Alsace

Alsace, in the far north-eastern corner of France, stands out from other French wine regions thanks to its strong Franco-Germanic influences. These are the result of the region having switched back and forth between German and French sovereignty in recent centuries – and are evident not only in Alsatian architecture and culture, but also in the wines.

The Alsace region lies between the Vosges mountains and the French border with Germany, marked by the Rhine river. A long, thin region, it measures 115 miles (185km) north to south and just 25 miles (40km) from east to west. The key viticultural areas here are all located on the lower hillsides of the Vosges, on slopes with east and south-easterly aspects.

The Vosges play a vital role in defining the region's terroir; they not only provide protection from the prevailing westerly winds, but also cast a rain shadow over the area, contributing to the low rainfall of its continental climate. They are at their most dense in the southern half of Alsace, where the peaks reach roughly 4,600ft (1,400m). The glacial activity which created the mountains has also significantly impacted the region's topography and soils. These vary from sandstone, granite and volcanic rock types in the foothills, to clay-rich limestone and marlstone on the alluvial plains below.

Alsace is the only French wine region to grow significant quantities of Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Both of these varieties are more commonly associated with German wines, and serve as a reminder of Alsace's history. Pinot Gris, a variety typically marginalised in other French regions as a blending component, is another of the region's specialties. Sylvaner and Muscat are also traditional Alsace grape varieties, as are Chasselas and Auxerrois although the latter two tend to be used not in single-variety wines but in blends.

Alsace's wines are produced under three key appellations: Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru for still white wines (both sweet and dry), and Crémant d'Alsace for sparkling. Almost all wine produced in this region fits into one of these three designations.

White varietal wines make up 90% of production here, from the varieties stated above. Key variations in wine styles are marked by their residual sugar levels, which cover the entire sweetness spectrum from bone dry to lusciously sweet. In 1983, the official terms Vendanges Tardives and Selection de Grains Nobles were introduced to define and categorise sweet Alsace wines. They remained unique to the region for some time, but are now used in other French appellations such as Jurancon and Côteaux du Layon.

Although significantly outnumbered by white wines, red wines are also made here, mostly from Pinot Noir. Alsace Pinot Noirs are typically lighter-bodied and more rustic than those produced in the variety's homeland Burgundy, 140 miles (225km) to the south-west. That said, climate change and warmer summers are leading the region's winemakers to produce noticeably more powerful styles of Pinot Noir.

Dotted along the length of the region are 51 sites marked out as being of particular distinction; the Alsace Grand Cru vineyards.
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