Alsace: A Mosaic of Soils, at the Crossroads of Empires

Always known for aromatic, floral and unctuous wines, Alsace is a wine lover’s paradise. The answer for this is to be found in the balance of acidity and texture that their wines offer. Alsace has also been a magnet for conflict.

Think of Afghanistan, Lebanon or the Ukraine. Oftentimes situated as buffer zones between empires, these countries were conquered and reconquered by invading armies, their lands ravaged in the great game of rivalries between empires. Alsace has known a similar fate.

History of Alsace

None could have foreseen, but the prophets of doom sounded off a long, long time ago when it came to Alsace’s destiny. The story begins in the 9th century. The death of a king, especially one with as vast an empire as Charlemagne, will inevitably lead to a division of the spoils. After 842, Alsace was divided and integrated into Germanic territories as part of the Holy Roman Empire. The hybrid nature of Alsace’s population can be traced here.

The next wave of conflict, the Thirty Years War in the 1600s, devastated the region. The provinces were under the protectorate of France from then on, until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when Alsace was forcibly annexed to the German Empire. Of course, the annexation flew in the face of the population’s wishes and popular opinion in general. As we now know, this certainly planted the seeds for the conflict to come: the Great War of 1914. Following the war, Alsace (as well as Lorraine) were returned to France, for a brief moment. Back to Germany, Alsace went, following the German conquest of France during the World War II. We all know how that played out.

This tumultuous history has bred a hybrid identity, neither French nor German, but a mixture of the two.

And the wine…

Perhaps this history of conflict is what taught the Alsatian winemakers to work the land with an extra vigor. One need look no further than the rigorous pruning the vines go through in order to lower yields and ensure the highest quality. It wasn’t always so. After Alsace’s annexation by Germany in 1870, the Germans forced Alsace to produce industrial quantities of wine, considerably lowering their quality. Winemaking doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The fact of the matter is that Alsace went from being the northernmost wine region in France, to the southernmost in Germany following annexation. The German population, while having a history of wine-making and drinking, were much more enamored with beer. Thus, more vigorous varieties of grapes were planted and the perception of Alsace suffered as a result.

The style of Alsace wine begins with a caricature: perfumed, overly so, rich and tending towards higher levels of alcohol. Oftentimes, we began drinking them in our youth, they were often the first respectable white we drank (meaning they weren’t plonk or had any added sugar). Just like the song, When I was seventeen, I drank my very first Gewurztraminer, by caves Pfaffenheim the infamous Cuvée Bacchus I loved so. I tried it again a few years ago, it was so rich and flabby as to be obscene. It was not the Alsace I remembered, as though the shine had worn off. But to be honest, it was a mass-produced wine end of story. Though for a long time I had to think of Gewurztraminer as pairing exclusively with South-East Asian dishes, I have reevaluated entirely my approach to Alsace.

It’s not the grapes, the Pinot Blanc and Gris, the Muscat, the Riesling or the Sylvaner… it’s where they come from. I never had approached the region from this angle before—although that is exactly how even casual wine drinkers approach Burgundy. It’s the marketing, stupid.

Alsace and Labelling

When one thinks of Alsace, one thinks of white wine. They are mostly white (90% of production) and they have a distinctive bottle, recognizable anywhere (the flûte d’Alsace). If a grape is listed on the bottle in Alsace, it must be a mono-varietal (contrary to certain American laws, where the listed grape can be 75% minimum) and thus the laws governing winemaking have one overarching objective: the expression of Alsace wines’ is it through its grapes. This helps the consumer when choosing a bottle from Alsace. If bottle says Riesling, than it’s a single-varietal, ‘nuff said.

My first point is, as winemakers improve their craft to better reflect their terroir, and certainly Alsace, blessed with the highest concentration of biodynamic producers in France, is at the forefront in this, the labels need to change their emphasis from grapes to climat just like they do in Burgundy. It’s the shades and nuances between, not so much the grapes, but the expressions they take on based on the soil where they are grown. A Riesling grown in the Muenchenberg vineyard is totally different from one grown in Kaefferkopf. At the moment, the two main label classifications don’t reinforce this enough.

