Alsace is one of the prettiest and most fascinating wine regions in the world, blessed by a uniquely complex geology, a mostly warm, even hot, dry climate, and very specific grape varieties that dominate plantings while playing much smaller roles almost everywhere else. More importantly, the wines of many of these grapes are universally recognized to reach the absolute pinnacle of quality in Alsace only.
But Alsace is a lot more than the sum of its (wine) parts: the region boasts a fairy tale setting, characterized by a landscape dotted by some of the prettiest villages and towns in all of France (and if you stop to think about that really means for a second, you realize just how beautiful the region must be: it’s not by accident that when Disney artists had to come up with the village to be the backdrop of the Beauty and the Beast movie, it was an Alsatian village they took as the example to copy). But like in all fairy tales, beyond the bucolic and the halcyon lurk dangers too; and the world of Alsace wine, as amazing and unforgettable as its is, unfortunately also has more than its share of wicked witch- and ogre-like situations.
My love affair with Alsace
I have been visiting Alsace regularly since 2000, in many years as much as five times a year; in fact, I began visiting Alsace and its wineries already as a youngster while travelling with my parents, beginning in 1976. Admittedly, I love France in general, having spent all my childhood at a private French school, taking French school exams, learning to speak and write the language, and just growing up and liking everything about the country. Still today, it’s French food, music, books and movies I most eat, listen, read and go see. But as much as I like/love all of France and all things French, my heart beats strongest for Alsace: it’s my “home away from home”. I love the region, its people, its food and its wines: simply put, it is one of my two or three favourite places in the world and I absolutely never tire of it. In fact, I almost moved to Alsace permanently at the beginning of the 2000s. So yes, I know Alsace well, and you can believe me when I tell you that I know its wines extremely well too. Anyone who has followed my wine writings over the years at Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, Decanter and Vinous, and now as Editor-in-Chief at the TerroirSense Wine Review, is well-aware of how long, in-depth and detailed my writing on Alsace and its wines is. I am one of the, if not the, major English-language wine writer who has most visited and written about the region and its wines over a span of thirty-plus years, and this article is but one in a long series of pieces devoted to the region and its wines. Importantly, my upcoming 500+ page book on Alsace and its wines will bring me full circle in my love affair with the region. In ultimate analysis, I tell you all of this because it is your guarantee that writing about Alsace wines is not just another job for me before moving on to writing about German wines or Burgundy or something else. No, not at all: rather, it’s a life passion, and mission.
Understanding Alsace through its history and geography
Understanding Alsace through its history and geography is a big help to understanding its wines, because the lay of the land and its climate heavily inform the wines. Furthermore, Alsace’s history explains its grape varieties. Beginning with the latter, throughout history, Alsace has often been torn between France and Germany (such moments resulted from the Franco-Prussian War, the Treaty of Versailles and during and after WWII), and so this is the one part of France where Germanic names are common (not just in grape names, but those of local people, towns and foods too). It follows that Germanic grape varieties are the most typical ones of Alsace, and therein lies one important distinguishing feature of Alsace and its wines relative to other parts of France: most of Alsace’s grapes are not grown anywhere else in the country. However, Alsace has a very strong foothold not just in Germany but in France too, and this is why grapes like Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir and lately even Syrah are also commonly grown there.
Alsace’s wine production area runs north to south in more or less a straight line, about 130 kilometers long and 16 kilometers wide, sandwiched between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the German border and Rhine River to the east. The presence of the Vosges range is all-important, as these are responsible for the “shadow effect” common to all mountain ranges; what this means is that the western-facing side of the Vosges is cold and rainy, while the eastern-facing side, which is where Alsace’s vineyards lie, is hot and sunny. In fact, according to data culled over the 1991-2020 period confirms that Alsace is the second-driest region of France (after Roussillon) and one of its cities, Colmar is (depending on the year) either the driest or the second-driest of all France (only Marseille and Perpignan can “out-dry” it in some years: data from Météó France published in 2022 shows Marseille to have been France’s driest city, with around 515mm of precipitation over 56 days annually, while in Colmar there is about 530mm of rain each year, in Perpignan 547mm and in Aix-en-Provence there is 585mm). Such a dry (and hot) climate was a real blessing for Alsace until recently, with cool nights and wind patterns off-setting the dry, hot days, allowing production of wines of lively, even piercing acidity and freshness. Unfortunately, the arrival of climate change has made a warm to hot climate less of the gift it once was: nowadays, the lack of rain, increasing sunlight and heat units, not to mention frankly atypical nefarious weather events that happen more and more regularly (when they never did in the past, like for example hail when you least expect it) are posing an ever-increasing, worrisome problem to Alsatian grape-growers and winemakers.
