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.

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