Outnumbered in Alsace
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.”