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Meet the experts: Q&A with Thierry Meyer

Marking a decade as DWWA Regional Chair for Alsace this year, Thierry Meyer explains how wines from the region are evaluated at the competition, the importance of vintage and his expectations for 2024.

Alsace native Thierry Meyer has dedicated his wine career to this region he calls home.

Writing and sharing tasting notes and insights into Alsace’s wines since 1999, Meyer is the founder of L’Oenothèque Alsace society and www.oenoalsace.com, a comprehensive website committed to this northeast region of France.

A judge at Decanter World Wine Awards since 2013, this year marks a decade since Meyer’s appointment to Regional Chair for Alsace in 2015.

Looking forward to solidifying this milestone in May at judging week, he comments, ‘Alsace has a huge diversity of wines, grapes, terroirs and styles. Therefore, I expect to taste a large range of wines again this year, mostly from the 2022 vintage.

‘2022 was a hot and dry vintage that produced fruity, subtle wines in the plain areas, and slightly fresher styles on the hillside. It will be interesting to find some of the most successful wines, either coming from cooler areas or from older, deeply rooted vines that were able to cope with the draught. We might also taste early bottled wines from 2023, which gives an overview of this ripe and hot vintage.’

Taking note of vintages, changes in wine quality and styles across his decade-plus journey at DWWA, from sparkling Crémant d’Alsace to Grand Cru noble varieties and luscious sweet Gewürztraminers, Meyer explains how the panel tastes Alsace wines and what the judges are looking for when awarding Gold, plus gives advice to producers in the final weeks before entries close on 15 March.

What’s the importance of vintage in Alsace?

Alsace used to be a late harvest region, with harvest usually taking place around the end of September. Also, harvest used to last for a long period, due to the different ripening cycles of all grape varieties in different places. During harvest, weather can be dry and sunny or at times a bit more wet and generate noble rot – sometimes not so noble.

The overall quality of a vintage is determined by two factors: the potential of the best wines of course, but also by the quality distribution. Vintages that suffer from health problems can produce huge variations of quality, both among various geographical areas of the regions, but also between the smallest and the largest growers, who can’t organise harvest in the same way.

As a result, the panel is sometimes impressed by the number of very good wines of a given vintage, like 2019. Sometimes a couple of grape varieties only are that successful. In more challenging cases, like 2021, we are impressed by the gems which can outperform the best wines from other vintages.

How are Alsace wines organised for tasting?

We carefully organise the flights for sparkling, red, dry and sweet wines. White wines from the generic AOC Alsace are sorted by grape variety, vintage and residual sugar. This brings together similar wines into a single flight.

For reds, there are various winemaking styles, and without specific indications of a claret, fruity or oak-barrel aged wine, we usually sort the Pinot Noirs by their degree of alcohol — something that tends to leave the fullest-bodied wines at the end of the flight.

When it comes to Grands Crus, keeping the same sorting criteria would not work because each of the 51 Grand Cru AOC can give huge variations in style. Terroirs are classified into families, based on their geological origin. Since we often don’t have enough wines to create a flight for each Grand Cru, we group wines from similar terroir families.

For example, wines from granite soil Grand Crus (such as Schlossberg, Brand, Sommerberg) are tasted together, whereas wines from limestone dominated soils (Rosacker, Steinert) are grouped in a different flight. The wines are then further sorted by vintage and residual sugar, regardless of the grape variety used. DWWA staff carefully plan the flights following the competition’s protocols and ensure to bring the wines at the right temperature.

So, you taste Grand Cru wines from different grape varieties in the same flight?

It is easier than it sounds, and panel judges find it very interesting because we can find a specific style in all wines of a flight, be it made of Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer.

This approach has allowed the panel to test great wines over the years, from terroirs that usually produced more closed wines when young — like Grand Cru Kirchberg de Ribeauvillé. These wines can easily be overshadowed by sandstone or granite wines, which show more intense and clear aromas in their youth.

How easy is it to move from one flight to another throughout the day?

On top of organising the flights, we have created a daily routine that is very effective for our palates. We start the day with a Crémant d’Alsace flight, then move on to AOC Alsace wines and end the morning with a flight of red.

The lunch break allows us to reset the palate, especially since the last reds of the flight are sometimes quite tannic!

In the afternoon we usually focus on the Grand Cru wines and we end the day with either sweeter AOC Alsace wine flights such as sweet Gewürztraminers, or a flight of Vendange Tardive (Late Harvest) or Sélection de Grains Nobles. Sugar can be quite damaging on the teeth, so it is a good way to save the day.

Which wines can expect Gold medals or higher?

Some people think great Alsace wines are only dry Rieslings, yet we have, over the past years, granted top scores in all categories.

When judges hesitate between Silver and Gold we always have discussions in the panel, but other times the review looks like a strike with every judge giving a Gold.

These wines are distinctive; they catch your attention. Some will be promoted to Platinum and we are proud that they’ll compete with wines from other regions and countries. It can be a Grand Cru Riesling, but we have also seen very impressive Pinot Noirs, Crémant d’Alsace and several wines from the Alsace Appellation.

What advice would you give to producers questioning which wines to enter?

If you are aiming for a Gold, your wine must be balanced and pure. It must show character, regardless of its sugar or acidity levels. Don’t send your sweetest or driest wines, choose the wines that show balance, wines that speak for themselves.

When you have these wines tasted or drunk around you, look for the glasses that empty first, not the praise you receive!

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