Thursday, January 7, 2010

CQ's Wine Guide to France Part 1: Alsace


There are 50 Grand Cru vineyards. The system was developed in the 1970’s and made official in 1983. Many prominent producers are against the grand cru system claiming that the sites are arbitrarily defined and do not take in to account the terroir of the specific regions. Historically traded hands between German and French government for generations. The German influence lies in the choice of varietals planted in the vineyards, but French wine-making techniques are employed for white wines. Whites are higher alcohol than German counterparts. The amount of residual sugar in the finished wine is largely a choice of the winemaker. It is a myth that Alsace whites are always dry.


The Vosges Mountains protect the region from harsh winter storms and strong winds creating a temperate region with consistent harvests from year to year. The best vineyards lie on the Eastern slopes of the mountains on schist soils. The valley produces grapes that are used to make inexpensive wines and Cremant d’Alsace.


  1. Pinot Gris: A pinkish colored berry in the Pinot family. Relatively neutral aromatically unless late harvested. Medium acid, Medium plus bodied wines. The wines often have a pinkish tint due to the grape skin coloring.
  2. Pinot Blanc: Golden skinned berry in the Pinot family. Neutral aromas. Not allowed in Grand Cru vineyards. Considered a “work horse” grape. Low to medium acid, medium body. Typically comprises the bulk of Cremant d’Alsace and good everyday inexpensive wines.
  3. Gewurtztraminer: the spicy grape. Heavily scented of lychee and rose petals and exotic spices. Suitable for late harvest. Low acid, full bodied wines. Can be flabby if not carefully vinified. Like Pinot Gris, the grapes have a pinkish tint.
  4. Muscat (Blanc a Petit Grains): floral “grapey” wines. Full-bodied and low acid. Suitable for late harvest. Not commonly grown though some of the most exotic and decadent late harvest wines come from this grape.
  5. Sylvaner: Considered grand cru only in the Zotzenberg grand cru vineyard because of ancient vines there. An alternative to the Riesling grape used for the production of Liebfraumilch in Germany. Light bodied and high acid wines.
  6. Riesling: Possibly one of the most sophisticated varietals grown in Alsace because it takes on the qualities of surrounding terroir so well. White peach aromas often with floral and honeyed character in the background. High acid and full-bodied when fermented dry.
Sweet Wines
  1. Vendage Tardive: late harvest, but not always sweet. Usually some botrytis affected grapes with a rich honeyed scent.
  2. Selection de Grains Nobles: harvested later than vendage tardive. Almost always sweet with botrytis. The most opulent and expensive style of wine from Alsace. Compare with a beerenauslese or trockenbeerenauslese wine from Germany.

Major Producers
  1. Trimbach: Producing wine for 400 years. Typically a dry “steely” style. The best Rieslings are made in the Clos St. Hune vineyard, a walled vineyard of Riesling. These wines are age worthy and expensive.
  2. Weinbach: In between Trimbach and Zind-Humbrecht in terms of richness of finished wines. The winery is managed by mother, Collette, and daughters, Catherine and Laurance. The best wines come from the Schlossberg Grand Cru vineyard.
  3. Zind-Humbrecht: One of the only MW’s who makes wine. Richly textured and flavored wines. The wines are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 on the label to designate the level of sweetness.
  4. Marcel Deiss: Biodynamic producer and “terroir” extremist believing that the site on which grapes are grown is more important than the varietal itself. Often varietals are grown side-by-side in vineyards and co-fermented in the same vats. Many wines do not carry a varietal designation on the label, only the place from which it came.

Helpful Websites

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