Think You Know Alsace? It Might be Time for Another Look
Nearly 250 miles east of Paris along the border of Germany lies a wine region with rich history, fairy-tale charm, and a youthful energy unlike any other. This is Alsace, a small region synonymous with terroir-driven aromatic white wines that have captured the attention (and palates) of wine lovers all over the world. Alsace’s quaint villages are dotted with church steeples, trickling fountains, and traditional half-timbered buildings with flower-filled window boxes—all backed by miles of vines. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll discover a community of passionate winemakers who are committed to marrying centuries-old tradition with cutting-edge innovation. Here’s what to know.
The Growers & Makers
Alsace is home to nearly 4,000 winegrowers. While there are plenty of newcomers to the scene, winemaking in Alsace is largely a family business—some have been making wine for as many as 15 generations.
For Antoine Barthelmé of Domaine Albert Mann, in Wettolsheim, an emphasis on quality unites young winemakers and the generations before them. “It’s something that is passed down and learned,” he says.
At the same time, many of these young winemakers are bringing new and diversified experiences to the region, including sustainable techniques in the vineyard and cellar.
“The young winemakers are well trained in schools and universities and have traveled and worked in vineyards in the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, and beyond,” says Georges Lorentz, of Maison Gustave Lorentz in Bergheim. “The younger generation is more curious and open to innovation, natural wines, and modern packaging. They are not seeking to be the biggest, but rather, to make the wine they want on a more boutique, small-batch scale.”
Producers in Alsace have unique styles and specialties. But they demonstrate a shared commitment to expressing the full potential of the terroir, to caring for the land, and enjoying the wine in the same manner they have for generations—over meals, with friends and family.
Alsace is protected by the Vosges Mountains, which keep rain and clouds at bay, ensuring sunny summers and dry autumns—ideal conditions for the ripening of grapes. What’s more, the region’s diverse range of soil types—chalk, clay, limestone and granite to sandstone, schist and volcanic rocks—allow viticulturists to match the grape varieties to the soils for which they’re best suited, producing a range of styles from light-bodied and fresh to full-bodied and bold.
“The Alsace vineyard has all geological formations, from the primary era to the quaternary period,” says Barthelmé. “It’s the only one in the world with this unique composition of 13 different mother soils.”
The vineyards run north to south, with the best quality vineyards situated on steep slopes and boasting east and south-east facing aspects. And with its dry, sunny climate, this northeastern region is also one of the greenest wine-producing areas in France, with one-third of all vineyards certified organic, biodynamic, or in conversion.
“At a time when consumers are more socially conscious about sustainable practices in the vineyard, many don’t even realize that Alsace was one of the earliest adopters of organic, biodynamic, and sustainable viticultural practices,” says Hai Tran, a Philadelphia-based sommelier. “In fact, France’s first certified biodynamic winery was Alsace’s Eugène Meyer.”
In a country where climate change presents a wave of new challenges for winemakers, Alsace producers are uniquely positioned to navigate an uncertain future.
“Our deep commitment to organic viticulture will help us maintain a high level of biodiversity in our vineyards in the future, as well as the liveliness of the microbiological life in our soils, which affects the level of minerality and complexity,” says Lorentz. “We’re also planting rye and peas to retain water in the soil and prevent drought. And when necessary, we can keep more leaves on the vines to protect against intense sun.”
Adds Etienne-Arnaud Dopff of Dopff Au Moulin, in Riquewihr: “The tradition of respecting the soil is ingrained in Alsace. Preserving the integrity and profile of our different grape varieties are among our main concerns,” he says. He has started a study to determine which grapes are better suited to the soil and the changing climatic conditions. “So we are better prepared for the future and to adapt to changing conditions,” he explains.
Grapes and Wines
Just as Alsace producers have a deep respect for their soils, they also have a strong reverence for regional grape varieties. Growers and makers here have long turned to specific grape varieties for the way they capture the nuances of the soil and transmit a sense of place.
Alsace has an astounding 53 AOCs, including AOC Alsace, AOC Crémant d’Alsace (traditional method sparkling wine), and 51 individual Grand Cru AOCs. Fortunately for the consumer, wines are labeled by grape variety rather than AOC—a unique labeling feature in France—making it easier to navigate the wide variety of wines and styles.
In Alsace, 90 percent of the wine produced uses white grapes, specifically the seven main varieties: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, and Sylvaner. Among these grapes, only four are considered “noble” and are allowed in Grand Cru wines—Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat. By and large, these white wines are aromatic, dry, and unoaked, with the exception being the region’s renowned sweeter styles including Vendanges Tardives (late harvest wines) and Sélection de Grains Nobles wines, which result from botrytized grapes.
While white wines may currently steal the show, Pinot Noir is playing a growing role in Alsace winemaking. The grape accounts for around 11 percent of all plantings and is used for still wine and Cremant d’Alsace. The growth in Pinot Noir can be partly attributed to younger winemakers bringing new knowledge from outside regions and increasing experimentation with the variety as a still wine. Additionally, rising temperatures during the growing season have allowed for improved ripening of this cool-climate grape.
“I believe that the Pinot Noir grape has a brilliant future in Alsace considering the global warming effect and the know-how that producers have developed over the years,” says Lorentz.
Tran agrees: “Due to the region’s climate, I have found that Alsace Pinot Noir tends to showcase an opulent combination of tartness and juiciness, with prominent red fruit underlined with hints of spice, supported with soft textural tannins, and offering mouth-watering acidity,” he says.
From sweet to dry, the still wines of Alsace are noted for vibrant fruit, freshness, and wonderfully balanced acidity. But there’s yet another standout style from this diverse region—Crémant d’Alsace. This sparkling wine style, produced in the traditional method, results from a range of regional grapes. The majority of blends will feature Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, or Riesling; however, Chardonnay is also permitted (solely in the case of Crémant), and all Crémant d’Alsace rosés are 100 percent Pinot Noir.
“One of the best things about Crémant d’Alsace is its value,” says Tran. “As a result, you can enjoy it on all occasions without feeling guilty, and conversely, you can open it for a special occasion and it will still impress.”
The story of wine in Alsace cannot be told without mentioning the food—specifically its role in complementing and intensifying the flavors in the region’s wines. (There’s a reason Alsace has 30+ Michelin-starred restaurants, more than any other region in France!).
White wines from Alsace are not limited to light fare and seafood. Rather, the spicy, denser styles of Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer pair well with poultry, sausages, mushroom dishes, veal, and other rich cuisine. Riesling can frame pork or scallops equally well, and the ever-tricky asparagus washes down easily with a local Muscat.
“The versatility of the wines from this region is exceptional and the value is something that wine lovers can really get behind,” said Jenni Wagoner, Group Wine Director for Zuma and Oblix, Global. “I love spicy Thai and an off-dry Gewurztraminer. There is something quite compelling about a dish with a bit of kick and that textured aromatic lychee deliciousness of Gewurztraminer from this region. And I would certainly enjoy a Pinot Noir from Alsace with everything from burgers and robata-grilled beef skewers to a simply grilled salmon filet.”
And while the wines pair beautifully with local specialties—try a meat pie with Pinot Gris, choucroute with Riesling Grand Cru, a baeckeoffa meat stew with Pinot Noir, or tarte flambée with a Pinot Blanc—they also complement a dazzling array of international flavors.
Because of the wines’ pairability, versatility, and terrific quality for price, many sommeliers find that consumers will ask for them time and time again. “Alsace is an exciting playground for winegrowers and winemakers,” says Dopff, “but it’s just as exciting for consumers.”