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Alsace: some general observations in the context of the Association of Wine Educators’ trip supported by CIVA, July 2015

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

Alsace: some general observations in the context of the AWE trip supported by CIVA, July 2015The fact that Alsace is one of the most privileged wine regions in the world and is capable of making some correspondingly magnificent wine is not appreciated by the majority of British wine drinkers. But their ignorance is largely forgivable; the bulk of Alsace wine merits a reputation no greater than of just being pleasantly fruity. The purpose of the visit by members of the Association of Wine Educators in July 2015 was therefore to better understand the rich potential of the region through a special focus on some of its brightest and most thoughtful winemakers, and to discover how the quality of their wines relates to that of the better merchant houses and co-operatives. My purpose here, though, is not to assess that directly, but to try and put what we saw and tasted into a wider context, seasoned by a few more personal reflections.

Alsace’s Natural Advantages

Alsace is not a very large wine region, with around 15,500 hectares under vine, but it offers a plethora of top class site and soils types unequalled anywhere else in the world of commercial viticulture. The eastern slopes of the Vosges, with the myriad of smaller ridges and valleys running into them offers a bewildering variety of site and slope, for more complex for example, that anything to be found in Burgundy or the Rhône Valley. Coupled with this is an extraordinary geological diversity that encompasses, granite, schist, greywacke, metamorphic conglomerates, sandstones, limestone, flint, gypsum, clay and marl (of various kinds), sand, loess, and both glacial and alluvial gravels.
All this would, of course, be little worth if Alsace were not also blessed with highly favourable climate for quality grape production. It is the most continental of any French region. The Vosges form a highly effective rain shadow, which means that the annual rainfall in Colmar is just about 600mm (well spread out over the year, but slightly higher during the growing season). The average summer high temperature in July and August is around 26C, but with a marked diurnal range. The annual total of sunshine hours of around 1800 is not especially high, but is more than adequate.

The grape varieties of Alsace are, by and large, appropriate to its climate and multiplicity of site types. Riesling is Alsace’s greatest asset and the area of its planting has risen steadily since the Second World War. The top wines provide a noble and powerful expression of their terroir, but those from over-cropped sites on the plain are little more than simply fruity.
Sylvaner has declined markedly over the same period, notwithstanding the convincing efforts of some to show that with restricted yields on the right site it can create something of beauty.
Gewurztraminer holds steady and can be magnificent. Muscat, both Ottonel and Petits Grains (Muscat d’Alsace) remains a largely misunderstood minority interest, though Olivier Humbrecht showed just how superb and age-worthy the latter can be if handled properly. A dry Muscat 1981 from the Grand Cru Goldert was intense, complex and remarkably fresh.

Pinot Noir is often disappointing, sometimes good, occasionally very good, but rarely outstanding. Alsace has ideal conditions for great Pinot Noir, but it is seldom planted anywhere near the best sites. Many growers do not seem able to get the best out of it and some that do tend to spoil it by a rather misplaced enthusiasm for new oak. Olivier Humbrecht put the quest for the perfect Pinot into context: ‘Find me a better Gewurztraminer outside Alsace, that’s a challenge. A better Pinot Noir outside Alsace is not a challenge.’ He reserves his best sites for Riesling andGewurztraminer, and yet wonders that if a red wine must be made, some warm, granitic sites might better suit Syrah. Of course, much Pinot Noir disappears to very good effect into Crémant.

Alsace is still the source of the world’s finest, richest, most extravagantly complex and exciting Pinot Gris, even if much of it fails to scale such heights. Pinot Blanc, however, is a conundrum. Most of it forms the very adequate base material for Crémant (around 56% of the total), but sparkling or not, most of it, of course, is not Pinot Blanc at all but Auxerrois. As with Pinot Noir, a few inspired growers show the heights to which both, unrelated varieties are capable. Some old plots are co-plantations of both Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc, but it is surely time for Alsace to stop being shy about Auxerrois and call it what it is. There’s no need to be ashamed of it.

Although co-plantations and field blends attract a lot of critical attention, probably because of the advocacy of Marcel Deiss and some other high-profile growers, there is little evidence that they will catch on more widely, nor, I suspect, will some of the new experiments of oaked, Pinot-based, dry wines bearing village appellations, even though some of them are actually rather good as Guillaume Mochel and Agathe Bursin both showed.

