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Alsace: the new generation

Fresh-thinking young winemakers could be the shot in the arm that Alsace needs, as they focus more than ever on the terroir-driven, dry styles that today’s wine lovers want. Panos Kakaviatos reports.

It’s a region close to the heart of many wine lovers and yet Alsace continues to suffer image problems.

In June 2013 Rémy Gresser, then president of regional wine body CIVA (Conseil Interprofessionneldes Vins d’Alsace), bemoaned a drop in sales incertain export markets, and recognised that continued consumer confusion over sweetness levels was to blame. In a telephone conversation more recently, he acknowledged that even though the younger generation of winemakers were making drier styles, an identity problem still exists for Alsace. ‘When consumers buy Sancerre, they know it’s a dry white wine, but with Alsatian wines, they don’t know what they’ll find in the bottle.’

Gresser explains that part of the problem stems from the mid 1980s, when official recognition was given to late-harvest wines. ‘The influence of late-harvest wines on regular wines is that the latter were often left with residual sugar as well,’ Gresser said. ‘As a result, Alsatian wines lost their food-friendliness, to the point where restaurateurs and sommeliers are becoming disinterested.’

A glance at the figures seems to confirm Gresser’s concerns. Since 1969, exports of Alsatian wines rose in volume and value – hitting a peak in volume in 1990, at just over 342,242 hectolitres.But since then volumes have slowly declined, to 265,201 hectolitres in 2012. While the value of exports has increased steadily, some key markets such as the UK and Germany have seen a decline in both value and volume since 1990.

Getting the message

Younger winemakers, sometimes in opposition to their parents, recognise the need to focus on drier wine to better compete in international markets, which prefer dry wines. ‘We want acidity,’ said Thomas Muré, 33, of Domaine Muré in Rouffach. With near zero residual sugar in a vintage of low acidity, his 2012 Clos-St-Landelin Riesling shows subtle opulence and an expression of herbs, grapefruit, mineral and iodine-driven verve.

In making that wine, Muré explained that heand his father René had argued over how much air to give the wine during its maturation – normally oxidation is kept to a minimum – and that his father begrudgingly allowed him to ‘fait ta connerie’ (do ityour own stupid way) and expose it to more. ‘After we tasted the wine in bottle, he realised I was right.’

As René Muré’s children took over, a trend for drier wines began. ‘In the past we thought that the more concentrated the wine, the better,’ explained Thomas. ‘But we had gone too far. Green harvesting led to grapes ripening too quickly and very high sugar concentrations. Then, when it rained, we were more susceptible to botrytis,’ he said.

He and his sister Véronique ended systematic green harvesting, began planting vines more densely and lowered trellising to retain acidity. They also de-leaf to slow photosynthesis. As a result, their grand cru Riesling is closer to 13.5% alcohol rather than 14.5% which was more typical in the past.

Many young winemakers were born in the wake of the Alsace Grand Cru AC, created in 1975. Over more than three decades, the AC has grown to include 51 classified areas, defined according to geological and climactic criteria. But it wasn’t until 2011 that each of these 51 vineyards becamer ecognised as grands crus in their own right.

Precise terroir expression is a natural fit for crisp, dry whites, said Max Buecher, 23, of Domaine Barmès-Buecher in Wettolsheim. Take the non grand cru terroir of Clos Sand, located above the Steingrubler grand cru on a steep slope surrounded by forest. A cool terroir, it is an ideal growing site in warmer vintages – not uncommon with climate change. In 2009, Buecher’s Clos Sand Riesling exudes purity and elegance, while the 2008 (a cooleryear) strikes a brisker note: its 3.7 grams per litre of sugar easily balanced by more than 9g/l of acidity.

Understanding terroirs

Alsace terroirs have always existed, but they were not as well appreciated or understood as they are today, said Jérôme Mader, 32, of Domaine Mader in Hunawihr. ‘Before 1983,’ he said, ‘my father labelled his wine simply “Riesling” or “Riesling-Théophile” after my grandfather, without indicating the Rosacker grand cru.’

The 26ha of vines in Rosacker famously include a tiny 1.67ha vineyard that makes arguably the greatest Riesling in Alsace: Domaine Trimbach’s Clos-Ste-Hune. Rosacker was not recognised officially as a grand cru until 1983. For that reason, Trimbach and some other domaines with strong brands, such as Hugel, saw little point in adopting any grand cru monikers on their labels.

But even Domaine Trimbach might soon show grand cru designations on its labels. Anne Trimbach, 29, daughter of winemaker Pierre, said this may not apply to established brands, such as Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling, but to a more recent acquisition.

‘Our wines had a name for themselves long before the grand cru system,’ she said. But when the family negotiated with the Ribeauvillé Convent to harvest 2.6ha of its vines, ‘the nuns wanted us to write on the label “Grand Cru Geisberg from the Convent of Ribeauvillé’”; it is their wish and their vineyards,’ said Anne. The grapes were initially used in Cuvée Frédéric Emile, but starting in 2009, the Trimbachsbegan a separate bottling; there is no label yet. As with other Trimbach wines, the bottles are kept in the cellar for a few years before release. ‘The entireyounger generation is open to the idea of puttingthe grand cru on the label,’ she added. ‘The nuns are asking for it, so why not? Why would we refuse?’

Charles Sparr, 25, represents the 12th generation of his family working the vines in Riquewhir. Although his father Pierre travelled the world to promote the dry wines of Domaine Pierre Sparr, Charles says that he has more of an affinity for them. Since 2010 he has been trying to vinify drier but, like his peers, the aim is to express the terroir.

Charles would like to have one grape variety dedicated to each of the domaine’s grand cru vineyards. In the Brand grand cru, for example, Sparr has plantings of seven varieties. ‘I want only Riesling here,’ he says, explaining that the granitic soil and fine exposure is best suited to this grape.

