The Best Kept Secret in French White Wine: An Old Alsace Dinner
While France arguably has the most prominent reputation in the world for reds, when it comes to white wines things get more complicated. No country holds a monopoly on magnificent whites and France’s most famous white export – white Burgundy – is a relatively recent entrant (with the exception of Chablis, where Chardonnay plantings date back to the 12th century). While Alsace itself is certainly not as under the radar as, say, Gringet from the Savoie, in North America very few consumers or collectors stock Alsace in their cellars for long ageing. What are they, and probably you, missing? Some of the greatest white wine experiences in the world, and for less than half the price of white Burgundy.
But Alsace is far more than a collection of excellent wines. It is a land of diversity and adversity. The experiences of this land, its people (who have come and gone), its hybrid Franco-Germanic character, and the vastness of its opportunities, has created one of the wine world’s greatest metaphors for life: the canvass is broad, the context fundamental, but it is experience, learning, diversity and history that makes us what we are. In Alsace, the same is true of its wines.
Of Varietal Wines and Politics: The History of Alsace
It is not possible to understand Alsace’s current appearance – a beautifully lush valley dotted with endless vineyards and quaint, medieval wine villages – without some history. While first cultivated by the Romans, it wasn’t until the region became christianized under the Frankish chieftan Clovis that Alsace began down its current path. From the 7th to the 15th century, Alsace become known throughout Europe as a top quality source for wine. The boom in vineyards led to an ever growing number of tiny wine villages that supported the industry. The region’s most famous vineyards themselves embody the history of the region, with crus such as Mambourg (named in the 8th century), Hengst (9th century), Altenbourg de Bergheim (12th century), Rosacker (15th century), and Pfersigberg (16th century) reflecting the expanding plantings in the region. Alsace’s exports peaked in the 15th century at nearly double what they are today and this success gave rise to a very wealthy wine merchant class. It was also at this time that modern Alsace began to emerge, with the first varietal white wine (Riesling) gaining a reputation in the late 15th century. Traminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris followed in the 16th century.
By the 17th century Alsace had drifted into decline due to various political machinations, wars and treaties. It began to revive after the French revolution, declined during the Napoleonic wars due to trade tariffs, and revived again after the first world war. During this time Alsace switched hands between France and Germany many times, though it was always the German market that provided the greatest support for Alsatian wines – a fact that remains true to this day.
Running parallel to these political changes throughout history was the birth, death and rebirth of the noble grapes. Whereas the 15th and 16th centuries saw the rise of these varieties in single varietal wines with significant reputations, this approach nearly died out until the 20th century, replaced instead with lesser grapes such as Zwicker, blends and hybrids. It was not actually until the 1980’s that Alsace had eliminated the majority of these lesser grapes, returning to what made the region noble in the first place.
Of Blends and Varieties: Viticulture and Vinification
Despite the dominance of varietally labelled wines today, the original viticultural approach in Alsace was co-plantation of multiple varieties together. This, of course, poses problems with respect to ripeness as different varieties mature at different times. The single variety practice has allowed vintners to make a huge variety of wines from certain sites, picked at different times, and for the most part I believe this is the best approach. Further experimentation by the likes of Zind-Humbrecht and others have isolated special lieu-dits or clos vineyards as most suited to particular varieties, resulting in replantings. One example is the Clos Windsbuhl vineyard which Zind-Humbrecht now believes is best suited for Pinot Gris.
In contrast to this approach, some producers still maintain co-plantation is the best expression of terroir. The leading light in this respect is Marcel Deiss, whose most famous wines from the Grand Crus of Mambourg, Schoenenbourg and Altenberg de Bergheim are all co-plantations he harvests at the same time. In the hands of Deiss, this method produces not only stunning wine, but some of the most idiosyncratic expressions of Alsatian terroir.
The complexity of this approach is clear when one considers that, though bud-break generally occurs in March for all varieties, the harvest time for each differs considerably, ranging from September to October in the following order: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Sylvaner and Chasselas. Further, each of these grapes generally performs best in certain soil types. For example, Pinot Gris prefers mineral rich silty-clay or volcanic rock whereas Riesling prefers granitic, limestone or marl soils.
Deiss, however, challenges that the reason most growers cannot make good field blends in Alsace is because of modern vinification and young vines, which have shallow root systems. This results in the various varieties ripening unevenly. In the old vine vineyards farmed by Deiss, he claims the varieties reach ideal ripeness essentially at the same time. These vineyards lie on slopes in the foothills of the Vosges and, as such, have deeper soils and permeable rocks, allowing for deeper root systems.
