Alsace wines

Alsace wines

by Great British Chefs 22 July 2015

Let’s get something straight, Alsace wines are among the very best in the entire world, and yet Alsace wine is too often overlooked because it is not what we think it is.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

While fashions for wines come and go, Alsace continues to be the source of timeless quality and style; its secret weapon is producing wines that match today’s cosmopolitan and adventurous gastronomic lifestyles.

Long before we discovered the fruit flavours of Australia and Chile, Alsace was delivering ripe, rich, full-flavoured but also elegant wines.

Long before we demanded that all wines let us know what was in the bottle, not just where it came from, Alsace was listing grape varieties on its labels.

Long before wine brands began to dominate supermarket shelves with every variety and blend you could dream of, Alsace producers were bottling a range of wines for every occasion.

The essence of Alsace is a lavishness of aromas and an opulence of flavour, whether it is a grapey Muscat, a floral Gewurztraminer, a spicy Pinot Gris or even a limey Riesling. This may be why the popular (mis)conception of these wines is that they are sweet, but this is not really the case. In fact, winemakers in Alsace prefer to make dry wines that still manage to keep that pleasant fruit and vivid freshness which taste ripe at first but then leave your mouth refreshed and awake.

The Coco Chanel of the wine world

Let’s try a little 'vinalogy' (wine analogy) to bring this to life.

Picture Alsace wines like the intriguing and alluring figure of Coco Chanel. Coco herself was an international fashion icon, fiercely independent, yet admired by many. Like the ‘little black dress’ of the Chanel brand, these wines are fitting for many occasions and their elegance goes on to accentuate the accessories brought by special vineyards and vintages, the star winemakers, or even the person pouring them. However, like Chanel, it is not just about the elegance and comfort, but about perfume . . . which 'is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion . . . that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure'. This is also certainly true of great wines.

Alsace wines complement not just the food but the occasion too, and should be found in every gastronomer’s wine repertoire.

Sense of place

The region of Alsace is in the far east of France, nestled in a protected enclave between the mighty Rhine river that marks the boundary with Germany and the Vosges mountains. This position protects it from the Atlantic rains and provides plenty of slopes facing the warm sun in the south and east. Grapes here get to mature fully, healthily and dependably. The mountains also provide a range of soils and weather protection that add variety and style to make the resulting wines unique and exciting and not to be found anywhere else in the world.

This location combines the coolness of the northern European climate, with cold winters, gentle and early spring and extended autumn, with a warm, but not baking hot, summer. Like other nearby regions, this coolness makes it better suited to white grapes, yet the Alsace warmth means that they can be very ripe and sweet in comparison to its less sheltered neighbours.

Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.

Coco Chanel

Niedermorschwihr, on the Alsace wine route
Niedermorschwihr, in Alsace
Bottles of Alsace wine
Wine from the Alsace region

Impressive, tall and slender

The difference between style and fashion is quality.

Giorgio Armani

Alsace’s main wine grapes are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Auxerrois, Muscat and Pinot Noir, all of which deserve to be explored in greater detail. Each of these can be found throughout the region, but some of the very best sites that have been identified have been designated 'Lieu Dits' (named sites) or 'Grand Cru ' and can produce some truly amazing examples of these grapes.

Most of these wines will be made to be largely dry in style, but the reliable weather also allows winemakers to make some sweet, concentrated wines from the most ripe selection of grapes, easily identified as Vendange Tardive (late harvest), or Selection des Grains Nobles (SGN). This abundance of variety also extends to styles, and means that winemakers can also produce delicious and light sparkling wines, perfect for aperitif, called ‘Cremant d’Alsace’.

Alsace wines are easy to recognise on the shelf and wine rack, yet also liable to be misunderstood. It’s that bottle. It isn’t the fat and heavy Bordeaux nor the tapered Burgundy shape used for the vast majority of wines. All wines made in Alsace must, by law, be bottled in the tall, slender, fluted bottle that is the calling card of the region.

Alsace is one of the only regions in the world to demand a specific bottle shape for all its still wines. The purpose of this law is to help to make the region stand out, but also links it to the specific historical local tradition of exporting its wines not by rough roads or seas, but via the Rhine, in river barges. In the past, the fluted bottles could be neatly crated and stacked for shipping, so they were the logical, practical choice and still today represent a strong link to the story of the place in every wine.

Read it in the stars

Alsace is very proud of its unique place in the world and history. It manages to combine the practical, orderly elegance of its influence from across the Rhine, evident in the names of families and the towns and the food culture, with a relaxed lifestyle and French twist. The result is a fairytale combination of rustic, homely interiors and bright, picture-postcard exteriors. This is a fantastic place for tourists to visit and feel immersed in a traditional French region, cuisine and wine culture. There are well-organised wine and food routes, a range of welcoming hotels and famous restaurants, innumerable scenic viewpoints and tourism-oriented services.

The Alsace food culture combines a wealth of local sources from mountain forests, fertile plains and generous rivers, something that has contributed to this small region having the greatest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in France outside of Paris. Menus are laden with game and pork served in hundreds of ways as well as the world-famous choucroute and potatoes often served in rich creamy sauces, but also with fish like carp and trout. Stews dominate the traditional cuisine, and Alsatian wines excel at matching and contrasting the combination of rich flavours that are the result.

Chicken and spices
Spiced chicken dish
A small glass of Alsace wine is like a summer dress or a spring flower; it's a ray of sunshine that makes life brighter.

Christian Dior

Further reading

In this series, we will explore each of the main grape varieties of Alsace wines in better detail so you can identify the right match for your particular occasion.

For further information you can also turn to the detailed site about Alsace wines, food, tourism and history at which also includes recipes and food matching suggestions.

Finally, once you start to explore the many fantastic wines, it is worth recording your experiences to make it easier to remember and find your favourites. Alsace Wines have created a bespoke app to help all wine and food lovers to do this, so install WineShare today to record and share your experiences.