Alsace wines a guide to French winePart 6 of our guide to French wines heads to North East France to a region that has popped in and out of Germany several times in its history. Alsace has a colourful past of division as rival French and German forces fought to claim the land. The region’s now firmly part of France, but its busy history creeps into all aspects of life in the region. This includes the vin and as a result, Alsace wines are quite unlike any other French wines.

In this piece, we take a look at the history behind the unique wines of Alsace, their grapes and the regions where they’re grown. We sample the unusual Alsace aromas and bouquets before pairing the wines with their perfect partner, local cuisine.

The history behind Alsace wines

Like most French wines, those in this part of France trace their roots back to the Romans who discovered that the area’s low rainfall lends itself to perfect grape production. But it was under the Merovingian dynasty between the fifth and eighth centuries, and the Carolingians in the ninth that Alsace wines came into their own. By the year 1,000, some 160 different locations in the region were producing wine and in the Middle Ages, Alsace ranked as one of the best wine growers in Europe.

The region’s later troubles, particularly between 1879 and 1945 when Alsace passed between France and Germany, made tough times for wine production. However, since the middle of the last century, local vineyards have worked hard on producing quality wines and with some success. While the wines of Alsace don’t feature as often in international wine guides, they’re often as good as their Burgundy and Bordeaux counterparts and usually considerably cheaper. As a result, more and more wine experts are classing them as the unsung heroes of the French wine scene.

Did you know? Unlike the rest of French wines, those in Alsace are called by the name of the grape, not by the region they’re produced in.   

13 terroirs

It might be unlucky for some, but the 13 terroirs in Alsace come blessed with the dual combination of excellent climatic conditions and terrain. The region lies landlocked between the Vosges mountains in the west and the Black Forest and the Rhine to the east. Protected from strong rain from the sea by the mountains, the Alsace landscape is sheltered with low annual rainfall. Add the autumnal hot days and cool nights that are ideal for the slow ripening of grapes and wine-producing conditions don’t get much better.

The ground in Alsace also conspires in favour of grapes. Something of a geologist’s dream, the soil types are varied and lie like a mosaic so that each vineyard may lie on top of several different types of soil. The hilly terrain in the south where some vineyards are terraced to cope with the incline also does its bit to help produce prime grapes.

The 13 terroirs form part of the Haut-Rhin region. In the south on higher ground and generally home to the best wines of Alsace, and the Bas-Rhin, to the north near Strasbourg. There are five main areas producing wines, listed here from south to north:

Southern Alsace – this region lies between Soultzmatt and Tharin, in the highest part of the region. Some vineyards here are so steep that harvesters rope themselves together when picking the grapes.

Colmar Region – based around the capital of Alsace wine, Colmar, this area covers Saint Hippolyte to Westhalten. It’s home to the region’s most famous medieval towns such as Kaysersberg, Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr, all picture-perfect.

Heart of Alsace – set between Rosenwiller and Orschwiller, this is a land of vineyards and forests plus the region’s famous castles.

Strasbourg – much further north, this smaller region lies just outside the famous city of Strasbourg. Grapes grow alongside orchards, which give many Alsace wines their characteristic fruity flavour.

Wissembourg – the furthest north of all, this wine-growing area centres around Cleebourg in the most rural part of Alsace. Most vineyards are part of the Cleebourg Wine-making Cooperative.

Did you know? Most grapes in Alsace are harvested by hand and it takes 30 people to pick the grapes on 1 hectare of land in a day.  

Main types of grapes

The wines of Alsace are overwhelmingly white – around 70% of production and 90% of all grapes. Between them, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc make up over 60% of wines.

Riesling is the king of the vines in Alsace. Unlike the German variety that produces mostly sweet wine, Riesling grapes go dry in Alsace. They produce full-bodied wines with a fruity aftertaste (mostly peaches and apricots) but the soil makes them acidic too. Also, unlike their German counterparts, Alsace Rieslings need to age. The most famous is the Schlossberg Grand Cru, which was also the first label in the region to gain Grand Cru status.

Gewürztraminer, known usually as just Gewürzt, produces more complex wines. Again, there’s a definite fruit bouquet, but this time they’re sweeter fruits such as plums and mango. And like Rieslings, these wines are dry and come with a mineral aftertaste.

Pinot Gris produces white wine with a difference. It has a tannin structure, similar to red wines and many experts say that Pinot Gris wines are the white-wine drinker’s red. Mushroom and moss come into the bouquet where you can also discern dried fruits.

