Friday, June 3, 2011

ALSACE: Border of a Special Greatness

Throughout history the Alsace region has always been as a border, a no-mans land with a wild river as its edge.  It was for the grape-hungry Romans, the Germanic Alemanni, the Clovis, and the wine-lovin' Christian Franks, who each settled in its western Rhine valleys, the eastern side of the formidable Vosges Mountains. And that was just before the end of the 5th century!  The history of Alsace did not get any easier in the dozen or so centuries that followed. From the turn of the 20th century this borderland battlefield flew the nation flags of  Prussia, France, Germany, and then again France.

What could be so special about Alsace?  Simply location, location, and location.  In the rain shadow wall of the Vosges, Alsace has great agriculture in its diverse soils for such a northern latitude. This region is among the driest places in all of France, which isn't bad for grapes. In its cascading eastern foothills we find granite, limestone, schist and sandstone in its well drained upper strata, Colluvial tiers below and Alluvial fans in its valleys. The Alsatian country side is also an active Tectonic structure; a seem between to giant faults, called the Rhine Graben.  Currently, there is an active horizontal displacement of at least 5cm every 20 years as the Vosges and the Black Forest plates pull in opposite directions! 

Independent Alsace seems to be hybrid with its feet in two worlds, one French, the other German.  Most of its town names end in "heim" or "berg", a reflection of its German past. Here in its continental climate we find grape varieties like noble Riesling and Gewurztraminer that are successful no where else in France. These varietals, along with Cre'mant AOC, the regions traditional method sparkling wine, account for about 2/3rds of its quality production. With a long gastronomic heritage, along with the fluent French spoken here, not to mention the towns ending in 'ville', also anchor Alsace to France.

Riquewihr on the Route des Vins
 Full-bodied Pinot Gris and dry, fruity Muscat d'Alsace are the two other noble white grape varieties that qualify here for its lofty Grand Cru pinacle. Overwhelming a white wine appellation, Alsace Grand Cru represents only about 4% of its total regional volume.  Its 100% varietal AOC Alsace status is reflected in about 3/4 of its annual wine production, with AOC Cremant d'Alsace the lion-share of the balance. Being German occupied, Alsace had to wait until after WWII to get its AOC status, with the first Grand Cru's recognized in 1983!. Having no VDP status in Alsace, and Vin de Table wines staying in the many postcard villages, the wines of Alsace are an easy guaranteed quality choice for consumers.

Ribeauville Wine Merchant

These wines are pure in character, uniquely labeled(for French wines) by varietal, and easy to recognize for their slender flute shaped bottles.  From steely Riesling's to floral and spicy Gewurztraminer's, the quality controlled wines of Alsace reflect the high standards of the more than 500 producers here. Most are negociants to small growers or cooperatives, representing the almost 5000 small vineyard sites.  When blending is necessary, wines will be labeled Edelzwicker(noble blend) or Gentile(noble grapes only).

Lonely Planet has recently included Alsace as one of the globes 'Best in Travel' destinations, citing the region as being "out of the ordinary". In this special landscape with its independent culture, its fine wines and bounty of regional treats we find the extra ordinary.  Wine consumers willing to open a bottle and take that trip with a sip, can save the air fare and find themselves transported to that border of a special greatness, Vin d'Alsace.

Value Alsatian producers include Albert Mann, the 200-member cooperative Cave Cinicole de Turckheim, Materne Haegelin, Hugel and Trimbach.

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