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Alsace is unique among the world’s wine regions, standing out for its unusual climate, geography, and selection of grape varieties. It offers a lot to love for buyers and consumers alike, from prestigious yet affordable bottlings that grace top restaurant wine lists to casual, everyday sippers. Whether you’re looking for legends to stock a cellar or searching for wines that will pair well with a huge range of foods, Alsace has it all.
Alsace differs from most other wine regions in France in several key ways. Consumers often appreciate the fact that the wines are labeled with the names of the grape varieties, such as Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer. Alsace also stands out in its heavy reliance on white grapes. Previously, the AOC Alsace Grand Cru classification was reserved entirely for white wines. Just this year, Pinot Noir from two specific Grand Cru sites—Kirchberg de Barr and Hengst—was granted AOC Alsace Grand Cru status and will now be labeled as such.
But that doesn’t mean that the region lacks vinous diversity. In fact, the opposite is true: Alsace is a region of deep, often dramatic differences in terroir, underlying geology, aspect, and more. And because its winegrowing history reaches so far back, more subtle differences from one lieu-dit to another can be taken full advantage of by the knowledgeable grape growers and winemakers who translate them into liquid form.
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Alsace is located in northeastern France, neighboring Switzerland to the south and Germany to the east. It’s not a huge region—there are less than 39,000 acres of vines in Alsace—but within the narrow (just 9 miles wide), 105-mile-long sweep of its wine route, which is the oldest in the world, it contains multitudes.
There are 13 distinct soil types in Alsace, including volcanic, clay, granite, and limestone, and each distinct plot shapes the character of the vines. Combined with the region’s plentiful sunshine and the fact that the Vosges Mountains protect the region from excessive rains—making it the second-driest region in France—the vines have a unique ability to adapt to more environmentally-friendly farming techniques. Indeed, Alsace is one of the three greenest wine regions in France: More than a third of vineyards are certified organic or biodynamic or transitioning to organic, and as of last year, 109 estates have been certified biodynamic.
This respect for the land is baked into the culture of Alsace. “When you’re standing in a vineyard that was planted in the ninth century, or even some that were named in the 1200s, it’s just crazy,” says Alsace Ambassador and Somm TV personality Matthew Kaner. “The fact that it’s survived all the wars…there’s a lot of historical significance to the region.”
Those historical ties, and the respect for the land that has developed over centuries and has been sustained for generations, are evident in the care and attention that’s paid to the vineyards themselves. And the resulting wines are unlike any others in the world.
Exploring the Terroir
Alsace is dominated by white wines—90 percent of the wine production is white. Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris cover the landscape, accounting for 78 percent of the total vineyard area, with the rest filled out by Pinot Noir, Sylvaner, and Muscat d’Alsace.
But the story of Alsace is more than a tale of grape varieties; it’s just as driven by the exceptional vineyards in which those grapes are grown. The region comprises 53 appellations, including AOC Alsace, AOC Crémant d’Alsace, and 51 AOC Grands Crus, each with distinctive terroir. These grands crus are the most renowned and represent some of the most venerated vineyards in the country: Schlossberg, Mambourg, Rosacker, and more comprise a list of greatest-hits among wine professionals. And the ways in which they differ are as fascinating as they are delicious.
The Albert Boxler Riesling Grand Cru Sommerberg Eckberg 2018, for example, grows on granitic soils in a single parcel within the famed vineyard itself. It shows an almost tannic character and a clear ability to age according to Valerie Pimpinelli, the assistant general manager and buyer for Flatiron Wine in New York City. On the other hand, a bottle of Ostertag Riesling Les Jardins 2018, which was grown on gravel, sand, silica, and clay soils, has a mineral character that’s countered by a broad, balanced, ripe fruit profile. Both are made from the same grape variety in the same vintage, yet they are totally different wines: This is the beauty of Alsace.
Great wines aren’t limited to Riesling, of course. The Meyer-Fonné Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Kaefferkopf 2019 exemplifies what makes this famously aromatic variety so exciting in Alsace: It proves that this wine can be fresh and lively, and even age for several years when grown in the right vineyard. The Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Altenbourg 2019, on the other hand, is “a call to arms,” says Kaner, referring to its layered, endless complexity that rewards serious attention.
Buyers—and Consumers—Take Notice
No matter what you taste from Alsace, wonderful surprises are sure to follow. This is one of the main reasons it’s become such a popular region among buyers. Buyers often feel that they need dozens of SKUs to be truly representative of Alsace and to actually show the diversity of the region. “Over the past couple of years, consumer demand has risen dramatically,” says Pimpinelli, which has allowed her to invest in a broader stock of wines from Alsace.
For Brent Kroll, the sommelier at Maxwell Park in Washington, D.C., Alsace’s time has finally come: From the generosity of Gewurztraminer and its ability to appeal to consumers looking to transition from less-serious sweet wines to the real deal, to the legendary food-friendliness of great, mouthwatering Rieslings, this is a region that is poised for the widespread recognition it has richly deserved for a long time.
Between the history, terroirs, passionate producers, and world-class wines coming out of Alsace, buyers are seeking out Alsace’s hidden gems—and Kroll’s prediction is fast becoming reality.
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