Although one speaks of Alsace generically as one wine region, it is in fact divided in two sections: the Haut-Rhin (which despite its name is located to the south, and the Bas-Rhin located in the north). Of the two, it is the former that is the most prestigious and where historically the finest Alsatian wines have been made: almost certainly, all the Alsatian wine estates you know of are located in the Haut-Rhin. There are plenty of very fine domaines in the Bas-Rhin too that deserve to be better-known and appreciated, and the limited time at my disposal permitting, I have tried to visit and cover a few in this report. For sure, many of the wines made in the Bas-Rhin are also outstanding: for example, those made around Barr tend to be more powerful while those around Andlau impress more for their refinement. In general, the Bas-Rhin’s cooler habitat is an excellent source of very fine Riesling wines; it follows that Gewurztraminer wines are also on the elegant side, but can sometimes lack the flesh and spice that makes Alsatian Gewurztraminer wines so exciting and unique, or put another way, by far the world’s best such wines. Sylvaner is another grape variety that reaches qualitative zeniths in the Bas-Rhin (such as those of Mittelbergheim) that are not commonly found elsewhere.
Alsace earned its Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) in 1962 and by 1975 had begun identifying its grand crus (the Schlossberg was the first to be so named in 1975). Alsace’s wines can be made from flatland and hillside vineyards: the almost totality of the lieux-dits and especially the grand cru vineyards lie on mostly gently sloping hillsides, and not on the more fertile flatlands. For the most part, Alsace’s vineyards lie between 150-400 meters above sea level and planted on soils of extremely varied composition that run the gamut of granite, limestone, schist, slate, volcanic, clay, sand, loam, and sandstone. However, as these soils and subsoils were formed over different geological stages and epochs, there are more than one of each, such that Alsace boasts a wealth of different soils (and subsoils), such as for example soils dominated by the presence of limestone as opposed to others marked by sandstone (for example, the pink sandstone of the Vosges that is highly typical of Alsace, but it’s not the only type of sandstone commonly found in the region). To give you an idea of just how complex the Alsace soil system is, just know that researchers have described thirteen different basic soil types in Alsace that originated from eight different parent rocks (roche mères), but then there are also many permutations of each. Clearly, such diversity leads to many different wines being produced even when the grapes grow only a short distance away: undoubtedly, Alsace is the land of the lieu-dit (or place name) and its growers and wine makers are absolutely driven to highlight every little difference of their terroirs, such that it is common to find up to thirty (sometimes more) different small-lot wines produced at each estate. It all ends up making for very fun, but also very long, days of tasting.
The region’s wine categories: Alsace wines are easy to understand
Alsace wine is amongst the easiest in the world to understand. If you are among those who view Italian or Spanish wine as the best excuse to go looking for an aspirin, then Alsace wine is the wine for you. This is because, for the most part, labelling in Alsace is done by variety, so practically anyone can understand what it is she or he is buying when they reach for an Alsace wine on store shelves. Currently, there are fifty-three Appellations of Alsace wine: the catch-all AOC Alsace (about 65% of the region’s wine production) with the grape name clearly visible on the label (for example, Gewurztraminer Alsace; Riesling Alsace; Sylvaner Alsace, etc…); the AOC Crémant d’Alsace (Alsace’s sparkling wine made by secondary fermentation in the bottle in the manner of Champagne (about 30% of the wines produced in the region); and last but obviously not least, the AOC Alsace Grand Crus, of which there are fifty-one (and most of which are found in the Haut-Rhin). Differently from Burgundy, there are currently no Premier Cru vineyards in Alsace, but a list of Premier Cru vineyard areas is currently being evaluated, such that in the future Alsace will also have Premier Cru wines as well. This new category is still most likely a few years away from seeing the light of day. It is a very good idea for Alsace to have Premier Cru vineyards, as the jump from “Grand Cru wine” to a “Lieu-Dit wine” is often too steep; the problem, as I shall discuss below is not in elevating many current lieux-dits to premier cru status, which is warranted, but rather that too many grand cru vineyards are far too large, something I shall explain better in the “problems” section below.
There are a few other categories of Alsatian wine that wine lovers need to know about. Blended wines have slowly been accepted, and so some wines are now made with various blends of grapes and carry the name of a specific vineyard district only. For example, wines labelled as Kaefferkopf are blends of 60-80% Gewurztraminer, 10-40% Riesling, 0-30% Pinot Gris with up to 10% total of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Muscat Ottonel, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Muscat Rosé à Petits Grains, and Chasselas, while those called Altenberg de Bergheim can be blends of 50-70% Riesling, 10-25% Pinot Gris, 10-25% Gewürztraminer, with up to 10% total of Muscat Ottonel, Muscat d’Alsace (also called Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), and Muscat Rosé à Petits Grains. These wines hold the theoretical advantage of doing away with the perceived cheapening effect of labelling wine by grape variety (a very misguided belief, in my opinion) while benefiting from the prestigious air of expounding “terroir”. Which is all fine and dandy, but in my experience in my experience, the reality of things is very much different. It’s one thing to call wines Musigny or Richebourg when they are all made with always the same one grape (Pinot Noir), but quite another to go on blathering about “terroir” in wines called Kaefferkopf or Altenberg de Bergheim if and when they are made with various percentages of grapes as diverse as Gewurztraminer and Riesling. After all, I trust you will agree with me when I say that two wines made from, for example, the former grand cru site, one with 80% Gewurz and 10% Riesling and another made with 60% Gewurz and 40% Riesling are going to be vastly different in their aroma and taste profile, such that it will hard to reconduce either or both to their original grand cru terroir. And in my experience, even the winemakers often can’t tell which terroir is which when tasting such wines blind (including their own, if you can believe that). Finally, Alsace makes some of the world’s greatest sweet wines: Vendanges Tardives (VT) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN), the latter not just late-harvested (in theory) but also made from partly noble rot-affected grapes. In the past, such wines were often late harvest wines only in theory, because they can be declared as such if and when the grapes reach specific levels of sweetness. This can lead to VT wines that are not at all made from late harvested grapes but rather ultra-sweet grapes that reached sufficient sugar levels early on in a hot season, but that’s hardly what a true late harvest wine is about. The same can apply to SGN wines, though in theory at least, those wines ought to be made from at least partly nobly-rotten grapes. Fortunately, the best wine estates in Alsace make their sweet wines from truly late-harvested grapes, though, according to a wine luminary such as Olivier Humbrecht, the advent of climate change has made it increasingly difficult to produce noteworthy SGN wines for high-quality noble rot develops more rarely in the region than it once did.
