Riesling and Other Alsace Region Wines
The quality of winemaking in the Alsace region, especially known for its Riesling white grape variety, is among the highest in France. The finest wines are magnificent, but even the ordinary quality wines are well made and worth drinking.
Compared to many other French wine regions, Alsace grows a real hodgepodge of grapes: Nearly a dozen varieties in all are permitted in the production of AOC wines. All but one grape variety (Pinot Noir) is white.
The grape varieties of Alsace
Four white varieties enjoy special status in Alsace: They are entitled to be used in the production of grand cru wines, a special, high-level category of Alsace wine. These four varieties are:
Riesling (reese ling) is one of the two best white grape varieties in the world (along with Chardonnay), and it's considered the finest variety grown in Alsace. It’s also the single most planted grape variety in Alsace. Because it’s the latest variety to ripen, Riesling particularly benefits from the long, sunny Alsace autumns. Alsace Riesling wines tend to have aromas and flavors of citrus (especially grapefruit), citrus peel, apple, or peach, along with definite mineral accents, such as steeliness or flintiness.
Gewürztraminer (geh VAIRTZ trah mee ner), is Alsace’s third most planted variety. Of all the wine regions of the world that grow this highly aromatic variety, Alsace undoubtedly is the most suitable, in view of how excellent Alsace’s Gewürztraminer wines can be. These wines typically offer fragrant aromas of lychee fruit, roses, and spice.
Pinot Gris is considered by some to be the number two grape after Riesling in terms of the quality of wine it makes in Alsace. Pinot Gris has concentrated flavors of peach and sometimes citrus (lime, lemon, tangerine, and orange peel) or tropical fruit such as mango.
Muscat is a minor Alsace variety quantitatively. The small amount of acreage is actually divided between two distinct varieties, Muscat d’Alsace (elsewhere known as the Muscat à Petits Grains, or small-berried Muscat) and Muscat Ottonel. Usually the two Muscats are blended together and these full-bodied, dry wines are labeled simply Muscat.
Beyond these four white varieties, several others are important locally:
Pinot Blanc is the second most planted variety after Riesling. Pinot Blanc is a fairly undistinguished variety, with shy aroma and flavor, but in the right vineyard, it can be very good. Alsace Pinot Blanc has a floral aroma and delicate flavors of pear and citrus.
Pinot Noir is Alsace’s only black variety, and it makes the region’s only red wines. It covers nearly 9 percent of the vineyard land, an amount that’s slowly rising.
Sylvaner wines are rarely seen on the shelves of wine shops in the U.S. This variety is important to grape-growers because it ripens early and can produce a large crop, but plantings are in decline. Alsace Sylvaner wines are dry, crisp, and lean with a somewhat oily mouthfeel and mineral flavors.
The range of Alsace wines
Because of the varying terrain and soil types in the Alsace region, and the variability in the protection the Vosges Mountains offer, Alsace wines run the gamut of styles within the white wine category. The lower altitude vineyards, for example, tend to produce light-bodied, fresh white wines, while the hillside vineyards make intense, concentrated wines.
Alsace’s wine production encompasses the following styles:
Sparkling white and rosé wines, ranging from dry to semi-dry
Off-dry, light-bodied, fruity white wines
Dry white wines, light-bodied to full-bodied, with varying degrees of richness
Sweet dessert wines from late-harvested grapes
Light-bodied red wines
Non-sparkling (still) whites are the largest category. (In fact, Alsace produces 18 percent of France’s entire still white wine production.) Sparkling wines account for 14 percent of production. Dessert wine production generally represents only a tiny portion of Alsace’s wines.