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
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Bring on the Bas-Rhin: Mochel, Mélanie & Co.

Whenever clients sign up for one of my vineyard tours, or we have a bunch of wine-inclined friends visiting, I automatically home in on the vineyards of the Haut-Rhin in the southern part of Alsace. Two reasons for this: firstly, I live closer to these so they’re my logical first port of call. Secondly, the Haut-Rhin – in wine terms stretching from Thann northwards to St Hippolyte – is where pretty much all the best-known Alsace estates are situated – think Trimbach, Hugel, Zind-Humbrecht, Faller, Muré, Zusslin, Albert Mann just for starters…

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Continue reading “Bring on the Bas-Rhin: Mochel, Mélanie & Co.”

Oenothèque Alsace: 10th Anniversary

Ten years ago Thierry Meyer (formerly contributing editor for Bettane & Desseauve wine guide, Alsace Regional Chair for Decanter World Wine Awards, leader of Alsace master-level education programme for the Wine Scholar Guild and all-round Alsace wine geek) founded Oenothèque Alsace (www.oenoalsace.com).

To celebrate the 10th anniversary, Thierry conducted a mystery masterclass in Colmar – “mystery” in the sense that none of us knew in advance which wines would be presented/discussed, nor what the key themes would be. Wines would be drawn from the Oenothèque’s stock of around 1200 bottles collected over the last decade, currently valued at around €18,000. We were promised that such a wine selection shows up only once every 10 years and we shouldn’t miss it. I didn’t. Continue reading “Oenothèque Alsace: 10th Anniversary”

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”

Riesling Schoelhammer, Famille Hugel

The launch of Famille Hugel’s 2007 Riesling Schoelhammer in April 2015 took most wine lovers and students of Alsace by surprise. It wasn’t simply the wow factor of this remarkable dry Riesling, which has already acquired cult status – though that undeniably played its part. Eyebrows were raised, rather, at the fact that the Hugel family, winemakers in Riquewihr since 1639 who for the past forty years have shied away from any mention of classified grand cru slopes or other named sites on their distinctive canary-yellow labels, suddenly bowled a googly by releasing a wine that proudly declares its precise provenance: a plot-specific cuvee from a mere 30 rows of vines hidden in the heart of Grand Cru Schoenenbourg, celebrated since the 17th century as one of Alsace’s finest sites.

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The headstone in the Schoelhammer vineyard. Photo credit: Famille Hugel

It marked an important change of strategy in the family business. Where in the past all the emphasis was put on the Hugel name – the brand has long enjoyed extraordinary recognition outside Alsace with 90% of their wines exported to over 100 different countries – now came a significant shift in favour of terroir, that trendy but ill-defined concept that seeks to pin a sense of “somewhereness” on a wine. Schoelhammer (its Alsatian dialect name, “shell-hammer”, fuses elements of the fossil-rich, chalky-clay soils in which the vines grow with the hammer used by the Hugel ancestors in their original calling as coopers), which is recognisably rooted in a small corner of the Hugel vineyard, thus pins its colours firmly to the mast. “You could call it a kind of “terroir coming-out” for us”, admits Etienne Hugel, the firm’s commercial director.

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Etienne Hugel, Riesling champion. Photo credit: Famille Hugel

A mere 4288 bottles of Riesling Schoelhammer (compare this with the 240,000 bottles of Riesling across the whole Hugel range) were made in 2007, a year generally acknowledged as a textbook Riesling vintage, producing wines of extraordinary complexity with huge ageing potential. Hugel describes the wine as “un vin de patience” – the family sat on it patiently for seven years before allowing it to make its debut.

You could steel yourself and stash it away in your cellar for at least another seven but it’s a thing of beauty already – tasting notes from Serge Dubs, a Meilleur Sommelier du Monde, evoke the wine’s crisp bouquet of spring flowers and fruit and its precise minerality with appley, peachy notes and lime, lemon balm and verbena thrown in for good measure. Uncork it alongside a noble fish like turbot or John Dory, or a sweet and succulent roast lobster, or a dish of pasta liberally laced with white truffles. Better still, lose yourself in its limpid depths without the distraction of food and with (a little) help from a hand-picked, wine-loving friend.

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Riesling Schoelhammer 2007. Photo credit: Famille Hugel

Famille Hugel
3 rue de la Première Armée
68340 Riquewihr, Alsace
+33 (0)3 89 47 92 15
www.hugel.com

This article was first published on March 17th 2016 in the online edition of ft.com’s  How To Spend It. Barely one month later, the tragic and untimely death was announced of Etienne Hugel of Famille Hugel. See here for my tribute on decanter.com to this tireless champion of Alsace wines and of Riesling. 

