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Wine 101: French Wine Regions: Alsace

This episode of “Wine 101” is brought to you by Clos du Bois, which is French for “vineyard in the woods,” or possibly a “barrel.” Clos du Bois combines French winemaking techniques with California grapes. If you see Clos du Bois in a wine list at a restaurant, you can feel confident ordering because the reds and whites pair with everything from master chef fare to macaroni and cheese. Delicious. To check out Clos du Bois and other wines we talk about on “Wine 101,” visit TheBarrelRoom.com.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers takes a look at Alsace, a small region in northeastern France. Due to its proximity to Germany, Alsace is the biggest producer of Riesling and Gewürztraminer in all of France. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I just found out that banging your head against the wall for one hour burns 150 calories. Why am I not crazy fit?

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. I think you guys know that by now, right? Okay. Today, we’re taking a break from the southern part of France, that southern half below the Loire and down. We are going all the way up northeast, way up to the smallest region in France called Alsace. We’ve got to talk about it. It’s a bit confusing.

Okay. All the way up in the northeastern part of France, bordering Germany. I mean we’re talking north of Burgundy and very, very, very far east of Paris and Champagne and all that. And in this northeastern place, there is something called the Vosges Mountain Range, or Vosges Mountains, V-O-S-G-E-S. This is a massif, but its own massif. This is not part of the big Central Massif or anything like that. This is one that they call a narrow massif, and, of course, where there’s a massif, as we go east, there’s a valley. East of the Vosges Mountains is this valley.

Then east of that is one of the most important wine rivers in all of Europe called the Rhine, not the Rhône, but the Rhine. It’s a river that starts in the Swiss Alps, goes down, heads north, then eventually west, and then dumps into the ocean. But part of that journey of that river is a border between Germany and France. Those are natural borders, but this place has been a part of both Germany and France back and forth a few times.

In the 17th century, it was part of France, and then in 1871, the German Empire took it and it was part of Germany. Then in World War I, it became French again, and then in World War II, the Germans took it until after 1945 when it was given back to the French. I saw a story where this man was saying that from my great-grandfather to my grandfather, to my father to me, they’ve all learned different languages in school based on where Alsace was in the political realm. When it was Germany, it was called Elsass, E-L-S-A-S-S, and when it was French, it was Alsace.

But what’s really cool is even with all that, or because of all that, they have their own colloquial dialect called Alsatian. If that was a little bit confusing, wait until you hear about the wine, because the wine — how do I say this? The details from the appellations and the tiers of quality, it’s a little mind-boggling and a little bit dizzying. I’m going to try my best to get this all down for you so you guys have a sense of what you’re looking at because there’s a lot of Alsatian wine on our market and we should probably understand what it is. It’s a lot. Let’s get into it.

A bit like Burgundy, we have chaotic soil here. Remember, I just said that the Vosges mountains are part of a massif, so you do have all this junk dumped into the valley, we call that alluvial soil where the rocks have come in and spread out into the valley. You have this long narrow strip along the Vosges Mountains of vineyards that are mainly up in these hills. Sometimes in the flatlands, but mostly in the hills. The vineyards are protected by the Vosges Mountains.

With the chaotic soils and the protection from the mountains, the result is the majority of wine made in Alsace is white wine. 90 percent of the wine made in Alsace is white wine. They have one red wine grape, Pinot Noir, and that’s mostly primarily for the Crémant d’Alsace Rosé, which we’ll get into. There’s a very tight list of white wine grapes being grown and used here, but it gets even more restricted from there. The white wine grapes that are grown here are Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Gris, Muscat, a grape called Chasselas, and a grape called Silvaner.

I believe, I’m not sure exclusively, but this French wine region, because of its connection to Germany, is one of the more or the most significant Riesling and Gewürztraminer regions in France. You don’t really see this anywhere else in the country. Also, Pinot Noir being here, and actually, Chardonnay is now being used in the Crémant d’Alsace, these grapes are here because there was actually a moment in time when winemakers from Champagne left Paris and came over to Alsace to make wine, and those wines are said to be there because of that.

