When you’re handed a restaurant wine list, do you instinctively head to the names you know? Bordeaux and Burgundy, perhaps, if you’re led by style, or Aussie Chardonnay or Kiwi Sauvignon if you want to see straightaway which grape you’re about to drink.
But there’s one less-familiar wine name that’s definitely worth getting to know, and that’s Alsace. The French region might not be a famous name in the UK, but in France it’s a very big deal – Crémant d’Alsace is the country’s most popular sparkling wine after Champagne – while wine professionals the world over have long valued the elegance, quality and value for money of wines from Alsace.
Riquewihr is one of the prettiest villages in Alsace
Alsace is located in north-east France and is separated from Germany by the river Rhine. For more than 300 years, Alsace passed between French and German control and you can still feel the Germanic influence in place names such as Riquewihr and hearty local specialities such as the sauerkraut-like choucroute.
The Alsace wine region lies to the south of Strasbourg, the regional capital, though the true capital of the wine region is Colmar, famous for its waterways and the cobbled old town, packed with half-timbered medieval buildings that are an Instagrammer’s dream. The vineyards are sheltered by the Vosges mountains to the west and set amid pretty villages that look like they’ve tumbled out of the pages of a fairy tale.
But the Vosges don’t just make for a stunning backdrop. The mountains protect Alsace from wind and rain and make it one of the driest regions in France. The sunny climate produces grapes of exceptional ripeness which make wines that balance refreshing acidity with rich texture, but the favourable weather is only half the story.
The Vosges Mountains protect the vineyards of Alsace from the elements
It is the people behind the wines who add the personality and passion that brings the wines to life. The majority of Alsace wines come from family domaines, many of which have seen generation after generation – in some cases up to 12 generations over four centuries – continuing to uphold tradition while moving with the times, embracing both quality and excellence.
These families also embrace wine tourism (the Alsace Wine Route is probably the best-known in France) and apart from the beauty of the region and the quality of the wines, what makes Alsace such a popular destination is the warmth visitors receive from the Alsace winemakers: welcomed like a member of the ever-growing Alsace family.
The Alsace Wine Route is a great way to see the region
Wine production in Alsace is split fairly evenly between Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer, followed by Pinot Gris and the region’s main red grape, Pinot Noir. It is the mission of the Alsace winemaker to retain the aromas and pure fruit flavours of these aromatic grape varieties. Each winemaker has their own style but they all share the goal of producing exceptional wines that convey the fruit and terroir of Alsace.
Although white wine makes up 90% of production in Alsace, the region’s four main white grape varieties offer an impressive diversity that makes for some of the most food-friendly wines in the world, whether you’re eating Indian or Italian, Chinese or cheese.
What’s more, compared to some wine regions, understanding the label on the bottle is a doddle. There are only two levels of appellations, Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru. Alsace covers the vast majority of wine produced within the region, while Alsace Grand Cru applies to 51 vineyards that each has its own grand cru appellation. Unusually for a French wine region, most wine in Alsace is labelled by variety (much like New World wines), so choosing what to drink is a cinch – once you know the very different characters of the grapes.
Alsace Riesling is a classic match for pastrami
Alsace Riesling is the undoubted star. But forget about any sweet Rieslings you may have tried: here in Alsace, Riesling is dry and full bodied, with high acidity. It can sometimes be steely and austere when young, but it can age for up to 20 years in the bottle to produce a wine of astonishing lushness.
The citrus aromas of young Alsace Riesling makes it a terrific aperitif, while the body in aged Riesling is very food-friendly. Shellfish is a classic match – Alsace Riesling is sublime with crab or lobster mayonnaise – as too chicken. But don’t just think of the traditional Alsatian speciality of coq au Riesling: a gastropub chicken Kiev with Alsace Riesling can be a fabulous match. Alsace Riesling also has the character to stand up to the rich flavours of pastrami, smoked eel and creamy curries.
Alsace Gewurztraminer (or Gewurz to its friends) is one of the world’s most misspelled wines, and also one of the most distinctive. Full-bodied, off dry and with an unmistakeable, headily perfumed aroma of rose and lychees, it has become best known in recent years as a match for spicy Asian food, but there’s much more to the grape than a go-to for Thai or Szechuan cooking. Think of Alsace Gewurztraminer as an alternative to red wine and a whole new world of food and wine matching will open up.
The floral qualities of Alsace Gewurztraminer make it a classic partner for Chinese-style crab with ginger and spring onion. Duck confit, however, would be a more adventurous but equally successful pairing. Don’t drink it all before the cheese course, though, as Alsace Gewurz is powerful enough to withstand washed-rind soft cheeses such as Epoisses, Munster and Stinking Bishop.
Alsace wines make terrific aperitifs
Pinot Gris is another Alsace white that is an eye-opening partner for red meat, thanks to its full body and pungent, smoky flavour. Roast veal is a good match, as is chicken liver pate. Its rich texture also goes well with rich, savoury food such as white truffle, smoked salmon and semi-soft cheeses along the lines of Pont-l’Evêque and Reblochon. Grand Cru Pinot Gris, meanwhile, is worth considering with cured ham and lighter offal such as sweetbreads.
Alsace Pinot Blanc is more approachable than Riesling (and often more approachably priced) and, with less body than Gewurz and Alsace Pinot Gris, it’s a straightforward wine, with some of the smoky character of Pinot Gris. Try it with mild fish such as grilled trout or skate with brown butter, or pretty much anything from an Indian menu when something refreshing is required.
With such a diverse line-up of top-quality wines, it’s no surprise that Alsace is home to one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in France. But you don’t need to hop on the Eurostar to get a taste of the region. True, you might struggle to find the famous choucroute or tarte flambée in London, but some of the capital’s best restaurants have a terrific selection of Alsace wines, whatever your budget. Click here to find out our favourites, and why some of London’s foremost sommeliers are such big fans of the wines of Alsace.
Find out more about #DrinkAlsace