Last Autumn I was luckily enough to be in London for work, and despite our mixed experiences last year in the Loire, we decided to do another wine trip to France. This time, however, we got as close to Germany as possible, and went to Alsace.
For those not familiar with the area, Alsace is in the far east of France, bordering on Germany and Switzerland. Ownership of the area has switched back and forth between Germany and France, but now it seems firmly settled in the latter. It has a moderate climate, and the Rhine river runs through it.
Most importantly for me, and thus Clō Wines, is that I studied in Strasbourg for a year at university, and will bore anyone with how much I love the city. Luckily Rachel has a soft spot for sweeter wines, balanced with acidity and minerality, and there is arguably no better region for them than Alsace.
A fair amount of Googling and consulting of wine magazines and books resulted in the discovery of the very best vineyards, emails were written and appointments were booked (definitely our number one recommendation when visiting the region). However, no amount of research prepared us to be standing on the street of Strasbourg at 5pm on a freezing Saturday trying to find a glass of wine!
As a side note I have to take complete responsibility for the Strasbourg part of the trip. I’d insisted a weekend in the city, so that I could revisit all of my favourite places, but then, if they truth be told, some of them had closed, and some looked a little less appealing 9 years later.
Anyway, eventually we found this little wine bar, which met all of our needs and so much more. It was called Terres à Vin and served a wide range of local wines, with delightful small plates and an incredibly knowledgeable staff. The place was charming and definitely comes with Clō Wines seal of approval.
Anyway, the next day we took off into the countryside, with me behind the wheel, just hoping to avoid some of the road traffic issues we faced the year before!
Before, we go too much further into the trip, a little background on the winemaking history of the region might be of use.
Alsace and the Noble Grapes.
Alsace is the smallest of the wine regions in France, and is divided into Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin, the majority of the really good wine comes from Haut-Rhin. Alsace is separated from France by the Vosges Mountains, which results in one of the driest and sunniest climates L’Hexagone. The vines are planted on the lower slopes of the Vosges on soil which varies from granite to limestone, from clay to chal to gravel, and not forgetting the local pink sandstone.
In Alsace white grapes reign supreme, with 90% of the AOC being white wine. There are 3 major AOCs (a post for a different day).
- Alsace AOC (92% white still wines)
- Crémant d’Alsace AOC (Sparkling white and rosé wines)
- Alsace Grand Cru AOC (Limited special vineyard wines)
The four “noble” grapes of Alsace are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Gewurztraminer and they are to be found everywhere. They account for the majority of vines planted, and are (almost) the only grapes planted in the grand cru vineyards of the region.
Riesling is what the region is most famous for, it has a steely taste, but it nothing like the sweet Rieslings that may spring to mind. When done well, which it often is in Alsace, it is incredibly well-balanced and incredibly drinkable.
Pinot Gris was the real surprise for me. I’d all too frequently thought of it as a ‘nothing’ wine, but a skilled winemaker can make an amazing full-bodied-yet-dry wine, that could be drunk with strong flavoured foods or sipped on its own.
Muscat smells like grapes. No other way to put it. It’s a pleasant wine, and a great aperitif on a hot day.
Gewurztraminer is probably high on the list of grapes that people know from Germany/Alsace. It’s full-bodied and frequently a little sweet (though Rachel wouldn’t like me saying that, maybe I should say it is off-dry!) It smells like potpourri and roses.These aren’t the only grapes that you will find growing as you drive through the vineyards. Pinot Blanc. Sylvaner, Auxerrois, and Alsace’s only red grape, Pinot Noir are also scattered over the hills. The Pinot Noir contributes towards the creation of Crémant d'Alsace, the sparking white wine of the region, which makes a delightful change after the still wines
One final thing to note is the propensity to taste what is referred to as “Vendange Tardive” or late harvest wines. No quibbling about here, these are sweet wines. With minimum ripeness, and sugar, levels being set. Traditionally these wines are drunk with foie gras.
But that’s probably enough information on Alsace, let’s get down to the tastings!