Lesson 11 – Alsace
Alsace. Throughout its history the Alsace region (and the Lorraine region to a certain extent) has been tossed between Germany and France. It is located in the northeast corner of France between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine river. Even before those countries existed, they were under Roman rule (as was much of Europe). The last 200 years have been especially volatile for the area. Three wars have had it change hands many times until it was back under French rule. While it’s considered a French culture, German influences are all around as evidenced by the grapes, terms, and names of the producers. This is evident in the map below which was sourced from a German part of the WikiCommons website:
- Description: Map of the Alsace wine region
- Source: Drawn by Author
- Author: Domenico-de-ga
- Date: 12/16/2005
- N.B. The above notes are an approximate translation of the German from which the map was sourced on WikiCommons. City names are the names used in France, unless in parentheses.
When it comes to wine, the main varietals to know are Riesling, Gewurztraminer (spelled Gewürztraminer in German), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Muscat. These have been known as the Noble Grapes in Alsace, however there are debates as to which grapes are really noble. Add to that confusion the terms “noble rot”, the AOC Edelzwicker (meaining noble blend), and the AOC Sélection de Grains Nobles (for the aforementioned four varietals that experience “noble rot”).
The wines here have traditionally been dry unlike their German counterparts that are typically sweet; normally the Riesling varietal in Germany. Also, all the wines here tend to have a spicy quality to them, especially Gewurztraminer. Pinot Gris from Alsace is unique to the rest of the world too.
Compared to the rest of France, Alsace is pretty small. It is typically divided into the areas; the Bas Rhin (Lower Rhine) and Haut Rhin (Upper Rhine). There are over 50 Grand Crus here. These Grand Crus can only produce single varietal wines from four grapes – Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat. They also have strict ripeness minimums, maximum levels of chaptalization (more on this later), and maximum yields for their vineyards. These are very small areas throughout the Alsace where there are superior vineyards. I won’t list them all since that is way more for us to know at this point.
As far as AOCs in Alsace, there are three main ones:
- Alsace AOC (a generic appellation that is rarely used)
- Alsace Grand Cru (with the 51 Grand Crus)
- Crémant d’Alsace (Alsace sparkling wine)
Besides these, there are also appellations based on varietal. These are:
- Auxxerrois (Sometimes confused with Pinot Blanc)
- Pinot (normally a blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxxerois – but any Pinot varietals can be used to blend)
- Pinot Blanc
- Pinot Gris
- Pinot Noir
There is also an AOC called Klevener de Heiligenstein. This is a unique AOC in that it is the only AOC in Alsace that produces a wine made from the Savignin varietal (aka Savignin Rosé). This varietal is typically produced in the Jura region of France. Jura is southeast of Alsace between Burgundy and Switzerland. The area around the town of Heiligenstein is the only area in Alsace that is allowed to grow this varietal. And it is the only area in Alsace that has a restriction to a particular varietal. One thing to remember is to no confuse it with Klevner or Clevner which are other names for Pinot Blanc.
What about the climate and soil? The Vosges mountains that are the western border of Alsace provide shelter from the Atlantic winds. This gives the entire region a very dry climate. The western side of the mountains gets all the rain. The side benefit is this prevents the clouds from blocking out the sun. So the summers are typically cloud-free. The soil is a mixture of just about everything. There are three basic types:
- Sand and granite
- Stony, brown alkaline soil
- Sandy-clay and gravel
With the talk of climate this seems like a good time to bring up two more types of wine called Late Harvest Alsatian wine – Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) and Vendange Tardive (VT). I already briefly mentioned the first one. Both of these are similar in that they are both sweet wines. One relies on noble rot (SGN), while the other (VT) has to do with a process known as passerilage or straw/raisin wine. And both can use any of the following varietals – Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Muscat.
The first style, SGN, relies on noble rot. Now noble rot doesn’t occur very often in Alsace. As a result, these are very rare and expensive wines. There are strict regulations as to how these wines are made. They must attain a ripeness level that can be expressed in several ways. For our purposes I’ll use the potential alcohol measurement. For the Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris varietals a minimum potential alcohol level of 18.2% must be achieved. For Riesling and Muscat that level is 16.4%. This is based on what is called must weight. That is the amount of sugar in the must (juice) that can potential produce a minimum amount of alcohol. Many times you will see this expressed in degrees (like a temperature) as Brix, Oechsle, or the Baumé scale.
For VT, the regulations are a bit different. There must be a lower level of potential alcohol for the varietals. For Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris that level is 15.3%. For Riesling and Muscat it is 14%. However, the wine must pass a blind tasting by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine). The INAO is the governing body in France concerning the Appellation system of wine. The producer must also tell the INAO of their intention to make a VT beforehand and which vineyards they are using.
The method of passerliage is used here to create a VT wine. This is where the grapes are typically paid out on straw mats to dry. They dry to the point of being very much like raisins. This will concentrate the juice in the grapes. In Alsace, the grapes will be on these straw mats indoors for up to three months. Other places may do this drying outside.
Both styles cannot use a process known as chaptalization (which is allowed in the other AOCs in Alsace). This is a method of increasing the sugar content of a wine prior to or during fermentation. This is to achieve a higher alcohol content. As you may remember, the yeast in the wine converts the sugar to alcohol. The more sugar, the higher the alcohol content.
A few other things about wine from Alsace. Very little red is made. Of this small percentage that is made (~6-10%), it is made from the Pinot Noir varietal. Also, Chardonnay is a varietal that has minimal planting in Alsace. It can be used in Crémant d’Alsace, but it has also been used (albeit against the AOC regulation) to help firm up Pinot Blanc AOC wine. Crémant d’Alsace primarily uses the Pinot Blanc varietal.
Also, Pinot Gris used to be called Tokay d’Alsace and Tokay-Pinot Gris. As of 2007, it is now just Pinot Gris. This has to do with the Hungarian wine known as Tokaji. Once Hungary entered the European Union, Alsace had to drop the Tokay name to avoid confusion.
Next I want to revisit the concept of dry Alsatian wines. Like I said earlier, this is what Alsace has been known for concerning wine. However, recently more wines from this area are becoming sweet. This is from a desire from growers and producers to reduce their yields. I mentioned yields earlier concerning the Grand Crus. The side effect of having lower yields, or less grapes on the vines, is this causes the vines to concentrate more sugars in the grapes. This produces a sweeter wine in general. It also means less wine and higher prices.
And lastly something that Alsace is known for and pioneered in France – The single varietal wine. While they didn’t invent it; the Germans were doing it already, they were the first in France. For those of us who buy wine based on varietal, Alsatian wines are easier to understand. This practice is what created the varietal AOCs. The generic Alsace AOC is very rarely used since the vast majority of the wines from here are single varietal.
As always, I hope this was informative. Alsace is a region you should check out as it has some great wines to try. Gewurztraminer is especially a favorite of mine, as well as many others for its spice flavors. Next week we will finish up France by going to Champagne. Everyone loves Champagne, right? Some say it would be the only wine they would bring is stranded on a deserted island.
Thanks for stopping in,
Mark V. Fusco
Aspiring Sommelier in Training