Alsace has bounced back and forth between France and Germany for centuries – which might explain their excellent wines, often described as German wines with French style.
Following the signposted Route des Vins through the fairy-tale villages of Alsace – half-timbered medieval houses, balconies cascading with blooms, clustered around spindly gothic steeples – I half expected our hire care to sprout wings à la Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s that sort of place. Then I awoke from my wine-enhanced reverie, thankful to be the ‘designated drinker’, rather than driver.
The foothills of the Vosges mountains, flanking the entire western side of Alsace, are crowned with fortifications, testament to the number of times this territory has switched from France to Germany and back again. The mountains shelter this north-eastern corner of France from wind and rain, making it one of the driest and sunniest wine regions in the country.
To soak up maximum sunshine, the best vineyards are planted on steep, south-facing slopes, where the combined effects of altitude and northerly latitude produce a long, cool growing season. In most vintages these conditions guarantee rich, ripe fruit with the added bonus of crisp, fresh acidity; the perfect balance of sweet and dry.
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About the wine
The wines of Alsace are 90% white, made with a high proportion of German grapes – Riesling and Gewürztraminer – and bottled in tall, elegant Teutonic ‘flute’ bottles. They are often described as German wines with French style. And, like German wines, they are criminally underrated and overlooked. In fact, Alsatian wine is reputedly one of the wine trade’s best-kept secrets, the wine that merchants choose to drink themselves. And it’s easy to see why.
Alsace is unique among French wine regions in that producers are required to name the grape variety on the label, which is handy. Eight varieties are grown here, of which four are considered ‘noble’ – Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. Mostly, these are vinified and bottled individually to produce a pure expression of each variety.
New oak barrels are very seldom used as wood flavours would mask these pure fruit flavours. The exception to this rule is when blends are created, which are labelled as ‘Edelzwicker’ (‘noble mixture’).
The grape that Alsace has truly made its own is the exuberantly perfumed and spicy Gewürztraminer (würze being German for ‘spice’). Laden with lychees, Turkish delight and rose petals, it would stand out in any identity parade as the one that smells like a courtesan’s boudoir.
Most winemakers, however, consider Riesling to be their most ‘noble’ grape variety. Its wines are aristocratically elegant, occasionally austere, with floral aromas and bright fruit flavours underpinned by lashings of zippy, nervy acidity. With age they take on mineral-y, petrol-y aromas, sometimes described as ‘gunflint’. It’s apt that most Rieslings made by Alsatians are ‘bone’ dry.
But the greatest surprise comes from the Pinot Gris. It is one and the same as the ubiquitously uninspiring Pinot Grigio, though you would never guess as it caresses your palate with flavours of peach, pear, apricot and honeysuckle. On the beach full-bodied Alsace Pinot Gris would kick sand in the face of puny Pinot Grigio.
The yin and yang of rich, ripe fruit with tart acidity marries perfectly with the rich goose and pork dishes of Alsace. With the sweet, sour and spicy flavours of oriental food, Alsatian wines, to quote the song, are ‘Truly Scrumptious’.
Read our guide to Riesling wine
Alsace Gewürztraminer 2014, Taste The Difference
Floral aromas; luscious lychees with crisp acidity (13%)
Pinot Gris Reserve, Cave de Beblenheim 2014
Juicy, ripe peaches and apricots; fresh, dry finish (12.5%)
Le Clos Sainte Odile Riesling 2011
Elegant with flinty aromas; tart green apples; steely dry, lemony finish (12%)
£14, Marks & Spencer