Part 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.
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.
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:
- Part 1: French wines – an overview
- Part 2: Bordeaux wines
- Part 3: Burgundy wines
- Part 4: Champagne
- Part 5: Loire Valley wines
- Part 6: Côtes du Rhone wines
- Part 8 : Languedoc wines
- Part 9: Lesser known wines of France
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