THE ALSACE RENAISSANCE

(Published in The Scotsman 28 September 2013)
By Rose Murray Brown MW

“We need to change our culture”, says Severine Schlumberger.  “We need people to understand that Alsace can make quality wines”.

The young female dynamo heading up Alsace’s largest wine estate, Domaine Schlumberger, is very clear in what she wants to do.  She has a mission to tell the world that Alsace can make great white wines as good as Burgundy.

“I believe that Alsace missed out when Burgundy and Bordeaux became famous”, she says.  “Alsace was so badly affected in the war having been passed in and out of German hands, that it took us a long time to get our region back together.  When Burgundy and Bordeaux were focusing on quality wines, unfortunately many people of Alsace focused on making cheaper white wines with the co-operatives.  Now Alsace has been left behind”, she says.

Throughout my wine tour around nine wineries in Alsace, my wine tour group immersed themselves in Alsace culture.  We tasted every grape, every style and we heard these same words repeated many times – and it became clear that there was a great disparity in the wine industry in Alsace between passionate winegrowers and those making the cheapest wine they can. 

Alsace clearly has spectacular vineyard terroir, a mosaic of different soils in the foothills of the beautiful Vosges mountains and a host of dedicated winegrowers like Schlumberger, Zind Humbrecht, Marcel Deiss, Weinbach, Hugel, Trimbach, Leon Beyer and Rolly Gassmann.  Yet this little region of just 16,000 hectares (half the size of Burgundy and one eighth the size of Bordeaux) often gets forgotten about.Vineyards around Hunawihr in Alsace

Even the people of Alsace don’t appreciate them.  In many restaurants we visited from Strasbourg in the north to Guebwiller in the south of the region, the wine lists included more wines from other regions in France.  This is unusual, as so often in French regions they want you to drink wines from their region.

With its turbulent history, Alsace is a very open region with a lot of interchange between its neighbours: Burgundy to the west, Switzerland to the south and Baden in Germany to the east.  Many of the people here do not appreciate what they have on their own doorstep, as they think that Alsace is just about cheap co-op wines.

Alsace might be out of fashion with wine lovers, but for anyone who loves dry, off-dry or sweet white wines it is an amazing place.  It is easy to understand their labels as they are all labelled by grape variety (including Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris).  It is easy to spot the wines on the shelf as they are all bottled in tall flutes, which makes them look Germanic and they think they are sweet.

One problem that wine lovers find with Alsace is knowing whether they are dry or sweet.  A new coding system is now being used on Alsace labels – called ‘indices’ – indicating dry (1), off dry (2-4) or sweet (5).  It is found in tiny letters just under the alcohol level – on many bottle labels – or in the case of Schlumberger in a clear bar system along the top of their label.  If producers (like Zind Humbrecht) can just make this indice a little clearer it would help.

Overall impressions from those who came on my wine tour was that they were surprised how many dry wines were being made in Alsace.  Indeed some producers, like Zind Humbrecht, are making more dry wines than ever before – to make them more accessible. 

Generally, Rieslings were less well appreciated and considered expensive compared to dry German equivalents.  The grape that most impressed was Pinot Gris.  All the producers from smaller estates like Rolly Gassmann and Domaine Weinbach to larger negociants like Trimbach and Hugel said it was a difficult grape to grow – so site selection is very important.

“Pinot Gris suits those who like white Burgundies”, said Jolene Hunter, a South African winemaker working at Zind Humbrecht.  “In Alsace it can make wines with fabulous rich texture which go well with food like mushroom risotto to roast pork with apricots”, said Hunter.  They can be bone dry from Trimbach to richer off dry style from Domaine Weinbach – but it always has a fascinating underlying spiciness which makes it an interesting match with food.

Another grape which appealed to our tasters was Auxerrois.  Not found elsewhere, it is a grape worth investigating for those who like richer dry whites. Alsace street

The grape that Alsace champions is Gewurztraminer.  Our wine tour was surprised to find dry and sweet Gewurztraminers.  A good dry example is Zind Humbrecht’s Gueberschwihr 2001 with just 3 grams per litre of residual sugar and a fabulous underlying spiciness which makes it a great match with the cheese platter.

