Thu 18 Jun 2015

An Alsace Spring: Visiting and Tasting

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Springtime seems to be so much about Alsace, or at least it seems to be the case for me. This year it started with a visit to Alsace at the close of winter, returning home on Saint David’s Day. Not a daffodil in sight until I got home.

This had been a packed trip, lasting a full five days with three or four visits a day. Alsace requires a certain stamina: so many grape varieties, so many wines and so many vintages! Alsace wines need time to come round so one is often at least a vintage behind. Most of what I tasted was from the 2013 vintage, the results of which have just been made available in our Alsace 2013 offer.

Josmeyer, whose wines are an integral part of our Alsace range and my springtime itinerary

Josmeyer, whose wines are an integral part of our Alsace range and my springtime itinerary

And what a vintage 2013 has turned out to be. I shall pass over the details suffice to mention a few key points:

• Non-existent spring
• Very late flowering…
• …and then a long wait to a very late harvest.
• Yields were tiny and what little there was of very good quality.

What is clear is that 2013 is very fine for riesling and exceptionally fine for the entire pinot gris family. I don’t often veer towards pinot gris in my tastes but 2013 is a great pinot gris vintage.

There was also a very special week in April when I was one of the judges for the Decanter World Wine Awards: thousands of wines judged by panels of tasters recruited for the occasion from the international wine trade. My job was sorting out Alsace and the Alsace panel of four tasters was made up of Thierry Meyer, a Strasbourg based authority on Alsace, Eric Zwiebel, sommelier at the Summer Lodge Hotel in Dorset and Aristide Spies, a master sommelier based in Belgium. We tasted some 300 wines, awarding medals to the very best.

Spring is also the time of the year when The Society welcomes Alsace through a couple of members’ tastings. We enjoyed triumphant tastings in London at the Merchant Taylor’s Hall where 300 members attended and following that a repeat show in Manchester where a further 200 members tasted 28 wines from seven producers.

Springtime vines

Springtime vines

These were exceptional occasions with some quite extraordinary wines on show. I was especially moved to see Catherine Faller of Domaine Weinbach, still overwhelmed by the double loss of her mother and sister who died within a year of each other. That week was the anniversary of Laurence Faller’s death, such a capable winemaker who left us far too soon.

It was good to meet so many members in London and it was good that they were clearly enjoying their wines. A few told me how struck they were by the marked differences in taste and style and how each of the seven houses present seemed to have a readily identifiable style.

Why should this be so? Of course a lot of it is down to the people who make the wine and in a region which thrives in the spirit of individuality, such divergences are hardly surprising. But there is more.

There is another vital factor that is there to make Alsace so rewarding and fascinating. That extra factor is terroir which in Alsace is particularly complex. Just how geology may affect the taste of a wine is hard to tell and forms part of a much talked about subject. But soil structure in Alsace can change with every few hundred yards and it’s not just about the proportion of limestone to clay though both are present in Alsace. Vines also grow on sandstone, schist, gneiss and basalt, not forgetting alluvial sediments and wine styles differ from producer to producer and vineyard to vineyard.

Vineyard is therefore key to understanding Alsace, at least among the grander wines. Locals of course have known about the best sites for a thousand years or more, though it seems fairly obvious when standing by the sandstone wall that is the grand cru Knipperlé in Guebwiller that this has to be special. And the same must be true for the steep basalt slope of the Rangen at the southern end of Alsace in Thann or the granite of the Schlossberg above Kaysersberg?

Many of these vineyards were recognised long ago; some would have enjoyed the same reputation as any of the iconic sites of the Côtes de Nuits in Burgundy. Yet formal classification has been quite recent. Today there are some 51 grands crus in Alsace and without a doubt these produce the best wines. Soon there will be a secondary classification which will appear as premiers crus. More on that later.

Only four grape varieties, riesling, pinot gris, muscat and gewurztraminer may use the grand cru appellation. There is one exception for the now rare sylvaner grape from the grand cru Zotzenberg; and soon there will be another exception which will be made for the outstanding potential of pinot noir grown on the grands crus Hengst and Vorbourg. Veronique Muré showed two stunning pinot noirs from the grand cru Vorbourg last night at The Society’s tasting in London.

And so, on an emotional note, the Alsace spring comes to an end with the 2013 vintage offer.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

Comments

  1. T.Eastham says:

    A huge fan of Alsace wines since my trip there a few years ago. Despite difficult weather in 2013, my next order will be the Alsace Mixed case 2013 code MX-15119, not least due to the positive reports from the WS tasters/visitors!!

  2. Nick Greenwood says:

    Are there any wine tours to Alsace that you could recomend?

  3. T.Eastham says:

    Nick,

    I have no details of organised tours but strongly suggest you include a stay for a couple of days at least in Riquewihr. It has the lot, wine shops/cellars, informal tours, all situated in a small fort town. Busy in the day, but very relaxing at night.
    A holiday I will never forget!

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