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Wines of Alsace: Regional Portrait

In order to understand wine instead of only tasting it, we all need a bit of theory in our heads as well as a major understanding of the region it grows in. Today’s focus is on the wines of Alsace – a traditional region of France which unfortunately has to face many oldschool clichés.  Time to speak about it and modernize our vision of Alsace.

Basics

Many common habits, words and traditions in Alsace might have you questioning, however Alsace belongs to France today. No matter how many germany influences you notice. Situated between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine river the landscape profits from both influences: a constant mix of french and german in language as well as in culture and traditions.

Climate

The Vosges mountains in the west of Alsace provide climatic shelter to the region and turns it into wineland. While the rest of northern France suffers from cool and rainy weather throughout the year, the Vosges protect Alsace from rain and cool west wind. In fact, these protective heights turn Alsace into the least humid region of France,  contrary to its direct neighbour Lorraine on the western side of the Vosges. Blocked off from the mountains, heavy rain clouds pour their water over Lorraine before they are airy enough to ascend and cross the heights of the Vosges.  Hot summers combined with long, dry autumns extend the grapes’ growing seasons and favors their ripeness levels.

Regions

The wine growing part of Alsace is divided into two sub-regions: Bas-Rhin, the northern part of the Rhine, and  Haut-Rhin, its southern part. The Bas-Rhin region is not as perfectly covered by the Vosges as the Haut-Rhin, because the mountains simply aren’t as high in this area. Slightly cooler temperatures in the Bas-Rhin therefore produce lighter styles of wines. The warmer Haut-Rhin, the wine centre of Alsace, brings wines with more body and intensity.

Winemaking

Looking at winemaking practices, soils and grape varietals, Alsace shows a lot of similarities to its neighbor country Germany. However, the styles of  Germany and Alsace varied immensely in the past. Germany was long time known for its semi-sweet to sweet in the 20th century while Alsace produced bone-dry wines without the smalles hint of residual sugar.

Fortunately both regions have progressed a lot and throughout time they got closer to one another. Improved possibilities in winemaking, modern technics and highly professionalized winemakers made it possible to refocus on quality instead of pushing quantaties, breaking up barriers between the strict opposites of sweet and bone-dry. The efforts were well worth the wait: Germany won recognition for their excellent dry wines and Alsace profits from their courage to reintroduce wines with a touch of sweetness.

As the producers in Alsace mostly focus on the fruit character of their wines, Barriques and barrels are still a rare tool in the wine making practices. Only old, used wood barrels are seen more frequently to bring structure to the wines.

Specialties

There is one major advantage that wine bottles of Alsace bring to the consumer: their labels indicate the grape varietal. Compared to the complex systems of other french wine regions where a deeper understanding of the appellations is needed to pick the right bottle or sought for varietal, Alsace has quite early noticed that this simple detail empowers wine lovers to make a choice of preference in the big variety of styles of Alsace wines.

However, there is still one stepping stone that Alsace is still working on: sweetness levels. As of today, most bottles don’t indicate if the producer has bottled a dry, semi-dry or slightly sweet wine which often leads to surprises. Many producers have meanwhile agreed to use different versions of indications to this problem but an overall solution hasn’t been introduced yet. In the end the best solution to judge a wine remains tasting it until there will be labels that clearly communicate sweetness levels.

Grapes

As mentioned before the wines of Alsace have many parallels to german wines and they share many grape varietals, too. Sylvaner, Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir are the most grown varietals of the region. But only Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer are considered as the “fine varietals” of Alsace which are allowed to be used for the Alsace Grand Cru wines.

This post is also available in German.

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