There is nowhere quite like Alsace. Though it has been French since the end of the Second World War – having changed hands a few times – Germanic influence is everywhere, from the colourful half-timbered houses to its unique dialect. It’s also felt in the region’s renowned gastronomy and, of course, in its distinctive wines that emanate from a patchwork of terrain rivalling Burgundy for diversity.
Beyond the characterful cultural kaleidoscope, it is one of the driest places in France – and it’s also a contender for the sunniest, sitting in the eastern foothills of the Vosges mountains, which provide a natural barrier to wilder weather from the west, while the Rhine defines its modern-day border with Germany.
One-hundred-and-twenty-kilometres long, but less than a dozen wide, and at a latitude of 48 degrees, the Alsace vineyards occupy the rolling contours of the Vosges, mostly between 200 and 400 metres. The climate is continental, with long, cold winters, while the summers are warm enough to make drought a regular threat. As a result, the growing season is relatively lengthy, gifting winemakers the opportunity to slowly ripen their grapes to maturity.
Alsace is also relatively unusual for France in that grape varieties are clearly displayed on its tall, fluted bottles – these vessels another nod to Germany – though the front labels can admittedly appear somewhat daunting to the novice, courtesy of the amount of detail they convey. It is, however, the complexity of its terroir that is the most remarkable aspect of Alsace wine; it’s arguably easier to list the soil types not present.
It is not just about Riesling… It’s the total package on fragrant wines
The story begins 150 million years ago, when the region was under the sea, resulting in sedimentary rock such as sandstone, limestone, marl and schist settling on a granite bedrock. Several million years later, dramatic tectonic movements created fissures, leading to the rich mosaic of soil types that exists today.
‘It’s that extraordinary sense of location and terroir. I will never be able to remember all the areas, as it’s a bit like wild mushroom picking: you just add another area each time you do it,’ says retired Michelin-starred chef and Alsace wine aficionado Roger Jones. ‘A visit to Alsace is an absolute must for anyone who is seriously into wine, not only for the scenery, food and wine, but for the people too.’
The region is characterised by an army of small growers, some tending to their vines in the evenings or at the weekend, while maintaining full-time jobs. Such producers are often members of one of the historic co-operative wineries that enjoy an enviable reputation.
There are 51 Grand Crus – accounting for around five percent of production – with many sites defined by microclimates. However, the region is also driven to a huge extent by the passion of individual family producers and the intense loyalty they inspire, resulting in those names – the likes of Hugel, Trimbach and Zind-Humbrecht – being bandied about as much as those of the famous lieux-dits.
White wines rule Alsace, accounting for around nine in every 10 bottles produced, with Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat making up the region’s designated ‘noble’ grapes. Red wine in Alsace, meanwhile, is limited to Pinot Noir, which is rapidly gaining profile and stature.
‘It is not just about Riesling,’ says Jones. ‘It’s the total package on fragrant wines, from the refined Pinot Blanc to the precision on aged Gewurtztraminer. Pinot Blanc is a class act and a perfect food match. Classy, refined Gewurztraminer is where Alsace shines, and offers a rare experience you won’t forget.’
Two additional labelling terms are significant: ‘Vendange Tardive’ exclusively used by Alsace to refer to wines made from late-harvested grapes, resulting in a higher residual sugar; and ‘Sélection des Grains Nobles’ denoting sweet wines made from grapes affected by the form of botrytis known as ‘noble rot’.
Not to forget Crémant, which is currently booming; traditional method-made Crémant d’Alsace now accounts for a quarter of the region’s output, with Alsace second only to Champagne for sales of sparkling wine in France.
On a tasting panel along with Roger Jones, Master Sommelier Eric Zwiebel and Corney & Barrow buyer Rebecca Palmer, our mission was to narrow down more than 90 examples of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Crémant d’Alsace to a selection of a dozen star wines from the region. You might say we failed: thanks to the incredibly high standard of those we tasted, we refused to choose fewer than 13.
13 dazzling Alsace wines to try
Domaine Zinck, Brut NV, Crémant d’Alsace
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc; 36 months on lees; 12.5%
Restrained floral nose with some stone fruit. Evolves beautifully on the palate, clean and bright with lovely autolytic characters and a long finish.
Domaine Viticole de la Ville de Colmar, Cuvée 1895 Brut NV, Crémant d’Alsace
100% Chardonnay; 18 months on lees; 12.8%
Aromas of brioche and biscuit, leading to a rich, creamy palate. Nice definition, elegant yet refined with a delicate finish.
Dopff au Moulin, Brut 2017, Crémant d’Alsace
100% Chardonnay; 24 months on lees; 12%
Clean, ripe and focused. Attractive mouse and an expanisve, mouth-coating texture with easy allure. Really lovely length and depth.
£152.78 for a case of six, corkingwines.co.uk
Arthur Metz, Terroir Schiste Brut NV, Crémant d’Alsace
Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris; 12 months on lees; 12.5%
Fresh and vibrant, with aromas of blossom and citrus zest. Real energy on the palate, with some lovely crunch to the fruit.
Paul Ginglinger, Riesling 2019, Alsace Grand Cru Pfersigberg
100% Riesling; organic; 13.3%
Intensely aromatic, combining tropical fruit notes with floral hints and delicate petrol aromas. Very fresh, evolves seemlessly in the glass.
Domaine Kirrenbourg, ‘K’ Riesling 2019, Alsace Grand Cru Schlossberg
100% Riesling; biodynamic; 13.5%
Enticing nose of grapefruit, mango and papaya, with lots of lime on the palate. Focused and full-flavoured, with fresh, ripe acidity.
Huber & Bleger, Eclat du Terroir Riesling 2019, Alsace
100% Riesling; 13%
Mineral nose, rich and complex. Lime notes combine beatifully with hints of exotic spices and slate.
Cave de Turckheim, Riesling 2018, Alsace Grand Cru Brand
100% Riesling; 13%
Expressive aromas of apple, a lovely powdery, almost silky texture. Bright fruit intensity is balanced perfectly with citrus acidity.
Famille Hugel, Grossi Laüe Riesling 2012, Alsace
100% Riesling; 12.4%
Delicate, ethereal nose, beguiling hints of lime blossom. Austere, but has length and a sense of completeness.
£390 for a case of 12, farrvintners.com
Domaine-Saint-Remy, Gewurztraminer 2019, Alsace Grand Cru Hengst
100% Gewurztraminer; biodynamic; 12.5%
Attractive aromatics of candied fruits and frangipane. Intense and rich but balanced, with a tropical lychee finish.
Frey-Sohler Gewurztraminer 2015, Alsace Grand Cru Frankstein
100% Gewurztraminer; 13%
Elegant and floral aromas, wonderful varietal expression here. Evolving perfectly while retaining dynamism and freshness.
Lucien Albrecht, Gewurztraminer 2017, Alsace Grand Cru Spiegel
100% Gewurztraminer; 14%
Intense floral notes backed by classic varietal lychee and tropical fruit characters. Lovely purity and focus, this will age beautifully.
Véronique & Thomas Muré, Clos Saint Landelin Gewurztraminer 2017, Alsace Grand Cru Vorbourg Vendanges Tardives
100% Gewurztraminer; organic; 13.5%
Luxurious and rich, juicy fruited core with delicious candied pineapple flavours. Lingering, harmonious finish.