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France - Alsace

The latest in-depth article on Alsace follows directly below; after this, you'll find a summary and links to everything else on Alsace on WineWriting.com.
Alternatively, you can buy this top Grand Cru tasting feature and a few other previous Alsace winery profiles (Eblin-Fuchs, Schaetzel, Turckheim) as part of a massive French e-magazine HERE.

These are my notes and thoughts on a Circle of Wine Writers' tutored tasting (so forgive the sometimes nerdy detail weaved into the words) in November 2014 called "Beyond terroir - exploring the influences on Alsace wines." The audience was informed and entertained by two great speakers, who guided us through nearly a dozen ("this one goes up to 11" in fact) mostly delicious top wines: Olivier Humbrecht MW from Domaine Zind-Humbrecht and President of the Alsace Grand Cru association, and Christophe Ehrhart from Josmeyer and Vice-President of Alsace Grand Cru.

Olivier (above left from zindhumbrecht.fr) started with an overview of what he considers special about the Alsace climate and terrain: "The specific semi-continental climate here means we can harvest later," he kicked off with. There's a "huge diversity of soil types" reflecting volcanic, maritime and metamorphic influences with the oldest about 0.5 billion years old, which "is actually relatively young. You can see the faults from the hills running north to south and east to west." There's "just about every soil type here," including the "Vosges (mountains) material," where half the grand cru sites lie: mostly sandstone and granite with slate and schist too. These sites are "very steep, as hard rock doesn't erode as quickly." It's also rocky as most of the top soil has disappeared, and these "acidic soils in warm well-drained spots are mostly where Riesling and other late-ripening varieties are planted."
The, what he termed "second group" is on the Vosges foothills, which isn't as old (between 25 and 2.5 million years I think, but what's a few mill among friends anyway): "Less acidic if older due to limestone, if younger there's more clay so even more alkaline." The limestone bits have been mostly graced with "the Pinot family, Gewurztraminer and some Riesling." The "third" dates back just a million years or less: river and glacier deposits and sandy loam, where there are no grands crus. These richer soils have no limestone in them so they're quite neutral: all varieties are planted here. There are now 51 Grands Crus in Alsace, and "in 2011 the technical specifications were rewritten," Olivier concluded with a certain satisfaction (he was one of the people behind much of the work I believe).
Christophe (right from josmeyer.com) filled us in a little more on that latter statement: "We've changed (these) as we want to create 'local management' and a new future for each: protect names where, for example, the same name crops up in Germany, and to make each Grand Cru a proper AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée)." So each body wrote their own laws, for instance 'Hengst' wines aren't allowed to be 'chaptalised' (the must enriched with added sugar), "to show and protect their specificity." Growers have also introduced Pinot Noir into Hengst to have a Grand Cru red further down the line; it will be presented as a viable project to the controlling body INAO next year.
Olivier cited the first wine tasted as another good example, i.e. the Sylvaner variety wasn't previously permitted for Grand Cru; they introduced it (in GC Zotzenberg). "It means over time each Grand Cru should become more different from each other," he explained. "You can't force people to do things, it's best to get them to come up with ideas and submit them to the INAO. We complain that this system is too bureaucratic, yet other growers around the world envy it! Following rules isn't such a bad thing, and we can change them if we need to." If a certain producer then doesn't follow these rules, they can be fined or have the wine confiscated. But Olivier also thinks "the consumer doesn't need to know all this, the important thing is making more distinctive wine and trying to reflect a sense of place." He doesn't believe Sylvaner is well suited for most Grands Crus, probably, so "this is important if one little area thinks it's a good idea."
Christophe added: "It was a majority decision made on Sylvaner. Not every variety is 'noble', but bureaucracy had overruled this before. Auxerois wasn't allowed either, yet we have vines planted in the 50s in great sites: now we can develop it."
