Diving deeper into the world of wine should be easy, exciting, and fun. We’ve created these 5-Minute Primers with the goal of bringing it back to the basics — in other words, we’re honing in on the core fundamental facts you need to know about a given growing region/appellation. Today, we’re taking you to one of the most unique appellations in all of France. Get to know the building blocks of Alsace, France’s claim to varietal white wine fame, here.
Alsace has a bit of a tumultuous history, as it was frequently passed back and forth between France and Germany for an extensive period of time prior to World War II. However, this has allowed both cultures to heavily influence the region’s food, language, and of course, viticulture/winemaking styles. Prior to World War II, Alsatian wines were frequently sold and traded with German wines, as the Rhine River was the primary means of transportation. Once WWII ended, Alsatian wines found their footing apart from German wines.
Alsatian wines continued to predominantly be vinified dry, and Alsace began placing a higher emphasis on quality over quantity. In 1983, the Vendange Tardive (VT) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) designations were created, which led to the production of more late harvest and sweeter style wines. This greatly helped to shape the diverse tasting profile of Alsatian wines that we know and love today.
Alsace is located in northeastern France and is bordered by Germany and Switzerland. Approximately 40,000 hectares of vines lay scattered across the region, which is about 120 kilometers (75 miles) long. Alsace’s viticulture is highly influenced by the Vosges mountain range (west) and the Rhine river (east). Alsace’s vineyards run vertically down the region from north to south, and most are cultivated at altitudes between 200 and 400 meters (650-1,300 feet) above sea level.
Alsace’s moderate temperatures, optimal sun exposure, and excellent soil drainage provide ideal growing conditions for the region’s signature varieties. The region’s vines are optimally situated within the rain shadow of the Vosges mountains, which protects them from excess precipitation. Soil types in Alsace are relatively diverse, as the region’s location on a geological fault creates a variety of topographical conditions. Pockets of limestone, schist, granite, loess, and grés de Vosges (the region’s signature pink sandstone) are a few of the more common soil types.
Grape Varieties / Styles
Alsace is best known for its acid-driven varietal whites, though small amounts of white blends and red wine (Pinot Noir) are also produced. The region’s most widely planted white varieties are (in order) Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Auxerrois Blanc. Pinot Noir, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, and Muscat are the 5th-8th most widely cultivated grapes. Over the last few decades, Sylvaner has seen the largest decrease in cultivation, while Pinot Gris has seen the highest uptick in production.
Alsatian whites have a reputation for being unctuous, juicy, and spice-driven, yet remain balanced by high levels of natural acidity, and when applicable, residual sugar (this is most common in Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer bottlings). Most Alsatian wines fall under an AOC designation, as there is no regional IGP dedicated to the region. This means that producers must adhere to appellation regulations and produce AOC-level wines under one of the region’s three designations (Alsace, Alsace Grand Cru, or Crémant d’Alsace), or their wines will be labeled as Vin de France.
Aside from varietal whites (and little-known white blends, which are labeled as Edelzwicker), sparkling wines are also produced in Alsace. These bottles are called Crémant d’Alsace and are produced using regionally permitted grapes via the méthode traditionelle. Additionally, sweet wines are labeled with regional Vendange Tardive (VT) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) designations, which are similar to the Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese levels of sweet wine in Germany. Alsatian wine labelings are relatively unique in the world of French wine, as they are the only region to identify their wines by grape variety.
5 Key Takeaway Points
- Alsace is located in northeastern France and is highly influenced by both German and French cultures.
- The region is dry, sunny, and moderated by the Vosges mountains and Rhine river.
- Alsace is best known for its monovarietal white wines. Key varieties include Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Auxerrois Blanc.
- The only red grape cultivated in Alsace is Pinot Noir and regional sparkling wines are called Crémant d’Alsace. These bottles are produced in the méthode traditionelle.
- Alsatian bottles range from bone dry to very sweet and are designated under one of three AOCs (or Vin de France) designations. Alsatian wines are known for their unctuous yet balanced nature and high levels of acidity.