John Szabo’s Free Run – Alsace Part I

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 below 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.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

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 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 (posted here) 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 I: Calling All Wine Lovers (and Geologists)

Fans of distinctive wines, especially white wines, find happiness in Alsace. The region’s deep repertoire includes world archetypes of riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and muscat, among other varieties – thirteen officially – made in a complete range of styles from fruity to floral to stony, from open and fragrant to tightly wound and mineral, and anywhere from bone dry to lusciously sweet. The finest have an unlikely counterpoint of verve and flesh, acidic tension and substance, as perfectly balanced as a piquant crème fraîche. Receptive drinkers can find a tactile dimension of acids that vibrate now vertically, now horizontally across your palate, depending on the nature of the mother rock underlying the vines – a mesmerizing phenomenon. At the table, Alsace has a match for virtually any dish, and in the cellar, few white wines of the world can match the ageability of the region’s top crus.

View from Top of Rangen de Thann

View from Top of Rangen de Thann

The explanation for such a vast qualitative range of expression lies largely unseen, underground. From the geologist’s perspective, Alsace is an entire textbook sandwiched into a single region, where you can study rock formations from multiple eras without getting in your car to dig new holes. The Vosges Mountains, which run north-south on the western side of the wine growing region, are the mirror image of the hills of Baden on the other side of the Rhine Valley in Germany, once united, now separated by the sinking trough of land where the River Rhine now flows.

In the foothills of the Vosges where vines are planted, volcanic activity and the sedimentary deposits of multiple periods have been subsequently exposed by shearing faults, and modified by mechanical and chemical erosion, creating an immensely complex geological patchwork, like a giant layer cake that’s been upended and sliced on the bias, then further mixed by a pack of hungry school children each trying to grab a piece with their eager fingers. The combinations of soils, elevations and aspects are bewildering, and producers could easily argue that this polyvalent terroir demands a wide variety of grapes and a broad stylistic range to do Alsace justice, even if marketers might disagree.

At The Crossroads of Europe

A recent immersion visit to the region also underscored the reality that the complexity of Alsace hardly stops at soils and grapes. The region’s wines are equally suffused with less tangible and quantifiable influences, and are informed by oscillating ideologies, which contribute yet more layers of distinctiveness.

Alsace is positioned at the crossroads of Europe, a frontier land wedged between the religious, linguistic and philosophical influence of two of continental Europe’s dominant cultures, Latin and Germanic. And there is hardly a tribe that hasn’t passed through the area at one point or another to either trade or make war, which has left Alsatians with both openness and weariness towards outside cultures.

Politically, Alsace has changed hands multiple times, most recently falling again under French control after WWI. But the scars of successive overlords run deep. Alemannic influence is audible in the Alsatian dialect, a language of Germanic roots spoken in the region, closely related to Swiss-German and similar dialects across the Rhine, yet peppered here and there with loan words from French and other languages. Although recognized by the French government in the country’s official list of languages, it very nearly died out and is still in decline.

Government policies have quietly deterred the spread of “non-French” languages, even if Germanic village names and the very non-French custom of labeling wines by grape variety persist. Many growers of the current generation recount how it was strongly discouraged to speak Alsatian at schools right up until the 1980s, a not-so-tacit distancing from Germanic culture. As a consequence, most of the current generation of winegrowers may understand Alsatian, but can’t properly speak it. Several recall how in their childhood their parents would speak in dialect when they didn’t want the children to understand what they were saying.

Reason vs. Romanticism

Then scratch even lightly beneath the surface here and you’ll discover the tension between Cartesian reason, and Voltaire and Diderot’s Enlightenment on the one hand, and on the other, German romanticism and naturalism embodied by Goethe and its movement to foster intuition and emotion over Enlightenment rationalism. Add in the current German preoccupation with precision and a little Latin-French joie de vivre and you have a very complex mélange indeed. Most Alsatians live and breathe this dichotomy, and their wines draw inspiration from both sides.

