Bill’s Best Bets – April 2016
The beautiful complexity that is Alsace
by Bill Zacharkiw
As I write this, I’m looking out my hotel window at the Strasbourg train station. It’s an interesting building – all glass, reminds me of a massive doughnut seen from its side. Figures they would make something so complicated yet strangely beautiful here. After all, this is Alsace.
Of all the world’s wine regions I have travelled, few stories are harder to tell than Alsace. What makes it any more complicated than any other region? Well, that’s a lot easier to answer.
The great wine regions have a variation in soil types, though they tend to be variations on a central theme. Germany’s Mosel has its slate. Chablis owes its distinctiveness to oyster laden Kimmeridgean soils. The Northern Rhône is primarily granite, and Burgundy is Burgundy because of its stratified limestone and clay.
Despite being only 50 km wide and around 100 km in length, Alsace has a dizzying array of soil types. A dominance of one type of rock in a soil will alter the growing conditions of the vine and ultimately, the final wine. In Alsace, there are six distinct families of soils and within those, dozens of subtle variants.
So you get everything from granite to limestone, volcanic to shale, sand to marl. In practical terms the result is that the same grape can show very different personalities. Grown in granite, expect floral and fruity aromas and a delicate acidity. A slate soil will be very austere, and more dominated by acid. Limestone brings citrus notes and depending on the amount of clay will bring more or less body.
When you travel through Chablis, with its one grape variety and one soil type, you are tasting how chardonnay changes its expression depending on subtle variations in exposition and climate.
In Alsace, there are five main grapes: riesling, muscat, pinot blanc, pinot gris and gewurztraminer. There is also excellent pinot noir and auxerrois which is often blended in with pinot blanc and sylvaner. That’s eight different varieties for only 15,000 hectares of vines. Burgundy, excluding Beaujolais, has roughly twice as much vineyard but grows predominately two grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir.
There are also different perspectives on what is “ripe.” Some winemakers are looking for botryitis, or noble rot, in their wines so they tend to have some sweetness. Others are pushing for as dry as possible, which is definitely more a tendency, especially amongst the younger winemakers. Both are great, but again, very different wines.
So herein lies the dilemma. A riesling, for example, can be grown in a wide variety of soils, harvested at different levels of ripeness, and made in a wide variety of ways. How can you possibly say it is “one thing.” You simply can’t.
In my many travels, I have never witnessed a place with such an interesting and deeply rooted culture. They have so much in common with each other, such pride, yet can have such different visions.
It is a region of intense religiosity and spirituality. Both Catholic and Protestant influences can be seen everywhere. It is the meeting ground of the Latin and Germanic cultures. The region has bounced back and forth between German and French control to the point that even their traditional dialect is a blend of German and French.
One of the results of this mix of French rationalism and love for terroir, and the more Germanic love for nature, is that Alsace is one of the most environmentally conscious regions I have ever visited. It is the spiritual home for bio-dynamic grape growing. Organic viticulture is more the rule here than the exception.
So in the spirit of embracing the plurality of expressions and the complexity, suffice to say that centuries of wine making history, combined with the world’s greatest soils and noble grapes which are perfectly adapted to the terroir, no matter what you find in your glass, there’s a good chance it will be very worthy of your interest.
For those of you new to Alsace, a great place to start is with a blend. While each winery does it differently, what is often labelled “Gentil” must be composed of a minimum of 50% riesling, muscat, pinot gris and/or gewurztraminer. Try the 2012 Trilogie from Barmes-Buecher for its minerality and reserved fruit, or the more expressive, fruitier and slightly sweet 2014 Black Tie from Pfaffenheim.
With snow crab being in season, time to go pinot blanc. Delicate and nuanced, it will support the sweet and subtle flesh of the crab to perfection. If you can find a bottle, try the 2014 Mise de Printemps from Josmeyer. Simply put, an extraordinary wine. A classic which once again does the job well, the 2014 Pinot Banc from Trimbach won’t let you down.
Pinot gris is the most mysterious of the Alsatian grapes. The Grand Cru wines can lived for decades, and properly should be drunk after a decade in bottle as time allows for them to “eat up” their sweetness and develop amazing complexity. If you are into cellaring wines, then pick up a few bottles of the 2012 Grand Cru Hengst from Albert Mann. This is a beast with its apricot and lemon notes and is so richly textured. A touch more accessible, the 2013 Loberger Weingarten is a touch leaner yet shows great finesse. If you want it completely dry, then pick up the great gris from Leon Beyer.
Now on to riesling. Sadly, just last week we learned that Etienne Hugel passed away. He was a great ambassador for both his family estate and for the wines of Alsace in general. One of my go-to wines has always come from Hugel. Their basic riesling is dry and mineral, but with texture – classic Alsace riesling. And the 2014 lives up to its reputation. If you want a wine with more texture and just a bare hint of sweetness, the 2014 Vignoble d’E from Ostertag is an excellent wine, and ideal for a spicy stir fry.
And finally, for you fans of powerful wines with no lack of aromatics, two gewurztraminers that are textbook. The 2014 from Jean Louis Schoepfer is quite dry but does not lack in texture but shows nicely restrained aromas. If you want a more classic gewurz, which shows layers of richness, spice and fruit, then look no further than the 2014 Cuvee Theo from Weinbach. In my books, one of the classic expressions of the grape. Bring on the Munster cheese.
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
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