Although wine may not have been invented in Alsace, there is no doubt that it has been enjoyed in the region since immemorial times.
The first traces of vine in Alsace
Though only distantly-related to present-day grape varieties, grapevines existed in the Rhine valley area long before man had appeared there.
Fossilized leaves of Vitis genre plants found in the region of Constance provide formal proof of this. Later periods of glacial activity destroyed many species of vegetation. But it seems that lambrusques, or wild vines are descendants of isolated Vitis vines that survived the ice ages.
Because they were hunters/pickers, the fruit of the vine was appreciated by the Prehistoric populations, as the heaps of grape pips discovered during the excavation of lake settlements demonstrate.
However, the evolution from simply gathering the wild grapes to the actual cultivation of the vine only took place after the Roman conquest.
From the earliest days of the present era, vestiges indicate the growing importance of viticulture: grape pips and fragments of wooden casks. Then, gradually, vine motifs began to be used to decorate pottery or in bas-relief carvings.
As early as 2nd century AD, records mention the transport of wine along the Moselle and Rhine rivers, and prove how soon the commerce of wine began in the region.
The vineyards resist invasion
Germanic invasion of the 5th century brought viticulture into temporary decline. Documents however show how quickly the vineyards regained even greater surface area under the rule of the Merovingians and Carolingians thanks to the foundation of numerous dioceses, abbeys and convents that used wine for their religious services.
The golden age (late Middle Ages and Renaissance)
In his survey of the history of viticulture in Alsace, Canon Barth reveals that documents dating from before 900AD mention more than 160 winegrowing localities. The great importance of the Rhine vineyards can be judged from one of the articles in the Treaty of Verdun in 843AD, which divided up the Empire created by Charlemagne. This expansion continued without interruption until it reached its zenith during the 16th century.
The numerous Renaissance-styled houses that can still be seen throughout the region bear witness to the prosperity of that period. Large quantities of Alsace wines were then exported throughout Europe.
At that same time, many different regulations came into force around the cultivation and their vinification of wine grape varieties (amongst which mentions were already made of Traminer, Muscat, Riesling and other grapes). The taxes raised upon municipalities, monasteries, and the nobility were very lucrative forthe local authorities.
Calamities (wars and phylloxera)
The Thirty Years’ War, a period of devastation by rampaging armies, pillage, famine and pestilence, had terrible consequences. It affected not only viticulture but also all the other economic activities of the region.
With the return of peace, the cultivation of vines gradually began to regain its former glory. However the expansion of the vineyards back then was mainly due to the planting of pour-quality grape varieties, and mainly in the plain areas rather than on the hillsides.
A royal Edict of 1731 attempted to palliate this situation without much success. Things even worsened after the French Revolution of 1789. From 23,000 hectares (57K acres) of vineyards in 1808, the total surface area under vines had reached 30,000 ha (74K acres) by 1828.
A period of overproduction followed, often fatal to the vineyards on the hillsides. This was aggravated by the total absence of exports and a fall in domestic consumption of wine, locals favoring beer. In addition, diseases, phylloxera, and political instability struck between 1870 and 1918.
From 1902, the vineyard area shrank gradually down to 9,500 hectares (23K acres) in 1948, of which 7,500 hectares (18K acres) were produced under Alsace Appellation rules.
Revival after WWI
After the end of World War One and the liberation of France in 1918, two political beliefs strongly opposed each other.
On the one hand were those who advocated the production of quality wines from traditional, noble grapes. On the other were those convinced that the only solution was to produce large quantities of cheap wines from hybrids and high-yielding grapes.
The choice of quality over quantity eventually slowly prevailed. Many vineyards in the plains were pulled out, while the best vineyards on the hillsides around the traditional winegrowing localities were left intact.
Present days: success of the AOC Alsace Appellation
The evolution of the Alsace region to the production of quality wines was acknowledged in 1962 the grant of the Alsace AOC status by the INAO.
Other appellations soon followed suit with AOC Alsace Grand Cru appearing in 1975 and AOC Crémant d’Alsace in 1976.
Today, the most representative of the professional associations are all united forming the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace (CIVA)
The CIVA gathers:
- the association of winegrowers (AVA)
- the association of producer-merchants (GPNVA)
- the federation of winegrowing co-operatives (FCVA) and the union of independent winegrowers (SYNVIRA)
Together, they encourage the continued development of the winegrowing region of Alsace and promote around the world the reputation of Alsace wines.
This content was provided by the Vins d’Alsace Bureau exclusively for Social Vignerons.
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