Alsace, the generous garden // 2. A land like no other lands
We continue our exploration of Alsatian wine production this week. Last week we recounted the eventful history of this unique territory of production. This week, we talk about the terroirs, the climate and the grape varieties that allow the diversity, the originality and the quality of this production
A vineyard blessed by nature
The vineyards of Alsace stretch from Strasbourg to Mulhouse in a narrow strip along almost the whole length of Alsace, along an axis oriented from north-east to south-west. The limits of it are, to the north at Wissembourg on the Franco-German border and to the south at Leimbach near Thann. The whole vineyard forms a thin strip of more than a hundred kilometers long for a width not exceeding 1.5 to 3 kilometers. It is located on a piedmont (a plain at the foot of mountains and made up of its erosion products) consisting of a succession of hills, between 200 and 400 m in altitude on average.
It is a vineyard particularly blessed by nature. The southern and southeastern exposures, as well as the particularly high planting of the vine, offer the grapes a maximum of solar rays.
The natural barrier of the Vosges protects the vineyard and contributes to the very special climate of Alsace. On the one hand, it limits oceanic influences by accentuating the continental aspect of the climate (hot spring, dry and sunny summers, long autumns and cold winters). Temperatures favorable to the vine (those above 10 ° C during the vegetative period) are thus more present. The vines grow between 170 meters and 478 meters high. The protection of the Vosges also leads to semi-aridity, whereas the exposure towards the east favours the maturity of the grape while the considerable slopes help the essential drainage. As a result, the climate is more temperate, with an average annual temperature higher than 1.5 ° C than would be expected at this latitude.
The magic of good winds and the complexity of aromas
On the other hand, the prevailing winds coming from the west unload their precipitations abundantly on the western slope of the Vosges and arrive in the form of foehn, dry and hot, in the plain of Alsace, completely dried out when they blow on the vineyard. The low rainfall, between 600 and 650 mm of annual precipitation on average, reduces the risk of rot and thus limits the necessary treatments of the vine. In fact, the average amount of precipitation is the lowest of all French vineyards.
The climate in Alsace is distinguished by the alternation of hot days and cool nights in autumn, conditions favorable to a slow and prolonged maturation of the grapes.
This promotes the development of complex aromas and the preservation of a mature acidity which gives freshness to the wines. Thus, thanks to a particularly long vegetative cycle in the vine, white grapes ripen better here than anywhere else in France, while retaining their specific fruitiness boosted by the freshness of the hillsides.
These wines flourish soon after bottling but can, in the best ones, remain intact and even improve over several decades.
Des terroirs à la géologie particulière et diversifiée
La surface du vignoble était d’environ 16 000 hectares en 2013, des dimensions modestes en comparaison des principaux vignobles français; ils se répartissent à raison de 9 000 dans le Haut-Rhin et de 7 000 dans le Bas-Rhin.
La géologie alsacienne présente une véritable mosaïque, du granite au calcaire, en passant par l’argile, le schiste, le grès ; cette grande variété de terroirs est propice à l’épanouissement de nombreux cépages. L’empreinte du terroir confère aux vins d’Alsace un supplément d’âme : une touche à la fois singulière et complexe.
Cette localisation explique la variété des sous-sols et leur succession en véritable mosaïque : calcaires, granites, schistes, gneiss ou grès. Généralement, le haut des pentes des collines est constitué des roches anciennes métamorphiques tels que du granite, ou de l’ardoise. Les parcelles de vignes y sont très en pentes. Le bas des coteaux est formé des couches de calcaires où le relief est moins accentué. Les différentes appellations alsace grand cru sont toutes localisées sur ces pentes.
Enfin, la plaine est composée d’une épaisse couche d’alluvions déposés par le Rhin (limon et graviers), c’est une zone beaucoup plus fertile que les deux premières, avec une importante nappe phréatique à moins de cinq mètres de profondeur. Les appellations alsace et crémant d’Alsace y sont pour l’essentiel produites sur ces sols.
