Bitesize: Alsace

Bitesize is an occasional series providing regional over-views, learning aids, and key statistics in under 1000 words

Alsace

Tucked away on the eastern border of France sits the wine region of Alsace. Quite distinct from other French wine regions, it’s recognisable for its use of certain grapes not found elsewhere in France, Germanic flute style bottles, and wines labelled by grape variety as opposed to the regional French style (Bordeaux, Burgundy etc.). Alsace owes this cross-pollination of French-German culture down to its position, resting as it does between the natural boundary of the Vosges mountain range, and the political boundary of the River Rhine. Aside from times of occupation, Alsace has always been a part of France, and the residents proudly consider themselves French, but from the names of their towns (e.g. Riquewihr), top producers (e.g. Zind-Humbrecht, Hugel, Trimbach) and timber framed structures of their housing, there is a resolutely Germanic feel to the place.

Whilst the Vosges Mountains may act as a barrier between Alsace and the rest of France, this range is key to its success, acting as a barrier and trapping approaching rain clouds. Outside of Perpignan in the south of France, this makes it the driest area in the country, guaranteeing long warm growing seasons and well ripened grapes. Alsace sits at the northern limit of grape production (the Champagne region only marginally trumps it to being the most northerly of French vineyards), and when you add that cool climatic influence to the rain-free sunshine enjoyed by the area you have a unique micro climate. Whilst the heat in Perpignan traditionally produces robust reds and rustic whites, Alsace can deliver medium bodied, clean fruit-forward white wines with refreshing acidity. Malolactic is avoided by keeping wines cool and sulphured and, although matured in barrel, no oak influence is imparted as the barrels are decades old. Wines are bottled within a year of harvest to maximise the freshness.

Alsace has a few thousand individual/family growers owning small inherited parcels of land, but over 90% of the wines produced come from just 220 companies. The vineyards of Alsace are at 200-400 metres above sea level, and run in a 100 kilometre north-south strip, split in to two regions – Bas Rhin (Lower Rhine) and Haut Rhin (Upper Rhine). Confusingly, as you look at a map, the Bas (Lower) Rhin is in the north of the country and the Haut (Upper) Rhin is in the south. Whilst great wines can be made in the Bas-Rhin, it is the Haut-Rhin that produces the finest wines as this is where the Vosges Mountains come in to their central and highest point. The vineyards nestle up in to the foothills receiving the best protection from the elements, getting good drainage, and excellent eastern exposure to the rising sun.

The soils in Alsace are something of a mosaic (the by-product of geological fault lines below the region), underpinned by the granitic base of the Vosges, and more akin to the nearby German region of Baden, than any French region. Regional body CIVA (Le Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace) lists 13 different soils, including schist, Sandstone, Limestone, Marl, Clay, Loess and Loam to name a few. Each of these soil types will pair better with a particular grape variety and producers continue to investigate the combinations to unlock the full potential of the region. 90% of the production here is for white wines (the remainder being red wine from Pinot Noir) and, in essence, two levels of grapes exist:

Noble Varieties: Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat

Other Varieties: Chasselas, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay

Only the noble varieties are able to produce Grand Cru wines, whilst the other supporting varieties will be used in Gentil (50% of the blend will be Noble varieties) or Edelzwicker (Noble mixture). In reality, noble grapes can be used in Edelzwicker, but in practice this is very rare. It’s interesting to note that Riesling and Gewurtztraminer are not grown elsewhere in France and owe more to the German/Austrian influence, although the style of wine remains French (being fat and plump as opposed to the lean German style).

The classification structure is also of interest, especially for a French region, as these are often rigorously delineated. The whole of Alsace is covered by a regional AC (Appellation Controlée) and this accounts for 75% of production, but there is no level in-between that and Grand Cru wine (a single vineyard, single vintage from one noble grape variety) which accounts for 4% of production. It simply cuts from either being a top wine, to a standard wine. Wine laws for Alsace were put together fairly recently with the regional AC in place from 1962, Grand Cru added in 1975, and Cremant d’Alsace (21% of production) added in 1976. With the region producing wine for as long as any area in France, the late creation of the wine laws may have actually been down to the region itself. The grapes produced in the super sunny conditions were routinely transported to other French regions to round out blends where grapes had failed to ripen.

Thanks to the guaranteed lengthy growing season there are also two types of late harvest wines produced – Vendange Tardive and the even rarer Sélection de Grains Nobles. These wines are produced from extra ripened grapes that are picked something like 3 weeks after standard grapes, giving a noticeably sweeter wine.

Whilst some were initially put off of Alsatian wines due to the legal requirement that they are bottled in flute bottles (which for some linked the wines to the unpopular sweet wines of Germany), times have changed and the wines of Alsace are now fully appreciated as unique and expressive varietal wines. 75% of production slakes the domestic French thirst, whilst the remaining 25% is exported, the main markets being Europe (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark) and the USA/Canada.

