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Introduction to Alsace

Alsace is one of the premier winemaking regions of France, but is often overlooked. Wine drinkers are quick to choose Bordeaux, the Rhone, Burgundy or Champagne as their favourite. Alsace doesn’t quite have the same global name recognition, but the wines are equal to anywhere else.

Additionally, Alsace is much easier to get a handle on for newcomers. The bottles are varietally labelled, so you know what grapes the wine is made from. The cru system is much easier than that of Bordeaux or Burgundy. They share similarities with delicious German aromatics, but without the confusing classifications.

alsace village

Picturesque villages can be found everywhere

History of the Alsace region

The Alsace wine region is in the Northeast of France sharing a border with Germany. Alsace hasn’t always been in France though. Throughout history it has been divided up by various religious factions and governments:

1469 – Sold by Archduke of Austria to Duke of Burgundy

1648 – Part of French Kingdom, however German speaking

1674 – Full French sovereignty established by Louis XIV following Franco-Dutch war

1815 – Occupied by foreign forces during Napoleonic wars

1871 – Otto Von Bismark annexes Alsace following Franco-Prussian war

1918 – Attempt to found independent republic following WW1

1919 – Treaty of Versailles causes German cession of Alsace to France

1940 – Occupied by German forces in WW2

1945 – Returned to French control

The only official language is French, however German is widely spoken and the Alsatian dialect remains important. Needless to say the German tradition of winemaking is a big influence on Alsatian wine. However, the most important influence is the terroir.

alsace thann

The vineyards are typically planted on the hill slopes, often steep

Geography

The wine region lies betwen the Vosges mountain range and the Rhine river, with incredibly diverse soils resulting from geological development and tectonic plate movement.

  • The climate is cool, continental
  • It is one of the driest wine regions, with the mountains protecting from wind and rain
  • The tributary rivers that flow throughout the region affect the diurnal range. That means the ripening period during the day extends into the cool of night.
  • The slopes and aspect of the vineyard are very important, meaning which direction they face and the amount of sunlight they receive.

Grapes planted

90% of the grapes planted in Alsace are white grapes, listed here from most to least planted:

– Riesling

– Pinot Blanc

– Gewurztraminer

– Pinot Gris

– Sylvaner

– Muscat

The remaining 10% is Pinot Noir, which often surprises people.

Alsace wines

A range of single variety wines from Alsace

Styles of wine

Riesling – Ranging from dry and refreshing to rich and sweet, there are as many styles of riesling in Alsace as there are villages amongst the foothills.

Pinot Gris – These are the wines often referenced by new world winemakers when comparing with the lighter, crisper Pinot Grigio.  Great Alsace Pinot Gris has rich, spiced pear, and more of a medium body, luscious texture that often has a little residual sugar to keep it balanced.

Gewurztraminer – Alsatian Gewurztraminer is typically rich, medium bodied and full of heady spice and floral aromas. These wines are sought after for their ability to pair with difficult foods.

Cremant – There is a long tradition of making sparkling wines in Alsace, some even rivalling Champagne non-vintage when made in the traditional method.

Blends – Field blends are common, where wines are made from several different grapes for amazing balance and complexity. Some of the best often use six or more white grapes.

Light reds – It is uncommon to find these wines outside of Alsace. The light red wines made from Pinot Noir are to satisfy domestic demand for red.

Classification

There are 51 Grand Cru sites, representing 4% of total production. These Grand Cru are denoted as the best vineyards, often shared by multiple producers. Other labelling terms to look out for:

Grand Cru Schlossberg – Schlossberg is the name of the vineyard

Vendage tardif – late harvest, indicating the grapes were very ripe when picked

Selections de grains nobles – wine made using grapes affected by botrytis

For more wine knowledge, check out our introduction to Burgundy, or our article on pairing riesling with food, for what to eat with your Alsatian riesling.

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Kieran Clarkin

Kieran Clarkin

Digital Marketing and Tour Host at Wine Compass
Kieran is a WSET Diploma student, Chin Chin sommelier and host for Wine Compass. He loves chatting about wine, hosting tastings and getting people interested in wine generally. He's big into Victorian wine, the Loire Valley and the very under-rated wines of Greece.
Kieran Clarkin

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