Alsace: One of the Finest Growing Regions in the World
One of France’s finest wine-growing regions, and one of its least understood, is the Alsace, a northerly region bordering on Germany and with a populace that is as comfortable speaking German as French.
The grape varieties of Alsace (almost all of them white; there is some Pinot Noir there as well) are Germanic in tone, with Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner at the top of the list, and Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris adding depth. And the primary buyer of Alsace wines is Germany.
There the parallels end. In fact, the wine making styles of Germany and Alsace, with the same grapes, are poles apart, with the former preferring to balance some of the naturally high acids with residual sugar, by halting the fermentation before all the natural sweetness has been converted.
Alsace traditionally has looked upon these wines are accompaniments to one of France’s greatest regional cuisines, and to that end has historically kept all its wines dry.
As author Hugh Johnson wrote decades ago in his superb World Atlas of Wine:
“Instead of grape sugar lingering delicately in the wine, the grower likes a dry, firm, clean flavor, fermenting every ounce of the sugar which the long dry summers of Alsace give.”
This has produced wines with the heft of Burgundy, rich on the palate with 12.5% or even 13.5% alcohol. It was generally tart enough to cut through all the richness of pressed duck, foie gras, and the like. Alsace wine always was seen as a bit of a learned experience because of its high acidity, but with food the wines were brilliant.
However, Alsace was one of the areas of France where the regulations pertaining to wine quality and style were not addressed until some 50 years ago, long after other regions gained their official recognition. And this left Alsace in a sort of limbo state for a long time.
For various reasons, in the late 1980s things began to change for Alsace. A few producers started getting high scores from some U.S. wine publications for wines that were sweet. This prompted other wineries of the area to start making many of their wines with sugar.
Today most of Alsace’s most recognized white wine, Gewurztraminer, is being made soft and succulent, quite a contrast to the centuries that went before when Alsace wines were crisp and tart.
To be sure, some of Alsace’s best wines were always dessert-styled wines called Vendange Tardive (made from late-harvested grapes), but even some of these were merely gutsy and still relatively dry.
One of the last producers of truly dry and classically tuned Alsace Gewurztraminer and Riesling (and other wines) is the house of Trimbach. Many of these wines represent great value.
Alsace, which has survived more than 80 years of German occupation dating back more than 100 years, continues to deliver some of the most interesting and dramatic white wines coming in from France.