Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The World Class Wines of Alsace

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Colette Faller from Domaine Weinbach

Great Dry and Crisp White Wines

Alsace produces many good still and sparkling, red and white wines. But above all it is appreciated for its unoaked, dry and crisp white wines. The Alsatian are different from those made in the other parts of France: They are higher in acidity, sometimes really sour, but always a very pleasant experience to have them in the glass. And they go very well with Alsatian food, which is also unique in France. The famous choucroute you find only there in France. But of course, you find it also on the other side of the Rhine river in neighboring Germany, for example in the region where I come from, Frankfurt am Main.

Compared with Germany, which is also famous for its white wines, Alsace wines tend to be drier, more full-bodied, more concentrated and higher in alcohol. It is often said that the German white wines, in particular the Rieslings, tend to be sweet. But this is a misconception. 95% of German white wines are dry. The white wines with a noticeable remaining sweetness and a low level of alcohol – which are so popular in the US - have become a niche wine in Germany, largely produced for the export market. Overall, German, Austrian and Alsatian white wines are pretty similar, although they all have their own characteristics.

Trimbach, Weinbach, Leon Beyer

I spent a couple of days in early December 2010 in snow covered Alsace and had the honor of being received by Jean Trimbach (Maison Trimbach) in Ribeauville, Madame Colette Faller (Domaine Weinbach) in Kaysersberg and Yann Beyer (Maison Leon Beyer) in Eguisheim. All three of them are very well established wine estates, belonging to the elite of Alsace's winemakers. I will report separately about these three wine estates on Schiller Wine.

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Marc and Yann Beyer, Catherine Faller and Jean Trimbach

As to the food we ate in Alsace, it was in general very good; I would like to mention the Restaurant/Winstub L’Ami Fritz in Ottrott, where Chef/Owner Patrick Fritz offers delicious Alsatian meals in a very pleasant setting. And for the wine, I had the Edelzwicker “en carafe” of Domaine Fritz-Schmitt, produced by Patrick Fritz’s sister.


Alsace sits in the northeast corner of France, sheltered by the Vosges mountains to the west, which block out the dreary maritime weather that plagues so much of the rest of northern France and hard against the German border to the east. It has arguably France’s most picturesque wine villages, with hundreds of years old, beautifully restored, half-timbered houses.

The vineyards reach from around Wissembourg in the north to Mulhouse, 70 miles south. Some 12 million cases are produced annually from 32,000 acres of vineyards (13.000 hectares). All 3 wineries I visited – and indeed all famous winemakers – are located south of Strasbourg.


Alsace is a fascinating amalgam of the German and French. The end of the 30 Years’ War in 1648 gave Alsace to France. In 1871, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Alsace was taken by Germany. After World War I, it was once more part of France — until 1940, when Germany reclaimed it. With the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, Alsace became French yet again — and so it has remained.

While the great powers ruling Alsace alternated between the Germans and the French, I see more German elements in Alsace than French elements. For once, the German winemaking tradition is based on the concept of varietals whereas the French winemaking culture tends to believe in the concept of terroir. Alsatian wines are bottled under their varietal names, unlike virtually all other French wines.

Grape Varieties

Four grape varieties are considered to be the best:(i) Riesling – like in Germany, the most celebrated grape; (ii) Muscat – often used to produce sweet wines in France, the Alsace version is bone-dry; (iii) Pinot Gris and (iv) Gewurztraminer –Alsace's signature grape. Three other white grape varieties are also grown: (i) Sylvaner – A high-yielding grape, producing a refreshing wine, often used for blends, (ii) Pinot Blanc and (iii) Chardonnay – used only for sparkling wine. In addition, Alsace does have a little red wine made from the Burgundy grape, Pinot Noir. The Alsatian red wines tend to be quite lightweight, but can be delicious and interesting.

Picture: The Vineyards of Alsace in Kaysersberg (December 2010)


Alsace produces wines under three different appellations: (i) Appellation d'Origine Contrôlées (AOCs) for ¾ of the white, rosé and red wines, (ii) Alsace Grand Cru AOC for white wines from certain classified vineyards and (iii) Crémant d'Alsace AOC for sparkling wines.


Edelzwicker is a traditional, blended wine of Alsace, typically sold in liter bottles. In the early parts of the 20th century, blending was the norm, and these blends were called "zwicker". Edelzwicker (noble-blend) is a "zwicker" made only from noble grapes. It is a fairly simple wine for day to day drinking, best in a wine brasserie to wash down a plate of chaucroute garni at lunch or dinner! But one should not forget that Edelzwicker is a basic table wine; none of the 3 world class estates I visited produce Edelzwicker.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Patrick Fritz, Chef/Owner of L'Ami Fritz in Otrott

Noble-sweet Wines

Alsace produces noble-sweet wines, but – I would say - does not have the same reputation as Germany or Austria for producing noble-sweet wines. There are two kinds. (i) Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) is used to indicate a wine produced from grapes that have benefitted from remaining on the vine for an extended period of time. Often this refers to sweet, dessert style wines, but like in Germany the Spaetlese and Auslese wines, vendages tardives wines can be fermented until dry, yielding wines of special concentration and power. (ii) Sélection de Grains Nobles, on the other hand, does refer to noble-sweet wines. A selection of grapes affected with botrytis (noble rot), these are wines that express their innate character in a luscious, unctuous, perfumed style that is the same as the German Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese.

Picture: Copy of the Statue of Liberty in Colmar, where Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was borne on August 2, 1834, a French sculptor who is remembered mainly for designing the Statue of Liberty.

Cremant d’Alsace

Alsace also produces a sparkling wine similar to champagne, the Cremant d’Alsace. Crémant d’Alsace is made using the traditional method (bottle fermentation), mostly from Pinot Blanc grapes. Rosé Crémant d'Alsace is made exclusively from Pinot Noir grapes. Crémant d'Alsace is a significant part of the wine production in Alsace, with 18% of the region's vineyards used for this purpose.

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1 comment:

  1. Bonjour, Thank you for your kind message and for the pictures. It was a pleasure for us to meet you and your wife. We wish you all the best, a wonderful holiday season and look forward to hearing from you.

    With our kindest regards,

    Colette and Catherine Faller

    Colette, Catherine et Laurence Faller
    Clos des Capucins - F 68240 Kaysersberg