Alsace’s grape varieties
Alsace is most famous for its monovariety Riesling and Gewurztraminer wines, but in fact the region boasts a bevy of other grapes from which it often makes what are the world’s best wines with each. Clearly, there can be no doubt that Riesling is Alsace’s bread and butter grape: the region arguably makes the world’s best dry Riesling wines. Roughly 21% of Alsace’s vineyard plantings are of Riesling (about 3300 hectares or so), and though it is a rare grape that can give very good and even excellent wines even when yields are not especially low, the best results are obtained when it is cropped low in areas devoid of water stress. Clearly, not all Alsace Riesling wines are something to write home about: When good, the wines are perhaps the best the world has to offer but the Riesling wines of Alsace estates that are not in the upper echelons of quality leave a lot to be desired. All you need to do to verify the accuracy of that statement is to attend any wine fair and taste the Riesling wines at the stands of wineries you have never heard of, but you won’t come away impressed as often as you’d like. Gewurztraminer is Alsace’s second most important grape, though at about 19% of the total surface under vine (a little less than 3000 hectares), it is not the second most planted. Please note that in Alsace, the grape’s name is written without the umlaut (the two dots over the “ü”): with the umlaut, it is the German spelling, but as Alsace is part of France, it’s Gewurztraminer, not Gewürztraminer). There is no other place in the world that can give the concentrated, explosive Gewurztraminer wines that Alsace can, and it is a grape variety the region should be putting more emphasis on. A recent success story, Pinot Gris (Italy’s Pinot Grigio: it’s the same grape, but just written in two different languages) covers about 15% of the land under vine in Alsace; but to be crystal-clear, it is the source of some of the region’s best wines as well as some of its worst. In Alsace, Pinot Gris can give wines that have surprisingly high acidity (in this case, it’s not an easy grape to work with because it can be tough to ferment) especially if and when cropped low (the grape concentrates acidity extremely well); its reputation as a low-acid variety is only due to the variety being pushed to give yields that are too high (this is true of all the Pinot grapes: crop Pinot Noir at 80 hL and what you’ll make is a rosé, not a red, wine). Another plus is that Pinot Gris takes to noble rot very well, and such Alsatian late harvested nobly rotted grapes give what are some of the world’s best wines. That said, there are still too in Alsace many making insipid, watery, sweet wines with this variety that is all too often planted in Grand Cru vineyards that are not suited to it. However, it gets planted there anyways so as to be able to cash in on the possibility of making “Grand Cru” wines and hence more money (in theory at least). At 5-8% of the land under vine, Sylvaner is no longer what it used to be, that being Alsace’s most planted grape variety; but after years of neglect (mostly because of a crazy Alsace wine law I shall get to discussing below when broaching the region’s problems) the good news is the grape is making a comeback, partly as a result of my efforts (something that many Alsace producers willingly recognize, for which I am grateful) in trying to increase awareness about Sylvaner’s qualities more or less every time I open my mouth and/or put finger to keyboard. In the recent past, many in Alsace viewed Sylvaner as a “minor” grape, but it’s not at all so: Sylvaner’s bane is that it is very productive so unless its vigour is contained, it gives weak, dilute, insipid wines often marked by a less than enticing vegetal streak. Sylvaner has to picked very ripe and concentrated, otherwise it smells and tastes of rhubarb which is less than ideal. But that’s exactly the point: Sylvaner is physiologically ripe at 12% potential alcohol or so, meaning it can thrive in Alsace’s increasingly hot climate without producers having to go crazy with worry that the grapes, unlike those of other varieties, are still hanging out on the vineyards late in the season. And while Sylvaner does very poorly in some flatland soils, in grand crus like the Zoztenberg, the Goldert and the Zinnkoepflé it can make outstanding wines. When properly taken care of, its wines are crystalline and noble, and can outlast most other white wines, even Riesling’s (in the highly descriptive words of Agathe Bursin, one of Alsace’s best Sylvaner wine producers, “Il nous enterre”, meaning Sylvaner’s wines will outlive us all). Really now, all this talk about Sylvaner being a “minor” variety is nonsense, as clearly exemplified by the fact the grape makes for some amazing wines in both Italy’s Alto Adige and in Germany’s Franken. In Franken, it is the one of the most planted grape varieties: so unless they’re all drunk there, which isn’t at all the case, it follows there’s probably a lot of good about Sylvaner. Fortunately, people are starting to realize this once again in Alsace too. Differently from Sylvaner that has only recently begun to emerge from the depths, Pinot Blanc, to borrow and paraphrase a title of a song by The Eagles, is the new kid in Alsatian towns; at over 21% of the