Alsatians make varietal wines, live in old half-timbered houses and crown a wine queen every year. No other region in France is quite like it. They produce a significant quantity of organic and even biodynamic wine. Their intricate soil formations express the land in numerous ways. And there are ever more to chose from.
Alsace is a distinctly different French wine region. More than any other in the country, it is characterized by its grape varieties. Only here do the single varieties riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris and muscat have their names on the labels of AOC wine. All four grand cru varieties occupy very different niches with their typical characters.
Riesling impresses with its ability to express terroir. Nervous on granite, elegant and mineral on lime, warmly vibrating on the volcanic rock of Rangen it turns to petroleum as it ages. Pinot gris develops high must weights, good for sweet wines and especially vendange tardive (late harvest). Stylistically, many winegrowers look to Burgundy. Complex but balanced pinot gris can be found especially when grown on calcareous soils.
Muscat and gewürztraminer are genetically considered to be indigenous varieties from the viticultural basin of Alsace. Gewürztraminer develops its most intense floral aromas and texture when not completely dry. Muscat, on the other hand, is always full-bodied, spicy-fruited and low in alcohol, which makes it perfect as an aperitif. Some dozen grape varieties are permitted in Alsace. Pinot blanc, which is often blended with auxerrois, is slightly underrated, but can deliver elegant wines, even as a crémant (sparkling).
The same applies to sylvaner, which can mature well without too much sweetness. 27 percent of the total production is crémant. This méthode traditionelle sparkling wine is popular as a cash cow, but usually has a rather uncomplicated fruity nature. Therefore, some ambitious winemakers regard it with mixed feelings.
Ridges with a varied history
The terroir on the eastern ridge of the Vosges is uniquely diverse. The patchwork of soils in the narrow strip between Strasbourg and Mulhouse offers limestone and shale, marl and pebbles, clay and sandstone, granite and volcanic rock, and almost every hybrid in-between. Marl, which plays a role in the majority of the 51 grand cru expositions, occurs in a number of varied soil compositions.
There’s little precipitation here. The clouds, which can blow in an Atlantic influence, rain on the west side of the Vosges. Although located in the north-east of the country, Alsace is the driest and one of the sunniest regions of France with an annual average temperature of around 1.5 ° C higher than would be expected on its latitude. The interaction with the cold nights in late summer offers ideal conditions for a long maturation period.
The advantageous weather also allows other fruits to mature to top quality. Alsace is famous for its fruit brandies, especially the raspberry brandy, although many small businesses have disappeared. Metté still has dozens of different examples in its selection.
For many years, Alsace has had a stable vineyard surface, where yields vary only according to vintage conditions. Climate change is favouring the region with more and more hours of sunshine. This leaves little chance for powdery mildew (oidium), which allows organic wine growers in particular to sleep peacefully.
In the favourable, dry climate, around one in seven winegrowers works without conventional sprays, many of them organic. “Bio”, as the French abbreviate it, has long been socially acceptable here. Rémy Gresser, president of the winegrowers association, works organically and finds himself in good company with big names like Zind-Humbrecht, Deiss, Frick, Kreydenweiss and Weinbach.
Few regions have so many years of experience with the science and connection between soil biology and wine quality. Working methods such as making wine without any added sulphur have long been practised by winemakers. Biodynamic producer Stéphane Bannwarth matures his wines in Georgian qvevris, as he feels it is the logical extension from biodynamics to totally non-interventionist winemaking. The idea of ??environmental protection is deeply rooted here. A trial with genetically modified vines in 2010 caused so much anger that activists devastated the area.
Satisfied family businesses, good cooperatives, generous grand cru locations
From the northern end near Strasbourg to the southern border near Mulhouse, the region measures one hundred kilometres, adding up to 15,621 hectares of cultivated land over a maximum width of three kilometres. Less than half of the 3,908 winegrowers own more than two hectares.
In Alsace, wineries with good locations often remain family-owned for generations. Dopff-Au-Moulin was founded in 1574 and is one of the oldest wineries in the world. Nevertheless, wine cooperatives account for 43 percent of the sales, turning in reliable results and managing some valued grands crus.
While the Alsatian wines with exclusive AOC production and the obligatory flute-shaped bottles for the still wines look very homogenous on the surface, the contents vary quite considerably. 51 grand cru locations are the heart of Alsatian winegrowing. Many were created as recently as the 1980s, theoretically to enhance the value of the area. The production rules are relatively untaxing, for example allowing yields of 50 hectolitres per hectare, which leads to uneven quality.
In addition to the grands crus, the highest quality sweet wine bottlings are vendanges tardives (late harvest) and sélections de grains nobles (selected harvest of very ripe grapes, similar to the German beerenauslese). Both are characterized by very strict production regulations.
In addition, two further categories were introduced in 2011. "Lieux-dits" may refer to a specific site on the label. "Communales" is also a geographical indication, ideally referring to a long-established high quality location. Yields are limited to half the amount of standard AOC wines.
Competition or confusion?
The model for the classification system is Burgundy once again. With their extremely small, exclusive and hierarchical AOCs, the Bourgogne terroirs have a precision that fascinates many regions. But Alsace lacks their stringent approach. Grand cru winemakers, in particular, argue that the new categories create confusing competition with the grands crus. Anyway, the many classifications on the labels were inscrutable to consumers, and it didn’t help to keep adding more. An estimated 25 percent of grand cru wines ended up being bottled and sold as plain AOCs because there is simply no market for them. The ex-cellar price of some grands crus is barely more than ten euros.
