Alsace Wine Region: A Manual for Oenophiles
What should you know about Alsace wine as you explore all the wine regions of France? Learn the most important facts about Alsace including its major wine grapes and blends. Check out a map of the region and some amazing photos of what it’s like to be there.
Guide to Alsace Wine
Alsace has always been in a bit of a pickle. Its perilous location on the border of Germany and France made the area a tug-of-war for centuries. Today if you visit Alsace, you can see how the interventions of two mega empires affected the area through its architecture and the presence of both French and German languages.
The food and the wine of Alsace is also a bit of a mish mash. For instance, Germanic grape varieties like Gewurztraminer and Riesling dominate the French départment, but in Alsace they are produced in a very different style.
For this guide we’ll discuss what the major Alsace grape varieties and styles of wine are as well as some history for relevance.
Just the Facts on Alsace Wine
Two words can pretty well sum up Alsace even if there is much more to know:
Alsace wine will change your perception of a traditionally sweet Riesling. Besides Riesling, Alsace produces quite a lot of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Crémant d’Alsace: a sparkling wine that is mushrooming in popularity.
What is the major taste of Alsace wine?
Alsacian wine is all about aromas. Floral and peachy smells fly out of the glass and many of the wines are unctuous enough to pair nicely with savory fowl, like roast quail. Alsace wines give the tingle of brilliant acidity but also offer a rich texture from moderate alcohol (some wines are 14 – 15% ABV). The producers in Alsace do not use oak aging to add spice and richness, instead they rely on a balance of ripeness and alcohol to fill out the flavor.
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Where Exactly is Alsace?
Alsace’s capitol city is Strasbourg. The region can be found in the very eastern side of France in a valley along the Rhine River – a river that separates France and Germany. On the other side of the river is Baden, a German wine region that produces wines in a similar style.
The region is broken up into two parts:
- The Bas-Rhin (to the North, by Strasbourg)
- Haut-Rhin (to the South in low slopes of the Vosges Mountains)
Contrary to logic, the Bas-Rhin is actually to the north and the Haut-Rhin is in the south, but the difference is all elevation. The best vineyards have long been associated with the Haut-Rhin. In the Haut-Rhin is where you will find many of the pretigious Alsace Grand Cru vineyards.
Alsace Vineyard Map
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The Wines of Alsace
Alsace is broken up by AOC law (aka Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). These laws dictate everything from grape variety allowed to vineyard density (ie how far apart vines are from one another). So to understand Alsace, it helps to understand the 3 major AOCs
- Alsace AOC (92% white still wines)
- Crémant d’Alsace AOC (Sparkling white and rosé wines)
- Alsace Grand Cru AOC (Limited special vineyard wines)
Alsace AOC 74% of production
The Alsace AOC requires that no less than 100% of the grape variety labeled be used. This is way different than US requirements that only require a mere 75% (unless you’re in Oregon). There are blends allowed in Alsace AOC but they must be labeled ‘Edelzwicker,’ ‘Gentil’ or a named wine. Until recently, Edelzwicker has always been considered a low quality table wine. The Alsace AOC includes white, rosé and red wines (rosés and reds are made with Pinot Noir). The AOC is also allowed to label dessert wines as “Vendanges Tardives” and “Sélection de Grains Nobles” (see a description of sweet wines below). It’s true, that in Alsace AOC wines chaptalization is allowed (a method where sugar is added to fermentation), but many producers are moving away from this winemaking technique.
This bizarre white wine has a richly golden hue. A blend of the various ‘Pinot’ grapes (including Auxxerois) of the region, it’s one of the most uniquely flavored white wines in the world.
Crémant d’Alsace AOC 22% of production
Crémant d’Alsace is the fastest growing AOC in Alsace. It is a sparkling wine AOC that produces a shockingly good bubbly using the same methods as in Champagne. Crémant d’Alsace is the only AOC that allows the local Chardonnay grapes, however most of the white brut-style bubbly is made with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Auxxerois (blended with Pinot Blanc it’s called “Blanc de Blancs”) and Riesling. The rosé wine from this region is a special find because it’s 100% Pinot Noir.
Alsace Grand Cru AOC just 4% of production
The rules change quite a bit for the Alsace Grand Cru AOC. There are a total of 51 grand cru plots that are only allowed to use a single variety or blend just four official grape varieties. In Alsace, people commonly refer to the varieties as the Noble Grapes of Alsace and they are:
The Grand Cru wines of Alsace usually have higher minimum alcohol levels which require much riper grapes. Because of this, the best sites in Alsace are on the low southern and southeastern facing slopes where they get the most sun. The Grand Cru’s of Alsace are rich, honeyed (even if they are dry) and age-worthy. Collectors remark at the smoky notes of these fine wines as they age. Of the Grand Cru’s, Zoztenberg in the Bas-Rhin is the only one with an allowed Sylvaner wine. Within this particularly large vineyard (close to 40 acres) there is also a plot of Pinot Noir, which can’t be classified as an Alsace Grand Cru AOC.
Sweet Wines of Alsace
While Riesling and Muscat are made in a dry style in Alsace, single variety Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer are traditionally made in a slightly sweet (off-dry) style. Of course this tradition is changing, so pay attention to the tasting notes of the producer.
Vendanges Tardives translates to “Harvest Late” and this wine is only produced with the 4 Noble grapes of Alsace (see above). The grapes for these wines may have a little bit of the honeyed characteristic that is from botrytis (aka ‘Noble Rot’). These wines are usually sweet although some producers opt to ferment the sugar in the grapes completely to create a higher alcohol and full-bodied wine. Vendange Tardives can either be a Alsace AOC or a Alsace Grand Cru AOC.
Sélection de Grains Nobles
A much stricter selection of late harvest that are sweet in a style similar to a Hungarian Tokaji or a Sauternes/Barsac from Bordeaux. These wines always have the honeyed character from a very strenuous hand-picking of only botrytis-affected grapes. Wines labeled as such can be either Alsace AOC or Alsace Grand Cru AOC.
What to look for from Alsace?
There are some larger producers that distribute widely around the US including Zind-Humbrecht and Trimbach . If you only try 2 wines from the region you must try a Crémant d’Alsace rosé (perhaps Lucien Albrecht ) and a Riesling. These two wines will show you the amazing character of minerality and aromatics of Alsace wine.
Deep Knowledge on Alsace
Get into the details about the classifications of Alsace, including how to wrap your brain around the appellation’s 51 unique Grand Crus.