Take a deep breath. While exhaling, say “Ahhhl zas.” It resonates like a yoga mantra with the emphasis on “Ahhh.” The phonetic version of Alsace reveals the beauty of this little border province and the prominence of one of France’s smallest wine regions. It harbors a medieval landscape from a bygone era. Half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, and Romanesque churches have you anticipating someone heavily cloaked in costume to walk by you munching on a giant turkey leg.
Or you’d expect the likes of Hansel and Gretel to run through the streets greeting you with “bonjour” or “guten tag,” or a dialect unique to Alsace.
Along the Vosges Mountains -- separating Alsace from France to the west -- are ruins of castles that fell to past conquests. The meandering River Rhine to the east separates Alsace from Germany. And the Black Forest in the distance, well, just brings cake to mind. Many mistakenly think Alsace is part of Germany. While this region has been militarily occupied by Germany during times of war, it has remained soulfully French. As Alsace has held onto its medieval history, winemaking here is anything but. In fact, some of the finest white wines in the world are produced here.
THE WINE REGION
North to South, the narrow strip of vineyards (about 33,000 acres) extends 50 km wide and 190 km long. Approximately 6,000 wine growers live here and produce 20% (about 165 million bottles) of France’s wine. Dig in the dirt. You’ll find a variety of soil types -- granitic, chalky, marl, sandstone, loam, alluvial and even volcanic. Thanks to the Vosges Mountains that provide a “rainshadow” effect that minimizes moist west winds, the climate is perfect for growing grapes. Summer is hot, winter is cold and autumn is long and dry. As a result, a plethora of grapes thrive in Alsace but the noblest varieties steal the headlines: Riesling, Gerwurtztraminer, Muscat, and Pinot Gris.
Wine production is divided into two French departments (similar to a county) – the Haut-Rhin and Bas Rhin. In the heart of Alsace, the Haut-Rhin is located around the town of Colmar where the Vosges are at their highest and exert the strongest influence on the climate. Located lower on the Rhine is the less famous departement, Bas-Rhin where the Vosges peaks are lower and offer less protection from the rain. The “down river” vineyards are by no means inferior to their “up river” counterparts, their wines are simply less obvious or less-known.
WINEMAKING, PRODUCTION & QUALITY
In Alsace, the best wines are least influenced. The grapes speak for themselves. Wines are not over-oaked and malolactic fermentation is eliminated (except Pinot Noir) to preserve fresh fruity aromas. Chaptalization often occurs -- a practice forbidden in many parts of the wine world –- where sugar is added to the grape must to achieve desired alcohol levels in the wine. Over 95% of wines are white and are fermented dry, except dessert wines. The finished product is bottled in a flute -- a feminine style that is long and slender (like German bottles), in contrast to say, a Bordeaux bottle that is masculine and broad. And while the rest of France labels wine by region, Alsace labels wine by varietal, and it must be 100% of the varietal listed.
Which leads me to quality.
Alsace was one of the last in France to become part of the Appellation Controlee (AC) system. In 1962, Appellation Alsace (labeling with grape varietal) was awarded, in 1976, the Appellation Cremant d’Alsace (sparking wine) came into effect, and finally in 1983 Alsace Grand Cru (labeling with vineyard name) was added. Vendange Tardive laws, pertaining to late harvest wines, were also added in 1983.
So when you frequent your favorite wine shop or restaurant, here’s a quick Alsace wine reference and stylistically what you can expect.
I’ll start with the king of Alsace, Riesling. This most widely planted grape (20% under vine) is the same variety grown in Germany but in Alsace it is fermented dry. It can be floral when young and with age it can be flinty, mineral-y with crisp acidity.
Gerwurtraminer (Gerwurz) is usually dry to off-dry, with low acidity and high alcohol giving the impression of sweet, but not. Gerwurz has floral aromas and spicy flavor with nuance of lychee fruit.
Pinot Gris (sometimes referred to as Tokay-Pinot Gris, but not related to Tokaji, the fortified wine of Hungary) offers the spiciness of Gerwurz and acidity of Riesling with characteristics of peaches, apricot, and smokiness when young to biscuit-y, buttery flavors when aged.
