A crash course in the history, geography, and beautiful white wines of Alsace

Alsace is one of the great, under-appreciated treasures of the wine world.
— Jancis Robinson, Wine expert and cellar advisor to the Queen of England

Nicole and I booked two weeks in Alsace because of its white wine. Thus far, we haven't been disappointed! 

But first, upon arriving and discovering that we were staying in what feels like a German village, we realized there could be no way to understand these wines without learning some history and geography. So that's what we did! 

Our Airbnb in Colmar is on the top floor of the orange building on the right (the window without the shutters)

Our Airbnb in Colmar is on the top floor of the orange building on the right (the window without the shutters)

The mean streets of Colmar

The mean streets of Colmar

Alsace's Franco-Germanic History and Geography

Alsace runs approximately 120 miles north to south and is situated between the Vognes mountains to the west and the Rhine river to the east. For the past 150 years, it has sea-sawed between France and Germany in an epic tug-of-war:

  1. In 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War, the newly formed German Empire annexed Alsace from France.
  2. In 1919, following World War I, Germany ceded Alsace back to France pursuant to the Treaty of Versailles. 
  3. In 1940, during the early stages of World War II, German forces invaded Alsace pursuant to their later occupation of France.
  4. In 1945, following World War II, control of Alsace reverted back to France.
The Valley of the Rhine situated between France's Vosges Mountains and Germany's Black Forest; Alsace is the area in this valley on France's side of the border; Graphic courtesy of Wikimedia. 

The Valley of the Rhine situated between France's Vosges Mountains and Germany's Black Forest; Alsace is the area in this valley on France's side of the border; Graphic courtesy of Wikimedia. 

But we didn't come for the history, we came for the white wines!

Unsurprisingly, Alsace's Franco-Germanic history spills directly into its wines. A winemaker at Domaine Riefle best explained this to us during our recent visit: Alsace wines can be hard for consumers to understand because they are caught in a struggle between the German custom of creating wines based on grape varietal and the French custom of creating wines based on place, or "terroir." 

He was right. Admittedly, we've had a much tougher time wrapping our heads around these wines compared to Burgundy and the Loire Valley. But, on the positive side, that just means these wines are generally underappreciated in the marketplace and can be a steal of a deal!

For the basics, here's what we've been learning and what anyone should know to start to appreciate these excellent wines:  

  • The mountains surrounding Alsace form a rain shield. Indeed, Colmar, where we are staying, is the second driest city in France. The dry, cooler climate makes this region ideal for growing white wines. 

 

  • Specifically, Alsace is known for wines made from its four "noble" grapes -- Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat. (Muscat is only a very small percentage of the grapes grown in Alsace. It's rare to see and we haven't focused much on it.) Beyond these noble grapes, Pinot Blanc is another common white variety that we've been enjoying getting to know.

 

  • There are only two classifications, or AOCs, to know -- Alsace and Grand Cru. Alsace AOC wines can be made from grapes grown in any vineyards in Alsace (likely under $20/bottle in U.S. wine shops), whereas Grand Cru AOC wines are made from grapes grown in 51 different grand cru vineyards that dot Alsace (roughly $20 - $40 in U.S. wine shops, but some sell for much higher). During our tastings thus far, Nicole and I have been impressed with the overall quality of the regular Alsace AOC wines. To us, there hasn't been a huge jump in quality when we go up to the grand cru wines (but of course there have been exceptions).

 

  • Beyond being labeled by AOC (in the French tradition), Alsace wines are also labeled by grape varietal (in the German tradition). There are some minor exceptions, but nothing worth noting. So, as an example, a wine might be labeled "Alsace AOC -- Pinot Blanc." Oftentimes, the label will also include a reference to the name of the Alsace village nearest to the vineyard.  
Alsace's vineyards are mostly hilly

Alsace's vineyards are mostly hilly

  • One more white to try: Cremant d'Alsace. Alsace's bubbly. More than one Alsatian has told us theirs' is better (and cheaper) than Alsace's more famous nearby neighbor to the west, Champagne. The handful we've tried, we've really enjoyed. The pink Cremants, made with Pinot Noir, are great, too!

