles
A much more demanding choice for sweet late harvests in a similar style to Tokaji from Hungary or Sauternes/Barsac from Bordeaux. These wines always have a honeyed character from picking grapes infected with botrytis
(a fungus that causes gray rot) by hand is very laborious. Wines labeled as such may be Alsace AOC or Alsace Grand Cru AOC.
What to look for from the Alsace wine region?
There are several larger manufacturers that distribute widely throughout the United States including Zind-Humbrecht and Trimbach. If you only try 2 wines from the region, you must try a Crémant d’Alsace rosé (probably Lucien Albrecht) and a Riesling. These two wines will show you the wonderful character of the minerality and aroma of Alsacean wines.
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