Since I have recently received three samples of Pinot Blanc wines from Alsace which I am going to review on one of the next posts, today I am going to provide a brief overview of northeastern France’s Alsace AOC appellation in anticipation of my reviews of those three wines.
Geography and Soils of Alsace
Alsace is a region in France’s northeast, bordering with Germany and stretching some 105 miles/170 KM from north to south, encased between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the west bank of the Rhine River to the east. The region is divided into two departments: the “Bas-Rhin” to the north (near the region’s capital, Strasbourg) and the “Haut-Rhin” to the south.
Throughout Alsace there is a significant diversity in terms of soils, with clay, limestone, marl, granite, gneiss, schist, and even volcanic soils all coexisting in the region. This results in marked differences in the grapes that are grown in the area, depending also on the type of soil the grapevines benefit from.
Generally speaking, the Alsace vineyards are located at an altitude between 650 ft/200 mt and 1,300 ft/400 mt above sea level on the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, for maximum sun exposure.
Generally speaking, there are three AOC’s in Alsace:
- Alsace AOC: created in 1962, it is the largest of the three, making up for about 71.5% of total production (more on this below);
- Alsace Grand Cru AOC: created in 1975, it accounts for a mere 4% of total production, but it identifies the 51 estates that are considered those with the ideal terroir for the only four grape varieties that are authorized under the Alsace Grand Cru AOC rules: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat d’Alsace; and
- Crémant d’Alsace AOC: created in 1976, it represents 24.5% of total production and is reserved to sparkling wines made according to the Classic Method.
Having said that, for the purposes of this post, we will focus only on the Alsace AOC appellation.
The vast majority of the Alsace AOC wines are still white wines (92% of the total) and all Alsace AOC wines must be bottled using the typical “Rhine bottle” (AKA “flûte”).
There are eight main grape varieties that are authorized under the Alsace AOC rules: Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois (which in Alsace is confusingly considered interchangeable with Pinot Blanc, although it is a separate variety – see below), Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, Muscat d’Alsace and Pinot Noir (the only permitted black-berried variety).
Although, according to most sources, the rules of the Alsace AOC appellation require that, if a variety is indicated on the label, the wine must be entirely made out of grapes from that variety, this is actually not always true: at least, it is certainly not true for Pinot Blanc wines. More specifically, Alsace AOC rules permit that a wine labeled “Pinot Blanc” be either a blend of, or even made entirely out of, any of the following varieties: Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois (which, as mentioned above, is a different variety that is often confused with Pinot Blanc), Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir (vinified white, as in the Champagne region). In other words, under Alsace AOC rules, a wine that is made out of 100% Pinot Gris grapes may legally be labeled and sold as “Pinot Blanc”(!)
Talk about avoiding confusion among consumers…
For completeness, under the rules of both the Alsace AOC and the Alsace Grand Cru AOC appellations, grapes of any of four permitted varieties that are harvested very late in the season and that have developed “noble rot” (Botrytis cinerea) may be labeled as Vendages Tardives or Sélection de Grains Nobles, two particularly sought after sweet raisin wines.
Specifically, the main requirements to make Vendages Tardives or Sélection de Grains Nobles wines are as follows:
- Grapes must be any of Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling or Muscat d’Alsace
- Each wine must be made entirely out of one of the four permitted varieties
- The grapes must be hand-picked
- The grapes must be late harvested and must have developed “noble rot“
- The grapes must have very high sugar levels (at least 235 to 257 gr/lt for Vendages Tardives or 276 to 306 gr/lt for Sélection de Grains Nobles, in each case depending on the variety)
- The grapes must have very high total alcohol levels (at least 14% to 15.3% ABV for Vendages Tardives or 16.4% to 18.2% for Sélection de Grains Nobles, in each case depending on the variety)
The Main Grape Varieties in Alsace
Total vineyard extension in Alsace in 2014 was 15,545 HA. The three most planted varieties are Riesling (21.8% of the total), Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois (21.3%) and Gewürztraminer (19.8%), followed by Pinot Gris (15.4%). Note how even for statistical purposes Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois are mistakenly considered together despite their being two different varieties.
Total annual production in Alsace of AOC wines is about 150 million bottles, accounting for 18% of the total production in France of still white AOC wines. Of those, about 36 million bottles (or 26% of the total) are exported.
For the purposes of our forthcoming reviews of the three Alsatian Pinot Blancs, we will focus here on the following four varieties: Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.
Auxerrois is a white-berried grape variety from France’s Alsace-Lorraine region. The earliest documented reference to this variety occurred in 1816 in France’s Moselle region.
DNA analysis showed that Auxerrois is one of the several natural crosses between Pinot and Gouais Blanc, which therefore makes it a sister variety of Chardonnay and explains why it is known as “Pinot Auxerrois” in Alsace.
Auxerrois wines tend to be fairly neutral and low in acidity. In Alsace it is generally blended with Pinot Blanc: it is interesting to note that, somewhat surprisingly, Alsace AOC rules permit that a wine labeled “Pinot Blanc” be actually prevalently made out of Auxerrois grapes or even exclusively (as in, 100% Auxerrois)!
In France there were 2,330 HA of total Auxerrois plantings in 2008, mostly in Alsace and the French Moselle, while Germany had 285 HA, mostly in the Baden and Pfalz regions.
2. Pinot Blanc
Pinot Blanc, AKA Pinot Bianco, is not a separate grape variety: DNA analysis proved that it is a clone of the Pinot grape variety (for more information, see the “Pinot” entry in our Grape Variety Archive) and specifically a color mutation of Pinot Noir. Pinot Blanc is a white-berried grape. Until the end of the XIX century, Pinot Blanc used to be often confused with Chardonnay, until French ampelographer Victor Pulliat in 1868 distinguished the two different grapes.
