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Alsace - small but perfectly formed

Pippa Hayward

Posted on April 11 2023

Tucked away in France’s remote north-eastern corner, you could be forgiven for missing Alsace entirely on a map of French wine regions. Just sixty miles long and barely ten wide, this diminutive finger of land, neatly sandwiched between the Rhine Valley to the east and the Vosges Hills to the west has so much to offer wine lovers. The crests of the Vosges Hills are peppered with the ruins of ancient fortresses – the legacy of its frontier status in the past.

It‘s possibly the prettiest wine region in France. Its bloody history of shared ownership between France and Germany finally ending after the Second World War, when it reverted to French control.  Its recovery and path to becoming the fascinating, diverse and high quality wine region it now is began then.

Alsace has a particular climate. The Vosges is the first significant range of hills in northern France to break the progress of Atlantic weather from the west, shielding the vineyards on its eastern flanks running down to the Rhine. It has a long growing season - rainfall is one of the lowest in France, autumns can be humid, perfect for late harvest sweeter styles and summers can get very hot. It’s a perfect place to visit in spring and late into the autumn.

The Rhine is a rift valley formed when mountains to the east moved west, throwing up multiple layers of geologically diverse soils piled one on top of the the other. The “Terroirs of the Vosges Hillsides” would make a spectacular Jigsaw puzzle! A slice of Alsace Terroir Cake would show many different soil types, often within one slope, changing from top to bottom and even on occasion right in the middle.

The Vosges slopes aren’t particularly high - roughly 200 to 500 metres at most, but they offer endless varied aspects and different soils. Clay, limestone, marl, schist, flint, granite, sandstone, slate, shale - Alsace has the lot. Top soils are thinner near the top of the slopes, deeper as you move down. Each of these shapes the resulting wine.

No surprise then that Alsace has 51 Grand Crus - it’s at least as complicated as Burgundy when you talk terroir.

What of the grapes and the wines?

This is where it get’s a bit easier - this is the only French Wine Region where the grape variety must be on the label. Pinot Noir is the sole red grape here. Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois, Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer make up the rest, with Chardonnay allowed for Crémant production only. 90% of Alsace wine is white, including Crémant, most of which is sold in France where its high quality relative to Crémant from other parts of France is much valued -particularly for weddings.

Aside from its beautiful landscape, charming traditional half-timbered villages full of flowers, its cuisine and benign climate, for most wine lovers the main attraction is the high quality of the wines and the number of Biodynamic producers here.

Last year this tiny region, equivalent to just 5% of all French vineyards, accounted for 12.8% of all the Biodynamic vineyards in France, with more than 100 wineries certified by Demeter or Biodyvin.

Amongst several lovely new additions to our Alsace shelves, here are a few steers on getting acquainted with this lovely region:

Domaine Agathe Bursin, Parad D’Aux Pinot Blanc 2021  (Biodynamic)

Agathe took over the tiny family Domaine in Westhalten in the south of Alsace in 2000. She’s rightly regarded as a rising star. When I visited in 2016 with a group of my fellow educators, she was already on the insiders’ radar. We just squeezed round the table in her tiny sitting room for our tasting in amongst the buggy and pram–the last of a brilliant few days. I remember the exhilarating freshness and texture of all her wines.

Parad’Aux is the answer to anyone who thinks Pinot Blanc can only do bland  - creamy, ripe and spicy, mouth-filling juicy fruit and a delicious long finish

Domaine Barmès-Buecher Crémant Brut Nature 2019 (Biodynamic)

From the family Domaine in Wettolsheim, a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and a little Chardonnay, with 19 months on the lees (double the minimum required by the rules) and zero dosage.  This is a proper Champagne alternative with perfectly balanced creamy fruit and biscuit /brioche notes from the long time sur lie. No Dosage required  - the wine is perfect.

Domaine Valentine Zusslin, “Ophrys” 2019  (Biodynamic)

The family Domaine is in Rouffach just north of Westhalten. Ophrys is a new addition to their Pinot Noir range – with a twist. The grapes are pressed but the juice spends no time on the skins as if it were a Blanc de Noirs. Once fermented it then macerates with the Pinot Noir skins form their best parcels and a little Pinot Gris. The result is an ethereal, pretty and expressive red - delicate in colour but persistent in flavour.

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