French wines are renowned the world over. From classy Bordeaux to high end Burgundy, wines from France carry that certain panache. One of the most interesting and perhaps underrated regions sits in the east of the country straddled by the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine River in Germany to the east. The region is Alsace. This approximately 120-km stretch of wine country running from Strasbourg in the north to Mulhouse in the south is a magical place with quaint villages, superb food and of course, wonderful wine.
Located almost at the northern limit of where wine grapes will grow, it’s no surprise that most of the vino here is white. Red grapes simply need more heat to be prolific. The big four grape varieties here are Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris (also called Tokay d’Alsace) and Muscat. Lesser known varieties include Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois and Chasselas. The only red planted is a little Pinot Noir of Burgundy fame, but the resulting wine tends to be quite light because of the northerly locale.
Although all Alsatian wine is packaged in the distinctive, elongated flute-type bottles so common in Germany, numerous styles exist. Traditionally their wines were marketed with a producer’s name, grape variety and vintage year on the bottle. Quite easy to understand as compared to many other French wine regions! There is a ‘Cru system’ here as well that qualifies certain vineyards as better than others because of their ‘terroir’, consistently good fruit they produce and ultimately the great resulting wine. Grand Crus can only be produced from the ‘big four’ varieties. Beyond that, there are some interesting variations. Edelzwicker is an Alsatian wine produced from a blend of grape varieties, but by French law, cannot state the varieties on the label. The wine carries a fictitious or branded name instead. Crémant d’Alsace is a sparkling wine made in the champagne method (second fermentation in the same bottle). However, it has a lighter spritz to it than regular champagne method sparklers due to a lower ‘dosage’ (addition of wine, yeast and sugar to created bubbles).
Two specialty wines in the region are fabulous, but relatively rare, expensive and often packaged in half bottles. Vendage Tardive is a wine made from late-harvest grapes. By leaving the fruit on the vines later, they dry out concentrating the sugar and acid yielding a sweeter, richer wine. Selections de Grains Noble are rarer and more expensive still.
Created from grapes that have been attacked by ‘Noble Rot’ or botrytis (a fungus that eats out the pulp of grapes, turning them into raisin-like entities while concentrating flavours and sugar), these babies are to die for.
When it comes to food, Alsace has the most ‘starred’ restaurants in the country and with its proximity to Germany, there is certainly some influence. From traditional dishes like backeoffe (substantial meat casserole), tarte flambée (a pizza-like concoction topped with crème fraiche, cheese, onion and bacon), charcroute garnie (seasoned sauerkraut topped with meats and veggies) and onion tarts to kugelhopf (almond and raisin cake) and fruit tarts, there’s plenty to match the delicious wine to.
Let’s not forget the famous, pungent Munster cheese made from ripe cow’s milk.
Of course, Alsatian wine works with more than just Alsatian cuisine. Riesling as an aperitif, or with veal, fish and seafood, Gewurztraminer with exotic dishes and smoked fare, Pinot Gris with game birds and richer fish, and Muscat alongside pungent cheese and Thai food, they’re pretty versatile.
Some of the better Alsatian producers include Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Weinbach, Deiss, Tempe, Mann, Hugel, Trimbach, Leon Beyer, Boxler, Josmeyer, Schoffit, and Schlumberger.
Alsace is truly a fascinating part of the world. Add it to your list of wine destinations to visit or simply check out Alsatian wines available here in the market. Either way, I’m sure you’ll be delighted.
Edward Finstein, a.k.a. The Wine Doctor — wine writer, educator, judge, consultant