The Alsace wines of the Bas-Rhin
By Sue Style
This Guide was last updated on 12 March 2011
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Alsace offers a dazzling range of styles from crisp and light to rich, smoky and spicy, and from very dry to sweet. Wines are characterised by their opulence and richness, and they are ideal partners for food. Because winemakers want to preserve the primary fruit flavours of the often highly aromatic local varieties, small oak barrels are rarely used, though some producers age (or even occasionally ferment) in larger oak foudres. Within Alsace and from outside, a ‘Great Sugar Debate’ is raging – fuelled by the perception that all Alsace whites, even those that are not late harvested or botrytized, are getting steadily sweeter. Up until now, no indication of sweetness levels has been required on the label, though several attempts have been made to remedy this. In the absence of any definitive official ruling, some individual producers have come up with their own sweetness scale, often appended to a back label. In future, however, at least Rieslings will be obliged to indicate whether the wine is dry, off-dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet or sweet. As far as sweetness is concerned, you’re more likely to know where you are with Vendanges Tardives wines, which generally range from off-dry to sweet, and Sélection de Grains Nobles wines, which are full-bodied, aromatic, very rich and invariably sweet. Longevity depends on the grape variety and the style made, but Riesling and Pinot Gris wines in particular are renowned for their ageing potential: 5–20 years and sometimes more.
Made only with Pinot Noir grapes, the wines are generally lightly coloured, fruity with hints of cherries. Sometimes the wines are aged in oak which adds to their structure and complexity, and a privileged few have the benefit of a spell in new barriques. Most are for drinking young though a few will age for 5–10 years.
Some rosé is made from Pinot Noir and mainly drunk locally. It is light and dry, and should be consumed young.
By law made using the Traditional Method, Crémant d'Alsace wines have a minimum of 15 months ageing on lees. The wines are essentially dry (Brut) and range from soft and delicate, when made with Pinot Blanc, to fuller in body when made with the other grape varieties. Pinot Noir can be used for a Blanc de Noirs and for Crémant rosé, of which very little is made.
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