This mixed personality is reflected in the grape varieties grown, with both German varieties such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer alongside Muscat, Pinot Gris and occasional reds from Pinot Noir. Unusually for France, the wines are labelled by grape variety, and most producers, even tiny ones, will grow several as the patchwork of soils and varied aspects mean patches yards apart will nurture different varieties better.
The unifying factor for all these wines is the rich and hearty food produced in the region, hearty peasant fare raised to an art form; sausages, casseroles and game are all specialities. The wines are consequently bold-flavoured and usually made fully dry, although in recent years there has been a trend to leave more residual sugar in wines than has historcially been the case.
There are a two grades of wine grown in Alsace, starting with basic Appellation Controlée Alsace alongside the name of the varietal. Grand Cru wines are a refinement created in the 1980s to differentiate certain prime, consistent locations. These vineyards are marked out and only the 'noble' grapes can be grown on them (Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris), while yields are controlled to increase quality.
There are also two categories of sweet wine produced in Alsace. 'Vendage tardive' (late harvest) wines are produced by leaving grapes out on the vine into the autumn, where they shrivel, concentrating the sugars in the juice. The best dessert wines are those made from grapes that have succumbed to botrytis ('noble rot'), known as 'Grains Nobles' in Alsace.
The landscape itself is dramatic, with the weathered heights of the Vosges mountains rearing up to the west and the Rhine river marking the boundary with Germany to the east. The mountains contribute to the unique weather pattern of this region as they create a 'rain shadow', making Alsace even drier than the Rhône and sheltered the vineyards from the wind.
Although vines are planted on the fertile plain the best sites are on the steep hillsides where they are sheltered and angled to catch the sun for the longest possible time during the day. Terracing is often needed on these slopes and because of the steepness grapes are usually hand picked.