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Outnumbered in Alsace

By Debra Meiburg MW

by Debra Meiburg MW

It’s no easy task tasting wines in Alsace, France. The winemakers are so generous that a ‘’standard’’ winery visit involves about twenty wines. If you are a note-taking taster like me, that means a hand-cramping three or four pages in the notebook – per winery visit. And almost always the hospitable owners pluck a 20-25 year old treasure from their cellar library to show visitors how superbly Alsace wines age. Unlike Bordeaux, where producers typically produce only one or two wines, most leading winemakers in Alsace craft 20-30 different wines each vintage.

Alsace is one of the only wine regions in the world devoted almost exclusively to white wine production. They dabble with juicy raspberry scented Pinot Noir, called Spätburgunder in Alsace which means ‘’late Burgundy”, but their virtuoso performance is with four white grape varieties: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewurztraminer. These varieties produce wines that categorize roughly into three styles: regular, better-than-regular and late harvest. Regular bottling are easy-drinking everyday wines typically made from grapes grown on lesser quality sites. Better-than-regular can be designated as ‘’reserve’’ wines, which has no legal definition, or Grand Cru, which are wines produced according to strict regulations from one of 51 vineyard sites deemed to be of superior quality. In Hong Kong, much of the wine we receive from Alsace is Grand Cru. Late harvest wines are sweet wines produced from grapes that are richly concentrated through the activity of noble rot (botrytis cinerea). There are two types of late harvest wines, Vendage Tardives (VT) and Selecion Grand Nobles (SGN) and both are typically produced from Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer varieties. SGN is the sweeter of the two and is produced only a few times per decade when the vintage conditions allow intense concentration of the grapes.

Alsace is one of the only wine regions in Europe to label their wines according to grape variety, which make them easy to order. Late harvest styles withstanding, wine from Alsace is traditionally bone-dry. In recent years, however, producers have noticed that wines with a hint of sweetness are more successful in wine shows and with at least one very influential wine critic. Mention the creeping residual sweetness levels in Alsace and views are vehemently voiced. Almost all producers claim to dislike the trend, but many are compelled to meet the market taste for sweetness as a matter of economic survival. As winemaker Albert Beyer put it, “people ask for dry, but love sweet.”

Comments 2 Comments for “Outnumbered in Alsace”
  1. Damien Casten on 03.19.10 at 10:39

    I tend to agree with M. Beyer, but interest in some residual sugar presents a sort of logic trap. Some sugar rounds out flaws and / or covers sharp edges, especially in Gewurztraminer that can come from high yields and machine harvesting. This creates a large amount of wines that taste like they are grown for mass production vs expression of place.

    I had a visit from Muscadet producer Jo Landron this past week during which he introduced me to his idea of “mineral density”. The more carefully he farms, the denser his wines have become. This lead me to think about Alsace and the apparent density that sugar gives, vs “mineral density”. I think the best in Alsace succeed in making wines that combine some of both. Whereas Jo’s Muscadets might be at a max of 2g per liter of RS, I think there is room for a few more grams in Alsace when accompanied by “mineral density”. My own key to finding such wines is to look for producers who are farming as naturally as possible, and who have plots on the fingers that descend from the Vosges mountains as opposed to the broad flatlands a bit further to the east.

    But forget all that. Anyone looking to have a great experience with an Aslace wine should look for a single vineyard Pinot Gris and then grill a duck breast with Chinese 5 spice. Delicious, to say the least.

  2. Debra Meiburg on 03.21.10 at 19:01

    What an interesting comment! Excellent insight, Damien. I fully agree! Debra

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