Olivier clarified the situation regarding Grand Cru blends: "Planting varieties together for a blended wine has been legal since 2004; mentioning the grapes isn't compulsory but everybody does. So blends are now allowed." Back in 1975, Grand Cru wines had to be 100% varietal, "in theory..." He gave a couple of examples: "Altenberg decided then a blend was possible using just that name, but you can't mention of what on the front." When Kaefferkopf became a Grand Cru in 2007, "they created a category for blends e.g. Gewurztraminer plus some others... There are only two where a blend of grapes is permitted." He also distinguished this from a "field blend," which is different: the producer has to declare "what proportion there is exactly of each."
Olivier came back to this later: "field blends is an interesting concept, but we're talking about Grand Cru. If a splash of Pinot Gris helps out a Riesling that's not quite ripe, then fine. But if you need to do this at Grand Cru level, you should question whether it's the right variety for this site. You can't fundamentally change when a certain variety will ripen."
Christophe gave an example of what winemakers hope to achieve in the long run: "We have to bring this information to the consumer longer term." For instance, "If a vintage in Hengst doesn't give ripe enough levels to make Grand Cru, they shouldn't make Grand Cru rather than chaptalise. To show the consumer what they're doing and why, how we 'manage' a Grand Cru."
Olivier fielded a question about yields (don't you just love wine-writer and producer talk): "We shouldn't set one yield level for all Grand Crus – 40 (hectolitres/hectare) could be best as the maximum in one site and soils, while 60 might still be very good elsewhere. Riesling can handle more crop than Gewurz or Pinot Gris. Density of plants can also be more important." He continued this argument: "Maximum yield levels have all come down at all levels – a few years ago, basic AOC Alsace could go up to 100 hl/ha!"
Christophe added that "we're trying to get growers to stick to the rules and see why. In 2014, nobody requested yields above 60-odd and there was less chaptalisation, so step by step..."
Olivier then continued on this topic: "Two-thirds of Grands Crus are made by wineries that buy grapes: if you buy kilos, you get kilos; if you buy quality, you get quality. Two co-ops in the past two years have paid by hectare rather than kilogram, to stop growers thinking they have to get as close to the max weight as possible; meaning, if there's bad weather or whatever, they still get paid the right amount for quality grapes."
He was also asked about recent vintages in Alsace, which were summarised as follows: "2012 was quite wet in mid June and July – unusual in Alsace – a bit too much rain isn't a problem here though. August was good and sunny, and it was dry into September to the end of the harvest; in fact, there was some water stress even." In 2013 and 2014, "sugar levels were very slow to accumulate." 2012 saw "a big temptation to chaptalise compared to 2011, which was very ripe... a few did." Olivier continued: "It's better not to make much; longer term it gives the idea of scarcer quantities and higher quality to justify the prices." Honesty can be good marketing too.
Christophe added an anecdote on this theme: "When Olivier became president, he decided we had to have two-thirds of growers voting for chaptalisation and made them stand up!" He then elaborated: "Slowly growers have begun to understand they need to do a good job in the vineyard to express their terroir, and that if it's not good enough, then you don't make the wine."
Olivier went on: "Knowing you can chaptalise is a safety net; some are frightened of the 'what if.' They have to get used to the idea – if this situation arises, maybe you should be questioning yourself and think twice about making a Grand Cru. There's no shame in demoting a wine down one level," he concluded logically.
As for potential Grands Crus, Olivier thinks that "you probably need 13 growers or so behind a possible new one; if there's only one grower in a certain site, there's no chance of getting a Grand Cru. But you have to see what's the best expression for a Grand Cru; if there's only a few growers, it's difficult to establish what's 'typical'. It also helps the consumer understand if there's some cohesion behind a Grand Cru, even if different styles."
Christophe also said: "We're beginning to understand how important it is to work on quality and image; some growers are afraid prices could get too high, but if it lifts Grand Cru to a really top level..."
And Oliver concluded: "At the end of the day, you're going to get a majority of wines within one Grand Cru that match a certain classic representative style, even if some producers are doing something different. We're not trying to make something difficult to sell or too complicated."

