I think one of the reasons I like starting my Wine World studies with Germany is because it’s my backwards way of gearing up for one of my favorite French wine regions, Alsace. The two regions have much in common—one of them being Riesling. That’s why I thought, if I’m going to deep-dive into the stylistic difference’s of Germany’s most recognized wine grape, I’m absolutely going to compare how the expression(s) differ from it’s neighboring French region, where the variety wear’s the “noble grape” crown.
To explore those differences between the wines, we must (of course) explore what makes Alsace a unique wine region.
For more on Alsace, please read Taste and Learn: Alsace—Noble Grapes and It’s the Biz: Alsatian Wine Business.
I’m going to start with a quote from the Oxford Companion to Wine (Jancis Robinson; Hugh Johnson) that I absolutely love. It has nothing to do with wine, but more about the old-fashioned charm the wine regions hold onto. “Of all the regions of France, this is the one in which it is still easiest to find villages outwardly much as they were in the Middle Ages, with traditional half-timbered houses and extant fortifications. The hilltops of the lower Vosges are dotted with ruined castles and fortresses, witnesses to past invasions.”
Let’s start there, let’s start with the Vosges Mountains because Alsace is undoubtedly just as defined by this geographic formation on its west side that separates it from the rest of France as it is by the Rhine river that separates it from Germany on the east. It is because of the protection of the Vosges Mountains that act as a rain shadow, that Alsace entertains a warm, sunny, and dry continental climate. This is a bit unusual, though beneficial for grape growing, given Alsace‘s northerly latitude (47° and 49° north of the equator), which one would expect to be rather cold. But it is also that northernly latitude also means long daylight hours and a long growing season.
Though winters can be cold, rainfall is the one of the lowest in France (according to the Oxford), with all of Alsace receiving just about 600 mm of rain per year. This means that summer drought can be an issue—even more so since irrigation is not permitted for AOC wines.
Rain, when it does come, is mildly scattered throughout the year. Autumn humidity means a risk for fungal disease in some areas, but noble rot and botrytized sweet wines for others. In fact, of note is the warming Fohn winds—a warm wind that both helps increase environmental temperature and reduces the risk of fungal diseases.
Planting along the foothills of the Vosges mountains is key to grape ripening success, with its diverse soils, aspects and varying altitudes. It’s noted that the best vineyard sites are found in the Haut-Rhin, the more southerly portion of Rhine river where vines are planted at a modest altitude fo 200-250 m. Per usual, the happiest of the vines are the ones that face south-east or south-west for maximum sunlight exposure. (Lesser quality vineyards are typically found planted in the plains between the foothills and the Rhine river.)
Soils are varied—indeed, the Oxford sites at least 20 major soil formations. As one may expect, vineyards on the plain are deeper, more fertile, more suited to high-yielding grape growing for high-volume wine production. Vineyards on hillsides have lower fertility and better draining soils, resulting in slower growth and better quality fruit.
Alsace produces wines mainly single varietal wines and mainly white wine. FUN FACT: 90% of all Alsace wine is white. Though it shares the title of “noble grape” with three other varieties, Riesling is by far the leader of that troupe.
Compared to German Riesling, Alsatian Riesling is made almost exclusively as a bone dry wine. Young Riesling will often showcase floral notes amidst the citrus and stone fruits. With age, it is said to become more complex, taking on gunflint, mineral aromas. In fact, I *think* young or old, that gunflint, mineral, stony, or steely character is a marker for Alsatian Riesling. (Anyone want to confirm this with me?). Wines tend to be a well-rounded medium: medium to full bodied, medium alcohol, with acidity ranging from medium to high.
Because Alsace works almost exclusively with white wines (the outlier, if you’re wondering, is Pinot Noir), one will rarely, if ever, encounter any kind of oak influence. Wines are typically fermented and aged in stainless steel or very large, very old oak casks (I’m talking like 8,000 liter capacity and 100+ years of age—you will not taste oak). In order to create more texture and mouthfeel, winemakers may utilize pre-fermentation skin contact or keep pressed grapes in the press machine longer.
Malolactic conversion is usually avoided and wines are usually aged on fine lees without stirring. The aim of Alsatian white winemaking: preserve primary fruit flavors.
That being said, it is important to note that a) Alsatian Rieslings (usually) age quite well and b) can be made in other styles, such as Vendanges Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles.
I also want to point out that, like in Germany, chaptilization for Alsace AOC is allowed, due to its northerly location but also because the maximum yields allotted for Alsace AOC grapes is rather high (80 hL/ha), which can also reduce sugar concentration (and thus potential alcohol).
Ok, shall we taste?
Wine Case Study: Domaines Schlumberger Grand Cru Saering Riesling 2017
About the Wine:
FROM THE WINERY: With a single holding of more than 330 acres at Guebwiller, Domaines Schlumberger is the largest Grands Crus producer in Alsace. All Schlumberger wines are estate-grown. Seventy-five percent of the vines are planted on very steep, terraced slopes, requiring horses be used for fieldwork.
The winery produces only 80,000 cases annually, while the law allows for up to 160,000.
First mentioned in 1250, the Saering plot slips from the hill and extends like a peninsula on the plain, forming a sort of tongue of land in the form of a ring. It has been sold under its own since 1830. To the north of Guebwiller, Saering faces east and south-east at an altitude of ranging from 260 to 300 meters. The Saering soil includes marl, limestone, and sandstone terroir.
TECHNICAL INFO: 100% Riesling hand-harvested from estate vineyards
The grapes were harvested by hand and the bunches were pressed whole; fine lees allowed to settle. Fermentation took place in temperature-controlled tanks between one and four months. The wine was aged on the lees for eight months.
4.5 g/L TA
.59 g/L RS
Price: $37.99 (wine.com)
Appearance: medium lemon
Aroma: Medium (+) aromatic intensity: smoke (straight away), stone/steel/wet rock, green apple, lemon, blossom, subtle stone fruits (peaches, nectarines), a hint of tropical (maybe mango?), honey, agave, nasturtium. Though medium (+) intensity, the wine is at first shy, noticeably much more aromatically subtle than those from Germany.
Palate: This is a dry wine, with medium (+) acid, an overall medium body, and medium level of alcohol. Pronounced flavor intensity includes all of the above notes: that smoky and steely earthiness is interesting, adding a bit of bitterness and almost making a coffee-like flavor in the mouth. The wine is well balanced between fruit and floral, but this wine is undeniably earthy. That earthiness, I had to think about for a bit—it’s mushroom, white mushroom.
The finish is medium (+) to long. (See below)
Conclusion: Well balanced, aromatic intensity is subtle at first, but warms up a bit and the palate brings intensity full on. The finish does fall just a bit short (and I mean just), although it could be arguably long: If you check the back-breath, you still get some of that smokey and steely character coming through as well as that lovely mushroom. Furthermore, I failed to mention above there is a touch of texture, a phenolic bitterness, which lends intrigue and complexity. That, along with what I’m going to call a tertiary note from that white mushroom, gives the wine (I think) potential bottle-age-ability.
In the end, I am going to give it a point for length, because I did find that smoke, steel, and bitterness lingering in a pleasant way for quite sometime. Therefore, I’m concluding that this is, indeed, an outstanding wine. Drink now, but I’m also making the argument for long-term bottle aging, due to the points I brought up above.
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