Alsace – time for a revival – Sommelier Guild

Wine is definitely a subject to fashion sense, too. Alsace is reminiscent of a 1970s’ lampshade you had forgotten for years in the attic but now you bring it up again with enthusiasm and dust it off. When you start to grapple with Alsace, maybe you are like me, first consulting one of the hundreds of wine books that all of us have collected over the years working in the wine business. But the information on Alsace is quite limited. Jancis Robinson’s Wine Atlas dedicates only two double pages for a region which is as diverse as Burgundy. When you look at the website offered by the generic marketing board, you’ll see old-fashioned food pictures and marketing texts most probably written by a guy who had his most creative times in the early 1980s. The only way to learn more about this region is to visit it and dive into the world somewhere between France and Germany.

This is something you are immediately aware of. Alsace is a mix of both cultures, due to a turbulent history and close proximity. Alsace changed affiliation several times in the past centuries and it becomes apparent as you look for example at architecture, culinary culture (f.e. choucroute alsacienne) and last but not least the wine style: German grape varieties vinified in a French way and vice versa. While most French wines are named after their place of origin, Alsace wines are generally named after the grape variety from which they are made, also something more German than French.

Soil and climate

Heterogeneity is the central issue that makes the essence of Alsace difficult to grasp. It starts with the huge diversity of terroir. Alsace is a long strip of around 100 kilometres and is divided in Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin. Its macroclimate is influenced by the Vosges mountain range, which holds all clouds coming from the west making the region as dry as parts of Southern France. While the Bas-Rhin is less protected, due to the mountain range being lower, producing lighter wines than the more prestigious, southern Haut-Rhin. The vineyards are located on the foothills of the Vosges generally facing east. The soil is highly diverse, because this region was formed millions of years ago when the mountain ranges on either side of the river Rhine, namely the Vosges and the Schwarzwald (black forest) developed, mixing up the hitherto composed soils: Alsace has a mix of loam, limestone, granite, sandstone and volcanic soils with different fertility and water holding capacities, making it necessary to combine terroir with the right grape variety. This is one reason why there is a huge diversity of grape varieties available. The varieties are a mix of German and French: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Noir, Sylvaner and Pinot Blanc. To give just one example, while Riesling produces the best wines on very poor soils, Gewurztraminer needs more fertile ground to develop its intense aromatics. That is the reason why Olivier Humbrecht (of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht) has planted Riesling in the upper part of the single vineyard Rangen, which is poorer and in the lower much richer part he planted Gewurztraminer. Pinot Gris is best suited for deep soils that are relatively dry and well-exposed. Pinot Noir needs a more temperate climate and loves clay-limestone soil, while Muscat needs warm, wind-protected vineyards and prefers not too heavy soils like Sandstone.


Viticulture and grape varieties:

Like everywhere else, Alsace had its troubles with viticulture in the 1960s and 1970s with too many pesticides and fertilizers, producing thin wines without soul and leaving dead soil in the vineyard. Since the 1990s growers in general have returned to more organic methods for different reasons. One was a more critical approach by consumers towards chemicals and the influence. Another was the strong “green” movement just across the border in Germany as well as the increasing success of biodynamic winegrowers which had proven that it is better to work with nature than against it. Moreover, Alsace is the home of biodynamic pioneers like Jean Pierre Frick who was one of the first in France who converted to biodynamic winegrowing. Frick is now an advocate for so-called “natural wines” and has abstained from using sulphur since 1999. A great deal has been written about the boon and bane of the natural movement, which I don’t have to repeat. I am sure you have your own opinion about this highly controversial topic. Notwithstanding this, Alsace boasts a high number of biodynamic winegrowers like Albert Mann, Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Ostertag, Marcel Deiss, Domaine Muré and many others.

