Alsace 2020s and 2021s: Just like Janus


Despite being one of Europe’s and France’s most classic wine regions, Alsace has two faces, one looking forward and the other condemned to only ever see the past – like the Roman god Janus. Alsace can deliver wines that are the very pinnacle of their varietal expression, embedded in and resulting from an ancient wine culture, yet are absolutely contemporary, expressive of place and vintage. But, as a recent tasting illustrated, Alsace also produces wines that are stuck in the past, where clumsy sweetness, alcoholic strength or extraction are still mistaken for expression, where some of the folkloric tweeness that spoils much of the region’s real and historic beauty seems to have seeped into the wine. There is a sea of technically correct but uninspiring wines between these two poles. While the latter is true for most wine regions, Alsace is simultaneously at the forefront of change and lagging behind.

The cloister at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar.

The Status Quo

There are a good number of reasons for these two faces. One is that Alsace is France’s number one region for direct sales, with a quarter of domestic sales made directly at the cellar door. When you consider that the Alsace Wine Route, inaugurated as a tourist attraction in 1953 and the oldest in France, predates the creation of the official Alsace appellation in 1962 by just under a decade, you realize that the thousands of visitors, chiefly from the neighboring countries of Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, love to load up their cars with Alsace wine as they take in the picturesque villages and the historic monuments of Colmar. Then there is the predominance of co-operatives. (Not that these cannot excel, but exceptions usually prove the rule.) According to figures by CIVA, of the roughly 4,000 Alsace grape growers, 48% are cooperative members and 35% sell wine in bulk, which leaves independent wineries at just 17%. Then there is the unassailed domestic success of Crémant d’Alsace, which accounts for about a quarter of the region’s total output. For 2022, the figure was 24%, but it has been as high as 27%. With a few exceptions included in this report, Crémant d’Alsace is a simple, dry, cheerful traditional method fizz. This, in turn, explains why plantings of Pinot Blanc (3,336ha/8,249 acres) exceed those of Riesling (3,219ha/7,954 acres). Indeed, Crémant d’Alsace is France’s fizz of choice – right after Champagne – and of France’s eight Crémant regions, none other produces as much as Alsace. It is clear that these factors skew the outlook of a region. Much wine is produced for domestic supermarkets still peddling an old-fashioned style. The real tragedy is that they also skew how Alsace wine is perceived worldwide. Because when you look at the lay of the land, the composition of the soils and the uniqueness of this twin culture, informed over centuries by the influences of two nations, you cannot fail to grasp that this is a prime, even pre-destined wine country. Thomas Muré of Domaine du Clos du Saint Landelin illustrates this perfectly: “Our father often told us [him and his sister Véronique] that a bottle of Rangen de Thann used to cost the same as grand cru Chambertin, 140 Francs, but in the mid-1980s, things started changing.” This price gap is now wider than ever – a loss of prestige indeed.

Anne Trimbach with her father Pierre Trimbach.

The Lay of the Land

The vineyards are a narrow band, never more than ten miles wide and mostly much narrower, clinging for 75 miles along the eastern foothills of the Vosges mountains that slope down to the broad and warm Rhine plain, the river itself quite a distance away. Vineyards are thus mostly east-facing, with lateral valleys forming clefts in Vosges, allowing for numerous south exposures where many of the 51 grand crus can be found. This landscape was created by the Upper Rhine Rift about 50 million years ago. A violent upheaval pushed up the Vosges Mountains that have sheltered the vineyards for centuries, allowing for an unusually dry and warm climate at the relatively northerly latitude of 48°N, a fact that constituted the region’s success in pre-climate change days. Colmar is almost as dry as Perpignan, which explains the high percentage of certified organic estates, currently 15%. The benign climate, however, also means that it is getting rather hot in these vineyards now, and this is where you can tell the wheat from the chaff. There is a gulf between those learning to adapt to the ever-changing challenges posed by a rapidly evolving climate and those still doing what they always did.

A stone from the Spiegel Grand Cru at Domaine Dirler-Cade.