My overall impression is that Alsace is a bit like Burgundy – you have to stick to good producers.  There are still far too many cheap wines being made here, which (apart from better co-operatives like Turckheim) should be avoided – and with the effects of the recession this situation is getting worse.

As young winegrower Mathieu Deiss, son of Marcel Deiss, explained:  “Twenty years ago wine growers in Alsace made more money – but now some just do as little in their vineyard that they get away with as they cannot afford to pay their workers.  It is a calculated choice – so it is common to find a well-kept vineyard of a great winegrower next door to a poorly kept vineyard of someone who is not interested in making good wine”, says Deiss. 

So Alsace is not a place to go for everyday quaffers for under £5.  It is worth spending more to get, white wines with incredible richness and depth.  Look out for 2007 and 2010 – two great vintages here.  Alsace has some of France’s best wine estates – and they are not being appreciate enough at home or abroad.

ALSACE TASTE TEST:

DRY WHITES

RIESLING LES PRINCES ABBES 2009 Schlumberger
(£11.99 each for 2 bts or £13.99 Majestic Wine)
Light floral, dry with soft fruit notes: good value for Alsace Riesling. 

PINOT GRIS RESERVE 2007 Trimbach
(£12.95 for 2010 vintage at The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
If you prefer drier styles of Pinot Gris try Trimbach’s ripe smoky textural examples: both 2007 and 2010 were good vintages in Alsace.

ZIND 2010 Domaine Zind Humbrecht
(£13.95 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com; L’Art du Vin, Dunfermline)
A great combination of honey, citric fruits and almond notes with fresh vibrant acidity in this dry Auxerrois/Chardonnay blend. 

RIESLING SCHLOSSBERG CUVEE ST CATHERINE 2011 Domaine Weinbach
(£31 Justerini & Brooks www.justerinis.com)
A fine elegant dry Riesling from old vines: white peach, nectarine flavours, sweet sour notes with deep concentrated fruits.  Delicious with seafood or white meat.                                                                                    

Domaine Weinbach AlsaceOFF DRY WHITES

GEWURZTRAMINER 2011 Zind Humbrecht
(£12.99 each for 2 bts or £14.99 bt Majestic Wine)       
Just off dry with a touch of residual sweetness. Lush succulent fruits with hints of gingerbread & spice: an affordable introduction to Gewurz made by a great grower.
                                              
PINOT GRIS GRAND CRU KITTERLE 2007 Schlumberger
(£25 L’Art du Vin, Dunfermline www.aduv.co.uk; Fintry Wines www.fintrywines.co.uk)
Aromatic, gentle sweetness but racy acidity: try with foie gras or munster cheese

SWEET WHITES

PINOT GRIS RANGEN DE THANN CLOS ST URBAIN 2010 Zind Humbrecht

(£43 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)

A combination of noble rot and volcanic soils: fabulously rich, minerally, complex with vibrant acidity.  Impressive wine.  If you have patience to age this wine, it will become slightly less sweet (currently indice 5).  Try with roast pork belly or lamb tagine.

ALTENBURG GRAND CRU 2007 Marcel Deiss
(£58 Lea & Sandeman; Roberson Wines)
Made from a mix of grapes: a mammoth wine with smoky, herby note, great intensity, very sweet with long dry finish.  Made by genius winemaker Marcel Deiss.

GEWURZTRAMINER VENDANGE TARDIVE 2005 Hugel
(£33 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
From the ever consistent Hugel stable: a beautifully balanced late harvest wine with exotic fruits, sweetness, richness – but not cloying.  Try with roast duck with apricots or crème brulee.

GEWURZTRAMINER SELECTION DE GRAINS NOBLES 2007 Rolly Gassmann
(£49 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com; Raeburn Wines, Edinburgh; Berry Bros & Rudd)
Toffee, caramel, most intensely sweet Gewurz you can buy: tuck this in your cellar as it will age superbly well.  Bring out the Munster cheese when you open it.

 

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