Alsace : Embracing the Chaos
- By Nabilah Rawji
- 16 Oct 2020
- 6 MIN
- Level 101
Alsace offers the wine drinker a peek through a kaleidoscope, refracting the region into a sensory explosion that refuses to be defined by any one element. Whatever your take on Alsace, the region stands ready to subvert your understanding and send you back to wine class. We’ll define the region in some broad strokes and then dig into the tensions that make the region so intriguing.
Wedged between the Vosges mountains to the west and the Rhine river to the east, Alsace sits atop two major fault lines. Nearly 50 million years ago, a period of intense geologic activity between the Voges and Rhine fault zones created a large rift valley that became the pathway for the Rhine river. This geologic battle of wills resulted in intense fragmentation of the soil strata and exposed a dizzying array of terroirs.
The dropping out of the Rhine Plain created a steeper incline on the eastern face of the Vosges mountains compared to the west. This creates the rain shadow that keeps Alsace drier and sunnier than would otherwise be expected, as well as the Foehn winds which blow west to east down the Vosges mountains. The winds aerate vineyards and keep disease pressure low year-round, but their action is particularly beneficial in autumn. This also enables long hang times and thickens grape skins, boosting the concentration of phenolics in the skin. Alsace has changed hands several times between Germany and France between the mid 1600’s and the end of World War II. The rapid-fire socio-political shifts have left the region with a unique and enduring identity that blends Germanic and French culture. This fusion of cultures extends to its distinctive local dialect, the prevalence of the half-timber style of architecture, and culinary traditions of the region such as choucroute-garnie.
Layering the socio-political history of the region over the natural history of the Rhine valley and you end up with a pretty clear explanation for the collection of grape varieties employed in Alsace and some understanding of why the noble grapes (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Gewürztraminer) are, well, noble. These four varieties are the most commercially important and make up roughly 50% of the total volume of wine produced and nearly the entirety of Grand Cru wines.
Besides the noble varieties, other notable plantings include Klevener de Heiligenstein, Sylvaner, and Pinot Blanc. Klevener de Heiligenstein also goes by the moniker Savagnin Rose and is similar to Gewürztraminer in both appearance and taste. Plantings of Klevener de Heiligenstein are limited to four communes and are produced by just a handful of winemakers. When it comes to Pinot Blanc, keep an eye out for bottlings by Josmeyer and Meyer-Fonne. They both make excellent examples of complex Pinot Blanc. Sylvaner is perhaps the most commercially relevant of Alsace's secondary grapes as it is produced broadly across a range of quality levels, including in Grand Cru bottlings in Zotzenberg.
Even though Alsace is thought of as a sweet wine region, a winemaker's philosophy on sweetness is as important as anything else. Riesling and Pinot Gris tend to be vinified drier, but even when described as dry they push the generosity of the term. Muscat, though the subject of many sweet wines globally, is almost always vinified dry in Alsace. Gewürztraminer's softer acid amplifies the perception of sweetness, but Pinot Gris which feels drier, can rock similar levels of residual sugar. That's not to say that Gewürztraminer is inherently unbalanced; the variety relies on its abundant phenolic bitterness, as opposed to acid, to bring balance. Sylvaner and Pinot Blanc, as mentioned above, are generally vinified truly dry.
Alsace does the very un-French thing of labelling its wines by varietal and what's on the label must be 100% of what's in the bottle… unless you lump the grapes by one name as is done with Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois. Consider the merits of varietal bottling vs blends as a communicator of terroir and you have the subject of a thriving debate. Marcel Deiss is a bold proponent of field blends alongside Christian Binner, who notes the long history of Edelzwicker and Gentil blends in the region. Kaefferkopf and Altenberg de Bergheim Grand Crus are notable as they allow for blends.
Finally, even the dominance of white wine varieties overshadows the presence, current quality, and future potential of the region's sole red grape, Pinot Noir. The grape historically struggled to ripen however this is changing. The region's accumulated growing degree days are often surpassing Burgundy and pushing levels seen in new world locations like coastal California and Willamette Valley, Oregon. Several winemakers are producing excellent examples of Pinot Noir from Grand Cru sites including, Domaine Mure, Domaine Albert Mann, and Domaine Boxler. Looking forward, Pinot Noir's presence and importance will likely grow and add a dash of color to the kaleidoscope that is Alsatian wine.