I Think, Therefore I am Alsatian

André Ostertag

André Ostertag

“I went to a very Cartesian French school”, says the introspective André Ostertag of Domaine Ostertag in the village of Epfig, “but my soul is not at all Cartesian. It’s more Romantic. I feel torn between the two”, revealing his Faustian two-fold nature (“Two souls, alas, dwell in my breast”, from Faust Part One, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

This sentiment is shared by many vignerons in the region, and it explains perhaps why Ostertag is driven to produce wines that are on the one hand dry, precise, and clearly defined as either fruity, floral or stony, while at the same time he struggles with the notion of defining grand cru terroirs and villages, limiting each to a legally narrow range of permitted grapes and wine styles, a process recently initiated by the INAO, the French wine authority. More on this below.

The Lasting Influence of Naturalism and Steiner

Ostertag, like a large and growing number of Alsatian vignerons, follows the scientifically nebulous (non-Cartesian) method of biodynamic farming (even if some would argue its rationality), whose origins stem from the other side of the Rhine. It’s worth noting that Alsace has among the highest percentage of vineyard area in France farmed organically or biodynamically, some 14% of total surface currently, and increasing.

Why, I had always wondered, until I learned that the first institute devoted to biodynamic agriculture is in Colmar, in southern Alsace. It’s a strong manifestation of the lasting influence of naturalism and both the physical and philosophical proximity to Rudolph Steiner, the father of biodynamics, in the area. Steiner was born in Austria, but delivered his famous lectures on biodynamics, based in part on Goethean science, in Silesia, then disputed between Germany and Poland.

According to Demeter International, Germany has more hectares devoted to biodynamic agriculture (all crops) than any other country, over 68,000 among over 1400 farms, or nearly half of the world’s total (some 153,000ha) compared to France’s 8,500ha between 420 farms. It could be said that Alsace, as a porthole to Germany, has been critical in spreading biodynamics throughout France, bridging the worlds of Goethe and Descartes from its position between the two.

A Form of Religious Determinism (of Wine Style)

Religious beliefs, too, have exerted their influenced on Alsatian wine. The ideologies of German Protestants and French Catholics, who have long intermingled in the region, are physically reflected in Alsatian villages, and philosophically expressed in their wines, an essential element of the Christian Eucharist. “Strolling in the villages, you can easily tell which village was Protestant and which was Catholic, if you observe”, declares Pierre Gassmann of Domaine Rolly Gassmann, whose family has been making wine in the village of Rorschwhir since the 1600s.

Pierre Gassmann In His Vines

Pierre Gassmann In His Vines

“Take my village for example”, he continues. “You’ll see fairly plain facades on the houses, not ornately sculpted, making the village appear poorer than others. It’s a catholic village. Why poorer? Because wine sales were obliged to pass through the clergy, who took a hefty “sales commission”, meaning that the growers received less. In protestant villages, vignerons could sell directly to consumers, with fewer intermediaries, so they made more money. That’s why their villages are more richly decorated, with more ostentatious wealth.”

For historical buffs, there are other keys to reading this complex and fascinating region. “The relative [politico-religious] importance of each village can also be seen by the height of the bell tower on the church. The higher the tower, the greater the power and importance of the village”, reveals Gassmann.

And as Gassmann tells me, the wine styles of each village were dictated to a large degree by its religious orientation. Protestants, it seems, preferred the forthrightness of dry wines (a reflection of exiled English puritan Protestants who settled in Germany?). Catholics preferred sweeter, more ostentatious, opulent wines. The confusion between dry and sweet wines remains a communication challenge for Alsace, much more so than religious orientation these days. (See more below.)

The heads of churches, local abbeys and the seigneurs who ruled over each village were early connoisseurs and believers in terroir. They were well aware of where the finest and most ageworthy wines originated, and selected their tithes and taxes accordingly. “The notion of superior “crus” were much better understood by our ancestors than they are today, up until the Revolution”, Gassmann assures me. “Some vineyards were valued higher than the cost of fortifying an entire village, which could take up to a century to pay off”.

