High in the northeast corner of France sits Alsace. Sheltered by the Vosges mountains to the west and hard against the German border to the east, lie some of France’s best vineyards and best wine-makers. The wines of Alsace are relatively unknown and misunderstood by many people, even wine lovers. On most supermarket shelves you will be lucky to find one or two examples of those tall, Germanic, flute” bottles with unfamiliar names: Tokay-Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer.
The shape of the bottles gives a clue to the turbulent past of the region, which has indeed been part of Germany in its past, being returned to French ownership only at the end of the Great War. Like Germany, only the white wines of Alsace are of real world class and similar grape varieties are grown.The wines of Alsace are made in a French style however, and tend to be drier, more full-bodied and higher in alcohol than their German counterparts – being vinified so that more of the sugar is converted to alcohol during fermentation.
Alsace does have a little red wine made from the Burgundy grape, pinot noir. This tends to be quite lightweight, but can be delicious and interesting and more and more producers are now fighting this variety’s corner, some even suggesting that Pinot sites on top terroirs like the Grand Cru Hengst are worthy of Grand Cru, or a new tier of ‘Premier Cru’ status..
The naming of the grape variety on the labels of Alsace wines is unique amongst the “great” French regions. This was a marketing decision taken by the Alsaciens in the 1920’s (long before the Australians and Californians thought of it).
It was an attempt to re-establish credibility following a period of very poor wines. Waves of disease (phylloxera, powdery-mildew and odium) had devastated Alsace vineyards at the turn of the 20th century whilst the region was under German control. The German response was to grub-up the traditional grape varieties and introduce hybrid vines that were disease resistant. Unfortunately, these vines were also bland and uninteresting, leading Alsace into a period of decline. When France regained control, they began to re-plant with the noble grape varieties and set about relaunching their region as one of quality. During this transition, it must have seemed a logical, if radical decision to name the noble grapes on the labels of the finest bottles.
Unlike Burgundy with its scores of individual Apellation Controlee areas, the whole of the Alsace region is covered by only two ACs: Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru. This designation will appear on the label, along with the grape variety. The grapes of Alsace include the fragrant muscat, pinot-blanc, sylvaner, the full and luscious pinot-gris and the uniquely spicy gewurztraminer. But the finest wines are made from the riesling grape.
Alsace Rieslings are some of the greatest examples of this variety. Their bone-dry austerity is counter-balanced by unctuous texture, intense mineral, honey and even petrolly aromas and a great deal of finesse. Though there is no such thing as “cheap” wine from Alsace, these wines are relatively inexpensive given their quality level. Couple that with an ability to age beautifully for a few years and to match well with most fish and white meat dishes, and the wines of Alsace are an attractive proposition.
Like the Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines of Germany, Alsace also produces wines which range in style from beautifully balanced off-dry, to fully luscious dessert wines. “Vendange Tardive” on the label indicates late-harvested grapes, where extra hanging time on the vine gives added sweetness and glycerin, whilst the rare and expensive “Sélection des Grains Nobles” are amongst the greatest botrytis-affected dessert wines of the world. Many houses in Alsace also make a traditional method sparkling wine called Crémant d’Alsace.
Alsace is a beautiful area full of small, historic, half-timbered towns and dramatic scenery. There are many small growers producing honest and reliable wines all along the Alsace wine route and most of this is sold under the label of a co-operative. Good though these wines are, I have usually found it worth spending a little more to obtain bottles from a quality individual producers such as Trimbach, Weinbach, Zind-Humbrecht, Kreydenweiss, Schoffit, Ostertag, Meyer-Fonne or Kuentz-Bas.