Alsace 2021s and 2020s – A Late Arrival in the Pinot Noir Pantheon


For years and years, Alsace was white wine country. Until recently, its Pinot Noirs were hardly taken seriously, understandably so. A closer look reveals that Pinot Noir has a long and ingrained history in the region. It had a large presence in former centuries, steadily losing ground in the 20th, but it never disappeared. Until recently, neither climate nor appellation rules allowed the wines to shine. The planting figures tell their own story: 712ha in 1982, 1,016ha in 1992, 1,540ha in 2011 and 1,745ha in 2021. Currently, a good proportion of Alsace Pinot Noir is destined for Crémant d’Alsace Rosé, which by law has to be made from 100% Pinot Noir. Of today’s 1,745 hectares, a good 38% are used for that purpose, as CIVA reports. Some of it is still vinified in large foudres in an easy-drinking, fruit-driven style, but increasingly the wines are made with real ambition. It took Alsace a while to emerge in this global arena, but some of the wines are world-class Pinot Noirs of spellbinding beauty.

A 15th-century tapestry by an unknown artist at the Unterlinden Museum, Colmar.

An Easy-Drinking, 20th-Century Past

The Pinot Noir that was bottled in the past was of a different nature – even though fine wines were made in great vintages. Marc Beyer of Domaine Léon Beyer, renowned for resolutely dry wines throughout the 20th century, has made Pinot Noir since the end of the Second World War. Beyer still has Pinot Noir from the top 1959 vintage in his cellar. He sheds some light on the style made in the 1960s and 1970s: “Pinot Noir has always represented 20% of our production. Even in the 1960s, we produced quite a refreshing, young style, fruity, with short maceration and no barrique. It was drunk chilled and was very popular in Alsace-style brasseries we supplied in Paris.” Here is a mid-20th-century assessment by Fritz Siegfried Solomon Hallgarten (1902-1989), a German refugee from the Rheingau who became a wine importer and author in England, from his 1957 book Alsace and Its Wine Gardens. This mid-20th-century assessment shows the strides that have been made since:

“I will also mention in passing the red wine from the Pinot Noir which in colour is more rosé than red and should be drunk as a rosé wine slightly iced. I hope that my suggestion will not raise an outcry – but this exception is necessary for Alsatian red wines. I tried to drink it in the conservative way chambré – it is worth trying when in Alsace – to know how it tasted like this, but it is not worth importing and paying high duty when the finer French red wines are available at much more advantageous prices.”

Barred from Success

The legal framework of Alsace was a real hindrance to the progress of Pinot Noir. When Alsace grand crus were first delimited between 1975-1983 (with further site additions between 1985 and 2007) there was just one cahier des charges for the appellation Alsace grand cru. This meant that yields, regulations and permitted varieties were the same for all 51 grand crus – with some exceptions for, say, Sylvaner on the Zotzenberg – but Pinot Noir was not a permitted variety. It was thus not necessarily planted in the best sites, with notable outliers. At the time, this made sense. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was much harder to ripen red grapes than it is now. The law changed fundamentally in 2011 when each grand cru was allowed its own cahier des charges, finally presenting the possibility of getting Pinot Noir approved as a permitted variety in certain grand cru sites. Applications went in for three grand crus: Vorbourg in Rouffach, Kirchberg de Barr in Barr and Hengst in Wettolsheim. Pinot Noir was allowed at long last for the 2022 vintage for the latter two – sadly, not for Vorbourg. The reason is simple: the powers, namely the INAO (Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité), want to assess wines made from these sites over several vintages from a number of producers. This was possible for Hengst and Kirchberg de Barr, where 12 and 7 estates, respectively, are making site-designated Pinot Noirs. In the case of Vorbourg, only one estate has made single-site Pinot Noir for many years, namely Domaine du Clos Saint Landelin, run by the Muré family – real Pinot Noir pioneers.

Veronique and Thomas Mure with their Syrah.

Time and Again

The Muré siblings, Véronique and Thomas, run Domaine du Clos Saint Landelin today. They report that their grandfather Oscar Muré, who took over the domaine with his brother Armand in 1966, “was already interested” in Pinot Noir. “He was friends with Domaine Tollot-Beaut in Chorey-lès-Beaune. He realized that in order to make Pinot Noir you needed good genetics, and went there to get cuttings,” reports Thomas Muré. “At the time, all the vines in Alsace had huge grapes. They were all bred for big yields, and selection did not exist. After the Second World War, everyone had to produce a lot because everyone was hungry and thirsty.” Véronique Muré adds that Pinot Noir history survives in the village of Rouffach: “Looking at archives, we see that before the German period [from 1871-1918] in the 1850s, Rouffach was known for red wine. At the time, most wine was not bottled but sold in taverns.” She quotes a local archival record which noted that “one could also have white wine in Rouffach, and it is not that bad,” clearly showing the predominance of red in this village. We must also note that Vorbourg is a mix of Jurassic and Oligocene limestone with clay and sandstone – which should ring bells for any Pinot lover.

