The French Wine Region of Alsace

Love French wine? Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper shares some facts about the Northern France wine region of Alsace:

Alsace is one of the most northerly regions in France and perhaps that is why it reminds me of spring. It is a continental climate and hence has all four seasons, including cold winters unlike the Mediterranean climate of Southern France or Italy. Spring is appreciated most by those who go through a cold winter. And the wines and the regions itself seem to celebrate by having a fresh vibrant feel, not unlike spring itself.  The wines are crisp, fresh and vivacious lending themselves to the lighter fare of spring and summer. While the picturesque half timbered houses with flower boxes of multicolored flowers are more prevalent than one would think, along with the breathtaking views of vineyards from the Vosges Mountains makes a mind’s eye picture of a perfect spring day.

Alsace is located in the North Eastern border of France between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River of Germany, about 275 miles from Paris. The wine region is a thin strip of about 3 miles wide and 75 miles long. It is protected by the watershed of the Vosges Mountains which allows the region to be sunny and green, with a chance of drought but less worry of rain during important vineyard times such as harvest. Many vineyards are planted on the slopes of the Vosges Mountains to capture the sun.

Cork versus screw top

The History

The German heritage is strong in Alsace after all it has been back and forth with France and Germany for it ownership for hundreds of years. If you asked an Alsatian if they were French or German they are likely to tell you they are Alsatian, although it has been part of France since World War II.  The German heritage is reflective in the wine by a number of ways. The bottles are tall and flute shape as in Germany, there labels denote the grape variety, all though there are some blends, and where in most of France the wine is named for the region. Many of the grape varieties originally hail from Germany, and Alsace is the only area in France where Riesling and Gewurztraminer is legally grown. And as you can imagine many of the wine producers and language on the label has Germanic lineage.

The Wine

Alsace makes 90% white wine. Red wines grapes require a warmer longer growing season so the only red grape of note is the Pinot Noir. The most important and highest quality grapes start with Riesling. Riesling is one of the most misunderstood grapes. It is almost natural to think it is always sweet as it makes some of the best dessert wines in the world and some of the most mediocre sweet wines of limited character. But it also makes some of wine expert’s absolute favorite white wines on the planet, possessing an ethereal quality, tension, minerality and sense of place that many other grapes dream of. Other important grapes are Pinot Gris (same grape as Pinot Grigio), Muscat, and Gewurztraminer with the secondary grapes being Sylvaner and Pinot Blanc.

Alsace makes essentially three styles of wine: Dry, Sparkling and dessert

Hungarian winesDry, usually varietal labeled, although about 5% percentage of wines are blends and are typically labeled Edelzwicker, Gentil or a proprietary name. Occasionally these dry wines can be off dry.

Sparkling wine is called Cremant d’Alsace. These bubblies are lighter and less complex then French Champagne but delicious sparklers made by the Champagne Method, they are excellent, less expensive alternatives for everyday drinking.

Dessert wines are all picked by hand, a higher quality method over mechanical harvesting. There are two type of dessert wine: Vendanges Tardives which are late harvest wine that can only be made from Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat or Gewurztraminer. The wines are rich and sweet.

Sélections de Grains Nobles: which are late harvest wines that can only be made from Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat or Gewurztraminer. The wines are sweet and honeyed as the grapes are affected by noble rot which is a mold that dehydrates the grapes hence increasing the sugar to liquid ratio in the grape, dramatically decreasing the amount of wine you can make from a vine and hence produces what many consider to be some of the rarest and best dessert wines in the world.

Four percent of the vineyards or 51 vineyards are classified as Grand Cru. These Grand Cru vineyards are considered the very best wines of Alsace and therefore have an appropriate price to match. All grand Cru vineyards are harvested by hand. Only the grapes Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewurztraminer are classified as grand Cru with the exception of Sylvaner in the Grand Cru vineyard of Zotzenberg. Gran Cru wines may be the dessert style wines or the dry style wines but not sparkling.

For a taste of a vibrant spring day, a feel of refreshing renewing quality, elegance and complexity, for flavor without weight or oak, I look to Alsace and suggest you do as well.

Suggested Alsatian Wines

Cremant d’Alsace Domaine Bott-Geyl “Paul Edouard” NV

A delicious light, dry and refreshing sparkling wine, which is delicately flavored with baking spice, fresh baked bread and citrus.

Riesling Domaines Schlumberger Les Princes Abbés 2006

This wine is the perfect companion to the fantastic indigenous Alsatian dish of Choucroute Garni. The aromatic wine is medium-bodied, high toned with crisp acidity, wet stone minerality and apricot and citrus flavors.

Riesling Domaine Zind-Humbrecht “Gueberschwihr” 2006

Dry, rich and fruity with honey suckle, orange peel and pink grapefruit flavors, which is balanced by crisp acidity and minerals that are complex and long.

Crustaces Dopff & Irion 2008

Made from a blend of Sylvaner and Pinot Blanc, as the name suggest is the perfect pairing of shellfish and wine. Light, dry, crisp and citrusy, it is like squeezing fresh lemon on you seafood.