For hundreds of years, this northern French region was in the middle of a tug of war between France and Germany. Passing through the hands of each country back and forth, it is currently a French region. But, the Germanic history is seen all over the area, including the wines.
Alsace: An Overview
Up in Northern France, right on the German border is the region of Alsace. Here, it is surprisingly one of France’s sunniest and warmest areas – summer time temperatures in key cities in Alsace are just as warm (sometimes warmer) than those of the Mediterranean baked areas of the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence.
With these warm temperatures, grapes ripen to high alcohol levels with intense fruit flavours. But, the Vosges Mountains to the west also do their part to help keep rain away, making Alsace also one of the driest regions in France. This forces the roots of the vines to dig deep down for water, stressing them and creating more flavourful wines.
To the west, the famous Rhine River that acts as a natural boundary between France and Germany, and also the neighbouring wine region of Pfalz. The Rhine helps to keep temperatures even, retaining heat at night and providing cool breezes during the day.
Alsace is also very different from the rest of France in that its AOP level wines (appellation wines) are almost all labelled by grape varietal. This of course, is taking a cue from the Germans again, and also because there are quite a number of grapes grown in this region. In fact, Alsace only has 3 AOP:
- Alsace AOP
- Alsace Grand Cru AOP
- Crémant d’Alsace AOP
Alsace AOP makes up the bulk of the production in the area. Permitted grapes include red and white, like: Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewutrztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, and Sylvaner. These wines will all be varietally named.
Two exceptions are “Gentil” and “Edelzwicker”. These are old school field blends that aren’t seen very much anymore, especially Edelzwicker. Both are blends of many of the allowed grape varietals, with Gentil being minimum 50% of the “noble” varieties (Riesling, Muscat, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Gris).
Alsace Grand Cru AOP are like Burgundy, in that each vineyard is subject to Grand Cru status. As of now, there are 51 Grand Cru vineyards in Alsace (most will be named on the bottle), but its future is uncertain as many people, growers and winemakers alike, who dispute some of the rankings.
The vineyard sites themselves are in southern Alsace, at higher altitudes planted on the sides of hills. With wildly different soils, altitudes, grapes used, and many other factors, styles can be quite different.
Crémant d’Alsace of course, is the traditional method sparkling wine AOP. Several different grapes are used, including Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and even Chardonnay.
Even more confusingly, there are two sub categories of wines for Alsace: Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN) and Vendange Tardive (VT). The first being botrytis affected grapes (just like Sauternes) and the second being late harvest style, sometimes with botrytis (sometimes not) and sometimes even dry.
These can be some great dessert wines that are hard to come by, but well worth the shot. Prices may not be cheap, but for quality levels especially compared to other luxury dessert wines, aren’t a bad deal.
There is also a pomace brandy made in Alsace: Marc d’Alsace. These grappa styled brandies are also not easy to track down. AOP regulations cover Marc made from Gewurtztraminer only, making them the most intensely flavoured and most common of all. Unaged and sold in small bottles, these brandies capture the spice and exotic flavours of Gewurtztraminer perfectly.
But, heading back into the wine world, let’s take a look at some of the more common grapes and wine styles from Alsace, along with some great food pairings.
The height of Alsatian wine, Riesling is what pops into most people’s minds when they think of this area. For a quick primer on the differences between German and French styles, check this article out. As you now know, French styles are predominantly dry, whereas in Germany they are usually off dry or more.
With higher alcohol, fuller body, and huge mineral and stone fruit flavours, Alsace Riesling is made for the dinner table. Medium bodied, high acidity, and dry, with flavours of peach, apricot, honey, green apples, gasoline, and wet rocks.
It should come as no surprise that these styles of Riesling go incredibly well with pork. If it comes from a pig, open some Riesling. But, for maximum effect, serve with traditional Alsatian “Choucroute Garnie”. A totally German looking mix of sauerkraut, sausages, smoked ham, salted meats, potatoes, and maybe a sprig of parsley for colour. High fat and salt content in the meat need a searing high acid wine, and Riesling has more than enough to zip through it all and keep your mouth ready to keep eating.
