Most people who think of French wine automatically ventures off into the regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy or even Champagne. However, there is one region that deserves quite a bit of attention, that of Alsace.
The Beauty of the Alsace Region
Alsace is located on the upper eastern side, bordering Germany and Switzerland; it shares the same latitudinal line (49th parallel) of the border running through the United States and Canada. And yes, just as the northern part of the United States and Canada can be pretty cold, so too can Alsace.
Enter Alsace and you are brought into a countryside of which you might have only seen on the silver screen. Eat your heart out Tuscany. The hillsides are stitched much like a patchy old quilt with a careful hand-weaving of vines, which face the sun in its ascension in the east and follow it to its dip behind the hills on the west. Another piece of this interwoven landscape switches direction, threading in the direction of north to south. The inviting cover rests and gently spreads on rolling hills with some deep valleys as you travel further north all at the foothills of the Les Vosges mountains, stretching from Massif central where ancient thick forests thrive and where the rest of the wine-making world finds their prized oak for the crafting of wine barrels.
Driving through Alsace, you'll travel along narrow, winding roads where you may miss the sight of a village where time has stood still. It is a time and place most only dream of traveling through and visiting. You may still be in France, but the Old World Swiss and German architecture adorn the chalet homes, small farms and small churches. If you happen to stop off at any of these small villages, get a local meal at any of the restaurants and you will be sure to see on the menu some bratwurst, sauerkraut and some spaetzle dumplings. You might not even need a wine menu; unless you understand German, you might not understand it anyway. Just ask for what they would recommend with the menu and you will not be disappointed.
Might I suggest stopping in the small village of Ammerschwihr, just a few miles outside of Colmar? Treat yourself and stay at Aux Armes de France and eat at their Philippe Gaertner restaurant for some fine regional, German-inspired foods and even finer local wines. I also suggest a lovely wine of Domaine Pierre Colon as well. The street in which the hotel and restaurant reside on welcomes you with an ancient round tower in which some bricks have crumbled and fallen from cottages and old village buildings with windows adorned by countryside shutters and overflowing flower pots for each one. It will be an experience to cherish.
Labeling Regulations of Alsace
Like much of France and Europe even, there are some wine laws for each region that must be followed in order for a wine to reach a certain status in the grand hierarchy. You might have heard of the "Grand Cru" wines of other wine regions in France. Alsace is no different, and in order for a wine to be considered that of Grand Cru status, it must be made of the Riesling grape, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and/or Muscat grape. These are also known as noble grapes. Depending on the site or village of the vineyard, each of these have specific blending rules of these grapes, and, in some cases, are required to be single variety wines. The wines must also have a higher alcohol requirement, meaning the grapes must be riper upon harvest than average. Lower yields from these vineyards are also a requirement.
While Grand Cru wines are top notch in the region of Alsace, other wines fall under other categories of the region; Alsace AOC (Appellation d’Origene Controlee) and Cremant d’Alsace. AOC wines include still wines of the region from white to rose to red. Basically, a wine of the Alsace AOC on the label means that no less than 100% of the grape which is on the label is utilized in the wine. If it is a blend, then the label must read Gentil or Edelzwicker. In stating this information, it is not to say that these are necessarily lesser quality wines (though there are some as with any wines from anywhere else). It is to say that these wines do not strictly follow the EU wine laws or local tradition. A wine which reads, Selection de Grains Nobles or Vendages Tardives is a late harvest wine which is a sweeter wine.
The latter of the mentioned wines outside of Grand Cru, Cremant d’Alsace, is a sparkling wine made in the region. Wine laws in Europe state that any sparkling wine crafted outside of the official Champagne region, are not permitted to be labeled Champagne. While it is made outside of the famous region, it is still made in the same traditional method or Methode Champenoise.
Soils of Alsace
With all the formalities out of the way, it would be unfair to mention the wine in and of itself. To do so would have to include a discussion of the terroir and what that gifts to the wine. While many other regions in the world are known for specific soil types within a vast expanse of land, if one were to walk every one-hundred meters or so in Alsace, they would find themselves standing on soils with a very different composition than the neighboring parcel. Such varying soils and what is contained in the bedrock, will determine which grapes are grown.
The land in which the vines are cultivated are in ancient soils that date back some 570 million years. The folding of the earth in this region and subsequent thaw from the ice age, the carving of the mountain range, and the fact that this region was once under the sea have left deposits of other minerals from limestone, sandstone, schist, marl and created a very unique region, hence all the variants of the soils.
It is these soils which give the wines of Alsace their je ne sais quoi. They can be light-bodied and full of mineral nuances while leaving you with the impression of spring wildflowers and essences of exotic lychee or better yet, the rambutan of southeast Asia. They can be of medium body with the perfume of honeysuckle, gooseberry, white currant and white mulberries with a texture as soft as silk that lingers even as you continue your dinner conversation. Sweeter versions are nothing short of the richest and smoothest of wild honey, the perfume of white ginger flower finishing with the crisp acidity of lemon drop.
Where to Start the Alsatian Wine Experience?
The aforementioned Domaine Pierre Colon would be a start. But there are others to enjoy as well:
- Maison Emile Beyer
- Domaine Weinbach
- Domaine Jean-Philippe et Jean-Francois Becker
- Cave de Ribeauville
- Domaine Marcel Deiss
- Domaine Sylvie Spielmann
The added bonus aside from the joy you get from drinking these wines might be their price. While wines from other regions of France can easily break the budget, most Alsatian wines, even imported range from $12 to $25 (sometimes a bit more for late harvest wines). Do enjoy.