Aujourd’hui, la plupart des communes viticoles sont établies sur quatre ou cinq formations différentes dans une juxtaposition de parcelles parfois très restreintes, offrant une mosaïque de sols d’une richesse et d’une diversité sans équivalent.
C’est dans ces infinies modulations que réside une bonne part de l’exceptionnelle diversité des vins d’Alsace.
Unique terroirs with a particular and diversified geology
The area of the vineyard was measured at around 16,000 hectares in 2013, modest in size compared to the main French vineyards; There are 9 000 in the Higher Rhine and 7 000 in the Lower Rhine.
Alsatian geology presents a veritable mosaic, from granite to limestone, through clay, schist, and sandstone. This great variety of terroirs is conducive to the blossoming of many grape varietals. The imprint of the terroir gives the wines of Alsace an bit more soul: a touch at once singular and complex.
This localization explains the variety of subsoils and their succession in a real mosaic: limestones, granites, schists, gneiss or sandstone. Generally, the top of the slopes of the hills is made up of ancient metamorphic rocks such as granite, or slate. The hillside vineyards are very steep. The bottom of the slopes is formed by layers of limestone where the relief is less accentuated. The different appellations alsace grand cru are all located on these slopes.
Finally, the plain is composed of a thick layer of alluvial deposits deposited by the Rhine (silt and gravel), it is a much more fertile zone than the first two, with an important water table less than five meters deep. The appellations Alsace and Crémant d’Alsace are mainly produced on these soils.
Today, most wine-producing communes are established on four or five different formations in a juxtaposition of sometimes very small parcels, offering a mosaic of soils of an unparalleled richness and diversity.
It is in these infinite modulations that resides a good part of the exceptional diversity of the wines of Alsace.
The Alsatian geological terrains (© Vins d’Alsace)
At the edge of the mountains: 1. Granitic and gneissic terroirs / 2. Schistous soils / 3. Volcano-sedimentary soils. Hills under the Vosges: 5. Limestone earths / 6. Maro-calcareous earths / 7. Maro-sandstone earths / 8. Maro-calcaro-sandstone terroirs / 9. Calcaro-sandstone soils / 10. Clay-marlous terroirs. In the plain: 11. Colluvial and piedmont terroirs / 12. Alluvial terroirs / 13. Teres of loess and lehms
German influence, agro-biology, biodynamics and commitment to the vineyard
In addition, German influence has, over the centuries, led to the establishment of a viticulture very different from that of the other French wine regions. It is still remarkable today by the grape varieties used and the methods of production. Moreover, the vine growers are increasingly abandoning white wines laden with residual sugars to move towards drier wines, similar to those found among the best German winegrowers. A further proof of the dynamism of Alsace and its vineyard.
In the 1960s, the region was a forerunner in the conduct of vineyards in organic farming and biodynamics: more than half of the important areas are certified by the major organizations of the movement and they are constantly increasing. Every year, many winegrowers convert, especially among the younger ones who take over the family estates.
The extreme diversity of soils, subsoils and micro-climates has led Alsatian producers to preserve a wide range of grape varieties, giving priority to plant biodiversity and offering optimal expression conditions for each of the varietals. The Alsatian wine tradition is based on seven main grape varieties that give the wines of Alsace their names and their aromatic characters. The noble grape varieties best transmit the nuances of terroirs, with an aging potential that is often limitless.
The grape varieties of the Alsatian vineyard
Alsace is the only vineyard in France to highlight its grape varieties with the appellations.Here aare the main grape varieties used and authorized in the elaboration of the wines of the region, of which there is only one red one.
Alsace’s signature grape, Riesling occupies 21.8% of the vineyard’s surface area. It reveals itself in many facets. Most often, the wines made from it are nervous and tense with great freshness, they have the exceptional ability to express the nuances of their terroir. Riesling remains the king of dry white wines. It gives off a bouquet with floral and mineral shades. This wine is recognized as coming from one of the best white grape varietals in the world. It is a must to accompany all dishes based on fish and seafood, white meat, and, of course, with sauerkraut.
