Andrew Jefford takes a look at Alsace’s competitive wine-cooperative scene, as part of his search for the best wine co-op in France...
My search for France’s greatest co-operative continues. As the train draws in at Colmar, though, it all begins to get rather difficult — for the best of reasons.
There is, in my opinion, no French region with a more consistent or more attractive co-operative wine offer than Alsace
Co-operatives account for about 41.5 per cent of Alsace’s annual wine sales – which is much less than in the South of France (in Corsica it’s over 60 per cent and in Languedoc-Roussillon over 70 per cent). Historically, though, the co-operative movement is immensely significant in Alsace – and in terms of quality, too, there are many contenders in the frame. There is, in my opinion, no French region with a more consistent or more attractive co-operative wine offer than Alsace.
A little history first, though. The winter of 1846-47 was a terrible one, as students of Irish history will remember. It was the sufferings of the rural poor in Germany that winter, though, which inspired a young Rhineland mayor from Westerwald called Friedrich Raiffeisen to develop both rural co-operatives and credit unions over the following decades. Following the Franco-Prussian war, Alsace was annexed (in 1871) to the Germany Empire – and lost its French markets overnight. Growers consequently struggled and some, inspired by Raiffeisen’s ideas, formed co-operatives, that of Ribeauvillé (founded in 1895) being the first. You could consider it France’s original wine cooperative, too – though since Alsace wasn’t in France at the time, the accolade is customarily given to the growers of the Pays d’Ensérune co-operative near Béziers (founded in 1901). Co-operatives in the Jura (like the Fruitière Vinicole d’Arbois, founded in 1906) were also off to an early start.
Nowadays there are 15 co-operatives in Alsace, and they vary in scale. The giant is Bestheim (1,336 ha), which accounts for between 12 and 15 per cent of Alsace production on its own. Wolfberger is substantial too (1,200 ha), with a 48-ha spread of Grand Cru land (including Rangen de Thann) at one end, and with a significant business in eaux de vie and liqueurs for the catering industry at the other; while the ‘Alliance Alsace’ between wine specialist Turckheim (400 ha) and Crémant specialist Cave du Roi Dagobert (1,000 ha) is also commercially significant.
Pfaffenheim owns a cluster of brands (including Dopff & Irion) in addition to its members’ 270 ha, while Beblenheim has some great holdings among its 300 ha (with a further 40 ha at associate Molsheim); Jean Geiler (the Ingersheim co-operative) has ten Grands Crus among its 390 ha. Then comes Ribeauvillé itself (260 ha), Hunawihr (200 ha), Cleebourg (189 ha) and Vieil Armand (140 ha around Guebwiller, Cernay and Soultz). Most would say that Alsace’s co-operative stars are Turckheim, Beblenheim and Ribeauvillé (which was declared ‘Cooperative of the Year’ in 2016 by Revue de Vin de France), and the results of a comparative tasting I undertook in the region bear this out (see below).
Why, though, are co-operative standards in Alsace high? Competition drives up quality, of course; if one or two achieve outstanding results, others are forced to compete. Alsace’s successful Wine Route (the oldest and most popular in France) brings visitors and direct sales to cooperative addresses, so it’s in co-operative interests to maximise quality and presentation. Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that Alsace has no IGP alternative to its regional (and varietally articulated) AOP. The fact that everyone in Alsace must produce appellation wine is in itself an impetus to quality. Finally, the generosity of the Grand Cru circumscriptions – whatever one may think of this in other respects — does at least allow the region’s co-operative wine producers the chance to compete with leading private growers at the top of the Alsace tree, as many do with distinction.
Co-operative excellence from Alsace
Gewurztraminer Vieilles Vignes, Heimberger, Cave de Beblenheim 2014
Roses and cold cream make for a classic Gewurztraminer scent, while the palate, too, is perfumed and nuanced, fresh and floral. An ideal Gewurztraminer for a blind tasting with friends – or as a talking-point aperitif. 89 points / 100
Riesling , Kleinfels, Cave de Beblenheim 2015
This deftly crafted Riesling (available from the cellar at 6.80 euros and from Waitrose in the UK at £9.99) showed very well against its peers: forest-fresh lime and coriander scents and a crunchy, stony, zesty flavour. Spot on. 90
Pinot Gris, Classic, Bestheim 2015
Ripely green, fresh, lively, full of zest and energy, with a delicious fleshy fullness becoming apparent in the mid-palate. 88
Pinot Noir, Cuvée 1926, Jean Geiler 2015
Pinot Noir is too finicky to be a particular co-operative strength, but this effort from Ingersheim (grown, in fact, in Turckheim on granite soils) has a big billowing balloon of fresh cherry fruit – delicious value at under 11 euros. 89
Riesling Grand Cru, Osterberg, Cave de Ribeauvillé 2010
This is a fine Riesling which carries its six years with aplomb, and which could mature effortlessly for at least as long again: mellow, lush scents of wet stone and mushroom, after which the tautness and tension of the vintage comes as a surprise: pungent, pithy, classical. Ribeauvillé’s Osterberg (this Grand Cru is one of the two sources for Trimbach’s Cuvée Frédéric-Emile) is well-worth following. 92
Clos du Zahnacker, Cave de Ribeauvillé 2013
The 1.24 ha of the tiny Clos du Zahnacker lies within Osterberg; it’s wholly owned by the Ribeauvillé co-operative and is planted with Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, all of which are co-fermented for this wine. The nose is both fresh and creamy – orchard fruits, with a spoonful of custard. On the palate, this blend is brisk and bright, pure and complex. Riesling emerges as the soloist, with backing vocals from the other two varieties. 91
Pinot Blanc, Granit de la Vallée, Cave de Turckheim 2015
This Pinot Blanc, from the granite soils of the Munster valley, is a different proposition from the smilingly grapey Pinot Blanc norm: the scents are almost smoky and spicy, while the flavours are pert, brisk, stone-bright. Great use of raw materials here. 89
Sylvaner Vieilles Vignes, Cave de Turckheim 2013
Sylvaner is an understated, chewy, food-friendly northern white, and Turckheim’s Vieilles Vignes version makes a fine Alsace reference: fresh, quietly intriguing scents, hinting at girolle mushrooms, veal stock and vanilla, with sappy, vegetal-marrowy flavours. 89
Gewurztraminer Grand Cru, Brand, Cave de Turckheim 2013
Turckheim has an outstanding record with Gewurztraminer, and this Grand Cru wine from the warm site of Brand has perfumes of billowing, unctuous classicism and beguilingly generous flavours, too, its sweetness (39 g/l) ballasted with something denser and stonier behind. 91
Pinot Gris Grand Cru, Hengst, Wolfberger 2014
Rich orchard fruits lend a fatty-earthy richness to this wine from the southeast-facing Hengst (a sheltered, warm site), and it summarises what Alsace can do for this variety, so often neutral elsewhere. Chunky, deep, full and fleshy on the palate, too, with a little finishing tension. 90
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