Governed by Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO), France’s world-renowned Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system is primus inter pares in Europe, predating its opposite numbers in Italy and Spain. Regions such as Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Champagne, Jura, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire, Rhône and Sud-Ouest were first given AOC status in 1936, but Alsace had to wait until 1945.
Alsace’s relatively late ascension to AOC status is not due to any quality issue, less so any neglect on the part of the French government; on the contrary, 1945 was about as soon as it could possibly be. Control of Alsace has changed hands numerous times between France and Germany throughout history, indeed a staggering four times between 1871 and 1945.
Another 30 years would pass before Alsace Grand Cru was established; in 1975, the 82.28ha Schlossberg became the first lieu-dit (single vineyard) to be given grand cru status. Alsace Grand Cru would see massive expansions in 1983 and 1992, when respectively 24 and 25 lieux-dits were added to the list, followed by the sole addition of the 71.65ha Kaefferkopf in 2007.
As it stands, there are altogether 51 lieux-dits classified as Alsace Grand Cru, each ranging from the 3.23ha Kanzlerberg to the 82.28ha Schlossberg hectares – average being 34.45ha – covering a total of nearly 1,800ha. thirty-seven out of 51 grand cru vineyards are situated in Haut-Rhin in the south, the remaining 14 in Bas-Rhin in the north. As a rule of thumb, the more elevated Haut-Rhin tends to produce more powerful wines, whereas the flatter Bas-Rhin tends to produce more delicate wines.
Unlike Germany, where a classified vineyard usually belongs to a single village, in Alsace, at least 17 out of 51 grand cru vineyards are shared between two villages. The Germanic focus on purity, however, remains apparent in Alsace: only single-varietal Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris from single vineyards from single vintages are worthy of the grand cru title. There are but two minor exceptions: first, the 36.45ha Zotzenberg became the first and so far only grand cru to allow Silvaner in 2006; second, the 35.06ha Altenberg de Bergheim and the 71.65ha Kaefferkopf are the grand crus to allow blends, albeit subject to specific proportions.
A single-varietal Riesling from the 74.55ha Pfersigberg. Brilliant lemon-yellow with glimmering Chartreuse reflex, the perfumed nose offers lime peel, passion fruit, manuka honey and orchard blossom. Anchored by vibrant acidity, the protruding palate delivers calamansi, guava, sweet ginger and bouquet garni. Full-bodied at 13.5%, the frisky entry continues through an exuberant mid-palate, leading to a spicy finish
A single-varietal Riesling from the 53.4ha Schoenenbourg. Luminous citrine with bright sunshine reflex, the redolent nose furnishes grapefruit, nectarine pit, white tea and bacon fat. Braced by substantial acidity, the corpulent palate supplies Williams pear, peach pit, bouquet garni and crushed rock. Full-bodied at 13%, the fleshy entry persists through a ripe mid-palate, leading to a tangy finish.
A single-varietal Riesling from the 25.79ha Kitterlé. Saturated citrine with radiant golden reflex, the evolved nose reveals apricot, mirabelle, white tulip and kerosene. Supported by generous acidity, the rounded palate unveils clementine, nectarine, ginger blossom and wet stone. Full-bodied at 13.5%, the poised entry evolves into a chiselled mid-palate, leading to a lingering finish.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages