A France Apart
- Wednesday 1 October 2003
The old wine villages of Alsace have a timeless beauty. Immaculate streets, colourful, half-timbered houses and overflowing window boxes provide evidence of the region's long and illustrious history. Viticulture was well established here by the second century AD and today the region produces nearly 20% of all the still white wine in France. Yet in many ways, Alsace wines are still seen as wines for the connoisseur and are less well understood than the other classic wines from the rest of France.
Situated in the north-eastern corner of France, just a few kilometres from the Rhine, Alsace stands apart from other French wine regions. It is separated from the rest of the country by the Vosges mountains to the west, while almost every Alsatian village, vineyard and vigneron name bears witness to its turbulent history with Germany and the numerous sovereignty battles it has endured over the years. Such geographic and cultural differences are mirrored in the region's viticultural identity.
When it comes to its wines, Alsace faces an identity issue. Its predominant grape varieties are German, and, unusually for a French region, it is these which generally take pride of place on the label. Furthermore, that label appears exclusively on the Alsace flute style of bottle, which can't used by other French producers.
Forging an identity
'It is hard for us to have a clear visual identity, especially compared to German wines,' says Richard Kannemacher, head of marketing for the Alsace Wine Bureau. 'Of course our wines are different, but you have to taste them to know that,' he adds.
Jean-Michel Deiss (of Domaine Marcel Deiss) elaborates: 'Every other French AC is marked by historical continuity: people follow the tradition of their forefathers. What marks us out is our historical discontinuity. We are living an evolution here, and are still in the process of discovering our terroir.'
It is this terroir, however, which lends the region its individuality, and sets it apart from its neighbours. Terroir is the word on everyone's lips these days, and producers in Alsace are working to understand its influence on the wines.
Alsace has been described as a geologist's dream. There is a greater diversity of soils and subsoils here than in any other major wine region in France. The narrow strip of vineyard area, just 3km wide and 120km long, has at least 20 major soil formations. This perhaps explains why Alsace has always produced wines from such a large number of varietals.
Despite the undisputed quality of the wines, the region's AC status was granted only in 1962 and the grand cru sites were defined as late as 1983. Further classification of sites is still under discussion, with the likely creation of a third tier of lieux-dits in the near future. But some producers – notably the traditional houses of Hugel, Trimbach and Léon Beyer – do not use the grand cru designation on their labels, even though their best wines are invariably produced from grapes grown on these sites. Yann Beyer points out that the system is only 20 years old. 'We're not against the grands crus, but a great wine has to be the right marriage of varietal and terroir,' he says.
However the producers label their wine, the importance of terroir remains undisputed. So treasured is the soil in Alsace that producers are starting to employ biodynamic viticulture to further improve its structure.
In addition, there are more than 50 organic producers in the region, including Domaine Albert Mann in Wettolsheim, where Maurice Barthelmé is responsible for viticulture. He claims the continual evolution of the region makes him want to live another 50 years to understand it all.
'Our philosophy is to achieve the best expression of our soils,' he says. 'To do this, we aim to make the roots descend deep into the soils, and to match the best varietal and rootstock to our soils.' The domaine has 19ha (hectares) of land across eight communes. Since 2000, all grapes have been cultivated organically and some grand cru sites are farmed biodynamically.
The winemaking at Albert Mann is straightforward and traditional. The grapes are hand-picked, and Barthelmé is particularly keen on good levels of acidity, which he describes as the 'backbone of the wines'. 'I prefer the vintages built on acidity, such as 1998, 2001 and 2002,' he says. The wines are characterised by a crisp freshness and easy style. The 1998 Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Furstentum, for example, is typically fragrant and fresh and, despite a fair weight of alcohol and sugar, retains an appealing delicacy.
Barthelmé's thoughts on viticulture are echoed by Véronique Muré at Domaine René Muré in Rouffach, another organic producer. 'During the 1990s, my father [René Muré] realised we needed to work the soil and to stop using weedkillers in order to get the vines' roots to descend. This makes the wines less susceptible to vintage variation because the grapes suffer less from drought and rain,' she explains.
