Alsace Wines: Some of France’s Great White Wines

Along the French border with Germany lies the region of Alsace (all-SAHss).  The region’s customs are a combination of both the French and German culture, a result of the political turmoil this region has long experienced.  Alsace has changed ownership four times in the past few hundred years.  Since World War I, this area has belonged to France.  The wines, however, bear as much resemblance to the wines of Germany as they do to the wines of France.  To be more precise, the wines of Alsace are a hybrid of the two, yet distinct from either. 

Wine has been made in this area since Roman times.  By the Middle Ages, 160 villages were renowned for producing some of the best wines in Europe.  Unfortunately, Alsace stands at a crossroad in Europe and has endured many wars on its soil.  The Thirty Years War in the early half of the 17th century destroyed the people and economy.  Wine making never really recovered before the region was again devastated by the trench warfare of World War I.  After the war, the growers in the area attempted to revitalize their vineyards by concentrating on those grapes which would grow best in the area.  Sadly, World War II ravaged Alsace bringing winemaking to a virtual halt.  Again, after the war, the resilient vignerons attempted to legislate quality by demarking vineyards and enforcing production rules.  In 1962, France’s AOC (Appellation d´Origine Controllê) system granted the wines of Alsace AOC status, followed by the recognition of the Alsace Grand Cru AOC in 1975.

Today France’s AOC laws allow nine permitted grape varieties in their table wines.  These are Riesling (23% of the total grown), Pinot Blanc (22%), Gewurztraminer (18%), Pinot Gris (15%), Sylvaner (9%), Pinot Noir (9%), Muscat (3%), Chasselas (1%).  The astute reader will note that is only eight grapes.  The grape Auxerrois is closely related to Pinot Blanc and about 1/3 of the Pinot Blanc grapes are in fact, Auxerrois.  Of these grapes, only Pinot Noir produces red wine. 

Alsace has a very dry climate.  To the west are the Vosges Mountains which protect Alsace from harsh extremes.  The vineyards are in the foothills of these mountains at slight elevations where they get a lot of sun.  The soil is composed of granite, limestone, schist, sandstone and gneiss depending on location, giving the different vineyards individual characteristics.  There are almost 40,000 acres under vine in the region producing more than 160 million bottles annually.  Almost 20% of all French white AOC table wines come from Alsace, yet, less than 25% of the production is exported.  Clearly, Alsace has problems identifying with the international consumer.  Many times, the Pundits have predicted the public at large would soon discover these wines.  For a brief moment in the 1970’s it seemed Alsace was going to be the “next big thing”.  Yet, for some reason or another, it has never happened. 

One reason that the wines of Alsace succeed, especially in the US market, has to do with the labeling of these wines.  The American consumer has shown a preference for wines that are sold by varietal name rather than the more European method of naming the wine after the place it was made.  Alsace is one of the few regions in France that not only allows varietal labeling (the name of the grape on the bottle label) but has a long history of it having done so since the early 20th century. 

Alsace also produces blends, some that are quite good and provide good value.  Traditionally blends made up of low grade grapes were called Zwicker, a German word, while blends from premium grapes were called Gentil.  In 1871, the Germans tried to replace the term Gentil with the term Edelwein.  The Alsatians refused and began using the term Edelzwicker.  In 1972, the French eliminated the term Zwicker and now all blends are known as a group as Edelzwicker.  Most wines, however, continue to have the grape variety name on the label in addition to the vineyard and place it was grown. 

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For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.