Millésimes Alsace 2018

Millésimes Alsace is the professional salon designed to showcase the best of Alsace wines, which has taken place in Colmar every other year since 2012. This year’s, which took place on 11 June, was its fourth manifestation. It was the brainchild of businessman-turned-vigneron Marc Rinaldi and has now been taken under the wing of CIVA, Alsace’s official regional wine body. It goes from strength to strength with each succeeding manifestation.

A demonstration of the event’s increasing vigour is the number of OFF/fringe/satellite events that have proliferated, put on by the different organisations that exist to promote Alsace wines under their various umbrellas. This year, for example, members of ACT/Alsace Crus et Terroirs offered a vertical tasting of Gewurztraminer, the youngest from 2015 and the oldest from 1985.

Les DiVINes d’Alsace, the association of Alsace women wine professsionals, this time chose Domaine Josmeyer’s beautiful courtyard in Wintzenheim to hold a presentation of their wines paired with superior nibbles. Les Grandes Maisons d’Alsace, the association of grower-merchants, which represents some of the larger, oldest-established houses, put on a tasting of Riesling from the last century in the gorgeous Ancienne Douane in Colmar’s city centre, while the Jeunes Vignerons Indépendants d’Alsace, the ambitious young cohort of producers, chose Chateau Kiener in Colmar to present wines from a multiplicity of their top terroirs. Ça bouge en Alsace! – and to prove it, here’s their newly minted logo (above), presented at Millésimes to great fanfare. Click on the link to see their slick new campaign, designed to give an image of the Alsace vignoble today, en plein renouveau – nice job, with minimal but judicious use of storks (my bête noire, see here).

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The only snag about Millésimes is that if, like me, you’re already well into Alsace and familiar with many of the producers and their wines, it’s easy for it to turn into an [exceedingly] jolly party, where you go from one table to another saluting friends and tasting their wines (most of which you already know and rate highly). So – at least for me – a bit of strategy and advance planning is needed. The first year, 2012, I decided to home in on producers I didn’t already know, and made some interesting discoveries (see here.). This year, with an article on Sylvaner/Silvaner to write for Decanter, I decided to home in on the producers who had brought this wine to the salon. (Kudos, btw, to Millésimes Alsace, whose efficient search box on their site made it super-simple to identify them.)

It’s worth remembering that the first event in 2012 featured only Riesling; now, under CIVA’s aegis, this has been extended to cover all of Alsace’s seven grape varieties. Each grower is allowed to present six wines, of which at least three must be Riesling. So I figured that the few producers (just 8 of the 107 present!) who had brought Sylvaner to this showcase tasting must believe fervently in the unfashionable, poorly treated/abused, somewhat forgotten grape that is Sylvaner. I wasn’t wrong…

It was a delight to see how, after their initial surprise, each of them positively lit up when I told them I wanted to taste their Sylvaner. At Kuentz-Bas, with vineyards around Husseren-les-Chateaux, theirs is a gorgeous, structured manifestation from 65-year-old vines planted in the Eichberg Grand Cru vineyard between Husseren and Eguisheim and aged in 350-litre barriques. I was happy to learn that far from giving up on this wine or – heaven forbid –  uprooting the vines, as many have done in recent times, they are firm believers in it.

At Stentz-Buecher’s table, Stéphane Stentz warmed visibly to the Sylvaner subject – his comes from 75 year-old vines planted in a great terroir in Wettolsheim. (I learnt fast that those remaining Sylvaner vines that were not grubbed up and replaced are now of a venerable age, and are giving wonderful wines.) “C’est un grand cépage,” he claims, “mais il faut savoir le travailler” (it’s a great variety, provided you know how to work with it). I loved this one’s aromatics, structure and body, which benefits from long slow fermentation and ageing, with minimal sulphur and some use of small (not new) barriques.

In Mittelbergheim where the marly-limestone Zotzenberg vineyard suits Sylvaner just fine – and where the grape, unusually, gets the full honours of Grand Cru status – growers have long understood and rated this grape. For Thomas Boeckel, who produces at least 5000 bottles of it (depending on the year) and ages it 11 months in big barrels (foudres), it’s anything but an also-ran. (If you’re in the UK, look for it at Armit Wines.)

A new discovery to me was Domaine Fernand Engel in Rohrschwihr where they believe so fervently in their Sylvaner (grown in an east-facing, marly-limestone vineyard near Bergheim) that they have come up with a special cuvée. However, son-in-law Xavier explains that such have been the negative connotations of the grape’s name that he’s called theirs Renaissance; only on the back label will you find a mini-mention of Sylvaner. They make at least 8000 bottles and it’s been such a runaway success that they’re actually increasing plantings from 1.6 ha to 2.4 ha. “Most people have uprooted their Sylvaner, but we’re busy replanting,” says Xavier.

Philippe Kubler of Paul Kubler in Soultzmatt in the evocatively named Vallée Noble has a similar reflection about Sylvaner’s bad rap. “When people see it on a label, it’s a turn-off,” he observes. As a result he has labelled his “Z” La Petite Tête au Soleil, a sympathetic translation of (and a nod to) the name of the Zinnkoepfle Grand Cru vineyard where his 70 year-old vines are planted; Sylvaner doesn’t even merit a mention. It’s aged a year or so in big foudres before going into bottle for another decent spell and it’s lipsmackingly gorgeous, crisp and fleshy (if you can be both) with a saline finish.

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Other notable Sylvaners tasted came from Dussourt in Scherwiller, where their clay-loess vineyards give the wine extra richness and character, and won it a gold medal in the recent Sylvaner du Monde in Strasbourg. The final pair came from Jean Huttard in Zellenberg and Henri Fuchs in Ribeauvillé, both of them floral, crisp and super-dry. I came away with new respect for poor old Sylvaner – and plenty of material for my article (which will also cover Silvaners from their spiritual home, Franconia, and Johannisberg from Switzerland’s Valais).

[A small, non-Sylvaner PS: I took the opportunity to seek out Julien Schaal, whose wines caught the attention of Julia Harding MW on Jancis Robinson’s site recently. Theirs is an original and unusual (for Alsace) model: they own no vineyards but buy in grapes from [very] selected vineyards, only in Grands Crus and only the best (from north to south: Kastelberg, Sommerberg, Schoenenbourg, Rosacker and Rangen), and exclusively Riesling. I tasted first a flight of 2017s from each of their Grands Crus (mere babies, barely out of nappies, but already lipsmacking and promising a long life) followed by a flight of 2013s. These are fabulously rich, complex wines, stamped with vivid character (especially the Rosacker) and elegance.]

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Millésimes Alsace is the only serious wine salon for professionals devoted entirely to the great white wines of this underexplored and undervalued region. If you’re at all interested in what’s happening in the wonderful, complex, rewarding world of Alsace wine, it’s a must.

…and PPS if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you too may be a Sylvaner fan – or about to become one. Other notable Sylvaners from Alsace that I’ve always appreciated and which you might like to hunt down include Domaine Weinbach’s, Zusslin’s (from Bollenberg) and Cuvée Oscar from Muré. I feel a [blind] tasting of Sylvaners coming on….watch this space.

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Big, beautiful Sylvaner grapes, by Hugel
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