Each year, official “gourmands”, trained courtiers, selected the best wines in each village usually as percentage of total production or occasionally by single lot, for further maturation in warehouses owned by merchants or religious entities. It was not uncommon for some lots to be aged for 30 or 40 years or more before being consumed or sold. The wine cellar of Strasbourg City hospital, the Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg, still houses one of the oldest wines in the world, a barrel still filled with wine from 1472, last tasted by the liberators of Strasbourg in 1944.

Troubled Times

Despite the region’s unquestionable strengths and delicious complexity, not to mention the longest period of peace in generations, these are troubled times for winegrowers in Alsace. The region is truly at a crossroads, at which many critical decisions will need to be made on how to present its wines to the world. But there appears to be little solidarity or agreement among growers and officials on exactly how to do so.

At the root of the problem is a general lack of profitably. Although average wine quality is arguably higher than ever before, prices at the bottom end of the market remain unsustainably low. Stop into any local supermarché and you’ll see grand crus for $10 or $12 dollars, something that quality-oriented producers lament, and which evidently downgrades both the image of what are supposed to be the region’s best wines, as well as Alsatian wine overall. Imagine finding grand cru Burgundy or classified Bordeaux at comparable prices. Such downward pressure on prices reduces profitability and creates a sliding spiral of quality as corners are necessarily cut to stay afloat.

Jean-Michel Deiss

Jean-Michel Deiss

And for growers, times are even harder. I’ve was told of many growers who have been unable to sell their grapes for much more than the hard costs to grow them, not including their own labour, a situation that has been exacerbated by lower than average crops in three out of the last four years. Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss in Bergheim related to me the story of a local grower who was forced to sell his crop this year at 1,22 euros/kilo. His accountant calculated the cost of growing at 1,11 euros/kilo, earning a thin margin of just 11 cents per kilo. Considering his modest yields, he was left with a paltry 600 euros (c. $900) per month for him and his family to live on – not exactly a princely sum.

Many growers are on the brink of bankruptcy, and it’s expected that a large number of vineyards and small domaines will disappear or be swallowed up by larger companies in the next few years if the situation doesn’t ameliorate.

Why is Alsace struggling? The answer is naturally multi-faceted. The current generation’s preference for red wine and the consequent difficulty of selling premium white wine from anywhere in the world at sustainable prices, is partly to blame. But there’s already evidence that the market for quality white wine is firming up, and prospects are improving.

Yet in order to capitalize on the rising tide, the region must be properly positioned. As it stands, Alsace faces multiple challenges in the international market place, mainly surrounding their communication strategy. How to increase profitability and communicate such a complex region to consumers?

Following are a few of the main issues that are being confronted. None on its own is unique to Alsace, but in combination, they make the situation particularly tough for Alsatian winegrowers and the entities that communicate their message.

Dry or Sweet?

As already mentioned above, there is confusion over what style of wine one can expect when purchasing a bottle of Alsatian wine. The style palate is broad and deep, and the label alone rarely tells the whole story. Will the wine be dry or sweet? Partially botrytis affected and dry, or partially affected and sweet? Or somewhere in between?

Several ideas have been proposed to inform consumers, ranging from pictograms visually depicting the wine on a sweetness scale, to numbered indexes ranging from one to five (or six) according to perceived sweetness (not measurable sugar), or according to a more complex equation relating residual sugar to total acidity. Most estates are operating independently with their own version; as yet there is no region-wide consensus on how best to communicate this important piece of information to consumers. It’s a bit of a mess.

Terroir Chaos

There’s also the more subtle reality that the range of terroirs in the region –granites, limestones, sandstones, and volcanic sediments, all with varying mixes of clay and sand – yield wines of widely varying personality even with the same grape variety, to say nothing of individual growers’ personal influence.

