Andlau to Turckheim: A Guide To The Wines of Alsace

Many a wine drinker knows Alsace as the oddity among France’s wine regions. There is a certain otherness about the wines from the perspective of a French (or Francophile) wine drinker, owing in part, I think, to their characteristic unabashedly fruity, aromatic flavor profile, as well as a labeling system that is as much German as it is French: the names of the 51 Grands Crus of Alsace are all of Germanic origin, as is the region’s tendency (unique in France) of labeling wines by grape variety. The emphasis of style and packaging, I think, tends to obscure what is really notable about Alsace: I would make the case that it is the most distinctive terroir in France.

There are two main characteristics of Alsace‘s landscape that I think make it unique. The first has to do with the topographic situation of the region’s vineyards, while the second is the region’s unique geology. These overlap somewhat, but I want to say a little bit about the unique topography of Alsace and how it contributes to some of the world’s most sublimely powerful, yet exquisitely balanced white wines (and some very compelling reds).

Alsace‘s most prized vineyards are planted primarily on a narrow band of east-southeast facing slopes in the foothills of the Vosges mountains. The leeward orientation and the higher mountains to the west create a rain shadowing effect, sheltering the vineyards from major weather systems, and making this the driest region of France, with an average annual rainfall of less than 600 mm (Bordeaux, the rainiest, gets around 850 mm most years). The alluvial plain bordering the Rhine is less planted nowadays but once was an important site for low-quality bulk wine for blending in both France and Germany.

High-altitude and high-elevation vineyard sites are prized for the ample acidity the cool climate tends to elicit, but this often comes at the expense of a lack of grape maturity, both in degrees of potential alcohol and in the development of primary aromas. For example, the contrast with Champagne, another cool-climate region at approximately the same latitude, could not be more striking: While fruit in harsh, wet Champagne struggles to reach maturity and often can succumb to rot, in Alsace a certain level of ripeness is virtually guaranteed, with a high-sugar grape variety like Gewurztraminer from a Grand Cru site sometimes tipping the scales at over 15% potential alcohol. This is certainly reflected in the classic style of Alsatian wines: exuberant aromatics and often some palpable alcoholic weight balanced by nervy acidity and an almost architectural mineral structure.


Recommended Bottles:
Riesling, Dom. Marcel Deiss – 2010
The floral weight of Deiss’s Riesling never fades. leaning towards off-dry, the mineraled texture and lemon zest finish hides the lovely sweetness of this classic wine. Beautiful for Beurre Blanc with Fish, Scallops with Lime or delicate curries.

Pinot Blanc “Cuvée George”, Jean Ginglinger – 2011
A lush, golden Pinot Blanc that is full of white flower aromas and peach flavors. This complex and fruit-driven white wine is great with shellfish or white meats