Representing 21.2% of the surface of the vineyard, it offers an aromatic palette similar to that of Chardonnay, a more round and less nervous mouth than the sylvaner. Tender, delicate, combining freshness and suppleness, it represents a middle ground in the range of wines of Alsace. It offers an easy wine to savour on appetizers or fish and shellfish. It is often assembled with Auxerrois.
Representing 20.4% of the total area of the vineyard, gewurztraminer produces original wines, among the most fragrant in Alsace. The Gewurztraminer is a wine with superlative multiple expressions, as the sensations it provides are varied, intense and rich. It remains the most famous of Alsace wines. It is powerful, full-bodied, well-structured and its intense bouquet develops aromas of flowers, fruits and spices (Gewurz) with incomparable mellowness. The grape variety is transfigured under the effect of the noble rot and can give wines comparable to the great Sauternes. This wine is perfect as an aperitif, or to accompany the full-bodied cheeses, the desserts, as well as the exotic cuisine.
Originally from Burgundy, this grape variety with pink grains is able to enrich its flavour through overmaturation or noble rot. It constitutes 15.4% of the surface of the Alsatian vineyard. In late harvests or in selection of noble grains, it can reach high peaks and major longevity. The Pinot Gris develops a characteristic opulence and flavour. Full-bodied, round and long in the mouth, it has complex aromas of undergrowth sometimes slightly smoked or floral. It accompanies foie gras with an intense moment of happiness and will enhance game, roasts and white meats.
The only grape variety in Alsace to produce a red or rosé wine whose typical fruity taste evokes cherries, it represents 10.1% of the surface of the vineyard. It is with Pinot Noir that the Alsatian winemakers have made the most remarkable progress. It can be matured in oak barrels, which adds to its aromas more structure and more complexity. This fresh wine will accompany red meats very well. The red wines of Alsace have to be discovered.
Frank, delicate and of moderate power, the sylvaner expresses wonderfully its the mineral side and produces wines full of freshness. Representing 7.5% of the surface of the vineyard, it is sometimes vinified in wood barrels and even part of late harvests. The Sylvaner is a slightly fruity and light white wine. It is pleasant and refreshing and can show a beautiful vivacity. This wine will go well with charcuterie, seafood and fish.
Representing 2.3% of the surface of the vineyard, it is actually two Muscats that are implanted and authorized in Alsace: the small-grained variety, called Muscat d’Alsace, and the ottonel, present in Central Europe, which has the particularity of producing wines more alluring and mellower. They give divine wines in late harvests and in careful selection of noble grains. The Muscat d’Alsace is distinguished from the southern sweet Muscats by its dry character. Very aromatic, it expresses wonderfully the flavour of fresh fruit. It is an ideal wine for aperitifs. It is also recommended with asparagus.
Originally from Lorraine, it was created at the beginning of the 20th century, in the experimental center of Laquenexy by the doctor Wanner, specialist of the hybrids. It is one of the authorized varieties in the AOC moselle, alsace, Côtes-de-toul, as well as for certain wines from countries. Some winegrowers vinify it separately. It gives a wider and more fatty wine than white pinot, with a texture and a balance between alcohol, acidity and sugar that bring it closer to a pinot gray.
3 wines from Alsace to discover
To explore what the Alsatian soil has to offer, here are three products strongly recommended and available at the SAQ.
Léon Beyer Gewurztraminer 2015 $25.80, 00978577, exceptional product from this varietal.
Willem Riesling Grand Cru Kirchberg de Barr 2014, 11034581, $25.75 among the best AOC of riesling available.
Wolfberger Crémant d’Alsace, 00732099, $19.10, marvelous bubbly, made of pinot blanc, pinot gris and riesling.
Map of Alsatian vineyards, ©DalGobboM for Wikimedia