Alsace Update

This year, for a number of reasons, I decided to taste Alsace wines chez moi instead of in Alsace. This approach, as it turned out, brought some advantages and some disadvantages. In the minus column, a few sets of wines from some of my favorite estates did not make it in time to be included in this article, in most cases due to shipping issues. I plan to insert the wines from most of these important producers into this article later this fall through the miracle of electronic publishing, so watch this space.

A major plus offered by tasting at home, though, was that I was able to spend more time with the wines I sampled, following many of them for 48 to 72 hours in the recorked bottles. This is rarely possible on tasting trips abroad. Being able to track the behavior of these wines with extended aeration was especially helpful in the case of the 2008s, which tend to be highly complex and firmly structured wines that need time to express themselves.

Another advantage to having producers select the wines they wanted to show me was that they had greater impetus to send bottlings that are in the market now or that will be released within the next six months. So you will not see notes on hundreds of wines that will not arrive in the U.S. for another year or three. Many Alsace estates do not release their grand cru bottlings or late harvest wines until two to four years after the vintage, and sometimes even later, so they probably would not have been thrilled to show me their 2009s had I shown up on their doorstep this September. (In many cellars, the 2009s had not yet been bottled before the 2010 harvest began.) Most growers concentrated on sending me sets of their 2008s, with several of them sending some early-release 2009s and a few giving me a more in-depth look at the new vintage.

If you see a somewhat smaller number of grand crus in this year’s coverage, that largely reflects the current state of the market. Although it is clear that many U.S. importers are working on very reasonable mark-ups these days in the hope of selling their Alsace wines, many of these wines are still quite expensive, and the market for grand crus and scarce late-harvest wines is very limited in this country. I should also point out that the current vintage in the marketplace for many grand crus is still 2007, so please refer to Issue 141 for tasting notes on those wines.

A look at the 2008s. Tasting Alsace’s 2008s this fall brought me back to my last visit to this beautiful region in September of 2008. I had arrived in Alsace on Monday morning, September 15, and the growers weren’t happy campers. After all, the flowering had been drawn out by a period of cool, rainy weather during the second week of June, setting the stage for uneven ripening and a late harvest in the areas that flowered last. The weather turned warm again in late June and then fluctuated between warm and dry and cool and rainy through July and most of August, with some strong localized storms. Mildew pressures were widespread and required constant vigilance. August brought higher-than-average precipitation, much of it falling during two days of heavy storms in the middle of the month, and early September was cold and rainy. Heavy rain fell had just fallen on September 13th (from an inch and a half to three inches depending on the location).

That’s when I arrived to save the harvest. (Full disclosure: I had wrecked the 2006 harvest during the same period by bringing off-and-on storms and periods of rot-inducing humidity.) Sunny weather, accompanied by a dry north breeze, moved in on the 14th and the anticyclone conditions essentially remained in place until October 22, with moderate afternoon temperatures and cool nights. I enjoyed a beautiful 10 days of tasting without need of an air conditioner or an umbrella. The harvest generally started at the end of September, although growers with more precocious vines began a bit earlier, and a few were forced to bring in fruit short of full ripeness due to incipient grey rot. Sugars mounted gradually, while acidity levels remained high owing to the cool temperatures. Those growers who had pulled leaves at the end of August to get more sun on their grapes were able to reap the full benefit of the favorable early fall weather.

At the level of the better producers, 2008 is an exciting vintage, perfect for consumers who enjoy white wines with pure fruit, bracing acidity and the structure for aging. The better wines have high but not excessive alcohol, very good density of texture, strong mineral character, a distinctly saline aspect and acidity levels that are routinely high and sometimes off the charts. (Tartaric acidity levels were generally high, as the fruit was ripe.) The high acidity of rieslings in particular partly masks their residual sugar, with the result that wines with four or five grams per liter of r.s. frequently come off as barely sweet at all. This will be good news to those who like to complain that it’s nearly impossible to find dry wines in Alsace anymore. In addition to producers long known for dry or mostly dry wines, such as Trimbach, Beyer, Hugel and Josmeyer, estates like Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Ostertag, Barmès-Buecher and Domaine Weinbach have made numerous dry, bracing rieslings, in most cases helped by brisk acidity.

