Clos Vougeot from Top to Bottom: Is it Really a Grand Cru?

Clos Vougeot is perhaps the most variable of all the grand crus of the Cote de Nuits, and the one whose status is most often questioned (Echézeaux being the other). It’s only the accident of the area being literally enclosed by a surrounding wall that led to the uniform classification, as it extends right from the top of the slope (more or less in line with the premier crus) through the middle (in line with the grand crus) to the bottom (usually mere communal territory). In fact, it’s worse than that, because the fault line that mostly runs along the N74, dividing the great communes from the mere Bourgogne on the other side, actually diverts to run through the bottom edge of Clos Vougeot. (I discuss this in detail in my book In Search of Pinot Noir, from which the figure below is taken). Classified by geology, Clos Vougeot would include everything from ordinary Bourgogne to Grand Cru. Now if you taste your way across, for example, Gevrey Chambertin, from say the N74 to Le Chambertin, the difference between communal appellation, premier cru, and grand cru is usually fairly obvious. An unusual opportunity to see if there are obvious differences with location for Clos Vougeot came from a tasting of the 2011 vintage organized by Fine and Rare Wines in London, with examples from 38 producers. ClosVougeotCross

A cross-section of Clos Vougeot shows the strong variations in terroir.

Clos Vougeot has been divided between many producers since the French Revolution, but its division into climats hasn’t changed much since the sixteenth century. The monks knew all about this, and supposedly used the wine from the bottom for communal use, the wine from the top for visiting bishops, and reserved the wine from the middle for princes and the pope. Most of the wines at the tasting represented one of these three areas, but some were blended from multiple plots. However, the striking feature was a lack of any clear correlation between location and style.

VougeotMapClos Vougeot is divied into many plots with around 80 proprietors.

For me the wines of character fell into two general groups, which roughly might be defined as those I would (mistakenly) have placed in the Cote de Beaune in a blind tasting, because flashy red fruits showed more than structure, and those that I would unhesitatingly have placed in the Cote de Nuits (sometimes farther north than Clos Vougeot). Perhaps there is a tendency for the wines from the bottom to show more overt fruits and those from the very top to show more obvious structure, but I’d be hard put to support that in a blind tasting.

Clos Vougeot may offer the most fleshy character of the Cote de Nuits, certainly more opulent than delicate Chambolle Musigny or stern Gevrey Chambertin. I was really surprised by how sweet and ripe many of the wines were, although that’s not the reputation of the 2011 vintage. I was frankly disappointed by about half the wines, which seemed to lack grand cru quality (meaning that fruits were relatively simple and I could not see where future complexity would come from), but these showed no correlation with position, and came from plots all over the Clos. (It’s true that none of my preferred wines came exclusively from the bottom, but I don’t think that’s statistically significant.)

Wines in my category of delicious but rather Beaune-ish, with red fruits dominating, include Chanson, Chateau de la Tour, Louis Max, Denis Mortet, Mugneret-Gibourg, Jacques Prieur, Drouhin, Roche de Bellene, Domaine de la Vougeraie, Chauvenet-Chopin. Nice wines, but shouldn’t we expect more from a grand cru than simply a delicious crowd-pleasing quality?

Wines that melded the fleshiness of Clos Vougeot with a sense of structure of the Cote de Nuits, with black fruits more prominent, include Jean-Jacques Confuron, Louis Latour, Marchand-Tawse, Domaine d’Eugénie, Anne Gros, and the Vieilles Vignes from Chateau de la Tour (quite different from the regular cuvée). This is my concept of Clos Vougeot, anyway.

Some top wines came from old-line producers. Méo-Camuzet, including a large prime plot close to the chateau, really showed as a classic grand cru from Cote de Nuits, Arnoux-Lachaux (from plot in the upper third) a nice mix of fleshiness and structure in the modern style of the house, and Louis Jadot (from a plot extending from bottom through the middle) showed their characteristic sense of balance.

