Going through postcards from Alsace, you’ll realise how they evoke both French and German aesthetics; a superficial exercise that demonstrates a deep link created by a history of -not always peaceful- exchanges with both Estates and that has shaped more than the architecture of the region located in the Northwest of France, adjacent to Switzerland and Germany.
Alsatian wines also tell this story: the flûte rhénane bottle used in the region is more often seen across the border than in France and so are most of the grapes that grow in this particular terroir where 90% of the wine is white and in a very New World fashion, labels feature grape names such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Sylvaner.
As they demonstrate their heritage, Alsatian wines also communicate brilliantly the terroir they come from. Foulques Aulagnon, Export Manager at the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace explains that despite Alsatian wines having the grape variety written on the label, they’re not just “varietal” wines as “you have definitively the fingerprint, the signature of each terroir from Alsace.”
In the 15,500 hectares conforming the region, the base of the pyramid is made by AOC Alsace which accounts for 67% of the total production, then there’s a 1% comprised of 13 AOC Alsace Communales that are able to add their communal geographical name to the label, and a 3% that’s AOC Alsace Lieu-it. At the top, there are 51 areas classified as AOC Alsace Grand Crus with 4% of production and 8% of the total surface.
With only a few exceptions, Alsatian Grand Crus can be made with four noble grape varieties: Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.
Vin and Wein is not the same
Foulques points out that despite sharing many grapes and bottling in a similar fashion, Alsatian wines differ from their German counterparts. There are many variations in terroir and you have not the same climate: while Alsace gets between 500 and 600 mm of rain per year, it’s more than double in the German side with 1,200 to 1,400 mm.
This means that winzers need to harvest earlier than vignerons to avoid dilution in their wines, “and so, in this case, their wines have less alcohol, less thickness, and have more malic acidity, when we have larger wines, stronger, with higher tartaric acidity. Of course, you have a lot of exceptions but whatever could be your way of vinification, none may change the climate.”
The Evolution of Alsatian Wines: Less Residual Sugar, More Organic Producers
In the last four decades, the wines of Alsace have been progressively getting rid of the excess of residual sugar that made them famous (or infamous, depending on your palate). They have also abandoned harmful chemicals at a higher rate than the rest of France: while the country’s average of organic AOC wines is between 6 to 7% in Alsace the figure rises to 15%, “and we just talk about the organic wines with certification because the real organic winegrowers are more numerous in Alsace; including the winegrowers who want to be free of certification because they are really ‘free’ and have a way of thinking more ‘libertaire’, ‘independent’”, says Foulques, who estimates that the real amount of organic winemakers in the region is around 20%.
Alcohol level is also going up, partly due to climate change, which forces Alsatians to adapt their harvesting and vinification. But not all changes are reactive, innovation and proactivity have motivated winemakers to travel and train and bring back home modern practices and ideas. Nowadays, they’re using a bit of oak (mostly in Pinot Noirs and Pinot Gris) and letting Crémant d’Alsace -the region’s sparkling- on the lees for longer: “24 months, 36, 48 and also 60 months. And more and more special cuvées like vintage cuvées, and 100% Chardonnay, and Blanc de Noir”, explains Foulques.
— drinkAlsace (@drinkAlsace) June 9, 2016
Be Their Guest, Have a Taste
Alsace’s fairy tale charm inspired Disney’s nineties classic Beauty and the Beast settings (Belle’s hometown is said to be somewhere in the region) and their wines wouldn’t be out of place by the lips of once-upon-a-timers: remarkably fresh, aromatic yet dry and with an enchanting mix of fruit and flowers, they offer a beautiful balance between delicate and intense which makes them very versatile when pairing with food.
As an aperitif, you could begin with a Crémant d’Alsace, not too sweet nor too alcoholic, and perfect for waking up the palate. Seafood dishes will shine next to Sylvaner or Riesling which is also a lovely match to chicken or turkey. Spicier recipes will find balance on the richness of Gewurztraminer, a grape strong enough to face pork dishes and a wonderful pairing for Thai food. Alsatian wines are also handy to serve with sushi and Mexican food, two tricky pairings from which they’ll stand victorious.
You’ll find some recommendations below that will show you some of the different styles of Alsatian wines, enjoy!
€29.95 – Available at The Corkscrew
12% ABV – Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir
Alsace is an excellent region to get great crémant wines, an alternative to Champagne which is lovely by its own merit. Made with the Traditional Method, this organic sparkling wine is elegant and very fresh.
Apple tart comes to mind as a catch-all aroma for the fruit and the boulangerie notes, except this wine is not that sweet, instead a fine acidity and a mineral background contribute to keep it sharp.
Grapes grown on clay and limestone soils from selected plots around Riquewihr in the Haut-Rhin area are handpicked and fermented in temperature-controlled vats fro a resulting dry and crispy Riesling.
Pale and with greenish hues, it offers aromas of green apples, white flowers and lemonade. It’s persistent on the palate where a hint of lemongrass is a refreshing surprise. This is a textbook Alsatian Riesling from a maker that has the talent to back its fame.
€21.95 – Available at O’Briens Wines
14% ABV – 100% Gewurztraminer
Golden and with a thickness that can be seen by swirling it briefly in the glass, this voluptuous Gewurz is exotic and alluring like a lively dancer from the pages of One Thousand and One Nights.
The perfume of litchi -fruit that shares aroma compounds with the grape- is unavoidable, and arrives together with rosewater and Turkish delights. It’s rich and has a sweet attack, unapologetically powerful and even more beautiful because of it.
Rene Mure Signature Sylvaner 2012
€17.95 (Now on offer at €14.95) – Available at Mitchell and Son
12% ABV – 100% Sylvaner
Its name could be that of a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, and the fact that its root word -Silva- is Latin for forest only adds to its fantastic allure. Once very popular in Germany, now it’s been replaced by Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Nowadays it’s harvested by few and this domaine does it right. Honeysuckle, pear and apple blossom meet a mild, persistent mineral note. It’s shy compared to its more aromatic counterparts, but a lovely one to try if you’re like something subtle and delicate, or if you feel like discovering a rarer grape.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.