Florian Beck-Hartweg, Dambach-la-Ville

 

On this year’s first freezing morning of winter, we paid our first ever [freezing] visit to Florian Beck-Hartweg in Dambach-la-Ville. Florian’s warm welcome soon thawed things out and after a brief visit to the ancient cellar with venerable old burping wooden casks (the wine, in November, is in full ferment) we proceeded to taste in the tiny, scruffy, reassuringly cobwebby room nextdoor to the cellar.

Florian Beck-Hartweg's cobwebby bottles by Sue Style

The family has made wine since 1590 in the beautiful village of Dambach-la-Ville (which recently flirted with changing its name to Dambach-les-Vignes), in the Bas-Rhin or northern part of the Alsace vineyards, close to Sélestat. Florian, who runs the estate together with his wife Mathilde, is the fourteenth generation of the family to work the vineyards.

Thierry Meyer of Oenoalsace.com, who writes extensively on wine and is Regional Chair for Alsace in Decanter’s annual World Wine Awards, had alerted me to Beck-Hartweg’s wines and I’d promised myself a visit for ages. One of the wines I was keen to taste was their Pinot Noir – not an obvious choice for Alsace, you might say (“Alsace wine is all white, right? Wrong!”) but Pinot Noir is increasingly making its mark in Alsace, as noted here in my piece for Zester Daily. Beck-Hartweg’s snuck in at No. 100 in wine critic James Suckling’s recently published mini-guide to Alsace’s 100 best wines.

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The domaine has just six hectares – which makes it possible for Florian and Mathilde to man/woman the estate alone with help from Florian’s [nominally] retired parents, plus the occasional hand (with pruning, harvesting etc.) as and when needed. They work organically, use all wild yeasts and add only as much sulphur as is strictly necessary. Riesling and Gewurz are their most-planted grapes, followed by Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, and in smaller quantities Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner. In a ‘normal’ year, they expect to make around 25,000 bottles. “This year [2015],” he told us, looking slightly pained, “we’ll be lucky to make 15,000”, echoing other Alsace (and French) growers – quantity is down because of this summer’s extreme heat and resulting water shortage, while quality is exceptionally fine thanks to super-ripe, healthy grapes.

As we sniffed, slurped and spat, in sympathy (and in time) with the still-fermenting wines nextdoor,  I asked if Florian would describe his wines as ‘natural’ (his Sylvaner/Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris blend is named “tout naturellement“). He clearly doesn’t care much for the term because it is inexact and ill-defined and comes burdened with preconceptions. He explains instead that the house philosophy is low- or no-intervention (“We work with what we’re given”), and that they respect – and do not interfere with – the natural, self-regulating ability of the vines. By any measures that I know of, these are certainly ‘natural’ wines. What sets them apart from others of that ilk that I’ve tasted is the fact that, while distinctive – quirky even – they are eminently drinkable – not always my experience with so-called natural wines.

Of the ten or so wines tasted, his Crémant fell a little flat, while the tout naturellement blend was fun, lively and uncomplicated. I didn’t thrill to his entry-level village Riesling, which was a bit austere, but I liked the earthy purity of Riesling from Grand Cru Frankstein (granite and sand). The Pinot Noir Prestige had a nice lively Pinot nose, fragrant and fresh and a snip at around €10 while the Pinot Noir ‘F’ (from GC Frankstein but not allowed to say so, since PN is not one of the permitted GC varieties) was a bit of a cherry bomb and quite acidic. Standouts for me were his Pinot Gris which had the backbone that much Alsatian PG lacks and his two Gewurzes, both Grand Cru Frankstein and the Cuvée de l’Ours (here’s the bear, below, who greets visitors out in the courtyard). I’m curious to see how they fare back home (and will report).

Florian Beck-Hartweg's bear, emblem on his Cuvée de l'Ours by Sue Style

Florian and Mathilde Beck-Hartweg,
5 rue Clemenceau,
67650 Dambach-la-Ville

Tel. 03 88 92 40 20

http://beckhartweg.fr/en/ 

Useful info: Florian and Mathilde have a pre-Christmas open house on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 December

Domaine Paul Blanck, Kientzheim

Paul Blanck winesHere’s the first of what I hope will be loads of posts on Alsace Wine Travel. I’m in the process of updating my Alsace sections for Wine Travel Guides, a pleasurable task that I fit in around general writing, travel and food assignments and one that will be spilling out onto these pages.

