Alsace Riesling

Alsace Riesling

by Great British Chefs 31 July 2015

The Alsace region of France is synonymous with the wonderful Riesling wines they produce. Varying from light, dry, young wines that refresh to richer, sweeter wines to accompany dessert, there’s a Riesling to suit every occasion.

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.

Truly great wines are defined not just by their taste, but by how they fit into, and enrich, our lives. If we love great food and fabulous locations, we want wines to match and combine in order to make the experience even greater. This is where Alsace Riesling excels – offering the elegance of great purity, but also the potential to be right for all occasions.

- Alsace Riesling comes in a variety of styles, but its essence is a zesty, steely freshness combined with the roundness of golden fruit and floral notes.

- Riesling from Alsace will vary from young, dry and almost lemony to richer citrus (grapefruit, pineapple) and, if aged, saline with hints of honey, fennel, jasmine, petrol (but in a good way!) or leather.

- As well as light wines, Alsace Riesling also makes ‘Vendanges Tardives’, which are wines made from late harvested grapes, and ‘Sélection de Grains Nobles’ styles of sweet wines.

- Pair a young Riesling with the freshest seafood to enhance that mineral saltiness, or pick something with some age to match strongly flavoured dishes with lemongrass or citrus components, such as Thai-influenced dishes.

- If the moment is right for wearing that special outfit, for breaking out those accessories you’ve been keeping for ‘just the right moment’, for making that special effort to look and feel good, then this is also the time to choose Alsace Riesling.

Geography and winemaking of Alsace Riesling AOC

Riesling is planted throughout the vineyards of the Alsace region which offers a huge variety of conditions and soils. Vines are sensitive to their growing conditions, which mean that the same grape variety planted in different locations can make completely different wines.

The younger, fruit driven Riesling are best for drinking young. These wines gain in zestiness, can ferment their natural sugars to dryness and are ready to drink in the first few years after vintage.

Alsace Riesling vines, however, respond particularly well to the terroir of the upper slopes of steep vineyards where the light is bright, but the nights are cool. Here, the Riesling fruit takes a long time to ripen, and this results in a more complex mix of flavour elements for winemakers to work with. These wines often take longer to ferment and to transform, and though they can taste simple in their youth, they blossom with age as the roundness of the fruit comes through as it seems to ripen in the bottle. For the best experiences, look for bottles with at least three or four years since vintage, and expect them to last for many more than that.

A great sense of place for the different Alsace Riesling wines

Elegance is not about being noticed, it’s about being remembered.

Giorgio Armani

Riesling has an ability to express the unique character of the sites where it is grown and so it is worth knowing not only the grape variety, and the producer, but also where it comes from.

At the most basic, many wines will simply be labelled AOC Alsace, but as you climb the quality ladder you will find the mention of specific ‘Communes’ (small regions and towns) or even ‘Lieux-dits’ (named sites) that get ever more precise.

At the pinnacle, there are 51 ‘Grands Crus’ vineyards throughout the region that will usually be identified on the label. Although only established in local wine laws as recently as 1975, the very best of these vineyard sites have always been known to the local winemakers. Riesling grown on these sites can make some of the very best wines in the world and is therefore worth seeking out. Look out for the Grand Cru names Schlossberg, Schoenenbourg and Rosacker.

Alsace Riesling
Alsace Riesling
Pair a young Riesling with the freshest seafood to enhance that mineral saltiness
Pair a young Riesling with the freshest seafood to enhance that mineral saltiness

It takes a lot of concentration

While the sun, water and soil of a vineyard are all important for the development of the fruit, there is another feature that is incredibly important in the development of the finest Rieslings – rot. But not just any rot or mould, but ‘noble rot’, or Botrytis. This is a fungal growth that might look bad, but, in the right conditions, actually adds to the complexity of the grape juice that ultimately becomes wine. The mould doesn’t destroy the fruit, it grows on the skin and consumes the water in the grape, leaving behind a higher concentration of natural sugar.

Alsace Riesling takes its time to mature fully, even with the warmer weather of Alsace. This means grapes can sometimes be left on the vine beyond the point of simply having lots of sugar, so some grapes experience this transformation, giving the wines greater concentration of tropical fruit and marmalade notes. As they age, they also develop aromas of beeswax and leather, a unique and intoxicatingly complex character.

Grapes harvested several weeks after the normal harvest can be labelled Vendanges Tardives (or ‘late harvest’). This extra maturity greatly enhances the concentration of grapefruit-like citrus and honey in the wine. This results in wines that are rich, full of natural sugar but are balanced by the natural freshness and high level of acidity of the Alsatian Riesling. In the best examples, the obvious sweetness of their youth gives way to a pithy, complex and very elegant wine that, after some years, actually tastes less ‘sweet’.

When there is enough botrytis in a vineyard, wines can be made exclusively from these grapes. This requires very careful picking and wine making, and these wines are aptly called Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN or ‘selection of noble grapes’). These are fantastically concentrated wines, often with a core of red apple, ripe mandarin and peach fruit, grapefruit marmalade and honey, and always with a zippy acidity that freshens the palate while the flavours mingle and dance for what seems like an age. These wonderful wines can be kept for decades and will continue to improve with age.

We love Riesling, especially the long aged, oily, mineral gems from Alsace. They pair beautifully with just about everything, from oysters to charcuterie.

David Clawson, co-owner of The Remedy Wine Bar and Kitchen, London

Food matching

Young zesty Rieslings pair extremely well with any dish that tastes like it has just come out of the sea – oysters, scallops, mussels and more. The saline note and the lime freshness combine like a blast of sea air.

More rounded Rieslings are amazingly versatile, matching everything from salty pork dishes with rich sauerkraut, or freshening up white meats in rich sauces that would just absorb red wines, or bring out the tangy citrus in Thai and Asian-cuisine dishes with aromatic and citric herbs.

Vendange Tardive styles match complex cuisines because they complement so many styles, so match them with hot, spicy Thai meals that combine spicy, salty and rich foods together.

Sélection de Grains Nobles is supreme as a wine to savour on its own, but it can work well with sweet and creamy desserts, especially with a hint of ‘brûlé’, like tarts or crème brûlée, that help to make the honey notes in the wine balance the charred notes. Delicious!

On a savoury note, both the Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles wines also go very well with blue cheese.

The elegant duchess

In her excellent book on Vinalogy (wine analogies), Helena Nicklin personifies the Riesling grape as Claudia Schiffer, ‘in a tight, lime dress and rubber wellies’. It makes sense – she has the looks, the freshness and the exuberance. But if Claudia represents the lime and green apple freshness of the grape, the Alsace version is a little different.

Alsace Riesling is the elegant duchess who has the model’s attractive looks, but also the elegant poise of French nobility. While models change their style and look to suit their patrons, the Duchess doesn’t have days off and dresses for her part whatever the occasion. This is not dressed-up presentation, but the self-assured elegance that puts others at ease, whoever they are.

Alsace Riesling is special, it knows it is, and we like it that way.

Further reading

In this series we are exploring the region of Alsace and its main grape varieties in 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.