Emile Boeckel Grand Cru Zotzenberg Sylvaner 2012 (residual sugar content 4 grams/litre, 13.5% abv) – fairly pale, floral 'mineral' sulphite even on the nose, not very revealing at first; quite zippy and tight on the palate, a bit sulphite-y too, crisp yet quite full bodied, pretty dry thanks to tight acidity; a little lean and lacking character perhaps, does has fair length I suppose, maybe it hasn't opened up... Not very charming anyway. £19 The Wine Society
Muré - Domaine du Clos Saint Landelin Grand Cru Vorbourg Riesling 2012 (RS 2.45 g/l, 13.5% abv, biodynamic) – more yellow, lovely aromatic floral vs lime nose, complex with developing oily notes; nice rich citrus vs 'mineral' mouth-feel, very steely with crisp acidity, very dry vs lovely extract and oily 'mineral' finish, full bodied even vs long and balanced in the end despite that bit of oomph and very dry steely acidity. Lovely wine and still young, delicate yet structured and concentrated, tight and crisp vs maturing. From a steep limestone site. "Typical tight acidity set against broader fruit character," Olivier commented. "Good with more traditional cuisine." £26 AG Wines
Domaine André Ostertag Grand Cru Muenchberg Riesling 2012 (RS 7 g/l, 13.5% abv, biodynamic) – more floral and sweet petals on the nose, hints of exotic kiwi and quince; very ripe lime fruit with some roundness from that touch of sugar and alcohol weight vs quite steely bite, concentrated and oily with good extract, more flowery on the finish and towards medium-dry in style yet it's crisp with long intense and 'mineral' finish. Maybe more than 13.5 abv? "A very different area (from above) and a bit cooler, very aromatic typical of this vineyard. Better with exotic cuisine." £38 Hedonism Wines
Christophe commented on 2010 and 2008 before trying wines from these vintages: "2010 was unusual, very ripe yet with high acidity. 2008 had nice acidity too."
Domaine Paul Blanck Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling 2010 (RS 20 g/l, 12.5% abv) – richer colour with enticing classic developing Riesling nose; complex oily development on the palate too with ripe lime fruit vs sweetness and 'mineral' extract, very concentrated cut through by very steely acidity leaving crisp bite and zingy mouth-feel vs maturing notes, tasty extract and a little sweetness. Fairly wow wine, you wouldn't think there are 20 grams of sugar in it (see below for further comments about sugar levels and dry/medium ranking). £20 Wine Rack
Gustave Lorentz Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim Riesling 2008 (RS 7.6, 12.5% abv) – golden yellow colour, lots of aromatic developed linseed oil notes vs elegant citrus fruit, has a touch of softness and maturing oily texture, concentrated palate though; drinking quite well now, not sure it will improve much more although still has subtle acid structure, lovely lingering mature 'mineral' Riesling flavours. £25 Exel Wines
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Grand Cru Goldert Muscat 2012 (RS 6.5, 14% abv, biodynamic) – a bit subdued on nose at first; more Muscat character on the palate with fragrant grape and yellow stone fruits, quite crisp acidity vs that weighty alcohol; getting more aromatic fruit on the finish and a hint of developed flavours, fair oomph vs off-dry fairly crisp finish. £17 Fine & Rare Wines. Good, perhaps lacks a little 'classic' Muscat character, but that's probably deliberate as Olivier explained:
"I'm a bit of a fan of Muscat, it's a fantastic food-pairing wine when you need something more expressive, when for instance Viognier is too flabby. Muscat 'Petits Grains' is preferable: it has less acidity and less grapey characters, and is more mineral and structured. It's kept well in this wine – probably due to good vine management (hedging etc.)..."
Josmeyer Grand Cru Brand Pinot Gris 2010 (RS 7.5, 14% abv) – rich colour, full-on developing nose of honeyed spice and orange flower in that classic Alsace PG style; lush and creamy with just a touch of sweetness vs fresh bite and structure, powerful mouth-feel with rich fruit and complex maturing flavours, weighty yet still quite tight finish despite those nice ageing characters; concentrated and long. Delicious style. £35 The Wine Society
Cave Vinicole de Pfaffenheim Grand Cru Steinert Pinot Gris 2011 (RS 30, 13.5% abv) – rich honey and grape notes, lush and pretty sweet vs a bitter twist, ends up a tad soupy and lacking in distinct PG character, fat palate yet has a touch of bitterness too. Good with cheese maybe, although would prefer more definition. £11 Fraziers Wine
Christophe compared the two PGs: "One (is from soils) rich in silica with nice acidity running through it, the 'Brand' sharpens that Pinot Gris opulence compared to the other one from limestone... limestone and clay or marl, which can store more 'mineral' character. It's not easy, as they have different winemaking style, sugar levels, vintage etc. as variables. Think in terms of structure – Riesling is easier in these terms."
Domaine Marcel Deiss Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim 'Complantation' 2009 (RS 70, 12% abv, biodynamic) – quite complex mature and creamy tinged with greener edges; quirky flavours, pretty lush and sweet grapey with spicy undertones, mature really with just a hint of acidity running underneath though; a little bland perhaps (because of the sweetness), but it's long with some interesting flavours despite that overpowering sugar. £66 Roberson Wine
Olivier then clarified about sugar levels and 'dryness': "Dry is under five grams residual sugar, although it can be up to nine if the acidity is seven grams. Wine number four (Blanck's complex Riesling) has nine grams of acid: you can have up to 18 to be (classed as) 'demi-sec', so it's just in there." Tastes like it too.
Domaine Weinbach Grand Cru Furstentum Gewurztraminer 2011 (RS 48, 13.5% abv, biodynamic) – quite exotic lychee and rose water aromas although relatively subdued, a hint of sweet spices too; lush and sweet with oily development, getting more of that Gewurz fruit on the palate plus caramel or toffee vs some spice and freshness underneath, tropical fruit cocktail vs complex maturing flavours vs a bit of oomph. Lingering sweetness but has attractive character and depth of fruit, not too sweet with fruit desserts or tangy cheeses. £60 Berry Bros & Rudd
Hugel & Fils Vendange Tardive Gewurztraminer 2007 (late harvested: RS 96, 12.5% abv) – pretty golden yellow, delicious nose with very ripe lychee and Turkish Delight, complex mature notes too, lovely spice and purity of intense Gewurz fruit; very lush and sweet of course vs nice maturing oily texture, very concentrated and pure despite the sugar, quite structured still actually; drinking well now yet should go on for a few more years. Yum. £33 The Wine Society.

