In traditional wine-making regions younger generations of winemakers like to shake things up a bit. What is unusual in Alsace is how badly it has been in need of some shaking up.
This north-easterly region of France has had a historically contested past. It has been the subject of territorial disputes between Germany and France. Lacking stability for so long, it was not until the 1970s that anyone started considering some kind of AOC system such as those established in Burgundy and Bordeaux decades earlier.
The Grand Cru system that eventually emerged, comprising 51 sites, was highly controversial. Insiders accused its proponents of placing political and commercial interests ahead of wine quality.
Important and quality players such as Hugel and Trimbach chose to opt out entirely. Trimbach, for example, chose to label its fabulous dry, steely Clos St Hune just that, with no mention that it is from Grand Cru Rosaker. Meanwhile consumers deemed the system untrustworthy and became reluctant to buy.
The system remains in place but Olivier Humbrecht MW, president of Alsace Grand Cru from Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, and Christophe Ehrhart, the vice-president, from Josmeyer, are the movers and shakers now representing this unique region.
A critical problem has been the fact that two-thirds of Grand Cru wine is produced by co-operatives who have traditionally paid for grapes based on weight in kilograms rather than quality. Some have already been encouraged to pay per hectare. This means that growers can bring down yields to rack up quality, but still get paid the same.
Humbrecht has managed to implement a ban on chaptalisation (adding sugar) and acidification, brought down maximum yields, and empowered each Grand Cru to create its own rules specific to terroir. “Grand Cru now is about more difference,” explains Humbrecht. “Different vineyards need different rules.” In Grand Cru Zotzenberg, for example, sylvaner is allowed to be made into Grand Cru wine.
Traditionally, only riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris and muscat d’Alsace were permitted. The Emile Boeckel Sylvaner 2012 proves why this was a good decision – it is at the other end of spectrum when compared with the thin, expressionless sylvaners cheaply put out by some of the co-operatives. “Sylvaner can express terroir at a very nice level,” says Ehrhart.
He is also a fan, on the right sites, of the auxerrois grape. “There are no more “noble” grapes anymore,” he continues. Next, he and Humbrecht are hoping that pinot noir could also achieve Grand Cru status on certain sites.
Humbrecht also thinks some streamlining is needed. “There are too many grapes, too many styles. Usually two or three stand out at Grand Cru level,” he explains. “Each grower must focus here to make it easier for the consumer. For example: dry riesling is best in this particular Grand Cru.”
He and Erhart have also been addressing the vexed question of how consumers can know whether they’re buying a dry wine, a sweet wine, or something in between. It is a very complicated issue since some wines that are technically sweet give the impression of dryness, given the precision of the acid. Or a dry wine with very concentrated and ripe fruit might give the illusion of sweetness. “Sugar levels and what they mean is a problem,”
Erhardt agrees, but notes labels are starting to include the Expression Index. This is a scale from 1 to 5 where driest wines are 1 and the sweetest 5.
Alsace is not the easiest place to grow grapes, in spite of being the sunniest part of northern France. The Vosges Mountains create shelter from rain, with the result that the region only receives an annual rainfall considered the minimum required for successful viticulture.
Humbrecht considered 2012 a “tricky” vintage, for example. July was unusually wet (“I prefer to have too much rain rather than not enough”) but the sun shone from August through to the end of harvest, resulting in some hydric stress which meant sugar levels rose only very slowly.
The 2013 vintage was even more difficult, particularly for riesling, while conditions in 2011 conversely produced very ripe fruit. These extenuating climatic circumstances are surely one of the reasons for the adoption by both Zind-Humbrecht and Ehrhart of biodynamic agricultural principles. They have been joined by other illustrious names such as Andre Ostertag, Marcel Deiss and Weinbach.
Many in the wine industry now believe that whether your problem is too much rain, or an insufficient amount, precise viticultural practices create healthier vines, better able to fend for themselves.
It’s a huge leap in terms of improving quality and consistency across all kinds of vintage conditions – which is exactly what the dynamic, even radical duo of Humbrecht and Ehrhart are striving for in their respective roles with Alsace Grand Cru.