Wines of Alsace

Vineyards in Alsace

In the 18 months or so that I have been blind tasting, I have occasionally seen a (generally more-experienced) taster stick their nose into a glass and exclaim, “Smells Alsatian“. They then have a taste, swirl the wine around their cheeks and concur with their earlier conclusion: “Definitely Alsatian“. To the novice taster, this appears quite an impressive feat. Yet what is it about Alsatian wines that leads one to this conclusion, and what should the novice taster look out for?

Last week I presented a blind tasting of wines from Alsace. The aim was to explore wines from a region that can offer some very good value for money, if you know where to look, along with enjoying some wines perfectly suited to the glorious summer weather that has been greeting Oxford of late. The tasting was also an excellent opportunity to discuss the very nature of Alsatian wines, and what it is exactly that the varietals grown in Alsace have in common with each other. In other words, could we identify a particular ‘Alsace-ness’ in the wines tasted, regardless of varietal?

I presented six wines, four were made from Alsace’s ‘noble varietals’: Trimbach Riesling 2009, The Society’s Exhibition Gewurztraminer, 2007 (made by Hugel), Léon Beyer Pinot Gris, 2005 and Hugel Muscat Traditional, 2008. A Pinot Blanc from Cave de Turckheim, 2009, and the Society’s Vin d’Alsace, 2009 – a blend of the four noble varietals, plus a little sylvaner – made up the balance. You are unlikely to come across any other white wines from Alsace, unless you are in the region, in which case you may stumble across wine made from sylvaner, chasselas or auxerrois. Blending the four noble varietals (riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris and muscat) into a ‘Vin d’Alsace’ is a practice common in the region, although comparatively rarely seen in the UK export market. Pinot noir is the only red wine I have seen from Alsace.

The riesling was in the austere style that Trimbach is well known for. Completely dry, with clean fruit on the nose – green apples mostly – subtle florality, fairly high acidity, a slightly oily palate and a steely finish. You would expect a bit more to the nose in other Alsatian rieslings, however they share the same oiliness with the body, and dry palate.

The muscat had a classic lifted nose of ripe tangerines, honeysuckle and apricots. A fairly light wine with a broad palate and disappointingly short finish. The fruity character of the nose was less apparent on the palate; instead I noted white pepper and a striking minerality.

The gewurztraminer was a very aromatic wine, filled with spices and flowers. I noted musk, pot pourri, sandalwood, rosehip and dried ferns, along with overripe apricots. As is typical of gewurztraminer, this wine was off-dry, had lowish acidity, a fairly full, oily body and a noticeably alcoholic finish. Nashi pear, sandalwood and white pepper were present on the palate.

The pinot gris showed its age somewhat, with some tertiary aromas beginning to add their character to the aroma profile. I perceived mushroom, caramel/molasses, woodsmoke, pear and overripe apricots. There was also a ‘cabbagey’ note of botrytis on the wine; presumably some of the grapes had been affected by noble rot. The alcohol was fairly high, the acidity medium. A spicy, peppery quality came through on the palate, along with lychees and a waxiness. The wine had a full body, again with an oily texture, and was off-dry. The finish was fairly long, with a ‘warm minerality’. (My favourite wine of the tasting.)

The pinot blanc was nondescript to me, and doubtless a wine I would find very hard to correctly identify if given blind (without knowing it was from Alsace). There was some pear-drop, some grapefruit, and herbs – coriander and parsley were suggested – on the nose. ‘Bacon fat’ was suggested as a classic pinot blanc aroma descriptor by our Society’s esteemed Senior Member, and absurd as it sounds, there is something to be said for this note. The palate showed moderate alcohol, only just medium acidity, a medium body – again with an oily texture, it was dry and had a medium-length finish.

The blended wine was fairly run-of-the-mill. Moderately aromatic, with apples, apricot and camomile on the nose. The palate was dry, and fairly neutral to taste with floral hints and a subtle pepperyness. Moderate alcohol, medium-high acid and a shortish finish.

