Alsace Wine Region: Geography and Wine Characteristics

Published August 24, 2022
Vineyards around the city of Colmar, France

The region of Alsace is situated in the northeasterly part of France and produces wines influenced by both France and Germany. With vineyards marking the rolling hills that cross the border, the micro terroirs are incredibly diverse and influence the characteristics of the wine. Known for its aromatic white wines with notes of floral and spice, Alsace is an intriguing wine region that is most certainly worth getting to know.

Alsace Wine Region Map

Alsace Wine Region Geography & Terroir

Nestled between the Rhine River to the east the Vosages Mountains to the west, Alsace is a long narrow wine region that spans from north to south. It's a cool continental climate that sees plenty of sun during the day and cool temps at night. The Vosage Mountain range creates a rain shadow effect that protects the vineyards from most precipitation, giving the grapes ample sunshine to ripen and making it one of the driest, sunniest winegrowing regions in the country. This, combined with the cool nights, helps the grapes to retain bracing acidity, one of the signature traits of Alsatian wines.

The vineyards span 60 miles (97 kilometers) along the eastern slope of Vosages and range from 500-1,800 feet above sea level (170-550m). Of the specific terroirs in France, Alsace has one of the most diverse and complex geologies. With two major fault lines in the region, there is a dynamic history of marine deposits, paired with varied sedimentary layers and erosion. This makes for an incredibly diverse winegrowing landscape, with a collection of soils from mineral-rich granite, to schist, to limestone, to volcanic.

Alsatian Wine: Grapes & Characteristics

The unique terroir makes it an exceptional place to grow aromatic whites with floral characteristics, minerality, hints of spice, and racy acidity. The region is known for highlighting the traits as single varietal wines. The single varietal wines must be made with 100% of the listed grape. Any blends that are permitted within the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) must be labeled as Edelzwicker to indicate it is a blend. There are also less common bottlings of Gentil, which are also blends, but of superior quality.

The region has a rich history of sustainability and low-intervention winemaking, forgoing the use of new oak. Therefore, the wines reflect the brilliant character of the grape and are an expression of the terroir and the varietal profile. Pinot blanc, riesling, gewürztraminer, and pinot gris are the most commonly grown grapes with additional plantings of muscat, sylvaner, and auxerrois. There are a growing number of vineyards planting pinot noir as well, the only red variety allowed in the region.

If you have only had a sweet riesling, go out and find yourself a riesling from Alsace. It is a unique bone-dry expression with rich stone fruit, citrus, and floral characteristics, yet with rigid structure and complexity. Pinot blanc is widely planted and makes a great, refreshing food wine. Pinot grigio from Alsace is a textured, full-bodied style which will make you do a double take if you are used to a thin, off-dry version. It's a complex profile with notes of earth, honey, and spice.

The wildly aromatic gewürztraminer is made in a variety of styles from off-dry to dry with notes of lychee, spice, rose petal, tropical fruit, and good minerality. There are also late-pick styles of gewürztraminer that retain the finesse, but with an unparalleled complexity. All of these stunning Alsatian whites can age and take on deep hues of gold and amber, developing compelling tertiary notes while retaining their clean palate.

Understanding Départements and Appellations in Alsace

The region of Alsace is split into two départements, the Bas-Rhin in the north and the Haut-Rhin in the south. Between these two départements, vineyards fall into one of three appellations depending on vineyard site and wine style.

AOC Alsace

AOC Alsace is the largest of appellations, with around 70% of wines falling into this category. They are nearly all white wines with minimal rosé and red wines made from pinot noir.

AOC Crémant d'Alsace

Any and all sparkling wines made in Alsace fall under the appellation of Crémant d'Alsace. These sparkling wines are made in the traditional method and can either be white or rosé. This AOC encompasses around 27% of the region.

AOC Grands Cru

Less than 5% of the region's wine is Grand Cru. There are 51 Grand Cru vineyards, most of which are in the Haut-Rhin département. In these distinct sites, the vines are exceptional at expressing the micro terroir. Single varietal, single vineyard Grand Crus are from riesling, muscat, pinot gris, and gewürztraminer.

Search Out a Wine From the Alsace Region

Alsace is a sliver of France's wine country that cannot be overlooked. With the unique and diverse terroir, the white wines express vibrant character with pointed acidity that will most definitely have you reaching for more. To best explore this region through its wines, compare the single varieties and get to know how each expresses the terroir through their unique profiles.

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Alsace Wine Region: Geography and Wine Characteristics