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ON THE GRAPE TRAIL
Mac's Review of the ALSACE Region

After Harvest - November, 2009......

Situated in the far eastern corner of France, smack up against Germany, Alsace is one of the most interesting and beautiful wine regions in the world.  This corner, which produces great white wine, is also one of the sunniest and driest places at these latitudes in Europe.

The Vosges Mountains to the west act as a protective barrier to rain and snow clouds Vosges mountains in the distanceand the lower slopes provide the varied and well-drained soil diversity for the top-ranked Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat (Ottonel and White) and Pinot Gris.  The Grand Cru (GC) designation is granted to these varieties that are situated on proven east and southeast facing slopes.  Six percent of the total area of vines is rated Grand Cru and that area represents 3% of volume produced.

There is some controversy regarding the CG designation which was decreed in 1975 and implemented in 1983.  The argument goes that only Riesling can truly reflect its terroir properly and with all these other varieties in the mix, the demarcation lines are too loose and subject to scrutiny.  Add to this that some vineyards with so called “lesser” varieties such as Sylvaner, have been let into the  GC club.  The classification has been boycotted by the well known Hugel et Fils and, to a large extent, by the House of Trimbach.

The soils of Alsace are as varied as any wine region with at least 20 major soil formations.  The parent material for these soils includes granite, limestone, volcanic and sandstone.  The pink Vosges sandstone is the stone of choice for many churches and cathedrals in the area and the old castles and fortifications that are scattered along the west flank of the Vosges.  Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg is the pick of these historic relics dating back to the 12 Century.  The view from the Chateau over the valley and the Rhone River is spectacular and on a clear day, you can see the Black Forest in Germany and the Swiss Alps.

muscat_d'alsaceThe long, cool growing season aids in the flavour development of the varieties grown, 90% of which are white.  Despite the long hang time, musts and juices are still chaptalized although malolactic conversion is not generally practiced. The use of natural yeasts, slow fermentation, minimum racking, filtering and fining produces wines that maintain their pinot_gris_d'alsaceunique character year after year.  Large old wood ovals lined by years of built up tartrates are used for ageing and clarification.  Fermentation temperatures are usually around 14°-16°C degrees and maybe a little higher for Gewurztraminer. Some critics maintain that tradition is being sacrificed for commerce because some Houses are leaving a little residual sugar in wines that, for years, have been bone dry.  They are also grumbling about the use of Chardonnay in the local sparkler Crémant  d’Alsace Pinot Blanc is the usual base wine for Crémant, so Chardonnay on some cuvées is named just that.

Ihringen_in_the_KaiserstuhlThe only important red grape in this region is Pinot Noir which will undergo malolactic fermentation and new oak ageing.  The best Pinot Noirs in the region actually come from across the Rhine at the Kaiserstuhl. These terraced south-facing slopes produce Spatburgunders (Pinot Noir) that have really drawn serious attention in recent years.  A fair amount of Chardonnay is also grown there.

Alsace is a wonderful destination for the casual or non-wine lover in your group. Medieval towns with timbered architecture dot the vineyards and forested Alsace_townslopes of the Vosges Mountains.  Three villages in particular are noteworthy – Ribeauville, Riquewihr and Kayserberg - the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer.  The cities of Colmar and Strasbourg are worth a visit and stay.  Most of southern Alsace is within an hour’s drive to Basel, Switzerland and the Black Forest.  The Route des Crêtes is a spectacular drive through the mountains and the high pastures of the Vosges.

This region is also home to a number of famous breweries with Strasbourg being the main center for beer production in France with familiar names like Fischer, Karlsbrau, Kronenbourg and Heineken.

The regional cuisine is predominantly German-based with pork a mainstay of the diet.  Many menus feature sausages, ham, bacon and smoked pork with sauerkraut. Cabbage harvest follows grape harvest and manyAlsacian choucroute households process their own choucroute - shredded cabbage layered with salt, cumin, bay leaves and juniper then fermented in wooden barrels.  Foie gras from Alsace is considered exceptional and there is an abundance of fish from the Rhine and the other rivers to add to the menu.  Wild boar and rabbit round out the meat side of the local diet. Munster and Trami d’Alsace (washed in Gewurztraminer) represent two of the most popular cheeses.

route_du_vin_mapA note on the famous Routes du Vin -  the 180km north-south scenic route that stretches from Marlenheim to Thann and links the villages and vineyards of the area. To do it properly would take 3 days and, quite frankly, some of the sections are poorly signed - losing your way is common practice.  The best use of your time would be to travel north and south of Riquewihr, stopping at vineyards or wineries that you are interested in along the Route and then hike the most scenic parts.  You can obtain maps from local tourist offices that show hiking trails through the vineyards as well as roads less traveled.  Take a picnic and then work it off as you tramp this historic and beautiful corner of the world.


Mac has returned from the Alsace region of eastern France and is now traveling 'Down-Under' with visits to New Zealand and Australia; he will share his findings in his next newsletter.


Mac lunching at Allan Scott Winery, NZ

In vino veritas...

Mac MacDonald
February, 2010

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