Creating a map of soils in Alsace is like leaving crumbs to find your way to the grapes planted there. Granite and schist lead to Riesling; deep marl to Gewurztraminer; clay and volcanic hold Pinot gris; sandy, calcareous soils have Muscat; sandy with chalk leads to Sylvaner and sandy, calcareous is Pinot Noir.
There are always exceptions of course, but heroic feats like Wettolsheim’s Muscat (sandy, calcareous); Bergheim’s Gewurztraminer (deep marl); and Epfig’s Sylvaner (sandy, chalk) show off soil and grape marriages that walk off happily into the sunset.
Understanding the wines of any region takes more than just an understanding of the soils. The fairytale that is Alsace includes 1800 hours of sunshine per year and a Knight in shining honor called the Vosges Mountains which acts as a rain shadow to protect the region from harsh weather to the west.
Alsace may be the driest region in France, but it is not without its evil queen: humidity. This bane of many wine regions has a silver lining here. Humidity mixed with drying sunshine leads to noble rot and the famously luscious SGNs or Selection de Grains Nobles. These wines can only be made with the four noble grapes. Consider them—Riesling, Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris- the knights of the round table.
SGNs are produced only in outstanding vintages, from a very select picking of grapes, and those grapes have higher sugars than those used for Vendage Tardive, another specialty of the region. SGNs are sweet (enrichment not allowed) with some pretty strict rules on the sugars that must be obtained in the grapes at harvest (not in the final levels of the wine). Riesling and Muscat must have 256 grams per liter (110 Oechscle); and Gewurz and Pinot gris must be at least 279 g/l (120 Oechscle). Most have the honeyed, orange marmalade flavors of botrytis or noble rot. The required sugar levels are used to discuss the real plot of the wine: potential alcohol. Potential alcohol is the jewel in the crown, showing how rich a wine can be. It comes down to riches, even with wine. The potential alcohol levels of SGNs must reach 16.4% abv for Riesling and Muscat, and 18.2% for Gewurtz and Pinot Gris.
Sister wine, Vendage Tardive (meaning Late Harvest), is not as sweet as her sibling but uses the same noble grapes. Minimum potential alcohol levels require sugar concentration at 220 g/l (95 Oechsle) for Riesling and Muscat, and 243 g/l (105 Oechscle) for Gewurz and Pinot Gris. For VTs, the sugar ripeness of Riesling and Muscat must be capable of producing 14% abv, and Gewurtz and Pinot Gris must reach 15.3% abv. These wines range from dry to medium sweet, and there may or may not be influenced by botrytis.
The sunny disposition of the region is important, especially since this is almost as far north as you can go for fine winemaking vineyards. Champagne is slightly more North, but it prefers the high acid, low sugar wines that are easily produced in cooler climates for its sparkling wine production. Here in Alsace, although the climate is cool continental, the sunshine hours and protection of the Vosges mountain range lets the wines shine with rich body and full flavor. Compared to wines in Germany made from the same grapes, these wines will often be riper and fuller-bodied.
Lest you think there is complacency in this beautiful kingdom, think again. The region has its own version of Game of Thrones. There is lots of controversy surrounding the appellations and classifications, but that will take a whole ‘nother blog!
Same place next time? Have a very happy ending kind of day.