Vineyards in Alsace. This photo is in the public domain.
The Germanic-influenced region of Alsace, located at the northeast tip of France, is the home to France's best Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer. Alsace is like no other region in France in that despite a large size (close to 40,000 acres, spread across over 100 communes) it contains only three appellations! By comparison, Burgundy, which is about the same size, has over 100!
The few designated regions for AOC wine, however, do not make Alsatian wine homogeneous in style. In fact, many different styles are produced. Grapes are generally varietal, which echoes Germany and even the United States. Dry whites and sweet whites tend to be the most popular; affordable sparkling wines are also common, while reds are less popular due to the cold weather but can occasionally be quite good.
Crémant d'Alsace, the sparkling wine made in Alsace which is fresh, clear and much less expensive than Champagne, is one of the designations. Then there is plain old Alsace AOC, which is the appellation more than 3/4 of the wines are produced under. More exclusive is Alsace Grand Cru AOC, which has complex rules and is covered below.
Alsace, like most other parts of France, has had an extremely long history in winemaking. Up until the 1600s, Alsace had always been part of the German Empire, but France conquered it in 1639 as a strategic development in the Thirty Years' War. By then, the area was already making some wine, and the German influence was permanently imprinted on the way wine was grown. As most of the production was quite good, producers had no reason to change anything, and kept the method of production the same. During the 19th century, ownership of the region kept switching back and forth, but after World War II France gained the region for good. Since then, few significant changes have been made in the production process, leading classicist wine drinkers to find Alsatian examples the purest for the four main grapes grown there.
Climate and Viticulture
Alsatian grapes are grown on the hills leading from the Vosges mountains down to the Rhine river, on steep terraces that are exceptionally similar to the ones in Germany's Mosel and many other regions. White wine often does very well on these sharply inclined hills, due to the excellent sun exposure and good drainage of the soil. Soils are diverse, but the region has little to no sense of terroir due to the fact that only three AOC designations exist.
In general, vineyards are planted by grape, since the majority of wine is varietal. Hence, it is very easy to see which grapes are the most popular in Alsace. First is Riesling. Since the region is so close to Germany, there are many similarities between German and Alsatian Riesling, but in general Alsace offers a slightly less absolutist example of the grape, with higher alcohol, lower acidity, and more conventional but still unusual flavors.
Gewürztraminer (spelled without the umlaut in Alsace) a close second to Riesling in plantings. Alsatian Riesling is bested by German examples, but Gewurztraminer is certainly at its best here. Rich late-harvest sweet wines, especially the impressive Seléction de Grains Nobles (SGN) styles, are exclusive and often considered the best, while the ordinary late harvests, called Vendange Tardive (VT) are also good.
Pinot Gris makes a much more intense, complex wine here than in the rest of the world, and is growing in plantings as Italian examples of the grape catapult its popularity. Again, purists consider Alsatian wine the best style, even if for simple wine drinkers Italian examples are much better for the price. Among secondary grape varieties are Muscat, which is better regarded here than anywhere else for its sweet wines, Pinot Noir, which often makes a rosé, and Pinot Blanc.
Please note: For some sweet wines made from Pinot Gris in Alsace, the term "Tokay-Pinot Gris" is used. The Hungarians have cracked down on this perceived copyright infringement, all the more egregious since Pinot Gris is not even allowed in Hungarian Tokay, and gradually these wines will cease to be labeled this way. However, many sweet Pinot Gris still on the market has this designation.
There are many very good producers in Alsace; a sample of these is below.
- Domaine Barmes-Buecher
- Domaine Leon Beyer
- Domaine Paul Blanck
- Domaine Bott-Geyl
- Albert Boxler
- Domaine Marcel Deiss
- Domaine Dirler-Cade
- Hugel & Fils
- Domaine Kuentz-Bas
- Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss
- Albert Mann
- Domaine Meyer-Fonne
- Domaine Schoffit
- Domaine Marc Tempe
- Maison Jean Trimbach
- Domaine Weinbach
- Domaine Zind-Humbrecht
There is no vin de pays designation here, so wines that do not qualify for AOC status are classified under vin de table. Few producers are willing to make this kind of sacrifice, as Alsatian regulations are generally not too difficult to comply with. And within Alsace, only three AOCs exist. This stands in direct contrast to other regions of France. Most wine is simply marketed under Alsace AOC. A number of grape varieties can be used, although blends are frowned upon, and the regulations are complicated but not too strict.