Deiss Schofweg next to limestone from the vineyard

Deiss Schofweg next to limestone from the vineyard

How best to express these differences? It’s not reasonable to expect the average consumer to recall the soil types in each of the 51 grand crus and the wine style they result in, translated over four authorized grape varieties, not to mention the hundreds of other unclassified vineyard sites. And, are the wines aged in large old oak foudre, or barrels or stainless steel, or something else, each of which will add a different dimension? All techniques are employed in the region.

Given all of the potential variations, it’s rare to encounter a producer who doesn’t make at least a dozen different wines every year, some up to 40 or even more by separately bottling different grapes, terroirs and sub-parcels, vine ages, ageing regimes and degrees of sweetness. They’re often labeled under a mixture of grape, terroir and frequently a proprietary cuvee name (usually the name of family members), the latter of which means nothing to outsiders and does nothing to express what’s inside the bottle. Add to that significant vintage variation in this variable northern climate, and you’ve got an unruly portfolio of wines to try to grasp, understand, and remember when standing before one of them on a retail shelf or restaurant list.

And that’s just one of hundreds of portfolios. It’s virtually impossible to remember the character and nature of so many cuvees even within the range of a single producer unless you live and breathe Alsace, and the label rarely serves to clarify the matter. Is cuvee “X” the dry or the off-dry one? From the old vines or the young vines? The top of the hill or the bottom of the hill? So much, I’d suggest, could be solved by more informative back labels.

Brand vs. Cru?

Then there’s the conflict between producers marketing their wines based on a brand name as opposed to the name of one of the officially recognized grand crus or lieux-dits. An extreme example is Trimbach’s celebrated Riesling Clos Sainte Hune, Alsace’s most expensive dry wine. The clos has been a monopole of the Trimbach family for over 200 years, which is entirely within the Rosacker grand cru in the village of Hunawhir. But you’ll have to read the small print to learn that Clos Ste. Hune comes from the Rosacker, and even then there’s no mention of it being a “grand cru”– Trimbach doesn’t advertise this fact – a willful distancing from the appellation system. For them, the name of the clos, a Trimbach brand for all intents and purposes, has more value than the name of the cru, and much more even than the classification grand cru.

Grand Cru Kirchberg de Barr

Grand Cru Kirchberg de Barr

Clos Sainte Hune is unquestionably Rosacker’s greatest riesling, and indeed one the world’s finest, which must make both other producers of Rosacker even more regretful that there’s no mention of the official cru name on Trimbach’s label, and appellation authorities frustrated that there’s no mention of the classification. The name and classification on such a prestigious wine would serve to validate and raise the cru’s image, and by extension, that of the entire classification, thereby helping to establish an international reputation for the best sites in Alsace, in the fashion of Le Chambertin or Le Musigny in Burgundy.

But even this staunchly traditional house has begun to re-consider its disillusioned views towards officialdom. As Jean Trimbach explains, “when the grand crus were created, there was no control, so we didn’t play. But now the situation is completely different, so maybe we will start to include the name of the cru”. So there is hope. Should a regional leader like Trimbach choose to embrace the appellation system, others are sure to follow.

But for the time being Alsace remains full of examples of proprietary brand names or monopoles used to identify the wine, rather than the shared appellation or cru name, serving the producer over the region.

Varietal or Terroir Wines?

Related to the cru vs. brand discussion is the contentious proposition to entirely eliminate varietal labeling, which has a long history in Alsace, and identify wines only by the name of the general appellation, village, lieu-dit or cru, as is practiced in most other regions in France. Which approach adds more value to a wine?

The idea is espoused most vociferously by Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss, a deeply thoughtful but controversial figure in the Region. “Why compete with the rieslings or gewurztraminers from the rest of the world? We have great, and unique terroirs, but we lose this advantage by putting forward the names of grapes instead of places”, Deiss argues.

