Much Alsace Riesling is now in a sweet style, which can be confusing for consumers, writes STEPHEN BROOK

Much Alsace Riesling is now in a sweet style, which can be confusing for consumers, writes STEPHEN BROOK

Something strange has been happening to Alsace Riesling. I first came to love these wines in the early 1980s, when I found their dry minerality, their richness and, in the best wines, their elegance, refreshing and satisfying. But over the last 10 years many of the wines have become progressively sweeter.

I have no problems with some sweetness in Riesling: few wines are more exquisite than well-balanced Mosel Rieslings, their sweetness set against their racy mouthwatering acidity. But the Alsace is not the Mosel: the wines are richer and have higher alcohol. Vinified dry, they are the perfect accompaniment for a range of dishes. Vinified with some sweetness, they become a gastronomic headache. But there is no way to be certain what you will find in the bottle you open. consumer confusion.

Philippe Blanck in Kientzheim is sympathetic. ‘If consumers are confused or disappointed by our wines, then it’s a real problem. Our difficulty as growers and winemakers is that we have improved the quality of our fruit. We’re picking at higher ripeness levels, so it’s not always easy to vinify the wines to complete dryness. ’Twenty years ago Riesling yields were almost twice as high as they are today. The grapes weren’t nearly as ripe, and it was no problem fermenting them to dryness. Today in a grand cru site we may have yields of 40 or 50hl per ha (hectare). That means in very ripe years such as 1997, we had very high sugar levels, but today you can scarcely taste it, as the acidity has come through.

It’s important not to be too hung up on the figures. Many a Mosel Riesling with 40g of residual sugar tastes barely sweet; many an Alsace Riesling with 8g tastes decidedly sugary. It all has to do with the balance of the wine – not just its sugar levels, but its acidity, alcohol and extract. Blanck produces Riesling from three grands crus: Schlossberg, Furstentum, and Sommerberg. Comparing the wines in successive vintages, Schlossberg and Sommerberg taste essentially dry, whereas Furstentum, from a much richer soil, does taste slightly sweet.

Exactly the same is true at Domaine Albert Mann. The 2000 Schlossberg had 9g (and tasted dry), whereas the Furstentum with the same alcoholic level, had 24g and tasted sweet. Mann’s winemaker Maurice Barthelmé assures me that with age the wine will taste less sweet, and to prove his point poured a 1995 Furstentum with 20g but with no cloying sugariness.

The point remains, however: how is the consumer to know which wines are bone-dry and which are sweetish? In some cases the producer has a consistent style: Beyer, Josmeyer and Trimbach, among others, always make very dry Rieslings. With other producers, you either need a detailed knowledge of their vineyards, or you have to trust to luck. At Domaine Weinbach, the principal grand cru for Riesling is again Schlossberg, and winemaker Laurence Faller wants it dry. ‘But I know that in certain vintages we will have ultra-ripe grapes that could boost the sugar levels and give us off-dry flavours.’ So she vinifies the ultra-ripe grapes separately and bottles the result as a special, gently sweet cuvée, ‘L’Inédit’. By siphoning off those grapes into this wine, she can be sure that her other bottlings of Riesling Schlossberg are completely dry.

Is it really necessary to wait until the grapes have reached a potential alcohol of 13.5% or more before harvesting? François Sorg at Domaine Bruno Sorg thinks not: ‘It’s not just sugar levels that are important, but everything else that derives from the vineyard. A wine with 12% or 12.5% can be as great as one with 13.5% or 14%.’

Olivier Humbrecht MW of Zind-Humbrecht is ruthless in his pursuit of quality: yields are very low and he knows how to extract the utmost from each of his vineyards. Even in tricky vintages such as 1991, he ended up with a large number of wines that were, in terms of must weights at harvesting, vendange tardive. As a consequence his wines have become very rich and high in alcohol.

But standing in his cellars one winter evening, he gives me a passionate justification of his method: ‘In great years from a great site, the grapes will be very ripe, and then you have to respect the end product, even if it has 20g of residual sugar. ‘There are ways to ensure your wine ends up dry. You can pick early and chaptalise, but I am completely against this. Or you can change the winemaking: centrifuge to clarify the must, analyse the wine and rectify any characteristics that might hinder the fermentation, and use commercial yeasts. The wine will be dry, but it may also be stripped of character. My approach is to let nature take its course. We can’t predict the outcome, but I choose to go with natural yeasts and accept the outcome. There are seven different yeast strains active in these cellars. Some will combine with each other, others will fight each other – and this makes the outcome of the fermentation something of a lottery.

’Ten years ago ripe Rieslings would have had more sweetness, not less. That’s because when fermentation seemed to grind to a halt, most winemakers assumed that was the end of the matter, and racked and cleaned up the wine. Today I’ll leave the wine, and often fermentation resumes in the spring when the cellars warm up. So the wine will end up drier than if I had racked it earlier.’ When I tasted his 2000 Rieslings, I had to admit that they all tasted essentially dry, even though the residual sugar varied from 7 to 19g.

TERROIR AS KING

A few miles away in Bergheim, Jean-Michel Deiss heroically rises from his sickbed to explain his philosophy on Riesling. He would like to see varietal names omitted from the labels of wines from top sites; for him, terroir is of infinitely more interest than the variety, and some of his wines (such as Burg) are blends of varieties, which, he insists, was always the tradition in Alsace. ‘In a great vineyard such as Rangen, it’s not always easy to tell Riesling from Pinot Gris. That’s because the terroir is so strong. The fact is that there is no single style of Alsace Riesling – and that’s what makes the wines so interesting.’

I have been following Deiss’ wines for a decade, and have the highest respect for his visionary zeal and courage, but when he pours me his 2000 Riesling wines, I find to my dismay that they are distinctly sweet and even soft.

So the consumer remains at sea, with no easy solution. Proposals to put residual sugar levels on the label are a non-starter, as they alone tell you nothing. Olivier Humbrecht would like to see a ban on chaptalised wines with more than an agreed level of residual sugar – perhaps 4g – and seems to have some support from INAO, though he can be sure of stiff opposition from some cooperatives.

In the meantime stylistic confusion will continue. The terroir-obsessed estates will continue to work in the way defined by Humbrecht. Such producers include Zind-Humbrecht, Albert Mann, Deiss and Muré. Others, such as Trimbach, will ferment their wines through to dryness, and the quality of their top cuvées such as Cuvée Frédéric Emile and Clos St Hune suggest this is a plausible approach. Other producers I have visited, such as Marc Tempé, Dirler, and Blanck, will aim to make dry wines but won’t lose any sleep if some end up with a hint of sweetness in very ripe years. In the short term, fans of dry Riesling have no alternative other than to memorise the stylistic approach of each producer and keep their fingers crossed.

Written by STEPHEN BROOK