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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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 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?

Alsace Diary part 1: Valentin Zusslin – Master of Subtlety from Riesling to Pinot Noir

Spending this week in Alsace, I am finalizing the producers to be included in my book, The Wines of Modem France: a Guide to 500 Leading Producers. While a producer should be judged on the range as a whole, I’m inclined to look at Riesling as the defining variety: top Rieslings should show minerality, piercing purity, freshness, and increasing breadth of flavor with age. I look for Pinot Gris to balance expression of stone fruits with more savory notes including a characteristic note of mushrooms (yes, I know that’s considered pejorative in some quarters, but it’s part of the character when subtle). Gewurztraminer is not my favorite variety, I find it simply too perfumed, but when the perfume is delicately balanced with lychees I can appreciate its qualities. I usually find Muscat a bit too obvious, and have lower expectations of Pinot Blanc (and Auxerrois), Chasselas, and Sylvaner, but I’m on the lookout for unusually fine examples that I could recommend. I hesitate to include Pinot Noir as a criterion in a region whose reputation is established for white wine, but full marks go to producers who have taken advantage of global warming to make fine Pinot Noir in Alsace.

Long vertical tastings of Pinot Noir and Riesling with Jean-Paul Zusslin at Domaine Valentin Zusslin fly into the top ten list for both varieties. We tasted Pinot Noir from the lieu-dit Bollenberg (near Rouffach, which is one of the candidates for promotion to premier cru, and where the clay-calcareous soils are suitable for red varieties). I hadn’t encountered these Pinots previously, but they seem to me to capture the essence of Alsace in the context of red wine. They are destemmed, vinified in wooden cuves with pigeage to begin with, switching to pump-over half way through fermentation, and matured much along the lines of top flight Burgundy, in barriques with 50% new oak. Color is deep, fruits are round, the palate is exceptionally smooth, silky tannins support the fruits, the overall impression is quite soft, and some wood spices show when the wines are young. I was puzzling over how I would relate them to Burgundy, and I think the main difference is in the aromatic spectrum: if it isn’t too fanciful, they have a more aromatic impression that seems to relate to the general character of Alsace in growing aromatic white varieties. A barrel sample of 2013 shows as very ripe, 2012 is a touch livelier in its acidity, 2011 conveys a sense of a more earthy structure, 2010 has closed up a bit and is more upright (the counterpart of the often crisp character of the white wines in this vintage), 2009 (my favorite) shows the first signs of evolution with an elegant nutty palate that is reminiscent of the Côte de Beaune, and the 2008 has lightened up and is moving in a savory direction. These are serious wines by any measure, and anyone who is serious about Pinot Noir should try them.

Our Riesling tasting started by comparing three Grand Crus from 2012, which seemed to increase in their savory impression as we went through the line. Bollenberg is precise without being tight, a very pure expression of Riesling. Clos Liebenberg brings more intensity and adds herbal elements to complement the citrus and stone fruits of the palate. Pfingstberg isn’t exactly drier than the other two but is more savory, showing herbal notes including tarragon before the citric purity of Riesling returns. Then we went back in time with Pfingstberg. In the 2010 vintage the savory notes of 2012 are joined by the first notes of petrol. (The first bottle we tried was very slightly corked, and the petrol was quite evident, perhaps because the fruits were a fraction suppressed. A second bottle brought the fruits out more clearly, and the petrol was less evident.) There’s a tense, savory edge to the palate, with an impression of salinity at the end. Back to 2008 where petrol is just beginning to replace savory elements as the first impression, and the palate follows with a classic blend of citrus and stone fruits. The defining word about age came from the 2001, a lovely golden color with some honey, tertiary aromas, and touch of petrol. The flavor spectrum here is moving in the direction of late harvest, but the wine is bone dry: that’s a wonderful combination that I’ve only really experienced in Alsace. Then with 2000 we had a Vendange Tardive, as that was the only Riesling made from Pfingstberg in this vintage. This is a very subtle wine for late harvest, with the sweetness of the apricot fruits cut by tertiary aromas and herbal impressions. In fact, if you want one word to sum up the style of this house, it would be subtlety.