Alsace 2002 and 2001

Of all the wine regions I visit regularly, Alsace may be the one with the largest quality gap between a handful of elite producers and everybody else.The majority of growers in Alsace produce too much fruit to make concentrated, nuanced, aromatically precise wines that deliver on the potential of the region's top vineyards.In cool summers or rainy harvests, much of this overcropped fruit never develops truly ripe flavors, or simply rots before it has a chance to ripen.Harvesting by machine, which can be rough on the fruit, is often disastrous when the grape skins have already been compromised.A sea of Alsace plonk somehow sells, but this wine is more likely to be seen in French supermarkets than on the shelves of serious shops in export markets.

Vintages 2002 and 2001, the two crops of wines I went to Alsace to taste at the beginning of October, both posed challenges for estates in the region, and many growers failed the test.But at the level of the most serious three dozen or so producers, both years yielded wines that are consistently very good and many that are outstanding and worthy of cellaring.These vintages reveal the vast difference in performance between glorified bulk producers and those willing to make sacrifices for quality.Following dismal summers or humid, cool Septembers, run-of-the-mill producers in Alsace are often doomed by their sloppy vineyard work before they even start picking.This was the case for many growers in 2002, and for some in 2001.But conscientious growers, working with lower yields in hillside sites with the right soils, good drainage and air movement, can simply let their fruit hang until conditions turn in their favor.They are thus in a position to capitalize on an Indian summer to bring in fruit with thorough and sometimes spectacular ripeness, in some cases benefitting from the concentrating effect of botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, a beneficent fungus that develops on the grape skins under the right climatic conditions (usually alternating humidity and dry heat).

The 2002 growing season and harvest.Following an extended hard freeze in January and a rainy March, the flowering took place quickly and evenly during the first half of June, setting the stage for a large crop.The weather was largely favorable in July, but there was also plenty of rainfall and no stress on the vines.August and the first half of September were then cool and wet, which explains the high levels of malic acidity many growers reported in their 2002 wines.Somewhat better weather returned by mid-September, and north winds helped to forestall rot in some areas and concentrate the grapes.But there were still rainy spells.

The harvest for the still wines began on September 30.With warmer weather in early October, botrytis developed quickly; some of it was of the noble persuasion.But producers who had too much crop hanging--or dense bunches without adequate aeration--had already been visited by grey rot, noble rot's evil twin, by the middle of September.For them, strict selection at harvest time was necessary to make even passably clean wines.Many wines made by Alsace's lesser lights are plagued by an obviously mushroomy taint of rot.The best growers, though, picked during favorable periods of October, bringing in grapes with a rare combination of high sugars and high acidity.If one variety stands out in 2002, it's riesling, which often thrives in cooler conditions and, at least in the better sites, resists rot well.Many wines in the pinot family show a dry edge or slightly blurry flavors owing to the spread of rot.Gewurztraminers can be atypically high in acidity, but where sugars were also elevated and grape skins were truly ripe, some interesting and unusually refreshing wines were made.As is the case in most years, many sites around the city of Colmar and to the south received less rain during the summer and early fall and benefitted from warmer temperatures.More than one grower south of Colmar told me that his vineyards saw very little grey rot in 2002.

A look at 2001.This growing season also began with a normal flowering during the first half of June.July and August were very warm and sometimes quite hot, with enough rainy spells to nourish the vines.September then turned cool and humid, although rainfall totals were considerably lower than those of 2002.(The Hugels reported that Riquewihr received only 42 millimeters of rain in September, while Jacky Barthelme at Domaine Albert Mann told me that there were only about 30 millimeters in Wettolsheim, just south of Colmar.)Rainfall levels were also significantly lower than those of 2002 during the months of August, October and November.

The harvest officially began on October 1, but many growers waited because the maturing of the vines had slowed during the largely overcast month of September.Acid levels remained healthy due to the absence of heat in the run-up to the harvest.The region benefitted from Indian summer conditions between about October 9 and 19, and there was a second good period for harvesting at the end of October and first week of November.The best 2001s offer wonderful purity of aromas and flavors and great elegance, with the acid backbone to support at least mid-term aging.Many estates prefer their 2001 rieslings to those of 2000.There was much less incidence of grey rot in 2001 than in 2002, but rainfall in late October triggered the spread of noble rot in many sites.While this development came too late for many estates, those that still had healthy fruit hanging profited from some of the purest noble rot in the region in many years.Some of the most exciting wines of my tastings were late-harvest examples from 2001, including some of the classiest young Selections de Grains Nobles I've ever had.

A word on late-harvest wines.Wines labelled vendange tardive (or late harvest; I've designated these as VT in my tasting notes) are made from late-picked, very ripe fruit and normally carry 13% to 15% alcohol, or more.These heady, powerful releases range from more or less dry to moderately sweet.Since my last visit to Alsace in 2001, minimum potential alcohol requirements for making vendange tardive have been raised--for example, from 14% to 15.3% for both gewurztraminer and pinot gris--which should have the effect of reducing the production of late-harvest wines.The rare and very expensive wines called Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN) come from even riper grapes, usually heavily affected by noble rot, which concentrates their sugars and acids and increases glycerine levels as the grapes dehydrate.These are very sweet, even nectar-like wines, but the best of them have the crisp acidity to balance their high residual sugar.

On the following pages, I offer my tasting notes on 2002s and 2001s I sampled in Alsace at the beginning of October.Wines are reviewed in the order in which they were presented to me.In several instances, the 2002s were shown first, and in a few others winemakers began with their 2001s.But in the majority of cases, producers showed two vintages of each bottling side by side, orchestrating marathon tastings in which their wines were presented in roughly ascending order of concentration, weight and residual sugar.These latter tastings afforded me the chance to make direct comparisons between 2002 and 2001, and differences were more often of style than of quality.In the majority of cases, I preferred the 2001s for their purity and elegance, but in others the 2002s stood out for their aromatic interest and early sex appeal.There are also numerous very strong 2002s whose bracing acidity will require considerable bottle aging to soften.

Please note that 2002s listed as VT or SGN are not yet "official":to be entitled to these label designations, the wines must be submitted to, and approved by, the INAO during the second spring and summer after the vintage.All grand cru vineyard names are denoted by italics.Although prices for Alsace wines tend to be stable these days, many grand crus are both expensive and hard to find, as these wines continue to be sought after around the world.As always, wines not yet in bottle are scored with a range rather than a precise number.Suggested retail prices are provided for wines currently, or soon to be, available in the U.S. marketplace.Many more wines reviewed in this article will not be shipped to export markets for a year or two:some producers hold back their grand cru bottlings for a year or more after they are bottled, and late-harvest wines can be released even later.Long-time IWC readers are urged to consult Issue 97 for tasting notes on many 2000s and 1999s that are currently available in the retail market.One final note:all acidity figures provided are expressed in tartaric acidity, which is roughly 1.5 times acidity expressed as sulfuric.