There's a reason why sommeliers and wine drinkers are going crazy for wines produced in Alsace. While Bordeaux and Burgundy may be the more obvious stars of the vinous firmament, limited supply and vertiginous prices mean connoisseurs are seeking out alternative options at the premium end.
One hidden treasure where you don’t have to forego quality and the prices are much lower than other big-name regions is Alsace. This is one reason why sommeliers are so pleased to offer these wines on their lists, another being their food-friendliness and versatility. Oh, and there’s a breathtaking range, too.
Alsace is located in the north-east corner of France, separated from Germany on its east side by the river Rhine and sheltered on its west side by the Vosges mountains. The latter protect Alsace from the worst of any weather coming in from western France and make it one of the driest regions in the country. The sunny climate helps to ripen the grapes without over-baking them, which in turn creates wines that are rich in texture and balanced with a backbone of refreshing acidity.
Grapes and key varieties
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. Alsace winemakers do everything possible to retain the aromas and pure fruit flavours of these aromatic grape varieties, and while each has their own style, they all share the goal of producing exceptional wines that convey the fruit and terroir of Alsace.
Alsace Riesling is known for its dry, delicate and bright freshness. Its racy acidity, expressive aromas and sophisticated minerality give it depth and finesse. On the nose, you’ll find subtle aromas of lemon, citronella and grapefruit, escalating in some instances to pear, peach and even fruit compote. Aromas of white blossom are another feature, as are notes of aniseed, liquorice and fennel. Depending on the soil where the grapes are grown, it might develop mineral aromas of flint or kerosene.
All this means connoisseurs love exploring the patchwork of Alsatian Grand Crus where different terroirs yield distinctive aromas. On the palate the wine is linear with a lively intensity, both on the attack and the finish, with a nice mid-palate weightiness. Classy grand cru wines will mature wonderfully for decades. Those who have the patience (and the wallet) will testify to Alsace’s special relationship with Riesling and, at Grand Cru level, the expression will be different according to each individual terroir.
Pinot Blanc is pale yellow in colour, bright and understated. On the nose it is fresh and quietly fruity, with delicate floral notes and hints of apple and peach. With its well balanced acidity and light body, Pinot Blanc opens up on the palate to deliver a wine that is expressive, crisp and refreshing - it's sometimes quite rich, but never overbearing. Occasionally, it is blended with Auxerrois, which adds roundness and generosity.
Pinot Gris is known for its golden yellow colour. On the nose it has subtle complexity often revealed in smoky, flinty notes, as well as hints of apricot, honey, ginger spice, dried fruit and even beeswax, particularly as the wine warms in the glass. The yellow fruited palate is ample and fleshy with a pleasant tension that gives the wine a full-bodied structure. It is well-balanced with an impression of dry freshness on the finish.
Gewurz, as it is sometimes referred to, is characterised by its intensely aromatic, rich and exuberant palate, preceded by a powerful, complex bouquet that offers an eruption of exotic stone fruits such as apricots and peaches, intensifying into lychees, passion fruit, pineapple and mangos. You’ll also find floral notes (notably roses), citrus fruit and ginger spice, as well as honey aromas. It is equally exuberant on the palate with a similar profile of exotic flavours. While the wines are sustained by good acidity, this freshness is more discreet than in other varietals. Bursting with intensity and complexity, and versatile with food too, it’s a unique wine to have in your cellar.
Despite the warmth of the climate in Alsace, excellent, good value fizz is produced under the Cremant d’Alsace label, using the traditional Champagne method. Outside of Champagne, it is the region’s most popular sparkling wine. Muscat d’Alsace is a dry, crisp and intensely fruity wine and Pinot Noir is the most important red varietal to look out for.
Pedigree of the winemakers
The majority of Alsace wines come from family domaines, many of which have been handed down from generation to generation – in some cases up to 12 generations that date back to the 16th century. This pedigree is at the heart of the wine making, with the younger generations continuing to uphold tradition while moving with the times. Alsace winemakers are friendly, welcoming people, delighting in wine drinkers who show an interest in their wines.
Wine labels that make sense
What’s more, understanding the wine from the label is much easier compared to other French regions, as the grapes are largely acknowledged on the bottle – something that the New World has always been good at. Plus, there are only two levels of appellation: Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru.
What makes a Grand Cru vineyard
While you don’t have to drink Grand Cru wines to drink well in Alsace, there are 51 vineyards that are designated Grand Cru. These are specially chosen spots that dot the elevated headlands and foothills of the wooded peaks. Each boasts its own unique terroir and soils thanks to the region’s complex geology across 13 different soils, as well as a microclimate that includes ample sunshine. These plots face east, south east and south, all of which help deliver optimal sun for the best grape cultivation.
Grand Cru wines
Only the noble grape varieties of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat are authorized for Grand Cru wines (plus Sylvaner in the Zotzenberg plot), but the first three are of greater importance. The winemakers must comply with stricter regulations, such as handpicking and limitations on yields, all of which are designed to keep the quality standards high.
With these grapes, growing conditions and soils, skilled Alsace winemakers can produce wines that boast terrific complexity, minerality, and ageing potential. In fact, many are aged for longer before being released, sometimes for several years in the bottle. In terms of style and flavour, the variety of wines that are made is remarkable, from dry to off-dry and sweet. Some wines are hugely aromatic, others more restrained, while further wines are defined by their acidity or minerality. All have their own, clear personalities.
The first Grand Cru vineyards were selected in 1975, with further official designations being made in 1983, 1992 and 2007. Make no mistake, with just 8% of the region’s vineyards being designated Grand Cru – and comprising a mere 4% of its production – there is rarity value in a Grand Cru wine.
Where to buy Alsace wine
Alsace wines are readily available in most major retailers across the UK, as well as in some more specialist wine shops. Majestic, Waitrose, Laithwaite's Wine and Virgin Wines all offer excellent selections, while The Wine Society, Taurus Wines and DBM Wines boast nuanced ranges.