Soil Obsessives

The Upper Rhine Rift also resulted in numerous rock formations being pushed to the surface, explaining the great variety of soil types, often in closest proximity. You find Triassic, Jurassic and Tertiary limestones, Triassic sandstones, gypsum and marls alongside older formations of schist and granite with some volcanic basalt thrown in for good measure. Even within single vineyards, especially the larger grand crus whose delimitations were and are still controversial, soils can and do vary. The winemakers I visited are wonderfully obsessed with these differences – they speak of their lieux-dits and sub-parcels in terms of personality and character and with the same reverence evident in Burgundy. By comparison, Alsace sites differ much more due to their different soil types than Jurassic Burgundy. Moreover, in Alsace, this complex and intricate site and soil matrix is overlaid by more grape varieties, some eternally associated with one variety, like the granitic Schlossberg with Riesling.

A New Generation with New Ideas

In many domaines, the younger generation is now at the helm, meeting the new challenges head-on. Pierre Trapet, who grew up between the family domaines in Gevrey-Chambertin and Riquewihr, understands that the challenge of growing good grapes has been turned on its head in just three decades, from struggling to ripen grapes to preventing overripeness. “My grandfather made Chambertin with 12% alcohol – and it was difficult,” he says. And we must note that Gevrey is one whole degree of latitude further south. On all his grand crus, Trapet is training vines on single stakes, or echallas, to be shaped into a kind of gobelet called corbeille – essentially a head-trained vine around the stake. He thinks that this shape is most adapted to heat and drought. He does this at a density of 62cm by 125cm – resulting in almost 11,000 vines per hectare. This way, the canopy naturally shades the fruit to prevent sunburn. Trapet also wryly notes that none of this is in the cahier des charges. Yet, without being quite so experimental, many growers are considering drought-resistant rootstocks for new plantings.

Pierre-Émile Humbrecht, who joined the family domaine Zind-Humbrecht in 2019, says about increasingly contrasting vintages that well-farmed “vineyards can handle this change. The winemakers just have to change their methods.” But he also concedes that (wo)manpower is central to good farming; reacting quickly is key. Domaine Zind-Humbrecht has four permanent employees just to look after the steep grand cru site Rangen de Thann. This, of course, is costly and can only be achieved with commensurate prices – and this is where the crux lies, a chicken-and-egg conundrum for the region. Another significant change for the region is a vote in favor of allowing irrigation for certain sites plagued by dry stress. Even though it will take time to come to decisions and then implement the necessary systems, this is something particularly welcome for Riesling, which can excel in the sunshine so long as there is no water stress.

Pierre Trapet with his concrete eggs at Domaine Trapet.

Stylistic Quandaries

Beyond winemakers’ individual stylistic decisions, Style with a capital S, as ever, is a bone of contention in Alsace – sweetness in particular. There was a majority vote for the decision that requires Riesling other than Vendanges Tardives or Séléction des Grains Nobles to be dry – within the EU definition of the term – as of the 2021 vintage. This means up to 9g/L of residual sweetness as long as tartaric acid measures at least 7g/L. Some winemakers are delighted by this development, others are dismayed. This follows the compulsory statement of the dryness/sweetness level introduced in 2020, also valid as of the 2021 vintage, requiring every non-Riesling wine to state one of the following categories:

· Vin sec = up to 4g/L but up to 9g/L if total acidity (measured in tartaric acid) is at least 7g/L

· Demi-sec = up to 18g/L if acid is at least 8g/L

· Moelleux = up to 45g/L

· Doux = everything beyond

This makes a lot of sense and is overdue, helping consumers at long last to pick bottles from the shelf with some degree of confidence. Some exemplary estates, like Zind-Humbrecht or Bott-Geyl, have long displayed a scale on their labels. Since wines that are marked ‘sec’ can be bone-dry or dry, wines marked ‘demi-sec’ can be off-dry or medium sweet, etc., all tasting notes come with further calibration in six categories:

· Bone-dry

· Dry

· Off-dry

· Medium

· Sweet

· Luscious

Beyond Riesling, winemakers are also in a quandary. The acidity needed to carry off residual sweetness is now often lacking. Some say that bone-dry Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer is impossible – arguing that full aromatic development only comes at a ripeness commensurate with off-dry or semi-sweet styles. Others maintain that certain sites demand to be made into sweet wines and produce deliriously tropical and compelling wines, playing with acidity, bitterness, texture and sweetness with a masterful calibration. Yet others boldly go and make heart-stopping dry wines. Who is wrong? Nobody, because all are right. This creates immense diversity – and confusion. Which is a commercial problem. Pierre-Émile Humbrecht put it perfectly: “Alsace is entirely fragmented, and tradition is sometimes traduced.”

