Alsace, the generous garden // 1. The little as well as grand history of wine in Alsace
Alsace is probably the most original of the producing regions wine in France. Most Alsatian wines are only found in the region, most of the vines used are exclusively indigenous and the wines are uniquely typical and, for most of the Grands Crus, come from some fifty exceptional terroirs. Alsace is recognized as one of the homelands of exceptional white wines.
We wanted to see more closely what made Alsace so special in the wine world. We start here a series of 3 articles on the region with the history of wine in Alsace. Next week we will talk about terroir and the following week, about types of alsacian wines and classifications.
An area torn between Germany and France
It begins like every beautiful stories … Once upon a time … there was a magnificent country, stretching itself along the course of the Rhine, peacefully sharing its borders with Switzerland and Germany, with a dry climate, bathed in sunshine, and soils that were particularly favorable to vineyards… And then it gets complicated and nasty … Alsace has experienced many conquests and changes of regime that have changed it and have probably helped in the evolution of its wine production .
An important influence in the history of Alsace wine has been the repeated changes of nationality of the Alsace region, which has passed from France to Germany and vice versa several times throughout history. In the early history of the Alsace wine industry, they were traded together with other German wines since Rhine provided the means to transport the wines. In much of the post–World War II era, wine styles in Alsace and Germany diverged, as Alsace wines remained fully fermented, that is dry, to a large extent because they were intended to be paired with food. In the same era, Alsace has also experienced a drive to higher quality, which led to AOC status being awarded. In recent decades, the difference between Alsace and Germany has diminished, since German wines have become drier and more powerful, while many Alsace wines have become sweeter and the late harvest and dessert style wines have been “rediscovered” in Alsace since the VT and SGN designations were introduced in 1983.
As far back as Roman antiquity
The beginnings of viticulture in Alsace are difficult to date. Most recent archaeological sources trace it back to the period of Roman antiquity, whereas more classicist historians limited it to the early Middle Ages.
The region is part of Upper Germania, where there were many military garrisons, from the end of the 1st century until the crisis of the 3rd century in the Roman Empire, which occurred with the fall of the Severius dynasty that previously had given a certain stability to the Empire. The presence of these garrisons, especially those made of legionary camps along the Rhine, required the importation of wine from Hispania or Gaule Narbonnaise (today’s Provence).
Artefacts testify to the growing importance of viticulture: piles of seeds, remains of wooden barrels, decoration patterns from vines on pottery or bas-reliefs. The existence of wine transport on the Moselle and Rhine as early as the 2nd century also proves that production quickly entered an era of commercialization.
From the beginning of the 3rd century, the province was partly conquered by the Alamans, who regularly crossed the Rhine to plunder the towns and the countryside. In the 5th century, Alsace was part of their kingdom, until the Franks conquered it.
The invasion of the Germans in the 5th century led to a temporary decline in viticulture, but written documents reveal that vineyards have quickly regained increasing importance. We know for certain that viticulture did flourish under the reign of the Merovingians and Carolingians who consumed great amounts of this wine “that was a tonic getting people gay”. Even before the end of the first millennium, 160 Alsatian localities cultivated the vines intensely.
Influence of the church
During this period, the church extended its power. Several monasteries were founded, such as that of Turckheim in 742 and Andlau in 880. As usual, the vineyards grew and improved near the monasteries. During the Middle Ages, under the influence of the monastic orders, the wines of Alsace began to be considered among the most famous and expensive in Europe.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, Colmar was strengthened and the wine trade intensified. A large part of the wine was then shipped to the Netherlands and to the Nordic countries by the fluvial traffic on the Ill and then of the Rhine. The volume shipped from Colmar was around 100,000 hectoliters, which represents an impressive 40% of all of today’s current production.
At the beginning of the 13th century, there were about a hundred wine producing villages, then 170 in the 14th century. This expansion continued without interruption until the 16th century, during which it reached its peak.