The bind of residual sugar and the lack of explicit labelling continue to irritate UK critics. Most other markets seem far more relaxed about this issue. A plague on both camps. It is surely perverse to not indicate that a wine such as Meyer-Fonné’s delicious Pinot Gris, Hinterburg de Katzenthal not a wine tasted by the AWE group) might contain almost as much sugar as a Vendanges Tardives wine, and its is equally silly to balk at 7 or 8 grams of sugar in a supposedly ‘dry’ Alsace Riesling, when some much-lauded New Zealand Riesling has more. The best growers (including, of course, Felix Meyer), are rightly more concerned about balance in their wines and regard sugar along with acidity and fruit character as a legitimate building block of this.

Problems facing Alsace wine growers

True Vendanges Tardives and even more, Sélection des Grains Nobles wines are becoming rare. The last three vintages have provided far from ideal conditions for them. Weather more than climate has been more of a problem in recent years. Autumn rainfall has frustrated growers hoping to make late harvest wines and more generally, the fast onset of grey rot has meant hasty harvests with the need for rigorous selection. Meanwhile, lack of rainfall in the early season, not least in 2015, has led to water stress.
Alsace has largely if not entirely escaped the devastating hail storms that have so significantly reduced Burgundy’s crop in recent seasons, but the arrival of drosophila suzukii in 2014 was just as catastrophic, especially for growers of dark-skinned varieties because it facilitated the rapid spread of rot. The level of losses varied greatly across the region, but black clones of Muscat d’Alsace, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer all suffered.

Trunk disease, especially Esca is rampant, and although some growers hold that it may be contained to an extent by changes to their pruning regime, especially in winter and more specifically by adopting the Guyot-Poussard method, which seeks to reduce the number of large wounds and to adopt a common ‘sap route’ from one season to the next. Losses from trunk disease, however, are most marked amongst mature vines at the apex of their productive life.

Finally, some growers in Alsace have come to regret an enthusiasm for rootstock 160-49C, which has become unexpectedly prone to premature withering. Suitable replacements are not obvious and some quality-minded producers have even resorted to SO4, arguing that its vigour may be controlled by trellising, training, in tandem with a desire to keep yields lower than once was common in Alsace.

Key trends in the Alsace wine industry

While the number of growers has fallen dramatically from around 12,000 in 1969 to 4,200 in 2014, the balance of power in the trade has barely shifted over the last forty years: 20% is sold by vignerons indépendants; 39% by producteurs-négociants and 41% by co-ops. Meanwhile, the amount of land under vine has risen markedly 9,441 ha in 1969 to around 15,545 in 2014. The effect of this has been to further emphasize the significance of a relatively small handful of high-volume producers, 200 of whom are responsible for 89% of the volume of Alsace wine. As much as ever before they represent the face and character of Alsace wine on the domestic and export markets. Overall exports of Alsace wine at 27% of volume represents a higher proportion of sales than the Loire Valley though a little less than that of the Rhône.

Over the last two generations the main story in Alsace has not been so much the concentration of production in fewer hands, nor of the demise of Sylvaner in the vineyard, but the apparently inexorable increase in the production of Crémant, from barely 6 thousand hl in 1977 to over 271 thousand hl in 2014: 26.8% of the total production. This is the main reason why the Pinot varieties have also increased their profile in the vineyard. Crémant ranks only behind Champagne in sales on the French domestic market at around 30% of the total market excluding Champagne, though it still falls well below the Loire Valley appellations in terms of total production.
Another striking feature of Alsace is the number of growers (281) dedicated to organic viticulture, including 21% of all vignerons indépendants. This represents 14.2% of the Alsace vineyard in production or conversion, a near fourfold increase in a little over ten years and a proportion twice the national average. Many other growers openly practise an organic regime but withoutseeking certification.

What next?

