Alsace is the easternmost wine region of France, situated in the shadow of the Vosges mountains and hard against the Rhine and France’s border with Germany. This proximity, and the fact that the region comprises territory that has passed between the two countries several times, is reflected not only in the character of its culture and architecture, but also in its gastronomy and wines.
The wine-producing region of Alsace lies on the eastern foothills of the Vosges on slopes with east and south-easterly aspects. The mountains, which rise to their highest peaks in the south, play a vital role in defining the character of the wines – they provide both protection from westerly winds, and a rain-shadow which contributes to the low rainfall here. Moreover, the great geological upheavals of some 45 million years ago, which created the Alps and which threw these ancient, eroded mountains back up from the Triassic seas into which they had descended countless millennia before, created a fault-zone some 120 miles long and perhaps 25 miles wide at the most, in which we find outcrops variously of granite, sandstone, limestone and marls, all of them characterised by many variations of trace minerals such as iron, fluorites and gypsum. It is upon this extraordinarily varied terroir that the vineyards lie, and it this that provides a key to understanding the wines.
Alsace is the only French wine region to permit the use of vine variety names within the edicts of the Appellation Controlee regime – grape varieties, uniquely, are used as the predominant feature of the front label. Whilst this might seem to provide clarity, it lies in sharp contrast to the philosophy behind Appellation Controllee – that a wine is defined by the terroir upon which it is grown, rather than the grape variety (or blend of varieties) from which is made – and given that this region is so defined by its geology, it instead might lead one to suspect some confusion of purpose on the part of the authorities, and of expectation upon the consumer. Such bewilderment is further accentuated when we consider the fact that Alsace wines are made right across the sweetness spectrum, from bone-dry to sweet, regardless of variety.
In 1983 some help was provided when the sweeter wines became defined and categorised by the introduction of the terms vendanges tardive and selection des grain nobles. However, even wines which are ostensibly dry will in fact vary in sweetness (or dryness) depending upon the ‘house style’ of the producer, and it is here that one requires some familiarity with the growers and what to expect from them.
90% of Alsace wines are white, and are most usually monovarietals from Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. However, a number of the most progressive growers are bottling vineyard blends under the vineyard or lieu-dit name – true expressions of terroir, rather than variety. A relatively small amount of red is made from the Pinot Noir variety. Traditionally very light in body, some more complex, richer styles, sometimes subjected to some maturation in oak in the style of Burgundy, have been appearing as a result of warmer late summers.
There are three appellations – Alsace, Alsace Grand Cru, of which there are 51 designated sites, and Cremant d’Alsace for the sparkling wines made by the Methode Champenoise.
The wines of this beautiful region have always been slightly lost on the British market, most probably due to their largely erroneous Germanic (and therefore sweet) associations, all to the oft-stated regret of the wine trade here, which recognises their exceptional quality, originality and ‘food-friendliness’.