The wine region of Alsace and Lorraine is a French peculiarity. Not only is it the only major wine producing region in France to devote itself almost exclusively to white wine but it is also the only major French appellation controlee to print the grape names on the label. When you add the fact that the white wines taste unlike any other whites in France then it begins to explain why wines from Alsace and Lorraine are often forgotten or ignored in discussions about great French white wine styles.
In fact, white wine from Alsace and Lorraine should be ignored at your peril. The quality may be variable and you may not want to make it your regular white wine tipple but if you can find a handful of reliable producers and appropriate food to complement the wine the result is a truly memorable taste sensation which you will want to repeat again and again.
Over the centuries Alsace and Lorraine have been at the centre of a tug of war between France and Germany, spending long periods of time annexed to both countries. Today Alsace and Lorraine are part of France but history has left the region which many Germanic features which are particularly obvious in the wine production. The bottles and labels look very similar to German wines and the most common grapes, Gewurztraminer, Riesling d’Alsace and Tokay Pinot Gris d’Alsace share their perfumed characteristics with many German white wines.
Most of the region’s white wines are produced in the Alsace part of the region which includes around 13,000 hectares or 32,000 acres of very diverse vine-growing land. Thanks to varying soils and climates it can be difficult to judge the style of white wine in the bottle, despite the grape being named on the label. There are around 50 grand cru vineyards and you may be lucky enough to find one mentioned on a label but unless you are an expert on Alsace vineyards this may not help you much. Therefore, it may take some trial and error until you begin to identify one or two producers whose style of white wine suits your taste.
Most of Lorraine’s wine production is in the past. These days its white wine production is small and is largely limited to two VDQS areas: Vin de Moselle and the Cotes de Toul.
Alsace is most famous for its Riesling and Gewurztraminer wines. Riesling is the pride of Alsatians and is grown in at least 20 per cent of the region’s vineyards. International white wine drinkers are beginning to embrace the Riesling grape again thanks to the wonderful Rieslings emerging from Australia and this new found confidence is reigniting interest in German Rieslings too. Alsace Rieslings are on a par with German Rieslings for quality and deserve to have a wider international stage. They have their own distinctive style and are often riper than dry German Rieslings thanks to the warmer climate in Alsace.
The best Alsace Rieslings can benefit from aging from five to 15 years and are often not made available for sale until 18 months after the harvest. There are many excellent producers and names to look out for include Paul Blanck, Marcel Deiss, Dirler-Cade, Kientzler, Ostertag, Trimbach, Weinbach and Zind-Humbrecht.
Gewurztraminer is an instantly recognizable white wine grape and is a speciality of the Alsace region. It is usually seductively perfumed but the character can vary greatly depending both on its terroir and the skill of the wine makers. Variables such as soil, the ripeness of the grapes when they are picked and the techniques used during production can all have a major influence on the resulting white wine style. Look out for producers such as Ostertag, Trimbach, Faller and Zind-Humbrecht who use low-cropped grapes from the top grand crus vineyards. These dry, ripe late harvested wines are some of the best examples of Alsace Gewurztraminer full of oriental aromas of spice and perfume. Think of rose petals, lychees, orange blossom, lilac, tea, honeysuckle and bergamot and you start to get an idea of the wonderful complexity of a good quality Alsace Gewurztraminer. Some of the best bottles even have hints of black pepper, just to spice up the taste a bit!
Other grapes used in Alsace white wine include Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Alsace Muscat tends to be dryer than elsewhere and three types of Muscat grapes are grown: white and rose Muscat a Petits Grains and white Muscat Ottonel. Tokay-Pinot Gris or Pinot Gris is a halfway house between the dry and sometimes acidic Rieslings and the sometimes too sweet Gewurztraminer and is a stylish white wine worth seeking out. Pinot Blanc is unusually non-aromatic for an Alsace white wine and is often blended to produce more interesting wines.