Alsace wines are marketed in the UK as ‘terroir-driven wines with pure fruit expression.’ With ‘authenticity, elegance and balanced fruit flavours’ (www.alsacewines.co.uk). At their best they are much more interesting as I hope the various reports on individual producers reveal. But the nature of the trade structure is unlikely to change and the now familiar pattern of relatively cheap and cheerful wines versus a minority of extraordinarily fine seems certain to persist. The proportion of sales of Grand Cru wines is, of course small (around 4% of production). It remains to be seen whether or not the proposed addition of Premiers Crus will make it easier for those who have already discovered the delights of Alsace wine to explore more of their diversity, or whether it will just serve to confuse. The very real conundrum for Alsace is that is that is has such a simple appellation regime, coupled with easy to understand labelling, and yet makes such an astonishingly subtle variety of wine styles.

Crémant provides a quite different story. In late June I was privileged to attend a blind tasting of 26 Crémants organised by a leading tasting group, made up of wine professionals and experienced amateurs. I was impressed by the overall quality, but surprised how well the wine made by the big houses and co-ops showed. The top independent growers did not shine as I had expected, or as they might have done in a flight of still wines. In the production of high-quality sparkling wine, a certain economy of scale may be an advantage. But Crémant d’Alsace is rarely seen in the UK. I asked Nicolas Garde of the Cave de Hunawihr why this is so. He muttered the answer I fully expected: ‘Prosecco!’ What a shame.

Alsace trends and some star growers

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

I have been fortunate to visit Alsace two or three times each year over the past few years. I am impressed by what I find, especially from independent, family estates, many of which are now run by a new generation of winemakers, who have often gained considerable early experience in other parts of France and the wider world. While such experience undoubtedly helps them to question ‘traditional’ ways of growing vines and making wine in Alsace, they also tend to have come home determined to make wine that is unambiguously Alsatian. One illustration is the care some quality-minded, terroir–conscious growers have lavished on Sylvaner, a variety that bigger producers, merchant houses and co-operatives have moved away from in recent years.

On 5 March I was delighted to be asked to present a range of wines to member of the Association of Wine Educators, all from smaller independent producers, and many from this newer generation.

I have combined a brief paper I wrote for that event, with some notes on some of my favourite producers.

While it’s clear that Alsace keeps growing quietly and changing slowly, the UK market is not significant (number eight overall, and way down the list for Crémant, behind Lithuania and Ireland). An example of the lack of interest in the UK market (on both sides on the Channel) is that UbiFrance have not been able to find enough Alsace growers to make an Alsace Riesling table viable at the Great Riesling Tasting in London on 12 May 2014. The advice given by the CIVA (the growers’ organisation) early in 2014 to some producers that the UK drinkers would find the level of acidity too high in Riesling and that producers should look to export wines from the Pinot family instead further illustrates the gulf of understanding that hampers the prospects for the growth of Alsace wine imports into the UK.

While UK drinkers have been quietly ignoring Alsace, the vineyard has grown from 9,441 ha in 1969 to 15,500 in 2012.

The number of growers has fallen dramatically from around 12,000 in 1969 to 4,400 in 2012, but the balance of power in the trade has barely shifted over the last forty years: 20% is sold by vignerons indépendants; 39% by producteurs-négociants and 41% by co-ops.

Yields have fallen slowly – but are still fairly high). The introduction of cover crops and move to sustainable and organic practice has been the main factor in change. Limits are 80hl/ha in 2012 except 60 hl/ha for Alsace Rouge and around 55 hl/ha for Grand Cru).

13.7% of the Alsace vineyard is either certified organic or in conversion to certified status.
The preferred rootstock in recent years in Alsace has often been 160-49C, but in a number of regions, including Alsace it has become prone to premature withering. Some vines will need to be replanted. Flavesence Dorée has not yet affected Alsace, Trunk diseases, however, Esca, Black Dead Arm and Eutypa Die Back are now a major concern. Research published 2013 (Vitis 52 (4) 197-20) explores a link between higher incidence of Esca with late harvest, and climate variables.

The distribution of varietals in the vineyard has changed considerably, in general away from Sylvaner, Chasselas (together 37.9% of total in 1969, but only 8.1% in 2012) and field blends (down from 8% to just 0.5%), despite the advocacy of Marcel Deiss for high-end field blends, towards Riesling (up from 12.7% in 1969 to 21.9% in 2012), Pinot Blanc (including the totally different Auxerrois), Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. The relative proportion of Gewürztraminer has remained virtually unchanged over this period and Muscat, never a big player, has slipped a little further.
The enthusiasm for the Pinot family is shown by an increase from 17.2% of the vineyard to 46.5% of a cake that is a third bigger in 2012. Part of this enthusiasm is the success of Crémant, which accounts for 23% of all Alsace production.