It is a sign of the times that I thought two of the best wines came from micro-negociants who do not even own any land in the Clos. Olivier Bernstein showed his usual opulent style, but with enough underlying structure to support longevity for years. The wine lives up to the reputation of the plot, which has very old vines (more than 80 years) in the middle of Clos Vougeot towards the south. The wine I found the most interesting of all came from Lucien Le Moine, and is not identified with any single plot. “Our Clos Vougeot has a particularity, it’s a blend from all three parts,” winemaker Mounir Saouma told me on a recent visit. The monks would have been very pleased with this: it captures the fleshiness of Clos Vougeot in the context of the structure of the Cote de Nuits and Mounir’s trademark elegance.

The take-home message for me was that producer triumphs over terroir in Clos Vougeot. Should it be a grand cru? I’d say about a third of the wines met my standard for grand cru. I’ll have to do a similar tasting for Chambertin or Musigny to see if the ratio goes up.

A Vertical of Léoville Lascases and Some Insights into Parkerization

There were many surprises in this week’s vertical in New York of Léoville Lascases from 2000 to 1982, with some vintages failing to live up to past promise and others surpassing it.

The 2000 seemed a little closed to start with, but then opened out to show classic elegance and precision, a complete contrast with the lush reputation of the vintage. The 1999 and 1998 tried to emulate its style, but simply do not have enough fruit (and are clearly going nowhere), but the 1997 showed a surprisingly silky attractiveness (but drink it up quickly).

I have not previously been so impressed with 1996 in the Médoc, which has sometimes seemed to have too much acidity, but the Lascases has really come around: a bit reserved at first, it became ripe, sweet, and silky in the glass. As has been true for the past decade, the 1995 is more open and immediately attractive, but without the stuffing for future development, although it hasn’t faded yet.

The 1990 was a conundrum. A few years back, I thought it had it all, with the density and richness of the vintage, but also acidity and tannin to hold. This time it opened with contradictory notes of herbaceousness and over-ripe fruits, and then cleared to show a complex palate with broad, warm flavors.

Going back to the eighties, hernaceousness is still the name of the game. 1989 and 1990 are often regarded as a pair, but the 1989 was completely different: herbaceousness conflicted with over-ripeness, as it did to begin with in 1990, but then it turned clearly in a herbaceous direction; 1988 took this trend further.

Previously 1986 has appeared to have the structure to mature in a classically elegant direction, but this time seemed reserved and dried out. I could not detect any flaw, but still wonder if this might have been an off-bottle. 1985 is back to the warm style, 1983 a surprise in its elegant reminiscence of Margaux in this vintage (and previously I had thought it was reaching the end of its life).

The 1982 is a knockout. Previously it had seemed to develop a bit too rapidly, but this bottle was precise and elegant, with an impression of refinement and even delicacy. Real claret.

The wines fell into three distinct groups. I could see a clear lineage in my preferred group from the 2000 back to 1996 back to 1982. It’s perhaps not surprising that 2000 should show resemblance with 1982, but I did not expect 1996 to fit into this group. These typify St. Julien.

The most traditional flavors came from 1989, 1988, and 1983, with perceptible herbaceousness, but balanced by the greater richness of the palate in a way that was not possible in the prior decade.

By popular acclaim, the preferred wines were 1990 and 1985, both showing broad, warm flavors. To my mind, this shows the Parkerization of taste. These are lovely wines, but they could just as easily come from Pauillac as St. Julien. They are the New Bordeaux, with power prized over elegance. For me, the precision of 1982 could come only from St. Julien, and that’s what it should all be about.

Alsace Diary part 5: Are They Making Another Big Mistake with Classification in Alsace?

The classification system in Alsace is a shambles. With only two official levels to distinguish everything from the plain to the mountain slopes (not to mention the problem with unpredictable sweetness) the label on a bottle of wine from Alsace gives almost no significant information to the consumer, except the name of the producer and the variety. Producers are keenly feeling the lack of any real hierarchy of classification, and the most common theme during a week of visits was that Alsace should follow the Burgundian model. In fact, producers are anticipating the introduction of a hierarchy by labeling single vineyard wines with the names of lieu dits, and some are also introducing village wines. A proposal before INAO would formalize a hierarchy, but will it solve Alsace’s problem of declining sales?

