Spotlight on Three Alsatian Lieux-Dits
- By Jacky Blisson MW
- 03 Dec 2020
- 5 MIN
- Level 301
Alsace stands apart from other French AOC wine regions for a number of reasons. Firstly, due to the physical barrier of the Vosges Mountains. Secondly, in terms of its distinct Germanic influences, as shown in some fairly tongue-twisting place names. Thirdly, for the prominence given to stating grape varieties alongside vineyard sites, whereas most of France’s AOC wine country is defined first and foremost by terroir.
Alsace’s Terroir Diversity
While grape variety is an important part of Alsace’s regional identity, the expression of each grape differs greatly from one site to another. The vineyards of Alsace line the lower lying slopes of the Vosges at 200 to 400 metres above sea level. The best sites are oriented south or southeast, maximizing sun exposure.
The geology of the region is incredibly diverse, with rock formations spanning the Primary to Quaternary era. Soil composition also varies widely. According to experts, areas just 100 metres apart often have significant differences in soil makeup. Granite, chalk, marlstone, sandstone, loam, alluvial, and even volcanic soils can be found here.
Updated AOC Hierarchy
Until recently, the Alsace wine region had a simple AOC hierarchy, similar to that of Chablis, consisting of three appellations: Alsace, Crémant d’Alsace, and Alsace Grand Cru. Within the Grand Cru level, certain individual sites could append their name to labels. However, it was not until 2011 that these 51 vineyard lieux-dits (plots) were granted individual AOC status.
Changes were also made to the region-wide Alsace AOC. Since 2011, wines meeting regimented quality, origin, varietal, and style criteria can also indicate one of 14 defined commune names on their label, or a specific lieu-dit. In the latter case, production rules are far stricter. These stringent criteria include lower pruning crop loads, lower yields, obligatory hand harvesting for Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, and higher minimum sugar levels at harvest.
Spotlight on Alsace AOC Lieux-Dits
To get a sense of the complexity of Alsace’s lieux-dits, even across short distances, here is a closer look at three neighbouring Bas-Rhin Riesling vineyard plots.
The small, 0.80-hectare lieu-dit of Fels is situated in Bernardvillé. This village lies just 10 kilometres southwest of Barr, the wine capital of the Bas-Rhin. Bernardvillé is one of the higher altitude vineyard areas of Alsace, with plantings at 380 metres.
The Fels vineyard is perched on a steep, 30% grade slope. The site’s southeastern exposure benefits from abundant morning to mid-afternoon sunshine, giving excellent ripening potential. A vein of blue shale runs through this plot. This subsoil of Precambrian origin is incredibly rare in the region. The topsoil is shallow here, just 20 to 30cm in places. The vines dig deep into the shale, giving Fels’ wines an intense minerality, as well as a taut, elegant structure.
The Buehl lieu-dit is also located in Bernardvillé, at a slightly lower altitude than Fels. Like Fels, this 1.2-hectare vineyard is oriented southeast, on a sharp incline, benefiting from the same, optimal ripening conditions. While the same blue shale subsoils exist here, the topsoil is deeper, giving greater concentration and depth of flavour, according to wine estate, Schieferkopf.
To append a lieu-dit name, like Buehl, to an Alsace AOC wine, the Riesling grapes must measure at least 168 grams/litre of sugar content before they can be harvested and possess a potential alcohol level of at least 10.5%.
The lieu-dit Berg is found in the village of Reichsfeld, at roughly 360 metres altitude. This south-facing hillside has fairly acidic, brown soils with quartz components, overlying the same Bernardvillé blue shale as found in Fels and Buehl. These soils are light and airy. They have excellent drainage, encouraging deep rooting, and heat quickly, spurring vine ripening.
Riesling produced here tends to be particularly fruit-forward, with vibrant freshness, and mineral undertones.