When you consider the wines of Alsace, it’s probably fine, fragrant whites that come to mind. That’s understandable. The Alsace wine grower has six white grape varieties — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner – to play with. Most growers make wine from all six, with multiple cuvées of each. But there’s a seventh grape variety permitted in this slender winegrowing region on France’s eastern side, and it’s red: Pinot Noir.
Given Alsace’s white wine proclivities, it’s hardly any wonder that Alsatian Pinot Noir of old – pale, thinnish, often somewhat unripe — felt a bit like a red wine that was actually a white at heart. The fact that it was almost always bottled in the tall, slim, Rhine-style flûte (obligatory for white wine, though not for red) only served to reinforce this impression.
But change is afoot, and the classic red grape of Burgundy, once the Cinderella of the Alsace family, is slowly coming into its own. Though fine, world-class Pinot Noir remains rare here, there are nonetheless a few producers (Albert Mann, Muré, Zusslin, Hugel et al) who have already taken this famously fickle grape in new and — for Alsace — unaccustomed directions.
“We’re beginning to see some good Pinot Noir in Alsace,” comments Maurice Barthelmé of Albert Mann, probably the domaine that’s done most to raise the bar locally for this grape variety. And great ones? “Il y en a – mais pas beaucoup!” (“There are some – but not many!”) he acknowledges with a cheerful grin. He can afford to be cheerful; Albert Mann Pinot Noir is acknowledged to be among the greats in Alsace.
So what has changed to persuade some Alsace growers that it’s worth trying to make proper Pinot, rather than rosé-style wines? Several things, starting with the climate. “Global warming has helped us,” confirms Barthelmé. Bringing grapes to the requisite degree of ripeness is no longer an issue in this relatively northerly vineyard.
The second development is that Pinot Noir increasingly takes pride of place in top sites, including in Grand Cru vineyards, even though it’s not one of the officially permitted varieties. Lucas Rieffel in Mittelbergheim in the Bas-Rhin (northern Alsace), who took the plunge over fifteen years ago and planted a few rows in a prime site in the celebrated Grand Cru Zotzenberg vineyard above the village, observes: “When you plant Pinot Noir in a Grand Cru vineyard, you lose something – you take a risk.” Why so? Because the only grape varieties that qualify for Grand Cru status are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat. Pinot Noir planted in these premium sites automatically forfeits the price-premium that’s usually associated with Grand Cru.
Another big change is on the clone front. Thierry Meyer, formerly Alsace contributing editor for Bettane & Desseauve wine guide and since 2012 Regional Chair Alsace for Decanter World Wine Awards, explains that after the Second World War, when the region set about rebuilding its devastated vineyards, there was “une course aux rendements” (a rush for big yields). Overcropping is one of the enemies of Pinot Noir, which only gives of its best when yields are reined in. The high-yielding, big bunch clones that were planted in the rebuilding phase are gradually ceding ground in favor of less vigorous clones with smaller bunches.
Apart from the well-established names cited above, there are more and more who are joining the ranks of decent Pinot-makers. I recall an instructive Oenoalsace tasting-dinner at La Taverne Alsacienne near Colmar a while ago when Thierry Meyer matched 16 different Alsace Pinot Noirs with chef Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl’s game-rich winter menu. Several names stood out, among them François Schmitt in Orschwihr, Agathe Bursin in Westhalten and Laurent Barth in Bennwihr in the Haut-Rhin.
From the more northerly Bas-Rhin came Lucas Rieffel in Mittelbergheim, Clément Lissner in Wolxheim and Mélanie Pfister in Dahlenheim. And I was delighted on a recent visit to the two-star restaurant Villa Lalique to find that sommelier Romain Iltis has devoted a whole page of his wine list to Alsatian Pinots, not just the ones cited above but also relative newbies (to me) like Schoenheitz, Paul Ginglinger, Henry Fuchs and Emile Beyer.
So, to put my excitement in perspective, it’s worth asking how Alsace Pinot Noirs measure up to those made in other parts of the world. It would be absurd (for all kinds of reasons) to compare them with Burgundy, even if many of Alsace’s top bottlings give modest Burgundies a run for their money – and offer better value for the quality, Burgundy being famous for expensive disappointments. A better and fairer comparison might be with those made across the Rhine in Baden (see here for a piece I did on Zester on the subject), where they have made huge strides in the past twenty years and where the quality is now impressive. Alsace, whose own Pinot Noir revolution is similarly a couple of decades old, would do well to take note (though I’m always struck by how few Alsatian winemakers have any idea of what’s going on in Baden’s vineyards, barely 30 km away from Colmar, or who ever venture across the Rhine to taste and compare).
Conclusion: if you’re looking for a cool-climate Pinot Noir, Alsace is well worth considering. Pinots from here have a range of delightful raspberry, strawberry and cherry fruit flavors. Tannins are discreet and oak is carefully used. With no tradition of oak-ageing for its whites, Alsace is soft-pedalling wood for its red, making it the perfect partner for white meats like turkey, chicken or pork.
A few are exported to other countries – check your local fine wine importer or www.winesearcher.com. Better still, plan an instructive trip to Alsace some time soon to see what’s moving on the PN front. And if you have your own recommendations and discoveries to share, feel free to add them in the comment box!