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Jefford on Monday: Building a region

Andrew Jefford puts Alsace’s system of lieux-dits, communal appellations and projected Premiers Crus under the spotlight.

It is, at the very least, a 100-year project, and we’re right in the middle of it now. In common with many major undertakings, it has supporters and opponents; as usual, the arguments of both have merit. In my view, the future belongs to those who would create and build, rather than entrench a modest status quo; greater goals eclipse lesser. But I might be wrong.

The ‘Burgundification’ of Alsace

The project is the slow ‘burgundification’ of Alsace. Prior to 1971, Alsace was an anomaly. It was a region with a rich winemaking history: planted by the Romans, it was a major wine-producing and exporting area by the end of the fourteenth century. In many respects, it echoes Burgundy: a set of sun-trap, hill-slope vineyards on the western, dawn-facing side of a collapsed valley in Northern France. A favourable climate and complex topography and pedology means the potential for wines of splendid nuance. Yet history had tortured Alsace, and dealt it, by the mid-C20, a meagre hand: a single regional appellation, only granted in full in 1962. The first Grand Cru came in 1975, and the Crémant sparkling wine appellation in 1976; most of the present total of 51 Grand Crus were sanctioned in 1983 and 1992.

‘The Grands Crus have attracted ceaseless criticism’

The Grands Crus should, in an ideal world, have come last, not first – but it’s easier to define a region’s best sites, where there is a weight of historical record to call on, than it is a more modest site of local renown. Alas, the Grands Crus were circumscribed with an un-burgundian generosity which has attracted ceaseless criticism (though the term is less glaringly misused here than in St-Emilion). The story may not be over, as I’ll describe in moment.

Nowadays, though, you’ll see a host of other names on labels of Alsace wines. These names sound to most of us exactly like the Grand Cru names – Bergheim, for example, or Heissenberg, or Belzbrunner. What are they, and how do we make sense of them?

Think of Burgundy itself for a moment. Above the regional appellation come village appellations, both grouped (like Côtes de Nuits-Villages) and unitary (like Chambolle-Musigny). A village may then have lieux-dit (or unclassified single-site) vineyard names yoked to the village appellation, above which come the official Premier Cru sites (with an appellation formula which includes the village name and the Premier Cru descriptor) and then the Grand Cru sites (which have individual appellations).

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New Alsace village appellations

Since 2011, 13 village (more often called ‘communal’) appellations have come into being in Alsace. Some represent single villages (like Bergheim or Rodern), but others are grouped, like Vallée Noble (Westhalten plus Soultzmatt) or Coteaux de Haut Koenigsbourg (Chatenois, Kintzheim, Orschwiller and St Hippolyte). They appear with the Alsace AOC itself, and cover different wine types: Rodern is for red wines only; Bergheim, Vallée Noble and Coteaux de Haut Koenigsbourg for white wines only.

The lieux-dit system, by contrast, has not yet been validated by the Insititut National de l’Origine et Qualité (formerly INAO), so what follows is a picture of the work-in-progress. For the time being, producers are allowed to claim a lieux-dit if such a name already exists in the land register. Around 400 lieux-dits are claimed each year at present, of which around 170 have a concrete project which might eventually result in submission for Premier Cru status. More research work and tasting is required on the lieux-dits themselves before the region would be ready to pass them on to the authorities for approval, and in any case there is no such thing as ‘Alsace Premier Cru’ yet, nor has any framework for such a tier been formulated. That, though, is the long-term aim.

Might the lieux-dits and potential Premiers Crus act as a ‘reforming’ principle for the Grands Crus? It’s possible, since the circumscriptions will certainly be smaller, a wider spectrum of varieties will be permitted, and the quality standards accepted by those in the cru may prove in the end to be higher than for the Grands Crus.

‘No Grand Cru would want to be upstaged by a local Premier Cru, so they might be shamed into greater discipline’

If reform was imposed on the Grands Crus from above, it would never be accepted: the losers always go to court in order to drive reform into the sand. The Grands Crus, though, have since 2001 been ‘self-governed’, allowing producers in a particular Grand Cru to change the rules for themselves if they wish. No Grand Cru would want to be upstaged by a local Premier Cru, so they might be shamed into greater discipline (though admittedly it is hard to see a reduction in the actual land boundaries of an Alsace Grand Cru winning local assent).

Potential for ‘huge confusion’

Is all this a good idea? For Patrick Aledo of the Cave de Beblenheim and Pierre Sparr, the overtures towards lieux-dits and Premiers Crus is “a very, very bad decision taken by the independent growers. They live in a bubble – most French people don’t even understand what a grape variety is. The Grands Crus represent four per cent of the harvest, but not all of that is sold as Grand Cru. Around a quarter is blended away into AOC Alsace because it hasn’t got a market as Grand Cru. I’m fiercely opposed to these new levels of classification.” It’s a point of view shared by Marc Hugel. “Alsace already has a problem of identity, so bringing another two layers of complexity is crazy. It will create huge confusion.”

