One of the most Northerly Wine Regions in Europe is the Alsace, situated in France at the foot of the Vosges mountains.
This is the extreme east of France and close to the River Rhine and the border with Germany.
From a UK perspective, the wines from this region are often overlooked, perhaps due to their flute-shaped bottles and Germanic sounding names. There is still the ‘liebfraumilch’ legacy and most self-respecting wine drinkers shun these wines, which harp back to the 1970s. This is a shame for two reasons, since the Alsace wines are most definitely French in style and the modern German wines made in the ‘trocken’, or dry, style are quite delicious.
Historically, wine production in the Alsace goes back at least to Roman times and by the Middle Ages these wines were sold throughout Europe, being highly prized by Royal Households, among others. The hey-day for Alsatian wines was in the 16th Century, but the Thirty Years War in the early part of the 17th, devastated the area. It is only since the First World War that quality wines have emerged once again, reinforced after the Second World War by strict production regulations.
The high quality, character and variety of Alsace wines results from two main factors – the geographical position and the soils. Together with topography, this makes up the concept of ‘terroir’ and the Grand Cru wines can be considered the ultimate expression of this concept. The region has a continental climate, well away from maritime influences and is in the rain-shadow of the Vosges. It thus has hot, sunny summers and very little rainfall, in fact, practically the lowest rainfall in France. The vineyards are planted on the foothills, between 600 and 1,200 feet above sea-level and the long, slow ripening of the grapes produces elegant, complex aromas.
The soils of the Alsace region are a true mosaic, with a great diversity including, granite, limestone, gneiss, schist, sandstone and many others.
The Alsace Grand Cru apply to just 51 exceptional terroirs, each on a different soil with clearly defined locations and very stringent production criteria. The producers work together in order to increase the quality and typicity of the wines, producing distinctive and authentic wines which fully express the individual characteristics of the terroir, through their aromatic profile and structure.
Only four grape varieties are generally permitted for the Alsace Grand Cru, which are Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muscat, and the total of all Grand Crus account for just four percent of total wine production. The level of dryness can vary substantially and is generally left to the discretion of the winemaker to decide. For example, Domaine Zinck Riesling 2015 Grand Cru Eichberg, is bone dry with only 2.6 g/l of residual sugar after fermentation, whereas Chateau de Riquewihr Riesling 2012 Grand Cru Schoenenbourg has nearly ten times the amount at 21 g/l, giving it a medium dry taste.
At a recent tasting of the Arundel Wine Society, pairs of grape varieties of Alsace Grand Cru wines were compared. Leaving aside the differences in sweetness levels, in every case the whole group was impressed by the marked differences in flavour and character of the different Grand Crus, which demonstrated vividly the expression of the terroir.
Apart from the dry and medium-dry wines, some rare sweet wines are also produced from late harvested grapes, called ‘Vendanges Tardives’, which develop even further with some bottle age. The grapes have extra sweetness, and this is often concentrated further by noble rot, producing intense, sweet, aromatic wines. An example is Domaine du Clos St Landelin Gewurztraminer 2008 Grand Cru Vorbourg Vendanges Tardives. Even at £30 per 50cl bottle, it is well worth the expense.
Not always easy to find, your efforts will be repaid amply if you seek out Alsace Grand Cru – the ultimate expression of terroir.
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.
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