ÔAlsace should be seen as FranceÕs heartland for terroir-driven whitesÕ
There’s someThing magical about rain in mountainous regions, when the mist rises like curling woodsmoke from the hills. alsace has it in spades, compensating for the soggy June weather as we walk through its vineyards. it’s not been a great start to the 2016 season for most wine regions across France. hail has wiped out swathes of chablis, Burgundy and the loire. Frost has taken out plenty more.
‘if rain is as bad as it gets for us this year,’ says Jean-Frédéric hugel, ‘we’ll take it’. Besides, the weather is only one of the obstacles alsace has had to contend with recently. The loss just a few months ago of Jean-Frédéric’s father, etienne, one of the region’s stars, served as a sombre reminder that spokespersons for this underappreciated region are all too few.
it can be easy to imagine that the ancient wine regions in France have all the kinks worked out in their systems. But the beautiful hillsides of alsace, despite all of their history, are still searching for an identity that finally sees them achieve the recognition they deserve within the world’s fine wine regions.
Partly it’s political – all that tug of warring between germany and France over the centuries; partly it’s fashion, with the region’s sweet wines finding the same tough reception that is being accorded to sauternes, Jurançon, monbazillac and others. But it’s hard to ignore that a significant factor is self-inflicted, with too many players favouring high yields that have damaged quality, and too little weight given to designating individual vineyard plots of particular quality – not to mention weird laws in the region that insist the status of grand cru can only be awarded to sites under multiple ownership, thereby locking out monopoles such as clos ste-hune (Trimbach) and clos Windsbuhl (Zindhumbrecht). Unclear labelling doesn’t help matters either, with the dry styles that alsace traditionally favours taking a swing to the sweeter side over the past 20 years, but rarely with additional information on labels to alert drinkers to what they are going to get in the bottle.
‘There have been moments when we have almost had to apologise for selling alsace wine,’ says séverine Beydon-schlumberger of Domaine schlumberger. in response to this, she and a small group of other estates joined forces in november 2015 to create alsace crus et Terroirs – acT. The aim is to focus attention on the strengths of alsace.
and there are many. This is a region that grows 90% white grapes, and should be seen as France’s heartland for terroir-driven whites. Besides the mosaic of Pinot Blanc, Pinot gris, gewurztraminer and muscat, nowhere else in France can even begin to make rieslings with this complexity and power. and the only red grape allowed within the alsace appellation is Pinot noir, hardly a drawback for a region’s reputation. it also has a claim for calling itself the spiritual home of biodynamics, with more than 30 different biodynamic wineries, from Bott-geyl to Josmeyer, Weinbach and Zindhumbrecht. The arrival of the Trapet family from gevrey-chambertin (via Jean-louis Trapet marrying alsace-native andrée) has added another high-profile name to the mix.
‘We haven’t been successful enough at presenting the diversity of this region in a positive light,’ says Beydon-schlumberger. ‘We hope that by joining forces we can do this, and be proud of the distinctive history that has given this region its identity.’
acT is not a political or commercial body, and is in its very early stages with just 19 member producers, including the five biodynamic estates listed above. But it hopes to emulate the success of the VdP grouping in germany that effectively relaunched itself with the 2012 vintage, along the Burgundian model of regional wines (gutswein), village wines (ortswein), premier cru (erste lage) and grand cru wines (grosse lage).
‘We are pushing for the introduction of premier cru in alsace, but in the meantime the emphasis is on expressing our terroirs and taking the focus back to the vineyards,’ says Beydon-schlumberger. ‘We are Burgundy’s little sister, yet we have a lot of work to do to restore pride in our growers’.