Today I want to talk about Alsatian grapes—not Riesling-related. Riesling is accompanied by three other grapes in the “noble grape” category, namely Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. These are the grapes that are permitted for Grand Cru wines (there are currently 51 Grand Crus in existence) and regulated wines such as Vendange tardive and Selection de grains nobles.
Let’s start with nobility…
Alsatian Noble Grapes (Not Riesling)
Gewurtztraminer seems a difficult grape to grow, yet undeniably suited to the cool climate and rough terrain of the Alsace. It’s an early budding variety, thus more prone to spring frost, and early ripening, beneficially avoiding autumn rains. Clusters are small, tight, so growers find it is particularly susceptible to viruses, diseases, and pests, including powdery mildew, grape vine moth, and grey rot (though botrytized versions are produced when that grey rot is noble). An interesting anecdote from my text is that virus free clones have been produced by research stations in Alsace in an effort to reduce instances of disease and pest pressure. However, it doesn’t say how well this is working out.
As you can imagine, Gewurtz fares best in warm, steep-sloped sites that allow for adequate sun-exposure, reduced frost risk as well as humidity.
The wines produced are noted for their lack of acidity but overtly pronounced aromatics. “Deeply colored, opulently aromatic, and broader than almost any other white wine, Gewurztraminer‘s faults are only in having too much of everything,” says the Oxford Companion to Wine. And if I agree with that statement, this next one describes my personal feelings to a ‘T’: “It is easy to tire of its weight and its exotic flavor of lychees and heavily scented roses.” But, the Oxford also notes that the Gewurtz of Alsace are some of the finest examples; they are “extremely serious wines,” complex, and age-worthy.
Never forget, that the word ‘Gewurtz‘ means ‘spice,’ and this is (another) key marker for the variety. Typical Gewurz will be medium lemon in color, with pronounced aromas of lychee, peach, apricot, rose, and spices. It can be anywhere from medium to high alcohol, most typically high; medium to full bodied, and always a low acidity.
It’s noted that in Alsace, though the grape can accumulate sugars quite quickly, it’s typically harvested later to ensure that the skins are fully developed. This further attributes to the drop in acid and high sugar accumulation (and thus resulting alcohol level). Wine styles range from bone dry to sweet.
Pinot Gris, while it’s said to combine the spicy flavors of Gewuztraminer and the backbone of acidity found in Riesling (the Oxford), this is actually the less aromatic of the four noble Alsatian grapes.
The grape itself is early budding, thus susceptible to those spring frosts, and early ripening, beneficially avoiding autumn rains. Vines produce moderate yields and are most susceptible to botrytis bunch rot and downy mildew.
It’s noted in my text that Pinot Gris can see a rapid increase in sugar levels and drop in acidity. Thus, growers pay super attention to the exact picking dates of their grapes to ensure balanced wine production. Due to climate change, growers are able to pick a bit earlier, when sugar levels are lower and acidity levels are higher—which is excellent since there has been an increased market demand for dry styles of Pinot Gris that producers are now more regularly accommodating.
Those wines will have medium to high level of alcohol, medium aromatic intensity of pom and stone fruits, are full bodied, with a medium level of acidity. It’s noted that the best of the best will have oily characteristic and the ability to age, taking on honeyed and smokey characteristics over time.
Muscat, both Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains (AKA Muscat d’Alsace) and Muscat Ottonel grow in the Alsace, albeit in small amounts. The Oxford notes that yields vary considerably from vintage to vintage due to its sensitivity to poor weather at flowering. However, my text also notes that it is Muscat Ottonel that, though less perfumed than Muscat d’Alsace, is easier to tend in the vineyard. It’s earlier ripening, thus cultivation in cool climate conditions are ‘easier,’ and the grape can be harvested before seasonal autumn rains. It’s said to do best in deep, damp soils (the Oxford).
Flavor wise, it’s all about the grape. Yes, this is the one wine where you are allowed to say “I taste grapes.” Alsace Muscat will always be dry (sticking a pin in fortified wines for a moment), with low alcohol and low acidity.
