Friday Focus : Alsace, Part 1

I started writing a piece on Alsace, and quickly realised that to cover it properly and distil out the important information, I would need to split my piece. So, in part 1 I will write about the history, geography, climate and soils of the Alsace region, and next week in part 2 I will cover off the grape varieties, winemaking, legislation and how the trade is organised (lieux-dits vs. Grand Cru etc). So, let’s get started!

So first up, in order to understand why the region is the way it is today, we’ll take a quick look at the history of the region. If this piece was written 75 years ago, the name Alsace would instead be Elsass, and the region would be included as Germany’s most southerly vineyards. Alsace has been hotly contested territory between the historically argumentative France and Germany, switching ownership several times over the last few centuries. The region has a very unique geographical position, not only caught in between these two countries, but ultimately isolated from both; The region is bordered by the Vosges mountains on the western French side, and by the mighty Danube on the eastern German side, meaning that whilst either side could take the region during the many wars fought between these countries, it was exceedingly hard to hold. This isolation from both countries has meant that the language, food, wine and even architecture are neither French nor German, but distinctly Alsatian. The official language is French, almost everyone speaks German, but at home, the locals speak Alsatian, which takes and twists both languages, turning it into its own argot, difficult to understand for both French and German visitors. This uniqueness Alsatians hold onto tightly, and is reflected in the regional-specific food and wine, as well as the almost middle-ages style buildings. As a brief summary, the region switched between French and German rule 7 times over the last 400 years; no wonder they started their own language!

The geography and climate of Alsace also give us a window into why it has been such a hotly-contended region. The mountains to one side and forests and river to the other create a wind tunnel, which sends the warm Foehn wind up from the Mediterranean which, along with natural irrigation from snowmelt off the Vosges Mountains, contributes to the fertility of the area. Agriculturally speaking, Alsace has always been a rich region, and has been settled by farming peoples for centuries- which explains why it suffered so many invasions and annexations in its history! The Vosges to the west also create a rain shadow, which protects the region from any harsh storms and cold winds coming from central France, and keeps the sun shining during the important spring and summer months. In fact, in some years the mountains do such a good job of keeping the rain away that the region can suffer severe summer drought!

Alsace is a long, thin region running north-south, lying between the latitudes of 47.5 and 49 degrees, right in the very north-east of France, due north of Switzerland, so the winter seasons can get bitterly cold, further accentuated by the land-locked position, with no large bodies of water nearby to offset the cold. This is offset in the summer however by the aforementioned wind tunnel effect which brings warm summer breezes up from the Mediterranean, allowing not only the growth of grapes in what would be classed as a very marginal growing climate, but the development of very rich and complex flavours many other regions at the same latitude could only dream of!

The region has a fascinating mix of soils as well, which adds to the complexity and diversity of the wines. Due to the tectonic movement that created the Vosges Mountains, the constant movement of soil falling from these mountains, silt from the river and sand and dust from the southerly winds, there are at least 20 major soil formations within the Alsace region. Across neighbouring vineyards one can find subsoils consisting of gneiss, granite, schist, sandstone, volcanic sediment, clay, marl and limestone, all of which can attribute different flavours to the wine, as well as affect the growth capacity and vigour of vines which can affect volume, acidity, structure and many other aspects of the final wine. The one soil type the region is most famous for however is the pink gres de Vosges, or Vosges sandstone. Over the centuries, this unique pink-coloured sandstone was mined and used to construct buildings, and is still evident today in the old cathedrals of the region’s capital Strasbourg. This sandstone, which gets its pink colour from a high amount of quartz and iron, is said to give wines grown on it a fine-boned, racy elegance.

Be sure to tune in next week for part 2 on Alsace!

Kind Regards,

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager