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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ACT – aka Alsace Crus et Terroirs

If I had a quid – or a euro, or a bright, shiny Swiss franc – for every time I’ve been told (generally by red-trousered, Bordeaux- and Burgundy-obsessed British wine merchants)  that they lerv Alsace wines but they can’t sell them, I’d be a frequent firstclass flyer on some pukka airline, rather than taking my turn in line again for the early-morning easyJet to Barcelona, Catania, Faro or Gatwick.

And it’s not just British wine merchants who are the offenders here; I recently met a Paris-based wine journo who assured me she ‘didn’t like Alsace wine’ (as if there was just one) because ‘it was too sweet’. Harrumph.

The truth is that all of us who know and value the great white wines of this beautiful region of France are continually stumped by the fact that so many people just don’t get it where the top Alsace bottlings are concerned.

There are several reasons for this. The usual ones that get trotted out include the fact that many people confuse Alsace with Germany (really? still?) and that the vineyard and village names add to the confusion (Kaefferkopf, Voegtlinshoffen, Schlossberg…).

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Another explanation proffered is that consumers (that’s you and me) like a simple message – in their/our wine-buying as in other areas of life. There’s glorious simplicity in, say, Chablis. You get one grape (Chardonnay), one terroir (limestone-clay), one style of wine (flinty-dry). And Alsace? It’s Complicated.

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There are seven different grape varieties to contend with and get to know, each one hugely distinct from one another. Riesling and Gewurztraminer are like chalk and cheese; neither is particularly close in style to Pinot Blanc or Sylvaner; Pinot Gris is another story again and everyone thinks Muscat will be sweet (whereas in Alsace it’s generally vinified dry). And that’s before we even get started on Pinot Noir.

Then there’s the fact of the extremely diverse and varied geological and climatic nature of the vineyards, variously described as un mosaïque de sols, or un miracle de diversité. Throughout Alsace – and often in very close proximity – you’ll meet clay-limestone, marl, granite, sandstone, gypsum and even the occasional volcanic outcrop. For many of us, this is a problem. Mosaics require dedicated and careful scrutiny (all those tiny pieces that make up the whole picture). Diversity clouds the issue.

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Next comes the vexed question of sweetness (which I’ve written about before, see here and here), another confusing factor for the consumer and which serves as a disincentive to dipping a toe (or a tongue) into the wines of Alsace.

And finally, there were all those official advertising campaigns in the past in which storks and clunky green-stemmed glasses played a prominent role. It was a populist, mass-market approach totally at odds with any concept of quality and distinctiveness. Although such campaigns are now pretty much – thankfully – a distant memory, that memory has a nasty habit of lingering.

In an attempt to address and correct misconceptions and to communicate the message of quality and diversity, an organisation called ACT (stands for Alsace Crus et Terroirs) was created at the end of 2015. The association was the brainchild of businessman Marc Rinaldi (who founded the professional wine salon Millésimes Alsace and now heads the gleaming new Domaine Martin Schaetzel), and is headed by the dynamic, young Severine Schlumberger of the eponymous family domaine in Guebwiller.

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The members of ACT (pictured above) have set themselves the task of placing Alsace wines right up there where they belong: among the world’s greatest white wines. The association has at present 19 members (though they are expecting to grow in number), all of them top-quality, independent growers who are busy blazing a trail in Alsace with their wines. All the usual suspects are present (see list below), though they exclude some notable names like Hugel, Beyer and Deiss, who prefer to plough their own furrow(s).

From the name Alsace Crus et Terroirs, you’ll deduce that the notion of terroir is at the heart of their campaign. Many top growers have long felt that the importance of the place in which their wines were grown had slipped from view, at the expense of the grape variety, which has always been a distinguishing feature of Alsace labelling. The creation of Grands Crus (in 1975 and 1983) did something to re-establish this sense of “somewhereness”, anchoring the wines in a specific terroir. But ACT aims to go further: for its members, it’s not enough simply to know that a wine is from Grand Cru Schlossberg or Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergbieten. It’s essential to communicate the importance of that particular terroir, and how and why it gives a distinctive stamp to the wine.