A note about winemaking regarding the noble grapes…
Cool fermentation temperatures are used for the aromatic Muscat and Riesling (as well as Sylvaner [below]) and malolactic is avoided in all white grape varieties, as the goal of the winemaking process is to preserve primary fruit aromas and flavors (also, many of these grapes—outside of Riesling—tend to innately have low acid levels). Wines are typically aged in the same container as fermentation (inert: stainless or really old, really large oak casks) on the fine lees—but without stirring (again to retain those primary fruit characteristics).
The exception to this rule is Gewurztraminer. This guy can ferment at a mid-range temperature because its aromatics are so pronounced that higher temperatures don’t affect them. (Kind of cool, no?) Also, because of the higher sugar content, the higher temperature actually helps the yeast ferment those sugars into alcohol. (Logic.)
Lastly, I found this bit amusing from my text: “Low ferment temperatures are actually avoided for Gewurztraminer because its characteristic banana aroma is not desired in Gewurztraminer wine.”
Alsatian Peasant Grapes
Pinot Blanc, which can be labelled as Klevner or Clevner in Alsace, is referred to by the Oxford as the country’s “workhorse” grape. It’s a non-aromatic grape, so as a still wine, it produces light intensity aromas (typically of pom and stone fruits) with medium acidity and medium alcohol. It is also the basis for Crement d’Alsace (which we’ll talk about [much] later).
Auxerrois is a grape name you’ll rarely find on an Alsatian wine label, as it’s typically labelled simply “Pinot Blanc.” I’m not sure why that is. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, I heard an Alsatian winemaker, when asked, simply say, “That’s the way it is.” Now, if I understand correctly, much Auxerrois is blended with Pinot Blanc, and in that case the labelling choice “kind of” makes sense. As a stand-alone wine it’s said to be spicy, soft, with low acid and moderate alcohol, according to the Oxford, which also states it’s occasionally vinified in oak. This is another variety that we’ll see again when we’re studying our Cremant d’Alsace.
Sylvaner I talked about in detail in my Germany—Not Riesling article. And it’s certainly a bigger deal there (notably in Franken) than it is here. (Though, I’ve heard a few experts say they’ve experienced standout Alsatian examples.) According to my text, Sylvaner plantings are on the decline, as Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are just easier to grow—and based on wine description, they seem a bit more flavorsome than this poor little Sylvaner. However, interestingly, it’s also noted that the vines that remain are of the ‘old vine’ variety (meaning 40+ years of age), and there are a few newer winemakers who are re-invigorating the old vines and beginning to make some good quality Alsatian Sylvaner.
Pinot Noir is the only red varietal in Alsace. In the past, it was mostly used for rosé wines or extremely light red wines without any real substance. However, with climate change, as well as growers’ increased awareness in the vineyard, more structured and tannic expressions are now being produced. These guys are typically aged in oak (neutral/used).
FUN SPARKLING FACT: In the last decade, the area planted for still wines has reduced slightly while the amount planted specifically for Cremant d’Alsace has grown.
Random Facts on Vineyard Management
These are just a few little tidbits I found interesting regarding Alsatian vineyard management.
- The most common form of training is single or double Guyot, as required by AOC regulations (THEMS THE RULES!) I believe this is because the system accommodates fewer buds per can, thus limiting vigor and resulting yields.
- Fruit zone is typically trained higher than other regions in order to reduce the risk from frost, especially on the valley plain (LOGIC!)
- Canopies are trained higher to maximize exposure to the sun and spacing between rows have to be wide in order to avoid shading
- The main pests and diseases are powdery mildew, grape vine moth, and esca.
- Alsace has nearly 15% of its vineyards certified as organic, in comparison to the national average of just under 10% (with the dry, sunny continental climate, makes sense that they’d be using less sprays out in the vineyard)
- Alsace has a long harvest period due to the range of styles being made and the diversity of sites (sparkling all the way through botrytis)
- AOC regulations require that Grand Cru vineyards are picked by hand (THEMS THE RULES!)
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