Alsace Wine Region (France)

france-alsace-vinyards in What VINO Wine RegionsAlsace wine region is easy  for beginners.

  • The wines are 90% white wines and they serve well for learning about the varieties.
  • The wines reflect the pure flavor and expression of the fruit character of the variety (blendings are unusual in Alsace).
  • Appellations and labelling are simple.
  • From dry to sweet wines and with a good quality/price ratio.

Post index:

  1. Where in the world is Alsace?
  2. Grapes of Alsatian wines
  3. Understanding Appellations and Labelling of Alsatian wines
  4. Styles of Alsatian wines
  5. Aging Alsatian wines

1. Where in the world is Alsace?

Alsace Map in What VINO wine regionsAlsace is nowadays a region in France, but this region is a strategic place disputed between France and Germany for centuries, so the culture, the landscape, the culinary traditions even the grapes they use for wine, are a mix of France and Germany. If you have the opportunity, it’s worth visiting for its fairy tale scenery, let alone its wines.

Alsatian wines are aromatic, full-bodied and high in alcohol because of the sunny and dry but cool climate. The sun ripens the fruit, providing a good sugar level that lends to high alcohol wines. Also, the wines can be concentrated and aromatic, as the rainfall is low.

A trick to pick a better wine is to discover where the vineyard is: if in a slope facing east or south east, awesome. This is known as Upper Rhine (Haut Rhine).

That is because with a cool climate, placing the vineyard in a slope oriented towards the sun is critical to achieve a good ripeness level. The vineyards that lie in the plains do not received as much sun, so, they are used to produce a high acid grapes to make sparkling wine (Crémant d’Alsace).

2. Grapes of Alsatian wines

alsace wine region varieties in What VINO Wine Regions

There are four “big and noble” varieties: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat (all of them are white varieties, from now on The Big 4).

Other varieties are Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner, but to produce everyday wines.

Pinot Noir makes in Alsace a light red wine not as notable as its white wines counterparts and It can be used for rosé.

Finally, Auxerrois and Chardonnay can be used in sparkling wines.

 

 3. Understanding Appellations and Labelling of Alsatian wines

Alsace wine region Appellation and Labelling in What VINO wine regionsOfficially, Alsace wines can be labelled as Alsace AC, Alsace Grand Cru AC or Crémant d’Alsace (only for sparkling wine).

The difference is that “Grand Cru” is used for specific vineyards and it represents a higher status than the regular Alsace AC. The quality is regulated by requiring lower yields, more sugar ripeness and the exclusive use of just one grape variety among the Big 4 ones: Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris (recently, there seem to be exceptions to that rule).

There are 51 vineyards classified as “Grand Cru”. This said, producers try to differentiate the quality of their wines by using terms as Reserve Personnelle, Reserve Exceptionelle or Cuvée Spéciale to mark a particular wine among their regular production.

A good thing about the labelling: when the variety is marked, it means the wine is 100% the shown grape. The varietal purity of the wines is the flagship of the region, so blendings are rare. Easy for beginners (most of French wines are blendings and they are not written in the label).

Alsace wine region detailed map in What VINO Wine RegionsIn addition to the official appellation, Alsatian wines can have 2 other indications in the label: VT or SGN. Both of them are made with grapes from the Big 4.

  • VT means “Vendange Tardive” (late harvest). The grapes to make VT wines have sugar enough at the moment of the harvest to produce at least 14% ABV (in Riesling and Muscat) and 15.3% ABV (in Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris). These wines can be dry or sweet and it’s usual for them to have undergone passerillage (the grape was on its way to becoming a raisin when picked).
  • SGN means “Sélection de Grains Nobles” (selection of grapes with noble rot), so, it means that only the berries that are evenly affected by the fungus Botritys cinerea are picked to make wine (I will write a post to explain this in detail, but keep in mind this “noble infection” of the vine lends to a better concentration of the juice in the grape, creating fine wines). This selective harvest is not even possible every year, so SGN wines are really special… and always sweet.

Finally, there is another term you can see in the label of an Alsatian wine: Edelwicker or Gentil. These wines are the most simple and inexpensive of the region, blends of different varieties, dry and light-bodied.

In terms of pricing the wines go like this (from inexpensive to expensive): Edelwicker or Gentil -> Regular Alsace AC -> Reserve Alsace AC -> Grand Cru AC -> VT -> SGN

The wines must be bottled in a tall and slim bottle called Flûte d’Alsace.

4. Styles of Alsatian wines

Alsace Wine region Style in What VINO Wine RegionsAs said before, Alsace is a region devoted to white wines. They are made dry and sweet. A small quantity of rosé and light red wine is made from Pinot Noir. To complete the package, Crémant d’Alsace is the sparkling wine of the region. What it’s difficult to guess in an Alsatian wine is that there’s no regulation to specify the level of sugar the wine has. So, when buying a wine, you do not always know if it’s dry or sweet. Sweet, right? (apparently they are working on this). But let’s shed some light on it:

Alsace AC can be:

White: Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner. Usually dry.
Rosé and Red: Pinot Noir. Dry.
VT (white): Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris. Dry or sweet.
SGN (white): Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris. Sweet.

Alsace Grand Cru AC can be:

White: Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris. Usually sweet.
VT (white): Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris. Dry or sweet.
SGN (white): Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris. Sweet.

Crémant d’Alsace AC: Sparkling wine made of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and/or Chardonnay. It can be white or rosé. Dry.

5. How do the Alsatian wines taste?

The purity of the fruit is the main asset of these wines, so, when fermented in oak casks, they are so old (some older than 100 years), that the wood has no influence on the wine, preserving its natural flavor. Modern wineries use stainless steel vats to make it totally inert. With the same passion to preserve the fruity character of the wines, very few of them go through malolactic fermentation (the process softens the acid of the wine).

A typical Alsatian wine is dry, acid, full-bodied, high in alcohol and with a spicy flavor.When the grapes are infected by the noble fungus, the wines (VT or SGN) are soft, rich, complex, viscous and with a spicy touch.

For each variety, this is what to expect:

  • Riesling: full body, dry, medium or medium + alcohol, high acidity and a mineral character (flint, steel).
  • Gewürztraminer: full body, rich, oily texture, low or medium acidity, high alcohol. Spicy in nose, aromas of lychees, grapefruit (exotic fruits), roses and honeysuckle, gingerbread, vanilla, smoke, spice, stones.
  • Pinot Gris: full body, rich, concentrated, high alcohol. Dried fruits, almonds, peach, ginger, vanilla, earth, smoke, honey character. The Pinot Gris is the same grape as Pinot Grigio, but the Alsace style is totally different to the Italian or Oregon Pinot Grigio style.
  • Muscat: there are two types: Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains or Muscat Ottonel. It’s very aromatic: floral, peach, orange peel, tangerine, musk, citrus, grape flavor. Bone-dry.

Alsatian wines are remarkably food friendly.

6. Aging Alsatian wines

Usually, the wines are ready to drink in the year after the harvest. The general rule for Alsatian wines would be: the younger, the better. But… Wines from Alsace have an outstanding capacity to age due to its high acidity, high alcohol and pure fruit. This is specially remarkable for Riesling wines which are perfect after 2 or 3 years, but rich and concentrated after a decade.

Look where to find them

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