Alsace Wines: Dry, Sweet or Somewhere in-between?

IMG_6463-1The vexed question of sweetness in Alsace wines refuses to lie down – it’s been the subject of vigorous and enlightening discussion in recent French Wine Society forums in connection with the Alsace Masters-Level Program currently running, headed by Thierry Meyer. Here’s the nuts-and-bolts of a piece I wrote for Decanter in 2009. Sadly, the picture hasn’t changed much since then: there’s still no consensus on how best to inform the consumer, and confusion continues to reign.

“Alsace is on the dry side of the Rhine” or so Pierre-Etienne Dopff of Dopff au Moulin was fond of saying in the early 90s when I was researching my book A Taste of Alsace. He wasn’t alone in holding this view. The wines’ traditional image – rich, aromatic, fruity but reliably dry – was well established, nurtured alike by winemakers and by CIVA (Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins d’Alsace, the region’s wine promotion body), and well understood and appreciated by the consumer.

But of late things appear to have slipped a bit and the claim that many wines are getting too sweet for their own good is fast becoming a clamour. Jancis Robinson in the Financial Times, Eric Asimov in the New York Times and Tom Stevenson in his Wine Report have all complained on occasion that it’s getting harder to decode Alsace wine, and impossible to tell before popping the cork how dry (or not) this particular drop will be.

Is all this talk of an Alsace sugar rush just something got up by the Chattering Glasses? Or is there a real problem?

There certainly is, commented Jean-Louis Vézien, Director of CIVA. “People are deserting us for other, simpler appellations. We’re failing to attract newcomers to our wine because of confusion about likely sweetness levels.”
Marcel Orford-Williams, the Wine Society’s Alsace specialist who buys from fourteen different producers, concurs. “Our customers insist that they want dry wines, not heavy, overly sweet ones that don’t work with food.”
Etienne Hugel, whose family firm (along with Trimbach, Beyer and others) has been a standard-bearer for dry wines in Alsace, is similarly emphatic. “Our image as a dry-wine region is at risk.”

Where exactly does the problem lie? Not with Vendanges Tardives or Sélection de Grains Nobles wines, which are by definition sweet-natured. Nor with the great, old-established houses (Hugel, Trimbach, Beyer) who have made their name with dry wines. Neither is there an issue with those eminent winegrowers (Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Weinbach, Schlumberger, Rolly Gassmann) who have carved out a niche for themselves with consistent, well understood and widely admired wine styles that are often characterised by some residual sugar.

The problem lies mainly with entry-level AOC wines, but also with some Grand Crus and lieux-dits (named vineyard sites), any of which can be startlingly sweet. Such wines are failing to connect with their most obvious market – the undecided buyer who’s looking for clear, bright, fresh varietal character, wines that are pleasurable but not simplistic, “plaisant, mais pas complaisant” (to quote consultant oenologist Denis Dubourdieu, who has advised the Ribeauvillé Cave). Most punters, when faced with the hurly burly of Alsace wines and their unpredictable sweetness levels settle rather for the deep peace of a generic Sauvignon or Chardonnay.

How has Alsace, for years known as a producer of aromatic, fruity, reliably dry white wines, ended up in the dock for producing too many sweet ones? A number of possible explanations are wheeled out, ranging from global warming (average summer temperatures in this already sun-privileged region have certainly increased in the last two decades) to reduced yields (down from an absurdly high 120 hectolitres per hectare to 80-96 hl/ha for straight AOC wines, and 55-66hl/ha for Grands Crus). There’s even a suggestion that the region’s passionate dash to biodynamics could be a contributory factor. Any of these propositions are apt to raise eyebrows. After all, global warming, reduced yields and biodynamics are not exclusive to Alsace, but common to other vineyards at similar latitudes, where raised sugar levels are not, seemingly, an issue.

So what’s to be done? For a start, better information is needed about likely sweetness levels, acknowledges Jean-Louis Vézien. Over the years there have been countless proposals, including 1) a single designation to cover dry wines (with the implication that all other wines were sweet(er)); 2) a sweet-only designation for wines exceeding a prescribed residual sugar level (thereby emphasizing precisely the trait – sweetness – that most would like to see in retreat); 3) a pictogram indicating sweetness on a scale from 1-10 (Zind-Humbrecht uses a scale of 1-5, and there are countless others, all different); and 4) an upper limit on residual sugar in Riesling.

A system proposed  by CIVA in January 2009 to its 7000-odd members was to adopt European regulations on sugar levels.  According to this system, AOC and Grand Cru wines would fall into one of four categories: sec, demi-sec, moelleux or doux (dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, sweet) with each category subject to strictly defined sugar and acidity levels. The system has been adopted with some success by Ribeauvillé’s Cave Cooperative.

The problem was, the four-tier categorisation was only ever optional (to make it compulsory would have required a decree by the French government, a complicated and lengthy business). CIVA could thus only urge but not oblige its members to adopt it, so there was little chance of it ever being adopted. Latest news is that CIVA has abandoned this idea in favour of a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the driest and 10 the sweetest).

Debate will doubtless continue to rage and there seems little risk of an imminent solution. Meanwhile, take a tip from Thierry Meyer who advises that “the best way to figure out what you have in a bottle is to know Alsace wine better!” Set up some tastings using a range of bottles sourced wherever you are. Better still, travel to the region (on your own or with the help of one of my vineyard tours). Then work your way through the different cépages, get to know the diverse terroirs, the geology of the various vineyards, the particular house style, the vintage and all the other factors that together will influence the perception of sweetness in the wines. Then you can decide for yourself which wines suit your palate, your pocket and – most importantly – your menu. It will be a voyage rich in vinous discoveries. At the end of it you will be entitled to speak with authority on which wines in Alsace are dry, which sweet, and which somewhere in between.

