Alsace wines are often compared to German wines and it is said that the big difference is that the German wines are sweet and Alsatian wines are dry. There is some truth in this, although the German wines are getting drier because of changing consumers preferences. And even Alsace has its semi-sweet and sweet wines. One is called vendange tardive and the second selection des grains nobles. More about the “other” Alsace wines, including the rare reds.
Vendange tardive, late harvest
Vendange tardive (sometimes “VT” for short) is exactly what the name means: late harvested grapes that have reached exceptionally high sugar content. A vendange tardive may only be made on either riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris or muscat. The law stipulates a potential alcohol content of 13% for riesling and muscat and at least 14.3% for gewurztraminer and pinot gris. However, higher sugar contents than that is rather the rule than the exception at the better producers’.
Strict control of the sugar levels are carried out by the INAO inspectorate (Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité) but they do not control the harvest date. In some years a sufficiently high sugar content is reached already at the “normal” harvest date but it is important that the grapes really are harvested late because the chemical composition of the grapes change when they hang longer on the vine.
It is this special character you want to find in the VT wine. A vendange tardive can ferment out to be completely dry, but the wine is usually has some residual sweetness.
Sélection des grains nobles, selected berries
The exclusive selection des grains nobles (sometimes abbreviated SGN) is rare. It is not made every year and when made it is in very small quantities. The grapes are harvested even later than the vendange tardive and they are also affected by noble rot, just like in in Sauternes.
Noble rot makes the sugar content in the grapes even higer. The minimum potential alcohol content (a measure of the sugar contents) is 15.2% for riesling and muscat and 16.5% for gewurztraminer and pinot gris.
In practice, however, those numbers are often surpassed by a large margin, which means that we are at roughly the same levels as a high-quality Sauternes.
An SGN is great sweet wine, full bodied and smooth without being heavy yet retaining the fresh and aromatic grape character.
A wine to indulge in on the rare occasion, despite the price. Often sold in half bottles.
Red Alsace wines? Absolutely!
The small quantity of red wine they make in Alsace comes from the pinot noir grape, well-known from Burgundy. 7.5% of the area is planted with this grape variety, used in red wine and also for rosé.
These wines are consumed largely in the region, in Alsace. I have since long considered the red Alsace wine as a light, fruity wine with lots of berry character and so light in colour that you sometimes cannot say for sure if you drink a red wine or a rosé.
Now, though, this is changing to some extent among, especially at some producers’. The light colour is due to that the pinot noir used in Alsace has a thin skin that does not contain much colour pigment.
Some producers have now begun to extract more colour with longer maceration and higher fermentation temperatures. This combined with oak aging means that today you can find really good, well-structured red Alsace wines with a distinct pinot character. An alternative to red Burgundy, although the red Alsace wines are not cheap either.
Good producers of red Alsace wines include Marcel Deiss, Hugel, Albert Mann, Cave Vinicole in Pfaffenheim, Cave Vinicole in Turckheim and the Wolfberger Cave Vinicole in Eguisheim. But there are many other excellent producers.
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