By Nick Adams, Master of Wine
Alsace might be off the beaten track in more than one connotation. Tucked away in the north east corner of France it has been under German ownership or occupation through several periods in its history. The Germanic influence is only too clear in the architecture and place names – even nuances in the local cuisine. And regarding the wines here again the German influences are seen in the grapes used, style of wines, and use of the elegant, elongate “flûte” bottle shape. The wines of Alsace deserve to be more widely understood and appreciated – top examples are world class – and whatever the German links they remain firmly French. Not least it is worth noting that the region has 30 Michelin star restaurants!
The Alsace region is split into two parts – the north is called the Bas-Rhin and the south Haut-Rhin, which is considered superior and certainly has more Grand Cru sites. Irrespective of the wines, this is a tremendous area to visit for a holiday – when we are allowed out to play again. The key climatic influencer is the Vosges Mountains to the west which create a rain shadow that allows Alsace to remain one of the driest and warm viticultural areas in the whole of France. Colmar is one of the driest cities in the whole of France by the way. The river Rhine is located to the east. Unique to AOC areas in France most of the production is of purely varietal wines – and unambiguously labelled as such. Over 90% is white wine production, with the one black grape used being Pinot Noir. Comparatively large at over 16k ha (40k acres) and 120 villages there is a complex patchwork of different microclimates, soil types and therefore styles produced.
Around 80% of production is for AOC Alsace, 5% Grand Cru Alsace, and the rest for the sparkling Crémant d’Alsace. There is no “Vin de Pays” Alsace. Wine styles (white) range from dry through various levels of sweetness to fully sweet wines, including examples made from noble rotted (shrivelled) grapes. In general, most Alsace wines are quite full bodied and best enjoyed with food.
Historically the Sylvaner grape was the most planted (and for every day, more “quaffing” wine) but that has long given way to other white varieties – in fact, Pinot Blanc has now taken over that role from Sylvaner and along with Riesling is the most widely planted. The region has since defined four varieties as the most important and these are classified as “Noble”. Not only are they considered to be the highest quality varieties, but they are the only ones authorised for use in Grand Cru Alsace vineyards. In addition, where a variety is stated it must be 100% of that grape. They are – in order of production size:
- Pinot Gris
- Muscat (by far the smallest)
Therefore, most Alsace wines will be varietally labelled, also either generically labelled as “Alsace” or specifically in reference to the Grand Cru (top) vineyard site they come from, should they be one of the 51 defined in the region (the first were registered in 1975 and more added up to 2007). There are a few multi varietal blends in the region and these are labelled as either Edelzwicker or Gentil.
Alsace’s “Front Row” – the big three varieties (note how darker the skins are for Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris, reflected in the colour of the wines from the region)
It is not unusual these days that even “dry” wines may have a touch of residual sugar in them. This is sometimes the case with Riesling to synchronise with its naturally higher acid level, but certainly more usual with both Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. This does not make them taste “sweet”, but certainly creamier and more rounded, nor does it mean every producer does this. The mildly irritating issue is that there is often no label guidance to help the consumer, so you tend to need to know the style and philosophy of the producer.
In general, though, the characteristics of the main varieties could be said to be:
Riesling: the driest of the three, aromatic with bright citric and sometimes stone fruit, crisp acidity, medium body, and a delicate spicy note to the wine. Performs particularly well on the rockier, granite and older volcanic soils of the region
Pinot Gris: richer, often off-dry, with aromas and flavours of ripe comice pear, red apple, quince and soft spices. Performs well on the volcanic and clay soils
Gewurztraminer: again, richer style, off-dry with a creamy texture and very aromatic with bold notes of lychee, mango, rosewater, and spices – very individual and potentially exotic. Performs well on limestone and clay soils
However, there are also options for genuinely sweeter styles too. In 1983 Alsace authorities defined two categories: Vendange Tardive (later harvested) and (much sweeter) Sélection de Grains Nobles (noble rotted, desiccated grapes). The authorities will define the sugar levels in grapes by each variety which become the threshold point for these categories. Whilst the SGNs are always proper sweet, dessert wine styles the VTs can sometimes be surprisingly drier, if the producer decides to ferment them out longer, which also means they will have higher alcohol levels. But the wine will clearly taste riper and be fuller bodied, whereas an SGN should have lower alcohol and be sweeter.
These top individual vineyards (51 in total) will carry the name of the vineyard on the label as well as the grape variety. It is possible that the vineyard has more than one noble grape in it which can be called Grand Cru – others will be solus examples of one grape. As is typical in this French classification the concept is to define those areas which simply have the soils and environment to produce the best, most defined, and concentrated examples of their type.
There are around 2,000 producers of which around 200 make about 80% of the wine produced. Some have an exceptionally long heritage, and many remain (thankfully) family owned. The Co-operatives in Alsace can be particularly good, but top producers include (in no hierarchical order): Albert Boxler, Hugel & Fils, Josmeyer, Léon Beyer, Maison Trimbach, Marcel Deiss, Rolly Gassmann, Domaine Schlumberger, Domaine Weinbach, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht.
The richer, sweeter styles work well of course with desserts – anything with fruit, pastry even caramelised sugar element. In Alsace they also like pairing them with cheese – most famously with their renowned local cheese Munster.
The riper and Vendange Tardive styles are enjoyed in the region with the famous rich pâtés of the area, especially if they have some residual sugar. By their nature they will work with bolder white meat dishes and sauces, and comfortably tackle a vegetable curry for example.
Pinot Gris is a pleasant surprise with mushroom risotto as well as the many pork dishes of the region. Gewurztraminer works very well with milder and creamy Asian dishes – including chicken, vegetable, and sea food based examples. It can also compliment smoked fish such as salmon and trout.
Riesling is another favourite with Thai and Asian styled cooking – especially fish and shellfish based dishes. Works very well with a simple crab, lime, coriander, lightly chilli and avocado starter. Also goes well with general charcuterie and particularly well with a goat’s cheese and onion tart. And like Gewurztraminer can work well with smoked fish if you prefer a drier style.
In summary, Alsace wines have real character and quality and are very food friendly – they deserve wider recognition.
Wine Trust Selection
Wine Trust have long followed the wines of the quaintly named Rolly Gassmann – whose biodynamically run Domaine dates back to 1661. Marie-Thérèse (née Rolly), Louis (Gassmann) & their son Pierre run the estate today and have been since their marriage in 1967, so their knowledge of their vineyard holdings is substantial. They make their wines very much with food pairing in mind – and often with slightly more than average levels of residual sugar for the region – although you never really notice this when drinking them.
Why not try a bottle each of the “big 3” grapes and taste how amazing and contrasting they are in style when under the production control of the same winemaker?