Alsace: The French White Wine Gem

Geographically, the region of Alsace has changed hands more often than Kashmir ever will. It’s location has made it victim to many French-German territorial disputes. It was after the First World War that Alsace was declared a part of France. The influence of Germany nevertheless remains heavy to this day here and is visible in its culture, architecture, and more importantly, its food and its wines. It is now the Vosges Mountains and the River Rhine that mark a boundary to this region, that let it enjoy a continental climate.

Alsace has always been a varietal wine dominant region with 90% of its production being white. Varietal wines are a segment where wines are made using a single grape variety. In fact, in a country like France where blend is the general way to go, Alsace stands out with this habit of making mono-varietal wines and then, as if to mock the system, put the name of the grape on the label! To simplify things further, the Appellation (wine law) system of the region is also easy to understand. Alsace AC/Vin d’Alsace AC is the first-tier, with about 80% of the total production under its belt. The more prestigious appellation is Alsace Grand Cru AC that has stringent laws applied to limited parcels of land that have exceptionally gifted soil or exposure to the sun, and is consequently held in higher esteem. These limited Grand Cru sites can utilise only from the pool of four grape varieties (aka Noble Varieties), namely Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris (formerly Tokay), and Gewürztraminer, making it easy for us to remember, well except for that last one, which is a mouthful to pronounce even sober. They all have restricted yields guidelines per hectare of plantation.
As far as climate and location go Alsace is quite the gifted area to produce wines. The area lies to the east of the Vosges ranges. This helps as the mountains act like a natural barrier, protecting the region from the rain-laden winds that blow in from the west. This assurance of dryness makes the area vine-friendly. Add to this the advantages of adequate rainfall, a hot summer spell followed by a nice long autumn (to ensure maximum hang time for grapes in the vine thereby setting things up for optimum phenolic maturity) and you have quite the heady mix for some very fantastic winemaking.
The region, for the ease of understanding, is divided in to two sub-regions (departments): Bas-Rhin (pronounced baa-rhan, to rhyme with ‘ran’, with a nasal, almost-fading ‘n’) to the North and the Haut-Rhin (au-rhan) to the South. (The reason why you might often find the Southern region called high and the Northern called low is because the naming was done in the direction of the flowing river and not by marking the geographical North.)
The best wines in the region come from the lower slopes where the mountains show their maximum influence on the climate. This is why a majority of the Grand Cru vineyards are found here. Wines coming from towards the plains, where the soil is not very rigid, are used for the production of Crémant d’Alsace (local sparkling wine). Edelzwicker is another style of wine they make. What Alsace is also famous for is its luscious sweet wines, that is, Vendage Tardive (VT), and Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN).
Undoubtedly, in the rage to master the act of producing quality wines, the number of varietals used was squeezed. Only the above-mentioned four grape varieties are considered ‘noble’ (as opposed to ignoble, we wonder) and utilised for producing Grand Cru, VT and SGN wines.
Rieslings have made Alsatians the most proud, just like Sachin Tendulkar for India. Due to its late-ripening nature, the grape is considered ideal for late-harvest styles as it maintains high sugar and acidity blended with fruity…you know what? just have a look at our entry on Riesling. Saves us both the repetition!
Gewurztraminer, in German, translates to “Spicy” Traminer. The grape is definitely an aromatic variety with notes of lychees, cashew, ginger, and roses, in ways and intensities that you just cannot miss. But to Indians, spice may be less obvious and rose and lychees may stand out more. That is a matter of palate conditioning, not a flaw or genetic defect. Gewurz produces prickly-acidic wines with high alcohol yet very easy to drink. You can get well wasted before you realise just how much you have imbibed which is why people jokingly call this grape get-worse-than-hammered! They are known to compliment local (Alsatian) foods and cheeses well. For the longest time they were also championed as the wine for all cuisines Asian, i.e. East of the Greenwich. Thankfully, this is no more the uneducated case.
Pinot Gris, a.k.a. Tokay (Tokay d’Alsace before 2006) gives wines with moderate aromatics, rich texture, and high alcohol.
Muscat is now slowly vanishing from the vineyards of Alsace. Generally, it is used for sweet wines, but its dry grapey style is also famous. In its dry form, it can be well confusing as it smells profusely of sweet fruits and all things floral but tastes dry and sugarless and hence, to some, boring.
Pinot Blanc is used for producing sparkling wines due to its naturally high refreshing acidity. This is also the only grape that receives little Malolactic Fermentation (process by which harsh acids are converted in to softer ones), otherwise it is avoided. Few people know this but it can make some super serious wines. That famous grape that ye’ all adores, Chardonnay, is nothin’ more than a mere offspring of this great grape.
Sylvaner is widely spotted in the North. Rest, it has lost a lot of popularity. Taste it, paste your comment here. That might ensure the grape’s longevity. For what it’s worth, we like it.
Pinot Noir is the only red variety used here to make fruity rosés or a fruity, sometimes-lightly-barrel-aged red. The importance of this variety is slowly increasing as it satisfies the demands of the local community. Fruity Pinot reds make a great pairing for Indian dishes, no matter the region.
So, what about the wines. Here’s a glimpse:
Grand Crus wines are not too tough to understand. It signifies that the wines are made using one of the four noble varieties, comes from a single vineyard, from a single year. These vineyards are limited in number (50 in number), thus expensive, and are strictly inspected for following required legalities. Some of the famous ones are Kessler, Schlossberg, and Pfaffenheim
Edelzwicker (Edel=Noble + Zwicker=Mixture) literally translates to ‘noble mixture’ in German. The wines are made for a blend of noble grape variety. These are also the cheapest wines available.
Vendage Tardive (VT) means ‘late harvest/picked’. These wines are made from grapes that remain un-harvested for a little longer, till mid-November or so, as the extra time on the vines and in the sun leads to more evaporation of water, leaving the berries richer in sugar and acidity. The wines are sweet and made in limited quantities. Alsace claims to have exclusive rights to the usage of this term.
Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) It is similar to VT as in the grapes are all allowed to stay on the vines longer but then, there is a further criterion of selection: only those berries are picked which have been affected by Noble Rot (the grey fungus that further punctures the berries and takes away more moisture from it) resulting in absolutely luscious and creamy styles of wines, with crackling acidity still, of course. The process is extremely time-consuming as you can never pick entire bunches but only the raisin-like berries displaying the onset of this fungus. Hence the idea of ‘selective’ picking. The result is worth the effort, even if it weighs so heavy on the pocket.
Crémant d’Alsace is a growing wine style. It means ‘sparkling wine from Alsace’ and is usually made with a base of Pinot Blanc (white grape). Though, Pinot Noir (red grape) is also being added more and more to make for softer and rounder sparklers.
It is believed that the French have a rule to everything to make things simpler and to which they have an exception. Alsace is a living example when it comes to the wine scene. The region stands alone and follows what the rest of the regions in the nation don’t comply with. Lots of single-variety usage, easy to understand labels, simple legislation system, easy-drinking wines, distinguishable bottle style (slender and long ‘Hock’ bottle), and even more importantly, the eclectic and harmonious blending of French and German winemaking cultures. Sante!!