The hierarchy was clearest with Riesling, as everything is in Alsace, when producers present a horizontal tasting of an Alsace AOP, village wine, lieu-dit(s), and grand cru(s), although often somewhat muddied by an increase in sweetness ascending the hierarchy. This was more of a problem with Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, which is perhaps why I’m not so convinced the premier crus will be so effective with these varieties. All the same, the de facto hierarchy does resemble Burgundy in showing increase in quality, although it’s more difficult to get a comparable sense of the different characteristics of each terroir. One reason for this is that with the grand crus, there’s often a single wine from one producer that really marks the grand cru, so impressions are biased by producer style. “It’s important that a lieu dit or premier cru should be represented by multiple producers so it doesn’t just have one style,” says Jean-Christophe Bott of Domaine Bott Geyl.

Of course, the major problem with grand crus is extreme variation in quality. Trimbach, Hugel, and Léon Beyer regard the whole system as do sevalued that they refuse to use it. As they are major holders in some of the most significant grand crus, this is another reason why the typicities are not generally recognized. “It’s not the number of grand crus that’s the issue but the delimitation. Some of the tops and bottoms of hills should perhaps be premier cru,” says Felix Meyer at Meyer-Fonné. This goes back to their original definition, when Johnny Hugel’s original proposal to delineate just the best terroir was transmogrified into giving every village its own grand cru and expanding its area to satisfy local demand. The first grand cru, Schlossberg, was expanded from 25 ha to 80 ha. This is unlikely to be revised. “There is no willingness to open the grand cru box. The system is not perfect but it exists. It’s much more important to organize a classification of the intermediate levels,” says Etienne Sipp at Domaine Louis Sipp.

This raises the prospect, as Céline Meyer of Domaine Josmeyer says, that “some premier cru wines may sell at high prices than some grand cru wines.” The premier crus are likely to be more tightly defined than the grand crus, but the hierarchy will never have any real meaning so long as there are bloated grand crus with some parts that don’t merit the description. So long as yield limits are so relaxed that poor wines can be made in grand crus and sold at rock-bottom prices, creating premier crus with any degree of integrity will simply muddle up the system further. The key to defining the premier crus is to put the grand crus in order. Almost every producer I visited acknowledged that the variable state of the grand crus is a major impediment to establishing a reputation for high quality wine from Alsace, but said ruefully that reform is impossible. If I were in charge of the dossier at INAO, I would make it a condition of classifying premier crus that the grand crus were redefined on the basis of geology and microclimate rather than politics.

Alsace Diary part 4: Sweetness – the Big Mistake with Grand Crus

Sweetness is the issue that absolutely bedevils Alsace. Should wine be dry or be sweet? And should it be the same every year or should it be allowed to vary with the vintage? There are two schools of thought. Sometimes epitomized by other producers as “the Trimbach way,” one school holds that wine – especially Riesling – should be dry. “Our wine is bone dry and therefore suitable to accompany food,” says Hubert Trimbach. Other notable houses in this camp are Hugel and Josmeyer. The majority of producers, however, follow a mixed model, mostly trying to make dry wine, but admitting defeat and allowing some residual sugar when they feel this produces a better balance. Let me explain why I think this is usually a mistake and why it is destroying the grand cru system.

The issue of sweetness is all tied up with the grand cru system. In a marginal climate, the best sites are those that most reliably achieve ripeness. These became the grand crus in Alsace. In a typical vintage, the difference between vineyards might be that an appellation vineyard needed chaptalization, whereas a grand cru reached an acceptable level of alcohol quite naturally. So the wines would have the same (dry) style, but the grand cru would display the extra character that goes with greater ripeness. In the present era of warmer vintages, however, the appellation vineyard may reach an acceptable level of potential alcohol, and the grand cru may go above it. This explains why at many producers the entry level wine is always fermented to dryness, but the grand crus show some residual sugar.

So is residual sugar part of the terroir? “The idea with the Vins de Terroir (wines from single vineyards or grand crus) is to represent the vineyard, so the wines are not necessarily fermented dry. They are intended to be coups do coeur, where people care about the character not the technical specs,” says Philippe Blanck at Domaine Paul Blanck. Jean-Christophe Bott takes a similar view at Domaine Bott-Geyl ” I don’t believe the wine has to be absolutely dry – we are vignerons not chemists – it has to be balanced. In one vintage the balance may be 5 g sugar, in another it may be 12 g.”