The more ambitious producers go to the trouble of qualifying for Alsace Grand Cru AOC, an appellation which commands significantly higher prices due to its promise of superior quality. Almost all of the vineyards are only allowed to grow Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Riesling, with three exceptions: Altenberg de Bergheim, which is allowed to contain blends, Pinot Noir, and a few other grapes, Kaefferkopf, which has similar rules, and Zotzenberg, which is allowed to contain varietal Silvaner.
There are now 51 vineyards listed as Grand Cru all up and down Alsace, listed out below.
- Altenberg de Bergbieten
- Altenberg de Bergheim: Mainly from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer, some good wines are made here. The sweet styles are usually the best. This Grand Cru is one of only two that allows blends.
- Altenberg de Wolxheim
- Brand: A common host to many wines. Albert Boxler has a thorough selection, the sweet Pinot Gris the most esteemed, but Josmeyer and Zind-Humbrecht make competitive Rieslings.
- Eichberg: Kuentz-Bas's Rieslings and sweet Pinot Gris are the most commonly seen here.
- Furstentum: Albert Mann makes prominent wines here, the SGN Gewurztraminer being the most highly regarded. Bott-Geyl, Marc Tempe, and Domaine Paul Blanck are highly regarded. Weinbach's Gewurz "Quintessence" has been rated 100 points, but is difficult to obtain.
- Goldert: VT Muscat from Ernest Burn and most of Zind-Humbrecht's offerings are notable here.
- Hengst: Barmes-Buecher and Josmeyer are two notable producers here.
- Kaefferkopf: Created in 2007, this is the newest Grand Cru in Alsace. It has hardly yet developed, but from Domaine Meyer-Fonne good Gewurztraminers and Rieslings are being produced.
- Kastelberg: Kreydenweiss makes a good dry Riesling here.
- Kessler: Dirler-Cade is the main producer here, making three notable wines from all three major Alsatian grapes.
- Kirchberg de Barr
- Kirchberg de Ribeauvillé
- Mambourg: Marc Tempe, Marcel Deiss, and Paul Blanck are all good here, but Weinbach's Gewurztraminer Quintessence is especially prestigious.
- Mandelberg: Not to be confused with the Mandelberg in Pfalz.
- Muenchberg: A cru especially known for its sweet Rieslings from Ostertag. Not to be confused with the more obsucre Moenchberg!
- Pfersigberg: One of the more reliable Grands Crus, with Barmes-Buecher's Gewurztraminers among the best.
- Rangen: Probably the most popular and well-known Alsace Grand Cru. Tons of good producers make their wines here, including Domaine Schoffit (look out for their delicacy Tokay-Pinot Gris SGN), and especially Zind-Humbrecht's "Clos St. Urbain", probably the best dry Riesling in Alsace. From lower-level producers, more affordable offerings are good as well.
- Saering: Dirler-Cade makes some good wines here.
- Schlossberg: The oldest Grand Cru vineyard, minted in 1975. Domaine Albert Mann, Domaine Meyer-Fonne, Domaine Paul Blanck, and Weinbach's Rieslings are among the best of the wines. In general, Riesling wines are the best; sweet wines are good but not too common.
- Schoenenbourg: Marc Tempe's wines are very good here, but the best wines are Deiss' exclusive VT Rieslings. With ratings approaching 100, this is one of a handful of world-class sweet Rieslings outside Germany.
- Sommerberg: Albert Boxler and Bott-Geyl make good Rieslings here.
- Sonnenglanz: Bott-Geyl's Gewurztraminers are the best here, but their Tokay-Pinot Gris is good as well.
- Spiegel: Dirler-Cade's Gewurztraminers and Rieslings are good, but a rare Muscat is more notable.
- Sporen: The Gewurztraminer SGN from Meyer-Fonne is top-rated.
- Steingrubler: Good wines from Barmes-Buecher.
- Wiebelsberg: Kreydenweiss again leads here.
- Zotzenberg: This is notable for being the only Grand Cru vineyard in which Silvaner is allowed. These wines are not commonly seen.
Sparkling wine is common in Alsace, making up around 1/5 of production; the bubblies produced are labeled under Crémant d'Alsace AOC. Regulations are less stringent than even Alsace AOC proper, since many grape varieties can make good fizz in Alsace, and even red grape Pinot Noir is allowed into the blend. Although Chardonnay is allowed in Alsace AOC, almost all Alsatian plantings of the grape are channeled into Crémant.