All Sweetness and Light?

  • Wednesday 14 November 2007

FREDDY PRICE investigates whether a warmer climate and the trend towards biodynamic farming is changing the character of Alsace’s wines for the better

Young wine growers hope Alsace will rise like a phoenix from the cinders of so many devastating wars because of the sheer quality of its wines. The Romans planted the first vineyards in the region but the roots of the people are German, while their psychology is French. The zenith for Alsace wines was in 1481, when the official customs ledgers of Colmar and Strasbourg showed that over 60 million litres of wine were exported to North Germany, England and Scandinavia. Though populations were a fraction of today’s levels, this is more than double the total worldwide exports of 2006. Today’s big controversy is whether Alsace wines now taste sweeter. Thanks to global warming, there has been a series of fine ripe vintages back to 1988. Before then, many vintages did not reach physiological ripeness; the wines were light, low in concentration and alcohol, but high in acid, tasting dry. Olivier Humbrecht MW of leading producer Zind-Humbrecht says it’s difficult to generalise: ‘I want to stress that ripe grapes make better wines and that sometimes fermentation cannot go 100% to the end. Wild yeast should be left alone to find the best balance possible. Sometimes the resulting wine will be bone dry, sometimes with a level of sweetness. ‘The physiological ripeness of Riesling, for example, begins at a potential 12% alcohol, when the must can be fermented out to a dry wine. A few producers, such as Trimbach, make this style. Must with 14.5% potential alcohol will keep some sweetness, but in between, every style is possible. I don’t like to interfere with fermentation, because it involves using techniques that reduce overall quality. Selected yeasts add unwelcome characters and make different wines taste the same. Most important is the balance, and the way the wine behaves with ageing – though I’m only talking about wines that have a future of 10 years or more when the question of sweetness is not as important.’ Sweetness can be an idée fixe – can the mind be programmed that a wine ‘tastes sweet’ before tasting it? ‘Don’t forget: people think dry and taste sweet! Most tasting panels of UK magazines give one-star ratings to medium- sweet wines and most people wrongly translate high acidity in a wine as meaning dry, and richness as meaning sweet,’ adds Humbrecht. The best Alsace vineyards are on the slopes of the Vosges mountains facing south and east at between 250 and 500 metres altitude. The Rhine is a rift valley giving a mosaic of different soil combinations. Weathered granite with gneiss full of minerals gives depth and longevity, and limestone helps to make soil rich in organic matter and high in acidity, giving broader and richer wines. Pink sandstone from the Vosges and deposits spread out from the many valleys, as well as loess, clay, and lime in places, add complexity. From Strasbourg to Thann, north to south along the 100 miles of the Route des Vins, the wines become progressively richer and more voluptuous. There are just two ACs in the region: Alsace itself, granted in 1982, and grand cru, in 1992. Noble grape varieties represent 56% of the total area planted, and all four (Riesling 22%, Gewurztraminer 18%, Pinot Gris 14% and Muscat 2%) have an immediately recognisable Alsatian taste. They are also late-harvested for tiny quantities of exquisite Vendanges Tardives and Sélections de Grains Nobles.

The other main varieties represent another 41%. Sylvaner (10%) has a long tradition, mostly as a simple wine, though Zotzenberg is the first Sylvaner grand cru. Pinot Blanc and Pinot Auxerrois combined (21%, often labelled Pinot d’Alsace), is delicious and often great value. Pinot Noir (10%) can be fresh, light and elegant as well as serious. Crémant d’Alsace (usually a blend of the Pinots and Chardonnay) was only granted its appellation in 1976, when its production was well below one million bottles: today production is 26 million and sales in France are second to those of Champagne. The average holding is less than 3 hectares: some growers sell grapes to négociants and others are members of cooperatives, notably Wolfberger – Caves d’Eguisheim (14 million bottles per year), Turckheim (3.5 million) and Pfaffenheim (2 million), which make and market good wines at advantageous prices. Many family domaines with 10 to 30 hectares produce great wines. Inspired by Olivier Humbrecht, they have the confidence to go flat out for biodynamic viticulture, in which Alsace, with over 30 certified estates, is far in advance of anywhere else. This has an amazing effect on the quality of the wines. The 51 grands crus are another exciting development. The criteria are: the vineyard’s history, terroir and geology, methods of viticulture, and protracted negotiations between growers and the authorities. Négociant-producteurs such as Hugel and Trimbach refuse to participate because they believe that some grands crus are too large to have a single terroir and that the tasting panels accept inferior wines.

Key players in Alsace

DOMAINE MARCEL DEISS

Jean-Michel Deiss is as modest as he is flamboyant. He is a rebel and a traditionalist. Before 1918 the best grape varieties were often grown, picked and fermented together. Deiss’ triumph was to have this tradition accepted for his Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim, ‘planted with all the traditional grape varieties; everything is done to express the ultimate power of the terroir.’ His Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Muscats are wonderful too and his 27 hectares are, of course, 100% biodynamic.

DOMAINE BOTT-GEYL

Jean-Christophe Bott is dynamic as a person and biodynamic as a wine-grower. At 23 his father said, ‘I have plenty to do as mayor of Bébelheim, you take over the domaine’. Now he is a star, but he still tends his vineyards from dawn to dusk. The 13.5 hectare domaine includes plots in four grands crus – Sonnenglanz, Mandelberg, Schoenenbourg and Furstentum. Slow pressing, using wild yeast, the fermentation continues on the light lees for nearly a year to make great modern wines. Robert Parker agrees.