Some wines, especially those at the grand cru level, will require time in bottle to harmonize their sugars and acids, in much the same way as numerous 2008 white Burgundies do, but the vintage has the structure for an unusually long life. A couple of the producers I communicated with in recent weeks were confident that their 2008s would be some of the longest-lived wines they have yet made. These wines are not typically as silky and seductive as the 2007s in the early going, but fans of minerality and acidity are going to love them.

It’s a superb vintage for riesling, but gewürztraminer, which experienced a drawn-out and often late veraison and which normally needs warm weather leading up to the harvest to ripen thoroughly, is less consistent in quality. Making successful gewürztraminers in 2008 required giving the fruit extended hang time on the vines following the late veraison. But as a general rule the long, slow ripening has contributed to the density and complexity of the best examples.

Olivier Humbrecht points out that the 2008 season was very similar to that of 2007, with the exception that the flowering and harvest were about two weeks later. Other growers echoed this point. Indeed, the 2008s share much of the purity and juiciness of the 2007s. The wines are classic, complex and structured. Crop levels were generally higher in 2008 but reasonable, and the better wines are dense and tactile.

Etienne Hugel notes that noble rot developed late, and in smaller quantities than the previous year, but may have been even purer. There was more—and earlier—botrytis in Béblenheim, noted Jean-Christophe Bott, adding that this is typical for the area. Farther to the south, Olivier Humbrecht said, the botrytis arrived late, as the sunny and cool conditions in late September and early October slowed its progression. Among his rieslings, for example, only the Brand was much affected by noble rot. Still, he said, making SGNs was relatively easy, as the clement weather allowed him to let his fruit hang (in most cases, he picked healthy fruit earlier to make dry, or nearly dry, wines, allowing clusters that already showed a bit of botrytis character to remain on the vines.)

An early taste of 2009. On the face of it, 2009 was not an ideal growing season for my style of Alsace wine. The season featured an early flowering, an early veraison and a mostly early harvest. Other than a stormy month of July, it was a very dry, warm, sun-drenched season, though less extreme than 2003. Most growers describe it as “un millésime solaire.” According to weather data for Riquewihr, total rainfall for August, September and October was just under three inches (compared to a recent average of eight). After the weather improved in late July, the veraison went smoothly. The warm, dry, sunny weather held for the harvest, yielding powerful wines with elevated alcohol and generally below-average acidity. It was easy to produce big wines but a trickier matter to make wines with real tension, detail and aromatic complexity. The quality of vineyard work was critical, as was the site.

The harvest started in mid-September and the days remained very warm, even if the nights cooled off reasonably well. The fruit remained healthy, and there was very little botrytis until late October. Because of the very dry season, late-harvest wines were as likely to be made from grapes concentrated by passerillage (the shriveling of grapes by sun and wind) as from noble rot. A number of growers reported high levels of dry extract and good minerality in their wines, but these traits were not always easy to spot in my early tastings, as so many wines seemed to be slightly blurred by their high alcohol. While the wines are not as extreme as the 2003s (there’s less in the way of cooked-fruit flavors), they are very rich and sometimes youthfully aggressive, and may need time in bottle to reveal their true personalities—especially high-alcohol wines with significant residual sugar, which can come across as topheavy in the early going. On the other hand, some wines seem dangerously low in acidity, even a bit oxidative already, and would appear best for early consumption. I wonder how many 2009s will always be characterized more by the conditions of this vintage than by their variety or origin.

There are some unusually rich examples of pinot blanc and auxerrois in 2009, and these are very successful wines when alcohol levels are manageable and acidity levels adequate. Pinot gris tends to be quite brawny, and the choice was often to make wines with near-15% alcohol or to leave a lot of residual sugar in the wines. I also tasted some uncharacteristically powerful rieslings, relatively few of them offering the aromatic complexity or definition of the higher-acid 2008s. But clearly there’s a range of quality—and wine styles—in 2009, and I tasted numerous wines that appear to transcend their hot vintage.

A few notes: All of the wines were tasted in September and October. With just a few specifically noted exceptions, all were finished wines. Acidity figures provided are expressed in tartaric acidity (normally used in Alsace as well as in Germany), which is roughly 1.5 times acidity expressed as sulfuric (the scale normally used in Burgundy). And please note that 2009s 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.