This is where things start to get a little bit confusing. Okay. The whole Alsace wine appellation thing is a little bit crazy because it’s very new compared to all the other regions as the Grand Crus weren’t around until 1975, the year of my birth, but also, things changed a lot or have changed a lot over time in Alsace. It’s almost as if it’s this incredibly old ancient place that has been making wine but because of, I guess, the political shifting back and forth, that it’s only in modern times they started focusing on the different rules and regulations, and then they debate and fight over them sometimes. But let’s get into it.

The larger Alsace AOC is unique because these are wines that are blended. I say that because a lot of wines coming out of Alsace need to be just one of actually four varietals. We’ll get into that in a second. It has to be made up of — it’s either single-varietal wines. Blending is not really allowed in the higher tiers. There are exceptions, but that’s more the case. It’s the larger AOC appellation that is allowed to blend. These wines are called Edelzwicker, but we will see them on the American market mostly as Gentil, G-E-N-T-I-L. You’re going to see that everywhere.

Whenever you see an Alsatian wine in America, you’re going to see Gentil because it’s a large production, it’s almost like the vins de pays of the region. They’re often very high in acid, sometimes a little bit sweet, sometimes almost frothy, sometimes still, but they’re just very high acid and easy-drinking white wines — almost like everyday wine. Then we start getting into the higher-level qualities of wine. Now when we get to this place, the one thing that helps us out here is all of the next tiers that I’m going to be talking about or categories, involve only four of the grapes that I listed: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Muscat, and Pinot Gris, with Muscat not being as common, but it’s getting more common.

If you’re looking at Alsace on a map, you can split it in half. The southern section would be called Haut-Rhin, I can’t pronounce that. I think Haut-Rhin or Rhin, meaning “High Rhine”, and then the northern half would be called Bas-Rhin or Low Rhine because this river runs north. It’s really hard to generalize these two areas, but the Haut-Rhin or the High Rhine is known mostly for its, well, Gewürztraminer is a big deal here, and the wine is a little bit more powerful.

When we get to the Bas-Rhin, this is when we get to the more vineyard-specific places and it’s a little bit more difficult because of the chaotic soils; each variety thrives in a different kind of soil and just like Burgundy, the soils can change just walking across a road, and according to geological studies, there are 20 different types of soil in Alsace alone. This is crazy nature stuff, just like in Burgundy, but a lot more concentrated.

And in Burgundy, with the chaotic soils, you have literally two varieties you’re playing with. You have Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but here you have at least four, sometimes Silvaner, we’ll get into it, that you’re messing with on the upper tier, which we’ll get into, but depending on the soil composition you’re working with will depend on the variety you’re putting in, absolutely. Like, Gewürztraminer likes the more draining soils, and Pinot Bianco likes the more clay soils. It just depends on where you are and what part of the slope you are that defines what you plant, and that’s nature telling people what to do.

After that, it’s all human requirements and rules. So here we have the Riesling, one, Muscat, two, Gewürztraminer, three, Pinot Gris, four. From now on, these are the four grapes we’re talking about within all these different tiers, with an exception of Silvaner, which I’ll get into. So Alsace has sweet wine, it has white wine, and it has sparkling wine. The sweet wine I want to talk about first because it’s not crazy unique because sometimes it’s noble rot and sometimes it’s not, but what’s very unique is that the term “vendange tardive,” which is what they call sweet wine in Alsace, is exclusive to that region and nowhere else, so if you see vendange tardive, it’s only from Alsace.

And the way this wine is made is extremely specific. It must come from a single vintage, it must be one of the four varieties that are allowed. It must not be enriched. It has to have a minimum sugar depending on the grape that’s being used. Harvest or the picking of the grapes needs to be — the date needs to be determined by the authorities and you must tell said authorities before the harvest even happens, whether you are going to do this wine. You have to know before you even pick the grapes that this is the wine you’re going to make.

In addition to that, those authorities may choose to walk your vineyard to make sure the sugar concentrations are within the rules stated by the authorities, and then once the wine is made, it goes back to the authorities for analysis before it’s bottled. And even with all this, not all these wines end up being sweet. They sometimes have, like, the perception of sweetness on the nose, but happen to be very dry on the palate.

