Great Alsatian wine is a revelation. I know a collector who had never really enjoyed Pinot Gris; he’d tried a range of Pinot Gris from California and Italy but hadn’t found a single wine that spoke to him. That changed when he had his first glass of Pinot Gris from the Alsace Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). The wine had a hint of smoke that he had never experienced in a Pinot Gris and the bottle wasn’t even from a grand cru appellation. The experience piqued his interest in higher-end grand cru bottles, so he bought a few, including a bottle of 2009 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos Saint Urbain Rangen SGN Pinot Gris. He was soon a fan of Alsatian Pinot Gris for life.
Alsace is home to some of the highest-quality appellations not just in France, but in the entire world of fine wine. The three main categories of Alsace wine appellations—Alsace AOC, Alsace Grand Cru AOCs, and Crémant d’Alsace AOC—each have notable characteristics that wine enthusiasts love. This guide will take you through each of these categories in detail and single out the characteristics that make these wines so special.
A Bird’s Eye View of Alsace Wine Appellations
Alsace borders Germany to the east, and for this reason, the French region produces wines that are similar in style to its neighbor. Many of the finest Alsace producers make dry Riesling and Gewürztraminer, both of which are popular varieties in Germany as well. In general, you’ll find the best examples of these wines in the southern Haut-Rhin region of Alsace near the Vosges Mountains. This region is home to most of Alsace’s sought-after grand cru producers. In the north, the Bas-Rhin region is also the location of many top-quality producers from Alsace, but, for the most part, these wines are not as valuable or collectible as those from the Haut-Rhin.
However, these two subregions are large and diverse. You can find many excellent wines from the Bas-Rhin as well as from the Haut-Rhin. If you’re looking for the best wines in Alsace, you’ll find them grown under one of the region’s Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées (AOCs). These Alsace wine appellations govern every aspect of winemaking in the region, including the variety, winemaking techniques, bottling process, and the label.
There are three main categories of Alsace AOCs that protect all wines in the region. They are:
- Alsace AOC: Mostly white wines (like dry Riesling) with some red and rosé wines as well.
- Alsace Grand Cru AOCs: High-quality wines (white varieties) made by the top classified vineyards in the region. There are 51 individual appellations within this category.
- Crémant d’Alsace AOC: Mostly sparkling white wines and rosé.
Producers within these Alsace wine appellations have to follow a specific set of rules. For example, the laws governing the grand cru AOCs are much stricter than those governing the Alsace AOC. Although the rules differ for each appellation, nearly all wines made in Alsace are made under one of these AOCs. If a producer wishes to make a wine that doesn’t follow the AOC guidelines (such as an experimental or unusual blend), then the wine has to be labeled as vin de table de France–an unclassified table wine. In other words, Alsace is one of the only wine regions in the world that classifies and controls almost every single wine under a specific AOC. This is one of the reasons why these wines are often so high in quality.
The Alsace AOC
Most wines made in Alsace fall under Alsace AOC guidelines. This appellation governs about 74 percent of wines made in the region. A wide range of wines are made under this AOC, including Pinot Noir-based red and rosé styles as well as high-quality still white wines that can be either dry or sweet. This appellation embraces the sheer diversity of wines available in Alsace and ensures that every wine is a great representation of its variety or style.
Variety: The most common grapes produced are Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Alsace Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, and Pinot Noir; these are used to create single-varietal wines. Rarely, producers may also create blends of multiple varieties (called Edelzwicker or Gentil), but these aren’t usually as high in quality or as valuable.
Nearly all producers use the same type of bottle, a narrow green bottle called the “flute” of Alsace.
