Stretched across the slopes of the Vosges Mountains, the region of Alsace has long history of winemaking. Located next to the modern day German border (along the Rhine) the area has been a territory of political contention and conflict for centuries. Annexed by France in the seventeenth century, Alsace was claimed by the new German Empire in 1871. After the First World War, Alsace was returned to French rule, but in the Second World War the territory was occupied by Germany. Today, Alsace is part of France, although the Germanic influence is readily apparent. The appellation was awarded its AOC status in 1962. The Cremant d’Alsace appellation was added in 1976 and the Grand Cru appellation came in 1983.
Climate and Geology
Alsace has a semi-continental climate, with a long, cool growing period. The vineyards must utilise as much sunlight as possible, so the best land tends to be so the south-facing slopes of the Vosges, where there is also protection from wind. The region lies in a rain shadow of the mountains, and the annual rainfall is one the lowest in France. While this can sometimes lead to problems with drought, grape ripeness is usually guaranteed. Alsace is also known for its diversity of soil types, which has sparked much research to determine the ideal soils for different grape varieties.
Unlike some other wine regions in France, Alsace focuses on varietal orientated wines. The labels, typically similar to German labels, tend to prominently feature the grape variety. In Alsace, there are seven most popular varietals: Riesling, Sylvaner, Muscat, Gerwurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir. Auxerrois is also often planted, and it is the common base for many sparkling Cremant d’Alsace wines.
The wines of Alsace tend to focus on their primary fruit flavours rather than oak characteristics. This means that the wines are generally stored in old containers which are unable to transmit any new wood character. Traditionally, old oval casks called cuves are used. Sometimes these are over a hundred years old and are literally built into the cellars.
Beyond that general characteristic, the different varietals in Alsace tend to have some overarching styles. Riesling reigns supreme in Alsace, and typically the style is bone dry. This makes a contrast to the residual sugar found in many German Rieslings. Alsace Riesling also tends to be chaptalized (additional sugar added before fermentation) to increase alcohol content. Another consideration in Alsace is the opportunity for superb sweet wines, labelled under the designations Vendage Tardive or Selection de Grain Nobles (which is rarer and usually made with botrytised grapes). Gerwurztraminer is the most common varietal used for the late harvest Alsace wines, as it can more easily obtain high sugar levels. These wines are known for their heady, exotic aromas and clean, elegant flavours.
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