I met someone last week who was surprised that I knew where Colmar was. But of course, for any wine lover, it’s the heart of Alsace! Having learned so much about its history and geology through the French Wine Scholar course, I was thrilled to visit the area a couple of years ago.
Ireland’s first ever Alsace Wine Week starts Monday 14th May – a great and rare opportunity to really discover the region. The ‘Big Alsace Tasting’ will take place on Thursday 17th, 6-8pm at Ely CHQ. For details on this and much more, see www.alsacewineweekireland.com.
But before you go, swot up on some key facts about Alsace, to get the most out of your tasting….
1) Size: 21,200 ha (which equates to approx 5% of French AC). 120 km x 5.8 km, although not all of this is under vine.
2) Location: 47- 49˚N, almost at the ‘limit’ of traditional grape-growing, which is the 50th parallel.
3) Climate: At this latitude, ripening is aided by its unique climate. The Vosges mountains to the west provide shelter from rain and clouds, making Alsace one of the driest, sunniest parts of France, with the lowest rainfall in France – 394-495 mm per year, compared to ‘wet’ side of the Vosges which has 2,286 mm! There’s also considerable seasonal and diurnal temperature swings, aiding ripening while maintaining vibrant acidity levels.
4) Soils: Alsace has a mosaic of 13 different soil types, which in turn leads to extreme variations in planting. Alsace itself lies in the Rhine graben,* a section of the rift system that zigzags across Europe from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. At various points Alsace has seen magma solidifying (300 million years ago), it then became an inland sea, and more recently (50 mya), experienced serious buckling as the Afro-Arabian and Euro-Asian crustal plates collided.
5) Dry Styles: Alsace’s wines are 90% white, and unusually for France, the majority have traditionally been varietally-labelled.
Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer (no umlaut in Alsace!) are the key varietals. These three, and Muscat are referred to as ‘noble grapes.’ While Riesling has traditionally been drier than its German cousin, a trend has been to leave some residual sugar in the wine. As of the 2008 vintage, Riesling was given a maximum RS level of 9g/l, (except Grand Crus, Lieu-dits, and of course, sweet/dessert wines).
Blends are popular too, at 20% of the total; labelled as Gentil, Edelzwicker or Pinot d’Alsace.
5) Sparkling: excellent quality Crémant d’Alsace is produced.
6) Sweet styles: There are two main styles of sweet wine: Vendanges Tardives and Selection de Grain Nobles. While both are made from noble grapes; SGN is always made from botrytised grapes.
7) Organic/Biodynamic: Alsace is a stronghold for organic and biodynamic growers. France’s first biodynamic estate was in Alsace (Eugene Meyer).
8) Yields are the highest in France, at 80hl/ha (55hl/ha for Grand Cru). The harvest begins in September, and continues throughout November. Grapes are mostly picked by hand.
9) Food matches: Alsace is a foodie’s heaven; it’s said to have the highest proportion of Michelin-starred restaurants in France. Riesling can be best enjoyed with Alsatian dishes of sausage, pork knuckle and choucroute. Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are good all-rounders, with or without food – little riper/richer than their Italian versions. Gewurztraminer is super with the local onion tart, and it’s also good with slightly spicy stir-fries or curries.
10) History – to find out why Alsace wines are so different to other French wines, you have to understand its history.
To discover the history, and learn about French wines in detail, take a look at the French Wine Scholar course, scheduled to start in September 2018, with Premier Wine Training.
It’s the world’s most detailed and up to date French wine course, supported by the French Ministry of Agriculture. It’s been recommended as one of the top 5 internationally-recognised wine courses in the world by Jancis Robinson MW, amongst others.
*A graben is a grave-like trench, created by pressure, whose vertical uplifts, in this instance, include the wine region of Alsace on one side and the wine region of Baden, Germany on the other.
Enjoy Alsace Wine Week!