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Viti-Vini-Vino Alsace

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Conquering the World of Wine, One Sip at a Time

Sara Guterbock, CS, CSW, ISS, DWS

Pascal Schiele, international export manager for Gustave Lorentz, is one of the most passionate wine professionals I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  He doesn’t view his position with one of Alsace’s most famed wineries as focused on promoting their brand; rather, he funnels his energy in to promoting ALL of Alsace, both the wines and the region, around the world.  His work ethic is based on four principles: Information, Education, Motivation & Degustation (tasting).  After meeting him for what proved to be one of the most educational winery tours of my career, I had to add a fifth, Inspiration.

Alsace is one of the most varied regions of France when it comes to wine style.  Red, white, rose, sparkling & dessert wines are all produced in this long, narrow, northerly area.  It is also one of the most varied, culturally, as it has been passed back and forth between France & Germany numerous times throughout history, giving the region a distinctly Germanic flare in food, architecture, and even the local dialect.  It’s a stunningly beautiful place, with steeply sloped vineyards, castle ruins & quaint medieval villages dotting the rolling hills on the east side of the Vosges.  It was the first wine region in the world to create a tourist-driven wine-route, or Route de Vins, and is one of the top tourist destinations in France among locals to visit on their mandatory holidays or in the winter months for their famous Christmas markets.  The region is also one of the driest in France, allowing it to be a leader in organic and biodynamic wine production, world-wide.

In spite of all that Alsace has going for it in charm, beauty, and wine quality, the region struggles to be understood and embraced with the same level of fame attributed to other parts of France.  This is one of the greatest concerns that Pascal, and many of the other producers I visited with, share.  Why shouldn’t these incredibly complex, age-worthy wines, produced on the most diverse soil types of any wine region in the world, be as highly prized and coveted as those of Burgundy?  The many possible solutions to this quandary are difficult for people to agree upon, something Julien Camus, founder of the French Wine Society and Alsace native, calls a “chicken or the egg” conundrum.  As growers and producers work with CIVA (Conseil Interprofessional des Vins d’Alsace – the regional governing body) to improve and revise the regulations of Alsace, it begs the question, “Would creating a better regional model for quality actually improve the wines overall; or, would improving the overall wine quality, first, help create the proper regulatory model??”

A recent change to Alsace wine laws in an effort to improve their image with consumers includes the “Riesling Sec” rule, which came into play as of the 2016 vintage.  Any Riesling with less than 4 grams of residual sugar can be labeled as Sec, or dry.  The thought is this will eliminate confusion as to the sweetness level of the wines; and, arguably, a majority of Alsace Riesling will easily fall into this category.  That being said, some producers are balking, as residual sugar is often necessary to balance a wine.  Based on the PH, or acidic strength of a wine, which is highly affected by vintage, there are instances in which Rieslings could easily have more than 4 grams of residual sugar, yet still be considered dry by consumers.  Apparently, there will be provisions made in cooler vintages for producers who submit their wines to a tasting panel; however, for most people, basing labeling on analytical data alone stands to further complicate matters, especially when options such as the International Riesling Foundation’s sweetness scale, utilized by producers such as Gustave Lorentz for wines exported t the USA, is already resolving this issue.    

Another object of argument is the number of Grand Crus in Alsace, 51, and the lack of a Premier Cru tier.  Because soils are so varied in Alsace, the vineyard cru system is extremely important; however, much as many argue there are now far too many DOCGs in Italy for all of them to truly be special, most of the premium producers believe if everyone could agree to revert back to 25 Grand Crus, the same number as originally designated in 1983, the smaller number would make wines from these prized sites seem rarer and more special.  The vineyards that don’t make the cut could be designated Premier Cru, to make their system much more similar to that of Burgundy.  Unfortunately, the idea of demoting vineyards is highly displeasing to many growers who get paid more for these grapes, and to the larger, mass producers who benefit from using the designation “Grand Cru” on lower quality wines.  Getting all the top producers to agree as to which vineyards should remain elevated is also polarizing, as each producer typically makes wines from vineyards located closest to their particular village. Certainly, some personal bias and the marketing power of the term Grand Cru comes into play for everyone involved.

Grand Cru Schoenenbourg soars above the medieval village of Riquewihr

For people like Pascal Schiele, Julien Camus and other passionate advocates for the region, the inability to come to consensus for the benefit of the region as a whole is a frustration.  As a newly proclaimed Alsace Passionista (I picked up a pair of my own Alsace pom-poms after visiting) I feel extremely motivated to keep these incredible wines on the minds of every wine-lover.  Although there is uncertainty about how some of the regional regulations will revised to help clarify wine style and generate more interest among consumers, what is inarguable is the finesse, precision, complexity, longevity, and beauty of Alsatian wines in general, and, until more people catch on, their incredible value!!  I encourage everyone to grab a bottle from one of our many distinguished producers and rediscover their deliciousness and incomparable ability to bring out the best in rich foods.  We have an amazing array of producers, including Gustave Lorentz, one of the most prized brands in France, Domaines Schlumberger, known for rare volcanic soils and an extremely dry style, Pierre Sparr, which makes some of our most affordable wines from the region, and, of course, Domaine Weinbach, one of the most highly prized producers in the world.   Any one of these shared with Pascal’s four principles in mind, is certain to INSPIRE.