Muscat is always dry with fresh, fruity (grapey) aromas and flavors. It has low alcohol and low acid.
Pinot Blanc (also known as Clevner or Klevner) is the base wine for Cremant d’Alsace (sparkling wine) and on its own is clean, dry, with good acidity. When blended with Auxerrois, the wine becomes fuller bodied and spicy.
Sylvaner is a vixen to grow and requires good soil. Consumed young, it can be perfume-y and earthy with firm acidity.
Pinot Noir is the only red grape grown in Alsace, where it has long been produced as a fruity, deep-colored rose. More producers are creating it in the Burgundian style; longer skin contact and aging in small oak casks.
Chasselas is seldom seen on a label and usually a blend for Edelzwicker (wine made from more than one grape variety, German for “noble mixture”). On its own it can be pretty, light, dry, fruity, with low acidity and alcohol.
Auxerrois is usually blended with Pinot Blanc but alone it can be spicy and soft, with good alcohol and low acidity. Of late, this grape is being featured on wine labels.
Cremant d’ Alsace is the sparkling wine of Alsace. Any varietal can create this bubbly, (except Gerwurz because of its overpowering flavor) but Pinot Blanc does it best.
And if you’re into late harvest wines with higher alcohol levels, Alsace makes some gems. The AC strictly controls the date of harvest, sugar concentration and quality. No enrichment is allowed and the wine must be made from a single vintage and from one of four permitted grape varietals: Riesling, Muscat, Gerwurz, or Pinot Gris. Vendange Tardive is big, rich, and powerful and can range from dry to medium sweet. Selection des Grains Nobles is Vendange Tardive taken to the next level, where grapes achieve even higher sugar levels creating a rich and sweet dessert wine to be sipped and savored. These grapes are usually affected by botrytis or noble rot which causes the grapes to shrivel concentrating flavor, acid and sugar.
When it comes to utmost quality, it’s good to be king. And Alsace Grand Cru is just that, wine royalty. The wine must be from a single named vineyard site, a single vintage, and made from one of the fantastic four: Riesling, Muscat, Gerwurz, or Pinot Gris. Yields are restricted and minimum sugar levels are higher than basic Alsace wines. There are 50 individual vineyards with Grand Cru status. The Grand Cru appellation is under some scrutiny, however. Too much of a good thing is well, too much, and can lose its sense of uniqueness. It has been said that some in this famed fraternity are moderate producers, cashing in on the Grand Cru status while others strive for perfection and deserve it. Is it an imbalance? Should it be further defined? I’ll leave that up to the AC.
WINE & DINE
People of Alsace love their wine – and their food. Because of its close proximity to Germany, the food is germanesque. How about Choucroute? Meaning sauerkraut in French, this dish combines pork with cabbage. Try a Riesling or Sylvaner, either will complement the ‘kraut. Ever tried Flammekueche? This pastry with cream, bacon, and onions is heavy so pair it with Pinot Blanc and the acid will cut through the fat. How about Coq-au-Riesling? When in doubt, pair this French chicken fricassee with more Riesling to enhance the flavor. Did anyone say fromage? Alsace Munster is not American Munster. The French version has a highly potent aroma but mild flavor. Spice it up with Gerwurz.
And if you’re not in Alsace or you’re not a fan of germanesque food you can still enjoy Alsace wine with your favorite fare. Pair up spicy dishes with Riesling or Gerwurz. Cream sauces go with Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, or Riesling. Seafood or white meats accompany Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, or Riesling. If you are at the Thanksgiving table, pour the Pinot Noir, Alsace’s only red. Craving Foie gras? Reach for a late harvest Gerwuz or Pinot Gris. And don’t forget the bubbles! They accompany most any food, so pair Cremant d’Alsace with reckless abandon!
AND ABOUT THE DOG…
F.Y.I. A supplier of Alsace wine gave me good advice long ago. Do not refer to the wines of Alsace as “Alsation.” An Alsation is a German shepherd, the furry four-legged kind -– a first rate, watch dog, known for intelligence, nobility, and show. In my opinion, the wines of Alsace are similar to the canine’s characteristics, most notably, man’s best friend. Sipping the former can evoke qualities that are loyal, loving, and pleasing.
Stay tuned, our next stop is Anjou -– Sante!