 

  • Finally, despite our focus on whites, Pinot Noir is an up and comer in this region. Lately, the warmer growing seasons have made the area more conducive to this varietal traditionally grown further south in lower elevation Burgundy. If you see an Alsace Pinot Noir, give it a try. Thus far, Nicole and I have been impressed. 

Have a taste, and what flavors to look for: 

The best way to learn about Alsace's wines? Try them! Pick up an Alsace wine and see what you think (bonus points for finding one from a smaller producer -- not Trimbach, Wolfberger, or Zind-Humbrecht).

To cut through some of the confusion, I've assembled a handy smell and taste chart below. When you try the wine, see if you can taste or smell any of the flavors shown below for the various varietals. They likely won't all be there for whatever you pick out (and there might be some not depicted), but I'd be surprised if you didn't pick up at least a few of these flavors. 

Pinot Blanc -- Technically not one of Alsace's four "noble" grapes; but don't let that stop you from trying one of these delicate, subtle wines.

Gewurztraminer -- Along with Riesling, a historically classic Alsace varietal. Very aromatic.

*I know most people aren't familiar with lychee. But I had to include it because it is a quintessential piece of Gewurztraminer's flavor profile. According to fragrantica.com, the lychee's scent is grapey, rosey, and slightly sweet.

Riesling -- More or less the king of Alsace wines.

*Yes, those are rocks and minerals. Also, Riesling is known for sometimes having a petrol-like scent described as oily.

Pinot Gris -- Playing second fiddle to Riesling and Gewurztraminer, these wines can be full bodied and fun.

 

Our Wine Tasting Stops Thus Far

We visited both Vins Jean Baptiste Adam near the village of Ammerschwihr and Domaine Agapé near the village of Riquewihr. Both were fun stops. Nicole really liked the wines; I thought they were fine, but neither rolled my socks down.

Cellar Room at Vins Jean-Baptiste Adam

Cellar Room at Vins Jean-Baptiste Adam

Barrels at Vins Jean Baptiste Adam -- really more for the small amount of red pinot noir wine that is made

Barrels at Vins Jean Baptiste Adam -- really more for the small amount of red pinot noir wine that is made

The producers that really impressed us are a little further outside of Colmar: Domaine Reifle and especially Domaine Paul Kubler. Both wineries happily poured us more than ten of their various wines and talked with us for nearly an hour. These places are passionate about Alsace and their wines, and it shows! 

Domaine Riefle's cellar room

Domaine Riefle's cellar room

Outside Domaine Paul Kubler

Outside Domaine Paul Kubler

Display of the rocks and minerals found in the soil of the nearby vineyards at Domaine Riefle

Display of the rocks and minerals found in the soil of the nearby vineyards at Domaine Riefle

Beyond that, Colmar also has a great wine hall called Presentation de vin Des Vignerons where, for €2 - €2.50 per glass, we have been enjoying local wines at its outdoor picnic tables.

Overall, we have been having a blast in Colmar. And this post only touches on the wines. More on the non-wine fun to follow!

A statute across from the wine hall in Colmar depicting a victorious noble returning from battle in Hungary with Tokay grapes that were subsequently introduced to Alsace (and renamed Pinot Gris); The statue was designed by Frederic Bartholdi -- designer of the Statue of Liberty and native of Colmar

A statute across from the wine hall in Colmar depicting a victorious noble returning from battle in Hungary with Tokay grapes that were subsequently introduced to Alsace (and renamed Pinot Gris); The statue was designed by Frederic Bartholdi -- designer of the Statue of Liberty and native of Colmar


Like this post? Want to read more about Travis and Nicole's travel adventures? Check out The Case For France - The French Markets.

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