There is further variation when it comes to vinification. Many primary ferments occur in foudres rather than steel or barrique, though these days you will find the full range of fermentation vessels in Alsace. Further differentiation occurs with the use of malo, with some producers eschewing it completely, others letting the ferment run its course naturally, and still others choosing differing degrees of malo depending on variety and vintage. Deiss, for example, neither forces nor arrests malo, instead letting fermentation run its course. Sometimes this means fermentation can take 3 weeks and other times it can take a year.
Of Vineyards and Brands: Should Alsace have Grand Cru?
This debate would already be lost if three of Alsace’s top domains hadn’t refused to adhere to the Grand Cru system: Leon Beyer, Trimbach and Hugel. The sheer volume of wine these producers make, along with their reputation, has kept the debate alive. It is not so much a debate about whether Alsace has diverse terroir, but whether the Grand Cru system is too simplistic and too political and thus not reflective of Alsace’s true diversity of place.
In an interview with Jamie Drummond in Toronto, Marc Beyer of Domaine Leon Beyer explained that if one were to properly differentiate the great terroirs of Alsace there would need to be thousands of vineyards, not 51 (which is the current number of Grand Crus). While perhaps somewhat hyperbolic, I do believe (as do many producers, including Marcel Deiss who uses the Grand Cru system) that there are numerous lieu-dits that produce outstanding wines of Grand Cru quality but that do not have the fortune to bear that moniker. This might confuse some consumers into thinking there is either Grand Cru or not, with the highest quality restricted to the former. This is not the case, and the best non-Grand Cru lieu-dit wines can far far outclass Grand Cru wines from lesser producers.
Politics is palpable as well, with the authorities refusing to grant Domaine Weinbach Grand Cru status for its Clos Capucins vineyard simply because the vineyard is wholly owned by the domaine. In Burgundy this would make little sense and would preclude great wines such as Clos du Tart or Romanee-Conti from Grand Cru status.
As such, none of Beyer, Trimbach or Hugel label their wines with the vineyards from which they come, instead preferring to create a hugely confusing tier of various wines ranging from entry level to Grand Cru. I can imagine most consumers being thrown off completely in any attempt to understand the difference between the ‘Gentil’ bottlings and regular bottlings of Hugel based on label alone. Combine this with the total inability of a consumer to determine whether a wine from Alsace is ‘sweet’ or ‘dry’, and Alsace has a significant marketing issue in North America, which likely contributes to its sales challenges here. As with all things nuanced and French, there is little chance this confusion will be resolved soon.
Of Making and Expressing: The Key Villages
Alsace is a skinny, long region flowing from Strasbourg in the north down to Mulhouse, some 117 kilometres to the south. But the thread of vineyards is no more than a couple kilometres wide. Along the way you will find over 100 villages, many with lieu-dits, though the greatest concentration of Grand Cru vineyards (there are 51) cluster around the central city of Colmar.
At approximately 15,000 hectares, Alsace is half the size of Burgundy (writ large), though double the size of the Cote d’Or. However, when focusing on the key central villages from Bergheim down to Guebwiller (aka the Haut-Rhin), there is little difference in size between the top vineyards in Burgundy and Alsace. The comparison is apt given that, despite this small size, the soil variations in the Haut-Rhin are nearly as diverse as the Cote d’Or (and indeed are the second most varied in all of France). While too simplistic to isolate soil types as inherently creating one effect, in general the following holds true: clay produces body and structure, gravel restraint, limestone elegance, sand fruit and lightness, schist delicacy and florality, and granite full-bodied and long lived wines. These are useful signposts to remember when considering the various villages and styles of Alsace.
The key influence on Alsatian terroir is the Vosges mountains, which are very broad and prevent the vast majority of Atlantic precipitation from reaching Alsace. The mountains also moderate temperatures, creating a hybrid continental/maritime climate that is warm and dry in the summer but cool in the winter. The best vineyards sit nestled in the foothills of the Vosges, rather than on the plain, and bask in the greater warmth and more suitable soils available there from 200 to 400 metres above sea level.
Starting up in Bergheim one will find, along with producers such as Deiss, a protected enclave of limestone soils housing the famous Altenberg vineyard, which produces powerful, fleshy wines due to the warmness of the valley below the town.
A couple kilometres south in Hunawihr, Trimbach makes its famous Clos St. Hune with grapes from a small, special part of the Rosacker vineyard and its marl, limestone and sandstone soils. Next door in Ribeauville, Trimbach composes its ‘second’ Riesling, Cuvee Federic Emile, using a blend of grapes from the Osterberg and Geisberg vineyards and their mix of heavy clay and limestone marls combined with the cooler breezes that pass through the valley in which the village is nestled (below one of the many ruined castles in the region).