Deiss is legendary in Alsace for what some consider to be radical, heretical opinions, at least in the context of modern commercial viticulture. But his thoughts go far beyond mere commercial and communication considerations.  Taking the anti-varietal labeling concept even further, Deiss advocates the approach of co-planting multiple varieties on a single site, intermixed, rather than in mono-varietal blocks, allowing each terroir to reveal itself through multiple varieties rather than one single grape. He has several sites with mixed plantings of all thirteen permitted grape varieties, the names of which do not, of course, appear on the labels, and he makes no varietal wines; all are labeled by place.

Deiss, who farms biodynamically, doesn’t believe that the biodynamic system is compatible with the idea of a single variety. Woe to him who asks for the percentage breakdown of grapes in any of his cuvees; he’s face is liable to darken with a look of you-haven’t-understood-me-or-my-wines if you ask such a question. There’s never talk of grape, only terroir. His current project is to take the approach even further, by replanting some of his sites with no fewer than forty-seven different local varieties, mixed together in random proportions, including nine distinct rieslings that he has been able to find and propagate. The object: more complex wines, with less intervention in the vineyard and cellar.

Deiss draws an analogy with the alphabet: “I want to have more letters in the alphabet. Thirteen symbols [grapes] is too few, it makes for a dying language. I want more symbols to be able to write more complex words and to write more interesting novels.”

Jean Trimbach

Jean Trimbach

Deiss’ ideas have drawn support, but more frequently criticism in the region. More than once I was asked to keep comments about him off the record, indicating a curious mix of respect and disbelief towards him, like an adherent to one religion recognizing and respecting another’s, but not being stirred enough to convert, nor wishing to draw attention to the fact. Although many are happy to have a controversial thinker and practitioner in their midst, one who can draw attention to Alsace, few are prepared to follow. “What Deiss does is good, but don’t think the rest of Alsace can do that”, says Jean Trimbach matter-of-factly.

Laurence Faller of Domaine Weinbach is outright opposed to eliminating grapes and mixing plantations: “we have great cépages, and great terroir. Co-planting is generally done to compensate for a variety’s shortcomings. Each variety can express, can translate terroirs. Grapes and terroirs are equal. I try not to make hierarchies. To completely erase the grape is crazy. Deiss can do what he wants, but I don’t want to be forced to do the same.”

Gassmann, too, believes that not all varieties are capable of revealing the best in a particular terroir: “each variety absorbs different elements, thus for each terroir there is a better vector.”

Faller and others also point out that most wines made from co-planted vineyards are sweet, or at least not fully dry, since the different maturation times of varieties invariably results in varying percentages of ripe and overripe bunches. “It’s a shame that we’re loosing the notion of great dry wine. Technically this is not possible with mixed plantings,” says Faller, even if Deiss tells me that there is a harmonization of the ripening cycles of different varieties planted together. Deiss also claims that there’s a side benefit of higher disease resistance in mixed plantations. But, tellingly, virtually all of Deiss’ wines have some measure of residual sugar.

Ostertag, who also practices biodynamics and strives to separate dry and sweet wines in his range, agrees on the technical disadvantages: “great Riesling and gewurztraminer can’t co exist in the same vineyard. Riesling needs poor soil – just look around the world at where the best are grown. Gewürztraminer and pinot gris need richer soils to express their maximum”.

Any agreement between the schools of thought is likely to remain elusive. There is historical precedence for both approaches – varietal and mixed planting – as well as for labeling by place with no mention of grape. I suspect there will continue to be advocates for both. Ultimately it makes for a more interesting and complex landscape of wines, but the specter of communication challenges rises once again. In a region known for varietal labeling, to see more and more bottles come onto the market with only a place-name to identify them, and no indication of the grape(s), may further confuse consumers without a parallel communication strategy.

Defining the Wine Styles of the Grands Crus and the Villages?

