Friday Focus : Alsace, Part 2

If you missed it, last week I started my 2-part piece on Alsace, beginning with the history, geography, climate and soils of the Alsace region, and this week I will discuss the grape varieties, winemaking, legislation and how the trade is organised in this historically-contested and neither French nor German region.

The grape varieties grown in Alsace are unique compared to any other in France; the two most widely-grown varietals are Riesling and Gewurztraminer, account for just over 50% of all production, and are not grown in any serious volumes in any other part of France. In most vintages Riesling takes the top spot as most-produced wine, however in some warmer vintages and under the right conditions, Gewurztraminer can produce some insanely large volumes, pushing it to number 1 most-produced. These varieties are of course more closely related to Germany, an indicator of the back-and-forth history of this region. Therefore in true Alsatian style, well over a third of grapes grown have strong French origins, with the next most-grown varieties being Pinot Gris (labelled as Tokay d’Alsace pre-2007), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Muscat Blanc. The final small percentage is made up of lesser-known varieties with traditional Alsatian roots such as Sylvaner, Chasselas and Auxerrois which are most often blended into a white blend which is labelled ‘Pinot Blanc’- very confusing when you are actually looking for a Pinot Blanc! Today only a handful of producers still bottle single varietal wines made from these unique varieties, replacing them with the better known, higher quality and more reliable Riesling. More recently, a couple of younger producers have been experimenting with growing Chardonnay, with some interesting results. This variety is forbidden to be made as a single varietal due to Appellation Controllee rules, but can be blended into the Pinot Blanc melange if it is less than 15%, or used as a blending component in the popular (and delicious!) Cremant d’Alsace sparkling wine. Interestingly enough, more and more producers are trying their hands at Pinot Noir, with plantings of this varietal doubling in the last 15 years. Many speculate this is due to an increasingly warmer climate in the region which allows the necessary colour and tannin to develop. Click image for more detail

Whilst the majority of Alsatian production is single varietal and (in very un-French fashion) clearly labelled as such on the bottle, there are several other styles of Alsatian wine available. Wines labelled ‘Gentil’ or ‘Edelzwicker’ (which is German for ‘noble mixture’) are an inexpensive but enjoyably light and fresh blend of all whites, but usually with a good percentage of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. Another term sometimes seen on labels is Vendage Tardive, which indicates a more intense wine made in a special vintage. Vendage Tardive literally translates from French to ‘late harvest’, and the Alsatians are the only ones in France allowed to use this term on their bottles. As such, to be classified as this rare style of wine, it must satisfy several strict conditions; the grapes must come from a single vintage and can only be one of the 4 permitted varieties (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer or Muscat). It must not be enriched in any way, which means no sugar is allowed to be added to the wine, and the minimum sugar concentration at harvest is 220g/L for Riesling and Muscat or an even higher 243g/L for Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. Picking of these grapes must occur after a certain date set by Alsatian authorities, who may also inspect any and all vineyards who have indicated they intend to produce this style of wine. That’s right, winemakers must apply for permission to produce a certain style of wine! After the wine is finally produced, it must be tested by these authorities before permission to use the words is granted to ensure high quality and stylistic standards. You can tell there are German roots in this area, can’t you! Despite the high minimum sugar content in the grapes, these wines can be fermented to full dryness, and possess a weighty, rich and complex style but with a very dry finish.

One final label you may see on a bottle of Alsatian wine is Sélection de Grains Nobles, or SGN. This is an even more concentrated and rich style of wine than Vendage Tardive, even rarer due to the difficulty and costs involved in their production- and the rules are (believe it or not) even stricter! The 4 same ‘noble’ varieties are allowed as the above, however sugar levels at harvest must reach 256g/L for Riesling and Muscat or 279g/L for Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris- some producers go even higher. These wines usually contain at least a small amount of grapes affected by Botrytis (Noble Rot), which in this fairly dry and cool area is incredibly rare. As a result, these wines are always sweet, although the richness and complexity, along with the searing acid, balance the sweetness incredibly well.

There is an efficient and (again quite un-French) very straight-forward quality system in place across Alsace, instituted a little over 5 decades ago. It states that wines are either entry-level AOC Alsace, which can come from any part of the region and use any grape varieties, or the top quality designation Alsace Grand Cru. This 2-tier system has garnered much criticism over the years as being too simple, and as a result the authorities continually increased the number of Grand Cru sites in the region, going from the original Schlossberg Grand Cru in 1975 to 26 in 1983, topping out at 51 in 2007. Many major producers such as Hugel and Trimbach refused to label their wines as Grand Cru to protest this too-simplified system. As a reaction, in 2011 two new levels were introduced between top and bottom tier to differentiate the many wines that fit into neither top nor bottom category; AOC Alsace communales sits above basic AOC, and winemakers must fulfill certain requirements of vine density, grape variety used, yields and vine training method in order to qualify. AOC Alsace Lieux-dits sits another level higher, just below Grand Cru; these are wines that come from a specific plot of land (lieux-dit) and express true varietal characters alongside clear terrior characteristics. These are thought to be “Grand Cru in training”.

Kind Regards,

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager