Fresh from my final WSET Diploma exam, my head is still brimming with facts, figures, regions, history and, of course, wines. It seems like an simple decision to base my next series of articles on what I have learned along the way.
Alsace was the first region I chose to focus on. I was armed with books and notes, but there were also a few videos that gave me a general “feel” for this wine region, a unique mix of French and German cultures forged in the crucible of war.
The above video, presented by the Guild of Sommeliers, is a great introduction to Alsace. I probably spent a little too much time playing and replaying it, daydreaming of holidaying there someday, rather than studying.
The most persistent issue for me while studying Alsace was it’s geography. I use this term broadly to include several discrete factors:
- Location: On the border close to Germany; this accounts for this region’s war-torn history and how the people adapted.
- Latitude: Quite northerly, so the climate is generally cooler.
- Geology: The Vosges (pronounced “Voje” with a long “o” as in “vote”) Mountains influences the climate/weather here greatly, mainly acting as a barrier against rain coming in from the west, making Alsace one of the driest wine regions in France.
- Soil: Extremely varied due to land collapse and upheaval, covering many geological eras; important for vineyard owners to consider when matching grapes to soil types.
Unlike many other French wine regions, Alsace is known for putting the name of the grape variety used to make the wine on the label. Contrast this to Bordeaux or Burgundy, where you are pretty much expected to already know what you are getting, which can be intimidating for a wine neophyte.
The “Noble Four” (with a very short list of expected aromas/flavours) are:
- Riesling: lemon, lime, honey, green apple
- Gewurztraminer: lychee, ginger, white flowers
- Pinot Gris: peaches, apricot, pear, honey
- Muscat: light, dry, “grapey”
Pinot Noir is the only black grape grown in Alsace, and is likely to play a bigger role in this traditionally white-wine region thanks to climate change.
Reassuringly, Alsace imposes upon itself a 100% varietal labeling requirement (if the label says “Riesling” then 100% of the wine was made from Riesling). This is in contrast to the European Union’s looser requirement of 85% for varietal labeling, where in theory only 85% of the wine must be from the specified grape, and the remaining 15% can be of other varieties.
Wines can vary from dry to quite sweet, and there are even a few sparkling wines made here too, so Alsace definitely offers a lot of options to experiment with.
If you just take a bottle of Alsatian wine and look at the label, there is generally no clear way to see if you have is dry or sweet.
In my experience, Alsatian wines tread a very fine line between these two elements, creating a balance of richness and freshness. The wine might feel ripe and sweet to the taste, but before you start to think it is too much, the acidity comes to the fore to refresh your palate.
There are two terms in particular that could help:
- Vendange Tardive: This means “Late Harvest” – think “tardy” to remind you of the lateness. When grapes are harvested later than usual, they are allowed to accumulate more sugar, which either translates to greater sweetness or higher alcohol.
- Sélection de Grains Nobles: Translates to “Selection of Noble Berries” – this refers to Noble Rot, also known as Botrytis, a fungus that, under the right conditions, will cover the berry and take in water through it’s skin, causing them to shrivel up and concentrate the sugars and acids. Wines made with such grapes can show traits similar to orange marmalade.
There are also two minor terms that refer to blends (as opposed to single-varietal wines):
- Gentil: requires at least 50% of the wine to be made from the “Noble Four” grapes listed above.
- Edelzwicker: while this translades to “noble blend”, in reality this specifies a blend of poorer grapes not considered one of the “Noble Four”, such as Chasselas, Silvaner and Pinot Blanc.
Don’t forget about Pinot Noir – typically this will be made in a dry style, light in colour and food friendly.
As with any region, there will be producers who are more renowned than others, but also some lesser known bargains if you know what questions to ask.
Alsace is a fascinating region in terms of it’s culture, history, geography and of course it’s wines. It would definitely be worth your while to peruse the Alsatian selection next time you are in a wine shop or thumbing through a restaurant wine list.
And remember, if you find yourself perplexed with too much choice, ask to speak with the sommelier!