My second point is that the laws in place don’t take into account a growing emphasis on white grape blends. History has certainly shown that blends (a result of co-planting) were as common in Alsace as they were in Burgundy. The game changer for everyone was the phylloxera crisis which led to a vast amount of old varities being unsuited to grafting. A good blend came be magical, the acidities more complex and the ensuing aromatic profile deeper and more intriguing. I used to believe that the such blends were contrary to how Alsace wine should be made. Needless to say, I have changed my opinion. It will take time for the quality-control bodies to the same.

Finally, with the price of Pinot Noir from Burgundy soaring, well-made Pinot Noir is now a very important part of Alsace’s wine identity. It is the only red grape allowed in fact. Yet, despite the growing consensus regarding improved quality, the Alsace Grand Cru have not been amended to take this into account. Alsace Pinot noir used to be a thin, pale version of the richer wines made in Burgundy (I suppose the comparaisons are only normal). You could try a bottle for around 20$ in fact and wonder why you made such a foolish mistake. The higher-end versions are certainly worth it though, especially when you consider the emphasis on vineyard that the winemakers are putting forth. Whether it’s the animal-like versions by André Durmann or the  more lush and round style of Luc Faller’s “Il était une fois…la vie”, the style is local and the quality is there.

Here you have it: the laws, tending towards a generalist way of looking at Alsace are out of date. They have succeeding in homogenizing for simplicity’s sake the marketing of Alsace. But nothing is simple in this region. As Jean-Pierre Frick said, a common winemaker will have a dozen or so cuvées, from sparkling to dry whites, a parcel of red here and and late vintage desser wine there. In fact, the “Grand Cru” label decided quite arbitrarily what which grapes were noble and which weren’t, irrespective of terroir. This is why Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner got a bad rap: they were judged to be inferior by a gang of crusty old men in some smoke-filled room. Entire generations of wine drinkers have to think of these two grapes as thin, simple and ultimately uninteresting. Oz Clark’s guide to wine grapes reinforces this perception. Fortunalely, a few enlightened vignerons like Jean-Luc Mann kept their sixty year Sylvaner vines, knowing the latest laws were ill-conceived.

Conclusions

In fact, there is such huge variation of quality within the “Grand Cru” appellation, the prices can vary from just above twenty dollars to upwards of sixty. The size of some of the “Grand Cru” zones varies from a few hectors to over fifty.

My advice in all of this is not to overlook the catch-all Alsace regional appellation. Many artisanal winemakers will classify their wines as such and adorn the label with a more specific lieu-dit. These could also be blends of grapes.

My advice to wine drinkers is the following: give Alsace as much attention to detail (meaning, research which commune the wine is from the way you would a wine from the Cote d’Or or Cotes des Nuits in Burgundy). The different soils give the same grapes totally different expressions. Here are two recommendations that will allow you to better judge the region and get your money’s worth. Enjoy!

There are few good choices I propose at the Restaurant les 400 coups:

“Sentier Sud”, Lieu-dit Sunngass, Hubert and Heidi Hausherr. This is a Riesling and Pinot Gris blend from the wonderful and high quality village of Eigeisheim.

Sylvaner by Jean-Pierre and Chantale Frick. Want to rediscover the grape that gets no love but is suddenly on every Montreal restaurant’s wine list, often by the glass? This is from the commune of Pfaffenheim.

Clément Klur Pinot Noir. Alsace Pinot is nothing to be scoffed at. This is serious Pinot with depth and persistence

Good Picks at the SAQ

Domaine Albert Boxler Pinot Blanc 2015

Today, Jean Boxler, Albert’s grandson, and his wife Sylvie head the 13-hectare property.

Link to SAQ’ product

Albert Mann Gewurztraminer 2016

Organic Wine imported by Balthazard

Link to SAQ’ Product

Léon Beyer Pinot Noir 2015