Tue 14 May 2013

Pinot Noir, Alsace Style


Now here is a story: red wine from the most white-wine-orientated region of France.

Alsace pinot noir: class of 2011

Alsace pinot noir: class of 2011

And yet the truth is that pinot noir has always been a grape variety planted in Alsace and what’s more, it is my opinion that the 2011 vintage produced some lovely Alsace reds.

A Little History
As curious as it may seem, pinot noir was the first grape variety to be mentioned in Alsace. It can trace its roots at least as far back as the 8th century and maybe further still, predating the arrival of the riesling grape by some 700 years. Alsace wealth and prestige peaked at about the time of the Reformation, and at that time the reds where probably on a level footing with the whites. Many Alsace villages gained a reputation for its reds, such as Rodern, Saint-Hyppolite and Rouffach.

General decline set in with the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War. There were then periods of reconstruction (sometimes under Germanic tutelage, sometimes French) but then more war until the final liberation of 1945 settled the issue.

During all of this time, pinot noir continued to be grown but the skills needed for top red-winemaking was largely gone. Moreover, pinot vines were rarely planted in good spots, these being reserved to the top white varieties.

My first taste of Alsace pinot noir was uninspiring, pale, watery and thin. There were exceptions from some of the great houses such as Léon Beyer and Hugel and it is thanks to these top names and others too that the revival started.

The Revival
The turning point was probably the 1990 vintage when Alsace pinot noir really began to acquire depth and colour. New plantings of pinot were now frequently of Burgundian stock and the climate getting ever warmer was also having an effect.

Today there are nearly 1,000 hectares of pinot noir in Alsace out of a vineyard total of 15,000 hectares. And things are looking up, with better vintages, a generally warmer climate and a growing list of producers willing to make top-quality red wines in a land of whites.

A patchwork of Alsace vineyards

A patchwork of Alsace vineyards

Alsace Grands Crus
When this appellation was created 40 years ago, the reputation of pinot noir was perhaps at its lowest and so the grape was not included in the new scheme. Alsace Grand Cru is reserved for riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and muscat with one grand cru, Zotzenberg, authorised for sylvaner.

The good news is that there is likely to be one or two grands crus for pinot noir. That will take a little time but when I was there in February work was already in full swing. The village of Rouffach was always famous for its reds and the best comes from the slopes of its grand cru ‘Vorbourg’. There are many pinot noir producers on the Vorbourg but the best is René Muré, whose wines we will be buying

Styles of Alsace Pinot Noir
There are essentially three styles here. The pale rosé style continues to be made and is locally quite popular. Sometimes this is very pale, sometimes more like a very light red.

Among the reds proper, the debate rages somewhat over how to age the wines. To oak or not to oak. The old style, exemplified by Léon Beyer, is to age the reds in large foudres of old oak so there is no oak flavour. The more modern approach follows the Burgundian way of doing things using small oak barrels, sometimes with some new wood. Alsace pinot noir is about delicacy and charm so extraction has tended to be short and gentle. But red wines are creating excitement in Alsace and there are more than a few growers with real ambition for the reds.

Horses in the snow, photographed on my visit to Alsace earlier this year

Horses in the snow, photographed on my visit to Alsace earlier this year

The Alsace Flute
Alsace is one of the few regions to stipulate a shape for its bottles. All Alsace wines have to be sold in the traditional Alsace flute, which tends to be green (see photo above). And that includes the reds though there is pressure for change as unquestionably red wines would look better in Burgundian-shaped bottles.

Drinking and Keeping
There are truly exceptional wines that will keep 10 years or more but by and large Alsace pinot is for drinking relatively young – up to five or six years. Generally, the wines are light in style and go well with cold meats, poultry or ham. In exceptional vintages, such as 2003 and 1990, pinot noir can produce wine with much more depth and character and become fabulous with game.

The 2011 Vintage
A very warm spring and a fine Indian summer did well for the pinot noir grape variety. The wines have colour, fruit, and a generally ripe, rounded flavour. The characteristic fruit flavour to describe Alsace pinot noir is kirsch or cherry, thought can change if the wine has been aged in barrel. (Previous fine red vintages include 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2000 and 1998.)

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer for Alsace

The Society’s selection of 2011 Alsace wines is now available to browse and buy online now, including three pinots.


  1. Blair Breton says:

    I have learnt things I did not know from this blog

  2. Stewart Hunter says:

    Thank you, Marcel – a timely blog, given some of my recent purchases. I’m really looking forward to my Meyer-Näkel: http://bit.ly/10LIvGb and very much enjoyed the Moselle Les Hautes-Bassières: http://bit.ly/10LK3A5. Alsace has long been my favourite white wine region but I’ve only recently begun to explore PN, so it may be that those from Alsace prove a natural attraction for me. 🙂

  3. We were in Alsace last month and tried half a dozen pinot noirs – though no grand crus. They were, without exception, thin and sharp, lacking both fruit and varietal characteristics. Had to buy some claret to get a decent red.

    Having said that the Hugel ’07 pinot (from WS) was a decent drink.

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