If I had a quid – or a euro, or a bright, shiny Swiss franc – for every time I’ve been told (generally by red-trousered, Bordeaux- and Burgundy-obsessed British wine merchants) that they lerv Alsace wines but they can’t sell them, I’d be a frequent firstclass flyer on some pukka airline, rather than taking my turn in line again for the early-morning easyJet to Barcelona, Catania, Faro or Gatwick.
And it’s not just British wine merchants who are the offenders here; I recently met a Paris-based wine journo who assured me she ‘didn’t like Alsace wine’ (as if there was just one) because ‘it was too sweet’. Harrumph.
The truth is that all of us who know and value the great white wines of this beautiful region of France are continually stumped by the fact that so many people just don’t get it where the top Alsace bottlings are concerned.
There are several reasons for this. The usual ones that get trotted out include the fact that many people confuse Alsace with Germany (really? still?) and that the vineyard and village names add to the confusion (Kaefferkopf, Voegtlinshoffen, Schlossberg…).
Another explanation proffered is that consumers (that’s you and me) like a simple message – in their/our wine-buying as in other areas of life. There’s glorious simplicity in, say, Chablis. You get one grape (Chardonnay), one terroir (limestone-clay), one style of wine (flinty-dry). And Alsace? It’s Complicated.
There are seven different grape varieties to contend with and get to know, each one hugely distinct from one another. Riesling and Gewurztraminer are like chalk and cheese; neither is particularly close in style to Pinot Blanc or Sylvaner; Pinot Gris is another story again and everyone thinks Muscat will be sweet (whereas in Alsace it’s generally vinified dry). And that’s before we even get started on Pinot Noir.
Then there’s the fact of the extremely diverse and varied geological and climatic nature of the vineyards, variously described as un mosaïque de sols, or un miracle de diversité. Throughout Alsace – and often in very close proximity – you’ll meet clay-limestone, marl, granite, sandstone, gypsum and even the occasional volcanic outcrop. For many of us, this is a problem. Mosaics require dedicated and careful scrutiny (all those tiny pieces that make up the whole picture). Diversity clouds the issue.
Next comes the vexed question of sweetness (which I’ve written about before, see here and here), another confusing factor for the consumer and which serves as a disincentive to dipping a toe (or a tongue) into the wines of Alsace.
And finally, there were all those official advertising campaigns in the past in which storks and clunky green-stemmed glasses played a prominent role. It was a populist, mass-market approach totally at odds with any concept of quality and distinctiveness. Although such campaigns are now pretty much – thankfully – a distant memory, that memory has a nasty habit of lingering.
In an attempt to address and correct misconceptions and to communicate the message of quality and diversity, an organisation called ACT (stands for Alsace Crus et Terroirs) was created at the end of 2015. The association was the brainchild of businessman Marc Rinaldi (who founded the professional wine salon Millésimes Alsace and now heads the gleaming new Domaine Martin Schaetzel), and is headed by the dynamic, young Severine Schlumberger of the eponymous family domaine in Guebwiller.
The members of ACT (pictured above) have set themselves the task of placing Alsace wines right up there where they belong: among the world’s greatest white wines. The association has at present 19 members (though they are expecting to grow in number), all of them top-quality, independent growers who are busy blazing a trail in Alsace with their wines. All the usual suspects are present (see list below), though they exclude some notable names like Hugel, Beyer and Deiss, who prefer to plough their own furrow(s).
From the name Alsace Crus et Terroirs, you’ll deduce that the notion of terroir is at the heart of their campaign. Many top growers have long felt that the importance of the place in which their wines were grown had slipped from view, at the expense of the grape variety, which has always been a distinguishing feature of Alsace labelling. The creation of Grands Crus (in 1975 and 1983) did something to re-establish this sense of “somewhereness”, anchoring the wines in a specific terroir. But ACT aims to go further: for its members, it’s not enough simply to know that a wine is from Grand Cru Schlossberg or Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergbieten. It’s essential to communicate the importance of that particular terroir, and how and why it gives a distinctive stamp to the wine.
I think it’s an important initiative for Alsace, and I applaud ACT’s members’ wish to raise the standing of its wines, though I do have some reservations. Their objectives are outlined in a 7-point statement of intentions (la charte), but they’re buried in amongst some pretty opaque and purple prose that’s largely unintelligible to mere mortals. Suffice to say it includes an (obvious) emphasis on terroir, on the vines chosen for a particular site (with a nod to organic and/or biodynamic practices, to which many of the 19 members already adhere), on optimal harvesting dates (and yields), on best practice in the cellar, on the image of Alsace wines and how best to communicate that.
The bit where I have some reservations is in the talk of aiming for un prix valorisant (a just price, one that gives proper value) for Alsace wines. That there’s a problem with the pricing of some bulk-produced Alsace wines is not in doubt – if you’re watching the local press and social media, you’ll find regularly expressed outrage at supermarkets selling Grand Cru wines at around €8, a price which demeans the whole Grand Cru concept and brings down the image of Alsace with it. However, the idea of pushing prices upwards willnilly as a way to make people value the wines more highly seems to me like a dubious marketing ploy.
Alsace wines, particularly on the export market – and especially from these top domaines – are in my view correctly priced for the value they offer. As examples, Albert Mann’s gorgeous Grands Crus range from €30 to €42 and their legendary Pinot Noirs sell for between €37 and €58 ex-cellar; Zind-Humbrecht’s highly sought after Grands Crus go for anything between €39 and €100; Zusslin’s elegant Riesling GC Pfingtsberg is listed at €40 and their ambitious Crémant Brut Prestige at €35. All of these seem to me be properly priced for the value they offer.
But that’s a quibble. The ACT heart (and charte) is in the right place and Alsace wines certainly need to be re-evaluated and to find their proper place amongst the finest white wines in the world. As part of their campaign, ACT schedules top-level professional tastings – to date these have taken place in Paris and New York. London has followed – this very evening there’s a tasting of magnums from many of the top domaines at Sager and Wilde on Paradise Row (https://www.facebook.com/events/1974873622779032/) and tomorrow, 5th March, there is a walk-round trade and press tasting at the select wine club 67 Pall Mall in London (by invitation only).
If you’re interested in deepening your knowledge of the – admittedly complicated – Alsace wine scene, and learning about the direction taken by the top estates in Alsace, look out for such events, and watch this space for more of the kind, which I’ll try and remember to flag up.
MEMBERS OF ACT, ALSACE CRUS ET TERROIRS (from south to north)
- Domaines Schlumberger, Guebwiller
- Domaine Zusslin, Orschwihr
- Muré-Clos St Landelin, Rouffach
- Domaine Albert Mann, Wettolsheim
- Domaine Barmès-Buecher, Wettolsheim
- Domaine Josmeyer, Wintzenheim
- Domaine Schofitt, Colmar
- Domaine Boxler, Niedermorschwihr
- Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Turckheim
- Domaine Meyer-Fonné, Katzenthal
- Domaine Martin Schaetzel, Kaysersberg
- Domaine Weinbach, Kaysersberg
- Domaine Trapet-Alsace, Riquewihr
- Domaine Bott-Geyl, Beblenheim
- Domaine André Kientzler, Ribeauville
- Trimbach, Ribeauville
- Domaine Ostertag, Epfig
- Domaine Kreydenweiss, Andlau
- Domaine Loew, Westhoffen