plantings, it is now Alsace’s most planted grape variety. However, there is a lot to say (and I do mean a lot) about Pinot Blanc in Alsace, beginning with the fact, as I have written countless times over the years, that any Alsatian wine labelled “Pinot Blanc” is often anything but. In fact, it is most often 100% Auxerrois (a distinct variety); if not that, then its is a blend of Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc, with the latter almost always playing the secondary role. This curious state of affairs is because decades ago it was believed that Auxerrois was a member of the Pinot family, and in fact called “Pinot Auxerrois” (the same was true of Chardonnay, with bottles of “Pinot Chardonnay” being produced all over the world); therefore, when the official production guidelines were created, Auxerrois was allowed to be one of the two grapes with which to make Alsace Pinot Blanc wines. That would all be fine and dandy, if it weren’t for the fact that Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc give completely different wines: more honeyed and spicy the wines of the former, more linear, fresher and mineral the wines of the latter. Blends of the two where high percentages of Auxerrois are involved taste nothing like a wine made with Pinot Blanc does. In practice, the two grapes complement each other in the final blend, each bringing something that would ultimately make the wine more interesting; but today, with the advent of climate change, Auxerrois, a low-acid variety, is having an increasingly harder time (that said, the grape’s low acid reputation partly depends on what kind of soil you grow Auxerrois in and how high your yields are). The reason why the “Pinot Blancs” grapes are having so much success nowadays is because they are an integral part of the Crémant d’Alsace blend, in many respects Alsace’s most popular wine (it represents roughly 25% of all the wine produced in Alsace and is the second most popular French sparkling wine after Champagne). It can safely be said that had there not been the explosion in Crémant popularity, plantings of Auxerrois (especially) would have dropped steadily over the last decade or so, but it was obviously not meant to be. In any case, when estates need to replant their “Pinot Blanc” vines nowadays, it is almost always with the real Pinot Blanc they go with, as it is a variety better suited to these times of climate change. Of all of Alsace’s white grapes, the smallest amount of land under vine (roughly 3-4%) is devoted to the Muscat varieties, which do very well in Alsace. In Alsace, there are numerous different Muscat varieties, so it is incorrect to speak of one Muscat grape of Alsace; that’s just plain wrong, The two most common Muscat varieties grown in Alsace are Muscat Ottonnel, which gives perfumed wines that are very light-bodied; and Muscat à Petits Grains (also known as Muscat d’Alsace and actually better-known all over the world as Moscato Bianco or Muscat Canelli) which gives less perfumed but more structured wines. In other words, the two grapes complement each other in Alsace (where Muscat d’Alsace often fails to ripen fully) and so Alsace Muscat wines are almost always a blend of the two (in fact, there exists a third Muscat variety in Alsace, believed to be a red-berried variant of Muscat d’Alsace, but that is not entirely clear). Much like with Alsace’s Gewurztraminer wines, that have virtually no serious rivals anywhere in the world, when Alsatian Muscat wines are good, they are unbelievably good, quite unlike the Muscat wines made anywhere else. Infrequently, drop-dead gorgeous late harvest and noble rot-affected Muscat wines are made, and trust me, those are really worth lining up, wallet in hand.
The above, long, discussion centered on white grapes is warranted because about 90% of Alsace’s wine production is white; that much recognized, it needs to be said that Alsace’s red wine is steadily increasing in both quantity and quality. In this respect, Pinot Noir is the workhorse red grape of the region, and about 11% of Alsace’s land under vine is planted to it. Thanks to climate change, Alsace’s Pinot Nor wines are riper than ever before (only as recently as the early 2000s the majority of Alsace Pinot Noir wines were, despite what you might have read at the time, thin, weedy and bitter): too many Alsace Pinot Noir wines still rely on sexy oak to deliver thrills, but at the same time, the number of juicy, fruity wines made with this famous grape is increasingly steadily. It does not take a clairvoyant to recognize that the combination of Burgundy’s wine prices spiralling crazily upwards and the always better quality of Alsace’s wines, will lead to Alsatian Pinot Noirs having a shiny, bright future. That comment also applies to Syrah, and possibly, even Grenache. Neither variety is included among Alsace’s official and historic grapes, and so anyone making wine with Syrah, for example, has to label it “Vin de France”. However, it is certain that the region’s wealth of granite soils and dry warm weather make it a likely ideal planting ground for the variety. A few wines I have tasted are indeed very promising, and much like it has come to be with Pinot Noir, the arrival of a boatload of Alsace Syrah wines is only a matter of these climate change times we live in.
