Get to know Alsace: a 10-point crash course
As Alsace is the theme of our summer wine List, we thought it a great opportunity to tell people more about this classic French region
Alsace is one of the wine world's great, underappreciated treasures, and probably the least understood French wine region, so if you're not familiar with the wines of Alsace you're certainly not alone. One of the most common misconceptions is that the wines, with their Germanic-sounding names and presentation in long, slender bottles, are all sweet, but as we'll see below, this is not the case. We hope that in just ten simple points below, we'll help dispel such myths and show you that the wines of Alsace are well worth learning about and give you some basic facts (and a mixed case) to get you started on your voyage of discovery.
Alsace wine is also a perfect match for some of the UK's hottest food trends (more on that later), so if you're looking for ways to show off at your next dinner party then read on...
1. The bottle shape
No matter how new they are to the region, most people will recognise Alsace's tall, tapered bottles. Known as 'flûtes d'Alsace', use of these bottles is a legal requirement in the region, and they're also commonly used in Germany. It's thought that their long, delicate shape evolved from the need to maximise space inside the hulls of small ships on the Rhine, historically the main mode of transportation for these wines.
2. Where France and Germany collide
Thanks to its position next to the German border, Alsace has passed back and forth between Germany and France throughout history, and the combination of both cultures is evident throughout the region. As well as Germanic-sounding place names and a crossover of cuisines (one of the region's most famous dishes is choucroûte, Alsace’s version of Germany's sauerkraut), Alsace wine is perhaps best known for its use of the most famous German white grape variety, riesling. Importantly, the main difference between Alsace and Germany comes down to wine style. In Alsace, the sugars in the grapes are traditionally fully fermented out into alcohol, making full-bodied drier more alcoholic wines, unlike their lighter, sweeter counterparts across the border.
3. Grape varieties
Alsace produces mainly white wine, and as well as riesling and gewurztraminer, the grapes to look out for are pinot gris, sylvaner, pinot blanc and muscat. Perhaps the unsung hero of Alsace is the auxerrois grape – it's rarely seen on the label but is widely used, especially when blended with pinot blanc. The only widely grown red grape in Alsace is pinot noir. Alsace is exceptional in France in that its wines are labelled by grape variety.
4. The vineyards
Unlike other French regions, Alsace's wine geography is really very simple: you'll find its vineyards in a narrow, north-south strip between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine, where they are protected from the rain.
5. On the label: Grand Cru vineyards
A wine will either simply be labelled 'AOC Alsace', a catch-all term for wines in this region, including many single-vineyard wines, or it will be Alsace Grand Cru AOC, meaning it comes from one of the region's 51 designated grand cru vineyards – in which case, you'll also see the vineyard name on the label. Two of the most famous are grand cru Schlossberg and grand cru Schoenenbourg (you can find a list of some of the other commonly seen names in our Alsace wine guide. A new Premier Cru classification is anticipated.
6. On the label: 'vendange tardive'
This term literally means 'late harvest', meaning grapes are super-ripe thanks to being picked later than normal, giving them an opulent, complex character. Some people wrongly assume this means that they'll always be sweet – but late-harvest Alsace wines range from rich but dry to dessert-sweet. Increasingly producers are including an indication of sweetness on their back labels.
7. On the label: Sélection de Grains Nobles
This term means the grapes were affected by 'noble rot', the wine world's famous fungus which shrivels grapes, concentrating sugars and creating heavenly, nectar-sweet dessert wines.
8. Crémant d'Alsace
This is the name of Alsace's dry sparkling wine, made in the same way as Champagne, mostly using pinots gris, blanc and noir, plus auxerrois and riesling. It is France's second most popular sparkling wine and is often an excellent-value fizz choice for celebrations.
9. Ageing potential
Although most Alsace wine is delicious to drink in its youth, good Alsace riesling has some of the longest ageing potential of all the world's white wines. With age (sometimes up to 25-30 years), riesling from this region develops petrol-like aromas and incredible complexity.
10. Food matches
The Alsace region has one of the highest concentrations of Michelinstarred restaurants in the wine producing world, so it's no surprise its wine is wonderfully versatile with food. In fact Alsace wines are a boon for our uniquely diverse UK food scene, not only hot new trends from south-east Asia and South America but our national staples too. Fragrant, delicate muscat is a great match for homegrown asparagus as well as gently spicy dim sum; gewurztraminer is an obvious choice with light, aromatic curries or Korean kimchi, but also has a wonderful but little-known affinity with tomatoes; subtly spicy pinot gris works with chilli prawns as well as roast duck or goose. Riesling has a wonderful way of cutting through rich, eggy dishes and is sublime with fish and chips. don't forget Alsace wine with the cheeseboard too! Experiment with our Food and Wine Matcher.
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Read our Alsace wine guide >