The argument is basically that something has to give: either alcohol will be too high or there will be residual sugar. This might not be so much of a problem if the style was consistent for any given producer and between vintages (and if the consumer can tell from the label). Vintage variation is a killer in the sense that you cannot buy a wine sight unseen if it is dry in one vintage and sweet in another. And it’s equally confusing when a producer changes style from appellation Alsace to grand cru. “The problem is not with the entry level, it’s more with the grand crus, where the Riesling may be picked at 14% potential alcohol. It’s more difficult to achieve dry Riesling and we can find grand crus with 7-8 g sugar or more; it’s totally stupid for the grand crus to have residual sugar,” says Pierre Trimbach. In my view, this is spot on as a criticism, because how am I to understand the difference between, say, an appellation Riesling and a grand cru Riesling if the first is dry and the second is sweet? Marc Hugel puts the issues in even more direct terms: “When I started 35 years ago, almost all wines had less than 3 g residual sugar. Now most wines have more, grand cru Rieslings often have 7-8 g or more, and Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer have 20-30g: this is a dessert wine.”

And even to compare two grand crus, they need to be in the same style. It’s all very well to say that Schlossberg has granite, Rosacker is calcareous, and Rangen is volcanic, but whatever effects the terroir has on the style of wine are (at least for me) muddied by residual sugar. Whenever I have been able to compare terroirs from producers who have multiple grand crus all in completely dry style, the results have been enlightening, every bit as interesting as a comparison between Crus in Burgundy. It’s a great lost opportunity if the comparison is muddied by variable sweetness. In fact, I would go further and say it’s a great disappointment to spoil what should be the ultimate expression of terroir by confusing the palate with sugar.

Here is the case for accepting a natural balance, as put by Marc Tempé: “My aim is to make a dry wine because it goes best with food. But with our climate and cépages it’s difficult to make a dry wine from mature berries. There are years that are completely dry like 2010, there are wines that have 5 g left, but they are naturally in balance. Wines with 5 or 7 g may taste dry if they have the right structure. Wines with a little residual sugar may be perfectly suited to many foods, although many people express horror at the idea of wines that aren’t bone dry.”

Even the most committed producers admit that it’s mostly impossible (and maybe undesirable) to get completely dry Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer from grand crus. “Pinot Gris ripens very rapidly. Sometimes you say you harvest in the morning and it’s dry, you harvest in the afternoon and it’s sweet,” says Etienne Sipp. “Gewurztraminer will reach 13-14% when Riesling gets to 11%,” Marc Hugel says, concluding,” It’s better to have 14% alcohol and 7 g sugar than 15% alcohol and bone dry.” And Celine Meyer at Domaine Josmeyer points out that “If Gewurztraminer is completely dry it’s not agreeable because it’s too bitter”. So the consensus is clear that, faute de mieux, Gewürztraminer (and Pinot Gris) are going to have some sugar. “I prefer to make dry wines and for Riesling it’s easy to be dry, but with the grand crus for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer we cannot produce dry wines. To follow what the terroir has to give you, the wine would not be balanced if you picked early enough to make dry wine,” says Jean-Christophe Bott. But he adds ruefully, “Of course the market is looking for dry wine.”

Here is a heretical thought. If it is impossible to make a dry wine with under 14% alcohol from the grapes planted in a particular vineyard, are you sure you have the right variety? Instead of relying on historical precedent, should the criterion in choosing the variety be that it will achieve ripeness (but not over ripeness) at a level that allows dry wine to be made at reasonable alcohol levels in most years? In Alsace, if Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer give you the choice between 16% alcohol or residual sugar, perhaps you should switch to Riesling. In Bordeaux. if Merlot gives you 15% sugar, perhaps you should switch to Cabernet Franc or even Carmenère. Or maybe – quelle horreur – you should think about Syrah.

And for that matter, perhaps the whole concept of grand crus should be rethought. The climate was cooler when they were being defined.(It’s a sign of just how outdated the grand cru definitions are that the regulations specify the need to reach 10% alcohol!) Should spots that used to give reliable ripeness but that now give over-ripeness still be grand crus? As Alsace is even now proposing to classify a large number of lieu dits as premier crus, perhaps the level of desired ripeness should be an issue. And if the trend goes any further, maybe they will need to reconsider the hierarchy of premier and grand crus in Burgundy. In the era of global warming, should we start by asking which sites best give the desired style of wine, rather than simply looking by reflex reaction for the places that give the most ripeness?

