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French Wine: Guide to the Alsace Wine Region in France

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 25, 2020 • 4 min read

Learn about the northern French wine region known for its single varietal white wines like Gewürztraminer and Riesling.



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Where Is the Alsace Wine Region?

Alsace is located along France's eastern border, in an area once claimed by Germany (known as Elsass). Isolated from Germany by the Rhine river and from France by the Vosges mountains, Alsace has its own unique culture. The Alsace Wine Route, formalized in 1953, stretches from the Wissembourg region in the far north down to Strasbourg, then further south into the Colmar region, which includes Eguisheim and Riquewihr. It ends around Thann, in the southwest of the region.

What Do Alsace Wines Taste Like?

Within Alsace, regional differences in terroir are noticeable, with the clay soils near the Rhine river producing fuller-bodied wines, and the schist-rich soils on the Vosges mountain slopes producing wines with more minerality. The region's geography also affects harvesting methods: In flat areas, mechanical harvesting is possible, but in steeper areas, grapes are often hand-picked, which also helps ensure ripeness and the overall quality of the wine.

A Brief History of Winemaking in Alsace

  • 100–300s BC: Wine first came to Alsace via the Romans, who planted wine grapes on the banks of the Rhine river in the second, third, and fourth centuries.
  • 400s–1500s: During the Middle Ages, when Alsace was a Germanic territory, winemaking spread into the valleys of the Vosges mountains with the construction of convents in remote areas. The Alsace wines of the Middle Ages were often flavored with spices or fortified. By the fifteenth century, winemaking in Alsace and Western Germany was so popular that vineyards covered an area estimated to be four times the size of today's plantings. During this time, varietal wines from Alsace such as Riesling and Muscat became known throughout France and Germany.
  • 1600s–1950s: Beginning in the seventeenth century and continuing through World War II, the area changed hands between the French and the Germans several times, and Alsace vineyards suffered due to warfare and changing legislation.
  • 1960s and ’70s: During these years, a movement to replant high-quality sites gained momentum, and several designations were created to protect the wines of Alsace. In 1962, the region received AOC status, and in 1975, the grand cru appellation was developed. About four percent of sites are grand cru vineyards, meaning that their wines come from a single lieu-dit (site) and vintage.
  • 1980s: In 1983, the designations Vendange Tardive (or Vendanges Tardives) and Sélection de Grains Nobles were developed. Both labels refer to single-vintage, late-harvest Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, or Pinot Gris wines, but the Sélection de Grains Nobles must also include some grapes affected by botrytis (noble rot).
  • Present day: Currently, around 25 percent of Alsace's 4,000 growers are also winemakers. Their wines are recognizable on sight since producers are legally obligated to bottle their wines in tall, slim bottles known as vin du Rhin, or flûtes. (Not to be confused with Champagne flutes, which are glasses.)
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10 Wine Grapes That Come From Alsace

Alsace is primarily a white wine region: 90 percent of Alsace's wine is made from white grapes. The major grape varieties grown in the region include:

  1. Riesling, the most popular and famous variety, accounted for about 21 percent of plantings in 2019. Riesling grapes demand a lot of attention and a late harvest. Alsace Rieslings are very dry, with floral notes when young. Aged Riesling has an acidic, mineral flavor with fruit notes. Learn more about Riesling in our guide here.
  2. Gewürztraminer is a pink-skinned variety that accounted for nearly 20 percent of plantings in 2019 but represents the smallest yields due to unpredictable harvests. Low acidity makes this wine taste sweet. Learn more about Gewürztraminer in our complete guide here.
  3. Pinot Gris, a pink-skinned grape, accounted for over 16 percent of plantings in 2019. It is acidic and spicy.
  4. Pinot Noir, the only red wine varietal grown in Alsace, accounts for 11 percent of plantings. Though it is typically light red, its color and flavor have become stronger due to the effect of climate change on the terroir. Learn more about Pinot Noir here.
  5. Pinot Blanc is an early-ripening variety often used to make sparkling Crémant d’Alsace. It is dry and acidic and just as popular as Riesling, occupying 21 percent of plantings.
  6. Muscat. There are two varieties of Muscat common in Alsatian wines: Muscat d'Alsace (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) and Muscat Ottonel. Typically blended with each other, these white Muscat grapes are dry, low in acidity, and have a fresh grape flavor.
  7. Chasselas is a white grape typically used in Edelzwicker, a blended wine whose name means "noble mixture." As a varietal wine, it is low in both acidity and alcohol, with a light, dry flavor.
  8. Sylvaner, which only accounted for five percent of plantings in 2019, is a demanding, later-ripening variety that has (literally) lost ground to Alsace's very popular dry Rieslings, which require similar growing conditions. It produces an acidic, almost bitter wine meant to be consumed young.
  9. Auxerrois is a popular white grape typically blended with Pinot Blanc. On its own, Auxerrois is soft, low-acidity, and spicy.
  10. Chardonnay from Alsace cannot legally be sold under its varietal name but can be labeled Pinot Blanc or blended into the sparkling wine Crémant d'Alsace.


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