John Szabo’s Free Run – Alsace Part II
Alsace: At the Crossroads Part
By John Szabo MS
Note: news broke on May 13th of the untimely death by suspected heart attack of Laurence Faller, winegrower of Domaine Weinbach, pictured here in November 2013. She was just 47 years old, and a mother of two. I had the privilege of meeting her on several occasions. She was truly an extraordinary person and exceptional winemaker, and will be missed by all in the wine community and beyond. Her outstanding wines, however, live on. My sincere condolences to her family.
The following is a special report on Alsace, written after a week-long visit in November of 2013 organized by the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Alsace (CIVA), and their Canadian representative, Sopexa.
Part I (posted here) looks at the cultural and geological factors that have shaped the region’s wines, including political, philosophical and religious influences. Alsace’s strengths, as well as some of the challenges the region faces today, are also explored.
Part II below offers a list of recommended producers, top terroirs and their characteristics, and wine recommendations for each. For a full list of top-rated Alsatian wines, set the WineAlign Country/Region search field to “Alsace”, and be sure to check off “show wines with zero inventory”, or put in your favorite store to see what’s available near you. Over 150 new full reviews have been added.
Part Two: Terroirs, Top Wines & Producers
Following is a round-up of some of the top producers in Alsace, by no means an exhaustive list, but all are worth a visit, or a taste. All farm organically and/or biodynamically. I’ve also listed the main terroirs/soils found in Alsace (but again, not all), the most representative grand cru vineyards for each type, and a few of the best wines I’ve tasted from each. Click on each wine for tasting notes and availability – all producers are represented in Canada.
For a full list of top-rated Alsatian wines, set the WineAlign Country/Region search field to “Alsace”, and be sure to check off “show wines with zero inventory”, or put in your favorite store to see what’s available near you. Over 150 new full reviews have been added.
Very Good Producers
Main Terroirs & Top Wines
(For more about Alsace Grand Crus and the details of each terroir visit the official Wines of Alsace website)
Granite soils yield wines that are fresh and floral, generally dry, and immediately open and appealing from the start even if capable of long ageing. Finesse and delicacy are common descriptors. Riesling performs very well in granite soils, as does pinot gris. Top Grand Cru vineyards on granite: Brand, Schlossberg, Sommerberg, Winzenberg.
Perhaps the most distinctive in Alsace, wines born of the rare sedimentary-volcanic soils are invariably deeper in colour, extremely rich in mineral extract and structured for long ageing. The aroma and flavour profiles are marked by a unique stony-sulphurous minerality and notable salinity that’s not necessarily immediately appealing. These are wines for attuned oenophiles seeking something distinct and original. The Rangen de Thann is Alsace’s only truly volcanic terroir, a heart-stoppingly steep, 60%, south-facing site at the very southern tip of the region featuring friable volcanic rocks overlying a thin layer of soil anchored on greywacke beneath. Alsace’s highest elevation makes this a windy, slow ripening site. Rangen wines stand out for their amplitude, weight and salinity, as well as gun flint, stony, smoky, wet stones aromatics. Riesling and pinot gris are the ultimate expressions of Rangen.
The excellent Muenchberg grand cru in Nothalten also contains some volcanic sands that lend its wines a uniqueness saltiness of their own.
Marly-limy soils consist of thick deposits of compacted limestone and clay, called marl, with calcareous pebbles cemented within. This type of terroir is especially rich in assimilable calcium and magnesium, while the amount of clay in the mix determines the amount of other minerals and fertilizing elements – the more clay, the more minerals are available to the vine. Marl-limestone is one of the most frequent soil types and also one of the most sought-after by winegrowers given its suitability to the full range of Alsatian grapes, especially pinot gris, gewurztraminer and riesling. Top marl-limestone grand crus include the Altenberg de Bergheim, Goldert, Hengst, Mambourg, Pfingstberg, and Sonnenglanz.
Limestone (with more or less clay, sandstone, marl, muschelkalk)
Limestone comes in many variations in Alsace, including what’s known locally as muschelkalk – a grey limestone with layers of marl, dolomitic limestone, and the whitish oolitic (Jurassic) limestone, each with slight variations in their percentages of soluble (active) limestone, and thus potential for assimilation by the vine and expression in wine. In general, wines born of limestone are slow to open and evolve, but make for structured, highly ageworthy bottles. Some producers such as Pierre Gassmann believe that limestone terroirs are more prone to botrytis and that grapes must be harvested fully ripe (virtually at vendanges tardives levels of ripeness) in order to reach full potential. Gewurztraminer and muscat are usually best suited to limestone, where they achieve their full, expressive aromatics in grand crus like Furstentum and Steinert, while riesling performs magic in the Dolomitic limestone of the Rosacker grand cru.
Additional Fine Wines from Various Terroirs
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers see all critic reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!