Sounds like a plan?


Domaine Hering, Barr

hering-1Squeezing into the courtyard of Domaine Hering right on the narrow main street of Barr at the northern end of  the Route des Vins is a ticklish business. “Pour les vendanges,” admits Fabienne Hering rufeully, “c’est un peu rock-and-roll!”. If it’s hard to navigate with a car, I can’t imagine what it must be like at harvest time, with tractors and trailers jostling for position.

The family has made wine here since 1858, and the 10-hectare domaine is owned and run today by Jean-Daniel together with his wife Fabienne. It’s well worth a visit when you’re up in these northern parts (Strasbourg is only about 15 minutes away). They make delicious, smiling wines (around 70,000 bottles p.a.) and sell them – online or in the beautiful panelled boutique – at prices fit to restore your faith in humankind (entry-level wines around €6, Grands Crus not much over €14). They belong to Tyflo, a kind of organic-lite organisation created in Alsace in the ’90s whose members work according to sustainable agricultural practices.

If you have time, take a stroll through the Grand Cru Kirchberg vineyard that rises just up behind the house. From the trail, which is well signposted, you get heavenly views of the town and the surrounding countryside, not to mention an up-close-and personal perspective of the vines – lovely in spring when buds are about to break, or a little later when in bloom (vine flowers have a delicate, elusive, kind of  elderflowerish smell), or in autumn when the foliage is burnished yellow/copper/red and the rows of vines are a hive of activity.

Domaine Hering,
6 Rue du Docteur Sultzer
67140 Barr
Tel. 03 88 08 90 07

Useful information:
Open Monday to Friday 9h30 – 12h and 13h30 – 18h30
Saturdays 9h30 – 12h and 13h30 – 18h00
Sundays 9h30 – 11h30 or by appointment

Vins d’Alsace Schoenheitz, Wihr-au-Val

Wihr au ValWihr-au-Val, a small village that lies just off the main road leading from Colmar up to the Munster Valley, feels like an unlikely place to find fine wines. Here the broad, flat-bottomed valley is vividly green, fringed alternately by vineyards — some of which climb to altitudes of 500 metres — and steeply rising forests of mixed broadleaf and coniferous trees. It’s not even on the Route des Vins, for goodness sake… but it’s well worth the detour – for the wines of Henri, Dominique and Adrien Schoenheitz. If you haven’t already tasted them, it’s time. Go.

Henri grew up here in the valley, while his wife Dominique comes originally from Burgundy; they met at wine school in Beaune. In 1980, their studies completed, they came back to the Schoenheitz family fold and resolved to re-establish the estate and restore the village’s reputation. This was a herculean task: at the end of the Second World War when troops swarmed down the valley in the final push towards Colmar, laying waste to everything in their wake, all the vineyards and almost all the fine old Alsatian houses were destroyed — walk around the village today and you’ll see that most of the buildings are of undistinguished post-war construction.

Over the years the few remaining wine growers in the village had more or less abandoned the vines and reverted to polyculture. The few who still owned vines sold the grapes to the local cooperative. Henri and Dominique set about rescuing and restructuring these vineyards of ancient repute and proceeded to prove by the quality of their wines that here was something worth saving. Nowadays, together with their son Adrien, they work 15 hectares. Their vineyards, which rise up steeply from the village at altitudes between 350 and 550 metres, are all south- and southwest-facing: the perfect combination of height for freshness and good exposition for optimal ripeness. Granite predominates in this part of the valley – typical of vineyards in close proximity to the Vosges mountains – giving wines of firm structure and some finesse.

They divide their wine list in three sections: Classiques (i.e. entry-level), Exclusifs (a notch up, from lieux-dits or named vineyards) and Mythiques (special cuvees, late-harvest and Sélection de Grains Nobles wines). There are no Grands Crus here, but the Schoenheitz’s have vines in four lieux-dits (named vineyards) dotted around the village. Linsenberg or ‘lentil hill’, mainly decomposed granite, is planted above all to Riesling with a little Pinot Noir. Holder (‘elder’), a little heavier with granite and clay, is good for Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurz . In the lighter, sandy soils of Herrenreben (the gentlemen’s vineyard) there is more Riesling and Pinot Gris, including — in the best years — some spectacular late-harvest wines. The vineyards in Val Saint-Grégoire (which was the original name of the Munster Valley) have always been a terre de predilection for Pinot Blanc.  The Schoenheitz’s also have some Pinot Noir and Gris planted here.

Every year over the Whit Weekend (some time at the end of May) the family puts on a splendid Pique-Nique chez le Vigneron or ‘picnic at the winery’. A small tent is pitched, precariously, on a narrow shelf high in the Herrenreben vineyard, and furnished with simple trestle tables and benches. You walk up carrying your own picnic (a good icebreaker is to bring something to share with the rest of the table) and the house wine flows in abundance. After lunch there’s a chance to get up close and personal with the grapes and to hear Dominique and Henri explain the development of the vines and grapes so far as they walk you back down to the winery through the vineyards. Check their website for dates and if you can, mark your calendar and sign up for this fun event.

Vins d’Alsace Schoenheitz
1 rue de Walbach, 68230 Wihr-au-Val
Tel. +33 (0)3 89 71 03 96