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Alsace: One of France’s best kept secrets
One of France’s best kept secrets
Alsace has long been famous as one of the most food and wine-loving regions in
the whole of France. Its wines are capable of creating unsuspected harmonies
and providing flavours that complement each other. What for example is the
secret alchemy that brings pikeperch (zander) together with Riesling, foie gras
with Tokay-Pinot Gris, Munster cheese with Gewurztraminer and kugelhopf with
Crémant ? An extraordinary diversity to discover.
The Alsace wine-growing area stretches for about 100 kms along the western
section of the Vosges mountains from Marlenheim to Thann, with a small
northern enclave at Wissembourg. It is at the northern limit of the vine-growing
area and white grape varieties are therefore in the majority. 14,000 hectares of
vines are laid out at altitudes of between 200 and 400 m and yield an annual
average of 150 million bottles. The wine-growing area has a generally south or
south-east aspect. This is the perfect location for following the famous Alsace
Wine Route. But most importantly, it enables the vines to take advantage of a
maximum amount of sunshine in the growing and ripening period. In addition, its
position means it enjoys a remarkable microclimate: "A warm temperature band
showed up on the slopes and half-way up the hills, where the temperature is 1 to
1.5° higher than on the lower or upper slopes. This band is not located exactly on
the south-facing slopes, but in general on the steepest slope" (Claude Sittler,
1990). On the other hand, the Alsace wine-growing soils are characterised by a
great geological diversity that is probably unique in French vine growing. The vine
has colonised chalk, marly-chalk, sandy-clay, clayey-loam, gypseous, volcanic
sandstone, schistous, granitic and granitic gneiss soils. As we will see, some
grape varieties are happier in particular types of soil.
The grape varieties of Alsace- a distinctive family
The wines of Alsace - including the grand crus - are made from a single type of
grape, except for Crémant which can be blended from several separate varieties.
However the specific nature of the Alsace varieties remains essential for
producing very distinctive wines. All knowledgeable wine lovers know that there
are 7 original grape varieties and can list them without thinking. Here they are in
more detail, together with another, less well-known member of the family, but
one equally worth considering.
Sylvaner: this variety, one of the best-known in Alsace, was discredited years ago
because of high yields. If it is handled well and if its late ripening is carefully
taken into account, it can produce a wine that is remarkable for its lightness, is
lively and thirst-quenching and has aromas of young fruit or flowers.
Riesling: this is one of the greatest white grape varieties in the world. On
sandy-clay soils the "gentle aromatic" – as it is sometimes called – gives a dry
and elegant wine of distinction, the colour of crystal, with delicate fruit (orange
peel and exotic fruits) and with floral and mineral (flinty) hints. It has surprising
finesse, power, balance and length on the palate. It can ripen at relatively low
temperatures and its vintage years mature perfectly.
Gewürztraminer: the most aromatic grape variety grown in the area, it is used to
make the most famous of the Alsace wines on marly-chalk soils. It comes from a
selection of the most aromatic Savagnin Rose or Traminer varieties. The wine, full
of vigour, well-rounded, with a powerful structure, offers great complexity. In it
are found scents of acacia, lily, rose, carnation, honey, cardamom, spices (gewürz
= spicy), cinnamon, clove, pepper, lychee, grapefruit and quince. This superb and
generous wine is capable of maturing marvellously. The finest vintages bestow
upon the wine a touch of sweetness.
Muscat: this gives an aromatic wine that is heady yet dry and which is nothing
like the Muscats from the south. It has inimitable fruit and flower aromas with a
veritable explosion of acacia, box, rosewood and geranium.
Pinot Blanc: this variety, which gives of its best on a loamy soil, gives a soft,
supple wine full of freshness and with subtle aromatic hints. It has become one of
the basic varieties of Crémant d'Alsace.
Pinot Gris: this is the proper name of the Alsace Tokay (Grauer Tokayer). It is
happy in deep soils and clayey-loam conglomerates. Its powerful, well-structured,
even opulent wine is very long on the palate and releases aromas of dried fruit,
fruit tree wood, undergrowth and game, where a hint of smoked meat can be
detected. It is most certainly one of Alsace’s greatest wines.
Pinot Noir: this is Alsace’s only red wine grape variety. Perfect when it has found a
sandy or chalky soil, it is made into rosé or red wine. The latter, which has the
characteristic colour of claret, develops flavours of small red fruits where the
Klevener: this variety of the former Traminer or Savagnin Rose gives a full-bodied and well-balanced wine. Under the decree of 4th February 1997, only the
communes of Bougheim, Getwiller, Heiligenstein and Obernai can use the name
"Klevener de Heiligenstein".
What are the production conditions?