To explain the WTG approach: for each of the three Alsace micro-regions, I select 12 growers to profile. Updates are a chance to refresh my selections, so each year a few drop out of the mix and new ones step into their place. I’ve tasted Paul Blanck wines on a number of occasions, including at Thierry Meyer’s  Oenoalsace dinners, but never visited. Today was the day.

Domaine Paul Blanck is a 35-ha estate producing approximately 230,000 bottles a year, of which an astonishing 80% is exported – the US and Benelux are faithful clients. They grow the usual 6 Alsace white grape varieties (riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurz, Muscat, Pinot Blanc & Sylvaner), plus Chasselas, and some Pinot Noir. Their vineyards are scattered around 5 different Grands Crus – Furstentum, Schlossberg, Wineck-Schlossberg, Sommerberg and Mambourg – and they also own a whole slew of lieux-dits in and around Kientzheim. The estate is run nowadays by Paul Blanck’s two grandsons, Frédéric, the wine maker, and Philippe, responsible for sales and marketing .

The property, snugly ensconced inside the medieval walls of the picturesque village of Kientzheim (home of the Confrérie de Saint Etienne, Alsace’s wine fraternity) is clearly marked and their sign said ouvert but repeated pealings on the doorbell drew a blan[c]k. Finally we raised someone and stumbled down into the cellar, grateful to take refuge from the March snow flurries. The slightly gloomy and cobwebby nether regions come as a huge surprise after the slick professionalism of their website, www.blanck.com.

But while the cellar and tasting space may be a little dusty, the wines fairly sparkle. We started with an ’09 Auxerrois (aka Pinot Blanc, at the more aromatic end of the spectrum), fragrant and bone-dry, progressing to their entry level Riesling ’11, lightly fruity, not especially typé, crisp and green apple-y. Staying with the Riesling theme we tried a Rosenbourg ’09 (more petrolly, also crisp and bone-dry), a GC Sommerberg ’08 (gorgeous, grapefruit) and a GC Furstentum ’05 (marked petrol aromas, more minerality, less citrus).

Next up came a couple of Pinot Gris, first a 2010 Patergarten, a lieu-dit just south of the village that runs right up against neighbouring Kaysersberg (recognisably PG, perfect balance sugar/acidity), followed by a GC Furstentum ’09, which was richer, more complex, with perceptibly more residual sugar. Then came two Gewurzes, Altenbourg ’07 (understated Gewurz character, lovely spicy finish) and GC Mambourg ’07 (as expected, more flesh and sinews – and natural sweetness – than the Altenbourg). We wrapped it up with two Pinot Noirs, the entry-level classique 2011, light, fresh (a bit too chilled), a little green and a Pinot Noir ‘F’ ’08, grown in Grand Cru Furstentum but not entitled to call itself a GC because not one of the officially permitted varieties – pale garnet, bitter almonds, a good mouthful, some length (has had a spell en barrique) – but IMHO the €19 they’re asking for it might be better invested in a Baden Spätburgunder from across the Rhine (Dr Heger, Becker, Johner et al).

A domaine that’s definitely worth a visit and I’ll be recommending them on the WTG site. They’re wonderfully welcoming and full of enthusiasm for their work, their wines and their region. They note on their site that “aucune obligation d’achat n’est requise” (no obligation to buy) – which is generous, considering that at the drop of a hat they will uncork a wide range, from young, generic wines right through to Grands Crus raised at a leisurely pace and given yet more ageing in bottle: you can always find older vintages still for sale here (currently wines from 2005 to 2011 listed). Prices are reasonable for the quality offered, and we happily invested in some Pinot Gris Patergarten (€12) and Gewurz Altenbourg (€13).

Domaine Paul Blanck
29 Grand’Rue
Kientzheim
Tel. 03 89 78 23 56

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PS Every year on Whit Monday the Blancks – along with a host of other Alsace wine growers – throw open their doors for the annual pique-nique chez le vigneron. It’s always a joyous event and huge fun, whatever the weather. The deal is you bring your own provisions; the wine growers provide trestle tables, benches, glasses – and the wine to go into them. In the Blancks’ case, there are also visits to the vineyards and cellar. Music (piano accordeons) is not unknown. This year’s picnic is on Monday 20 May – booking essential, either by phone, or via their website, www.blanck.com