All fairy tales are about light and darkness
As mentioned, there is plenty of good, great actually, in Alsace wine. Now listen up: at the top end of the wine quality heap, the region makes the world’s best dry Rieslings wines; the world’s best Gewurztraminers (both dry and sweet); and the world’s best Pinot Gris wines (again, both dry and sweet). Think about it now: that’s five different wine categories Alsace finds itself at the top of the heap in. Can that be said of any other wine region in the world? In one word, no. Add the increasing quality of its Pinot Noir wines, the huge potential of the Sylvaners and the deliciousness of the Muscat wines, and it should be clear that Alsace is one lucky wine place, and by consequence making all of us who love great wines even luckier. Furthermore, the region is impossibly pretty, with fairy tale-like villages, gorgeous natural scenery, amazing food, and friendly people. And lest I forget, cute storks (the regional or “state” bird) are everywhere to greet you. All that means that wine tourism is strong in the area, with throngs of people crowding the more famous villages or pretty areas in bigger cities like Colmar’s Petite Venise quarter. Locally, wine sales are booming (cellar door buys are copious, an important source of income for Alsace wineries) and the restaurants/stubs packed (which also contributes to good local wine sales).
That said, just like every other wine region in the world, famous or not, Alsace too has its shares of problems. Some of these problems, many man-made, are serious. Once again, I am perhaps the world’s biggest Alsace wine fan, so I get no pleasure of harping on the negative aspects of this beautiful region’s wines (and I think my presentation above is a clear-cut indicator of my love for the region and its wines). And neither do I have the presumption of knowing what’s good and right for Alsace, but it is my humble opinion, after a lifetime drinking these wines and visiting the region, that for everyone’s good, the Alsatian powers that be need to intervene, in some form, on some of the problems I list below:
- As great as Alsace’s wines can be, much wine produced in the region is really not very good, because it’s too dilute and uninteresting. There is unfortunately no kind way of saying this, but a huge problem is posed by Alsace’s many wine co-operatives, none of which will ever make most wine writer lists of top French wineries. Though some cooperatives are noticeably better at what they do than others (with some of the top of the line products quite good, for example the Clos du Zahnacker bottling by the Ribeauvillé cooperative), the fact remains that much of the wines made by these outfits is nothing to write home about. For example, I had lunch in a cute little winstub in an Alsace town. Being open-minded and always on the hunt for good buys, I chose as my luncheon wine a Pinot Gris from a well-known coop and it was, simply put, a tragedy: clean and faultless yes, but also watery, neutral, flavourless and sweet. Honestly, there is no need whatsoever to buy such wines: had I just put in my glass some water, a very small amount of apple juice, a few drops of lemon and some alcohol, I would have had more or less the same result. Such a wine to me is completely unacceptable for it ruins the good name of everybody in Alsace, besides turning off potential customers forever. Why such wines are allowed to be bottled mystifies me. To be fair, there are numerous Alsace wine estates that also make uninteresting wines, so it’a not just a problem of coops. All such less successful wines are not bad wines in the sense of “flawed”, but are often dull and insipid, and there’s just too much good wine being made everywhere in the world today for such wines to sell.
- Even when people try and do the right thing, the rules and regulations that are drawn up can bring mixed results. Though it’s not quite as big a problem as it was twenty years ago, Alsace “dry” wines have tended (especially in the past) to not be so classically dry but rather off-dry, when not frankly sweet. Unfortunately, there was no indication at the time on the label of just how sweet the wine was, and so many people were left turned off when they bought wines they thought would be dry but found themselves drinking something frankly sweet. Nowadays, Alsace wine back labels carry a scale indicating whether the wine is dry, off-dry, moelleux (semi-sweet) and doux (sweet) giving all those interested some much needed information relative to the wine they are about to buy. This is a very good, commendable, step. Where problems arise is that even though acidity levels are taken into consideration in order to best place the wine in the dry-sweet category it belongs to (perceived wine dryness/sweetness is also a function of its acidity: for example, for a wine to be labelled as sec or dry, it can have up to 4g/L of residual sugar, but it can also have up to 9g/L of residual sugar provided its total acidity (measured in tartaric acid) is at least 7g/L. That amount of acid effectively makes the wine taste bone dry). Unfortunately, such defining such specifications for all the possible realties and permutations of finished wines is an almost Sisyphean task. Admittedly, it’s a very difficult thing to do, but it still presents a limiting step of noteworthy proportions. As things stand now, a an off-dry or demi-sec wine can have up to 18g/L of residual sugar, provided the acidity is at least 8g/L; but though an improvement on how things stood before, there are still potential caveats. Today we have many Alsatian wines labeled as “off-dry” when they actually don’t taste off-dry at all. Clearly, I think you understand that any person looking to buy a dry wine, in seeing the words “off-dry” on the back label will immediately start looking for another wine, which is doing the winery a disservice. In fairness, I don’t know how much else could have been done on this front, and the Alsace powers that be are to be commended for the steps they have taken to address the problem in the best way they could. The moelleux category (up to 45g/L of rs) and the doux/sweet category (46 g/L and above) do not have any acidity parameters, in the not unreasonable belief that such amounts of residual sugar will always make a wine taste relatively sweet (after all, there’s only so much acidity you can naturally pack into wine). There is however one more potential problem that needs to be analyzed, and that is that beginning with the 2021 vintage, all Alsace Riesling wines outside of the VT and SGN categories will have to be officially “dry”. Besides this being an historical inaccuracy (for Alsace never made only “dry” Riesling wines), it is a decision I for one find it hard to wrap my head around. Off-dry Riesling wines match perfectly with many Far Eastern cuisines (think one of the many Chinese ones, for example) so bone dry Rieslings doesn’t seem to be an especially enlightened idea. Clearly, those who want to buy grapes cheap (when harvested earlier, grapes are not just green and high in acid but cost less than those that are late-harvested) aren’t about to complain, but everybody else should. The excuse I have heard from some quarters that they are losing markets because of too many too sweet/off-dry Riesling wines made does not hold water because a market in which you sell wine at something like two euros a liter (because your wines aren’t good enough to fetch much higher prices) is not really a market at all.
