The Alsace Wine Route is France’s oldest and one of its most famous wine routes. It runs between Colmar and Strasbourg and takes you through some beautiful historic towns filled with cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses. On a previous trip, we focused primarily on sightseeing among many of the route’s 16th-17th-century fairytale towns lined with steeply-slope hillside vineyards. We revisited the area in 2022 and focused mainly on the wine.
A number of the wineries (or at least some of their tasting rooms) are located in town centers. We made stops in the lovely wine road towns of Eguisheim, Riquewihr, and Ribeauville. And since we spent several days in the area, we also spent late afternoons, evenings, and nights in two of Alsace’s major cities—Colmar and Strasbourg.
The German Influence
The Alsace wine region was part of Germany until 1639 (and again for brief periods up to WWII). The German influence comes through in the area’s architecture, language, food, and in the use of German-style winemaking techniques. The area focuses primarily on producing German-style dry wines from German varietals. Many vintners ferment their wines in large, German-style oak tanks and age their wines in bottles (or sometimes glass-lined stainless tanks rather than in oak barrels.
The Alsace region is primarily known for four white grapes.
- Pinot Blanc accounts for about a quarter of total production;
- Riesling (20%);
- Pinot Gris (15%); and
- Gewurztraminer (15%).
About 10% of the production is from Pinot Noir. Small amounts of Sylvaner, Muscat, Chardonnay, and others are also grown. While the whites are made into both dry and sweet wines, Pinot Noir is used both as a single varietal and in Rosé.
The Alsace wine region consists of only three appellations or AOCs:
- The Alsace AOC accounts for 75% of the region’s total production and 92% of all of its still white wines.
- Cremant d’Alsace produces 22% of the region’s production with its sparkling white and Rosé but is growing rapidly. Although regulations allow the use of local Chardonnay grapes, most of the region’s brut-style sparklers consist of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Pinot Noir for Rosé.
- Alsace Grand Cru which is limited to 51 special vineyard wines, makes up 4% of the region’s production. These grapes are generally grown on older vines in designated blocks of premier hillside locations (often on the sunniest of south-facing slopes with mineral-rich volcanic soil). Therefore the grapes typically ripen more quickly and have somewhat higher alcohol levels. While the fermentation process (including secondary, malolactic fermentation) is similar to other wines, the wines may be bottle-aged for years (sometimes more than ten) before being released. These premium wines are generally allowed to use only one of the four major white varietals, although a few vineyards are allowed to produce blends. They are typically more complex, textured, flavorful, and ageable.
While these categories typically require that all of the grapes be 100% from the varietal designated on the label, blends are permitted. They are not, however, allowed to be labeled “Alsace” and are typically labeled Gentile. Although some may be of high quality, they are generally considered to be lower-level table wines. They do not, therefore, command the prices of the AOC wines and few vintners offer them.
Alsac’s Haut-Rhin Southern Region
Wines are produced all along the 100-mile “Route des Vin”. But the southern region (the Haut-Rhin) is generally acknowledged to produce the better wines and is home to over 60% of the area’s 51 grand cru plots. Virtually all of its grapes are grown on well draining south- and east-facing slopes at between 600 and 1,300 feet of elevation.
Its soils are the most diverse mix of any French wine region. They contain a mosaic of many soil types including granite, limestone, sandstone, and clay, with volcanic soil often in Grand Cru vineyards.
The wines are typically fermented either in stainless, concrete, or large, old (very neutral) wooden tanks. They are commonly aged 6-12 months in bottles rather than in oak or concrete. Although many vintners claim to use organic and biodynamic farming and production practices, few wines are actually certified as being organic or biodynamic.
The region is known overwhelmingly for its aromatic, minerally, dry whites. Its famed Grand Cru or “Hengst” wines (especially Rieslings and Gewürztraminers) are grown on the highest slopes with the best soils, drainage, and sun which facilitates concentrated fruit development and allows long hang times. The wines combine delicate floral and peach-like aromas with a richness and texture that often comes from aging in large, decades-old wooden tanks. Even its delicate Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris seem to be more intense and complex than that from other wine regions. While we had been used to the region’s Pinot Noirs being thin and tart, the two we had from Trimbach (see below) were medium-bodied, had nice spice, and had rounded finishes.
