Alsace has been producing wine since Roman times – even Shakespeare was in love with them – but the wines of this region are not as well known in the UK as they deserve to be…
Lead image: The Mure Landelin Vineyard, Alsace
Alsace has been producing wine since Roman times. By the year 1,000 there were 160 villages growing vines. In the Middle Ages the wines were shipped down the Rhine and on to Scandinavia and England.
They reached their peak of popular appeal in the 16th century. Shakespeare mentioned the wines of ‘Osoy’, a distortion of Aussay as the region was known at the time.
This popularity was halted by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which devastated the region and most of the vineyards. It was the outcome of three wars that saw political control of Alsace alternate between France and Germany in 1648,1871, and 1918.
Alsation viticulture underwent a transformation after the First World War, when winegrowers decided to produce wines only from traditional, high-quality grape varieties. After 1945, this policy was reinforced by delimitation of the vineyard area, and by strict enforcement of production and vinification legislation.
These are some of the most distinctive wines produced in France. One of the reasons is the aromatic grape varieties used. They feature by name on the labels – this is the only area where AOC accreditation is given for grape type, rather than region, and the name of the sole (or main for a blend) varietal must appear on the label.
They are mostly white and dry, and include Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Pinot Blanc; the first two are said to produce the finest wines, though I would add Pinot Gris to that category, especially when they are made from late-picked grapes. With age the best of them can gain a delicious smokey richness that is not usually found in its Rieslings, for example.
Not surprisingly, most of these varietals are grown more extensively in Germany than elsewhere in France. But the distinctiveness is also down to the location on the lower slopes of the Voges mountains, soils and weather in the area.
‘The long, slow ripening process, the mosaic of soil types and very low rainfall all contribute to complex aromas and elegant, often quite full-bodied, wines’
The vines are planted along sheltered slopes at an altitude between 200 and 400 metres, often on very steep inclines. They benefit from the excellent exposure to the sun, enhanced by the training of vines along elevated wires.
The long, slow ripening process, the mosaic of soil types and very low rainfall all contribute to complex aromas and elegant, often quite full-bodied, wines. The long, flute-like bottles used (a legal requirement, but tricky in fridges) serve to add to the regional distinctiveness.
There are 51 grand cru vineyards accounting for 4% of the total area under vine in the 119 wine growing communities. The 15,600 hectares of AOC vineyards in production account for more than 150 million bottles a year on average, representing 18% of total French production of still white AOC wines.
The fruitiness and full flavours of these wines have more in common with the New World than most other mainstream French wines. They are also usually good value for money. I tasted the examples reviewed below at a recent Alsace tasting, focusing on still whites, which comprise the greatest proportion of production in the region.
But there also reds (mostly pinot noirs) and sparkling crémant whites. I have not been able to review several excellent wines I tasted because they are not available in any UK retail outlets; another sad reflection of the unwarranted low profile of its wines here.
THE BEST ALSACE WINES
Muré Domaine de Clos St-Landelin Grand Cru Vorbourg 2016 (13.5%): A most attractive wine from a well regarded, long-established family producer, with ripe fruit and balancing acidity. Has more depth than many rieslings. Will go well with food. £33.99 from agwines.com
Julien Schaal Grand Cru Sommerberg Riesling 2018 (13%): Schaal has successful wineries in both Alsace and South Africa. From 40 year old vines this one has a smoothness that belies its youth, and the fact it has had no malolactic fermentation. Very pure fruit is in evidence as is acid. That will soften with age which will open up the flavours too. His excellent South African Mountain Vineyards Chardonnay is also available in the UK. £19 from Handford Wines London SW7
Jean Becker Grand Cru Froehn Muscat 2016 (13%): Appealing grapey aromas lead to deep, tangy, lingering flavours typical of this varietal. £23.50 from davywine.co.uk
Meyer-Fonné Grand Cru Kaefferkopf Pinot Gris 2017 (13.5%): Its charming, complex, spicy fruit is not overblown. An elegant and distinguished wine. £24.99 from noblegrape.co.uk
Meyer-Fonné Reserve Pinot Gris 2017 (13.5%): Attractive pear and guava on the palate, good mouthfeel and finesse. £16.99 from de-burgh.com
Joseph Cattin Reserve Gewurztraminer 2017 (13.5%): Aromatic, off-dry, with a gentle rounded palate and classic gewurz mouth-filling flavours. £15.99 from robertsandspeight.co.uk
Bott-Geyl Grand Cru Sonnenglanz Gewurztramminer 2011: Sweet, complex, unctuous lychee and other tropical flavours abound. A great match for blue cheeses. £34.50-£38 from naturalvine.co.uk and The Sampler London N1
Other outstanding producers in Alsace: The wines of most of these producers were not present at the tasting, but they are also worth looking out for; Hugel, Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht, Schlumberger, Schoffit and Josmeyer. Find them online.