Exploring the Complexity of Alsation Wine
Nestled against the German border, Alsace is a French wine region rich in cultural diversity. With over three centuries of identity crisis, it has belonged to both France and Germany over six times in the past 300 years. The German legacy left behind unique features that are specific in France only to Alsace: a long, tapered fluted bottle style, varietal labeling and, most importantly, Riesling. Alsace was finally returned to France in 1945 and began a slow and steady growth into the stellar wine region it is today.
The French tradition of naming a wine ‘after a place’ is not there – instead wine labels state the grape variety, which is a German tradition. Here, winemakers can use varietal labeling when the wine is 100% of the stated grape. It must consist of at least 80% of the stated varietal – the remaining 20% is allowable for other grapes. The region produces 90% white wine and 10% red/rosé.
Both ‘Gentil’ and ‘Edelzwicker’ are terms used on Alsatian wine labels to communicate that the wine in the bottle is a blended wine. ‘Gentil’ blends contain 50% of a ‘noble’ grape variety (Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer) plus 50% of other grapes. ‘Edelzwicker’ is a blend of any approved grape within the Alsace AOC and no vintage year can appear on the label. The other blend from Alsace is the sparkling Crémant d’Alsace.
Riesling is, without a doubt, the shining star of the region. Until recently – Alsace was the only region in France permitted to grow this grape, however Languedoc-Roussillon is now an official grower as well. Global warming has affected harvests here to the extent that winegrowers achieve high levels of ripeness most every year as opposed to 2 -3 times in a decade! What does this mean? It means that even though Riesling wines are made and fermented to dryness – the high levels of ripeness show up in the wine as noticeable sweetness. For this reason, in 2008, Riesling was given a maximum residual sugar level of 0.9% (9g/l) for AOC wines but this ruling does not apply to Grand Cru AOC's. The law is geared toward the general Alsace AOC producers so that the market is not flooded with sweeter Rieslings. Alsace Grand Cru AOC winemakers have the freedom to make sweeter-styled Riesling wines and choose the level of sweetness for their final product – ultimately it varies from estate to estate but the overall goal is to achieve balance between sweetness and acidity.
Riesling expresses itself in its youth with flavors of peach, pineapple, citrus, honeysuckle, linden blossom and jasmine. With age, Riesling gives off these same aromas with the addition of pine nut, honey and a telltale petrol note. It is an aromatic grape that ripens with both high sugar levels and high acidity making it perfect for sweet dessert wines. In Alsace there are two categories of sweet wine, ‘Vendages Tardives’ which is a late harvest wine and ‘Sélection de Grains Nobles’ which is also a late harvest wine, but the distinction is the grapes are also affected by 'noble rot' (Botrytis cinerea). This last category requires individual grapes to be hand picked, one at a time, over multiple passes through the vineyard…labor-intensive work on very steep slopes!
Alsace is situated between the 47th and 49th parallel north and is able to produce excellent examples of balanced wine due to its unique northerly location and climate. It comprises a 75-mile long strip of land that is tucked against the German border on the banks of the Rhine River, in the rain-shadow of the Vosges Mountains, which keeps the rains coming in from the west trapped on the west side of the mountain. This so-called ‘mountain effect’ enables Alsace to be sunny, hot and dry. Even though it is located within the northern most limit for grape growing – the Vosges Mountains also provide elevation and altitude on which the best vineyards are located. The vines here soak up the sunlight on south facing vineyards…grapes ripen slowly, which produces complex aroma profiles.
For this reason, there is hardly any concern about rainfall and cloud cover. The ease of its natural elements positioned Alsace perfectly to become the first region in France to start the biodynamic and organic grape growing revolution…the lack of pesticides and chemical sprays needed here enable winemakers to truly express its ‘terroir’. By using organic waste as fertilizer, for example, the winemaker steers clear of added chemical components that may show up in the final wine product. Only a few specific wine regions in the world have the perfect climate, topography and vineyard position to easily enable chemical free grape growing.
There are a total of 53 AOC’s (Appellation d’Origine Contôlée) in Alsace and 51 are classified Grand Cru. Over 5,000 growers and 1,200 producers are employed and make their living in its wine industry, however 175 star producers are responsible for 80% of the total wine produced here. Winemaking in Alsace is a family business and some estates have been at it since the 17th century.
It is a fascinating wine region in France and it takes some time to learn and understand the subtleties of Alsatian wines. The Pinot Gris from Alsace is nothing like an Italian Pinot Grigio and definitely a grape variety to search for as a good comparison of wine styles from country to county. Go exploring – head down to your favorite wine store and pick out a few Alsation wines… they may well surprise you!
A few Alsation wines to look out for:
- Albert Mann Crémant d’Alsace Brut 2011 AOC Crémant d’Alsace – light and fresh and perfect with a sushi platter. A value-driven alternative to pricier Champagne.
- Hugel & Fils Gentil ‘Hugel’ 2011 AOC Alsace – a bright summer sipper.
- Domaine Marcel Deiss Muscat d’Alsace 2009 Bergheim AOC Alsace – an ideal match for brunch and pairing with fruit and green salads.
- Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling 2002 Herrenweg de Turkheim AOC Alsace (biodynamic) – stunning acidity pairs beautifully with poultry or foie gras.
- Domaine Weinbach ‘Cuvée Théo’ Gewürztraminer 2006 AOC Alsace (biodynamic) – with some residual sugar, this is a fantastic cheese plate accompaniment.
- Domaine Merisol Gris (Pinot Gris) Frankstein 2008 AOC Alsace Grand Cru – this off-dry gorgeous wine is a spot on pairing for spicy pork and chicken Indian dishes
- Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Brand 2006 Vendage Tardive AOC Alsace Grand Cru – crisp and sweet, a delicious wine for fruit tarts or crumbles.