Where is the greatest white wine region in the world? There are so many wonderful places to choose between; the Loire produces fabulous Sauvignon and Chenin Blancs, Burgundy crafts world class Chardonnay, the Mosel is home to some of the greatest Rieslings produced in the world, Alto Adige is famous for its high quality Pinot Grigio, whilst Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blancs have proven themselves to be a modern classics. For me however the greatest white wine region is none of the above, it is the wonderful yet frustrating land of Alsace.
Alsace lies in the north east of France where the border meets both Germany and Switzerland, sandwiched between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Mosel river to the East. The mountains cast a rain shadow over the vineyards that lie on its eastern slopes and foothills. This makes Alsace one of the driest regions in France, with long hot summer days and cool nights that are ideal for ripening grapes. The vineyards of Alsace are planted on a complex mosaic of 13 different soil types that include various forms of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. This complexity of geology has resulted in a wide range of grapes being planted, depending on what best suits each vineyard. The most widely planted are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois and Pinot Noir.
Alsace is filled with contradictions; the names of its vineyards and the producers who work in them, like so much of Alsace, are a mix of French and German which can cause confusion when communicating to outsiders. Its wines can be either sweet or dry often with little indication on the bottle as to which it is, although this is thankfully changing with the introduction of new wine labelling laws. It uses varietal labelling, in the Germanic tradition, on its wine bottles yet due to a quirk in its wine laws the grape Auxerrois can be included in bottles described as Pinot Blanc, indeed some of these are 100% Auxerrois yet still labelled Pinot Blanc. It has a Grand Cru system yet some of its finest vineyards are not named as such, whilst the quality of the 51 vineyards that do bear the title Grand Cru can vary greatly.
I find the complexities and contradictions found in Alsace to be fascinating, there is always more to discover and puzzle out, meaning I am never bored of exploring its history, culture and, most importantly, its wide range of wines. It is also hugely innovative; it was the first French region to label by variety rather than solely by location making it easier for the consumer to understand what they are drinking. It has embraced and pioneered both organic and biodynamic wine production in order to drive up the quality and sustainability of the wine making industry.
The range in styles of still white wines in Alsace is amazing and there is something for everyone. If you like crisp, neutral wines there are wines made with Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner, if you want something more full bodied there are the weighty, powerful Pinot Gris wines, if you crave a wine filled with alluring aromatics reach for a Gewurztraminer and that is all without mentioning the star of the show – Riesling. Alsatian Riesling is typically dry, although unsurprisingly there are exceptions, and is incredible at expressing its sense of place, or terroir, in a way that few other grapes can compare. Then there are the truly sweet wines, Vendage Tardive (VT) and Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN), that are lusciously decadent with their incredible sweetness being balanced by the high levels of acidity that are characteristic of this region.
It is also the largest sparkling wine producer in France outside of Champagne, partially thanks to a number of Champagne houses that moved to the region in 19th century in order to take advantage of new markets and tax breaks. Cremant d’Alsace tends to be fruity, easy drinking and great value for money. It is also producing an increasing amount of red wine made with Pinot Noir, the best of which are world class but at a fraction of the price of regions such as Burgundy, Oregon and Central Otago.
I would encourage any white wine lover to explore the wonderful offerings that can be found in Alsace. Until the end of July we have wines from Domaine Schlumberger on offer, at a range of prices and styles. Do you enjoy crisp fresh whites? Try their Pinot Blanc at only £13.95 a bottle. Would you prefer something a little richer and rounder in style to pair with your dinner? Then go for the Pinot Gris at £16.95. Or perhaps you want to drink a single vineyard wine, layered with complexity and displaying a unique sense of place? In which case we have a Grand Cru Riesling and Gewurztraminer from two wonderful vineyards that are enjoyable now but that can develop further over the years. Once these wines have piqued your interest you can always come back and try some of our other Alsatian wines from incredible producers such as Domaines Ostertag, Rolly Gassman and Josmeyer.
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