Wine region: Alsace

The ability to tell your Alsace from your Elbling is the raisin (sic) d’être of a wine connoisseur.
The Alternative Wine Glossary

The geography of the wine growing area in Alsace is determined by two main factors, the Vosges mountains in the west and the Rhine river in the east. The vineyards are concentrated in a narrow strip, running in a roughly north-south direction, on the lower eastern slopes of the Vosges, at altitudes of 175-420 m. Those altitudes provide a good balance between temperature, drainage and sun exposure under Alsace’s growing conditions. Because of predominantly westerly winds, the Vosges mountains tend to shelter Alsace from rain and maritime influence, and the region is therefore rather dry and sunny. Rainfall in Colmar is 500 mm, but can vary greatly between sites. While the slope down the Vosges is generally east-facing, many of the best sites are south-west to south-east facing, and benefit from extra sun exposure.

Alsace has a very varied geology, with many different kinds of soils represented in the vineyards.] Alsace’s very varied soils are a result of its location at a geological fault. Alsace as a whole is located on the western part of the Rhine Graben, which is the result of two systems of parallel faults, with a dropped down block between the Vosges and the Black Forest.

The best terroirs in Alsace are located on the ridges by the foothills of the Voges, between two geological faults. Here, the bedrock is a mosaic of cracks and disruptions in many directions. On top of the bedrock, soils of varying origin form a thin layer that has either has been formed on site, as alluvium or moved by gravity from higher elevations.The upper parts of the hillsides are granitic, normally followed by Bundsandstein, Muschelkalk and marl of various origin. Here and there, for example on Grand Crus Altenberg de Bergheim and Florimont (Ingersheim) oolitic Jurassic limestone dominates, but this is quite rare.On bedrock from Triassic and Jurassic, one can separate the Grands Crus into three classes; limestone, an intermediate group and terroirs low in lime. The rule of thumb is that the higher the lime content, the more acidity is brought to the wine. If the acid content is high, the grapes may be harvested quite late which gives a good chance of making a wine that combines body, complexity and storage potential.

If limestone gives acidity, particularly some of those citric aromas we associate with Riesling then marl on warm soils give power marly terroirs with warm soils include Schoenenbourg (Riquewihr), Osterberg (Ribeauvillé), Pfersigberg (Eguisheim) and the Lieu-dit Muhlforst (Hunawihr). The terroirs on limestone rich marl from Oligocene include Grand Crus Sonnenglanz (Beblenheim), Mandelberg (Mittelwihr) and Mambourg (Sigolsheim). They have the potential to endow superior wines with acidity and body. However the conglemorates tend to weather to heavy, cold soils that require perfect weather to ensure a good ripening process. While Mambourg, perfectly south-facing, can provide the sunlight that allows perfect maturation almost any year, other Oligocene terroirs will give Rieslings with rough edges in less than perfect vintages. Furthermore, Pinot Gris is very likely to suffer from humidity that will inevitably be struck by a fair share of grey rot.

Terroirs low in lime, such as Froehn (Zellenberg) and Sporen (Riquewihr) are not suitable for Riesling because the levels of acidity will be to low. Instead, these are soils for Gewurztraminer.

Several Grand Crus rest on the granitic bedrock, just west of the western fault. Granit is hard and will only slowly be decomposed to a sandy soil. Drainage is very good, and the soils will heat up early on clear autumn days. However, the lack of water causes the wines from warm granite terroirs such as Brand (Turckheim) and Schlossberg (Kientzheim/Kayersberg) to be best in intermediate years. If the microclimate is cooler such as on Sommerberg (Niedermorschwihr) and Wineck-Schlossberg (Katzenthal) one should look for the warm vintages to find the best wines.

There are a few interesting Grands Crus on unique geology. One is the legendary Rangen de Thann, situated on the dramatic southern slope of a volcano. There are two main producers on Rangen, Zind-Humbrecht and Schoffit, creating arguably the most magnificent wines of region.

To sum up, great Riesling grows either on complex, warm soils rich in limestone (e.g. Schoenenbourg) or calcareous, cold soils with an extremely favourable microclimate (e.g. Rosacker, Furstentum and Hengst). On difficult cold soils, it is sometimes necessary to allow some malo-lactic fermentation to achieve a reasonable balance in lesser years.

Almost all wines are white, except those made from the Pinot Noir grape which are pale red, often rosé. Sparkling wines known as Crémant d’Alsace are also made. Much of the white wines of Alsace are made from aromatic grape varieties, so many characteristic Alsace wines are aromatic, floral and spicy. Since they very seldom have any oak barrel aromas they tend to be very varietally pure in their character. Traditionally all Alsace wines were dry (which once set them apart from German wines with which they share many grape varieties), but an ambition to produce wines with more intense and fruity character has led some producers to produce wines which contain some residual sugar. Since there is no official labelling that differentiates completely dry from off-dry (or even semi-sweet) wines, this has occasionally led to some confusion among consumers. It is more common to find residual sugar in Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris, which reach a higher natural sugar content on ripeness, than in Riesling, Muscat or Sylvaner. Usually there is a “house style” as to residual sugar, i.e., some producers only produce totally dry wines, except for their dessert style wines.

Late harvest wines
There are two late harvest classifications, Vendange Tardive (VT) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN). Vendange Tardive means “late harvest” (which in German would be Spätlese), but in terms of must weight requirements, VT is similar to Auslese in Germany. Sélection de Grains Nobles means “selection of noble berries”, i.e. grapes affected by noble rot, and is similar to a German Beerenauslese. For both VT and SGN, Alsace wines tend to be higher in alcohol and therefore slightly lower in sugar than the corresponding German wines. Therefore, Riesling VT and Muscat VT tend to be semi-sweet rather than sweet, while Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris tend to be rather sweet already at VT level. But as is the case with sweetness in other Alsace wines, this depends to a large extent on the house style of the producer.

