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In the first in a series of articles, Phil Jones DipWSET will tackle one of the major barriers for the casual wine drinker into the world of French wine – their wine laws and labelling requirements.

For this first part, we’re going to start with a region that flies a little bit under the radar but contains some of the best cool climate white wine terroir in the entire country – Alsace.

Before we begin though, ‘terroir’ is just a fancy French word for which there’s no direct English translation but essentially is everything goes into growing high quality grapes – the soil, the climate, the elevation, etc.

Alsace also happens to be one of the easiest regions to get your head around because unlike virtually anywhere else in France, Alsace allows varietal labelling – that is, the grape variety can be named on the label.

The region

Alsace is located in the North East of France, straddling the German border. The region stretches from west of Strasbourg in the north to Mulhouse in the south, bordered in the west by the Vosges Mountains. The best vineyard sites are located on the slopes with east and south-east aspects with the valley floor between the Vosges and the River Rhine containing the lesser vineyards. Most of the vineyards on the valley floor produce grapes to be used in sparkling wine (Cremant d’Alsace).

The hierarchy

Alsace has possibly the easiest hierarchical classification to get your head around. There are essentially two levels – Alsace AOC and Alsace Grand Cru – with two further levels for sweet wines – Vendanges Tardives (VT) and Sélection de Grain Nobles (SGN).

Alsace AOC wines account for the majority of the regions production. Most wines are single varietal, so will have the variety listed on the label. If this is the case, you can be assured that 100% of the grapes used are of this variety (for context, in Australia, a wine can be varietally labelled if a minimum of 85% of that variety is used). Some villages are allowed to put the name of the village on the label, although this is rare.

Alsace Grand Cru represents the vineyards of the highest quality in the region. There are 50 such vineyards. These wines must be made from a single noble variety (one of Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Riesling), however a few exceptions to this rule do exist. The Grand Cru appellation has not been without controversy. For example, some producers consider some of the vineyards too large to be considered Grand Cru. In response to this, some producers with Grand Cru vineyards chose not to label their wines as Grand Cru.

Vendanges Tardives means ‘late harvest’ and the wines can only be made from one the four varieties listed above and must have a specific minimum of sugar ripeness, depending on the variety. Some of these wines may have also been affected by noble rot, the botrytis mould that desiccates the grapes and concentrates the sugars, flavours and acidity.

Sélection de Grains Nobles are wines that can only be made from one of the four noble varieties and must have a minimum level of sweetness. In practice, this is achieved through noble rot and as such, the wines are not produced every year. Even when they are produced, they are produced in very small quantities.

The wines

Whilst a large variety of grapes are grown in Alsace, the most important are the four noble grapes: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer & Muscat. These aromatic varieties lend themselves to winemaking techniques that are focused on retaining aromas and flavours – for example, more modern wineries ferment and mature in stainless steel, whilst traditional producers favour large old oak barrels, often over 100 years old, which have a thick deposit of tartrate preventing the wood from having any affect on the wine.

Short maturation occurs with bottling occurring in the spring to retain the fresh, young flavours and aromas. Most wines are produced ready to drink, but are capable of developing further with careful cellaring.

Grand Cru wines are mostly dry wines, however more recently, some producers have been making these high quality wines with varying levels of sweetness, from off-dry to medium-sweet. There is no legal requirement to label the sweetness of these wines, so it’s often a case of knowing the producer and style, although some producers in Alsace have recently started labelling sweetness to reduce customer confusion.

The labels

Although relatively easy to understand, each level of the Alsatian hierarchy has their own unique properties that must be followed under AOC law.

The labels above show labels for the four AOC levels – Alsace AOC, Alsace Grand Cru, Vendarges Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles.

At the base Alsace AOC level, the labels must state ‘Vin d’Alsace’ to indicate they are AOC level wines and, if they are 100% single varietal, state the name of the varietal. On top of this, standard information will include vintage year, bottle size, alcohol percentage and other standard label terms.

At Grand Cru level, the wines may state ‘Alsace Grand Cru’ but as mentioned earlier, some producers have decided not to state their wines are Grand Cru, preferring to simply list the vineyard they come from. There is nothing in AOC law that prohibits this practice, it is purely a producer’s individual decision. As most Grand Cru wines are 100% single varietal wines, the variety will be listed, along with the vineyard name should the producer choose to. Vintage year and other standard label terms will also appear. Level of sweetness may or may not appear on the front or back label, depending on producer.

Wines for Vendarges Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles will have these terms listed on the label, along with variety, vintage year, vineyard if the producer choses to list it, and other standard terms. Whilst sweetness will generally not appear on these labels, these wines are sweeter wines than AOC or Grand Cru, with SGN wines generally the most sweet, although exceptions do exist.

How to read quality

Whilst Alsace Grand Cru is generally regarded as a mark of quality wine, for the various reasons already described this is not always a true measure; several high quality wines exist at AOC level and several Grand Cru producers chose not to label their wines as such. The real trick is simply to taste as much as you can, learn from the producers you love and don’t be afraid to go outside the box. A Grand Cru Gewürztraminer might be less dry that you are used to, but these can be stunning wines and when done well, the balance between sweetness and acidity can create a wine that is simply harmonious.

Next time: We head a little further south into the home of world class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – Burgundy

This is a preview of articles our Cellar Rats members receive as part of their subscription. Find out more about The Cellar Rats.

Phil Jones DipWSET

A passion for wine underpinned by a degree in winemaking and viticulture as well as the highest certification offered by the Wine & Spirits Education Trust - the Diploma in Wines, Phil Jones DipWSET provides a no-nonsense, no-BS, look at wine.

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