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  ABC Wine Issue 26, January 2005   
AlsaceAlsace  Contents 
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Alsace

Known in the world for the elegance and the finesse of its white wines, Alsace is also the only French region in which the name of the grape is a primary element of the label

 Alsace is probably the most renowned French wine region in the world for white wines. In this strip of territory - to the border of Germany and contended with it in the past for a long time - are almost exclusively cultivated white berried grapes with which are produced many and famous styles of wine. The only representative of red grapes in Alsace - which also represents a marginal percentage in the viticulture of the region - is Pinot Noir. In this region - maybe more than any other - the grapes and their aromas play the leading role in the cellar, hardly - if not rarely - wines are being aged in casks in order to preserve and enhance the fruity and floral character of grapes. It should also observed that in Alsace are being cultivated among the most aromatic grapes in the world - such as Gewürztraminer, Muscat Blanc and Riesling - to which is also added the indispensable and primary factor of the territory.

 Alsace is - in the French enological scenario - a particular region according to many aspects. The region is practically oriented to the production of white wines only, the grapes cultivated in Alsace are rarely found in other French regions. Finally, the name of the grape is a primary and identifying element of wine and of label as opposed to other French regions in which it is absent in favor of the mention of the place of production. Alsace is among the most northern wine areas of France and only Champagne is located at a higher latitude, it is at about 500 kilometers east from Paris (about 300 miles), near the border with Germany along the course of Rhine river. The Alsatian region is shielded in the west side by Vosges mountains, therefore ensuring a less cold climate and shielded from cold winds. As opposed to other areas in the same latitude, the climate of Alsace is pretty warm and dry, and thanks to the protection offered by Vosges mountains, rains are less frequent than in other French regions.


Alsace
Alsace

 Because of the vicinity of Alsace with Germany, it is often said that in this region are being produced German wines in French style. Many factors could make think this to be true - including latitude, the vicinity of Rheingau region and the use of Riesling grape - however the wine philosophy of Alsace is pretty different from German style. In Alsace - as opposed to Germany - grape sugar is completely transformed into alcohol therefore producing drier and fuller body wines than German ones. A factor that could eventually join Alsace to Germany is that in both areas are not used casks - if not rarely - and malolactic fermentation is avoided in order to keep the fresh and fruity character of each grape variety. As opposed to what it is commonly believed, most of Alsatian wines are dry, whereas German wines always have a certain quantity of residual sugar.

 Vineyards in Alsace are found - for most of the part - at an altitude from 160 and 420 meters (550-1380 feet) and the autumnal humidity favors the development of Botrytis Cinerea, essential for the production of the renowned Sélection de Grains Nobles. The composition of Alsatian soil is pretty vast, it is composed by an average of twenty different types of soil. The most common soils in Alsace include granitic, sandy, schistose, volcanic, clay, marl and limestone sediments. The origin of the plains at the feet of Vosges mountains is alluvial, very fertile, not very suited to the cultivation of vine. In soils rich in clay and marl, wines generally tend to have a fuller body, whereas the ones produced in limestone and sands are more delicate and elegant. In schistose soils rich in slate, wines tend to have a more mineral character, in particular the wines made with Riesling grape.

 As already mentioned, Alsace is a land of white wines and therefore the viticulture is essentially oriented to white berried varieties. The only red berried grape found in Alsace - with a pretty marginal percentage - is Pinot Noir used for the production of Rouge d'Alsace and of Rosé d'Alsace, it is found in most of classic method sparkling wines Crémant d'Alsace. In this region some varieties of white grapes are traditionally called noble and represent - as a matter of fact - the most renowned grapes of Alsace: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Muscat Blanc. It should be observed that in Alsace Gewürztraminer is generally written as Gewurztraminer (without umlaut) and Pinot Gris is traditionally called Tokay Pinot Gris or Tokay d'Alsace. Moreover, the varieties of Muscat found in the region are two: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (Muscat Blanc with small berries) - also known as Muscat d'Alsace - and Muscat Ottonel.