On the other hand, competition is reviving the business. Every single winemaker outside the grands crus has the chance to gain more recognition through individual improvement. Emerging Communales and Lieux-dits could put mediocre grands crus under competitive pressure if they don’t want to seem outdated. Nobody knows the exact truth. "Statistically, these wines, which make up four percent of the total quantity, are not recorded," admits Gilles Neusch, managing director of the Alsace Wine Association.
The small scale, the unbelievable variety of soils in combination with the ideal location factors is both a curse and a blessing. An ambitious winemaker can market numerous lines and types of wine even from a small area - which is often the case. Even the smallest estates often produce all seven of the most common grape varieties.
A few calculations makes one doubt how the best wines even reach their buyers. Multiply only the four grand cru approved grape varieties with the 25 soil variations that officially describe the grands crus (without any fine detail) and there are 100 possible wine styles. Winemakers like to talk about 800 different terroirs. Multiplied with all approved AOC grape varieties, this approaches a five-digit number. Multipliers such as vendange tardive, selection des grains nobles, communales, lieux-dits and various permitted label additions are not included.
A sea, a river and war booty again and again
The soils of Alsace were originally the creation of a primeval sea, on which sediments were deposited layer by layer on the granite bedrock. Later, the area was shifted, raised and lowered by tectonic movements leaving behind the geological patchwork which was later sliced in half by the Rhine.
As in the entire greater region, the Celts tried their hands as winemakers before the Roman occupiers improved their efforts. Less pleasant was the invasion of migrating Germanic tribes, who destroyed the viticulture and perhaps augered a bad omen for the future.
With the rise of Burgundian monasteries and the spread of Christianity, viticulture recovered. Locations such as Mambourg were already known in the 8th century, many others followed. In the 16th century a viticulture association already existed in Riquewihr, with specified harvesting times and grape varieties. It was almost like a forerunner of the AOC.
However, Alsace suffered the most elemental shocks from the middle of the 19th century. In 1846-47, with an extreme shortage of crops, a young municipal official set up a supply fund in German Westerwald, which got the destitute rural population through the winter. Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Raiffeisen launched the first cooperative. When Alsace fell to the German Reich after the war of 1870-71, the winemakers lost the French markets overnight. They quickly founded cooperatives, which provided stability and quality for a long time after.
The region was passed back and forth as a booty of war between the arch-enemies France and Germany, but never to its own advantage. There are families of winegrowers whose members were obliged to serve in the same war for both the German and French armies. Alsace did not reclaim its true identity until after the Second World War.
The essentials worked out
In recent decades, many older types of wine such as Klevener de Heiligenstein, Rouge d'Otrott, vin de paille (straw wine) and vin de glace (ice wine) have lessened in importance. Varieties such as chasselas, knipperlé or pinot auxerrois are also becoming less dominant. Plantings of sylvaner and riesling have declined in favour of the three Burgundian varieties.
Today, the winemakers focus on dry wines in the region, which until recently would still have included wines with up ten grams of residual sugar. Many winemakers try to clarify the wine style on the back label with a kind of sugar traffic-light designating the sweetness level. In the premium segment, the future lies in dry, mineral, terroir-orientated wines, with fresh acidity and restrained ripeness - as the market demands. With their enormous ageing potential, youthful fruit and wet-stone notes give way to complex tertiary flavours including essential oils and iodine.
The biggest leap in quality has been made by pinot noir. For a long time served only as a slightly chilled easy-drinking wine, the reds from the best locations are again imitating Burgundy. The comparable and ever-warmer climate combined with the soils promise even more success in the future.
Despite all its trump cards, the Alsatians don’t have it easy when it comes to sales. For some time now, major export markets such as Belgium, Germany and the USA have been declining. And although Alsace is still highly appreciated by local connoisseurs and has its place in gastronomy, the sales market is also shrinking here. Gilles Neusch argues that “small harvests between 2013 and 2015 led to a shortage". Since 1990, Alsace has lost one third of its volume – even in years with harvests above-average – but gained the opposite amount in value. From 70 million euros in 1987, sales climbed to more than 100 million euros in 2017.
At first glance this is good news for the winemaker. In the long run however, consumers noticed the price increase. Domestically accepted price increases in lower yielding years have not been accepted by export markets. Excepting Belgium, bottle prices remained the same and the domestic market had to plug the gap.
Alsace’s wines have a certain image problem, in part due to their adoption of Gothic scripts on the labels and the use of the flute-shaped bottle. Confusion with German semi-sweet styles runs rife – the grape varieties are after all often the same. And riesling is cheaper in Rheinhessen! Alsace is considered expensive, despite its markedly different terroirs and styles.
Meanwhile, the acreage remains fairly constant - hardly surprising in a limited area with stable family estates. The individual categories follow the overall trends. So if more AOC wines are produced and sold, there ought to be more crémant and grand cru wines too. Crémant sales remain flat however – so it seems that sparkling wine alone might not be enough to keep the area afloat.
With their endearing modesty, the winemakers seldom complain, however, and seek recourse in their direct sales. Alsace, with its excellent gastronomy, has abundant wine tourism. With their and short travel times, German and Swiss customers (with their immense purchasing power) who visit the domaines tend to spend generously. Prices for vineyards increased in 2017 by 7.2 percent, the highest increase in France. There will surely be many Alsace wineries that stay in the family.