But there are stylistic shifts even beyond sweetness. Arthur Ostertag says: “I made the decision a few vintages ago to pick grapes with good maturity. I do not want to recompense warmer vintages with earlier harvests. For me, the key element is bitterness now. It is only bitterness that will bring freshness and structure. I cannot go and pick it before a minimum of 13.5% of alcohol. The best way of balancing the alcohol is bitterness, I think. It gives mouthfeel. I think in the history of Alsace, we built an image of acidity and sweetness. We never developed bitterness.”

Varietal compositions are also changing. Pierre Trimbach boldly states, “Riesling and Pinot Noir are the future of the region.” The house encourages its growers to favor Riesling when replanting. And then there is a delicious, often overlooked little sleeper: Sylvaner. There are only 851 hectares/2,102 acres of this subtle variety, but it deserves a bigger future. As Maxime Barmès of Domaine Barmès-Buecher in Wettolsheim points out: “It can be ripe at just 12% ABV.”

Mathieu Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss.

Varying Vintages

This being Alsace, I tasted a range of vintages, but mainly 2020 and 2021 – an immense contrast on the one hand and an excellent opportunity to assess the same sites in very different conditions on the other. The estates visited clearly excelled in both vintages, showing wines with real thrill from 2021 and sumptuous expressions of 2020.

In the far north of the appellation, Mélanie Pfister illustrates the difference between the years by harvest dates: in 2020, they finished in late September; in 2021, they did not start until the 17th of September, not finishing until 1 November. She lost a third of her crop in 2021: “Due to oidium, mildew and botrytis. We had sorting tables in the vineyard. We had to sort everything. There were as many people sorting as were picking.” She notes that it was an “expensive” vintage that cost 50% more for 25-30% fewer grapes. But the north was not as severely hit as the south in 2021. Thomas Boeckel of Domaine Emile Boeckel in northerly Mittelbergheim says the north got away relatively lightly – with just half the rain the south had.

Jean-Frédéric Hugel of Famille Hugel in Riquewihr notes that “2021 is the smallest vintage since 1947” for the house with “the worst mildew – within a matter of two days, it wreaked destruction. From the first sign of infection, it took two days to take full hold. It did not stop raining. This was followed by a cool summer. The low yields saved the quality of the vintage. The further south you went, the worse it got.” Pierre-Émile Humbrecht, based in Turckheim near Colmar, says: “I think nobody had seen such mildew since it first arrived here in Europe.” They lost 40 to 45% of their vintage. “Especially the Pinot varieties were hit, more so than Riesling of Gewurztraminer,” he says. “But on the other hand, 2021 has more acidity, less alcohol. It is a very nice vintage for me because, in Alsace, we all love acidity.”

Tasting line-up at Famille Hugel.

Domaine Emile Beyer in Eguisheim was hardest hit by 2021, losing 90% of production. “But I was happy with the few grapes that survived,” Christian Beyer says bravely. He had so few grapes that he made a blend of all his grand crus and lieux-dits to make a new, unfiltered wine with minimal sulphites called Liber – free. A remarkable wine. Céline Josmeyer is just as frank. The domaine lost 60% of its harvest in “catastrophic” 2021; she says, “the mildew was stronger than us.” But her sister Isabelle notes: “I am very happy with this vintage. Despite all the struggles in the vineyards, life in the cellar was smooth, with quick and clean ferments. And the freshness of the vintage is very welcome.”

Winemakers had fewer words about 2020, describing it only as “hot and dry.” They spoke more about water stress on granitic soils and water retention in marl and limestone soils – and the methods they developed and are developing to deal with such hot weather. Paul Fuchs of Domaine Henry Fuchs praises his local Thalventala, or valley breeze, of late summer evenings in Ribeauvillé. “It was a very hot year, early ripening, not too many problems with disease, a little oidium, but not much,” he says about 2020. “The surprise was the acidity level. We actually got good freshness. I think it is a good vintage to keep, even if the alcohol levels were elevated.” Christian Beyer in Eguisheim notes that there was less heat stress in 2020 than in 2018, and fruit was very healthy: “You hardly had anything to sort, perhaps remove a leaf,” he said.

The vast majority of the wines were tasted at the estates on a trip spanning late January and early February 2023. Only a handful of bottles were tasted at home in London, taken from the estate when the tightly packed schedule prevented them from being tasted in situ.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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