Louis XIV once remarked that “Alsace is a garden.” Its wine industry has a long history dating back to the 1600, a time when wine was just another commodity on family farms. It is quintessentially a family affair, spanning 12 generations in many cases with the craft of growing, tending and making wine passed on from fathers to sons (and nowadays daughters). It’s also the region of France where I’m from, so it holds a special place in my heart 🙂
Alsatian vineyards dot the valley and the bottom of the Vosges mountain as so many postage stamps. The plots are small with the average vineyard about half a hectare. They cling to the hillsides, some so steep that workers have to be roped in at harvest time. They radiate out from cobblestone villages and colorful houses outlined with dark timber all along the famous Route des Vins that winds through the entire length of the region.
Because of the small sizes of vineyards, work is still largely done by hand, and is a labor of love. That passion is obvious when you speak to any Alsatian winemaker. “When you do something with your heart, it just makes you happy,” says Fanny Stoeckle whose family has been in the business for 400 years. She adds that the reputation of the wines was built by people who worked really hard and poured their being into the task. “This has always been a family business: we live together, work together, learn from our elders: I know exactly where I come from.”
As he walks through his 12 ha domain of entirely organic vines, Jean-Marie Bechtold observes that winemaking must be approached in the same way as parenting: with patience, spirited attention and understanding of particular needs. His domain includes the famed Engelberg grand cru, on a hill rich in limestone, long revered in the region, and the only wine with a reference dating back to 890 AD in the nearby thousand-year old cathedral of Strasbourg. “What you get in a bottle from here” he says “is the result of 120 million years of evolution. Our role is simply to accompany the vineyards in their development rather than control them.”
Alsace grows seven different grape varietals, each producing a distinct wine. The most well know is the Riesling, which expresses the qualities of the soil best through its mineral qualities. The most exotic is the Gewurtztraminer, which is said to be like “a pretty woman in a mini skirt: she turns your head but is impossible to live with.” And while Alsatian vineyards represent only 0.04% of the world production of wines, they feature 51 grands crus – a tightly controlled label — thanks to favorable climates, rich soil and eastern as well as southern exposures.
Meet some of the folks tending to the vineyards:
What struck me as I spoke with various winemakers is the sheer pride and passion they have for their craft: it’s all encompassing. And of course, once back from the field, every conversation must take place over wine tasting.
Winemaking is a year-long proposition, requiring constant attention: trimming, flexing, tending to the soil (especially in the newer organic vineyards), watching for possible mold or insect infestations, weathering the vines through snow, rain, heat, and hail.
Until the grapes are finally ready for picking.
Les vendanges (grape harvesting) is hard work — mostly done by hand although some of the larger plots are mechanized. The grapes resulting from manual and mechanized processes can never be mixed as the quality of the wine is impacted by how much ‘debris’ is contained in the harvest.
But it’s also a convivial process, bringing together neighbors, family, and hired workers, around vineyard picnics and animated conversation as grape pickers move down the rows of vines.
Grapes are collected in individual buckets, then transferred into larger barrels. There are runners whose job it is to collect the contents of the individual buckets, so that the pickers can continue working.
Once harvested, the grapes are taken to the local cooperative to be measured for sugar content (that determines the alcohol rate) and weight, which together determine the price the winemaker will get for his harvest.
The grapes are transferred to presses and the juices are transported through hoses into the final barrels where they will ferment.
Eventually, the wines are bottled, labelled, and will find their place on your table.
I have a great deal of appreciation for what goes into such a lovely glass of wine!