The wine region of Alsace is recognized by the French quality system as an area of Appellation d'Origine Côntrolée, abbreviated as AOC. Inside the Alsace AOC (or Vin d'Alsace AOC) are also found two quality appellations: the famous Alsace Grand Cru AOC and Crémant d'Alsace AOC.
All wines belonging to Alsace AOC - according to the production disciplinary - can mention in the label the name of the grape with which are being made only in case it is a monovarietal wine, that is exclusively produced with one grape variety.
This characteristic is typical of Alsace, whereas in other French wine regions it is exclusively mentioned the name of the area or cru with no reference to the grape or grapes used for the production.
In case a wine was produced by assembling more grapes, it can also mention in the label the term Edelzwicker (German for noble blend). Edelzwicker wines have a pretty variable quality and most of the times far from being noble, for this reason many producers prefer not to use this term in their wines made of many grapes, while making use of the most generic appellation Alsace AOC.
The highest qualitative level for Alsatian wines is represented by the Alsace Grand Cru AOC appellation.
Despite this appellation has been source of arguments and debates - both on the areas included in the appellation as well as on quality - it is however undeniable the best wines belong to this appellation.
The production disciplinary set stricter rules, lower cultural yields and the exclusive use of the so called noble varieties: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Muscat Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Alsace Grand Cru AOC wines can only be produced in one of the 50 legally recognized areas by the disciplinary and it must be mentioned in the label. This appellation was introduced in 1975 and in 1983 were defined the first 25 areas recognized as Grand Cru. Three years later were added other 23 areas and now they are 50. The introduction of Grand Cru area was cause of long and harsh debates, both on the real quality of the producers in some areas, as well as for the exclusion or inclusion of certain areas.
Labels of Alsatian wines, as opposed to the ones of other French wine areas, mention the name of the grape with which they were made as well as other information which need to be understood. Some information written in the label define the specific style of the wine, others indicate the real - or presumed - quality of wine.
The most famous indications for Alsatian wines are Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles.
Vendange Tardive wines - literally “late harvest” - are being produced with grapes harvested some weeks later than the regular time of harvesting, whereas
Sélection de Grains Nobles wines - literally “selection of noble berries” - are produced with grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea - the famous noble rot - and therefore these are sweet and rich wines as well as rare.
In labels of Alsatian wines can also be found the terms Sélection, Réserve and Special Cuvée generally used for wines of particular value and of high quality.
Most of the times - when Alsatian wines are mentioned - it is believed the production is essentially oriented to sweet wines or wines with an appreciable sweetness because of residual sugar. Indeed most of Alsatian wine is dry, even the one produced with late harvested grapes, the renowned Vendanges Tardive.
The most prestigious wines of Alsace are produced with Riesling grape. In Alsace Riesling is pretty sensitive to local conditions of vineyard, probably more than in any other place. In order to give its best, Alsatian Riesling needs impeccable environmental conditions; when produced in areas lacking these requisites, the wines are pretty ordinary.
Another famous wine of Alsace is Gewurztraminer whose characteristics are very typical and personal, rarely found in Gewürztraminer produced in other areas of the world. The rich organoleptic qualities of fruit found in Alsatian Gewurztraminer usually make these wines to apparently taste sweet, indeed they are dry wines, with the exception of late harvest in which it is found a part of residual sugar.
Another celebrity of Alsace is Pinot Gris - locally also known as Tokay Pinot Gris which does not have any connection neither with Hungarian Tokaji nor with its grapes - a wine that, as opposed to the ones produced in other areas of the world, has a higher structure and a more rich aromatic quality.
As opposed to other wine areas of the world, in Alsace wines produced with Muscat Blanc are usually dry. Here are found two varieties of Muscat: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains - also known as Muscat d'Alsace - and Muscat Ottonel. Muscat d'Alsace has a higher structure with strong aromas of flowers and citrus fruits, whereas Muscat Ottonel is lighter and more aromatic. These two grapes are generally considered complementary and often blended together for the production of wines. The result is an extremely aromatic dry wine with aromas and flavors of peach, citrus fruits and musk.
Among the white grapes not defined as noble, the most renowned one is Pinot Blanc with which are being produced pleasing white wines and most of the times blended with Auxerrois grape.
Two great Alsatian wines - as well as rare - are the Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Noble, both exclusively produced in exceptional years - most of the times one or two times every ten years - which represent less than 1% of total production.
Vendange Tardive - produced with late harvested grapes and abbreviated as VT - can be either dry and slightly sweet, very concentrated and with an appreciable acidity. Grapes used for the production of Vendange Tardive are generally harvested after about two weeks from regular vintage and can also be affected by Botrytis Cinerea.
Sélection de Grains Nobles - abbreviated as SGN - are sweet wines exclusively produced with grapes affected by noble rot. These wines represent an incredible sensorial experience, with a perfect balance between acidity and alcohol, extremely concentrated with very high organoleptic intensity and long persistence.
Because of the difficulty with which the Botrytis Cinerea develops in Alsace, its presence in vineyards is not ensured every year, therefore the production of Sélection de Grains Nobles is pretty variable - and however in small quantities - and in some year their production is not possible at all.
The production of these wines is very hard: the harvesting of grapes is a patient work done in the vineyard where are being harvested and selected - hence the name - only the berries affected by the noble rot. The other berries will be harvested later and used for the production of Vendanges Tardive.
Crémant d'Alsace are sparkling wines produced with the classic method, just like all the other French Crémant sparkling wines. They usually are produced with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir and - frequently - Chardonnay.
The introduction of Chardonnay in Alsace is pretty recent and its use is officially allowed in the production of Crémant d'Alsace only. It seems this rule is not fully obeyed and that small quantities of Chardonnay are being added to other wines in order to increase body.