While Alsace's 16,000 ha may have accounted for only 2% of France's vineyards in 2004, &
although 50% of the production is still made by cooperatives, paradoxically the
region remains the source of some of the world's finest white wines.
There are several reasons for this: the region's 47.5 degrees North latitude
ensures high sunshine levels; it has a deep continental climate & superb
meso-climate created by the sheltering presence of the Vosges Mountains,
whose foothills have in turn provided excellent aspects & elevation (up to
360m), notably along the southern, east-facing Haut-Rhin region; the diverse
array of soil types, thirteen in all; the cultural meticulousness of the local
French/Swiss/German people; and finally, the choice of noble varieties
Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muscat (Ottonel & d'Alsace), Sylvaner
and Pinot Blanc.
Alsace is also famed for being the birthplace of biodynamic viticulture
in France, dating back in 1924; it has the country's highest proportion of
Alsace enjoys a rich viticultural heritage back to the Romans; the good work
briefly interrupted by the marauding Alemanni hoards before being rescued by
the Church. Riesling was first documented in 1477, Muscat and Traminer first
appeared in 1500, while (Tokay) Pinot Gris surfaced later in 1650. The region
returned to France in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years' War, with Louis XIV
offering free land to the French, German and Swiss immigrants. The commercial
imperative of the time was one of quantity, fuelled by the anodyne Elbling
grape & exported to the Dutch.
The French Revolution did nothing to reverse this trend, resulting in nearly
70,00 hectares being planted by the time of the Franco-Prussian War; the
province becoming German momentarily before being plagued by oidium, mildew
& then phylloxera. Cheap blends predominated until the territory was handed
back to France after the First World War. Plans to join France's Appellation
Controllee system in 1933 were postponed by the Second World War until
Alsace differs stylistically from its German cousins up the Rhine in
that the wines are typically fermented dry in large old oak 'foudres' at
ambient temperatures to give a fuller-bodied wine that is a natural
accompaniment to the finest fare (unsurprisingly Alsace boasts one of the
highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants).
Alsace is unique for a French wine region for many reasons but perhaps
most significantly in its labelling laws that stipulate that producers must
stipulate the grape variety used on the label. - Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and a little Muscat are
the noble names, along with some Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner for thirst quenching purposes, and Pinot Noir for those who wish for red wine. Not much of the
latter travels to export markets.
There are three superior categories of wine to look out for: The best
vineyards have been designated grand cru (25 designated in 1983, 25
in 1985, 1 in 2008), while late picked wines achieving specified sugar levels
may be labelled Vendanges Tardives or, for
exceptional items, Selection des Grains
Nobles. Apart from these two categories there is no indication as to
whether the wine will be fully dry or may contain residual sugar.
As elsewhere, it pays to follow the producer, both in the pursuit of quality
and also for security of style. Some growers look for mineral intensity (Ostertag, Trimbach, Andre and
Lucas Rieffel), others achieve an awesome opulence (Zind Humbrecht). An impressive number of top names have
converted to biodynamic farming in recent years.