Alsace Diary part 3: A Visit to Trimbach and Vertical Tasting of Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune Riesling

From my hotel just above Ribeauvillé, I could look down at vineyards all the way to the town, including the sweep across two adjacent grand crus, Geisberg and Osterberg. One of the greatest Rieslings of Alsace, Trimbach’s Frédéric Emile, comes from plots in 6 ha spread out across both grand crus (which is one reason why it has the lowly Alsace appellation). An even greater Riesling, perhaps the greatest in all Alsace, is Trimbach’s Clos St. Hune, which comes from 1.67 ha in the Rosacker grand cru, although because Trimbach does not (or did not, of which more later) believe in the grand cru system, it is also labeled only as Alsace. While I have tasted both cuvées on many occasions, I’ve never before had a systematic vertical to compare them directly, which is how we spent a morning with Pierre Trimbach.

TrimbachTW2

Vineyards rise up immediately behind Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé

Although Trimbach is one of the ten largest producers in Alsace, it is still very much a family owned firm. Pierre Trimbach is very hands-on: “I can still drive a fork lift, when needed,” he says. The firm is well known for taking a strong position on the meaning of Alsace: wines are dry; and they have rejected the grand cru system. Other producers sometimes refer to “the Trimbach style” as a shorthand for complete commitment to dryness. On my previous visit, Hubert Trimbach told me. “All wines are fermented close to dryness, they should be suitable to accompany food.”

Trimbach’s heart is in Riesling, which accounts for more than half of all production, and this goes hand in hand with the commitment to dry style. The hierarchy can be quite deceptive. The basic Riesling is a third to half of production, the Riesling Reserve comes almost entirely from Trimbach’s own vineyards, and the Selection de Vieilles Vignes is a selection within the Reserve category, made for the first time in 2009. Tasting the 2011s, as you go up the line you get more refinement, but less overt fruits, more reserve and minerality, and more time is needed to open. Going to Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune, flavor is less apparent on release, it needs time to come out. So in a horizontal tasting of a young vintage, you don’t see the increase in quality in an overt expression of fruits, you have to look beyond that to get an impression of future potential. And we may be talking about many years here.

The vines for Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune have similar age, and yields are similar, so differences really should be due directly to terroir. Our comparison between them covered many vintages back to 2001, and the balance shifted with time. The restrained style really pays off here in the rich vintages, such as 2009, when they don’t suffer from over-ripeness. Clos St. Hune is really not very expressive yet, but evidently has greater density than Frédéric Emile. Neither is at all ready, but if you want to experience Trimbach at Grand Cru level without waiting, there is a new choice available. This is a fascinating contrast with Frédéric Emile, where Pierre says that “Osterberg is always more upright, Geisberg is always richer.”

Trimbach recently purchased the vineyards of the nuns of the Couvent de Ribeauvillé, which included 2.6 ha in Geisberg. The nuns made it a condition that the grand cru should be stated on the label, so Trimbach will shortly release its first wine labeled under a grand cru, the Geisberg 2009. This is much more approachable, with overt stone fruits cutting the usual Trimbach austerity, and will be delightful to drink while waiting for Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune to come around. Trimbach already owned some other plots so now has become the biggest owner in Geisberg, and in my opinion, their cuvée will become the definitive expression of Geisberg.

Going back through the vertical, the first vintage of Frédéric Emile that seems ready to drink is 2005, but the Clos St. Hune remains pretty restrained and still needs more time. The first vintage of Clos St. Hune that I’d be inclined to drink now would be 2001, which has a perfect balance between minerality and fat. The Frédéric Emile is all minerality and salinity, moving in a distinctly savory direction. In every pairwise comparison back to then, Clos St. Hune shows more density but Fréderic Emile shows more obvious fruit flavors. It takes at least a decade for the fruit flavors in Clos St. Hune to become more obvious. (Of course, it does depend on teh vintage, which can make a big difference: Trimbach are releasing the 2009 Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune before the 2008, because the 2008 vintage simply needs more time.) As a working plan, drink Geisberg from five years after the vintage, drink Frédéric Emile from eight years, and drink Clos St Hune from twelve years!

