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Anson: Sugar wars in Alsace

Jane Anson ventures into the disputed territory of sugar levels in Alsace wine, and finds two sides still struggling to negotiate a peace settlement.

‘It’s not exactly a discussion,’ says Jean-Frederic Hugel, ‘more like a lot of people shouting at each other.

We are sat in what has to be one of the most picturesque tasting rooms in France. Perched halfway up the cobbled street in the medieval town of Riquewihr, Hugel & Fils winery is found in a half-timbered yellow-painted house, one of countless rakishly-angled gingerbread houses that line the town. Hanging baskets of flowers, shaded inner courtyards, ancient wells and oriel windows abound. At Christmas the entire place grinds to a halt such is the heaving mass of eager tourists. But today a light drizzle has kept the crowds away, and we can drink in the just-the-perfect-side-of-kitsch atmosphere in relative peace.

Until, that is, the subject of residual sugar in Alsace comes up.

We’re discussing a tasting that we attended the day before of the Brand grand cru. Located close to the town of Turkheim, Brand is made up largely of granite soils, with pockets of clay and limestone, and is split between 13 producers, including many of the biggest names of the region such as Zind-Humbrecht, Josmeyer, Charles Baur and Albert Boxler. Tasting through the wines was a fascinating exercise, with many displaying the stunning potential of riesling in this most northerly of French wine regions. And yet they did little to show a family signature of Brand, even though all were from the riesling grape, partly because the residual sugar within the wines on display ranged from totally dry (Josmeyer, with less than 2 grams per litre) to 9 grams per litre (François Baur) and everything in between.

You’ll find this a lot in Alsace, whether at the cellar door or at home – not helped by the fact that the wine labels don’t always give very much away. And the reason that it provokes such a heated discussion is because the attitude towards residual sugar is right at the heart of Alsace’s identity. ‘Everyone has a strong opinion,’ as Hugel points out. ‘Half say it’s evil, the other half that it’s a classic character of our wines’.

Séverine Beydon-Schlumberger of Domaine Schlumberger tells me that the terroir in parts of her Saering Grand Cru is masked in the final wine unless a small amount of residual sugar (she feels around 5g/l is perfect) is able to draw it out. ‘We did a few bone dry vintages,’ she tells me during a horizontal of her unquestionably beautiful wines, ‘but I found that the Riesling was simply too severe and the austerity hid its true character. The lightest touch of residual sugar better expresses the minerality’.

Isabelle Josmeyer, winemaker at Josmeyer, actually snorts at the idea that residual sugar can help rather than hide terroir expression, and has long advocated ‘true’ dry rieslings. Paul McKirdy, the Scottish winemaker at Zind Humbrecht, goes somewhere in between, allowing the wines to ferment to wherever the yeasts naturally stop working, regardless of whether the sugar has been fully converted to alcohol or not. All farm biodynamically (or nearly entirely in the case of Schlumberger), and no question that all three make brilliant wines – but ones with very different strategies for residual sugar.

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Let’s back up just briefly. All wines have some traces of residual sugar in them, as they start life as the sugary juice of grapes hanging on vines. The process of vinification (and more precisely the action of yeast) turns that sugar into alcohol, but true 0% dry doesn’t happen. For most wines, once you are below 2g/l (2%) you can no longer ‘taste’ the sweetness. But things are not that simple in reality. Acidity levels, grape variety, aromatic intensity, age of the wine, levels of tannin and other sources of bitterness… all of these have an impact on our perception of sweetness in wine – even the temperature at which it is served.

But there seems to be an unusual level of suspicion towards ‘true’ dry styles in Alsace. One of the things that I found fascinating while there was how many winemakers, when I got to the bone dry wine in a lineup, said ‘oh yes, that’s the one for the professionals…’. It reminded me of something that Julien Schaal, a winemaker who works in both Alsace and South Africa told me a few months ago (and confirmed last week).

‘When I first drank my Alsace Rieslings with friends in South Africa, they would be put off by how sweet they were. I had hardly noticed to be honest, but the clarity of flavours and intensity that we were getting (in chardonnay) in the Elgin Valley made me rethink my entire process back in France’.

Those who believe in a touch of residual sugar have a totally reasonable corner to defend. Riesling has a natural acidity that means you can play with sugar levels in a way that just isn’t possible in many other grape varieties (add that to the complexity of its aromatic structure and you can see why several winemakers I spoke to worry about writing the exact amount of residual sugar on the label).

Tasting through the wines while paying attention to listed residual sugar shows just how little we can anticipate taste through simply looking at figures.

But the heated discussions going on in Alsace right now (and, let’s face it, for many years) show that even the most ardent champions of this diversity know the confusion is helping neither consumers nor themselves.

Want to see the impact of residual sugar? A few wines to try:

Domaine Schlumberger Riesling Saering Grand Cru 2012

This is a beautiful wine, hugely flinty, with a contraction on the end of the palate that emphasizes a slight bitterness to the lemon rind edges and promises a long life ahead. Hugely complex with touches of spice. Residual sugar is 5g/l, 12.5%abv.

Trapet-Alsace Riesling Schlossberg Grand Cru 2013

Domaine Trapet from Gevrey Chambertin is making stunning Alsace Rieslings that are really worth seeking out. This is hugely aerian and elegant, and needs carafing. Feels almost totally dry and yet has 6g/l of residual sugar – taste this and you can never say that a touch of residual sugar masks terroir. From granite soils that convey power to the grapes but the freshness was emphasised in the 2013 vintage. 3.15ph, 6g/l sugar, 12.5%abv.

Josmeyer Riesling Brand Grand Cru 2014

A ‘true dry’ riesling with residual sugar level of under 2g/l, displaying an incredible precision. It is certainly true that while tasting alongside the other Brand Grands Crus, the initial impression of this is a slight austerity, but just two minutes in the glass the flavours unwind, and what you get is a thrillingly electric wine, with crisp citrus, a smoky edge and slate walls.

Biecher & Schaal Riesling Kastelberg 2014

From the only Grand Cru in Alsace with blue schist soils, this has pear and crisp citrus aromatics, merging with nectarine and taut spice on the palate. A perfectly pointed, elongated spike of a wine that brings you up short and keeps you wanting more. Hugely concentrated, clear ageing potential. This has a just-over-the-threshold 2.9g/l residual sugar and a 3.02pH.

And a true, no question about it, residual sugar wine…

Hugel Riesling selection des Grains Nobles S 2009

This comes from a tiny clay and granite plot that is usually the first place to be harvested, but in 2009 the heat meant they had to concentrate on other parts of the vineyard, and they left this for a few weeks. When they came back to it, a perfect bloom of noble rot had covered the grapes. One of the most intense, perfectly balanced and nuanced wines I tasted all week in Alsace. Rich, endlessly textured, with saffron, apricot, quince, crab apple, toffee and searing lime. With 218g/l residual sugar, showing exactly what can be achieved.

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