Here's a delicious duo of organic Alsace producers 'profiled' with my selection of their best wines, talked to and sampled at the 2013 Millésime Bio wine show in Montpellier (click on the title to link to full post)...
"Domaine Eblin-Fuchs lies on seductively rolling slopes around the village of Zellenberg between Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr... which is one of the region's driest and warmest spots apparently. Their different vineyard parcels add up to about 10 ha (25 acres), including some treasured vines in four of the area's steeper and very exposed Grand Cru sites... farmed organically since 2001 with biodynamic smothered on top..." Plus notes on two tasty Rieslings - Zellenberg and Rosacker Grand Cru - and their old-vine Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer... July 2013.
Martin Schaetzel
"The Martin Schaetzel wine estate spreads over 20 hectares (50 acres) of vineyards in the Ammerschwihr area, including several highly rated Grand Cru sites, and has been certified organic since 1998 as well as Demeter, the fearsome biodynamic controlling body..." Includes Riesling, Pinot gris and Gewurz from Kaefferkopf, Eichberg and Pfersigberg... Aug 2013.

Cave de Turckheim: big French co-ops part 2
Click on the title above to read the full-monty words and wine recommendations as hinted at below (Feb 2013)...

Riesling 'Brand' from www.cave-turckheim.com

"Continuing this compelling mini-mini-series on large but good French co-op wineries and their wines, which I started on this blog with this post: Rhône: Cave de Tain: big co-ops part 1... Cave de Turckheim was founded post-War and is a substantial vineyard owner in the must-tour region of Alsace nestling on France's eastern border with Germany, separated by the River Rhein yet sharing certain grape varieties and a long mutual history (not always a happy one, mind you) and aspects of culture (the hearty local food springs to mind). Anyway, you've probably tried a white wine from Turckheim, especially their always consistent Gewurztraminer available under many different guises and own-labels throughout the world. But the winery's 200+ co-op members also own plots in some stunning vineyard sites such as the Brand (meaning 'burnt' in the same sense as the northern Rhone's Cote Rotie, i.e. it gets a lot of sunshine) Grand Cru, as you'll see from my glowing notes on their superb Riesling and other varietals sourced from this steep slope of vines overlooking the twee town of Turckheim. And their 'old-vine' wines can be surprisingly good too, even from a scorned and usually rather characterless variety like Sylvaner. The man in charge of winemaking and vineyards here is Michel Lihrmann, by the way..."
Wines tasting-noted and reviewed: 2011 Pinot Blanc, 2009 Sylvaner vieilles vignes, 2008 Riesling vieilles vignes, 2007 Riesling Grand Cru Brand, 2008 Pinot Gris Grand Cru Brand, 2008 Gewurztraminer vieilles vignes, 2010 Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Brand, 2008 Gewurztraminer vendanges tardives...

More links to previously Alsace-d wine (and beer) content:
Juilen Frey (Sept 2010)
Domaine Josmeyer (May 2006)
André Kleinknecht (Jan 2005)
Plus several more top estates (Stentz, Meyer, Frick, Klur, Spielmann, Humbrecht, Geschickt, Becker and some of the above names again...) in this cutting-edge 2007 piece:

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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.