As for Gewurtztraminer, the most German sounding of all grapes in Alsace, is also the most intensely flavoured of all. Similar to Pinot Gris, Gewurtztraminer will also have very high alcohol levels, and will almost always be fermented off dry.
With a low acidity, Gewurtztraminer is the least food friendly in terms of pairing, but more than makes up for it with its incredible flavours. Lychee, gasoline, candied ginger, pepper, roses, and much more will be found in each glass. With a full body and rich texture, Gewurtztraminer does well with very strong flavours.
For best results, Muenster cheese is the way to go. Smoked fish are also great, such as smoked salmon or even spicy stir fry dishes. Wherever there is spice and heat, Gewurtztraminer will go (along with Pinot Gris).
Alsace Pinot Gris
Once again, for a quick primer on the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio (it’s the same grape!) take a look here. Alsace styled Pinot Gris will be rich and full, with alcohol at 14% levels not uncommon. Quite often winemakers will ease off the numbers and won’t ferment totally dry, leaving some residual sugar in there to soften things up.
With higher ripeness, the peach, spice, cream, and smoke flavours really show through. Slightly less food friendly than Riesling, due to less acidity, Pinot Gris is great with stronger flavoured foods, like spicy Asian cuisine. Smoked fish, spicy sushi, flammekueche (French/German pizza), cream sauces, and even roast birds like chicken or turkey also do well with Pinot Gris.
Similarly flavoured to Gewurtztraminer, Muscat has a bit of a different structure. Muscat will have much more grapey flavours, along with floral notes like orange blossom, mandarin, tangerine, and that signature spice as well.
With high alcohol, higher acidity, and slightly less full bodied, Muscat makes it a better match for foods. Also, these Muscat will be almost always fermented dry – sorry sweet tooth. By staying dry, the wines become much more drinkable in larger quantities, better suited to the dinner table, and making their acidity stand out better. For food matches, look to foie gras, smoked cheeses, squash soup, or roasted game birds.
The big daddy of dessert wines in Alsace, these botrytis affected wines are made with any of the four noble grapes of Alsace. In the case of Riesling based ones, the stone fruit and white floral flavours are supercharged with a massive hit of sugar while still retaining acidity. The botrytis will also add some earthy and savoury aromas, which will open up more as these wines age. And oh, will they age – like good Sauternes, so if you have the time to wait a decade or two, go for it.
To match the great levels of sugar in the wine and richness, desserts or hard cheeses are the way to go. Apple pie, peach cobbler, poached fruit, and blue cheese are all winners. What’s great about these SGN wines is that the acidity is also intensified, making much more than purely sugar sweet wines.
Finally, the bubbles. What’s great about sparkling wine, especially traditional method ones, is that they are very versatile with food. They can match with almost anything. From high brow to low, caviar to chips to French fries, sparkling wine has you covered.
These tiny little bubbles, wrapped up in a core of high acid, medium body are fantastic with anything fried. Tempura batter, French fries, poutine (rose versions), sushi, to start a meal, end a meal, or use in a cocktail. I’ll say it again – sparkling wine can do anything, and people need to drink much more of it.
These crisp, apple, pear, toast and cracker flavoured wines with intense bubbles can start a party, liven up your Sunday brunch, add some class to a cocktail, or even just make your Wednesday movie night a bit more laid back.
Alsace In A Nutshell
Forever known for its aromatic white wines, Alsace is also one of many regions left in France where you can still find a great deal. No need to break the bank, there is plenty of flavour and quality in any bottle you grab to satisfy you.
And, thanks to their great structure and flavours, they are great with a huge variety of foods. From traditional foods like choucroute garnie and flammekueche to spicy Asian stir fry, Alsace wines can handle it all with ease.