Albert Mann is a progressive domaine that must be ranked among the very top of Alsace producers. Since 1984, it is run by Jacky and Maurice Barthelmé. The latter is married to Marie-Claire, granddaughter of the late Albert Mann.The family has close family ties with the owners of Paul Blanck in Kientzheim which explains why vines on the two Grands Crus of Kientzheim, Furstentum and Schlossberg are included in the portfolio of Albert Mann.

Besides the above-mentioned, Albert Mann farms land on Grands Crus Hengst (Wintzenheim) and Steingrubler (Wettolsheim) and some outstanding lieux-dits. In all, the domaine covers 22 ha in as many as 8 communes.The style is powerful with full respect for the terroir. Albert Mann works with high ecological ambitions, and applies a minimum of fertilizers in the vineyards. Hard pruning results in low yields and high must weights. On remarkable terroirs as Hengst and Furstentum, which naturally offers high acidity, the overall result is complex wines with superior balance and outstanding cellaring potential.

Jean-Pierre Frick turned into organic viticulture in the 1970s, went fully biodynamic in 1981 and has not chaptalized since 1988.  Biodynamic viticulture includes the use of certain preparations. Preparation 500, called “Horn manure”, is used to give life to the soil and improve the root-soil interaction, while 501, “Horn silica” improves the interaction between the foliage and the light. Frick ploughs the soil carefully, uses cow dung every fourth year as the only fertilizer and lets wild herbs flourish in the vineyard during the growing season. In short, the idea is to give the vine a chance to utilize the soil and the sunshine as much and as naturally as possible.

Jean-Pierre aspires to capture the essence of the grape and also the flavour of the terroir and makes a huge range of wines. Some are selections, some lieux-dits, some from Grand cru vineyards; others are late harvested and one range is vinified entirely without sulphur. His Chasselas (the grape originates in Switzerland), vinified without the addition of sulphur, is left on the lees. It is quite vinous reminiscent of greengage, mirabelle plums and dried banana. The Riesling Rot Murle from high upon the hill is dry with hints of blackcurrant bud, tobacco and mineral – impressively lively in the mouth. The Pinot Gris is typically round and rich: think plum jam, caramel and apple compote: try with cheese. His Riesling Grand cru is a wine of considerable complexity and develops intriguingly in the glass. Notes here of praline, vanilla and mineral; it opens to reveal yellow fruits and menthol and has a long, fresh, almost salty finish with flickering minerality. The unsulphured Pinot Noir Strangenberg has beautiful discreet aromas of cassis, griotte cherries, grenadine and spice.

Alsace wines excite loyalty and suspicion in equal measure. The labelling, despite the presence of the varietal, often obfuscates rather than clarifies the true identity of the wine and some estates make a bewildering number of cuvées which can change annually. The word “speciale” is not an underused one in Alsace. As with Burgundy the vineyards are highly fragmented and the character of the wine is determined by the specific location. The wines are also highly vintage sensitive with reduced acidity highlighting the richness and alcohol. The practice of chaptalisation still continues.

The wines, particularly Rieslings and Pinot Gris are capable of greatness, with the former capable of great longevity. Riesling in Alsace veers towards the dry – Andrew Jefford once described an example as being “as dry as bleached bones”. With its lower acidity any residual sugar in Pinot Gris becomes apparent. This grape is golden with characteristic aromas of honey, sweet pastry, pulped pears, yellow plums and quinces in alcohol. Heady Gewurztraminer is immediately recognisable with its powerful perfume of luscious peaches, Turkish delight and sandalwood. At its worst it reminds one of face cream and lychees in syrup. Muscat is always a pleasure; never very complex it has an intense grapefruit quality and some of the Grand cru examples possess some underlying minerality.

Fot all their aromatic properties the wines in Alsace require robust food. Food in Alsace tends not to be found in any other region of France, with some noteworthy exceptions. As Alsace is the region that invented the brasserie, some Alsatian dishes such as choucroute are served all over France. Wherever you are in France, a dish that is denominated “à l’alsacienne” will invariably be served with choucroute.

Pork is an important meat in Alsace and the pig is known as le seigneur cochon (the noble pig). A type of stew called baeckeoffe (“baker’s oven”) is initially prepared at home with pork, mutton, beef and vegetables being marinated in wine for two days then put between layers of potato and taken to the baker’s to be cooked. Choucroute alsacienne is sauerkraut (aromatic pickled cabbage) and is served hot with sausage, pork or ham, and a local beer or glass of wine. Flammeküche, or what is called tarte flambée in French, is pastry filled with cream, onions, cheese, mushrooms and bacon. A vegetarian alternative to this is zweibelküche or tarte à l’oignon, which is an onion tart. Tourte is a pie containing ham, bacon or ground pork with eggs and leeks.

For a couple of weeks in late May, asparagus (asperges), are available and the Alsatian variety are sought after all over France. Another delicacy from Alsace is fois gras, and this kind is heavily in competition with the fois gras from southwest France.

Fish is cooked in a variety of ways, notably with Riesling wine. Such dishes include matelote (river fish stew) and truiteau bleu (trout boiled briefly in Riesling, then served with a dash of vinegar).
Alsace is also renowned for its patisseries, including the kougelhopf, a sultana and almond ribbed moulded dome-shaped cake, or the tarte alsacienne, a custard tart with local fruits such as quetsches (plums). Birewecks are made with dried fruit that has been marinated in kirsch.

Kirsch is to cherries what cognac is to grapes and there are lots of different kinds of fruit brandies available to round off you meal in Alsace.

Posted by admin on 02-Mar-2009. Permalink

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