Ask the Master of Wine:
"Since the wines from the Alsace region of France and the wines of Germany both use the same variety of grape, how did the different styles develop, and when, and why?" (March 20, 2003)
Wine & Spirits magazine has been running a series of articles
by North American Masters of Wine. The editor/publisher, Joshua Greene,
has graciously allowed me to reprint these Q & A pieces.
"Since the wines from the Alsace region of France and the wines
of Germany both use the same variety of grape, how did the different styles
develop, and when, and why?" —Jason Hisaw, Las Vegas, NV
|Joel Butler, MW, is National Manager of Education and Press Relations
for UDV Wines
Joel Butler, MW, replies:
Historically, one can say that Alsace had Germanic roots from the beginning,
since the early inhabitants were members of Germanic tribes that the Romans
conquered. Though the Rhine River, over 20 kilometers to the east of the
Vosges foothills, served the Romans and much later the French as a convenient
but definite border, Alsace has been the crossroads of two vinous cultures
for over seven centuries. The region has switched political allegiances
regularly according to which state's armies were in control.
Alsace's wine styles and grapes are not solely German. Indeed, the majority
is of French origin, specifically from Burgundy. Pinot noir is the oldest
named grape to be noted in Alsace (8th Century). Its mutations, pinot
blanc and pinot gris, are noted from the 16th Century, while muscat, certainly
Mediterranean in origin, is noted from 1523. Most early wines were blends.
But it's true that a Germanic grape, riesling, is the earliest noted varietal
wine in Alsace, dating from 1477.
In Alsace, riesling vines are protected by the Vosges Mountains, which
block much of the wettest weather coming from the west – Alsace is
one of the warmest and driest places during summer and early fall in France.
This luxury allows Alsace wine producers to wait until higher sugars are
achieved, allowing them to ferment dry with correspondingly lower acidities
and higher alcohol. During the 19th Century, and until just after World
War II, Germany's best wines (read riesling) were also typically dry,
except those clearly dedicated to dessert styles.
The real divergence of styles between Alsace and German wines happened
in the post-war era. First, the emergence of the French Appellation of
Origin system in the 1930's made the notion of "terroir" and
identity of prime importance. Alsace cuisine over the centuries has also
been one of the richest in France. As Hugh Johnson writes: "Alsace
gives the flowery-scented grapes of Germany the body and authority of
such table wines as white Burgundy – proper accompaniments to strong
and savory food."
Secondly, Germany after World War II was occupied by hundreds of thousands
of GI's and other Allied soldiers, who brought back to America and Britain
a taste for the delicate, slightly sweet wines emerging from Germany's
more northerly vineyards. Innovations in cold fermentation, sterile bottling
and temperature control permitted residual sugar to be left in the wine
safely, providing a balance to the acidity in the wine. This methodology
became important since the colder German climate had become less reliable
ripening grapes to produce rich dry wines. In turn, German wine laws developed
that focused on sugar levels in the grapes at harvest.
While many top German estates are again focused on dry wines, style varies
significantly from Alsace due primarily to the cooler weather, as well
as terroir. Alsace's ability to produce full-bodied, dry white wines reflects
both cultural preference, and the fact that the climate is less marginal
than in Germany.