Often in blind tasting, we use a flight of wines in order to draw distinctions between wines. It was an interesting experience to use the blind tasting medium to tease out some similarities between these wines. So what did we come up with, and what is it that is discernibly ‘Alsatian’ about these wines?

For me, the ‘oily’ quality on the palate seems to be a consistent marker of Alsatian wines. There is a certain bandwidth of ‘oiliness’, with the riesling and muscat being at the lower end of the spectrum, and the gewurz and pinot gris toward the top. Nevertheless, this textural quality on the palate is something I use to help identify an Alsatian wine.

Spice, especially on the palate, is another marker for me. Again, there is a spectrum, and the riesling and pinot blanc were at the low end of the spectrum for me. However, there was a discernible pepperyness on the palate, to a greater or lesser degree, on all of these wines.

In terms of the aromas, some blind tasters were noticing a rose-like aroma on these wines. This is different from the classic ‘rose water’ note for gewurztraminer, which is a varietal quality. More like a fragrant rose-petal character. I didn’t feel the Trimbach riesling exhibited this quality at all, however I have had other, more aromatically generous, rieslings that have had a certain ‘roselike’ quality.

Finally, and most dubiously, there was a feeling that these wines all had a certain minerality exhibited on the palate. This was not the steely minerality experienced in Sancerre, or the flinty minerality of the Mosel, but a minerality with a sort of warmth to it. This sensation is one that is very subjective and hard to define, and is likely only something you can get with extended tasting practice. However, it is certainly a  quality worth bearing in mind.

I don’t know if we came up with a decisive answer on what it is that makes a wine readily identifiable as Alsatian, however, it was certainly clear that the six wines tasted had something in common, despite the hugely different varietal character that was present. I’ve shared four ideas that may be worth bearing in mind if you’re ever pondering this question. In terms of nailing down some definitive answers, I think I’ll simply have to keep tasting Alsatian wines. Which is no bad thing – after all, the season is perfect for it!

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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9 Responses to Wines of Alsace

  1. Neel Burton says:

    ‘For as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.’ – Aristotle

    • Hanneke Wilson says:

      Aristotle’s Metaphysics – good stuff, as always. I enjoyed the tasting, and it would be worth our while to repeat the experiment with a set of six high-quality wines, because I suspect that the lack of intensity in some of the wines, which was probably the result of excessively high yields, meant that not all the wines were true representatives of their type. (This is not to criticise James’ selection: it is the depth of the long vac. and a lot of people are away, so costs had to be kept down.)

  2. Will says:

    Good choice of topic. Other similarly mysterious/impressive comments that I wouldn’t mind seeing explored: ‘maritime influence’, and ‘hot’ (as in: ‘it’s from somewhere very hot’). (Or for that matter, I wonder what ‘cold’ would be, though I’ve heard it a lot less than ‘hot’).

    • James says:

      Hi Will, thanks for your comments. Indeed, those characteristics would be good to explore, perhaps under an ‘effects of climate’ tasting. In general, you’d expect higher alcohol wines from ‘hot’ places, e.g. Southern Rhone, California, South Australia, than you would from ‘cold’ places (Germany, N. France and England perhaps). This is due to the grapes ripening and developing more sugar (which is converted to alcohol in the vinification process) in hot places than cold.

      • James says:

        As far as ‘maritime influence’ goes, from what I understand, the sea has a moderating effect on climate, meaning that both summer and winter temperatures are less extreme in these environments, than the equivalent latitude in, say, the centre of a landmass. We usually do a climate-related tasting during the blind tasting course in Michaelmas; I’ll try to remember to do a post on this tasting when we come to it! Hope all is well.

  3. tigchandler says:

    Alsatian gewurz is the wine I would choose if I could only ever have one! Thank you for your blog, it recreated those wines so well and brought back memories of my visit to Alsace. I like your writing style. Best wishes from an ex-Oxford dweller!

    • James says:

      Thank you. Yes, I’m a big fan of well made Gewurz, especially some of the delicious late harvest sweet wines! Would love to visit the region – it looks stunning.

  4. Pingback: The Qualities of Riesling | The Oxford Wine Blog

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