Pinot Blanc grapes make pale yellow wines that are sometimes so acidic they’re almost green. Their freshness makes perfect aperitif wines and they too have a fruity bouquet, but this time it’s apples and pears.

Muscat d’Alsace produces dry whites, perhaps surprising since it comes from the same family of very sweet grapes grown in southern France and Italy.

Pinot Noir is the only red grape grown in Alsace and makes up the region’s small production of reds and rosés. Red Alsace wines are fresh, although they age well, and have a distinct cherry flavour.

Did you know? All Alsace wines must be bottled where they are produced and always in the thin, green bottle. Known as the ‘flute of Alsace’, this is the region’s hallmark.

Best Alsace wine vintages

2016 was a good year for Alsace white wines, but not as good as 2015 when all grape varieties excelled. 2015 is generally classed as the best vintage in the region since 1990. 1971, 2007, 2009 and 2010 were also good years for the region’s wines.

Did you know? The Alsace Wine Route, one of the oldest in France, runs over 160 km in the region through 100 villages, including some of the most picturesque in France. Wine-related events take place along the route between April and October.  

Perfect pairing

Wine producers are unanimous when it comes to pairing Alsace wines with food: stay local. Traditional Alsatian dishes go perfectly with native wines. But if you don’t happen to be in the region or fancy trying something different, here’s what to eat and drink together.

Riesling wines are a match made in heaven for pork and goat’s cheese. Those made with Gewürztraminer grapes pair to perfection with rich, heavy foods such as foie gras and game (e.g. wild boar or venison). You can even drink a Gewürztraminer wine with an Indian or Asian dish; it balances beautifully with the spices and heat.

Pinot Gris wines lend themselves well to salty and spicy foods – they make surprisingly good companions for a Thai curry, for example. And Pinot Blanc wines make a good match for fish and poultry or canapés at the beginning of a meal.

Did you know? Alsace has the highest organic wine production in France – around 15% of vineyards produce their vines organically. Biodynamic agriculture is also popular in the region where 15% of vineyards grow grapes using this natural method based on the phases of the moon.  

In the words of Nick Passmore, a wine writer for Forbes, Alsace wines are “the best, and best value, white wines you’ve never drunk.”

Taste the wines of Alsace for yourself

Taste the unique wines of Alsace for yourself and from the comfort of your very own hotel barge. Join one of our luxury cruises and discover the family vineyards, picture-postcard villages and wine culture as you glide along the stunning Canal Marne au Rhin

Step by step guide to French wine:

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Alsace wines are like no other French wine. Influenced by the border battles of this pretty land, the influence of French and German cultures in the wine making process and preferences ensures that Alsace wines are some of the most unique and fascinating in the world. As a Forbes contributor once said: Alsace wines are probably the best wines you've never drunk.

Brie and other soft cheeses of FranceThe soft cheeses of France include the most quintessentially French of all: Brie and Camembert. These cheeses are so well-known they’re almost synonymous with fromage. Like French wines, soft cheeses have a long history and come steeped in legend. In this piece, we take a brief look at the history of Brie and other famous soft cheeses.

The King of cheeses – Brie

Of the two Brie cheeses with an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) label, Brie de Meaux has the longest and most colourful history. However, Brie de Melun also has its own claim to centuries of production and literary references.

Brie de Meaux in the history books

Popular legend takes Brie de Meaux back as far as Roman times. Further unconfirmed sources claim the French Emperor Charlemagne first put the soft cheese on the world culinary map in 774. He reportedly tasted Brie at the Reuil-en-Brie monastery, but threw away the rind. When the Bishop present told him that the white crust was the “best part”, Charlemagne succumbed to the taste and ordered two cartloads to be sent to his castle in Aachen every year afterwards.

Several centuries later, Louis XVI’s arrest at his home in Sausse was supposedly precipitated because he was too busy snacking on red wine and Brie to escape in time. Marie Antoinette’s husband is said to have requested Brie as his last wish before his execution in 1793.

The French Revolution was also responsible for the spread of Brie from the châteaux of the aristocracy into the homes of ordinary French people. The revolutionary Joseph Lavallée said of the soft cheese that “Brie, loved by the rich and the poor, preached equality before anyone dreamed it possible”.

