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Discovering the Best White Wines from Alsace, France

Most French wines are labeled by region, such as Sancerre, St. Julien and Margaux. An exception to this is the Alsace region, where, unlike other areas, the vast majority of wines are white. 

With approximately 35,000 acres of vineyards, the Alsace area has more soil types than any other wine-growing area in France.  Alsatian vineyards are in a sunny, cold, narrow valley and it is very dry. On one side there are the Vosges Mountains, which protect the vineyards from winds and moisture coming in from the west. The Rhine River on the east provides moderation to the area. Haut-Rhin is the Southern region, and the mountains become somewhat smaller as you go north to Bas-Rhin. Bas-Rhin has less famous wineries, but still good quality wines. This is an area that can be hunted for bargains.

Alsatian wines are the only Appelation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) that is allowed to label by varietal. It was not until 1962 that Alsace attained AOC status, with 50 Grand Cru sites. To be labelled “Grand Cru,” the grapes must be grown on the five percent of land that has been declared a Grand Cru site and then the harvest must be limited to five tons per acre. The name of the varietal will appear on the label along with the designation Grand Cru. These are the noblest of grapes: Gewürtztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Riesling.  

Aside from the four noble grapes, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir grapes are also used in Alsatian wine. By law, these wines are made with a single varietal so you will not find many blended wines. One exception is edelzwicker, which may be a blend of any of the allowable grapes, or Crémant d’Alsace which is sparkling wine made mainly with Pinot Blanc in the Méthode Champenoise.

Some Alsatian vineyards use additional designations such as Clos if they are surrounded by walls, or Cuvée to make their label more distinctive. They believe their wines are as good or superior to the Grand Cru.

Alsatian wines are low in alcohol and high in acidity. The very best wines are made using indigenous yeasts, and the use of oak is rare. Most wines are made in stainless tanks or other neutral containers.  In the hands of skilled Alsatian winemakers, they truly shine.  You can find dry wines amongst these varietals or wines that lean toward the sweet side. 

There is much diversity in this region. In addition, delicious dessert wines are made in Alsace. Try a Vendage Tardive, which is made of very late-harvested grapes. You may be very pleasantly surprised. After researching this area, we are tempted to take a trip for harvest!

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