Vines at Domaine Ostertag

Andrew Chalk

The Wines of Alsace Are Excellent, Fairly Priced, and Distinctive; Why Are They So Little-Known?

The region could take steps to widen appreciation for its wines — but will it?

Which world-class wine region gets virtually no media or consumer attention, sells its best wines for a fraction of the price charged by other top regions, and makes wines that are distinctively different from their varietal counterparts anywhere else in the world?

The answer: Alsace, a 60-mile-long sliver of land sandwiched between the Vosges Mountains in eastern France and the German border.

The Alsatians must be perplexed that their region gets so little respect. They couldn’t make better wine if they tried, and nobody can make wine like they do. Take one of their two flagship grapes, riesling. If you taste a respectable Alsatian example against equivalent wines from the country where they call riesling "The King of Grapes" — Germany —the styles will come across as distinct from one another and pristine. Nobody would confuse one with the other. The greater body and minerality of the Alsatians contrast with the petrol notes, lightness, and often sweetness of their German counterparts. Both have the potential to age 20 years or more, and they will diverge even further from each other as they do. (Put the Alsatian up against a riesling from Australia’s Clare Valley or from California or Canada or any other riesling-growing area, and you'll find that each is a unique expression of its terroir — but they're not Alsace.)

Alsace’s other flagship grape, gewürztraminer, second in planted acreage to riesling, is so distinct from any other variety that it is a favorite for beginner-level blind tastings. The characteristic lychee notes in the nose are the giveaway. In Alsace, the grape can be vinified across the spectrum from dry to intensely sweet. The wines made from late harvested grapes (labeled vendange tardive) and botrytized ones (sélection de grains nobles) are some of the most tellingly enjoyable sweet wines in the world. Many a fruit tart or torchon of foie gras — both staples of Alsatian cuisine — has tasted ethereally better for being accompanied by one of these wines.

The dry expressions of gewürztraminer typically have a hint of sweetness that emanates as fruitiness. That quality, together with the high acid levels from early-harvested grapes, makes these wines a natural choice with Southeast Asian food flavored with ginger, garlic, and soy. These wines also possess a mineral edge that lends them additional complexity. Though no other wine region can emulate Alsace’s sweet wines, there are lots of imitators of the dry version. In California, most of these have too much fruit and too little else. The German and Austrian examples are too often a paler shadow of their Alsatian counterparts. Italian examples from Trentino-Alto Adige are generally less aromatic and more acidic in style. New Zealand and Australian versions are still emerging.

Pinot gris is also considered a noble grape in Alsace, and it is the third most planted variety. It lacks the highly aromatic dimension of riesling and gewürztraminer but more than makes up for the absence with its formidable flavors and structure. The best examples exhibit tropical fruit, forest floor, minerality, and a weighty mouth-feel that makes them subtle — rather than screaming — examples of good viticulture and viniculture.

To see how sophisticated these wines are, compare them with those made from Italy’s pinot grigio, the same grape in Italian robes. These are usually more linear and higher in acid, and aptly represented as simple wines for hot summer days. There are more interesting examples from places like the higher altitudes of the Alto Adige, but they are generally lighter than their Alsatian counterparts. Oregon has adopted pinot gris as its signature white grape, and it may produce examples that are the most like those of Alsace. They do have trouble getting the minerality of the Alsatians, though.  

One can argue that what small plantings of muscat there are in Alsace (it is the region's fourth noble grape, accounting for just more than 2 percent of the total planted acreage) reach their most exalted heights when vinified as vendanges tardives or sélections de grains nobles. The vendanges tardives are closest to Germany's Ausleses in must-weight levels, and the sélections de grains nobles are closest to Beerenausleses. However, the Alsatian versions are slightly less sweet.

