Its rare natural beauty and unique architecture have been photographed as few and placed among the top preferences of tourists and photographers. But there's something else going on here. There is no person involved in wine who has not searched the vineyards of Alsace on Google Maps. The region is of enormous oenological interest and is unquestionably a global viticultural gem.
A short historical review
So let's do this. The beautiful Alsace is located in the north-east of France, a stone's throw from the border with Germany, and has been through fire and iron because for many years it had become the ping pong ball between the two countries. After World War II, however, permanently joined France. However, the German influence has remained proud and strong to this day. The colloquial language is a mixture of French and German, but the same happens for most villages and vineyard names, without the culinary map being left out.
Regarding map position gets an excellent 10!
It occupies a particularly advantageous position on the map, with the Vosges mountains from the west protecting, from the strong winds, the entire valley that ends east of the Rhine River. It is one of the most fertile and sunniest regions of Europe with a continental, dry climate and little rainfall (500mm/year). For geology lovers, there is plenty to see since Alsace has 13 recorded soil types! That is, at very short distances, even every 100 meters, the terrain is completely different. This gives it its uniqueness since the composition of the soil is decisive for the character and quality of the wines produced.
The varieties of Alsace
In Alsace, the white varieties are independent, while from reds you will find Pinot Noir. The distribution of varieties is as follows:
If you have started to make the soil-variety connection, keep in mind that each variety gives a different expression, depending on the soil in which it has been cultivated, but in addition, it appears from the driest to the sweetest version. So we are talking about the ultimate Babel!
The high class!
Alsace boasts a huge variety of terroirs, but some are responsible for the unique expression of the "noble varieties" Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat, which give world-class wines. Yes, they are only white!
The granitic soils in the Vosges mountains give Riesling intense minerality, with medium to full body, high acidity, and moderate alcohol. While in limestone soils the fruit is very intense and is considered one of the best in the region, even better than the corresponding German ones!
The limestone and clay soils in the Bas-Rhin favor the cultivation of Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. These wines are full-bodied, rich in texture, and high in alcohol, with intense fruit aromas and balanced acidity. The limestone imparts a remarkable stony minerality to the wines.
Muscat comes in 2 different varieties. Muscat Ottonel & Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains, with a light to medium body and low to medium acidity. Dry and delicate with floral aromas but also fruity characteristics.
However, although Pinot Noir is not one of the noble varieties, it is particularly favored by sandy stony and shale soils in certain areas. The wine is very elegant, quite fruity, with a unique texture, earthy and mineral characteristics and much more economical than the Burgundy counterparts!
What’s on the label
However, 80% of the wines produced are single varietal, so every time you know exactly what you are tasting. The bottle labels clearly state the variety, while the distinctive AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) ensures that the wines produced are the authentic expressions of the different terroirs of the place. In some, however, you will also encounter the following:
Vendanges Tardives, are late harvest wines from ripe grapes, exclusively from noble varieties!
Selection de Grains Nobles, wines of over-ripe grapes affected by botrytis. You will come across these more rarely since botrytis needs moisture and Alsace doesn't have much of it!
Cremant d'Alsace refers to sparkling wines, produced using the traditional champagne method and only from the Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, and Chardonnay varieties. Their rosé version is 100% Pinot Noir, but also very rare.
Finally, if you're wondering what happened to that 20%, there's a special name for that too. Edelzwicker is a blend of white varieties of any percentage and vinification method, while Gentil is a blend of noble varieties with others, but with very strict blending standards.
The plots that stand out
The best vineyards of Alsace, there are only 51, are classified as Alsace Grand Cru. This categorization was made in 1983 and refers to very high-quality vineyards, in which only the 4 noble varieties, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat can be cultivated. These cover only 4% of Alsace's total grape production, which is perfectly justified, if one takes into account the small yields per hectare and the strictness of the selection of the vineyards! The wines show excellent aging potential, developing complexity and tertiary aromas while maintaining the freshness that, no matter what, is a hallmark of Alsace wines.
Some that are worth remembering are Schlossberg, Brand, Rosacker, Pfersigberg, Bruderthal, Eichberg, Hengst, Zotzenberg, Kirchberg de Barr and Furstentum.
The exception to the rule is the Grand Cru Zoztenberg, in which the Sylvaner variety can also be grown, while Pinot Noir has very recently acquired its own Grand Cru in the vineyards of Kirchberg de Barr and Hengst, which was previously forbidden!
A final distinction, of enormous importance to Alsace, is the Clos vineyards. That is, a piece of vineyard or a whole vineyard, which is enclosed by a wall. Of course, the wall may not exist, as over the years it may have been torn down or it may never have existed! The Clos, however, have the greatest importance in the wine tradition of the region, even more so than the Grand Cru vineyards. In other words, the label of the wine may not even mention that it is Grand Cru, because the inscription Clos gives it more prestige! A typical example is the Clos Saint Hune of the Maison Trimbach winery.
Not to be too long
Each bottle of Alsace AOC is a journey into the terroir, culture, and history of the region. Whether you want the pure elegance of a Riesling or the aromatic charm of a Gewürztraminer, the terroirs of Alsace offer a magical world of flavors that you can enjoy without necessarily being there. So, without any other theory, it's better to go to the practical part and enjoy not only the grape varieties of Alsace but also the very essence of the terroir that shaped them! Santé!...or Prost!