Tucked into France’s northeast corner, Alsace’s identity has been shaped by centuries of being passed back and forth between France and Germany like a provincial ping-pong ball. Its architecture, language, cuisine and, most notably, its food-friendly wines are delicious blends of both cultures. Here’s what you need to know about the amazing wines of Alsace.
Why Alsace Tastes Like Alsace
Thanks to the cold front-blocking Vosges Mountains, the otherwise northerly region enjoys an unusually long (but still cool) grape growing season. This unique climate and the region’s patchwork of wine friendly soils have proven an ideal terroir for grapes that produce spine-tingling aromatic whites and rich crémants.
The Key Grapes
Gewurztraminer: Both dry and off-dry, Alsatian Gewurztraminer boasts all the variety’s textbook flavors—rosewater, lychee, honeysuckle and spice—and is often complemented by subtle residual sweetness.
Riesling: Riesling shows off the various soils; the backbone of granite, the saltiness of slate, the zest of limestone.
Pinot Gris: Although made from the same grape, dry Pinot Gris from Alsace shares little with the often boring, neutral Pinot Grigio. It’s golden and rich, and boasts pear and marzipan flavors, with mineral undertones and refreshing acidity.
Prized for its freshness and roundness, Crémant d’Alsace has become France’s most popular fizz behind Champagne. Often a blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois Blanc grapes, it’s a four-season wine that works with almost any food, from summer fruits to hearty winter stews.
Read the Label
The Grapes: Alsace has one of the only labels in France that lists them.
Quality Level: There’s “Alsace” and the top “Alsace Grand Cru.” A tense issue, several grand cru producers (like Hugel) don’t list the higher level on their wines out of protest. Bottom line: There are amazing wines in both tiers.
Dry or Sweet?: If the alcohol percentage is at or above 13 percent, the wine is usually dry.
Alsace Insiders — Meet The Region’s Most Famous Family
The Hugels have made wine in Alsace since 1639. About 95 percent of their production is exported. André Hugel, born in 1929, joined the family business in 1951 as technical director. His brothers, Georges and Jean, looked after vineyard and sales. Today, his son, Étienne, and his cousins Jean-Philippe and Marc are in charge. Étienne’s son, Jean-Frédéric, 26, has also joined the family business.
André, what’s changed since you started out?
André: Wine is primarily made to spread joy. Today, we are obliged by law to state how dangerous wine is, but you’d have to drink a hell of a lot until wine becomes dangerous. And as you see, I am still alive at 85.
Did you always want to join the family business, Étienne?
Étienne: My family was wise enough not to force me, but waited until I became passionate about wine. My epiphany came during internships in Sauternes, Burgundy and Napa Valley. I learned how passionate people are in the wine business. The relationships you build are just amazing. I am happy that my father is proud of the way we work together, and I am now proud to see my son and nephew continuing the tradition and bring[ing] their own ideas.
How are you making your mark, Jean-Frédéric?
My cousin and I put all ideas on the table. We won’t necessarily always get a “yes,” but our words are taken into consideration. Pretty much everything we earn ends up being re-invested in the business—not expanding, but developing. Despite being in 15th-century buildings, we probably have one of the most modern cellars in Alsace. We try and give it to the next generation in better shape.
O.K. You’re a family who works together. Are there a lot of arguments?
Étienne: Of course there are. But when there is major disagreement, the family rule is that we debate until there is agreement.
Where is Alsace going?
Jean-Frédéric: I am optimistic. I see this new generation of young winemakers who start their own companies. They go back to the roots. There is more and more awareness about soils, about the grand crus and unique wines. We have thousands of different exposures and soils. We are such a small region—we need to make true terroir wines. I feel the youngsters understand this.