How is it that such Alsatian wines are so distinctive? Philippe Blanck of Domaine Paul Blanck has no doubt that it is the terroir. The region's location, to the leeward side of the Vosges Mountains, is known to create one of the sunniest locations in France, counteracting some of the effects of its northern latitude and sheltering it from rain-bearing winds. At ground level there is an immense complexity in soil types, with various wines associating with specific soils. Granite provides the best soil for riesling, whereas gewürztraminer grows best in richer, warmer, clay soils.   

Some of the comparative anonymity of Alsace is homemade. To begin, the region never finished its 1975 classification, which eventually identified (as of 2007) 51 grand cru vineyards but gave none premier cru status. A vineyard, then, has to go from the simple Alsace appellation to Alsace Grand Cru, with no intermediate level. This deprives better-than-base-level vineyards of official recognition of their quality unless they improve to meet the tough demands of the Grand Cru designation.

Perhaps the first thing I would recommend to the Alsatians to help gain their region the international recognition it deserves is reopening the classification process. This would ignite an almighty political firestorm — which is why the status quo remains in place — but the long-term gains could be significant. One feature of a modified appellation system should be the possibility of at least occasional revision. This would avoid the kind of ossification that happened with the classification in the Left Bank of Bordeaux. The re-evaluations in Saint-Émilion a decade apart might be a good model.

It would also help if the Alsatians added identification of sweetness to their wine labels. Consumers who pick up a bottle of Alsatian riesling have no indication from the label as to how sweet or dry it is — at least outside the dessert wine categories. The Alsace expert might know from the producer’s reputation, but 99.9 percent of wine drinkers do not fit into this category. Some kind of simple label indication would help.

Some other recommendations:

Elevate pinot blanc to the status of a noble variety. Currently, "pinot blanc" on an Alsatian label doesn't refer to the grape variety of that name, but simply means that the wine is made from grapes in the pinot family (including pinot noir). Marcel Deiss, for instance, makes a pinot blanc from pinot gris, auxerrois, and pinot noir, without a trace of actual pinot blanc. In order to get a wine actually made from that grape, one has to know what the producer uses in his pinot blanc wines. Paul Blanck makes a 100-percent pinot blanc, as does Albert Boxler with his Pinot Blanc B (for "Brand") — though in his generic pinot blanc, the grape is blended with auxerrois. The "have it any way" approach to marketing pinot blanc prevents the varietal itself from acquiring greater recognition.

Elevate sylvaner to the status of a noble variety, too. André Östertag of the highly regarded Domaine Östertag makes an important point: The producers who made mediocre sylvaner in the past, he told me, have pulled it up and moved on to other varieties, leaving a core of growers who love the grape. As a result, the quality is higher than ever. This fact received official recognition in 2005 when the INAO (the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine) permitted sylvaner in the grand cru vineyard of Zotzenberg in the village of Mittelbergheim. The recognition was the result of a five-year fight led by grower Albert Seltz. Östertag hopes that sylvaner will receive the kind of recognition by educated palates that Austria's grüner veltliner did a decade ago. A key factor in its favor is that it is often the least expensive wine in a producer’s portfolio.

Finally, promote globally to consumers. The battle for recognition of the quality and individuality of Alsatian wines among retailers, beverage managers, and sommeliers is already won. But they all raise the same objection to putting them on their lists. They are a hard sell. The consumer white wine preference is still for chardonnay, which outsells virtually all other white wines added together. Interestingly, pinot grigio was not always a big seller in the U.S. market. It became the second most popular white wine in large part through smart marketing efforts by E.J. Gallo. Techniques from their playbook might help. Right now Alsatian marketing efforts in the U.S. resemble Brownian motion rather than a directed, single-minded campaign.

Meet the Real Winegrowers of Alsace4 Attractively Priced Wines from AlsaceAlsace in a Bottle: The Wines of Domaines SchlumbergerRaise a Glass to the Riesling Revolution with Famille Hugel of AlsaceHelfrich Crémant d’Alsace Brut NV

Will any of this happen? My bet is that in 10 year’s time nothing will have changed — but one can always hope.