- As already made clear, Alsace’s grapes are one of its biggest good fortunes, but this grape diversity wealth needs to be handled carefully but this is something which, it pains me to say, has not always been the case. Alsace’s grape law has historically identified four noble varieties (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and the Muscats) and only the wines of those grapes when grown in Grand Cru vineyards can be labelled with the name of the vineyard on the label as Grand Cru wines (Pinot Noir has finally been added to the mix, with two Grand Crus recently identified, the Kirchberg de Barr and the Hengst). That means that Sylvaner, Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc are all left holding the bag (Sylvaner got a break when one Grand Cru exception was made for it, that of the Zoztenberg). Unfortunately, what this state of affairs has meant is that the majority of growers have ripped up their vines of those three “non-noble” grapes; but the tragedy is that many were extremely old vines and of old and rare biotypes. Replacing those with the latest clones of Pinot Gris and other “noble” varieties everywhere within their grand cru borders is an exchange that in the long run has, and will, benefit practically nobody. “Noble” varieties getting planted in places not suitable to them is hardly a recipe for success. For example, the Zinnkoepflé Grand Cru was always famous for Gewurztraminer and Sylvaner: today everybody also plants Riesling and Pinot Gris there, but one taste of the wines will tell you it’s not a true “grand cru” site for those two varieties. The Goldert is one of the greatest places on Earth from which to make Sylvaner and Muscat wines: to plant a lot of other varieties there just so as to be able to make “grand cru” wines there, well…that’s just not a good idea. By the same token, this law has not just led to old vines of non-noble (so said) varieties to be uprooted in favour of other varieties, but too have the so-called noble varieties planted on every available piece of Grand Cru land even when it may not be an especially good idea to do so. The Sporen has historically been a site famous for its uniquely great Gewurztraminer wines: to go plant Riesling or any other variety there hardly makes much sense, even though Riesling is the sexier of the two grapes and sells theoretically better. But a bad or so-so wine is still just that, and in the long run, as people aren’t stupid, what happens is the sales of such wines inevitably fall: to think and say “Riesling sells” and make wines from just about anywhere with it is not the recipe for success. By contrast, a great, unique, one is recognizably so and will always have its fans. To make Pinot Noir wines off sites where there is not much marl and not much clay, and this despite the site’s eventual presence of limestone, is a poor decision and the wine ultimately just doesn’t work (typically, such wines fails to expand on the palate). To be crystal-clear about this, some of Alsace’s most interesting, even best, wines are NOT made with the so-called noble varieties: Josmeyer’s Auxerrois H（grown on the Hengst) and the Sylvaner wines of, for example, Muré, Bursin and Ernest Burn are cases in point.
Last but not least, summarizing briefly a discussion that would take us too far to be analyzed in the context of a magazine article that I recognize is already too long and detailed as it is, Alsace ought to have and still should do more biotype and clonal research. More than one grower will tell you that the “Pinot Gris à petites baies” (a small-berried variant of Pinot Gris) gives the best wines, but there’s practically nobody who grows it anymore; many will object, stating that all Pinot Gris grapes tend to develop smaller berries as they age (which is true), but the fact remains that whether there once existed a separate biotype that has small grapes as a defining characteristic that has since been lost or still goes unidentified in old vineyards, is something that nobody really knows. Similarly, modern Gewurztraminer clones have not been of much help: growers will tell you that the wines made with old vines of specific Gewurz biotypes are always much more deep and perfumed than those made with some (probably not all) of the more modern clones. They are also viticulturally very different entities: for example, growers will tell you that when you accidentally drive a tractor into a vine of a modern Gewurz clone it breaks easily, while doing the same with old clones/biotypes meant having your tractor ground to a halt because those old Gewurz vines were and are much sturdier (and interestingly, this was apparently not a function of vine age). In the views of many people I have talked to over the years, Gewurztraminer is the grape most damaged by modern clones that tend to give wines with a less refined aroma and taste profile. Admittedly, there is a lot to think about here.