 In Alsace are also cultivated other white berried grapes - not belonging to the family of noble grapes but however interesting - such as Silvaner - here known as Sylvaner - Pinot Blanc, Chasselas, Klevner and Auxerrois. In the region is also found Chardonnay - introduced in recent times - mainly used for the production of Crémant d'Alsace. The grapes Klevner, Auxerrois and Chasselas are rarely used for the production of monovarietal wines and the most frequent usage is to be added to other varieties - in particular Pinot Blanc - in order to give more character and body. These grapes are also used - together with noble varieties - for the production of Edelzwicker - whose meaning is noble blend - a wine of pretty variable quality which certainly does not honor its literal meaning.

 

Classification of Alsace

 The wine region of Alsace is recognized by the French quality system as an area of Appellation d'Origine Côntrolée, abbreviated as AOC. Inside the Alsace AOC (or Vin d'Alsace AOC) are also found two quality appellations: the famous Alsace Grand Cru AOC and Crémant d'Alsace AOC. All wines belonging to Alsace AOC - according to the production disciplinary - can mention in the label the name of the grape with which are being made only in case it is a monovarietal wine, that is exclusively produced with one grape variety. This characteristic is typical of Alsace, whereas in other French wine regions it is exclusively mentioned the name of the area or cru with no reference to the grape or grapes used for the production. In case a wine was produced by assembling more grapes, it can also mention in the label the term Edelzwicker (German for noble blend). Edelzwicker wines have a pretty variable quality and most of the times far from being noble, for this reason many producers prefer not to use this term in their wines made of many grapes, while making use of the most generic appellation Alsace AOC.


 

 The highest qualitative level for Alsatian wines is represented by the Alsace Grand Cru AOC appellation. Despite this appellation has been source of arguments and debates - both on the areas included in the appellation as well as on quality - it is however undeniable the best wines belong to this appellation. The production disciplinary set stricter rules, lower cultural yields and the exclusive use of the so called noble varieties: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Muscat Blanc and Pinot Gris. Alsace Grand Cru AOC wines can only be produced in one of the 50 legally recognized areas by the disciplinary and it must be mentioned in the label. This appellation was introduced in 1975 and in 1983 were defined the first 25 areas recognized as Grand Cru. Three years later were added other 23 areas and now they are 50. The introduction of Grand Cru area was cause of long and harsh debates, both on the real quality of the producers in some areas, as well as for the exclusion or inclusion of certain areas.

 Labels of Alsatian wines, as opposed to the ones of other French wine areas, mention the name of the grape with which they were made as well as other information which need to be understood. Some information written in the label define the specific style of the wine, others indicate the real - or presumed - quality of wine. The most famous indications for Alsatian wines are Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles. Vendange Tardive wines - literally “late harvest” - are being produced with grapes harvested some weeks later than the regular time of harvesting, whereas Sélection de Grains Nobles wines - literally “selection of noble berries” - are produced with grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea - the famous noble rot - and therefore these are sweet and rich wines as well as rare. In labels of Alsatian wines can also be found the terms Sélection, Réserve and Special Cuvée generally used for wines of particular value and of high quality.

 

Production Areas

 The wine region of Alsace is located in the north-western part of France, in the hills located in the eastern side of Vosges mountain, along the course of Rhine river to the border of Germany. Alsace is a strip of territory about 110 kilometers long (about 70 miles) and it is divided into two departments: to the north - near Strasbourg - is located the Bas-Rhin (Lower Rhine) whereas to the south is found Haut-Rhin (Upper Rhine). North-West from the main area is found the province of Lorraine in which are defined the appellations of Vin de Moselle and Côtes de Toul. Most of vineyards are found in the Haut-Rhin where they benefit from a better exposition to sun rays and more favorable climate conditions. The production in Alsace is mainly oriented to white wines - about 82% of total production - 8% of red and rose wines and the remaining 10% of sparkling wines. The grapes mainly cultivated in Alsace are white and only four of them are considered noble: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Muscat Blanc and Pinot Gris. The other typical white berried grapes of the region are: Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Auxerrois, Chasselas, Klevner and - in small quantities - Chardonnay. The main red berried grape is Pinot Noir, however in the Les Côtes de Toul appellation are also produced red wines with Gamay grape.

