Ultimate Guide to the Alsace Wine Region

The route des vines in Alsace, France. See our collection of wine pictures
iStockphoto/Katarzyna Mazurowska

­If you've ever entertained fantasies of bicycling through the French countryside, you may want to plan a trip to Alsace. Bike paths crisscross the vineyards and interconnect the villages. Pack up a picnic basket with some of the stell­ar local cuisine -- foie gras, sauerkraut and Muenster are regional specialties; m­ore restaurants are Michelin-ranked here than in any other region of Europe [source: Franz]. Just don't forget a good bottle of French wine. The small region of Alsace produces some of the most renowned whites in the world.

Alsace uses the AOC (Appelation d'Origine Controlée) system to designate grapes grown in certain areas under controlled conditions. AOC has two stricter designations, Alsace Grand Cru (applicable only to four varietals) and Crémant d'Alsace (for the popular Alsatian sparkling wine).

Advertisement

­Although the AOC designation provides that Alsatian wines should be sec, or dry, Alsace produces several sweet wines, too. The naming and designation of these wines is a continuing source of controversy [sources: Franz, Warfvinge].

One thing to be aware of as y­ou sample Alsatian wine: In many other regions, wines are named by their terroirs (the lands that produce them). In Alsace, wine nomenclature is based solely on the grapes [source: CIVA]. The Conseil Interprofessional des Vins d'Alsace, or CIVA, oversees Alsatian wine production.

This article explores the turbulent history of Alsace, how grapes have come to grow there, and the wines those grapes produce.

Alsace Wine Region History and Culture

Fed by the Rhine river, Alsace is fertile and green. It's not surprising th­at a land so desirable should have been the source of longstanding historical conflict.

By the end of the fifth century­, the stage had been set for the conflict that would dominate Alsace for the next two millennia. St­rasbourg (the Roman city of Argentorum) was attacked and conquered by the Germanic tribe Alemanni. ("Allemand" is still French for "German.") Soon after, the Francs took over the area and began to spread Christianity throughout it. In various ways, the Franco-German dispute persisted for centuries [source: Britannica].

Advertisement

Following the death of Charlemagne in A.D. 842, his kingdom was divided. Alsace was among the territories split from France. In A.D. 870­, it was joined with Germanic territories­ under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire. The Middle Ages saw numerous local conflicts, as well as growing concentrations of power in the cities of Alsace [source: Warfvinge].

Religious strife soon accompanied political strife, with heavily Protestant Strasbourg in opposition to the Roman Catholic Hapsburgs. In the 1600s, Alsace found itself caught between opposing sides in the Thirty Years' War, and residents asked France for protection. By the end of the century, the region was an autonomous protectorate of France [source: Britannica].

The 1700s and 1800s saw further turmoil. Following the French Revolution, Alsace was divided into two provinces. Then, following the bloodshed of the Franco-German War (1870-1871), it passed into German power -- to widespread French resentment and the partial disenfranchisement of the Alsatians. Under the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, Alsace was returned to France. When Germany conquered France in World War II, it quickly re-annexed Alsace for the duration of the Third Reich [source: Britannica].

The bitterness of World War II left lasting scars. One vineyard was so littered with unexploded ordnance that a decade passed before it could be cultivated again [source: Wernstrom].

Today, Alsace is a part of France. The local dialect is still Alsatian, a variety of German, and many cities and landmarks -- and grapes -- bear German names. But peacetime seems to produce good wines. Read on to find out how.

Alsace Wine Region Agriculture

The wine of Alsace predates even the Franco-German conflict. Grapes have been grown here since the days of the Romans [source: Warfvinge].

The massif of the Vosges mountains dominates the Alsatian horizon [source: Britannica]. It's a boon to Alsace wineries, because it shields the region from heavy precipitation. Between the mountains and the Gulf Stream, Alsace has an unusually sunny, temperate climate for its latitude [source: Bursen].

Advertisement

The fertile plains of Alsace are dominated by fields of cereal grains. Most of the vineyards in Alsace are on the hillsides, where much of the soil is calcareous -- high in calcium -- and relatively dry. Granite and limestone are major components [source: Bursen]. But there are also deposits of volcanic and alluvial soil, and significant variations even within small tracts of land [source: Wernstrom].

Alsatian vignerons -- wine growers -- are reluctant to plant high-yielding vines, which are believed to compromise the quality of the grapes. Instead, the region's grape production depends on planting many small vines very close together. Vignerons cultivate the vines on compact wire trellises in tightly spaced rows [source: Bursen].

