There are three types of AOC:
AOC Alsace with seven recognized grape varieties (featured on the label): Muscat, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewurztraminer; two blends, Edelzwicker and Gentil; and the local curiosity Klevener from Heiligenstein covering 97 ha.
AOC Alsace Grand Cru (51 Grands Crus, 3.6% of all wines) with four authorized varieties: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat. There are specific approved terms for sweet wines: ‘vendanges tardives’ (late harvest) and ‘sélections de grains nobles’ (selected berries with noble rot).
AOC Crémant d’Alsace: Alsace sparkling wine.
Terroirs (or terrain/vineyard sites)
(Terroir is basically untranslatable into English but has physical, cultural and philosophical connotations. The word/concept combines specific site – its soil and structure, topography (slope/flat, altitude, exposure etc.), water holding/drainage, local climate, suitability to the variety planted and how it ripens – with the way the grower thinks, works and thus interacts with the land (nuances of the English words terrain and territory) to maximize grape quality. All of this should be enhanced, rather than dominated by the winemaker to convey a unique ‘sense of place’ or typicité to the actual flavour and consistent character of the wine. Terroir is often used confusingly to just mean local soil type; it’s scientifically dubious you can actually taste soil qualities.)
Since the 1970s, independent growers – individual estate owners – have been pushing for terroir-based viticulture, focusing on Grand Cru sites, which form various ‘lieux-dits’ or site names recognized since the Middle Ages; but also based on other vineyard names that appear on labels yet are not legally sanctioned at the moment.
There’s a great variety of vineyard locations and soil types along the whole wine route from Nordheim to Thann: chalk, granite, schist, slate, sand, clay, blue marl…
The climate is the unifying factor, which is mild and cool with one of the lowest rainfall rates (500 mm annually) in France, thanks to the Vosges mountains holding on to the ocean rain.
Wine country since the Roman era, Alsace has lived through great times such as the expansion of the monasteries or the 16th Century before the Thirty Years War.
Alsace wines with a meal
The wines should be drunk young, a statement that should be played down right away as there are many exceptions – thanks to the wines’ crisp mineral characters – especially the Alsace Grands Crus.
Apéritif Crémant d'Alsace
Sushi Pinot Blanc
Escargots (snails) Sylvaner
Canard (duck) ‘Tokay’ Pinot Gris
Fromages de chèvre frais (fresh goats’ cheese) Riesling
Patisseries (sweet pastries / cakes) Gewürtztraminer Vendanges Tardives
The Alsace wine route is the oldest in France (1953). It’s one of the biggest too: 67 village communes, 170 km from Marlenheim to Thann. The entire wine route is peppered with places of interest and offers lots of tempting things to do.
In terms of tourism, the one running from Ribeauvillé to Colmar is one of the best known. Three must-sees: Château de la Confrérie Saint-Etienne (Brotherhood of St-Stephen) in Kientzheim, l'Ecole des vins d'Alsace (Alsace wine school) in Colmar and the Foire de Colmar (Colmar fair).
There are countless bacchanalian brotherhoods, of which the Confrérie Saint-Etienne is one of the oldest in France.
There are also many wine trails.
Interesting and useful sites
Trade body: www.civa.fr
Alsace Independent Winegrowers Union (SYNVIRA): www.alsace-du-vin.com
Les grands crus d'Alsace Serge Dubs, Denis Ritzenthaler (in French)
The Wines of Alsace, Tom Stevenson