The wine of Alsace (Al-zass) reflects the curious situation of a border province. A traveler at the time of the French Revolution found it incredible that this land, so clearly intended by nature to be part of Germany, was actually part of France. Today, the people of Alsace feel very differently. What has not changed is the physical barrier between them and the rest of France; for it is the Vosges Mountains, not the Rhine River, that make the great change in landscape, architecture, climate and, certainly not least, the wine.
The region of Alsace produces Germanic wines in a French style. The tone of the wines is set by the climate, the soil and the choice of grapes, all of which are comparable with the vineyards slightly farther down the Rhine Valley, which is in Germany. What differs is the vinification of these wines. Modern German and Alsace winemakers hold opposite points of view as to what they want their wines to be. To put that difference in a nutshell, the Germans tend to look for residual sugar in their wines; Alsace looks for strength. This is of course, stereotyping but in general, German wines tend to be lighter in alcohol and fruitier than their French counterparts. Alsace gives the flower-scented grapes of Germany the body and authority that accompany strong and savory food. Instead of grape sugar lingering delicately in the wine, the Alsace winemaker likes a dry, firm, clean flavor. They completely ferment the sugar, which the long dry summers of the region gives them, concentrating the essences of the highly perfumed German-style grapes into wine that becomes astonishingly spicy and fragrant.
The vineyards of Alsace are dotted with medieval towns of cobbled streets, half-timbered houses, flowering window boxes and storks nesting on rooftops. A fascinating mixture of French and German characteristics pervade this fragment of France that is cut off from the rest of the country by the Vosges mountain range and separated from neighboring Germany by the mighty Rhine River. The colorful combination of cultures is a result of the wars and border squabbles that have plagued the ancient provinces since the treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War in 1648. This gave the French sovereignty over Alsace, and royal edicts, issued by Louis XIV in 1662, 1682 and 1687, proffered free lands to anyone willing to restore it to full productivity. As a result, hordes of Swiss, Germans, Tyroleans and Lorrainers poured into the region, contributing to the ethnic diversity of the area.
Despite the northern situation of the region, many geographic factors conspire to make the climate beneficial to the grape. The Vosges Mountains help to shelter the vineyards while limiting the rainfall to two-thirds that of the adjoining plain and half that of the mountains. The result is 50 additional days of sunshine. The vines, with a southern and eastern exposure, are able to get the maximum sun while the cooler weather of this northern region allows the grapes to mature more slowly, thus developing greater fruitiness and bouquet. The most prestigious vineyards are protected to the rear by the mountains, facing due east or southeast. The best vineyards have recently (1993) been defined as Grand Crus, but the only varieties planted in those vineyards entitled to Grand Cru designation on the label are Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris (also known as Tokay-Pinot Gris).
Although the mountains are very important to the microclimate of Alsace, one must return to the soil to determine the true nature of Alsace wines. Like any other good wine region of the world, Alsace has the ideal medium in which to grow wines for wine production. That is, it has relatively thin topsoil and easily penetrable subsoil that retains the correct amount of moisture. In his book, The Wines of Alsace, Tom Stevenson gives a general list of the types of soil found in Alsace and general characteristics that these soils will impart to wines made from grapes grown in them.
Clay – gives body and structure to the wines, and added complexity to more delicate ones
Gravel – restrained but distinct characteristics
Limestone – elegant fruit, with early appeal
Sand – fresh and light body wines, but good fruit
Schist – delicate fruit, floral aromas
Granite – full body, long lived
Contrary to traditions of either France or Germany, Alsace has an authentic history of selling some of its most famous wines by their varietal names, and this has now become the tradition. The earliest documented evidence of this dates back to 1477, but its widespread commercial use began in the mid-1920s, when the Association du Viticulture voted to rid its vineyards of hybrid wines. This was a bold move, for consumers of the time had little comprehension of how important the type of grape was to the flavor of the wine. People put more value on the geographical origin of the wine, explaining the popularity of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
This presented the growers of Alsace with a major problem—namely, how to ask for higher prices for wines made from superior grape varieties—when to most people, a grape was just a grape. The solution was brilliant and simple: Market the wines by their grape names and then create the not totally fictitious “noble variety” concept, which would put these particular grapes, and the wines made from them, at the top of the varietal hierarchy. Thus the world’s first all-varietal wine region was born. It was perhaps the first generic marketing initiative of any wine region, although New World producers have since proven themselves far more adept at using it as a marketing tool, because, if anything, the varietal concept is commonly believed to be a California invention.
Alsace wines are ideal food partners because they combine great aromatic intensity with balanced, firm structure. Alsace Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Tokay-Pinot Gris can replace Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc in virtually any food pairing. Alsace Gewürztraminer is particularly well suited for exotic, spicy dishes, as well as exceptionally rich foods, such as lobster or foie gras.