Quite a lot of younger growers are keen to experiment. Barrel fermented and aged Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris is increasingly common, if still a relative rarity.

Another trend is a delight in terroir. In the argument about whether or not Alsace should introduce Premiers Crus, the figure cited of wines sold by lieu-dit, is only 10% of production, but this still seems significant. The 51 Grands Crus represent a further 4% of total production). Associated with this is a minority interest in field blends, and as I pointed about above, in defending the reputation of unfashionable varieties, especially Sylvaner.

The long and short of all this, is that Alsace may look much the same, but under the surface there is more variety of style than even a decade ago, pushed and pulled by a new generation of producers enthusiastic about organics, biodynamics and natural wine, by playing with the Pinot family and by looking to make more concentrated, terroir-driven wines.

There has never been a clear consensus in Alsace about malo-lactic conversion – so do it, others don’t. Few producers bother to talk about it.
That said, high-volume wine styles haven’t changed much. Most wines are unoaked and many have a little residual sugar. Producers may be forgiven for ignoring UK requests for greater of transparency on Alsace labels, after all we tend to ignore Alsace.

And so to a few of those favourite growers whose wines have impressed me recently:

Agathe Bursin has 6 hectares of vines in and around Westhalten. She dreamed of becoming a wine-maker while still at school and achieved her goal with quiet determination. Her wine-making is simple, classic and very clean. Vinifications are in stainless steel, with a little creamy complexity added by 4 to 8 months’ aging on the fine lees. Unlike many of her peers she is not interested in organic certification, but shares their concern for soil health and sustainability.

What impresses me is the purity and precision of her wines and the way in which they really do seem to express their terroir. Everything seems to be well-handled, but her Sylvaner bears witness to the excellence of her work. I was delighted that my AWE colleagues were, for example, as thrilled as I am by her Sylvaner ‘Emminence’ 2012, which is from low-yielding (30 hl/ha) vines planted in 1920 on the Grand Cru Zinnkoepflé a steep, south to south-east-facing sandy and calcareous slope with clay over limestone. The wine has as much as 20 g/l residual sugar, but has wonderful freshness despite a total acidity of just 4.91g/l (tartaric). It is spicy, floral and intense. A similarly floral quality, unusual perhaps in a wine from a clay soil, is her Riesling Vendanges Tardives 2011 from the same site, and balanced by crunchy acidity.

Etienne Loew has a little over 8 ha. of vines, tended biodynamically, and is based in the Westhoffen in the north of the region. He too makes remarkably fine Sylvaner: ‘Verité’, from 82 year-old vines, a wine with much fresher, more persistent acidity (even in 2011) than Sylvaner often shows. His ‘Premières Vendanges de Marguerite’, named in honour of his daughter and made from Red Sylvaner is a fascinating rarity. Bright pink, spicy, soft but quite intense, the 2012 may lack complexity, but it’s a good drink. Etienne says that Red Sylvaner ripens earlier than the white clones and is capable of high sugar levels. It is also very productive indeed, to the extent that it is capable of 300 hl/ha if unchecked. A green harvest is essential.

There are no obvious weak links in the Domaine Loew range. Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer are both excellent, but the Rieslings have classic, classy finesse and each express the particularities of their site and year with great precision, yet also show a consistently and highly-appealing creamy texture, typified by Riesling Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergbieten, though if I had to pick just one it would probably be the south-facing, iron-rich limestone of Suessenberg, not a Grand Cru, but on this evidence a site capable of producing a wine of true Grand Cru power, elegance and complexity. I love the spicy aromas and firm structure of the 2011.

