This beautiful part of the world between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine has been fought over on many occasions and occupied an equal number of times.
Its relationship with Germany is evident in many areas such as the pretty villages and the place names and even the wine uses many of its neighbour’s grape varieties and bottles in the German style, tall fluted bottles.
The vineyards have been through difficult periods under German rule. The wine was deliberately discouraged from achieving the same high quality as vineyards across the Rhine and after the war, a decision was made to replant ravaged and abandoned vineyards with entire areas of Reisling and Gerwurztraminer grapes and to label bottles with the grape variety.
Great success followed through the 60s 70s and 80s but for reasons not totally explained, the export success stalled and a trend towards sweeter wines may have had some part to play here, but despite this trend, the entry level wines stepped up a grade and the producers make some of the greatest examples of white wine varieties in the world.
Above all else in the Alsace, the overall level of quality at a price is difficult to find elsewhere and is almost certainly higher than any other French region.
The quality of entry level wines from the top producers is also without parallel, meaning offerings by Zind – Humbrecht, Albert Mann, Trimbach, Leon Bayer and others are available at a price not found almost anywhere in the world for this quality of wine from top producers and for that reason alone it is finding out who those good producers are as the entry level prices from them are low enough to make great or at least very good wine available to anyone who makes the effort to seek them out.
The three most important grapes are Reisling, Gerwurtztraminer and Pinot Gris plus to a lesser extent Muscat.
Reisling is superb but not in the German style, higher alcohol content and more body to them in general terms, more suited to food than their German cousin on a personal basis I have always preferred the German version but as always it is purely a personal preference.
Colmar – Little Venice
For me, Alsace’s best wines are the Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. Hardly anywhere in the world has anybody made wines of the former at the level available here and yet it is the newest introduction to the area – its sweetness and perfume make it one of those rare wines that go with strong cheese yet it is still a wine that is rarely served so still induces drinkers to ask what it is, being so distinctive.
The Pinot Gris is another that reaches very high quality in the Alsace and on those occasions I have visited the area I have always purchased a case or two to bring home as again the better ones are not generally available and they are relatively cheap in the home country.
The only problem I have had with it is its keeping – all the ones I have purchased, despite their supposed long keeping qualities have matured quite quickly and with all things wine, the temperature affects some a lot more than others and I might well have been guilty of not being able to keep the heat down low enough on the return journey home.
Nonetheless, just drink young.
The other main grape but grown in smaller acreage is Muscat – sweet almost everywhere else in the world. It’s a dry clean wine here and worth seeking out.
All these main grape varieties are also made in versions similar to the German auslese level and above Vendange Tardive means late harvest. Selection des Grains Nobles are grapes that are super ripe and on the verge of turning to raisins – these are like Sauternes in France or the great German dessert wines and have the added attraction of wonderful perfume.
These are the great wines of the Alsace.
At the lower level, Pinot Blanc can be very good but in honesty, it generally does little for my taste buds and the Sylvaner is I think no better here than anywhere else – just another white wine. As with all comments, that is a generalization – there are always those vineyards that prove you wrong and that goes for anything in the world of wine.
The “wine road” running roughly from level with Strasbourg down to Thann NW of Mulhouse, in the lee of the Vosges mountains is, many think, the prettiest wine region in the world,.
I wouldn’t argue with that – so many beautiful villages and small towns on the route – it can be a very slow journey going south as you stop to take in the scenery or taste at the vineyards, many of which are easily found.
Sign of the times?
Ribeauville and Riquewihr are the most famous and get a lot of tourists but others are also worth visiting, my favorite being Eguisheim.
Like many of these places, it’s a fortified small town with wineries, many good restaurants and that is something that is found all over the Alsace. This is one of those few places left that give you a meal of quality – no small portions here.
Colmar should also not be missed – a classy large town with great shopping and a covered food market in the “Little Venice” area that incorporates an outside food market once a week that will have you drooling over the goodies on display.
Like Germany the wines from this area are largely out of favor in the UK but that shouldn’t stop anyone seeking them out.