New approaches

As climate change brings greater ripeness, Alsace’syounger producers are also looking to promote Pinot Noir. Charles Sparr proudly poured his 2012 and inaugural 2010 vintages of Leimengrub, alieu-dit near the Mambourg grand cru. Back in 2006 he planted Pinot Noir from rootstalks from Pommard’s Clos des Epenots there. ‘It is getting better each year as the vines age,’ said Sparr.

Although only white grapes are currently part of the Alsace Grand Cru AC, Sparr and other young vintners assert that Pinot Noir in certain terroirs deserves grand cru status.

There’s also change in the cellar. Travel has exposed younger winemakers to new techniques,and they are bringing these back to Alsace. When Melanie Pfister, 32, of Domaine Pfister returned home after many years outside the region, she convinced her father to be more gentle with the fruit. Instead of huge container loads of grapes being pumped straight into the press, the harvest is now brought in in small containers where they are sorted on a rolling conveyor before being gently transferred to the tanks.

While working as an intern in 2005 at Cheval Blanc in St-Emilion, Pfister also learned to appreciate the art of blending. Since returning to the family domaine she has launched a new blend – Cuvée 8– made up of Alsace’s four grand cru varieties: Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muscat. ‘I loved blending Merlot and Cabernet Franc at Cheval Blanc,’ she recalls. ‘I wanted to do this with our grapes, but still respect our traditions.’ The result is a dry wine with great complexity.

Most of the younger generation regularly travel around the world to promote their wines, as well as embracing social media. ‘It’s unbelievable how many people I’ve met through Twitter or Facebook,’ Anne Trimbach remarks. It all helps in getting the message out about the new, drier Alsace.

Top 10 ‘new generation’ dry wines:

René Muré, Cuvée Prestige, Crémant d’Alsace NV
17.5/20pts (91/100pts)
£17.22 Spirited Wines
Made from Pinots Blanc, Gris and Noir, and Riesling – the final blend based on a solera method of previous vintages added to the wine of the year. On lees for 12 months and then 18 months’ ageing in bottle (this one disgorged in 2007). White apricot and pear, with hazelnut notes, yet floral and citrussy on the finish with still vibrant bubbles.
Drink 2014–2020
Alc 12.5%

Trimbach, Clos-Ste-Hune Riesling 2007
19/20pts (96/100pts)
£100–£135 Bordeaux Index, Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Hedonism, Lay & Wheeler, Millésima, Swig, The Wine Society
1.7 grams/litre of residual sugar (RS) and 7.2g/l acidity. Precise fruit and complex expression of limestone freshness. Old vines (45–50 years old) facing south and southeast bring concentration to this wine, which finishes on a subtle note of white pepper.
Drink 2018–2035
Alc 13%

Trimbach, Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling 2007
18/20pts (93/100pts)
£28–£45 Berry Bros & Rudd, Fortnum & Mason, Great Western Wine, Harper Wells, HG Wines, Majestic, Millésima, Planet of the Grapes, Swig
0.7g/l RS, 7.9g/l acidity. From grapes grown on Geisberg and Osterberg grands crus. Still young and shy but with some aeration you get lemon and green apple aromas, and stony hints. Very pure and mineral-driven palate with subtle concentration and excellent potential.
Drink 2015–2025
Alc 13%

Frédéric Mochel, Cuvée Henriette Riesling, Altenberg-de-Bergbieten Grand Cru 2010
17.5/20pts (91/100pts)
N/A UK mochel.net
A 2013 DWWA Silver medal winner. Ripe, juicy and open palate with citrus, baked apple and spice flavours. Excellent density and a very refreshing, floral finish.
Drink 2014–2025
Alc 13%

Sipp Mack, Riesling, Rosacker Grand Cru 2010
17.5/20pts (91/100pts)
£17.95 Gerrard Seel
Very pure and pristine grapefruit aromas and flavours. Rounded structure with precision and vibrancy on the finish.
Drink 2014–2025
Alc 13%

Barmès-Buecher, Clos Sand Riesling 2008
17/20pts (90/100pts)
£24.91 Gauntleys
3.7g/l RS, 9g/l acidity. Biting but not cutting acidity. Superior freshness and a tang of iodine and lime notes.
Drink 2015–2025
Alc 13%

Henry Fuchs, Riesling, Kirchberg Grand Cru 2009
17/20pts (90/100pts)
£18.85 Christopher Piper
Aromas and flavours of rhubarb, mango and aniseed. Located at the cooler high point of Kirchberg, at 400m, this vintage offers delightful tension and fine fruit.
Drink 2014–2020
Alc 13.5%

Pfister, Cuvée 8 2011
17/20pts (90/100pts)
£14.38 The Drink Shop, Woodwinters
Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat blend. Exudes richness, complexity and dryness. Lacks the razor sharpness of pure Riesling but popular for palates seeking greater richness and plenty of
Drink 2014–2018
Alc 13.5%

Pfister, Riesling, Engelberg Grand Cru 2009
17/20pts (90/100pts)
£24.01–£27.50 Halifax Wine Co, The Drink Shop, Woodwinters
Refreshingly rounded yet dry palate showing Chablis-like focus, citrus flavours and aromas of grapefruit and lemon. Lingering finish marked by wet stone and gunflint notes.
Drink 2014–2020
Alc 13.5%

Henry Fuchs, Pinot Blanc- Auxerrois 2012
15.5/20pts (85/100pts)
£10.28 Christopher Piper
Lovely notes of mirabelle plum, apricot and iodine saltiness. Made from old vines on a high slope between Ribeauvillé and Bergheim, which maintains freshness.
Drink 2014–2015
Alc 13%

Written by Panos Kakaviatos

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