Adventures in Alsace

Cover Image: The village of Niedermorschwihr. Photo Credit: Wines of Alsace.

by Shelley Cartland

Before my multi-country solo wine tour, my answer to “What is your favorite wine?” was always: “French, anything French.” But to be honest, I only truly knew the most popular red wines from the largest regions. So, while I began my adventure as a stalwart Burgundy and Bordeaux lover, I returned captivated by the crisp white wines from Alsace. My short time visiting a few of the passionate producers in this northeastern corner of France delivered well beyond my expectations.

Compared to other wine regions in France, Alsace is unquestionably unique. You feel as though you’ve crossed the border into Germany. The architecture, street signs, language, varietals, and cuisine all point to the fact that this particular area has changed hands six times throughout history—regarding wine specifically, the flute shape bottles and varietal name on the labels are the most obvious clue. Another distinction is that over 90 percent of production comes from white varietals such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner.

Photo 3- Rangen
The Rangen de Thann Grand Cru – the steepest vineyard in Alsace. Photo Credit: Wines of Alsace.

After experiencing a heat wave in Northern Rhone and Burgundy this past June, I arrived in Alsace totally unprepared for the cool nights. It was welcoming and drew an immediate correlation in my mind to their highly acidic, crisp wines. The climate is continental, where summers are hot and winters are cold. There are considerable seasonal and diurnal swings, which became evident as the need for a scarf in evenings was de rigueur. With nights being as chilly as I experienced, I’m not sure I would like to be there during the winter when it’s so cold the vines go into true dormancy—something especially important for Riesling.

In addition to the Rhine River to the east, the Vosges Mountains directly to the west are the most important factor in the Alsatian landscape. The range blocks rain from the west and their foothills provide ideal slopes for the best vineyards. The vineyards are concentrated in a narrow strip, running north to south, approximately 75-miles long and 3-miles wide. With no Atlantic influence, Alsace is the driest wine region in all of France. We can all appreciate that they are able to leave grapes ripening on the vine without fear of rain when we taste the trademark combination of ripe fruit flavors and crisp acidity.

The dry climate, which means there is less of a threat of mold in Alsace, makes it a prime location for organic and biodynamic farming. Along with Provence, Languedoc, and Roussillon, Alsace is among the leaders in the organic movement—producers use horse plowing and no artificial chemicals. They believe that animals, crops, and the soil operate as one unit. I wanted to visit a winery leading the way on these farming principles and on the recommendation of a sommelier friend, made my way to Domaine Valentin Zusslin.

Biodynamic farming is exactly what 13th generation winemakers, Marie and Jean Paul Zusslin are doing. Upon my arrival, Marie had just come in from tending to the horses. As we tasted through their wines, she explained the importance of grapes expressing the full potential of the unique terroir.

Photo 5 - Katzenthal
The village of Katzenthal. Photo credit: Wines of Alsace.

There are 13 major soil types within Alsace that contribute to the wine’s structure, complexity, and flavors. Walking in any direction, you can find a number of different soil types, from granite, limestone, schist, and sandstone. This directly correlates to the diversity in the grape varieties planted and the abundant offerings at any one tasting. How are you supposed to pick a favorite style when cremant, dry, sweet, and a multitude of varietals are on the menu? Impossible!

With 1,200 producers in Alsace, I know I’ll return for further exploration and tasting—at least I am able to narrow my list granted that 80 percent of production is done by 175 producers. In fact, one producer alone, Trimbach, accounts for much of what we see on the shelves in the United States. And would you believe that on my visit, winemaker Pierre Trimbach himself welcomed me at the entrance? After my tasting, there is no denying the pure expression of the region in each sip. Alsace, and Trimbach in particular, produce some of the most noted dry Rieslings in the world, as well as some of the most aromatic Gewurztraminers.

Alsace may be a region overlooked by many, but deserves the time and accolades it receives. The location, climate, and soil work in perfect harmony to create balanced and complex wines. In short, I can’t wait to return.


Tasting Highlights

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Zusslin WineReco

Wine: Domaine Valentin Zusslin Cremant d’Alsace Brut Zero Sans, Alsace, France
Grapes: Primarily Pinot Auxerrois with Chardonnay and Pinto Gris
SRP: $24.99
Where to buy:

Finding Domaine Zusslin wines in the US is not easy, but this Cremant d’Alsace is well worth the search. It is made in the traditional method giving it complexity, but the crispness and fresh flavor profile will make your mouth water.

If you’re able to get your hands on their 2011 Grand Cru Pfingstberg, it is everything you ask for in a wine. It has perfect balance and harmony, with the potential to age. On the nose you have honey, minerality, floral and citrus notes. It’s dry, vibrant, and complex on the palate.


Wine: Trimbach 2007 “Cuvee Frederic Emile” Riesling, Alsace, France
Grapes: 100% Riesling
SRP: $49.99
Where to buy:

This Trimbach Riesling is a classic! There may not be a better wine to demonstrate what I love best about the wines of Alsace. Aromatic and fresh, with mouth-watering acidity and a layered, long finish. Perhaps one of my favorite wines during the holiday season, this wine is perfect paired with an array of foods.


Wine: Domaine Ostertag 2012 “Fronholz” Riesling, Alsace, France
Grapes: 100% Riesling
SRP: $45.00
Where to buy:

Domaine Ostertag is another biodynamic producer. This particular Riesling reveals what the varied soil types in Alsace have to offer the wines of the region. Fronholz vineyard is located on a majority of quartz soil giving the wine distinct minerality and firm acidity.

Allimant Laugner Cremant d'Alsace Rose

Wine: Allimant-Laugner NV Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé, Alsace, France
Grapes: 100% Pinot Noir
SRP: $18.99
Where to buy:

Made in the traditional method, this elegant sparkling wine offers fresh aromas of strawberries, a creamy texture and a long, mineral-driven finish.

Albert Mann Pinot Gris Grand Cru Hengst

Wine: Albert Mann 2012 Pinot Gris Grand Cru Hengst, Alsace, France
Grapes: 100% Pinot Gris
SRP: $35

The Pinot Gris grapes that produce this wine come from marly-limestone-sandstone soils in the Hengst Grand Cru. Powerful and concentrated with a plush texture, the wine offers ripe tropical fruits and spices.

Weinbach Riesling Schlossberg Cuvee Ste Catherine 2010

Wine: Weinbach 2013 Riesling “Cuvée Ste Catherine” Grand Cru Schlossberg, Alsace, France
Grapes: 100% Riesling
SRP: $60.99
Where to

This Riesling is made from the domaine’s oldest vines, situated mid-slope on the Grand Cru Schlossberg. Full and rich on the palate, this wine is well-structured with notes of exotic fruits. It finishes dry with a long, harmonious finish.





ShelleyCartland_FWS Shelley Cartland, FWS, WSET-Advanced (with distinction) is originally from Los Angeles, but now lives in Napa. She created Passaporto Vino to share her wine journey online and across social channels, particularly Facebook and Instagram. Cartland is also currently working part-time in the tasting room at Sequoia Grove Winery in St. Helena.




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