HUGEL & FILS

The Hugel motto is: ‘the best treatment is no treatment’. This applies to chemical fertilisers, machine picking, destemming, cultured yeasts, cold stabilisation and sterile bottling. Marc Hugel is responsible for the wines and they own some 30 hectares around Riquewihr and buy grapes from around 350 growers to bring annual production to 1.2 million bottles, 85% of which are exported. Riesling Jubilee is the signature wine from the Schoenenbourg grand cru. Its late harvest Rieslings and Gewurztraminers are legendary.

JOSMEYER

Jean Meyer is a deeply passionate viticulturist. His grandfather Aloyse Meyer made wine to sell in his restaurant and this accounts for Jean’s passion for matching wine and food, thereby stimulating sommeliers all over the world to list its wines. The whole range, including that from a good holding in Hengst grand cru, is very exciting. Meyer’s son-in law Christophe Ehrhart is responsible for the 26.5 hectares of vines, which are fully biodynamic: this has helped the spectacular leap in quality of all the wines.

DOMAINE KIENTZLER

The three grands crus of Ribeauvillé – Kirchberg, Geisberg and Osterberg – have very different soils. With limestone, coloured sandy marls and stony gypsum, Geisberg is finest for Riesling. Kientzler also makes impeccable Gewurztraminer. His work is incredibly precise, giving his wines their unique terroir flavour.

DOMAINE ST LANDELIN

Clos St Landelin is a 15 hectare vineyard in the heart of Grand Cru Vorbourg. A blisteringly hot, steep terraced vineyard planted mainly with Riesling and Gewurztraminer (now so hot that René Muré has applied for permission to plant Syrah, which is forbidden in Alsace). They produce about 95,000 bottles per annum, including fabulous late harvest wines. Muré has very close bonds with local growers and buys their grapes. The quality of the resulting wines has improved dramatically.

DOMAINE SCHLUMBERGER

The largest domaine in Alsace, with 138 hectares producing one million bottles a year – half from grands crus. Starting with the 2001 vintage, the young team who direct the estate have totally renovated the equipment in the cellars and much work has been done in the vineyards. They have introduced organic methods and plan to be biodynamic. Each vintage is finer than the last.

FE TRIMBACH

The Trimbach family owns over 30 hectares of vines and buys grapes from local wine growers to give an average annual production of 1.2 million bottles. Winemaking is orthodox – slow pressing, quick transfer of must for fermentation, with cultured yeast to keep firm control. The Trimbach style is presbyterian, slim and somewhat austere when the wines are young. The tiny Clos St Hune Riesling vineyard produces about 7,000 bottles of wine, and Cuvée Frédéric Émile rather more. Vendanges Tardives and Sélections Grains Nobles are memorable wines.

DOMAINE WEINBACH

This impeccable 27 hectare domaine includes Schlossberg grand cru, one of the greatest vineyards in Alsace, a terraced granite, sandstone and shale slope weathered to form a crystalline scree full of minerals. The vines are kept using animal compost and no chemical fertilisers, insecticides or anti-fungus products. To retain terroir characteristics, indigenous yeast is used to ferment the must, producing a fabulous collection of Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Pinot Gris and also Vendanges Tardives and ‘Quintessences’ de Grains Nobles.

DOMAINE ZIND-HUMBRECHT

Léonard Humbrecht bought neglected vineyards that had produced great wines. He then built an ultra-modern winery with ranks of superb oak foudres so that every wine could be monitored at each stage. With 40 hectares of vines on unique terroirs they produce a phalanx of diverse and fabulous wines from grands crus Rangen (Clos St Urbain), Goldert, Brand and Hengst, as well as lieux-dits Clos Windbuhl, Herrenweg, Clos Jebsal and Rotenberg. Biodynamic since 1997, it works passionately to spread the gospel and son Olivier is president of Biodyvin that controls the methods used.

New faces

DOMAINE BERNHARD-REIBEL

This 17 hectare domaine is a Riesling specialist. Cécile Bernhard has built an immaculate winery in the back garden of her suburban house. Recently the vineyards became biodynamic and her son Pierre joined her. Weingarten and Rittersberg are the two best vineyards with a granite soil that gives classic precision and cut-glass mineral extracts.

DOMAINE DIRLER-CADÉ

In 1998 Jean Dirler and his father switched to biodynamic viticulture. Half the 17 hectare domaine is in the four grands crus: Kitterlé, Saering, Kessler and Spiegel. The style of the wines is relatively dry and the same grapes in each vineyard taste quite different. Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat all show an authentic character and quality.

DOMAINE MEYER-FONNÉ

This is a small but progressive domaine run by Felix Meyer. Fully biodynamic, the terroir is emphasised by the use of temperature-controlled fermentation with indigenous yeasts in stainless steel vats. In order to retain all the aromas and flavours, he never filters, even before bottling. He has vines in the Kaefferkopf and Wineck-Schlossberg grands crus.

DOMAINE MITTNACHT FRÈRES

Marc and Christophe Mittnacht have built up this 18.5 hectare domaine together; everything is carefully thought out, from the work in the vineyards to the modern practical chais. The vineyards are worked biodynamically, and fermentations are normally carried out with indigenous yeast. Winemaking is non-interventionist, with vines in three top grands crus: Rosacker, Osterberg and Mandelgarten. Pure and restrained, with gentle finesse and elegance.

DOMAINE VALENTIN ZUSSLIN ET FILS

The Zusslins have been viticulturists for 13 generations – Jean-Paul Zusslin took over from his father in 2000. Having always worked as organically as possible, they converted to biodynamic viticulture in 1997. They have 13 hectares of vines, including Bollenberg, a large limestone hill sticking out of the Rhine valley, where they produce brilliant Riesling and Gewurztraminer. They also have great Riesling in Pfingstberg grand cru.

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