by Kristy Wenz
Several months ago, Wines of Alsace held their annual “Alsace Rocks” Grand Tasting in Chicago, and next month they’ll be returning for the Chicago Wine Fest. So, in preparation of the event, let’s do a quick review of this unique French wine region.
Quick Facts: Alsace, France
Wine making in Alsace spans centuries, with many wine-making families dating back 20 generations. Today, nearly 4,000 winegrowers can be found in Alsace with more than 38,000 acres of vineyards planted. Some of the longest-standing wine-making families include: Domaine Paul Blanck, 19 generations; Jean-Baptiste Adam, 15 generations; Emile Beyer, 14 generations; Léon Beyer, 13 generations; Famille Hugel, 13 generations; Trimbach, 13 generations; and René Muré, 12 generations.
The predominant style of wines produced in Alsace are aromatic white wines. These wines are derived from a handful of grape varieties including Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Pinot Blanc (The first four being known as the “noble grapes”). In lesser amounts, wines from Sylvaner, Chasselas and Auxerrois grapes can also be found. Chardonnay is produced but only for Crémant d’Alsace sparkling wines, as deemed by law for this region. Only around 10% of wines produced are red and they will only be from Pinot Noir grapes.
Alsace has 53 AOCs including AOC Alsace, AOC Crémant d’Alsace (traditional method sparkling wine) and 51 individual Grand Cru AOCs. Wines here are labeled by grape variety rather than AOC, a unique labeling feature in France, but may also include the name of the vineyard from which the grapes were harvested.
First planted about 60 B.C., the vineyards of Alsace are some of the oldest in the world. As early as 2nd century AD, records mention the transport of wine in the region and documents dating around the year 900 mention over 160 wine growing villages. The expansion and success of wine in Alsace continued until it reached its zenith during the 16th century. Political turmoil and war rocked the region between the Thirty Years’ War and World War II. While some families retained their domaines, others changed hands, and in some instances, vineyards turned to quantity versus quality. Fortunately, after World War II, a widespread return to quality – and Alsace’s hallmark of showcasing grapes and terroir through the wines prevailed. In 1953, the Alsace Wine Route, a 170-kilometer stretch of possible wine touring through more than 100 wine villages began, becoming one of the first official wine travel routes worldwide.
The Alsace wine region lies 300 miles east of Paris and about 165 miles southeast of Champagne in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. Strasbourg, France sits at the northern end of Alsace with Mulhouse, France to the south. At the near-center of the region is Colmar, France – considered the heart of the region. Alsace also borders both Germany and Switzerland with the Rhine River only a few miles to the east.
Alsace is protected by the Vosges Mountains to the west, which keep rain and clouds at bay. Summers here are sunny and autumns dry, and thus Alsace has some of the most ideal conditions in which grapes can fully ripen, for a variety of styles from sparkling and still, to dry or sweet. What’s more, the soil types found throughout Alsace are among the most diverse in the world and include chalk, clay, limestone, granite, sandstone, schist and volcanic rocks, allowing for an optimal blend of water retention and drainage, as well as the characteristic minerality of Alsatian wines. Furthermore, viticulturists here can match grape varieties to the soils for which they’re best suited to produce a range of styles from light-bodied and fresh to full-bodied and bold.
If you haven’t yet gotten to know the wines of Alsace, there’s no better time than the present to begin tasting your way through the diversity offered from this historic region of France.
Kristy Wenz is a wine writer, traveler, and WSET Diploma candidate.