Alsace is one of France’s most unusual and exciting wine regions. Although it is arguably less well known and traveled than its more famous cousins of Bordeaux and Burgundy, it is equally capable of producing tremendous and majestic wines. Culturally it is as much German as it is French due to its proximity to the German Border. Indeed, twice during the last 130 years, it has been under German control. It is undoubtedly one of France’s most spectacularly beautiful regions to visit, a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts as much as for wine lovers. The splendor of the Vosges Mountains complemented by the medieval architecture of many towns and villages. There is quite simply something for everyone here.
Unlike in other French Regions, the grape varietal plays a crucial element in wine labeling. Expect to see bottles clearly labeled Riesling or Pinot Gris, considered sacrilege in other parts of France! The wines themselves can be piercingly aromatic and are unique in style. These are wines to please the most hardened of critics, exquisitely perfumed, and structured wines are the order of the day here. Although there are some substantial merchant operations and large wine co-operatives in the region, generally the area is not a creator of mass-produced, bulk wine. Of course, there is a variation in quality and style, as is the case through all regions, as elsewhere; who makes the wine is the key.
The region of Alsace is a narrow stretch of vineyards running north-south at the base of and nestled into the eastern foothills of the Vosges Mountains. These, along with the Rhine just to the east of the Vignoble, provide the region’s dry climate for such northern latitude. Sunshine hours are high during the growing season, and rainfall low. The vineyard area stretches west of Strasbourg in the north to Mulhouse in the south, with the heart of the region centered around the town of Colmar. This is where the greatest concentration of top villages and vineyards sites, particularly Grand Crus, are to be found. In some respects, the region resembles the Cote d’Or in Burgundy, as the finest sites are on the slopes of the Vosges, with well-drained, meager soils.
However, unlike Burgundy, Alsace is a dream of simplicity in terms of classifications. The generic appellation of the region is Alsace AC. The vast majority of wine is labeled by its grape variety. There is an ongoing debate about the importance of the varieties themselves, as opposed to site and terroir, in determining style. In some ways thinking here is closer to the New World than Old. In addition to the generic Alsace appellation, 50 Grand Cru sites were established in 1983. Wines produced from these are classified Alsace Grand Cru AC. And that is as complex as it gets. The majority of these sites can be found in the heart of the Haut Rhin and were created to pinpoint the best vineyards.
There is just one permitted red variety, Pinot Noir, which can be good but is often a bit too light and insubstantial, needing an excellent vintage. This is mainly a white wine country. The white varietals are the fairly neutral Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner and the intensely aromatic Riesling, Muscat, Tokay Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer. An unusual variety in the higher reaches of the Rhine is the Klevener de Heilegenstein, rarely seen and a grape that makes exciting wine.
Some of the region’s most celebrated wines are the late-harvested wines. Vendage Tardive (VT) and Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN). Being made from late-harvested grapes, these are generally sweet styles. The best are very well balanced with remarkable depth. The final style is Cremant d’Alsace AC. These sparkling wines made using the traditional method and are mostly produced from Pinot Blanc and Riesling, although other varieties are also permitted. The best examples have remarkable depth and structure – very moreish.
The above is just a snapshot of what this stunningly beautiful and fascinating region can offer to the visitor. There is something for everyone here: physical beauty, lovely towns, and abundant cultural life. Not to mention plenty of delicious wines to taste. The white wines are some of the finest in the world, and crucially are accessible and easy to grasp. And best of all, the region is wholly unspoiled and off the beaten wine touring track.