It took a lot of courage not to dive into tasting the Grand Cru Alsatian wines that sat before me during the most recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California.
Representing Wines of Alsace, wine educator May Matta-Aliah, DWS, stood before a packed room ready to share not only her love of these wines, but all the nitty-gritties about the region with us keen wine bloggers in the seminar entitled “Discovery Session: Au Natural Alsace – Organic and Biodynamic Wines”. And it shall be known, I was keen to taste those wines! (I heart Alsace.)
Being the most eastern wine region in France, it practically lives in Germany. In fact, Alsace has a huge German influence. This is no trivial matter; historically, Alsace was passed back and forth between the French and the Germans as they decided who the region belonged to. As Karen MacNeil puts it, “[Alsace] has also at various times in its past belong to Germany. The two powers have repeatedly battled each other over this small strip of land, for Alsace is one of Europe’s strategic geopolitical crossroads” (The Wine Bible, pg. 277).
Rivalling Bordeaux – The Specialists of White Wine
Alsace has long held a reputation for being a fine-wine producing area, but the world has not necessarily accepted it as such. Bordeaux has stood muscular and proud with its ageworthy, multi-varietal red blends, whereas Alsace has stood quiet, but steadfast, in the corner with its confidence bottled in Rhine-styled bottles. While Alsace is making 90% white wine, how can we even dare to compare heady Bordeaux to barely docile Alsace?
We should. As Matta-Aliah stated during the seminar, Alsace is, “very, very French”. Being specialists in white wine, the viti-and viniculturalists are focused on making “wines with excellent freshness and structure”. Of course, mon ami! There wouldn’t be 19 Michelin starred restos in the region if they weren’t! <wink> All great food dishes deserve a great wine.
Soil is Dirt … and Dirt Definitely Counts!
Matta-Aliah generally stressed how diverse the terroir is in France, however, it was clear that she was also leading into how complex Alsatian dirt is. With 13 distinct soil types, including granite, gneiss, schist, volcanic sedimentary, and sandstone around the mountain range, there is definitely a focus for Alsatian winemakers on, as Matta-Aliah expressed it, “site expression of that grape in that soil”.
Alsace is mostly organic. “There’s a lot of organic viticulture in the area,” Matta-Aliah stated, “and organic Alsace excludes the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. The goal is to live in harmony with nature.”
With quite a bit of focus on biodynamic viticulture, there is a healthy respect for the dirt in which the grapes are grown. In essence, biodynamic viticulture is based on the theories that one needs to recreate balance in the vineyard, to activate soil life, reinforce the resistance of plants, and to support natural cycles.
Grapes, Grapes, Grapes!
The seven main grapes of the region are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Sylvaner, and Pinot Noir.
There are “logical reasons” for this, as Matta-Aliah conveyed to us, and that is simply that “different grapes grow better in different soils”.
As the grape vines are growing in ideal conditions, they are not being subjected to harsh weather patterns like other regions. Alsace is protected, weather-wise, by the Vosges Mountains, and the area gets an annual rainfall of 20-26″. Known as the “high and dry” region of France, this guarantees that there is not a lot of rot going on.
“Every winemaker is striving to not just give you a true expression of the grape variety, but also of the place where that grape variety grew,” Matta-Aliah stated. “You’re getting a true […] expression of that grape in that soil.”
I can’t agree more when Karen MacNeil called Alsace the “great unsung hero of France” (pg. 277). With their focus on white wines, one cannot simply make the assumption that the wines of this particular region are wimpy or not meant for aging. On the contrary, the wines of Alsace can age for decades just the same, and offer just as much complexity that can rival Bordeaux’s reds. While I haven’t been to Alsace (although that is in the works), I have been to Bordeaux. I am no stranger to the reds of this region. What I can tell you is that Alsace offers just as much excitement, if not more, in its stone fruit-driven, honeyed whites (that do not actually seem sweet) if you only give them a chance. Happy discovering!