About the Author

Gagan is much like a young wine in many senses; you have to spend time with him before he opens up. A certified wine expert and mixologist, Gagan pursued his love for beverages Down under, doing his Masters in Hospitality Management (specialising in wines) from Victoria University, Melbourne. He reserves a soft corner for Australian reds, German Rieslings and Gewürztraminer. As much as he loves to experiment with new cuisines, he also has a taste for adventure – paragliding, bungee jumping, rafting, skydiving and playing squash. His interests include blogging, back to back movie spree, cooking for self and travelling. He is a music-fanatic and loves being left alone with his PSP. Beef steak and wine rate high on his agenda as also does a Bourbon and cola.

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  1. […] Canada (http://wi-not.biz/2010/01/canadian-icewines-tasting-in-delhi/), amongst Icewine making regions will surely reserve the top spot. The laws are made, implemented, and controlled by Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), local governing body. They are have higher levels to adhere to and are stricter than the rest of the countries. These laws have restricted production areas, minimum harvesting temperature (-8⁰C instead of -7⁰C elsewhere), minimum Oechsle level when grapes are picked (almost equal to sugar level in percentage, 35 degree), restricted grape varieties, and other similar controls. Main grape varieties used are Riesling, Vidal, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat, Semillon, and Gewurztraminer in whites, and Tempranillo, Cabernets, Merlot, Syrah, and few other local ones amongst the reds. The biggest, also debated as the first, commercial producer of Icewines is Karl Kaiser who headed Inniskillin. No chapter would be complete without mentioning their 1989 Vidal Icewine, winner of Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo 1991, highest award a wine can get. It today stands as the only sweet to have won this accolade. They are also responsible for introducing sparkling style Icewines. To add to the respect, VQA claims to have trademarked usage of the term ‘Icewines’. Vidal and Riesling have won maximum recognition to the country for its produce. Germany makes ice wines and calls them Eiswein. They are assigned the highest quality level and are generally sourced from region of Rheinhessen. They use Muller-Thurgau, Riesling, and Sylvaner in whites, and Cabernets, and local grapes under reds. These wines sit on the top-tier (under QmP) of the quality wine classification. Unlike the Canadians, the winemakers here look for grapes that are totally healthy and are not infected by Noble Rot. Thus the wines are fruitier, fresh, and made to be consumed young. When paired with Mediterranean desserts, the wines seem to be over powering too. Austria contributes a small yet considerable amount to the market. Gruner Veltliner is an important grape to produce its fairer style, while they reserve their local varieties to produce the red style. Luxembourg makes a small contribution to this segment. There wines are called Vin de Glace, term derived from their French counterpart. Eiswein, in France, was a style introduced by the Germans to the region, like to Canada. The segment is now shrinking in production and importance. They use only the local ‘Noble’ varieties to produce this style of wines (http://wi-not.biz/2010/03/alsace-the-french-white-wine-gem/). […]

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