Nevertheless, plantings are still made with clones influenced by the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s were the selection target was to have better and more reliable production, leading to bunches with big berries more susceptible to botrytis. You notice this especially in Pinot Noir, were the old and high yielding German clones are widespread and for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, too. In the case of Gewurztraminer the problem with those highly productive clones is that you lose the unique spiciness of the wines, which then become more reminiscent of fabric softener. In the case of Pinot Noir you have the problem that it is a thin-skinned grape variety. Phenolic compounds and flavours are located in the skin, and the bad skin-to-pulp ratio makes it impossible to produce complex Pinot Noir. Furthermore, botrytis develops an enzyme called laccase which destroys all colour. The only way to inactivate this enzyme is to heat up the must up to 70°C, which explains still used method of thermovinification for red wine in Alsace (as well as in Germany), a production method not known for making multi-layered and complex  styles… However, producers like Thomas Muré in Rouffach prove that it is possible to produce great Pinot Noir in Alsace.

Low yielding Clone of Gewürztraminer at Domaine Muré in Rouffach

Wine style and regional identity

Terroir is only one factor that influences the wine style in Alsace. As important as that and especially in Alsace is what kind of philosophy and personality the wine grower has. In Alsace, the names of the growers are well-known and the fame is not necessarily connected with the region. You drink Riesling Clos St. Hune from Trimbach but are you thinking about Alsace as you sip from your glass? The reason is that Alsace is characterised by very strong personalities and full of extremes. Biodynamic wines and the “natural wine” movement had their cradle in Alsace while on the other hand illustrious producers using conventional methods like Hugel and Trimbach don’t want to take part in the Grand Cru classification because they have their own idea about terroir. Yet others are convinced about this system: Marcel Deiss makes only varietal blends creating a completely new wine style and has no problem with residual sugar in his wines. Others swear by bone-dry wines and people like Madame Fallert from Domaine Weinbach follow their own ideas about “tradition”. These are growers who bring true dynamics into the region and are up-front. They are proud and sometimes quite stubborn people, going their own way. However, when you compare those liberal extremes, it is confusing to read the very strict appellation rules which try to preserve arcane traditions. It is, for example, forbidden by the “Bottle Committee” (can you believe that something like that exists?) to use Burgundy bottles for AOC Pinot Noir. Or as Frédéric Blanck told me, a friend of him wanted to have a batch of wines with higher acidity to blend in later, and started to pick earlier than was sanctioned by the appellation, resulting in police prosecution. Furthermore, Blanck thinks the only reason why he was allowed to use screwcaps for his bottles was that the appellation rulebook simply made no provision for them. They probably never thought that somebody would even dare to think about using something other than cork.

My explanation for such infighting is that strict bureaucracy always creates ambition and desire to undermine it. While this may sound cynical, I really believe that this fosters creativity. In the end, it is this mix of terroir, climate, strong personalities, contradictions, French logic and stubbornness that makes Alsace what it is – a unique, diverse and very exiting region where some of the greatest examples of several grape varieties are produced. If you have ever tasted a really profound, dry Pinot Gris from Alsace you are probably wondering if the watery, meaningless Italian Pinot Grigios are made from the same variety. Alsace Muscat can achieve depth and seriousness you won’t find anywhere else. If you find a really good Gewurztraminer, it will be a true varietal expression with a delicate, oily texture, floral flavours and this magnificent spiciness reminiscent of an oriental bazaar. Last but certainly not least Alsace also provides its own contribution to the world of Riesling with its richer, full-bodied and powerful styles.

Four of the numerous outstanding personalities in Alsace: Olivier Humbrecht (Zind-Humbrecht),

Pierre Trimbach with his daughter Anne and the biodynamic pioneer Jean-Pierre Frick

Tradition doesn’t mean sweet

The impression that it is an Alsatian tradition to produce wines with residual sugar isn’t helpful for the regional image. Over the past decades, wine styles have become unpredictable, one of the biggest criticisms that can be levelled against Alsatian wines. Will the wine be dry, off-dry, semi-sweet, or sweet? One cannot tell when looking at the label and the efforts to put a scale on the label which shows the sweetness levels have to be communicated much better to become effective. This tendency to produce full-bodied and ever sweeter wines had to do with the number of great (meaning hot) vintages over the past 15 years, making it difficult to produce a dry wine with fresh acidity under 14,5 % ABV, then there was the trend of wine critics in the past awarding high scores for those wines. It took a while for journalists to realise that residual sugar isn’t the same as extract and that quality isn’t equal to concentration. There clearly is a trend for more elegant and drier wines, which are not meant to enter competitions but for drinking a whole evening long.