Appellation Laws: Unless stated otherwise on the label, all Alsace AOC wines must be made from 100 percent of a single rape variety. There is one exception having to do with Auxerrois; this variety can be used anonymously in Pinot Blanc wines. If an Alsace wine is a dessert wine, it’s usually labeled Sélection de Grains Nobles or Vendanges Tardives. Winemakers are allowed to use chaptalization to make their dessert wines sweeter, but this is frowned upon in some of the higher-quality communes. Appellation laws state that producers must bottle their wines in the same region in which they are produced. Nearly all producers use the same type of bottle, a narrow green bottle called the “flute” of Alsace. Additionally, some producers put a lieu-dit, or vineyard name, on the label. This indicates that the grapes were grown in an especially high-quality commune, such as Bergheim or Blienschwiller. Many of these communes have their own specific winemaking rules in addition to those prescribed for the Alsace AOC as a whole and produce higher-quality wine as a result.
Taste: While Alsace AOC wines are very diverse, they do share a few common characteristics:
- Sylvaner is delicate and aromatic.
- Riesling is dry, with strong minerality and floral aromatics.
- Pinot Blanc is light and round.
- Alsace Muscat is dry and very fruit-forward.
- Gewürztraminer is complex and rich. It can also be a bit sweet.
- Pinot Gris is smoky and well-structured.
- Pinot Noir is made in either a red or rosé style and ranges from deep and complex to light and elegant.
Value: Most Alsace AOC wines are lower in value than Alsace grand cru. However, some wines, particularly those with a lieu-dit on the label, can be valuable on the secondary market. Look for wines that have a vineyard or commune name if you want to invest in the most collectible bottles.
Although the Alsace AOC is the broadest Alsace wine appellation, that doesn’t mean the wines are lower in quality. In fact, many of the region’s best producers (like Domaine Muré Clos Saint-Landelin and Domaine Bruno Sorg) make Alsace AOC wines that are similar in quality to more prestigious grand cru labels. This is especially true in the case of Alsatian Pinot Noir. Since red varieties cannot be given grand cru status (no matter how high in quality they are), Pinot Noir always falls under the Alsace AOC designation. You can find Alsace AOC red wines made in the exact same grand cru appellation as a producer’s top-rated white wines, often at a fraction of the cost.
Alsace Grand Cru AOCs
Only four percent of wine in the region falls under one of the grand cru Alsace wine appellations, but there is a massive number of individual appellations. Unlike the Alsace AOC, which is an umbrella category that includes a diverse range of wines and a set of basic laws governing them, grand cru appellations are more specific. Each of the 51 grand cru appellations has its own set of rules.
Variety: To be labeled Alsace grand cru, only one (or a combination) of four noble grape varieties can be used: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat. This requirement is why Pinot Noir and sparkling wines can never achieve grand cru status, even if they are high in quality. The only exception to this rule is Sylvaner. Just a single grand cru vineyard, Zotzenberg, is allowed to label wine made using this grape as grand cru.
Appellation Laws: In addition to strict laws governing grape varieties, grand cru AOCs also have rules about alcohol levels. Most grand cru appellations require that wines meet a minimum alcohol level. This is why you’ll see more grand cru wines made in the Haut-Rhin than in the Bas-Rhin. The Haut-Rhin is full of low slopes that receive plenty of direct sunlight, and as a result, the grapes become more sugary and the resulting wine more alcoholic and more likely to age well. All grand cru wine appellations also specify that the grapes should be hand-picked and many limit the amount of grapes producers can harvest each year. Yields are often very low and kept that way on purpose.
If you’re looking to make a profit by reselling Alsatian wine, then grand cru wines are a good place to start.
Taste: Grand cru wines are richer, higher in alcohol, and more honeyed than wines made within the Alsace and Crémant d’Alsace AOCs. They also develop a unique smoky flavor as they age. One interesting point about grand cru Alsace is that despite its relatively high sugar and alcohol content, these wines come across as quite dry on the palate overall. While some grand cru dessert wines are made under grand cru AOCs, the vast majority belong to the dry end of the spectrum.
Value: Grand cru wines are the most valuable in Alsace. The best bottles cost hundreds of dollars, especially if the vintage is given a top score by reputable wine critics or the producer is especially well-known. If you’re looking to make a profit by reselling Alsatian wine, then grand cru wines are a good place to start. Few other wines from this region gain as much in value over time.
