The wines of Alsace

PUBLISHED: 16:28 16 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:25 20 February 2013

The vineyards

The vineyards

Few of us willingly choose wines from the Alsace region - perhaps confusing them with sweet German wines - yet they're well worth sampling, says Philippe Boucheron

Few of us willingly choose wines from the Alsace region - perhaps confusing them with sweet German wines - yet they're well worth sampling, says Philippe Boucheron

Wherever you go to France you will always find two wines on restaurant wine lists vying for space alongside those of the local vineyards - Champagne and Alsace. The reason for Champagne is easy enough to understand, but why Alsace? Over here far too many of us look at the flute-style bottles and consider them to be sweet German wines.

The vineyards of Alsace run along a 170 km strip between Mulhouse at the Swiss frontier, north to Strasbourg. The vines nestle under the south and east facing slopes of the Vosges, often within sight of the Rhine. The vineyards and lush pastures have been fought over almost constantly since long before the Thirty Years' War of 1618-48. Claimed back by the Germans after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, they were given to France as reparations in 1918 and then snatched by the Nazis as soon as they could, finally becoming French again in 1945.

After the First World War the winegrowers began producing varietal wines from noble grapes which - and this was the exception in France - were named on the labels. Alsace wines are fermented right through, creating rich, fruit-driven, food-friendly wines that are especially good when paired with fish, white meats and oriental cuisines.

Delicate flavours

With the exception of a red Pinot Noir all the wines are white, the six more important varieties are Sylvaner that produces remarkably fresh wines with delicate flavours; Pinot Blanc whose wines are delicate and well-rounded, fresh and supple, and perhaps represent the happy medium in the range. Riesling is arguably the most noble of all white grapes. In Alsace it makes dry, refined wines with mineral - often seen as kerosene - notes on both the nose and palate. Serve it with beef Stroganoff or lobster dishes.

Muscat d'Alsace is grapey, aromatic and with a touch of attractive sweetness. It is made from the same Muscat grapes as the popular Italian moscatos and spumantes, as well as the Beaumes de Venise and Rivesaltes vins doux naturel from the South of France. In Alsace the yield is lower adding more character to the wines - the snag is that low yields equate with small production, and that means higher prices!

Perhaps the two best known Alsace varietals are Pinot Gris, once known as Tokay Pinot Gris, and the aromatic, seductive, spicy, full-bodied and exuberant Gewurztraminer. For a long time people thought that Pinot Gris came from Hungary and added the prefix Tokay. In fact it is the same grape as the Italian Pinot Grigio, but in Alsace they make it as a fuller bodied wine with a long opulent finish that marries so elegantly with a whole range of quite richly sauced creamy dishes including Blanquette de Veau as well as with quiche Loraine. Gewurztraminer can successfully be served with almost anything from Cantonese Chinese to an onion tart, or cheese - specially the powerful Munster from Alsace.

Appellations and Classifications

The better wines come from growers who make them from grapes grown in their own vineyard and will often show the name of the village alongside the words AoC Alsace on the label. Alsace Grand Cru are much-prized bottles made to a high standard from the best vineyard sites. Vendange Tardive are sweet late-harvested wines made from over-ripe grapes often enhanced by Botrytis cinerea or Noble Rot. At the top of the scale are the Selection de Grains Noble, individually picked late-harvest grapes that have been shrivelled by Botrytis, concentrating all the juice into a few drops from which they make powerful wines of great complexity and length that truly complement the local fois gras.

Among some of the greatest delights from Alsace are the liqueurs made from the pears, greengages and plums grown in the region's orchards. Not only are they a delicious accompaniment with the local fruit tarts, they also provide an excellent digestif after a Chourcroute. This is the local dish of ham, chicken and Strasbourg sausages served with sauerkraut - shredded cabbages fermented with salt and junipers - and dumplings.

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