 

Types of Wine

 Most of the times - when Alsatian wines are mentioned - it is believed the production is essentially oriented to sweet wines or wines with an appreciable sweetness because of residual sugar. Indeed most of Alsatian wine is dry, even the one produced with late harvested grapes, the renowned Vendanges Tardive. The most prestigious wines of Alsace are produced with Riesling grape. In Alsace Riesling is pretty sensitive to local conditions of vineyard, probably more than in any other place. In order to give its best, Alsatian Riesling needs impeccable environmental conditions; when produced in areas lacking these requisites, the wines are pretty ordinary. Another famous wine of Alsace is Gewurztraminer whose characteristics are very typical and personal, rarely found in Gewürztraminer produced in other areas of the world. The rich organoleptic qualities of fruit found in Alsatian Gewurztraminer usually make these wines to apparently taste sweet, indeed they are dry wines, with the exception of late harvest in which it is found a part of residual sugar.

 Another celebrity of Alsace is Pinot Gris - locally also known as Tokay Pinot Gris which does not have any connection neither with Hungarian Tokaji nor with its grapes - a wine that, as opposed to the ones produced in other areas of the world, has a higher structure and a more rich aromatic quality. As opposed to other wine areas of the world, in Alsace wines produced with Muscat Blanc are usually dry. Here are found two varieties of Muscat: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains - also known as Muscat d'Alsace - and Muscat Ottonel. Muscat d'Alsace has a higher structure with strong aromas of flowers and citrus fruits, whereas Muscat Ottonel is lighter and more aromatic. These two grapes are generally considered complementary and often blended together for the production of wines. The result is an extremely aromatic dry wine with aromas and flavors of peach, citrus fruits and musk. Among the white grapes not defined as noble, the most renowned one is Pinot Blanc with which are being produced pleasing white wines and most of the times blended with Auxerrois grape.

 Two great Alsatian wines - as well as rare - are the Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Noble, both exclusively produced in exceptional years - most of the times one or two times every ten years - which represent less than 1% of total production. Vendange Tardive - produced with late harvested grapes and abbreviated as VT - can be either dry and slightly sweet, very concentrated and with an appreciable acidity. Grapes used for the production of Vendange Tardive are generally harvested after about two weeks from regular vintage and can also be affected by Botrytis Cinerea. Sélection de Grains Nobles - abbreviated as SGN - are sweet wines exclusively produced with grapes affected by noble rot. These wines represent an incredible sensorial experience, with a perfect balance between acidity and alcohol, extremely concentrated with very high organoleptic intensity and long persistence.

 Because of the difficulty with which the Botrytis Cinerea develops in Alsace, its presence in vineyards is not ensured every year, therefore the production of Sélection de Grains Nobles is pretty variable - and however in small quantities - and in some year their production is not possible at all. The production of these wines is very hard: the harvesting of grapes is a patient work done in the vineyard where are being harvested and selected - hence the name - only the berries affected by the noble rot. The other berries will be harvested later and used for the production of Vendanges Tardive. Crémant d'Alsace are sparkling wines produced with the classic method, just like all the other French Crémant sparkling wines. They usually are produced with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir and - frequently - Chardonnay. The introduction of Chardonnay in Alsace is pretty recent and its use is officially allowed in the production of Crémant d'Alsace only. It seems this rule is not fully obeyed and that small quantities of Chardonnay are being added to other wines in order to increase body.

 




 Editorial  Share this article   Share on Google+   Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 26, January 2005   
AlsaceAlsace  Contents 
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