Trimbach’s position on dryness isn’t quite as adamant as it might seem when you move out of Riesling. “Dry doesn’t mean anything, well maybe for Riesling, but for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer it’s balance,” says Pierre. The style for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer isn’t totally dry but is as close to it as you can get while maintaining balance. “8-10g sugar isn’t a problem if it’s Pinot Gris not Riesling.” Tasting the Pinot Gris Réserve Personelle and the Gewürztraminer Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre (the equivalent for these varieties to Frédéric Emile in Riesling), there’s only a suspicion of sweetness on the palate, although technical levels are around 8 g and 15 g, so you can see varietal typicity.

The range of Trimbach’s Rieslings is impressive, starting from insight into typicity at the appellation level, then increase in character with greater selection and older vines, and finally the quality and steely longevity of a range of grand crus, not to mention the occasional Vendange Tardive, last made for Frédéric Emile in 2001, and of which I have a bottle as a souvenir of the visit to try on a future occasion.

A Vertical of Chave Hermitage: from Modernity to Tradition with Surprises Along the Way (Eucalyptus!)

Having been drinking Chave Hermitage for more than twenty years, and having made a pilgrimage to the source, where there was an extensive tasting of barrel samples, I thought I had a pretty good bead on Chave Hermitage both old and young, but I was surprised by the wines between the current era and the very oldest at a vertical extending back to 1978.

The first flight showed striking variations of style, reflecting extreme vintage variation. The 2005 was decidedly a modern wine, all youthful power of spice and black fruits waiting to subside, but the potential for future development along classic lines was revealed by a faintly animal note to the nose. The 2004 started with vegetal notes, clearing in the glass to a more traditional fruit spectrum, but somehow never quite coming to life. Not much in the way of great wine came out of the south of France in 2002, the year of the floods, but the 2002 showed nice restraint, more red fruits than black, in a style admittedly much lighter than usual.

The next flight was frankly a puzzle, as all the wines were characterized by eucalyptus and menthol, in varying strengths from a medicinal wintergreen on 2001, although lightening in the glass, to faint notes in the background of the lighter 2000, to a more subtle impression of high toned aromatics on 1999. All developed faint notes of tobacco on the finish.

This theme continued with variations through the third flight, with 1998 faintly perfumed, floral, and phenolic, and mentholated notes rising a bit obviously above the somewhat monotonic fruits; it was more subtle the last time I had it, a few years back, so age has restricted rather than broadened it. 1997 was a classic nose with leather and perfume, and that slight touch of menthol, but at this point the most subtle wine of the nineties; and 1992 was frankly overwhelmed by eucalyptus.

Going back further, we returned to familiar ground. The 1990 was the knockout of the tasting, perfect balance, fragrant with mature fruits well past primary, but less animal than it has been previously, and not yet tertiary. The 1988 would have showed a somewhat similar style but was slightly corked. The 1978 was a much older version of the 1990, fragrant like old Bordeaux, quite delicate.

The old vintage of Chave with which I’m most familiar is 1985, as I’ve been finishing off a case, and taking that as my benchmark, the 1990 seems like a decade younger version, and the 1978 like a decade older. But I can see a clear lineage here, from the modern 2005 to the traditional 1978, with 1990 and 1985 fitting in along the way and showing appropriate development. I’m frankly puzzled by the wines between 2004 and 1992, where the varying strength of eucalyptus seems to cloud assessment.

Alsace Diary part 2: Sweetness – the Big Mistake with Ambiguous Labels

I think Riesling is one of the most under rated white grape varieties. It is fantastically versatile with food, as any one who visits Alsace or Germany will discover. But I almost never order it in a restaurant, because I have no idea whether it will be dry (and no, after many surprising experiences, I don’t trust the sommelier to know whether it will taste sweet to me). And I absolutely never order any of the other grape varieties in Alsace, irrespective of whether they might match the food, because the probability is that they will have some residual sugar.

Sales of Alsace wine are in steady decline, and uncertainty as to whether any particular wine will be dry or sweet almost certainly play a large part. Until you get the categories of Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, used for very sweet dessert wines, no distinction is made on the label about the degree of sweetness. A handful of producers are committed to dry styles, but for most producers, a particular cuvée may be dry one year and off-dry the next year, depending on vintage conditions. That uncertainty is a complete killer in a restaurant. (And I’ll look at what varying sweetness does to the reputation of grand crus in part 4 of the Alsace Diary.)