Véronique and Thomas’s father, René Muré, took over in 1976, and continued in the same vein. He was friends with Tollot-Beaut, Denis Mortet and the Trapets in Gevrey-Chambertin. The siblings report that even then, in the initial discussions about creating the Alsace grand cru appellation, René Muré was already advocating for a Pinot Noir grand cru. “But it was refused then because, at that time, nobody else was talking about Pinot Noir,” says Véronique Muré. They tried again to get permission for Pinot Noir for the Vorbourg Grand Cru in 2001, the year in which Sylvaner was exceptionally permitted as a grape variety for the Zotzenberg Grand Cru. “We were the only ones asking for a grand cru for Pinot Noir. We did not have the support of the other grand crus because it was too different to what they did,” she remembers.

In the intervening 20 years, a lot has changed – not least the climate. “People have changed, too,” says Véronique Muré. “My father’s generation studied in Rouffach and did stages in Alsace. Our generation studied everywhere and worked in other regions, which woke everyone up.” They intend to apply to INAO again, but even if grand cru status for Vorbourg is a long game, decades of expertise and dedication are undeniable. Today, a fifth of the estate’s vineyard is planted to Pinot Noir. René Muré adds: “What I did not realize before is that climate change would be so violent and quick. Now we have to rethink how to produce Pinot Noir, how to handle the variety.“ Clearly, the family looks ahead. For some years now, they have also produced Syrah. And they continue: “We just planted 0.05 hectares/0.12 acres of Syrah on the top part of the Clos Saint Landelin,” says Thomas Muré.

Jack Barthelmé, winemaker at Domaine Albert Mann, holding one of the limestone fossils found in his vineyards.

More Pioneers

There are other early plantings of Pinot Noir in what are now grand cru sites. The grandmother of Sophie and Maxime Barmès was sent as a jeune fille, a kind of au pair, to the Marquis d’Angerville family in Volnay. She came home in the late 1950s with Pinot Noir cuttings which were planted in what was to become the Hengst Grand Cru in 2006. These grapes constitute Domaine Barmès-Buecher’s Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes today. Henry Fuchs, of the eponymous domaine in Ribeauvillé, planted Pinot Noir in Kirchberg de Ribeauvillé in the 1970s. However, the wine was bottled separately only in the 2000s. The 2003 Rouge Comme Renard was the first vintage matured in barrique.

Albert Mann was another Pinot pioneer. Current winemaker Jacky Barthelmé reports that Mann planted Pinot Noir in the Hengst and Pfersigberg Grand Crus in 1963. “He decided to plant Pinot Noir in his best terroirs simply because he loved to drink red wine,” Jacky says, who still makes wine from these vines. It was in the early 2000s that the domaine started bottling the Pinot Noirs from Hengst and Pfersigberg separately, giving rise to the Pinot Noir Grand H and Grand P bottlings. But the domaine is pioneering in other ways, too. They started experimenting with barriques in 1991, and by 1993, all Pinot Noir was matured in barrique. By 2009, all Pinot Noirs spent 18 months in barrique. They started trialing whole bunch vinification in 2003 and now use up to 50% whole clusters, lending their supremely elegant wines a lovely floral lift. Experimentation is not limited to the cellar: they plant different massal selections and clones on varying rootstocks. Two sites that are bottled separately are also worth highlighting: Clos de la Faille, planted in 1998, just southwest of Hengst, and as the name suggests, situated alongside a faultline on a mix of limestone and Triassic sandstone conglomerate, the other side of the faultline is granite. Some parts are planted at a density of 7,000 vines/ha, others at up to 13,000 vines/ha. Then there is Les Saintes Claires, planted about 20 years ago, a parcel on the hillside between Altenbourg and the Mambourg Grand Cru, just below the Furstentum Grand Cru, on limestone. Barthelmé believes this site has the greatest potential for Pinot Noir.

Domaine Albert Mann now has 5 hectares/12.36 acres of Pinot Noir, of which 4.5 ha/11.12 acres are on limestone. The half hectare not on limestone is destined for Crémant. Ten years ago, they had 3.5ha/8.65 acres of Pinot Noir. Over the past four years, they grafted over 20-year-old Pinot Gris vines in the Hengst Grand Cru with cuttings from La Romanée and Romanée-Conti sourced from Liger-Belair and DRC as well as cuttings from Méo-Camuzet’s private selection. They will also plant a new parcel of Pinot Noir in the Steingrubler Grand Cru with different massal selections from the Clos des Épenots in Pommard, and sites in Gevrey-Chambertin, Germany plus their own selection. Anyone doubting the seriousness or the professionalism at work for Pinot Noir in Alsace should come here to witness it.

