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?