May 25, 1998
A View from the Top
Alsace: The wines and the Route du Vin
by Rene Corton
Visiting the wineries and winegrowers of Alsace is generally quite easy. As opposed to Bordeaux and Burgundy where appointments are essential, many of the Alsatian growers have tasting caves in the villages where you may taste and purchase wines. In most of these, English will be spoken.
Many of the villages have Cave Cooperatives which are associations of many small growers. In much of France, the quality of the cooperatives is modest at best, but in Alsace, quality can be quite good. The co-ops at Eguisheim (called Wolfberger), Turckheim, Pfaffenheim, and Ribeauville are particularly good and well worth a visit. The latter makes a top-notch blended wine of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Riesling called Clos Zahnacker and runs a very pleasant restaurant, the Auberge Zahnacker just across the street from the co-op on the main street in Ribeauville.
Many of the growers offer wine direct, and you will note the "vente directe" signs. Feel free to stop, especially if you speak some French. Generally as you travel through the villages, the number of places to stop and taste will exceed the available time. Several of the top growers and producers, Trimbach and Zind Humbrecht for instance, require appointments for visits. These can be arranged by your local wine merchant here prior to your visit.
The Route du Vin runs about 200 kilometers from Marlenheim just west of Strasbourg in the north to Thann in the south. The northern half of the wine region is known as the Bas Rhin and the southern half as the Haut Rhin. The Route du Vin is surprisingly not very well marked, but with a map showing the next village on the route, it is easy to find the villages which are well marked. With the requisite stops, it would take three or four days to see the entire route.
If time is short, the most famous vineyards and growers are concentrated in the Haut Rhin just north and south of Colmar. Allow time to park in the centers of the villages and wander a bit to get the real flavor of the place. Ribeauville, Riquewhir, and Kayserberg are particularly pleasant and pretty.
The wines of Alsace are quite different from the rest of France. German grape varieties, vinified dry in the French style are identified by the varietal name rather than place. In addition, the vast majority of the wines are white.
A small amount of Pinot Noir is made but it rarely rises above the level of good and is rarely seen in the market here. The white wines demonstrate finesse with remarkable balance between the fresh fruit and the generally very substantial acidity. The dryness (lack of sugar) coupled with the acidity often gives an immediate impression of tartness or sourness to American palates which are accustomed to slightly more sugar or less acid.
This is particularly true with Riesling which is usually bone dry in Alsace, as compared to the typical American or German Riesling which is often noticeably sweet. I like the bracing acidity very much and find it very pleasing with seafood and poultry but not terribly appealing without food. The Gewurztraminer grape, however, has considerably less acid and often higher sugar levels resulting in wines with more apparent sweetness which are quite pleasant without food. Unfortunately this is variable from grower to grower and from vintage to vintage and it is often hard to know without tasting whether a particular bottle is dry, off-dry, or slightly sweet.
From all varieties, growers make Vendange Tardive (late harvest) wines which are sweet but retain a clean fresh character and are commonly drunk as an aperitif or with very rich foods such as foie gras.
Selection des Grains Nobles are much rarer wines from individually selected very ripe grapes often affected by noble rot. They are similar to Sauternes in style.
Recently Alsace has developed a system of grand cru vineyards, similar to that in Burgundy. Wines labeled as grand cru must be one of the four noble varieties: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat, and yields are restricted. Generally this designation is indicative of high quality especially from one of the top notch growers. Many producers, however, do not use the grand cru or specific vineyard designations, and names such as reserve, cuvee Personelle, etc. are common. Within a particular producer's range of wines, these designations are a decent guide to quality.
The most important guide to quality and style is the varietal name. The growers consider RIESLING, a late-ripener, to be their finest grape. Usually vinified bone-dry, it produces a wine with a floral peachy tone for drinking young when grown on light or sandy soils. Wines from vineyards with limestone or granite soils tend to be quite austere with an apple tone and need more bottle age to develop the mineral petrol tones classic for Alsace Riesling.
Gewurztraminer is a rich wine with an aroma of lychees or rose petals. I like it with Asian foods and strong cheeses. In Alsace it is frequently paired with Munster cheese. Muscat produces a dry aromatic wine with musky apricot flavors. The Alsatians consider it an ideal aperitif wine or as an accompaniment to lighter foods. Bernard Sparr (see below) swears it is the perfect wine with fresh asparagus; I'll try it this spring. Pinot Gris (also called Tokay-Pinot Gris,) the least aromatic of the Alsace wines, produces rich, full-bodied wine with hints of nuts, honey, or slight smokiness reminiscent of Chardonnay. In a dry style, it pairs well with salmon. The off-dry or slightly sweet style is excellent with rich foods such as foie gras. Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, and Chasselas are not considered noble wines and are made in a lighter, easy drinking style for everyday quaffing.
Alsace has literally hundreds of producers, few of which reach the USA, and even fewer of which reach the Northwest. The best source of data on the producers is the encyclopedic work: "The Wines of Alsace" by Tom Stevenson (Faber and Faber) available in hard or softback and a worthwhile purchase for a serious visitor or oenophile.
Based on availability in our market and recent visits, I would recommend the following producers:
*Domaine Trimbach, run by Bernard and Hubert Trimbach, has done the most to promote the wines of Alsace. The house style is bone dry with good substance and fruit. At all levels, they represent good value. The Ribeaupierre Gewurztraminer and the Frederic Emile Riesling are world class examples of this style.
*The high-end Riesling Clos Ste Hune, which generally requires 10 years of bottle age, is considered by many to be the world's best Riesling. Domaine Zind Humbrecht and Domaine Schoffit make small amounts of wine from named vineyard sites and often have very low yields. Their wines have a more full-bodied, slightly sweeter style much liked and highly rated by Mr. Parker of "The Wine Advocate."
*Domaine Deiss makes wines which feature and demonstrate the effect of terrior (specific growing sites) on the taste of the resultant wines. Andre Ostertag is a small quality conscious winemaker in Epfig who is quite capable of bending traditional rules to obtain what he perceives as great. His use of new oak barrels (a rarity in Alsace) in the Grand Cru Muenchberg Riesling and Pinot Gris is quite successful in my opinion.
*Domaine Sparr, represented in the USA by Bernard Sparr, is a medium sized producer in Sigolsheim with a strong range of excellent value wines and top-notch Grand Cru wines from the Mambourg, Brand and Schoenbourg vineyards.
*Domaine Kuentz-Bas in Husseren-Les-Chateau is a medium sized producer with holdings in the grand cru vineyards, Pfersigberg and Eichberg. A recent bottle of the 1988 Gewurztraminer Eichberg was excellent and at its peak at ten years of age.
*Wines from Domaine Lucien Albrecht and Domaine Leon Beyer are very good and available locally. They are on my list to visit on the next trip.
Finally, a word about recent vintages. Due to the dry weather, Alsace has less variation in vintage quality than many regions in France. The years 1989, 1990, and 1994 were great; 1992 and 1993 were good to excellent and only 1991 was poor. Both the 1995 and the 1996 vintages, which are now on the market, are very good. In both years, Riesling and Pinot Gris were better than Gewurztraminer in general. The 1996s have abundant acidity to match the ripe fruit and will benefit from 5-10 years of bottle age. The 1995s are well balanced and can be drunk immediately.
Bon voyage and Bonne degustation.