Hugel is located in the famous town of Riquewihr (where I stayed during my visit a few years ago) and makes a number of wines from the Grand Cru Schoenenbourg, which is comprised of sand and marl soils. One of the great Deiss co-plantation blends also hails from this vineyard.
Still further south you will find the charming, artisan town of Kaysersberg (my favourite in all of Alsace) and the stunning wines of Domaine Weinbach, which owns the entirety of its Clos des Capucins (which is of Grand Cru quality though not officially Grand Cru), and also makes beautiful wines from the Grand Cru Schlossberg, sitting on granite slopes rising above the town.
Skipping past Colmar and a number of other top sites, one will find the classicist producer Leon Beyer in the town of Eguisheim. While, as discussed above, rejecting the grand cru system, Beyer makes its top Riesling from the limestone soils of the Pfersigberg vineyard, which runs up the hill just above Eguisheim.
Many more villages and vineyards dot the landscape just outside Colmar (itself a beautiful and historical city well worth visiting), but one of the most important sites for Zind-Humbrect actually lies at the very base of Alsace in the village of Thann: Rangen. It is from the Grand Cru Rangen that Mr. Zind-Humbrecht produces one of his very best Rieslings, perhaps due to its unique Volcanic soils. Of note also is the Rangen Riesling from Domaine Schoffit, which in recent years has become one of the best in Alsace.
Each of these hundreds of villages has its own history and lore, too numerous and detailed to delve into here. What matters is that Alsace is steeped in history, making it fascinating not just as a wine region but also as a key crossroads between France and Germany with a wine history deeply interwoven with political conflicts and wars, and divisions between Catholics and Protestants. The food specialties and soil and site changes down the belly of the Vosges mountains highlight what is truly one of the most important and exciting white wine regions in the world.
Of Age and Dignity: Drinking the Wines of Alsace
As for the wines themselves? I sat down with a few colleagues and a bunch of older bottles to see just how these underrated whites performed with age. The results were amongst the most consistent and exciting of any white wine tasting I’ve attended.
We began by exploring two older Grand Cru’s from Deiss. The 1997 Altenberg de Bergheim Grand Cru, though labelled Riesling, is in fact a blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. The wine poured a beautiful mellow golden brown and was fully developed with honey, caramels, orchard fruit and impeccable fullness of character. This was one of the greatest Alsatian wines I’ve tasted. Excellent+.
The 1999 Schoenenbourg Grand Cru was quite different in Character than the ‘97. It, too, is an assemblage of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, though there is a higher percentage of Riesling in this wine as compared to the Altenberg. While objectively a little less balanced, with a shorter finish and a slightly less full mid-palate, the 1999 was still oustanding wine, with vanilla, florals and an egg custard aroma. Very Good+ to Excellent.
The richness of both these wines comes from Deiss’ later harvests. In fact, he often picks the Schoenenbourg with some botrytis as he feels this character is simply part of the vineyard’s terroir.
While often the basic wine of a famous producer can be unexciting, this is not true of Deiss. Tasted after the two monumental Grand Crus above, the 2007 Deiss Riesling nonetheless demonstrated a classic mid-weight Alsatian Riesling with distinction and balance. It is superb at 1/5th the price of the Grand Crus, even if not indicative of Deiss’ field-blend approach. Very Good+.
The next two wines were a study in both a drier, more austere style of Alsatian Riesling and of two classic producers that have rejected the Grand Cru system.
The Trimbach Frederic Emile Riesling 2002 was still quite tight, despite the dozen years of age. A savory, linear wine with petrol and lemon. This needs another decade at least. This wine is considered one of the greatest Rieslings in Alsace and the 2002 testified to nearly unparalleled density and cut. One of the reasons for the house style is the choice never to use malo-lactic fermentation, meaning that the wines are much higher in sour malic acid and need considerable aging to shed that intensity. Excellent.
In contrast to Trimbach was Leon Beyer’s top Riesling, the Comtes de Eguisheim Riesling 2004 (from the Pfersigberg Grand Cru), which is made in a more austere style but is lusher and more forward than Trimbach. Beyer’s rejection of the Grand Cru system lies not only in a belief that the system is politicized but also in an emphasis on human choices over vineyard – i.e. Beyer believes it is human influence more than vineyard that is responsible for the quality of a wine. I agree in part, though clearly source material is highly relevant. Whatever philosophy you adhere to, this is an outstanding Riesling, which was broad and citric with impressive dry extract. One taster felt the finish was slightly hot, though I personally found the wine very well balanced, truly outstanding and one of the best of the evening. Excellent to Excellent+.