Alsace wines normally show the grape variety on the label and are made 100%
from that grape. A blend of two or more varieties is called Edelzwicker. The
appellation wines have a yield per hectare of 8,000 litres with a minimum alcohol
level of 8.5°. The production conditions for the 50 Grands Crus reduce the yield
to 6,000 litres/hectare with 10° minimum for Riesling and Muscat, and 12° for
Gewürztraminer or Pinot Gris. Their areas have been set out by the I.N.A.O. (the National Institute for Appellations d’Origine) on the basis of very strict geological
and climatic criteria. The "Vendange tardive" (late harvest) and the "Sélection de
grains nobles" (selection of superior over-ripe grapes), which have been official
Alsace specialities since 1984, have won a place in the hearts of all wine lovers.
"Vendange tardive" is only practised on the Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling
and Muscat grapes, both for Vin d’Alsace A.C. and for the Grands Crus.
Harvesting when they are overripe increases the available sugar within the berry,
especially if it has begun to be covered with the noble rot. The wines then reach
the pinnacle of their development and are real masterpieces. The "Sélections de
grains nobles" are harvested by hand, with successive pickings of grapes affected
by botrytis cinerea. The resulting concentration gives a powerful wine with
complex aromas that is exceptionally long on the palate and has an unparalleled
The Crémant d'Alsace sparkling wines, the vast majority of which are white, are
produced by the traditional method of a second fermentation in the bottle. They
are made from one or more grape varieties (Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris and
occasionally Chardonnay). Crémant Rosé is made from the Pinot Noir. Strict
production conditions that are very close to those for the Vin d’Alsace appellation
and an irreproachable quality have been the basis of the success of the
Crémants. Wonderful grands crus The fame of Alsace wine was initially built upon
the sure foundation of its grape varieties. But connoisseurs, and even more so
the winemakers themselves, have long recognised that such and such a wine
from such and such a place was better than a commune’s general production. In
a deliberate move, the producers therefore decided to put those parcels of land
that for centuries had been the glory of Alsace wine back onto their pedestal. If
we leaf through the fact sheets of the terroirs where the 50 current Grands Crus
are produced, we immediately see that these thousand-year old vineyards cover
all the steepest slopes of the hills sheltering them from cold winds that these are
very often in the shape of a bowl, a crescent or an arc that encourages exposure
to the sun; that there is little topsoil; that the wine-growing parcels are located on
gravel that both warms the soil and gives good drainage; and that thanks to a
specific micro-climate, rainfall is low. This is effectively the jewel in the crown of
Alsace wine. By taking this step, Alsace has not only gone back to its roots, but
rediscovered its best wines.
Review of recent vintages
2009: Exceptional grape health and maturity gave rise to wines high in alcohol
but that retain a satisfactory level of acidity. They are perfumed and can be
enjoyed when young. The fine weather in October allowed an excellent Vendange
Tardive and Sélections de Grains Nobles for late-harvest wines.
2010: 20 percent volume decrease on 2009 yet abundant fruit and freshness. A
vintage for pleasure.
2011: Drought in the spring and rainfall at the start of the summer yielded a
fruity, ripe vintage with low acidity. The wines will be early-drinking, except for
the superlative sites which always produce wines with ageability.
2012 : Despite a somewhat disrupted growth cycle, this vintage is well balanced.
The Crémant wines are remarkable, and the Pinots (whether Pinot Blanc, Pinot
Gris or Pinot Noir) are excellent. The other grape varieties do not stand out to the
same degree, but are very respectable all the same.
Three appellations for one region
A.C. Vin d'Alsace
These wines must be bottled in the area of production and in the slender bottle
characteristic of Alsace wine. They are available in all the authorised grape
varieties. This is unique in France and ratified by the I.N.A.O., taking account of
both the actual history of the rebuilding of the Alsace vine-growing area post
phylloxera and of a Rhine tradition. They have been part of the great A.C. family
A.C. Alsace Grand Cru
Only four grape varieties are permitted for the A.C. Alsace Grand Cru:
Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Muscat and Pinot Gris. The label must include A.C.
Alsace Grand Cru and show the locality, the grape variety and the year.
Twenty-five localities were selected in 1983. Then in 1992, the National Institute
for Appellations d'Origine ratified the definition of 25 new parcels. From that time,
Alsace has prided itself on a new appellation made up of 51 Grands Crus. The
wines produced in these areas have rare elegance and great finesse, and also
power, quality and distinction. The best years give wines that can be laid down
for a long time.
A.C. Crémant d'Alsace
Created in 1976, this has been given an unprecedented welcome by wine-lovers,
as Crémant d'Alsace is the top appellation sparkling wine drunk in France, ahead
of Clairette de Die. It is made by 500 producers who put nearly 20 million bottles
on the market. It has the particular feature of being able to blend the various
recommended grape varieties which must all come from the regional appellation