Conscious of the issue, many producers in Alsace have been moving to indicate the sweetness of each wine on the back label, most using a scale from 1 to 5, some a scale from 1 to 10. Would this solve the consumers’ problem, I asked Celine Josmeyer (who is committed to a dry style) on a recent visit. “It would if all producers used it,” she says. But I wonder if it is that simple.

One problem is not everyone is using the same scale. When Olivier Humbrecht first introduced a five point scale, some years ago, he excluded the dessert wines on the grounds that everyone knows they are sweet. I think he was right about this: once you are into overtly sweet wines, the exact level of sweetness is rarely an issue in making a decision. It’s down at the bottom where you really want to know whether a wine is bone dry, off-dry, or slightly sweet. A standard five point scale here would be adequate; but if the five points extend all the way to full sweetness, it really doesn’t discriminate enough, and if some people have five point scales and others have ten point scales, it’s just confusing.

Another problem is that the scales are subjective.”They are absolutely not objective. Perception of sweetness depends on alcohol, sugar, and acidity,” says Etienne Sipp, who uses a ten point scale at Domaine Louis Sipp.  It’s the old question of whether a wine tastes dry when it has high enough acidity to disguise the sugar. Perception of sweetness doesn’t vary so much among people as perception of some other flavors, but at the level of balancing sweetness and acidity, not everyone is the same. Most producers tell me their dividing line between category 1 (dry) and category 2 (off-dry) is around 6 g/l residual sugar, but that’s precisely the point that is most subjective. Even worse, the number depends on who does the classification. Tasting at Kientzler, I queried the classification of a wine in category 1; if I had been doing the classification, I might have given it a different number, says Eric Kientzler. “The problem is that everyone has their own system, when I see what’s on the label, sometimes I’m astonished,” says Marc Hugel.

I just can’t bang on about this enough. There is an international standard for dry wine and it is less than 4 g/l sugar. Above that you may or may not be able to taste sweetness, but below it virtually no one tastes sweetness. So category 1 should be defined as unambiguously dry with less than 4 g/l; category 2 could be defined as ambiguously dry (meaning that opinions could differ) with more than 4 g/l sugar and very high acidity; and category 3 could be defined as showing at least some sweetness to most tasters. That would be useful; the present scale is simply too unpredictable.

But in any case, the whole thing is irrelevant, because the scale is put on the back label. Okay, in a wine shop you can turn the bottle over and have a look. But in a restaurant? I’m not going to ask the sommelier to bring out a series of wines from Alsace so I can check the back labels. The sweetness needs to be part of the official description. There should be a category of Alsace Sec which is defined as less than 4 g/l sugar: no give and take. There could be another category, or peferably categories, for wines that (might) taste dry but aren’t technically dry.

I have the same problem with the trocken classification in Germany, which is meant to avoid these problems, because trocken has been misdefined as either less than 4 g/l sugar or less than 9 g/l if acidity is high enough. That latter class puts us back into the ambiguously dry category, which is why I almost never order trocken Riesling in a restaurant, although I love the wines when they are really bone dry.

And as for Brut Champagne, it is completely ridiculous to have one description for anything up to 12 g/l dosage. Now that many Brut Champagnes are in fact below 6 g/l dosage, they could be labeled as Extra Brut (but often aren’t because producers fear this will put off consumers). Sugar isn’t so critical when you are drinking the wine as an aperitif, but Champagne will never make inroads as a food companion unless and until the categories for sweetness are better defined.

But here’s another idea. Instead of messing around with subjective scales, why not just put the level of residual sugar (or for Champagne the dosage) on the label. That would be technically simple and much more informative. I know, I know, the objection will be that this may confuse the consumer, but that’s a really weary excuse these days used to hide anything from high alcohol to residual sugar, and I’m not so sure consumers are as easily confused as producers like to pretend.

The crucial thing is that the label has to give completely predictability: can I taste sugar or not? In regions where sugar levels vary, there is one way, and only one way to do this: to have a category defined strictly as less than 4 g/l sugar. That’s the standard everywhere that wine is only dry (white Burgundy must be less than 4 g/l, for example), so why is it so difficult to get people to see this in other regions?