The Grand Cru System

As Olivier Humbrecht explains, Grand Cru wines in Alsace represent only 4% of the total production. As of 2007, when the single vineyard Kaefferkopf was added to the list, 51 Grand Cru vineyards have existed in Alsace. The concept of Grand Cru is relatively young, it started in 1975 when the first Grand Cru vineyard was classified, continued in 1983 with a list of 25 Grand Cru hillsides, followed by another 25 vineyards classified in 1985. The Grand Cru wines are made from four grape varieties: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris. There are a few exceptions: Sylvaner is allowed in the Zotzenberg Grand Cru and varietal blends are allowed in the Altenberg de Bergheim Grand Cru and in the Kaefferkopf Grand Cru.

The main criticism of this concept is that the boundaries are sometimes very extensive. This, combined with their long history are the reasons for wineries like Trimbach and Hugel not to participate in the Grand Cru regulations at all. They kept their successful wine types like “Cuvée Frédéric Emile” (Trimbach) which since the 19th century has been a blend of Riesling grown in the Grand Cru vineyards Osterberg and Geisberg. Furthermore, almost all icon wines from Alsace are named after small parcels in Grand Cru vineyards like the “Clos St. Hune” (Trimbach) in the Grand Cru Rosacker, “Clos de Capucins” (Weinbach) in the Grand Cru Schlossberg, “Clos St-Landelin” (Muré) in the Grand Cru Vorbourg, “Clos Hauserer” (Zind-Humbrecht) in the Grand Cru Hengst and “Clos St-Urbain” (Zind-Humbrecht) in the Grand Cru Rangen. Some of them mention the Grand Cru vineyard additionally on the label, others not. This doesn’t strengthen the Grand Cru classification.

However, there are promising developments. Since 2011 each of the Grand Crus has become a separate AOP with separate rules and every local Grand Cru syndicate now has the opportunity to develop its own rules. The syndicates Hengst and Vorbourg are considering including Pinot Noir in the list of authorised grape varieties. If the INAO eventually approves these amendments, they would become the first red wine Grand Crus in Alsace. Some Grand Cru syndicates will also define environmental requirements and it is possible that we will see the first appellations where organic or even biodynamic viticulture is obligatory. This is exciting.

Time for a revival

You will only understand Alsace wines when you go to a local, traditional French restaurant. Here you get fabulous chou croute (sounds better and tastes more elegant than Sauerkraut…) served with hearty sausages, which fits perfectly with rich and savoury Alsatian Riesling. Smoked goose breast served on salad of lentils tastes heavenly with full-bodied, not too dry Pinot Gris. Very ripe, creamy and a bit stinky Munster cheese is melting in your mouth and asking for the perfumed bouquet and oily texture of a not too dry Gewurztraminer and when you get wild fowl like pheasant it matches with the local, not too heavy Pinot Noir. But the best here is goose liver – in the elegant bourgeoise restaurants they save so self-evidently goose liver of the highest quality imaginable. It’s just terrine, perfectly seasoned, served with delicious brioche and not something over-engineered, fancy with foam, jelly and exploding powder. It is this kind of cuisine that is made to please the guests and not to massage the ego of the chef. Alsatian wines are the perfect match for this food. My dear friends, it’s time for a revival!

Alsace – time for a revival – Sommelier Guild
Alsace – time for a revival – Sommelier Guild
Alsace – time for a revival – Sommelier Guild
Alsace – time for a revival – Sommelier Guild