Alsace, the very mention of its name elicits fond memories for those of us lucky enough to come across one of its dry, racy offerings. Although one of the more highly regarded regions in France, it is also one of the least known to those of us across the pond. With this in mind, we thought we would give you a quick insight into an area responsible for some of the most haunting wines you will ever taste.
Alsace is one of the most Northern wines regions in France, along the southwest boarder of Germany. Because of the location Alsace has seen repeated changes of nationality, as its been passed back and forth between France and Germany several times throughout history, eventually being cemented as a part of France after WWII. Before that, every major power seems to have had its hands on the region, starting as early as 450BC.
Cross-influence between French and German styles began to waiver after 1945, with the German divergence over to less fermented, sweeter wines. Alsace wines, meant to be paired with food, remained dry and fully fermented. As time went on, the differences between their winemaking have diminished, with many German wines becoming drier and more powerful, and some Alsacian wines becoming sweeter. The ‘rediscovery’ of late harvest and dessert wines in Alsace occurred as recently as the 1930’s.
Alsace is split between two main areas: Bas-Rhin to the North, by their Capitol Strasbourg, and Haut-Rhin to the South, by the lower slopes of the Vosges mountains. Haut-Rhine is also home to Alsace’s Grand Cru vineyards. Although winegrowing goes roughly in a North-to-South direction, western influence of the Vosges mountains, and the Rhine river to the east have the biggest impact. The altitude gives balance between sun exposure, temperature, and drainage. The cool evenings afforded by altitude, coupled with the Vosges sheltering from rain and maritime influence brought by the westerly winds keep Alsace dry and sunny, extending their growing season well into the autumn. This gives the grapes good ripeness, and trademark crisp and refreshing acidity.
Many of Alsace’s grape varieties are the same used in Germany: Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir are the main varietals used here. The German practice of naming their wines according to grape variety, rather than location had made its way into their winemaking as well. As far as what to expect, Alsacian wines are predominately white, single variety, and unoaked. So, for those of you accustomed to big, oaky Californian chardonnays – bring some cheese and an open mind, you’ll be glad you did. And as always, be sure you drink your wines at the proper temperature, it makes a world of difference!