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Seeing double

When writing ‘seeing double’ in a wine column it could well be expected that it would be a reference to the effects of over imbibing. Today’s post, however, is looking at the subtle complexities within wine education. When trying to understand any complex subject matter it’s best to have access to clear information, however, the further you look in to something, the cloudier it becomes.

This might all sound like I’m talking about peering through a glass of badly oxidised wine, but I’m actually talking about the curious double use of many terms, or terms similar enough to confuse the learner. It was whilst looking at a map of Spain last week, or more precisely at Galicia in the Northwest, I did a double-take, spotting that the capital city is named Santiago. Both in and out of the wine world, when you think of a capital city called Santiago you’re more likely to bring Chile to mind. “Fair enough” I hear you say, the Spanish Santiago is unlikely to come up in many wine texts, and so naturally is unlikely to cause confusion. Indeed, many places have the same name as others – here in Berkshire I live not 5 miles away from Hermitage, but I’m nowhere near to the famous French hill known for its top quality Syrah. So well known in fact, that when Syrah was imported in to Australia, they christened the grape variety ‘Hermitage’. Thankfully this confusion (and many others, such as the USA making ‘Burgundy’) were outlawed at the end of the 1980’s when French designation laws protected the name.

Herm2Herm         One Hermitage to another

In terms of other confusing place names there is Rioja. Any wine lover knows (and probably loves) their Spanish Rioja, but there is also another – La Rioja, and that’s in Argentina.

Regions can be a pain too; California has a Central region, but so does Chile. There’s also the Central Vineyards of the Loire. Let’s not forget Coastal regions; South Africa has one of those, and the Californian coast is split in to the North coast, North central coast and South central coast.

I’m reminded of the upset that followed a recent WSET exam when the question ‘write a paragraph about VDP’ came up. Many students naturally assumed that they would be writing about Vin de Pays, the classification for French wines that sits just above Vin de table. Imagine the surprise then when the results came back, which told them they were supposed to be writing about Verband Deutscher Prädikats, a German quality wine classification.

There’s always some initial confusion with Muscadelle / Muscadet / Muscat (I seem to recall a multiple choice question in an early WSET exam I took that looked to pick up on this). Muscadelle being a Bordeaux grape variety, Muscadet being a Loire Valley wine (made from the Melon grape), and Muscat being a widely used grape variety.

My pet peeve ‘double’ has to go to Italy where they have a grape from the Piedmont region called Barbera. The Piedmont region is also home to a wine called Barbaresco, and naturally enough you might assume that the grape makes the similarly titled wine. Not so. The Barbera grape is commonly used to round out blends, and Barbaresco is made from the Nebbiolo grape. Now, it was the Italians that thought that the sparkling wine Prosecco being made from a grape also called Prosecco was so confusing, that the grape variety was officially renamed to Glera. Personally, I think that the Barbera situation is just as confusing!

There’s doubtless many more doubles in the wine world waiting to trip us up. I’d be interested to hear of any that you’ve come across, or have had trouble with in the past.

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I before E

I’m referring of course to ‘I before e, except after c’, the rhyme used to assist people with their spelling. Whilst a handy little mnemonic, it is largely ignored now as having too many exceptions to the rule to make it a useful learning tool (I’ve used one exception myself in my very first sentence). These ground rules are important though for establishing boundaries, and I came across one when progressing through my WSET Levels 2 and 3 (Intermediate and Advanced) that I thought I would share. In todays wine world it’s not a watertight rule by any means, and there are multiple exceptions, but for me it still plays a large visual part of how I structure the wine world, and certainly something I still use when helping others.

I’m talking about the 30-50 rule – that wine is produced in countries, and specifically limited to the areas of those countries, that lie between 30-50 degrees latitude in both the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere.

Wine Map   Map Source ThirtyFifty

When I’ve run tastings for small groups it’s been a particularly successful visual in helping people to work out where in the world they are drinking, as well as the what. I had maps printed on pages of A4 and laminated, and then set them out as placemats for each taster. They could use the blank side of the page to assess the appearance/colour of their wine, and then flip the page over to put it in context as to where it has come from. Is it cool climate or warm climate? Is the region near water or inland?

As you can see from the image above the majority of wine producing areas fall within these two bands, certainly all of the important historical ones. Two things are changing this though and may eventually consign the 30-50 rule to the bin.

