Alsace – c’est moi

I’ve never been to Alsace, but when I next go wine-travelling, I promise you it will be at the top of my list. Why? Because its wines are so reliably consistent, or consistently reliable, or, simply delightful. And there’s this interesting duality in the wines which I can relate to: typically they are bone dry with a fierce acidity, but at the same time they display a charming, ripe and sweet fruity loveliness. Sweet and tart, hard and soft – in their bipolar character I can see my own personality reflected, kind of.

In recent years I have become much more interested in white wines. It’s not to say that reds don’t interest me, but there’s something lyrical, gentle, pretty and delicate about whites. It’s a bit like comparing the moon to the sun. I’m a moon person.

And as for Alsace, there are nice and pleasant wines at the cheaper end of the scale. These carry the ordinary ‘Alsace’ designation. They are clean, very refreshing and well made, but won’t leave a lasting impression. But then there are the grand crus, and many of these are just superb, especially at 4 years of age and older. What wines am I talking about? Like many other old European wine regions, Alsace has strict regulations as to what grape varieties may be grown there. It is also one of those old-world regions which have the less common custom of producing single varietal wines. This means no blends, and, unlike in Bordeaux or the Rhone Valley, for instance, you are more likely to find the name of the varietal on the label than names of estates or vineyards. Even though today the proportion of white grapes to reds is about 90 to 10 per cent in Alsace, historically this was not so: in the past it used to be around 50-50. The good news for red wines lovers is that Pinot Noir is making a comeback, and current legislation has made it possible to grow Pinot Noir grapes on grand cru sites.

The main white grapes of Alsace are Riesling and Pinot Gris. They are also called noble varieties. Two other noble varieties are Gewurztraminer and Muscat, and there are a further two or three that are permitted. At the particular tasting I attended the other week, we only had Riesling and Pinot Gris. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t get very excited about the latter. I found those wines too fatty and bland, without much character. Riesling on the other hand… Riesling can also be pretty neutral but never bland. Even if there isn’t much going on in terms of flavours or aromas, there will always be plenty of acidity, freshness, liveliness to admire. And the reason I have suggested skipping plain Alsace wines and moving straight to the grand crus (the top classification) is that once you’ve tasted a grand cru, in hindsight anything else seems a bit of a waste of time.

At this recent CIVA (Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins d’Alsace) tasting I also had the good fortune to attend a Riesling masterclass with Eric Zwiebel MS, from whom I learnt, among other things, that grand cru Rieslings from low-yielding vineyards are wines to be laid down; they age well and are worth investing in. Alsace Rieslings vary greatly because their terroirs do. There are a large number of soil types, and they will produce wines of differing character, but at wine school we’ve of course learnt that the soil cannot be tasted in the wine so I’m still in two minds about this subject and would rather not speculate.

As for the vintages: the wines that struck me as particularly interesting and exciting were those from 2011 and 2010. Although the two vintages have a very different character (2011 was a late, warm vintage resulting in higher-alcohol, sweeter wines, whereas 2010 was cooler and its wines will apparently easily keep for thirty years or more), they have both produced some spectacular wines, I think. I found that the 2011 wines tended to come with beautiful, delicious, ripe fruit character and an oily texture. They were rich, complex, intense, with an invigorating mixture of firm acidity and mellow sweet fruitiness. The 2010s seemed to have a more serious, more savoury and less fruity profile. Less charm but lots of content, and future potential.

To name but a few:

Domaine Paul Blanck Alsace Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling 2011

Not overly exuberant but still lots of ripe fruitiness and that combination of sweet and tart that Alsace does best.

Wunsch et Mann Alsace Grand Cru Hengst Riesling 2010

In this wine the more conventional honey and apricot notes combine with some quite original flavours. It has good depth, and a mineral, rubbery character.

Domaine Rieflé, Alsace Grand Cru Steinert, Riesling 2011

This wine has quite a bit of alcohol but it is complemented by zesty, upright acidity. The palate offers lots from citrus fruit to caramel, and great pebbly minerality.

Jean-Baptiste Adam, Alsace Grand Cru Wineck-Schlossberg, Riesling 2011

A sharper wine with an individual nose, and rubbery, savoury rather than fruity character on the palate.

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