- Global warming is a problem all over the world, but my sense is that, as illustrated above with my comments that even at many wineries (not just coops and bottlers), the wines leave something to be desired, not everybody in Alsace is tackling the problem with the same gusto and awareness. Ernest Burn told me that a typical Alsace saying is that in order to make good, balanced wines “…you need one day of rain for every ten days of sun, but you no longer get that in Alsace and that’s a problem”. Clearly, new rootstocks and training techniques will need to be studied and implemented in time.
Recent Alsace vintages
The 2022 vintage, a generally hot and dry one had many producers I visited telling me they were left bewildered at how it was possible for Mother Nature to still “… give us such great grapes even with all that drought that had us really worried”. In fact, the 2022 vintage was hot and dry from the beginning of the growing season, with grapes recording slightly lower acidities than preceding annual averages. But in what might seem at first glance to be a conundrum, quality-wise it is a vintage of very good wines, with grapes marked by good sugar levels, generally low acidities and higher pHs. Though in some respects 2022 and its wines reminded some producers of the 2020 season and wines, it might not be quite so cut and dried. Yes, both 2022 and 2020 were hot and droughty years, but there the similarities end. The interesting thing about 2022 is that while many wines have turned out much better than expected, it’s especially the entry-level wines that really turn heads at many estates. This is a rare event in truly hot years; but as mentioned previously, the heat started early in 2022, and so the vines had both the time to adapt to their sorry environmental conditions (always a good thing) and to concentrate the berries directly on the vine (hence the acidity levels of the grapes too). By contrast, this was not always the case with 2020, another hot year. Also important is to remember that because of the grape’s variety’s individual characteristics (some like it hot and some don’t, for example), in every vintage there are grape varieties that will perform better and routinely give better wines: and so it was too in 2022. For example, it was one of the greatest years ever in recent memory for Sylvaner, with many small-bunched and small berried grapes hanging in the vines, beautifully golden-green in colour, something magnificent to look at. Many growers I talked to believe that Sylvaner looking that good is not something they had observed in years. All I can tell you is that, time and again when tasting the wines at the wineries I visited in 2022, the majority of the time it was the Sylvaners that were some of the best wines in each winery lineup, especially at the entry- and mid-level range of the lineup. To be crystal-clear, although many in Alsace will be very dismayed to read this, they were far better than many disappointing entry-level Riesling wines (a variety that absolutely needs water) and Pinot Gris (a variety that really does not want much heat) in the same lineup. I wish to point out that this year I tasted at many wineries in the company of an Italian wine writer who found exactly the same thing I did, so this is not a case of my just being a Sylvaner-supporter.) Clearly, that Sylvaner wines performed really well in 2022 would normally be cause to rejoice, if it weren’t that many Alsace producers have proceeded to rip up their Sylvaner vines over the years as mentioned above. Among other grapes, Pinot Noir performed surprisingly well in 2022 (with caveats), mostly because of the concentrating effect I mentioned earlier.
Even though it’s correct to view the 2021 vintage was extremely difficult, a cool to cold and very rainy year with consequent wines (for example, there weren’t too many attending evening barbecues wearing a T-shirt that year), I think it’s fair to recognize the wines have mostly turned out well. Overall, 2021 was a vintage of good, generally harmonious acidity, and of potentially age-worthy wines. For example, grape ripeness and acidity levels were better/more harmonious than say those of 2016, the wines of which tend to be somewhat more meager. The main problem with 2021 in Alsace is that there were not enough grapes with which to make wine; so while the ultimate wine quality can be very good, the quantity left something to be desired. And that’s putting it very gently: in fact, in 2021 the Alsace area recorded the lowest yields since 1945.
Because of the combination of rains that essentially wouldn’t let up, and the cool weather, the 2021 vintage was a more difficult one than 2022 and 2020 especially in terms of disease pressure. Peronospora above all, but grey rot and even oidium posed problems too. These pests basically destroyed entire vineyards in a matter of only a few days, with estates reporting as much as 40-90% grape loss. Biodynamic estates had it especially hard in 2021: it was hard if not downright impossible to stop the disease’s progress: “tragic”, in the words of Celine Meyer. She and her sister Isabelle of the famous family estate Josmeyer had to treat eleven times that year instead of the usual five. And despite their better efforts, their estate lost about 60% of their crop and had production yields of only 22 hL/ha.
But not all of Alsace’s wine production areas were hit equally hard in 2021: the Bas-Rhin in Alsace’s north got off relatively lightly compared to the Haut-Rhin in Alsace’s south. And the further southward you went, the worse it was. Hard to believe, but in many of the latter’s vineyards the better estates had as many pickers out among the vines as they did sorters. But even in the Haut-Rhin, bad weather episodes hit in a “leopard’s spots” manner. For example, while some people lost 80% of their crop in Ribeauvillé, in Hunawihr and Bergheim (as the crow flies, the two towns are not that far removed from Ribeauvillé) the much luckier farmers there were spared the rains that hit other parts of Alsace hard. Clearly, in 2021 much of a winery’s success was the result of how well they sorted grapes: those who did so in the most accurate way fared best making the vintage’s best wines. Overall, this vintage has a reputation for having made generally austere wines, something I found myself agreeing with during my weeks of tasting the wines. But I point out that even though coolish years such as 2021 have the deserved reputation of often giving steelier, more austere wines when young, many of Alsace’s 2021 are in fact not austere in the sense of “steeliness” or lack of grape ripeness. In fact, many wines have 14% alcohol by volume: because of the modifications in grape metabolism that have been brought on by climate change, it is a different type of maturity and austerity we are now talking about, at least in such years.