But Brie de Meaux’s biggest moment came a few years later at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 when European rulers were dividing up the French spoils after the fall of Napoleon. A French diplomat, the Duke of Talleyrand, organised a cheese competition to find the best in Europe. More than 60 cheeses entered the contest including world famous products such as Stilton and Gruyère, and of course, Brie de Meaux. Legend has it that there was literally no contest and Brie was crowned the King of Cheeses. In 1980, Brie de Meaux gained AOC status.

Did you know? Barthelemy Chasseneux’s 16th century catalogue of the world’s best food, Catalogus gloriae mundi, declared Brie the “roi de fromages”.

Behind Brie de Melun

The other AOC Brie, Brie de Melun, also produced in the area south-east of Paris, has a less illustrious back story but an ample sprinkling of popular legend. This Brie is thought to date back at least 1,000 years, although there are few reliable mentions in the history books. It is, however, thought to be the cheese in the popular La Fontaine fable The Fox and The Crow. Like its neighbouring soft cheese, Brie de Melun was awarded AOC status in 1980.

A bit about Camembert

Next up in our brief history of the soft cheeses of France is the other favourite, Camembert. Compared with Brie, Camembert is something of a baby since the history books place its appearance in the late 17th century.

A monk from the Brie region was forced to flee to Normandy during the French Revolution and he took refuge on a farm in the Baisse Normandie region. The farmer’s wife, Marie Christine Harel, learned his cheese making techniques and applied them to unpasteurised cow’s milk produced on the farm. Her children went on to perfect the technique and one of the most famous soft cheeses in France was born.

Camembert reached worldwide fame in 1890 when its hallmark wooden box was invented. This allowed the cheese to travel long distances and reach international palates. Later on, French army ration packs contained a portion of Camembert during World War I. The soft cheese was awarded the prestigious ‘Label Rouge’ in 1968. This denotes the superior quality of the cheese and AOC recognition arrived in 1983.

Did you know? The inspiration for Salvador Dali’s famous melting clocks in his painting The Persistence of Memory is said to come from his observation of Camembert in the midday heat.

A brief history of Epoisses

Another famous French soft cheese, Epoisses, comes from Burgundy. This is a stronger cheese and its white centre often has a crumbly texture. The first production dates back to the 16th century when, yet again, it was made by monks. But Epoisses had to wait until the beginning of the 19th century before it received recognition as one of the best soft cheeses of France. Napoleon was reportedly very partial to a slice or two.

By 1900, some 300 farms in the area produced the cheese. The two world wars halted production until the 1950s when a group of farmers revived the Epoisses label. It has since regained its place among reputable French cheeses and was awarded AOC status in 1991.

Did you know? The contrasting pungent smell and creamy taste of Epoisses is often likened to two well-known historic figures: it is said to have the force of Charles le Temeraire, a Burgundy Duke famous for his audacity, and the sensitivity of Madame de Sevigne, a society figure and writer.

Moreish Munster

One of the lesser-known soft cheeses of France hails from the Vallée de Munster in Alsace. But Munster, more yellow in colour than Brie and Camembert, too has a rich past. Archives place the first reference in the 7th century when local monks made cheese from unpasteurised cow’s milk. Munster gained AOC status in 1969, over a decade before its better-known competitors.

Did you know? Munster soft cheese is made from milk from the Vosgienne cows, traditionally used to pull ploughs and thought to have wandered by chance into France from Switzerland.

The Pont l’Evèque backstory

Not as well known as its fellow regional cheese Camembert, Pont l’Evèque is nevertheless a soft cheese that goes way back. Cistercian monks began making cheese in their monasteries to the west of Caen in Normandy as far back as the 12th century. So important was cheese to the local industry that it was used as payment and as a tax charge.

By the 17th century, Pont l’Evèque’s fame had spread beyond Normandy and a local writer Helie Cordier wrote a 16-verse poem in its honour in 1622. “Everyone loves it equally because it is made with so much art that young or old it is nothing but cream,” says one of the verses. Official recognition came in 1972 with the AOC award.

Did you know? Unlike Brie and Camembert, both round cheeses, Pont l’Evèque comes in a distinctive square shape.

Taste soft cheeses of France yourself

Soak up the history of the best soft cheeses and try their famous flavours for yourself as you wend your own way through French towns and villages on a hire boating holiday. Take your pick from our extensive choice of boat bases to start from and cruisers for all group sizes. Explore France on your terms while devouring more than your fair share of fine fromage (with perfectly paired vin). 

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A brief history of brie and other soft cheeses of France