Tuesday, May 14, 2024

What to drink this Spring? Wines from Alsace!

Let me start by saying that I love Alsace, not only because I’m familiar with their grapes and their wine styles but also because it’s so easy to write about places that have almost perfect conditions to grow grapes, and that year in and out yield unbelievable wines. Alsace, as you may imagine, is one of these lucky places on earth.

Very much influenced by German winemaking, Alsace has historically belonged to both France and Germany at different times in the past. Much depended on where their border was set, either by the Rhin river that separates France from Germany or on the Vosges mountains.  

Like their German counterparts, Alsace produces mostly white wines that are bottled in long flute bottles (they even do this for their tiny production of reds, something Alsatians are forced to follow by law and would like to see disappear). They also list their grapes on their labels, something uncommon in the rest of France, where appellations and not varieties are listed on them. Alsatian wines, like the Germans, are usually varietals and therefore rarely blended, they are wines created to express the soul of the grape and their terroir, a terroir that is truly special thanks to the Vosges Mountains. Alsace’s best vineyards are located in the Haut Rhin, on the south portion of the mountains, at their foothills or on sheltered valleys, where the Vosges protect them from the Atlantic influence. The climate in Alsace is cool, but very dry, since the mountains act like a barrier protecting the vineyards from rain, actually Alsace gets the least rain of all of France’s appellations. 

Despite its location, in the North East of France, Alsace is very sunny with a long and slow growing season, allowing grapes to mature every year. The lack of humidity and therefore diseases, favors both organic and biodynamic viticulture. Alsatian samples have more personality too, showing bigger bodies, concentrated fruit and alcohol than any of their German counterparts.  The variety of soils yield different wines too, something that producers are very proud about, as most of them make at least a minimum of 8 and up to 30 different wine styles each vintage. Clay and Marl soils yield the most concentrated wines (full of fruit, aromatics and tangy acidity), limestone and sandy soils yield the most elegant and finest of styles, while flint, quartz and schisty soils produce wines full of mineral, wet stone and petrol aromatics.

90% of all Alsace's production is white wine, which is mostly dry with some sweet production happening on the best vintages. The allowed varieties are Riesling (which has the highest percentage of all plantings), followed by Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Sylvaner, Muscat, Chasselas and Klevner. Four of these are considered the noble grapes of the region and are used only to produce Grand Cru (the best) wines and also the sweet versions.  Because Alsatian producers are purists, their intention is to showcase the aromatics of each grape, respecting what nature has created and not messing things up much. Following this approach, most wines are fermented in their indigenous (natural) yeasts, avoiding malolactic fermentation, so that they can keep their delicious acidity. Their wines are usually fermented in stainless steel, in cement containers or in very old oak barrels that don’t impart any flavors, they don’t usually age them in oak either.

Stylistically, at the entry level we have the basic Alsace AOC, made from grapes grown all over the appellation. A step up in quality are the Alsace Grand Cru wines, supposedly made from the best 51 vineyards, mostly spread in the south, where the Vosges are highest and their influence heavily felt. These can be made only from the 4 noble varieties: Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.  The subject of the Grand Crus is kind of controversial among Alsatians, as some of them are discontent with the way Grand Cru vineyards were delimited, in some cases because some important ones were omitted, while in others, because it included areas not special at all. Their disagreement was such that they refused to list the words "Grand Cru" on their labels and opted to give their wines a fantasy name, to identify them from the rest.  

The appellation also produces a ton of sparkling wine, known as Cremant d’ Alsace, these are sparkling wines made with the second fermentation in a bottle, similar to Champagne and from a blend of different grapes that include Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Chasselas. On excellent vintages, and when autumn humidity allows it, producers make two styles of sweet wines, Vendange Tardive or late harvest wines, wines with extra hang time and Selection de Grains Noble, made with grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea or noble rot. VT wines can be dry or sweet while SGN wines are always sweet. The best grapes to make both these styles are Gewürztraminer and Muscat. Both VT and SGN wines are produced in limited quantities, and very expensive, though if you are lucky to find these, give them a try as they are truly exceptional. The rest of the production goes to make rosé and reds from Pinot Noir, much of which is available only in France. 

Today recommendations come from Maison Willm, featuring a trio of delicious (Reserve) whites. Many thanks to Touton Selections for sending me these very expressive samples.

Willm Alsace Gentil Reserve 2022, $16.99  

A blend of 50% noble varieties that include Pinot Gris, Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Riesling, complemented with Pinot Blanc. Fully fermented in stainless steel, this was matured on its lees for 3 months. Fruity and floral with crisp acidity, showing ripe pear and citrus notes.  It’s easy to drink and a good place to start if you are new to the region. 

Willm Alsace Pinot Gris Reserve 2022, $16.99

A 100 % Pinot Gris wine showcases a lovely balance of freshness and stone fruits that include peach, apricot, orange peel and honeysuckle notes. This is a medium plus white with layers of juicy flavors and an elegant finish.

Will Alsace Riesling Reserve 2022, $17.99

Made from what is considered the king of all Alsatian grapes, this delicious 100% Riesling features lemon zest, white peach and green apple notes, with a touch of flinty minerality. On the palate it’s medium bodied, delicate with a vibrant finish.

Cheers! Silvina

#thoughtsoflawina #drinkalsace #alsacewines #alsace #drinkupamerica #WineWednesday