Alsace is in Northern France, along the Rhine which is the border with Germany. It has a violent history, being frequently fought over and changing ownership between Germany and France, most recently in WWII after which it reverted to France.
The wines show Germanic influence. They are bottled in tall graceful narrow bottles that look German but are called Alsace flutes and, unlike traditional French wines, their labels show the grape variety prominently. Only one red wine, Pinot Noir, is made, and it’s invariably served well-chilled. The rest are white:- Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Sylvaner. Chasseles and Auxerrois are also grown but rarely feature on labels. Auxerrois has long confused with Pinot Blanc is still allowed to be labelled as Pinot Blanc.
“When we were part of Germany, we were their southern wine region,” said Ettiene Hugel of the winery Hugel & Fils, established in 1659. “But in France we are the northernmost.” However Alsace wines are protected from wine and rain by the Vosge mountain chain that lie to its west and, by running north-south, separate Alsace from the rest of France. Rain falls on the mountains leaving the vineyards planted on one of the lowest rainfall areas in France, and drought can be a challenge.
There are thousands of grape growers in Alsace, few owning more than five hectares and most less than one hectare, and they sell their grapes to fewer than 200 wineries.
Alsace wine, while looking Germanic and misleading the casual wine shop browser into thinking they’re medium sweet, are known among wine-lovers for their steely dryness. But I think the bottle shape – a legal requirement for Alsace wines - has hurt sales in the rest of the world.
Sweet wines are made. Vendage Tardive on the label usually indicates a sweeter wine from late harvested grapes although, confusingly, the winemaker may have fermented out all the sugar to make a dry wine.
Selection de Grains Nobles definitely are sweet. They’re made from even riper grapes most of them affected by ‘noble rot’. As harvest time approaches the vineyards are often covered by a dense mist which the sun clears in late morning and dries the vines. These are ideal conditions for the noble rot fungus to develop. It removes water content from grapes leaving only sweet essence.
The other distinct wine category is sparkling, made usually from a blend of Pinots Blanc, Gris and Noir with some Auxerois and Riesling, and these days sometimes Chardonnay. The traditional Champagne method is used and the wines are labelled as Cremant d’Alsace.
The Alsace wine region is a compact area in a narrow north-south strip along the eastern foothills of the Vosges mountains. Breathtaking beautiful towns dot the area, some look like they did 400 years ago, and you could film the Three Musketeers in them without needing to change much more than a shop window display.
Have you tasted Alsace Wines? Tell us on our forum.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.
Disclosure: Peter F May visited Alsace at his own expense and paid for all visits and tastings.