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Nestled between the Vosges mountains to the west and the River Rhine to the east the vineyards of Alsace, producing mostly dry white table wines, occupy a 70 mile long, narrow strip of land from west of Strasbourg in the north to west of Mulhouse in the south varying between 1 and 3 miles in width. The vineyards lay in the rain shadow of the Vosges mountains and are dotted with picturesque medieval towns and villages. There is a large variety of soil types which are typically various combinations of granite, sandstone, limestone and clay on mountain slopes, the foothills as well as on the alluvial plain. Together with the differing vineyard aspects Alsace offers a myriad of possible permutations of terroir.

Alsace is home to grape varieties some of which are perhaps more familiar to lovers of German wines although they are traditionally fermented in the French style, i.e. higher in alcohol and much drier than the majority of German wines. Alsace wines have an affinity with food which is exemplary, Pinot Blanc always had the reputation of being the wine on the table when the wine trade went to lunch.

King of Alsace grape varieties is Riesling which combines power with precision and fruit with minerality and whose best wines age very well developing a complex bouquet. Pinots Blanc, Gris and Noir also make very good wines in this region. Pinot Gris makes wines with the fullest body but which are less perfumed than other wines made in Alsace. Pinot Noir made here can be very good and the quality has improved further recently with the trend towards warmer summers. Gewürztraminer makes highly aromatic white wines with the heady scent of rose and lychees that make a good foil for Asian dishes. Muscat, renowned for sweet wines with a grapey nose in the south of France, maintains its fruit character but is fermented into a dry wine here. Although the majority of Alsatian wines are made in a dry style sweeter examples do exist. Vendange Tardive wines are made from later-harvested grapes in long, sunny autumns and the resulting wines contain some residual sugar. Even sweeter, dessert wines, named Sélection de Grains Nobles, are made when conditions are favourable for botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, in exactly the same way as Sauternes is made in Bordeaux.

With the emphasis on grape varieties it is true to say that there has traditionally been less placed on vineyards and wine villages, certainly when compared with regions such as Burgundy. In the last three decades or so this has changed somewhat. A grand cru classification was introduced in 1983, with legislation to control permitted grape varieties and with it came a renewed interest in the villages and lieux-dits or specific vineyard sites. In fact a wine that is generally regarded to be the best Riesling produced in Alsace (Trimbach's Clos Ste-Hune) does not bear the name of the grand cru Rosacker vineyard in which its grapes are grown as the firm does not believe the rest of the vineyard to be of the same quality. These grand cru sites tend to be located on the higher mountain slopes in the southern half of the viticultural area, the Haut Rhin, and the best are beginning to be regarded as a more important indicator of quality than hitherto. Although wines made from grapes grown on the alluvial plain in the north of the region, the Bas Rhin, tend to be lighter there are still some wines of exceptional quality produced.

The grand cru wines are restricted to four grape varieties, viz. Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat and the regulations proscribe the permitted varieties for each of the vineyards. Some of the best grand cru vineyards are Kaefferkopf Kuehn, Sonnenglanz, Schlossberg, Rosacker, Sporen and Mambourg in the Haut Rhin and Wiebelsberg, Kastelberg, Freiburg and Clos Ste-Odile in the Bas Rhin. A summary of the best producers would have to include Trimbach, Hugel, Schlumberger, Bott-Geyl, Bott Frères, Rolly-Gassman and Zind-Humbrecht. Wine co-operatives have been established in Alsace since 1895 and the best of these include those from Eguisheim, Hunawihr, Pfaffenheim and Turkheim.

alsace vineyards

Vineyards near Rorschwihr, Alsace

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