I think it’s an important initiative for Alsace, and I applaud ACT’s members’ wish to raise the standing of its wines, though I do have some reservations. Their objectives are outlined in a 7-point statement of intentions (la charte), but they’re buried in amongst some pretty opaque and purple prose that’s largely unintelligible to mere mortals. Suffice to say it includes an (obvious) emphasis on terroir, on the vines chosen for a particular site (with a nod to organic and/or biodynamic practices, to which many of the 19 members already adhere), on optimal harvesting dates (and yields), on best practice in the cellar, on the image of Alsace wines and how best to communicate that.

The bit where I have some reservations is in the talk of aiming for un prix valorisant (a just price, one that gives proper value) for Alsace wines. That there’s a problem with the pricing of some bulk-produced Alsace wines is not in doubt – if you’re watching the local press and social media, you’ll find regularly expressed outrage at supermarkets selling Grand Cru wines at around €8, a price which demeans the whole Grand Cru concept and brings down the image of Alsace with it. However, the idea of pushing prices upwards willnilly as a way to make people value the wines more highly seems to me like a dubious marketing ploy.

Alsace wines, particularly on the export market – and especially from these top domaines – are in my view correctly priced for the value they offer. As examples, Albert Mann’s gorgeous Grands Crus range from €30 to €42 and their legendary Pinot Noirs sell for between €37 and €58 ex-cellar; Zind-Humbrecht’s highly sought after Grands Crus go for anything between €39 and €100; Zusslin’s elegant Riesling GC Pfingtsberg is listed at €40 and their ambitious Crémant Brut Prestige at €35. All of these seem to me be properly priced for the value they offer.

But that’s a quibble. The ACT heart (and charte) is in the right place and Alsace wines certainly need to be re-evaluated and to find their proper place amongst the finest white wines in the world. As part of their campaign, ACT schedules top-level professional tastings – to date these have taken place in Paris and New York. London has followed – this very evening there’s a tasting of magnums from many of the top domaines at Sager and Wilde on Paradise Row (https://www.facebook.com/events/1974873622779032/) and tomorrow, 5th March, there is a walk-round trade and press tasting at the select wine club 67 Pall Mall in London (by invitation only).

If you’re interested in deepening your knowledge of the – admittedly complicated – Alsace wine scene, and learning about the direction taken by the top estates in Alsace, look out for such events, and watch this space for more of the kind, which I’ll try and remember to flag up.

MEMBERS OF ACT, ALSACE CRUS ET TERROIRS (from south to north)

  • Domaines Schlumberger, Guebwiller
  • Domaine Zusslin, Orschwihr
  • Muré-Clos St Landelin, Rouffach
  • Domaine Albert Mann, Wettolsheim
  • Domaine Barmès-Buecher, Wettolsheim
  • Domaine Josmeyer, Wintzenheim
  • Domaine Schofitt, Colmar
  • Domaine Boxler, Niedermorschwihr
  • Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Turckheim
  • Domaine Meyer-Fonné, Katzenthal
  • Domaine Martin Schaetzel, Kaysersberg
  • Domaine Weinbach, Kaysersberg
  • Domaine Trapet-Alsace, Riquewihr
  • Domaine Bott-Geyl, Beblenheim
  • Domaine André Kientzler, Ribeauville
  • Trimbach, Ribeauville
  • Domaine Ostertag, Epfig
  • Domaine Kreydenweiss, Andlau
  • Domaine Loew, Westhoffen

Millésimes Alsace

For ages I puzzled over the fact that Alsace’s annual Foire aux Vins in Colmar seemed to have remarkably little to do with wine. I remember commenting on this to Etienne Hugel a few years ago. He confirmed, with his trademark grin, that if you wanted to buy a tractor, or a mattress, or a ticket for a top-class pop concert, the Foire was great. If you were interested in Alsace wines, it was best forgotten.

This vinous lacuna was addressed in 2012 with the first Millésimes Alsace, a professional salon designed to showcase the best of Alsace. The third edition (it takes place every other year) was on June 13th. It’s held  – like the Foire aux Vins – at Colmar’s Parc d’Expositions, but it’s a very different animal – intentionally, on the part of the founder Marc Rinaldi, who saw the need for a totally wine-focused event that would show that Alsace is capable of producing some of the finest white wines in the world.  Continue reading “Millésimes Alsace”