The Alsatian method of viticulture depends on rigorous pruning; otherwise, an overgrown vine can block the sunlight of its neighbors, and funguses can spread easily. Most vignerons practice hedge pruning, which they time to seasonal changes. In a growing vine, nutrients collect in the tips of the shoots. Pruning removes the tips, forcing the vine to send nutrients to the grapes instead. The timing of the beginning-of-summer pruning depends on individual judgment, grape variety and location [source: Bursen].

Some vignerons also practice leaf-plucking, the strategic removal of certain leaves to give the grapes more sun. This typically comes in late July or August. In more southerly areas, leaf-plucking cause sunburn for the grapes, but at Alsace's latitude the risk is fairly low [source: Bursen].

On the next page, we'll take a look at some of Alsace's notable wines.

Famous Wines of the Alsace Wine Region

The wines of ­Alsace -- some named in French, some in German -- reflect the region's mixed history. The famous whites are both dry and fragrant. Typically, they become dryer as they age. Alsace produces only one red grape, the Pinot Noir, but only four Alsatian grapes -- Riesling, Muscat d'Alsace, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer -- are allowed the AOC Grand Cru designation [source: Wernstrom].

Pinot Blanc from Alsace is sometimes considered the world's best. Rounded out by Auxerrois grapes, it typically has notes of apple or baked apple and pear. The best Alsace Pinot Blancs are balanced, occasionally smoky, and acidic but not harsh [source: Franz].

Advertisement

Sylvaner is full-bodied, slightly bitter, strongly mineral -- some say metallic or "steely" -- and dry. It tends to be less aromatic than many other wines of Alsace. Try a Sylvaner from the south of Alsace, such as Agathe Bursin, René Muré or Pierre Frick [source: Warvfinge].

Muscat is one of the world's oldest varieties of grape. It's highly prone to mutations, which means the wines can have some variation in color. The wine is light, fresh, peppery and fruity, with notes of mint and roses. Try it with asparagus [source: Warfvinge].

Riesling tends to be a love-it-or-hate-it wine, partly because German and Austrian Rieslings are significantly sweeter than French varieties. Traditional Alsace Riesling is quite dry, however, with about the same amount of residual sugar as the Pinot Blanc [source: Wernstrom].

Pinot Gris, also known as Tokay, is a relative of the better known Pinot Grigio grapes of Italy, but Alsatians bristle at the thought of using the word Grigio on the bottle [sources: Warfvinge, Wernstrom]. Alsatian Pinot Gris has a great deal of body, with aromas of fruit, caramelized sugar and traces of the musty, mushroomy forest-undergrowth smell the French call sous-forêt [source: Warfvinge].

Gewurztraminer (spelled without the umlaut in Alsace) is the most famous wine of Alsace [source: Wernstrom]. The German "Gewurz" means "spice," and the wine reflects that. It also has floral notes and a whiff of the perfume of fruits such as mango and lychee [source: CIVA].

The sparkling AOC Crémant wines are made by the same in-bottle fermentation method used for Champagne. Crémant d'Alsace is a blend of whites including Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay; the rare Crémant Rosé is 100 percent Pinot Noir [source: CIVA].

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • "Alsace." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 2008. (Accessed 2/8/09)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/17396/Alsace
  • "Alsace-Lorraine." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 2009. (Accessed 2/8/09)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/17404/Alsace-Lorraine
  • Bursen, Howard. "Alsace: Viticulture on the Edge." Wines & Vines. February 1, 1998. (Accessed 2/8/09 through All Business)http://www.allbusiness.com/retail-trade/food-beverage-stores-beer-wine-liquor/665399-1.html
  • Franz, Michael. "Reconnecting with Alsace." August 8, 2006. Wine Review Online. (Accessed 2/8/09)http://www.winereviewonline.com/franz_alsace_pb_06.cfm
  • "Seven Grapes and One Thousand Aromas." CIVA: Official Website of Alsatian Wine. (Accessed 2/5/09)http://www.language.vinsalsace.com/pdf/uk/d12uk_cepages.pdf
  • Warfvinge, Per. "Wines, villages, and terroirs of Alsace." Alsace-Wine.net. (Accessed 2/8/09)http://www.alsace-wine.net/
  • Wernstrom, Todd. "Alsace Awakening." The Wine News magazine. (Accessed 2/8/09)http://www.thewinenews.com/mam07/cover.asp