Not so near, or known, but still magical Alsace
It might seem a really obvious thing to say, but Alsace is an awful long way from Stevenage. I was to accompany our Alsace buyer Jo Locke MW on a buying trip to the region in March 2018. She wanted to drive out there to collect samples to bring back to taste in Stevenage and was grateful for another pair of hands (and feet) to help with the long drive.
Following one of the snowiest spells we have had for a while, it was touch and go whether we would actually set off. But news from Alsace was that they were relatively snow-free. They had only suffered bitterly cold temperatures and as many of you will know, I'm sure, the French are pretty good at keeping their roads open regardless of the weather conditions.
Jo had visited the region in December and had ordered samples from that trip to collect on this one. So it was a bit of a mix of collecting boxes at cellar doors, visiting some producers whom Jo had missed out on in December and squeezing in a couple of appointments with new outfits too.
The wonderfully ott fountain of Neptune in Stanislas Square. Worth the detour!
One night in Nancy
Rather naively I had thought that we would make the journey in one go. I really hadn't appreciated how far it is, but we broke our journey at Nancy, only rolling in there fairly late at night at that.
Another first for me, I haven't visited many of France's northern cities and, I confess, haven't been much pre-disposed to do so either. But from the little we saw of this large industrial university town I was suitably impressed and vowed to make a return visit and do the city justice.
On a cold, damp Tuesday night, rather late, we didn't hold out an awful lot of hope of finding somewhere to eat. At this time of year, many of France's hostelries and eating establishments close down (fermature annuelle), many heading for the ski slopes or for holidays in warmer climes.
So we headed towards the city's main square, thinking we'd be most likely to find places open in the heart of the tourist centre. Pausing to gape in awe and wonder at the totally over-the-top Place Stanislas (on the UNESCO World Heritage List) we pressed on, getting pretty hungry and desperate for a beer (I know, these wine buyers, eh?!)
Heading round the back of the square we found a couple of streets buzzing with life. Lots of young people out drinking and eating with tables crammed. Great, we'd found some restaurants that were open but now what were our chances of getting a table?!
We ended up in a very informal looking bar serving tapas-style food and sharing plates with lots of different beers and cocktails and wines by the glass. It looked not unlike the kind of place you'd find in trendy corners of British cities; we didn't hold out much hope. Can the French really do this kind of laid-back dining? The answer is emphatically 'Yes!',and they do it so much better than we do (in my experience). We had a plate of fabulously fresh mixed bruschettas to start, with spicy pâtés and melting goat's cheese, followed by large bowlfuls of earthy Puy lentil and beetroot salads, all washed down with the house Beaujolais (which was excellent) after a half of the local beer (also excellent). We went to bed quite content and ready to push on bright and early the next day through the Vosges mountains (without which there would be no Alsace wines) and into Alsace itself.
A tower or fortress tops just about every pinnacle along the crest of the Vosges foothills, reminding you of the area's troubled past
Alsace for the uninitiated
Riquewihr's pretty coloured buildings
This was the first time I had visited Alsace. Actually, that's not strictly true. I had come here very briefly as an undergraduate as part of an educational tour of EU institutions. I was on my year abroad at Nice University and the European Institute in Nice. It was 1985, another year that has gone down as being memorable for the heavy snowfalls which notoriously killed off Nice's famous palm trees. I don't remember an awful lot about that trip, suffering as I was from an awful flu virus (not a great thing to have on a long coach trip!), but I do remember how magical Alsace looked in the snow. A fairytale landscape with impossibly pretty medieval streets and castles.
I thought I knew Alsace wines, though; The Society's Vin d'Alsace which we have shipped from the Hugel Family for decades, has long been a favourite in our house and the famous grands crus and late-harvest wines, I have had the fortune to taste during my 28 years at The Wine Society, have left an indelible impression on my tastebuds.
Jo had said that Alsace was much like Burgundy in terms of structure and how the appellation rules are organised. In fact Alsace modelled itself on Burgundy when it introduced the grand cru system 30-odd years ago. The aim was to elevate those areas of higher standing above the basic AOC wines. The details of how this was achieved are not without controversy and some of our long-standing producers have eschewed putting grand cru on their labels. More of this later! Suffice to say, I quickly understand that I knew very little about Alsace wines other than I know that I like them.
This trip therefore offered a fantastic opportunity to see what all the fuss is about, get a bit more of a grip on the structure of the wine industry, find out what's hot and what's, well, rather confusing, as well, of course, finding out about the fortunes of the most recent vintage. Always a fascinating revelation.
On the blackboard in a restaurant in Riquewihr – succinctly put Christian! 'A little glass of Alsace is like a summer dress, a flower in springtime, a ray of sunshine come to brighten up your life'
Perhaps a brief overview of the region would be helpful at this point.
Alsace is one of France's most northerly wine regions, winemakers here aim for ethereal beauty rather than sheer power in their wines
- All Alsace wines are appellation wines (95% Appellation Alsace Protégée, 5% Appellation Alsace Grand Cru Protégée)
- Unlike most regions in France, grapes are indicated on the label (though this is no longer obligatory)
- All wines are bottled in tall flute bottles (apart from sparkling/crémant)
- Thanks to the protection of the Vosges mountains, Alsace enjoys one of the sunniest climates in France (despite its northerly location)
- 90% of Alsace wine is made from white grapes. Riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris and muscat are the most 'noble' varieties with sylvaner, pinot blanc and its local variant, auxerrois and chasselas, accounting for the rest
- Crémant d'Alsace (the region's traditional-method sparkling wine) is very important, accounting for almost 25% of the land under vine.
- In addition to the varieties named above, chardonnay and pinot noir can be made into Crémant d'Alsace (which can be white or rosé)
- Pinot noir is the grape behind Alsace's red wines accounting for 10% of the grapes planted and steadily on the increase
- Don't be misled by the Germanic sounding names, Alsace wines (apart from the late-harvest bottles) are dry
Purity of expression
Given the northerly position of Alsace's vineyards, it is not surprising that winemakers here are aiming for ethereal beauty rather than sheer power in their wines (although richer and late-harvest gewurztraminers can be pretty powerful beasts!)
Varied soils and topography
The 15,000-odd hectares of vineyards strung out along the foothills of the Vosges mountains do not all face one way. Rather, they follow the contours of the land, are planted in little side valleys of these crenelated hillsides at many different angles of slope and in hugely varying soils.
They say that there are more than 13 different soil types in the region and that these can vary greatly within a 100ft, making for a real mosaic of terroirs: granite, schist, gneiss, limestone and many types of sandstone make up the mix on these ground-down volcanic slopes.
Purity of viticulture
Alsace wine producers, many of whom have worked these soils for generations, aim to tease every nuance of flavour out of their vines. Unlike the Burgundians, they have a broader palette of grapes to play with to realise their ambition. But it is more often than not riesling, one of the world's most expressive varieties, which is chosen to show off the best sites.
Going hand-in-hand with this approach it is not surprising to learn then that Alsace has more domains committed to sustainable viticulture than anywhere else in France with a high proportion practising organic and biodynamic techniques (around 25%).
Over the next few days, we'd get to see all this in practice and there's nothing like tasting the wines with the producers in situ to really understand their winemaking philosophy and how it is inextricably linked with the land.
Where to go next?