The region also makes a few roses and sparkling wines, which we did not taste. But we did experience a welcomed deviation from the region’s dry white wine heritage with the area’s rapidly expanding number of sweeter wines. The most numerous of these are “Vendanges Tardives” late harvest wines where the grapes may be left on the vines until November and sometimes dried to concentrate the sugar. More impressive and less common—but well worth searching out is the incredible “Sélection de Grains Nobles”, a strict classification that requires the hand-picking of only botrytis-affected grapes. These produce honey-like wines similar to those of Sauterne or Tokaji. Like most Alsatian wines, they are produced from and labeled as a single varietal. They are produced only occasionally during those years when the conditions come together to produce the Botrytis “Noble Rot”.
We tasted dozens of wines over the course of two rigorous but very rewarding days.
Alsace Wine Tastings
We stopped at several interesting wineries along the southern part of the wine route, In addition to tasting their wines, we learned more about the region, its growing conditions, and its wine.
This 13-generation winemaking family has 30 hectares of grapes, 15 of which are in limestone/clay Grand Cru vineyards. Like the other major producers, it also buys additional grapes.
Hugel presses its grapes, ferments them in 100-year-old casks or stainless, and bottles the wine with little intervention before being aged and sold. It exports 90% of its production of 100,000 cases of noble grape varietals.
We stopped at its Riquewihr tasting room. Our hostess, Lena, claimed to have worked in the tasting room for only four months. Yet she guided us through a comprehensive tasting of the wines like an old pro.
We began with light, citrusy, easy-drinking 2020 Gentile which is a blend of the four noble grapes. Then we progressed to more complex wines produced from more exclusive and complex soils and aged longer. We had side-by-site tastings of several of the Classic, Estate, and Grossi Laue (produced with grapes from a combination of select plots) versions of its dry single varietal wines. Although we weren’t especially taken by the one Muscat or a few Pinot Noirs that we tasted, we were quite impressed by several individual wines from each of the other varietals. These included:
- Rieslings. The 2017 Estate was complex and nicely balanced. The 2013 Grossi Laue had lovely, subtle tropical fruit. Even more extraordinary were the 2011 and heavenly 2010 vineyard-select Schoelhammer Rieslings.
- Pinot Gris. We enjoyed the fruit-driven 2013 Grossi Laue. But we were especially drawn to two wines from the classic 2019 vintage. The Classic was pleasantly crisp and balanced. The Estate was richer and more complex Estate. These are aged for four months in neutral oak barrels.
- Gewürztraminer. We enjoyed all three of the dry versions that we tasted, each for different reasons. The 2018 estate had its floral aromas and tastes. The 2011 Grossi Laue had nice fruit and complexity. The slightly sweeter Gewürztraminer (20 grams of sugar per liter versus 14.4% for the Classic and 16.9% for the Grossi Laue) had a nice floral aroma.
This gets us to the sweet wines, a particular interest of the Hugel family. Previous Hugel generations participated in drafting the laws by which Alsatian sweet wines are governed. We sampled one of each varietal of Hugel’s Vendage Tardive Late Harvest and Selection de Grains Nobels wines.
- Vendage Tardive uses grapes with high sugar content when harvested and can only be sold after 18 months of aging. We tasted one each of the Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris Vendage Tardive. The grapes are typically picked around mid-October from the oldest plots of Hugel’s phosphorous-rich, clay-marl Grand Cru Sporen Vineyard. The 2012 Riesling with 48 grams of residual sugar and tastes of peach was lovely with a hint of pepper. The 2012 Gewürztraminer with 99 grams of sugar tasted of honey and orange. However, the most memorable of all was the figs and dates of the 2000 Pinot Gris with 77 grams of sugar.
- Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN) wines are available only in the best of the years from which Nobel Rot takes hold of the best grapes of the winery’s best vineyard (Sporen in the case of Hugel). These sweet dessert wines have rich, concentrated flavors. The nectar-like Selection de Grains Nobles are the ultimate prize for Alsatian dessert wine drinkers. Our favorites of these were the 2011 Riesling with 158 grams of sugar and tastes of very ripe pineapple and buttery pastries and the 2010 Gewürztraminer “S” with its flowery aroma, a taste of honey, figs, and pineapple and 139 grams of sugar.
