Assessing Alsace and Its Expressive Wines

Situated in the North-east of France, the wines of Alsace are particularly noted as being expressive of the grapes from which they are made. This is due to several factors that work in harmony to preserve the varietal characteristics of these wines. More specifically, the confluence of grape variety, climate/terroir, viticulture and vinification conspire to achieve these expressive wines.

The Alsace wine region possess a wonderful climate for grape growing. In particular, the region is well-protected from cold winds and rain by the Vosges Mountains, making Alsace among the driest areas in France. Second in sunshine, its long, sunny growing season permits grapes to fully ripen in terms of sugar levels, phenolics and tannins. Grapes can readily achieve high brix readings (sugar levels) annually without too much concern on the part of grape growers. This ripeness allows the full flavors of the grape’s typical characteristics to shine through in the respective wines.

Of course, the selection of grapes is first and foremost responsible for the expressive quality of the wines. The grapes most widely grown in Alsace include Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat. These are the grapes most prized, and the only ones authorized for Grand Cru status. As aromatic grape varieties, they have distinct, recognizable aromas and flavors (although this is slightly less true for Pinot Gris, which tends to be somewhat more neutral in this regard). Accordingly, the wines can demonstrate the aromatics that are characteristic of each grape. For example, Riesling has aromas of citrus, peach and petrol (especially with age), while Muscat is known for its grape and floral flavors and Gewurztraminer has classic notes of lychees, roses and spice.

Vineyards are planted in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains on South-east facing slopes, enhancing the ability to develop full ripeness and full flavors. In addition, yields are deliberately kept low to ensure that vines produce quality, not necessarily quantity, of fruit. With less fruit on the vine, higher ripeness levels can be achieved than with higher yields present.

Once the grapes are harvested, the Alsatian winemakers are very careful to retain the fresh fruit flavors of their grapes. Temperature-controlled fermentations, done in stainless steel or old vats heavily crusted with tartrates (rendering them neutral vessels) prevent the addition of oak or other flavors, while maintaining freshness and fruit quality. Moreover, malolactic fermentation is suppressed, barrel maturation eschewed and lees contact avoided. All of these cellar choices further improve the wines by preserving varietal character and inhibiting the influence of winemaking techniques on the wines. Finally, as these are varietal wines with an expressive focus, the majority of Alsatian wines are made from 100% of the varietal in question. This devotion to varietal purity is evidenced by Kaeferkopff’s long battle to attain Grand Cru status for its multi-varietal blends.

Consequently, with good grape selection, an excellent climate for grape growing, careful viticultural practices and vinification methods, Alsatian wines can really shine as pure expressions of their respective grapes. And, with many of them a good value, if you aren’t familiar with these wines, now is as good a time as any to check them out. Look for some of the better known producers such as Hugel, Trimbach and Willm.

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