Alsace, at the eastern border of France, occupies a unique space between Germany (it is on the banks of the Rhine) and France (the other side of the Vosges mountains). Much of its history was as part of Germany, when it was known as Elsass, most recently during the Second World War, and as such it has traditions taken from both France and Germany, fused together to form a unique Alsace identity.
The resurgence of Alsace as a wine exporter only really came in the 1960s and 1970s, following 19th century outbreaks of phylloxera and powdery mildew, and then two world wars. This changed much of the vineyard composition over time, as hybrids were introduced on the plains and there was a move by many away from the steeper hillside sites that produced excellent wine but were most difficult to maintain (for example, tractors are unable to work there due to terracing).
The vineyards run along the Vosges in a north-south pattern, the mountains providing useful protection for the vines from the wind and rain (it has one of the lowest levels of rainfall in France). It is made up of two French departments, Haut-Rhin, in the south on the lower sides to the Vosges Mountains, and Bas-Rhin, which is nearer Strasbourg in the north. The elevation of the vines ranges from around 175 metres to 420 metres, with land above that level generally covered with pine forests. Across the region, at least 20 soil types are present, giving grapes grown in each vineyard unique characteristics. On the higher terrain the slopes are steeper, with soils commonly made up of thin topsoil with subsoils of granite, volcanic rock, sandstone, schist and gneiss. Vines grown at this steeper gradient are often trained closer to the ground to maximise the amount of sunlight they receive. The lower slopes have a more gradual incline, with deeper topsoil, and subsoils of clay, marl, sandstone and limestone. The subsoil also contains the regional speciality: Vosges sandstone (or pink grès de Vosges), which was quarried to build churches and cathedrals. This area was once the bed of the Rhine Delta, and the alluvial soils on the plains are rich. Vines here are often planted in ways that keep the grapes higher up, away from the ground frost.
The climate in Alsace can be quite varied, with a very cold winter and a warm and potentially very dry summer, sometimes leading to droughts. On top of this, thunder and hail storms often take place in the summer and autumn.
Alsace is best known for its white wines, which make up 90 per cent of production. Of the eight primary varietal wines, Riesling is the most common at 20 per cent, followed by Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois. The only red varietal is Pinot Noir, which makes up around nine per cent of vines planted in the region. Other varieties include Gewürztraminer (which is planted over a large area but produces only low yields), Pinot Gris, Muscadet, Chasselas and Sylvaner. Most vineyards in Alsace grow each of these varieties across their land.