Firstly is global warming, which is now allowing viticulture to take place in the outer limits of these boundaries. Only 50 years ago English wine was a dream away, and certainly not something that could ever be taken seriously. How times have changed, and just the rise of a degree or two has enabled winemaking to move north in to southern England (and also parts of northern Germany). There isn’t enough warmth yet to successfully ripen red grapes to any depth – some varietal wines exist but they are far outnumbered by their white counterparts, and the red grapes are better utilised in sparkling wine. Many of these red grapes won’t be familiar, being either hybrid or Germanic varieties, but the most famous red is Pinot Noir which, liking a longer cooler climate takes well here. It also thrives in northern France, being a key component in Champagne and the red grape of Burgundy.

Secondly, progressive winemaking is continually changing the production methods and vintners have an armoury of tools to use in a given circumstance. If you head back to the decades leading up to the 1980’s it wasn’t unusual to see a split of harvests something like 3 vintages per decade being rated as poor, 3 years rated as good, 2 as great and 2 as outstanding. These days you are unlikely ever to see wines rated below good. Technology allows such constant intervention in every step of the winemaking process that you can disperse storm clouds using iodine flares or utilise temperature controls in warmer climates. The younger breed of tenacious winemakers, producing in many countries (Chile, for example) where winemaking has no tradition handed down through generations, have no rules to bind or limit them. They’re continually taking winemaking further or higher, looking for that unique new mix of climate, soil and grape variety that will create a unique selling point (USP).

As things progress, I hope that the map visual with its two bands will continue to be used, even with its inaccuracies. For me, it limited what I viewed at the beginning of my wine studies as the unlimited number of wines that existed in the world. Sainsbury’s sold different wine to Tesco, who sold different wine to Marks & Spencer. Multiply that by the number of merchants, regions, producers and individual lines/brands, and you had something that was frankly un-fathomable.

Conversely, it was a map of the whole world that allowed me to put things in to perspective.

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TUMLA and other abbreviations…..

A few years back I saw an invitation in my Majestic wine mailing for an evening learning about wine. At the time I was sitting my WSET Advanced certificate and so already had a bit of a head start but, eager to fill in any blanks, get a different perspective and never one to turn down a free tasting, I signed up.

It was an intimate affair – only 8 of us together for 90 minutes, which naturally enabled a little bonding and chatting with the other people on the course. What sticks in my mind was being able fill in a few blanks for one of the ladies there who was confused with her French white wines, particularly Chablis and Sancerre. To enable her to recall with ease the character of each wine I passed on something that I’d learned – The CH at the start of Chablis means it is the CHardonnay grape that you are drinking, The SA at the beginning of Sancerre meant it was SAuvignon Blanc.

At the entry level stages of wine appreciation you don’t need to necessarily know whether it’s a Burgundy or Loire you are drinking, and all that entails in terms of latitude, grower differentials and the rest. It is more about rationalising why you like what you like, and it does help those awkward social moments when you meet someone who says that they don’t drink Chardonnay, but will happily glug a Chablis. The lady at the tasting was genuinely amazed at that titbit of knowledge in an easy to remember way, and I have never forgotten the importance of using abbreviations when trying to recall detail.

This visual/mnemonic link has been well utilised when trying to learn languages and, as a student working to complete his WSET Diploma, this is an essential exercise. The sheer amount of countries, regions, grapes soil types, weather influences, vintner influences you have to recall and reason is truly mind boggling.

These abbreviations have been particularly useful to me when recalling the wine regions of both South Africa and Italy. For South Africa I always now think of music – not the vibrant local offerings, but of my CDs and the PRS (Performing Rights Society). Whenever I see a blank map of the south western tip of Africa, I can see CDs working their way up the western coast (Constantia, Durbanville, Swartland), and the PRS (Paarl, Robertson, Stellenbosch) in a little clockwise circle just to the east of PRS. For me, being interested in music, abbreviations like PRS are familiar but they could also work equally well for someone interested in, for example, the Physiotherapy Research Society.

Italy, with its 20 regions all producing wine of various levels and volume is another one I needed to recall. The country covers some 10 degrees of latitude and is split for the wine world in to the north, the central and the south regions. North for me is PLV LEFT, an easy way to recall Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto in the centre, followed by Liguria, Emilia Romagna, Friuli, Trentino/Alto Adige forming an anti-clockwise semi-circle around them. Valle D’Aosta gets an honorary mention in the top North West (not a major region and not on syllabus I believe). For the central regions I recall TUMLA (Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Lazio, Abruzzo), and the south is CCSSBP (or 2xC, 2xS, British Petroleum) for Campania, Calabria, Sicily, Sardinia, Basilicata and Puglia (again, Molise gets an honorary mention, but there’s not too much wine activity there).

Whilst you obviously still need to put in time learning the details for each one of these regions/countries to fulfil the recall, and these abbreviations certainly don’t cover all the important regions in many areas, using abbreviations is definitely a learning technique that I would recommend.  Tailoring them to something that means something to yourself personally is the key and will help you out of a potentially tight restaurant spot, or under exam conditions.  At the very least, it will also improve your geography.

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