The pride of this traditional wine-growing family is the 15ha site of Clos St-Landelin, a south-facing, sloping vineyard that is part of the Vorbourg Grand Cru. Like many great sites in Alsace, it has been divided, re-divided and argued over for centuries. The Clos originally belonged to the church, before being confiscated and split up during the French Revolution. It was pieced back together to create a single vineyard again in the late 1800s and bought by Muré's great grandfather in 1935. All the traditional varieties except Pinot Blanc are grown here, but the site is best known for its high-quality Pinot Noir.
The vines are situated at the top of the vineyard, on red clay soil, which gives the wine its unusually powerful structure. The 2000 Clos St-Landelin Pinot Noir shows expressive, perfumed, cherry, plum and smoke aromas and has a silky, sweetly fruity palate and long finish. It could easily be mistaken for a good Burgundy. Indeed planting density here is being increased to 10,000 vines per ha – as in Burgundy – and reverting to lower-yielding clones to further increase quality.
THE SUGAR QUESTION
As Alsace continues to pursue the route of classifying further sites based on their individual terroir, there remains one significant source of confusion for the consumer when it comes to buying wines: sweetness. The most notable aspect of the evolution of Alsace wines in recent years has been a general move away from strictly dry, often austere styles. Instead, wines generally contain varying degrees of residual sugar, yet there is no clue from the label that they will be anything other than dry.
Certain producers may (legally) achieve sweetness in their wines by adding sugar to their must. However, sweeter wines often result from noble motives to improve quality by reducing yields and increasing concentration and natural sugar levels in the grapes.
Some see this as an indication of better viticultural practice and more 'natural' winemaking. But even if the resulting wines are balanced and natural, critics argue that these sweeter styles are untraditional in a region known for its dry whites.
Whatever the arguments within Alsace, wine lovers are faced with a confusing dilemma: with so many non-dry wines now on sale, you need to know the style favoured by the producer and, preferably, the vintage conditions if you are to make an educated guess at whether a particular wine is dry, off-dry or medium-sweet.
It is the long-established firms, such as Léon Beyer and Trimbach which are most vociferously opposed to the new styles of wine. To quote Marc Beyer: 'Our family has always violently rejected this approach. Classic Alsace should be as dry as Chablis.'
This fervent anti-sugar stance is echoed by his son, Yann (14th generation family wine maker) who talks of 'la bataille du sucre' and the importance of producing dry wines to go with food. To prove his point, he pours a succession of wines from the property: Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. All are from different vintages, various sites and a range of quality levels. Yet they are all balanced and all completely dry.
At Léon Beyer, permitted yields are considered 'correct'. Yann Beyer believes that 'by searching for concentration, you lose equilibrium'. So does this mean his wines lack a certain terroir characteristic? The 'house style' is certainly an evident – and deliberate – element, but the wines still achieve both varietal expression and terroir complexity. Riesling Les Ecaillers 2000 has honeyed, toasty, mineral aromas and a startlingly powerful, crisp, iodine-edged palate. The Riesling Comtes d'Eguisheim 2000 is much more weighty, with wonderful, rich, pure, petrolly fruit.
THE WAY FORWARD
This simple, but enduring philosophy is shared in large part by the Trimbach family. 'We make straight, clean, dry wines to go with food', says Hubert Trimbach. Like Marc Beyer, he is strongly against any move towards sweeter styles: 'It's idiotic', he says, 'Alsace is losing its soul'. And it is hard to argue against the producer of such stellar dry Rieslings as Clos Ste Hune and Cuvée Frédéric Emile.
Emmanuelle Gallis, of the Cave de Turckheim cooperative, one of the largest exporters in Alsace, claims the dry style is still the most important for the region, and believes Alsace wines are perfect for the modern consumer. 'We don't see the problem,' she says. 'We've never changed our style, which is basically dry. And the wines are increasingly popular.'
Gallis says the route to success has to lie in understanding what people want. 'Oaked Chardonnay is finished. Nowadays, people are looking for wine which is fruity, dry, clean and fresh. This means we have a lot in our favour. People who know about wine, and who know Alsace, love our wines.'
Beverley Blanning MW is a freelance wine writer specialising on France.