Speaking generally, in 2021 Alsace’s white wines (especially Riesling and perhaps surprisingly, Gewurztraminer, a grape that generally prefers warm weather; Pinot Gris fared less well) are generally a good deal better than the reds.
As always, there were some truly world-class wines made in Alsace in the 2020 vintage, one of generally tough wines many that will require years to come around. Unfortunately, the hot growing season made it hard at many vineyards to reach full phenolic maturation. While many growers spoke to me of “austere” wines in 2020, it’s a very different “austerity” from that of the 2021s. The vintage’s wines are showing better balance than the 2018s, for example (2018 was another hot year). For sure, differently from 2021, disease pressure was non-existent in 2020, with grapes being generally very healthy (if anything it was heat/sunburn that might have been a problem). And though you might hear some people state at “masterclasses” and presentations in public that the 2020s had very good acidity levels and will be long-term keepers, beware that for the most part that’s just not true: perhaps acidities are not as low as was initially feared, but pHs are higher than usual across the board. And clearly, alcohol levels of the wines are on the high side too.
Being a hot vintage, 2020 is generally considered a year in which the region’s red wines are better than the whites (though the Gewurztraminers from the better estates were generally fairly successful); in fact, should you visit the wineries, you will hear that both 2020 and 2022 were generally better for Alsace’s red wines, as the heat of those two growing seasons allowed the red grapes to reach (mostly) full physiologic ripeness. By contrast, the growers felt considerable stress in deciding when to pick most of their white grapes. Clearly, when it comes to wine vintages and their relationship to which grapes did best, generalizations are always fraught with peril: for example, while it remains true that 2022 and 2020 were better for red grapes in general, this is especially true of Syrah but not so for the Pinot Noir, as both years were just too hot for the latter cool-climate variety. It follows that, even though I wish not to seem too picky now, the “best for red grapes” statement gets thrown into a different light, given that by far the most important red grape in Alsace is Pinot Noir whereas the presence of Syrah is still largely anecdotal there. So yes, 2020 and 2022 were better for red grapes, but there really isn’t much wine made with the red grape that fared better (Syrah). So when it comes to generic vintage statements, well, it really is more like a one half dozen of this and one half dozen of that sort of situation.
Running hot and cold: a brief recent Alsace vintage recap
2015: hot; 2016: cool; 2018: hot; 2019: cool; 2020: hot; 2021: cool; 2022: hot.
The 2016 is the last truly cool vintage in Alsace in many years (the 2019 is to be considered as only borderline fresh). It was a year mauled by peronospora, but Mother Nature in obviously not wanting to leave those in Alsace spared by the peronospora feeling like they were left out, made sure they were hit by oidium. The areas around Wintzenheim were hit hard and Turkheim very hard, so almost no Pinot Noir and no Pinot Gris wines were produced that year in many of those wine production areas. The 2017 is an excellent vintage in Alsace, unlike in Bordeaux, Montalcino and Barolo for example. Like I have written many times before, don’t generalize vintage conditions and conclusions about the wines across Europe.
The wines in this tasting report.
The wines described in this report were tasted directly at the wineries in September 2023, at my home in Rome as well as in both my office and home in Shanghai, where I live. As always, my trip to Alsace, including meals, hotel and transport to and within Alsace were taken care of entirely by me. This article, just like all the other articles appearing on the TerroirSense Wine Review is not paid for in any part in any way, shape, or form by the Alsace government institutions, wine boards, producer associations or individual wineries. It is an extreme expense I incur, but one that I have always willfully put up with in my wine writing career. It is your best guarantee of independent wine writing and opinions from yours truly and all at the TerroirSense Wine Review.
Because of the years in which travel was impossible because of Covid, this was my first time back in Alsace after more than two years that I had not been there (which is literally crazy, if you stop to think I used to visit Alsace as often as four to five times a year). Therefore, the numbers of estates and people to see was “ginormous”, and I honestly did not have the time to see everyone that I would have liked. More than ever before, this time I had to be very strict about winery appointments, and was loathe to move around winery visits to different days when said wineries were located far away from those I had targeted for that day’s work (clearly, all bunched up in one specific town or immediate surrounding area). For this reason, I was unable to drop by some wineries I have been visiting regularly for the past twenty years, but I will do my best to visit them next year when hopefully things will have returned to normal for me. For the most part, I tried sourcing some recent vintages of those wineries I was unable to visit at quality Alsace wine stores; this is why you will notice some important estates only have a small number of wines written up compared to others. Unfortunately, in neither part of this article you will find the wines of Schoenheitz and of Rieflé/Seppi Landmann, that I had reviewed regularly in my various articles because both wineries have ceased to function as before. Schoenheitz was sold, and I have not tried any wines after the ownership change, and Rieflé/Seppi Landmann has unfortunately gone out of business.
Part 2 of this article will be out on Monday, October 9, 2023.