Alsace, in the far north-eastern corner of France, stands out from other French wine regions thanks to its strong Franco-Germanic influences. These are the results of the region having switched back and forth between German and French sovereignty in recent centuries – and are evident not only in Alsatian architecture and culture, but also in the wines.
Alsace's wines are produced under three key appellations: Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru for still white wines (both sweet and dry), and Crémant d'Alsace for sparkling. Almost all wine produced in this region fits into one of these three designations. The Alsace Grand Cru wines are produced from one of 51 favoured vineyards distributed along the length of the region.
Alsace is the only French wine region to grow significant quantities of Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Both of these grape varieties are more commonly associated with German wines, and serve as a reminder of Alsace's history. Pinot Gris, a variety typically marginalised in other French regions as a blending component, is another of the region's noble varieties. It was known as "Tokay" until 1993 (the Hungarian wine being the byword for quality) then Tokay-Pinot Gris until 2007 when EU regulations phased out the reference completely.
Alsace Grand Cru wines are only allowed - with one exception - to be made from these three varieties plus Muscat. Three variants are grown of the latter: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Muscat Rose à Petits Grains, and Muscat Ottonel. Sylvaner is another traditional Alsace grape variety which provides the exception; wine made from this variety only qualifies for Grand Cru status if grown at one particular vineyard: Zotzenberg.
Chasselas, Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois are also grown although these three tend to be used not in single-variety wines but in blends (see Edelzwicker). Confusingly, an Alsace wine labelled as Pinot Blanc may also be a multi-variety blend, also containing Auxerrois, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir fermented without the skins.
White varietal wines make up 90 percent of production here, from the varieties stated above. Key variations in wine styles are marked by their residual sugar levels, which cover the entire sweetness spectrum from bone dry to lusciously sweet. In 1983, the official terms Vendanges Tardives and Selection de Grains Nobles (see French Wine Label Information) were introduced to define and categorise sweet Alsace wines. They remained unique to the region for some time, but are now used in other French appellations such as Jurancon and Côteaux du Layon.
Although significantly outnumbered by white wines, red wines are also made here, mostly from Pinot Noir. Alsace Pinot Noirs are typically lighter-bodied and more rustic than those produced in the variety's homeland Burgundy, 225km (140 miles) to the southwest. That said, climate change and warmer summers are leading the region's winemakers to produce noticeably more powerful styles of Pinot Noir.
The Alsace region lies between the Vosges mountains and the French border with Germany, marked by the Rhine river. A long, thin region, it measures 185 kilometres (115 miles) north to south and just 40km (25 miles) from east to west. The key viticultural areas here are all located on the lower hillsides of the Vosges, on slopes with east and south-easterly aspects.
The Vosges play a vital role in defining the region's terroir; they not only provide protection from the prevailing westerly winds, but also cast a rain shadow over the area, contributing to the low rainfall of its continental climate. They are at their most dense in the southern half of Alsace, where the peaks reach roughly 1400 meters ( 4600ft). The glacial activity which created the mountains has also significantly impacted the region's topography and soils. These vary from sandstone, granite and volcanic rock types in the foothills, to clay-rich limestone and marlstone on the alluvial plains below.