As mentioned above, the INAO has undertaken the ambitious plan to define the wine styles of each grand cru and village. Should it be dry or sweet, red or white? Which grape or grapes to allow? But the very Cartesian plan, designed to simplify and clarify the over-arching message of Alsatian wine, and link grapes with crus and styles, has met with considerable resistance.

“I’m against a fixed idea of terroir”, continues André Ostertag. “The INAO is asking us to define precisely the type of wines we make in each cru. It’s like asking someone to describe what mood he’ll be in tomorrow morning. It’s not possible to define. The current bureaucracy wants to minimize or eliminate all variations and predict everything. It’s the influence of the Anglo-Saxon world. In Latin law, anything that isn’t specified is authorized. In English law, anything that isn’t mentioned is forbidden. I feel much more Latin in this instance. Death is rigid; to fix something is to kill it. Life is fluid and ever-changing.”

How’s that for a Romantic thought with a Latin twist, a good distance from Descartes’ rationalism.

Laurence Faller_Domaine Weinbach

Laurence Faller – Domaine Weinbach

And Ostertag is not alone in his resistance to terroir determination. “We can’t define everything, even though it would simplify the landscape. We have to allow some liberties. We can’t regulate everything,” says Laurence Faller.

Pierre Gassmann recounts how the INAO had proposed to combine twelve different terroirs into two grand crus in his home village of Rorschwihr, but: “we in the village refused the plan. Even the grape growers [who grow and sell grapes, but don’t make wine], refused to allow the assemblage of these terroirs. We have twelve highly reputed terroirs that are each distinct”, he says. Resistance runs deep.

Anyone with even the most basic level of international PR/marketing experience can see the challenge of communicating, for example, twelve single vineyard expressions in one small village in one small wine region, the names of which are unknown even to the majority of Alsatians, never mind wine consumers on the other side of the Rhine Valley, and even less on the other side of the world. But Gassmann, who’s family has been making wine since the 1600s, and his co-villagers, care little for such short sighted simplifications, even if it could mean a boost in prices thanks to the lofty, and widely understood, grand cru designation on a label. “But you’ll never to be able to extract the maximum that the site has to offer” says Gassmann, in a rationally romantic way.

Some growers, however, have been in favour of defining the wine profile (varieties, styles) for specific villages and the top sites within each, including the grand crus. Currently eleven such communal designations have already been created (see the official website for the wines of Alsace), but for the remaining villages, given the tenacity of some vignerons’ beliefs, it’s hard to see the region ever coming to a common accord any time soon.

Looking Ahead

Despite, or perhaps because of, the incredibly complex cultural, philosophical, religious and geological make-up of the region, and its politically volatile past, the future looks strong for Alsace. As Jean Trimbach believes, “Alsace is headed in the right direction”.

Diversity is a strength as well as a weakness, and as consumers continue to learn about wine in greater numbers, and knowledge levels run deeper, Alsace will inevitably attract a new generation of wine lovers.

A coherent and universal marketing message is perhaps not as critical as one would think, after all. A small step, like an informative back label, would be an easy fix for cuvee confusion, as some in the region have already started doing. The dry vs. sweet issue is more critical and needs to be resolved with a more systematic fix, the simpler the better. Perhaps legislating the inclusion of residual sugar in grams per liter on the label (something I believe all wines should do) could be a common baseline onto which producers can layer their own interpretive ideas.

I can see no clear resolution to the varietal vs. place labeling issue, but since these two factions aren’t truly hostile, they can continue to coexist. Great wines invariably find their markets, while pour quality wines will struggle no matter what’s on the label.

And as for the concern of profitability, here too, there is a strong probability that the situation will improve. As Olivier Humbrecht, of the iconic Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, states with a properly philosophical, long-term view: “don’t forget that only a generation ago in Bordeaux most families could barely afford to heat their châteaux. Now look at them.” He sums up the future prospects for Alsace with characteristic clarity: “In Alsace we have great terroirs, and great wines. Our time will come.”

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Part II: Terroirs, Top Wines & Producers