Although the majority of grand cru Alsace wines are delicious, age-worthy, and collectible, Master of Wine Jancis Robinson says there’s some controversy over the grand cru appellations. In the past, only a few appellations were designated grand cru, but in 1983, the number of designated vineyards started to grow exponentially. By 2007, the number of grand cru Alsace wine appellations had ballooned to 51 and this impacted the value of grand cru Alsatian wine. Robinson explains, “The words grand cru are no guarantee of quality as some producers have seen grand cru simply as an excuse to charge more rather than as an opportunity to make seriously fine wine.” However, many grand cru wines are indeed higher in quality and more collectible than their peers within the Alsace and Crémant d’Alsace appellations. It’s simply wise to do some research on any producer from whom you plan to purchase a grand cru wine.
The Crémant d’Alsace AOC
The Crémant d’Alsace AOC is unique in that it’s the only Alsatian wine appellation that produces sparkling wines. It accounts for 22 percent of the total wine production in the region. Alsatian sparkling wine is becoming increasingly popular among collectors, so we may see more producers making these wines as time goes on. Many of my peers have a few of these bottles in storage and while they’re not nearly as valuable as grand cru vintages, they are very delicious and a great affordable alternative to Champagne.
Variety: Alsatian sparkling wines are made from blends of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Auxerrois. Occasionally, producers will use a small amount of Chardonnay in the blend. Some producers also make a rosé from 100 percent Pinot Noir. This style is quite rare and sought-after.
Crémant d’Alsace is much brighter and often more tart than Champagne.
Appellation Laws: Crémant d’Alsace looks to Champagne for inspiration. Producers use the exact same traditional winemaking techniques as Champagne houses and the result is a wine that is very similar to Champagne in style but made primarily from Alsatian grapes. The grapes are usually picked very early, while they are at their most acidic; this makes the wine taste fresh and lively. Producers have the freedom to choose how much of each grape they use in the blend, and the only rule is that Pinot Noir must not be mixed with any of the white grape varieties.
Taste: Crémant d’Alsace is much brighter and often more tart than Champagne. This is due in part to the grapes that are used in the blend–Chardonnay is richer and more buttery than Riesling and other Alsatian varieties commonly used. Some examples of Crémant d’Alsace can develop complexity with age, especially those made from Riesling, but most are best drunk young.
Value: The quality-to-price ratio of these wines is excellent; they cost very little compared to wines of approximately equal quality from Champagne. You can find many superb wines for less than $50 per bottle. They don’t gain much in value over time, however, so these wines aren’t necessarily the best choice for collectors looking to resell their collections on the secondary market.
If you’re looking for an interesting, alternative sparkling wine, then wines made under the Crémant d’Alsace AOC are a great choice. They’re also good options for wine enthusiasts who like dry, acidic sparkling wines. They pair especially well with savory, fatty foods as their acidity complements rich flavors.
Which Alsace Wine Appellations Should You Choose?
I enjoy every type of Alsatian wine for different reasons. If I want to sip on an interesting glass of bubbly or need a fun wine to bring to a dinner party, I might choose a wine from the Crémant d’Alsace AOC. If I’m craving an elegant, minerally, easy-drinking wine, the Alsace AOC offers lots of options. For serious investment purposes, though, I stick with grand cru Alsace wine appellations. Not only are these wines the most valuable, but they are also generally able to age for a much longer period of time than other types of Alsatian wine. However, one thing to keep in mind is that some grand cru producers choose not to advertise their grand cru status on the label. Producers like Domaine Zind-Humbrecht and Domaine Léon Boesch will mark their labels as grand cru, making them easy to spot, but other producers like Trimbach don’t include the grand cru designation on their bottles. For this reason, it’s a good idea to do some research in advance on the grand cru producers you intend to invest in.
Alsatian wines are among the most fascinating and reputable in the world, and investing in wines from multiple Alsace wine appellations is a great way to become familiar with the range that Alsace offers. It also puts you on the path to starting a diverse and valuable collection of Alsatian wine.
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