During this period, the first regulations on the grape varieties, their cultivation and their vinification were created. Thus, the winemakers ensured the renown of the wine thanks to these very strict rules of production and selection. The area of production ended up spreading over a surface twice as large as the current vineyard. Original buildings, still preserved today and dating from the early Renaissance, testify to this flourishing period. From this period also dates the first attempt to establish a kind of controlled designation of origin with the decree of an official date for the beginning of the harvest.
Conflicts, destruction, depopulation and renaissance
But the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 abruptly interrupted this period of prosperity, bringing war, plunder, famine and plague into the country. Virtually all the vineyards were destroyed. Alsace being in the middle of the conflict between the Habsburgs and the Holy Empire, the population was decimated, decreasing by 75%.
After the war, Alsace was recolonized by Swiss immigrants. Family names like Kuentz, Hugel, Schueller, Humbrecht and Ginglinger bear witness to this influence and the methods of winemaking borrowed from their culture. Throughout the 18th century, Strasbourg remained the privileged center of exports to Germany and Lorraine, while Colmar and its region targeted the Swiss or Bavarian markets. The wines of Alsace were then recognized as exceptional white wines throughout Europe.
After the Revolution, the nationalization of the seigniorial and religious lands transformed the vineyard: the redivised properties were bought by the peasants, who, in turn, produced wine.
In the Napoleonic era, winegrowers produced wines that were appreciated by the armed forces, which still encouraged the planting of new vines. The vineyard area grew from 23,000 hectares in 1808 to 30,000 hectares in 1828.
As a result of the French defeat in the war of 1870-1871, the French Republic ceded part of its territory to the German Empire, so that from 1871 to 1918, Alsace was part of it. During this period, the country was the largest German wine-growing region. Mass production was maintained during the occupation by the Germans. These wines, without body or fruit, lent themselves well to the manufacturing of German artificial wines, cut with water, sugar and aromas. The wines of Alsace then los all their identity. The volume of production was privileged to the detriment of quality. Moreover, with the devastation caused by phylloxera and mildew, the development of cheap rail transport and the increasing consumption of beer, the vineyard was shrinking to an area of 9,500 hectares.
French Alsace under German law
In November 1918, Alsace was occupied by the French army, then ceded to France through the Treaty of Versailles. Due to the maintaining of local law, Alsace obtained a special status within the French vineyards, while German wine law remained in force until the end of the Second World War. From the largest wine-growing region in Germany, Alsace was once again the smallest wine-growing region in France.
In order to resist diseases that threatened to eradicate the vineyard, vintners use hybrids. Two economic trends confronted each other: on the one hand, the supporters of a production of quality wines made from typical grape varieties and, on the other hand, those who are convinced that it is necessary to produce large amounts of cheap wines, if necessary using hybrid-direct grapes.
The vineyard shrank and regressed. Thus, the decrease in the area of the vineyard, begun in 1902, continued until about 1948, falling to 9,500 hectares.
The birth of the Vins d’Alsace appellation
The situation evolved with the ordinance of November 2, 1945, which defined the Appellations of Origin Vins d’Alsace and sets its first rules. The area of production were delimited, favouring the hillsides to the detriment of the plains. The old productive grape varieties were abandoned for the benefit of the finest grape varietals.
The evolution of the Alsatian vineyards towards a quality wine production was accomplished through the recognition of the AOC Alsace in 1962. There followed the decrees of the AOC Alsace Grand Cru in 1975 and the AOC Crémant d’Alsace in 1976. The regulatory framework set by these AOCs has since evolved, with the definition of even more stringent and ambitious criteria.
Efforts have since been oriented towards the production of wines of better quality, insisting on the notion of terroir. In this sense, the 2011 decree provided eleven geographical names within the Alsace appellation, while the 51 geographical names of the appellation Alsace Grand Cru became categories that shared the same specifications.
In five centuries, no vineyard has suffered as much upheaval as that of Alsace. Today, though, it is among the most beautiful French wine production regions.
Next week, the alsacian terroir