Marc Hugel, Hugel & Fils, alsace

Marc Hugel, of Hugel & Fils. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

Pragmatically speaking, Aledo and Hugel are quite correct: this torrent of nomenclature is way beyond the comprehension of 95 per cent of wine drinkers, both in France and abroad. That, though, is true of every single one of the world’s fine-wine regions, and it doesn’t matter at all. Such frameworks, even if imperfectly understood, reassure drinkers that there is a depth and a richness to wine culture that they might aspire to should they wish. We all live quite happily with complexity which we don’t understand, have no desire to understand, and no intention of ever understanding. How many of us use every feature offered by our computers, smartphones or cars? The gulf of comprehension doesn’t dampen enthusiasm, though, nor does it stop us from paying for extra complexity which we will never master.

‘This is an exercise in recovering the memory of the land’

For individual wine producers, by contrast, this process is immensely important. If there are 400 lieux-dits named in the land register, it’s is because they all meant something for hundreds of years to local wine farmers. This, in other words, is an exercise in recovering the memory of the land. It’s vital that the legislative framework provides routes to do this. Routes to excel, in other words.

The Grand Cru system is not yet perfect; it may be, as Patrick Aledo alleges, that the average price of a Grand Cru wine ex-cellars is less than 10 euros. Remember, though, that all this is work in progress. I can remember a time when Burgundy’s Grand Cru wines were often chronically disappointing, and cost much less than they do now. But progress happens — if the routes exist to enable it to happen. The finest Alsace Grands Crus are now some of France’s best white wines, and amply competitive with Burgundy’s white Grands Crus. There may not be many of them; there will be more in future. Alsace deserves its Premiers Crus, and it deserves its lieux-dits, too. Bring them on.

Ten lieux-dits to watch  

Here are 10 outstanding wines from a generally impressive tasting of 120 lieux-dits I recently undertook in Alsace. These are better wines than many Grands Crus from less skilled or less ambitious sources, and therefore might be tentatively regarded as potential Premiers Crus.

Jean-Baptiste Adam, Pinot Gris, Letzenberg 2015

This red-soiled marly clay-limestone hill site in Ingersheim has produced a Pinot Gris of impressive aromatic complexity (mountain pasture and freshly mown hay) and a palate of textured, creamy elegance. 90

Bott-Geyl, Riesling, Grafenreben 2013

This wine, grown on limey clay soils in Beblenheim, is the very definition of deliciousness: warm, softly fruited aromas and a mouthfilling, generously fleshed but nonetheless clean-lined palate, packed with apple and quince notes and with a stony tingle, too. 92

Agathe Bursin, Gewurztraminer, Dirstelberg 2015

From a pink sandstone-soiled site in Westhalten, this is truly gratifying Gewurztraminer of creamy voluptuousness: rich yet clean and fresh, packed with orange and tangerine. 90

Rolly Gassmann, Riesling, Kappelweg de Rorschwihr 2010

This limpid, golden, semi-mature Riesling has complex scents which hint at everything from lime blossom and lemon verbena to walnut and juniper; its pristine, singing balance gives the wine great lift and resonance. 92

Dirler-Cadé, Riesling, Belzbrunner 2013

Riesling from this sandstone-soiled site in Bergholtz has fresh, graceful citrus scents with a vivid seamless and engaging flavour of great poise and limpidity: deftly drawn and crafted. 92

Albert Mann, Riesling, Rosenberg 2013

Another clay-limestone vineyard, this time above the village of Wettolsheim. Total enchantment on the nose: a silver shower of apple, rose and hay, with a little brioche richness behind. On the palate, apple-peel and orange-peel mingle with cardamom spice: pristine, fresh, lush yet vivid. 93

Ostertag, Riesling, Fronholz 2014

Orchard fruits, rose petal, plant sap and rosemary notes are woven through the powerful aromatic presence of this sandy-quartz-soiled lieu-dit wine from the village of Epfig. On the palate, this has dramatic, chewy, elemental impact, packed with seemingly ‘mineral’ force. 94

Roland Schmitt, Riesling, Glintzberg 2015

Abutting the Grand Cru of Altenberg de Bergbieten with marl-gypsum soils, this is a delicately phrased and classy Riesling in which floral aromatic notes mingle with taut yet ripe acidity and a long, sappy, fresh flavour. 91

Weinbach, Pinot Gris, Altenbourg 2008

The marly limestones of this vineyard lie beneath the similarly soiled Furstentum Grand Cru above Kientzheim. This magnificent wine has a wonderfully grave, solemn aroma: pollen, honey, dripping summer fruits, drifting in a heavy mist out of the glass. On the palate, it is powerful, weighty, thrusting: a shout from the earth. Essence-like wine, almost fiery at its heart, yet also packed with lime-blossom enchantment. 96

Zind-Humbrecht, Riesling, Clos Windsbuhl 2013

This gently sloping limestone site in Hunawihr was first singled out as outstanding in 1324, at which point it was purchased by the Habsburgs of Austria. Some 689 years later, in the prodigiously talented hands of Olivier Humbrecht, it has produced a truly deep, resonant, multi-dimensioned Riesling with a remarkable breadth of allusion (apple and nectarine to celery and courgette), stony pungency and cascading force. Great density and wealth combine with astonishing lift, finesse and poise: evident Premier Cru potential here. 94

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