Trimbach is probably the most familiar Alsatian winery to Americans. We were surprised to learn that it is not nearly the largest. With a production of only 80,000 to 90,000 cases per year, it is not even the largest winery in its hometown of Ribeavville. The reason for its U.S. popularity, in addition to the consistent quality of its wines, is its long-term commitment to the U.S. market which accounts for 30 percent of its production and over one-third of the 85 percent of its total exported production. This is in contrast to most other producers who focus primarily on French and other European markets.
We met with Jean Trimbach in the Riquewihr testing room. He gave us an overview of the family’s twelve generation- history in winemaking, a history that goes back to 1626. Its estate grapes (and those it selectively purchases from others) are organically and sustainably grown and hand-picked on the highly diverse soils (over 800 types according to Jean) on the sunny, 200-350 meter hillsides of its 55 hectares of vineyard spread over 100 parcels in of the region’s villages. It presses whole clusters and vinifies the juice in very old wooden casks and stainless steel tanks with no malolactic fermentation since the lack of the region’s frost allows them to delay harvest until the berries are fully ripe. This, Trimback says also accounts for its wine’s relatively high, 13-14% alcohol levels.
It bottles its wines early, typically by the end of April after harvest. The wines are aged in the bottle until they achieved the desired complexity, structure, and balance between fruit, acidity, and minerality. Tribach releases some wine in 12 months, with others not released for up to seven years.
Trimbach focuses almost exclusively on dry white wines with a particular focus on Rieslings. In fact, while Riesling accounts for only about 20 percent of Alsace’s total production, it accounts for 55 percent of Trimbach wines!
Trimbach Late-Harvest Wines
It also produces an unusually complex, deep-colored, unoaked Alsatian Pinot Noir (we tasted the 2017 Reserve) and, as is the case with most wineries, two lines of late-harvest wines:
- Vendees Tardives wines entail special selections of the region’s four noble grapes (Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, or Muscat) from its best vineyards. The grapes are picked up to a month after most grapes are harvested and retain a higher level of residual sugar.
- Selection de Grains Nobles are an even more select harvest of premier noble grapes that have been highly shriveled by botrytis. They produce highly concentrated fruits with particularly high sugar levels in dessert wines.
Both are available only in select years with the perfect weather conditions and can be aged for 10 or even 20 or more years.
Tasting Trimbach Wines
After a discussion of recent vintages, and especially the particularly good 2019 and 2021 vintages, we tasted several wines that fit our taste pallets:
- 2020 Riesling Reserve has intense fruit, structure, and balance.
- 2019 Riesling Selection de Vielles Vigne (Old Vine) had a nice minerality from its limestone soil.
- 2018 Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling is produced from grapes planted in granite soil at the top of a hill. It is nicely balanced and contains less than one gram of residual sugar.
- 2016 “Cuvee Frederic Emile” Riesling, one of the two most prestigious of the company’s wines, is grown on one of Trimbach’s south-facing Grand Cru Vineyards. The combination of the vineyard’s light soil, 45-year-old vines, the year’s cool weather, and late harvest yielded a very complex, balanced wine.
- 2015 Gewurztraminer “Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre” Grand Cru was our favorite. It comes from the only one of the region’s villages with three Grand Cru vineyards. Its flowery aroma and 24.9 grams per liter of residual sugar is perfectly balanced with acid and has a rounded finish.
Two long-time winemaking families merged in 1959 to create Zind-Humbrecht. Yet its Alsatian winemaking roots trace back to 1620. It augments its 40 hectares with grapes purchased from small organic and biodynamic vineyards spread across southern Alsace. Production is between 150,000-200,000 bottles per year.
Like most of the Alsatian wineries that we visited, it relies primarily on the region’s soils to produce the unique expression of their wines—hand-picking, lightly pressing, fermenting, and aging their wines with as little intervention as possible. The wines are fermented slowly. They spend a minimum of six months on the lees and are bottled 12-24 months after harvest. The wines are held in cellars for six months to several years, depending on the line being produced.
Riesling accounts for 35% of its production, followed by Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer (about 25% apiece). Zind-Humbrecht produces smaller amounts of Auxerrois (typically for blending with Pinot Blanc), Chardonnay (primarily for use in sparkling wines), and other primarily blending grapes.