The guaranteed sweet wine is the Vendange Tardive Sélection de Grains Nobles, which is — I’m probably butchering that — but it’s a selection of noble grapes, SGN. Here, the grapes have a higher sugar level at harvest and almost are always experiencing noble rot, and just like in Sauternes, there are several passes to the vineyard to grab the best of the best, and this is interesting because when we talk about Bordeaux, we talk about Sauternes and we talk about that fog, there is the forest around here, too, that brings beautiful, like, an autumn mist that actually helps the Botrytis happen.

For dry white wine, you have outside of the larger AOC we talked about before, you have AOC Alsace communales, I’m probably butchering all that, but they’re very even more strict than — it’s the rules that are stricter than the larger AOC and grape variety. Even vine density, pruning, vine training, ripeness levels, yields, these are all very important for this level of wine and they’re often made from one varietal and only 11 communes in Alsace can use the communal tier. So you’ll see the name, and I’m not going to go through all of them right now because this is going to get crazy, but if you go in and say, “Can I have an Alsace communal?” they’ll know what you’re asking for and you’ll see the communes and they can explain it further for you.

Next in, focusing in further, you have what’s called lieu-dit, L-I-E-U-D-I-T or plural would be L-I-E-U-X-D-I-T-S. What that means is a single-named vineyard. This has even stricter rules than the communales because it’s, you know, single-vineyard wine. They’re going to really maintain the quality there, especially when it’s a single vineyard, one variety at a time.

Then we get to the most controversial part of Alsace. It’s the Grand Cru designation, which was created in 1975 and amended in ’83, and then again in 2007. It’s still in flux. But to be a Grand Cru, the wine needs to come from a lieu-dit vineyard or lieu-dit vintage. You can’t be Grand Cru unless you’re already a named vineyard. The quality concentration here is intense because in the Grand Cru category, only 4 percent of the total production of all of Alsace is Grand Cru. I had said earlier that there’s no blending, right? You got the four varieties Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Bianco, and Riesling, and you can’t do anything with that. But in 2007, a new Grand Cru was added and it allowed for Silvaner to be blended.

Right now, 51 lieux-dit, 51 named vineyards in Alsace are Grand Cru. The latest one was awarded in 2007. I’m sure, I don’t know, maybe there will be more in the future, I’m not sure. Then you have, I don’t know, this is a fun one for me, Crémant d’Alsace, 24 percent of the wine coming out of Alsace is Crémant, or sparkling, low atmospheres of pressure, Mousseux, awesome white wine, or rosé. It can be made from Pinot Bianco, Riesling, and Chardonnay even, because of that connection to Champagne. If it’s a rosé, the only grape that you can use, the red wine grape, is Pinot Noir, obviously. Just like with the sweet wines, you need to tell the authorities in advance that you’re going to make some of your wine into Crémant. That’s intense.

The thing about Alsace is because of all these varieties and how they’re all made single varietal wine, it’s not hard. You will see one winemaker annually bottling six, eight, nine different bottlings of their wines. The larger companies can do 20 or maybe more. There’s so many variations of what you can do here with these varieties, it’s crazy. There is also a huge co-op in this area that allows us to enjoy Edelzwicker Gentil wine, more of it here on the American market for a lower price point.

Alsace is a fun wine region to explore on our market. You start with the Gentil wine, the blended stuff, because that’s just how you start. It’s easy. It’s affordable, between $10 and $15 a bottle. When you get up into the other higher tiers, the communal and the Grand Cru, and stuff like that, it can be confusing on the bottle labels. Labels are a little bit confusing. Just know this, Alsace can be understood in four grapes. Depending on the winemaker, like I said, they could make one of each variety of the four or one of the other, and they have Grand Cru vineyards. The way I like to look at it is one varietal at a time.

If you want to start with one of the four, start with Gewürztraminer. Just try Gewürztraminer from different parts of Alsace, and then go for Pinot Bianco, then Riesling, and stuff like that, and get a sense of how they are generally and individually. When you talk to winemakers in Alsace, they have their favorites. Pinot Bianco is my favorite. Riesling is mine. Gewürztraminer is mine. There’s a lot out there to explore. France is — I think it’s their smallest, or one of the smallest wine regions, but it’s also a lot of fun. They’re all white wine. Don’t forget the Crémant. Next week, we’re going back down south, but we’re doing brandy. It’s called Cognac. It’s going to be fun.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit thebarrelroom.com today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.

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