Paul Fuchs, owner and winemaker at Domaine Henry Fuchs in Ribeauvillé, in the morning sunlight of his tasting room.

Pinot Fever

Domaine Albert Mann is by no means alone when it comes to Pinot Noir enthusiasm. None other than the grand seigneur of Riesling, Pierre Trimbach, declared during my visit: “Pinot Noir and Riesling are the future for Alsace.” Trimbach now has 8 hectares/19.77 acres of Pinot Noir and plans to replant Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer parcels to Pinot Noir in the Altenberg de Bergheim Grand Cru. And here are more examples, from north to south: Mélanie Pfister in Dahlenheim planted more Pinot Noir on a limestone-sandstone site in 2022, so did Christian Beyer of Domaine Emile Beyer in Eguisheim. Jean-Christophe Bott of Domaine Bott-Geyl will graft Pinot Gris vines over to Pinot Noir in the Furstentum Grand Cru. And Schlumberger planted Pinot Noir on the limestone of the Saering Grand Cru.

Another famed estate with an impressive track record for Pinot Noir – especially from the lieu-dit Altenbourg on iron-rich marl on top of limestone – is Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg. Eddy Leiber-Faller, who now runs the domaine with his brother Théo and mother Catherine, says that they now have four different single vineyards planted to Pinot Noir, making just 900-1,500 bottles each, a total of 3 hectares/7.41 acres, including the Schlossberg. They plan to plant Pinot Noir on the east-facing limestone Marckrain Grand Cru. They also bottle a Vogelgarten lieu-dit separately – here it is called Jardin aux Oiseaux – as does Domaine Kirrenbourg and Domaine Amélie & Charles Sparr. Careful readers will now have caught on that the Weiss Valley, where the granite Schlossberg Grand Cru switches to the limestones of Furstentum, Mambourg and Marckrain Grand Crus, seems to be a sweet spot for Pinot Noir. This is where the Altenbourg and Vogelgarten lieux-dits are. Remember these names. I believe the initial two grand crus for Pinot Noir, Kirchberg de Barr and Hengst, are just the beginning. As Jacky Barthelmé says: “The future of Pinot Noir grand cru will be very different.”

Winemaker Mélanie Pfister at Domaine Pfister.


Before we move on to other reds in Alsace, a brief word on the vintages: 2021 was hugely challenging for Pinot Noir. Paul Fuchs did not make his top wine Rouge Comme Renard, and Trimbach did not make their Cuve Sept. However, the hot, dry 2020 vintage brought forth stupendous wines. This took an ingenious approach in the vineyard. Jacky Barthelmé formed a shade-lending tunnel of canopy in every second row by allowing the shoots to intertwine. Charle Sparr, instead, utilized shade from dense plantings and very high canopies. The 2020 Pinot Noirs are ripe but do not lack freshness.

More Exotic Reds

I am also happy and excited to report that experimentation with other red grape varieties is rife. It is no longer a secret that Domaine du Clos Saint Landelin makes lovely Syrah, as some other growers do as well. Paul Fuchs has planted some Gamay on granite in Ribeauvillé. In parcels with very little topsoil on the Schlossberg Grand Cru, where Riesling is in danger of suffering from dry stress, Eddy Leiber-Faller has grafted some Riesling over to Syrah and Grenache. Leiber-Faller believes that Grenache is even more heat-resistant than Syrah. This choice makes a lot of sense to him: “The Schlossberg is very Mediterranean. Even before climate change, we had almond and fig trees,” he says. He expects the first small harvest in 2023 and a normal crop in 2024. Charles Sparr of Domaine Amélie & Charles Sparr is just as adventurous. Over the past five years, he progressively grafted his Gewurztraminer holdings over to Pinot Noir, Syrah and Nebbiolo. Next year he will plant two Corsican red varieties, Sciaccarello and Nielluccio, in the Mambourg Grand Cru. Charles Sparr is clear: “For me, the great future for Alsace is to have more reds.”

As a self-confessed fan and inveterate drinker of Pinot Noir, I was excited by these Pinot Noirs. Having tasted previous vintages of some of these wines, I can see how they become more honed and elegant every year. I wonder if the Pinot Noirs grown on limestone could easily be picked out in a Burgundy line-up, as the best practitioners by now have accumulated years of experience. While I visited the top domaines, there is still a chasm between most Alsace Pinot Noir and the wines reviewed here, but the signs are clear. There is world-class Pinot Noir of density, elegance and sinuousness in Alsace that will make any Pinot-lover swoon. The 2020s reviewed in this report avoided the jamminess apparent in some Burgundies of that vintage. The 2021s result from the most stringent sorting. They touched me with their slenderness and purity. What is more, they still do represent value. Alsace really does have a place in the global Pinot Pantheon. Watch this space.

All the wines were tasted at the domaines in a trip spanning late January and early February 2023.

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