Frédéric Mochel also makes exceptional Riesling Altenberg de Bergbieten. The 10 hectare estate, with 5 hectares on the Altenberg is now run by Frédéric’s son Guillaume, who clearly knows what he’s doing. He has an acute eye and nose for detail. I have followed this estate, which is based in Traenheim for many years and have always enjoyed their wine, but under Guillaume’s guidance it has reached new heights of excellence. The wines are now certified organic. There are no weak links here, but Riesling and Gewurztraminer are consistently outstanding and I have always found that the top sweet wines show something rather special. The Riesling Séléction des Grains Nobles 2007, for example, is a marvel: An intense, smoky butterscotch botrytis nose gives way to a palate in which 120 g/l residual sugar is balanced by beautifully fresh acidity – a wonderfully concentrated, yet extremely fine wine with a pure fruit quality that I find beguiling.

Domaine Lucas et André Rieffel is another advocate of fine Sylvaner. Based in Mittelbergheim where there is a high proportion of old Sylvaner vines and a long history of success with the variety, including Zotzenberg, the only Grand Cru site to allow a Grand Cru Sylvaner, there is real potential for high quality Sylvaner here. Lucas Rieffel was mentored by André Ostertag and has converted the family’s 10 hectare estate to organic production (certified in 2012) and is now employing some biodynamic techniques. Lucas’s Sylvaners are indeed excellent, especially the Grand Cru Zoztenberg from 65 year-old vines, but he makes very fine Riesling and Gewrztraminer too.Mittelbergheim

Elegance and precision are again very apparent, and fresh acidity, even though the wine sometimes undergo malo-lactic conversion. Grand Cru Pinot Gris 2008 from the Kirchberg in Barr is a fine example of the house style, in which fine acidity is here matched by weight and richness in a dry wine with 14.5% alcohol, though it hides its power deftly. The wine is part aged in old oak barrels for twelve months. Pinot Noir is another speciality. The secret of making truly great Pinot Noir, which is all too rare in Alsace, Lucas says, is to have ‘good maturity’ and this need not be at the expense of acidity levels. The vines are also planted to an unusually high density in Alsace (7,000 per hectare). ‘Kreuzel’ Pinot Noir 2012 from a lieu dit on eastern slopes of the Grand Cru Zotzenberg certainly gives the impression of having juicy acidity and well as sweetly-ripe, intense fruit flavours with elegance and great length. It is a remarkable wine.

Lucas Rieffel is also giving a helping hand to another gifted young winemaker, Catherine Riss, by allowing her space in the cellar to make her wine. Catherine, formally employed as a winemaker by Chapoutier has also been supported by Antoine Kreydenweiss. She rents 1.5 hectares spread over 12 parcels, all managed biodynamically. Her first three wines are very promising: a Riesling, and Pinot Noir (with no added sulphites) and an eclectic blend of Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner and Gewurztraminer. All her wines are aged in old barrels and all show considerable complexity. 2012 Riesling, with elegant pure fruit impresses me most. Catherine Riss

Another estate with an impressive track-record of success with Pinot Noir is Pierre et Frédéric Becht. They are based at Dorlisheim and have a substantial holding on the Stierkopf, the finest lieu-dit of Mutzig: a steep, south-facing site with clay marl soils and some sandstone intrusions. Altitude 333 (from Stierkopf) is aged 18 months in new Burgundian oak barrels, but the wood does not dominate. The wine has both depth of fruit and finesse. It’s slightly less concentrated sibling, Cuvée Frédéric is also very good indeed.

Becht’s wines are amongst the best value in the whole of Alsace. Their fine range of Crémants is a house speciality. As Pierre is ready to demonstrate by opening old bottles with his grandfather’s sword, à la volée, they also have the capacity to develop considerable finesse if they are allowed longer than usual time to age on the lees.
Frédéric has experimented over a number of years with the vinification and aging of others wines new oak. These even include Auxerrois. At first I felt, I was not fully convinced. The oak dominated the fruit and I felt this was an experiment too far, but more recently, I have been impressed by Frédéric’s skill in preserving the fruit and allowing the barrels to add texture to the wine rather than obtrusive aromas and phenolics.

The finest wines from Stierkopf in the Becht portfolio are undoubtedly Riesling. The best of these is Cuvée Christine, a rich, complex wine which bears 10g/l of residual sugar with aplomb, well balanced by plenty of zesty acidity. The standard cuvee of Riesling Stierkopf is much drier at around 3g/l. Sometimes little closed and austere when first bottled, it has consistently shown the ability to develop a great deal of complexity with age – up to twenty years.

Frederic Becht