Zind-Humbrecht’s 2006 Clos St. Urbain Brand Grand Cru Riesling was idiosyncratic and stunning. A honeyed style that is massively powerful and intense, but also long, floral and perfectly balanced. Though it is labelled at 15% ABV, there is no perception of alcohol on this wine. Zind-Humbrecht is one of the masters of Alsace and makes an unparalleled range of wines that vary more than any other house in the region. While he tends towards very long ripening, his wines are never hot. On one occasion you might find a Pinot Gris with rending fruit intensity and on the other a Riesling with deftness and poise. This wine deserved an Excellent to Excellent+.
A flawed Weinbach Muscat left this important house unrepresented at the tasting, though having visited the domain and tasted many of the wines I can attest to the voluptuous and fundamentally delicious house style here. These are pleasure wines and taste and feel the complete opposite of Trimbach’s masochistic masterpieces.
We returned to Deiss with a Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) Selection de Grains Nobles Gewurztraminer 2003. This may have been the most perfumed Gewurzt I’ve experienced, quite an achievement for a famously perfurmed grape. My notes say rosewater, lychee, tropical fruit. Greater lift than most Gewurztraminer and there is freshness in the wine that keeps its texture pleasurable rather than syrupy. Excellent to Excellent+.
Alsatian whites are amongst the most age-worthy in France and easily sit within the upper echelon of white wines in the world. They are also very affordable for the quality, with Grand Crus that can age for 10+ years regularly available for $40-$70. Nonetheless, these wines rarely find themselves in the glasses of most North American wine consumers.
Concluding Thoughts: The Essence of Alsace
These are the most diverse white wines in France. They are also diversely great in completely distinct expressions, styles and terroirs. Arguably, Alsace is to white wine as Burgundy is to red. As Marc Beyer has argued, a true Grand Cru system would require thousands of vineyards, not 51. There is no one way in Alsace, no fundamental principle that motivates the wines. And, despite much contention in the use of the Grand Cru system, there is no essential, region defining schism as there is in Piedmont.
Alsace is a vast realm of possibility. I find its spirit best expressed in the words of Marcel Deiss:
“What is a man? A man is the network of all his genes; that’s his ‘possible’. Beyond that, though, a man is all he’s learned. Every day he lived, he learned. He suffered; he became enthusiastic; he fell in love; he became disappointed. When I meet someone, what do I want? I want what he has lived, his humanity; I don’t want his genetic material. Why, when I taste a wine, do you want me to taste its genotype and not its life story? A vin de terroir is how a vine communicates everything that it has learned beyond its genotype. And this apprenticeship is the cultivation of depth. Every day the vine descends, it learns something new, and that’s what is manifested in the grapes.”
The truth at which Deiss points has, also, the capacity of liberation. We are the same, drenched only in what we choose, and what chooses us. Our identities leave us as they are created. We return, unaltered, to stillness:
“I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life. I have a drink in my hand, there is a bottle at my elbow. I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past.
I may be drunk by morning but that will not do any good. I shall take the train to Paris anyway. The train will be the same, the people, struggling for comfort and, even, dignity on the straight-backed wooden, third-class seats will be the same, and I will be the same. We will ride through the same changing countryside northward, leaving behind the olive trees and the sea and all of the glory of the stormy southern sky, into the mist and rain of Paris. Someone will offer to share a sandwich with me, someone will offer me a sip of wine, someone will ask me for a match. People will be roaming the corridors outside, looking out of windows, looking in at us. At each stop, recruits in their baggy brown uniforms and colored hats will open the compartment door to ask Complet? We will all nod Yes, like conspirators, smiling faintly at each other as they continue through the train. Two or three of them will end up before our compartment door, shouting at each other in their heavy, ribald voices, smoking their dreadful army cigarettes. There will be a girl sitting opposite me who will wonder why I have not been flirting with her, who will be set on edge by the presence of the recruits. It will all be the same, only I will be stiller.”
~James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Deiss is imported by That’s Life. Recent vintages of the Grand Cru can be found in specialty shops for $120+.
Trimbach is imported by Liquid Arts/Trialto and can be found at several specialty shops in the $60 range.
The BCLDB and Marquis carry the wines of Zind-Humbrecht and Domain Weinbach. You can also find Zind-Humbrect at Kits wine. The wines run from $60-$100 a bottle.
Beyer is not available in BC. I picked up the bottle in Portland several years ago.
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