Pinot Blanc wines tend to be moderately structured and have moderate acidity. It may be used in the blend of Classic Method sparkling wines (this practice is fairly frequent in Italy, where several producers use Pinot Bianco in lieu of Pinot Meunier in the blend of their Classic Method sparklers).
France had 1,292 HA of Pinot Blanc plantings in 2009, most of which in the Alsace region, where Pinot Blanc can be used for making both still wines (oftentimes blended with other varieties) and Crémant d’Alsace sparkling wines. Some Pinot Blanc is also grown in the French Moselle region.
Italy had a total of 5,126 HA of Pinot Bianco vineyards in 2000, most of which in the north east (e.g., in the Alto Adige and Friuli regions) and in Lombardia (where it is mostly used as a blending partner of Pinot Nero and Chardonnay in certain Franciacorta Classic Method sparkling wines).
Germany’s Pinot Blanc (locally known as Weissburgunder) plantings in 2008 were 3,731 HA, most of which in the Baden region, while Austria had 1,995 HA in 2010.
In the USA, most Pinot Blanc vineyards occur in California (particularly in Santa Barbara, Sonomona and Monterey), although total plantings were a mere 217 HA in 2010.
3. Pinot Gris
Pinot Gris, AKA Pinot Grigio, is not a separate grape variety: DNA analysis proved that it is a clone of the Pinot grape variety (for more information, see the “Pinot” entry) and specifically a color mutation of Pinot Noir whose origins can be traced back to the XVIII century in both Germany, where it was first mentioned in writing in 1711 in the Baden-Württemberg region under the name Rülander, and France, where it was mentioned in a 1712 document in the region of Orléans under the name Auvernat Gris. The first references to the current Pinot Gris name date back to 1783-1784 in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or region.
Pinot Grigio is said to have been cultivated in northern Italy (especially in Piemonte) since the early XIX century.
Pinot Grigio is a grey-berried grape which may be much darker in color than most white-berried grapes and generally has high sugar levels and moderate acidity.
In France total Pinot Gris plantings in 2009 were 2,617 HA, mostly in Alsace.
In Italy, for some reason, Pinot Grigio came into fashion in the late Ninenties/early two thousands, which is confirmed by the staggering size of Pinot Grigio plantings in Italy which, at 6,668 HA in 2000, are almost three times as much as France’s. This trend was fueled by booming exports especially to the UK and the US of mostly inexpensive and lackluster wines made out of an overproduction of this grape variety. This phenomenon somewhat tarnished the reputation of Pinot Grigio, which was often associated with a cheap, mass-production type of wine, until in the last few years it started falling out of favor. Fortunately, quality Italian Pinot Grigio is still made, particularly in the regions of Friuli, Alto Adige and Veneto.
In 2008, Germany had 4,481 HA of Pinot Gris (locally known as Grauburgunder), mostly concentrated in the Baden, Rheinhessen and Pfalz regions, while Hungary had 1,522 HAof plantings under the local name Szürkebarát, mostly in the north of the country.
Following in Italy’s footsteps, even California knew a Pinot Grigio boom, which led to total plantings of 5,223 HA in 2010. Pinot Gris is also considered Oregon‘s signature white wine with 1,107 HA of vineyards in 2008.
4. Pinot Noir
Before being given its current name, Pinot Noir was known by three main synonyms: Morillon, Noirien and Auvernat.
The earliest documented mention of Pinot Noir dates back to 1283 in the Île-de-France region in northern France under the name “Moreillon“. The name “Noirien” was used around that same time to indicate Pinot Noir in Burgundy and particularly in the Côte d’Or. The name “Auvernas” was instead used somewhat later, in the XIV century in the Loiret district. The first documented use of the current name Pinot took place in France in 1375.
Pinot Noir vines like temperate climates and do particularly well in calcareous-clay soils. The early ripening characteristics of Pinot Noir make it suitable to cooler climate regions, the only ones to permit a long enough growing season to produce interesting wines. Pinot Noirs tend to have relatively soft tannins and to be fruity and easy to like, with some of the best quality Burgundy examples requiring several years of cellaring to fully assemble and perform at their best.
Some of the world’s best examples of quality Pinot Nors can be found in France’s Burgundy region, where terroir differences can often be noticeable in Burgundy wines. Outside Burgundy, quality Pinot Noirs can also be found in France’s Jura region. In 2009 total Pinot Noir plantings in France were 29,576 HA, most of which (10,691 HA) in the Champagne region where it is one of the key components in the traditional Champagne blend, vis-à-vis just 6,579 HA in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or.
Northern Italy also makes quality Pinot Noirs, especially in the Alto Adige region and in Lombardia’s Oltrepò Pavese. Total plantings in 2000 were 3,314 HA.
In Germany, Pinot Noir (locally known as Spätburgunder) enjoys huge popularity, which reflects in its 11,800 HA of plantings in 2008, most of which in the regions of Baden, Rheinhessen and Württemberg.
With 4,401 HA in 2009, Switzerland also has substantial Pinot Noir plantings (under the name Blauburgunder).
In the USA, Pinot Nor is big in California, thanks also to the notoriety that the “Sideways effect” brought to the grape, which in 2010 had a total of 15,091 HA of vineyards, especially in Sonoma and Monterey. Oregon also had 4.533 HA of plantings in 2008, mainly in the Willamette Valley.
Both Australia and New Zealand have sizable Pinot Noir plantings, with respectively 4,490 HA in 2008 (particularly in the Yarra Valley in the state of Victoria and in Tasmania) and 5,000 HA in 2011 (especially in the Marlborough area).
(Information on the grape varieties taken from Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012 – for more information about these and more grape varieties, check out our Grape Variety Archive)