With all due respect and apologies to Zind-Humbrecht and its wines, we misplaced our notes on the 16 wines that we tasted. But we do recall enjoying many of its dry wines including the 2018 Pinot-Gris Roche Volcanique, and the 2009 Riesling Grand Cru Brand Vieilles Vignes
We also enjoyed several of their somewhat sweeter wines from two of the region’s most prestigious Grand Crus: the Pinot-Gris Rangen de Thann Clos St-Urbain Grand Cru 2007 (45 grams per liter of sugar) and especially its Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Hengst 2015 (73 grams).
Beyer uses whole cluster fermentation and more oak aging than most of the wineries we visited, aging a number of its wines for up to a year in neutral oak. Most of its Grand Cru wines are dry. Yet, it does produce about 5,000 bottles of Cremant each year and several sweet late harvest (Vendanges Tardives). When the Noble Rot appears (2017 was the most recent), Beyer produces ultra-sweet botrytis (Sélection de Grains Nobles) wines.
We began tasting recent vintages of each of the four primary varietals. We particularly enjoyed its 2021 Riesling (a bit of citrus and modestly more sugar than the particularly dry 2020 Pinot Blanc with which we began), and the 2019 Riesling (which Beyer and other wineries we tasted consider their best of the last several years).
We then moved on to several wonderful dry Grand Crus. The 2015 “Les Ecaslers” Grand Cru Riesling had very low sugar (1 gram per liter) but was very rich. The 2017 “Comtes de Equisheim” Phefsigbe Gewürztraminer was full-bodied with a rounded finish (100% malolactic).
Our shared sweet tooth began to exert its power as we moved on Beyer’s Vendanges Tardives late harvest wines including its 25-gram 2008 Pinot Gris and its particularly floral, 30-gram Gewürztraminer. These, however, were only a warm-up for the real sweet treats of its Sélection de Grains Nobles which are only available in the years with warm summers (which produce high sugar levels) and damp falls (which facilitate the development of the grape-desiccating rot). We tasted a wonderful, older 1998 70-gram Sélection de Grains Nobles Gewürztraminer.
Two sisters founded Josmeyer in 1954. They grow organically certified grapes on 24 acres around the town of Wintzenheim. Focusing exclusively on white wines, it ferments its wines with natural yeast, typically using only primary fermentation. It then ages all of its still wines (but not its Cremants) in neutral oak to soften the finish as an alternative to using secondary (malolactic) fermentation.
Many of the wines match our palettes. These included the:
- Somewhat smokey (in a good sense), low acid Pinot Auxcrois Vielles Vignes that was salvaged from the 60+-year-old vines of the 2019 vintage in which the winery lost 60% of its harvest to a cool, rainy season;
- A rather feminine’ high acid 2021 “Le Kottabe” Riesling;
- The crisp minerality of its 2018 old vine Les Pierrats Riesling;
- An elegant, very dry (with zero grams of sugar), low acid, somewhat smokey “Le Frankenstein” Pinot Gris; and
- The dry, floral 2018 “Les Folastriers” Gewürztraminer with its hints of black pepper and spice;
Its Grand Cru wines are characterized by their superior terroir, organic farming, handpicked fruit, and use of natural yeasts. They are typically aged in the bottle for about five years before selling. Among our favorites of these wines were the:
- 2017 Grand Cru Hengst Riesling;
- 2018 Grand Cru Hengst Gewürztraminer which has 30 grams of sugar per liter that is balanced with acid and shows spice and smoke.
Alsace Wine Road Restaurants
We had lunch at two restaurants along the wine road before reaching and having dinners in the cities of Colmar and Strasbourg. While our dinner restaurants are discussed in posts on each of the two cities, our wine region lunches were at:
Equisheim Cellar where we split one of our staple French appetizers, foie gras with brioche. We were disappointed with our entree of coq au Riesling. The overcooked chicken legs were in a rather tasteless, watery wine and milk sauce. However, we did enjoy the spaetzle that came with the chicken.
La Flammerie in Ribeauville. After starting with another French favorite, escargot, we moved to an Alsatian specialty, an interesting knuckle of ham with local munster cheese (which neither of us thought added much to the otherwise tasty dish) and sauerkraut along with one of the restaurant’s private label beers.