Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wines of Alsace: To Blend or Not to Blend

The wines of Alsace were some of the first ones that I fell in love with when I began working at Legal Sea Food during graduate school years ago. I latched on to them quickly because they are immediately enjoyable, go great with food, and are a very easy sell being mostly varietally labeled. Trimbach's popular Pinot Gris seemed to flow from the faucet at Legal and I would guess still does several years later despite vintage roll-overs.  I'm sure I made hundreds of extra dollars over the course of a year just from being familiar with it and suggesting it to my guests.  It never failed that folks would love it and order that ever important second glass, or just get the bottle on their next visit. Obviously a fan, I would add that in general Trimbach makes some of the most interesting, complex, and age worthy wines in Alsace that happen to be varietally labeled. The purpose of this article is not to bash established and respected producers, but to raise some questions that might spark curiosity of a region that seems straightforward, and to increase awareness of some styles of wine from Alsace that might otherwise go unappreciated.  Alsace wine-making tradition, in fact, is filled with some of the most controversy in terms of labeling laws, vineyard practices, and philosophy of any region in France today. Disclaimer: this one is for wine geeks!



Growing grapes solely to produce varietal wines, a common practice in Alsace, is tricky business for a small vigneron. Different varietals bud, take varying amounts of time to ripen, and are harvested at different times often weeks apart from one another.  A late ripening varietal may be damaged by early frosts in the Fall, or one that buds early may lose it buds in high winds in the early Spring causing a loss of potential berry clusters.  To counteract these potential tragedies, French vignerons have been growing multiple varietals in their vineyards for centuries to ensure the ultimate production of some type of wine even after the most difficult growing season and/or harvest.  Take for example Bordeaux, perhaps the most famous region still producing blended wine in France today.  Five grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot can all be used in varying proportions with no regulations set by the governing body. The same latitude to blend certainly exists in Alsace, but is seldom flaunted because varietally labeled wines are so much more marketable as an export.

Labeling a wine by its varietal type, however, simply is not a very French thing to do.  It's all because of this very French concept called terroir.  It has to do with the way the grapes grow depending on the amount of rain in a year, the way the wind blows, the type of flora and fauna in the area, the subsoils, the date of harvest etc.  In most parts of France, wines are labeled by the region.  Burgundy, though it is made from either 100% Pinot Noir or Chardonnay 99.9% of the time, must be called Burgundy on the label because it is not defined by its varietal but from the way the varietal interacts with its surroundings. The varietal expresses its character in a myriad of ways depending literally on something so small as which hill it grows on.  A Pinot Noir from the Northern part of Burgundy is typically described as "perfumed and aromatic" while the same grape grown a bit to the South might be described as "bold and spicy."  The idea that the grape varietal is secondary to the character of the place from which is comes is the essence of French wine-making philosophy and due to the concept of terroir.

Alsace is the only major French region that I can think of where most producers choose to label their wines by the grape used predominately to make the wine. Due to the liberal and ambiguous labeling laws governing the region, producers can either blend grapes or make varietally pure wines and label them as such or by the vineyard site where the grapes are grown - an obvious source of much confusion. More than likely, the practice of varietal wine-making and labeling became popular due to the strong German influence in the culture there.  To no small degree, varietal labeling is perpetuated and even encouraged, by the ease with which these types of wines can be exported and sold on the world market, and especially in the US.  Seeing the choice of grape makes the average American consumer feel comfortable with what they are buying since domestic wine labels also list the dominant varietal.  As a result, the most serious and expensive wines from Alsace are usually made from a single varietal.  Still, there are a few producers in Alsace that do not place a varietal moniker on their wines to honor the tradition of making a somewhat antiquated blended style.  There are those that value terroir over varietal character.  And there are the bravest of those who eschew market trends altogether to make a product they believe in rather than worrying about whether or not their wines will fetch a fair price.

The rare, but delicious, blended wines of Alsace fall into a parent category called Edelzwicker.  This word comes from two roots - Edel meaning noble and Zwicker meaning blend.  These wines can be made from any of the many varietals growing in the average person's backyard in that part of the world with no rules governing the use of "good" or "bad" varietals!  You can use any grape you like and you do not have to include any of the noble grapes.  These are wines that would be consumed locally and would not be put down to age past the next harvest.  The style is fruity, fresh, and easy drinking.  The alcohol is most likely a bit lower due to shortened fermentation and they usually have a little sweetness too.  Think country wine - something cheap and delicious to drink while you're on vacation in Alsace that might not have the same effect once you get back home.

There is also a class of wine called Gentil that is a "high-end" type of Edelzwicker. My lunch at Vlora here in Boston on Monday reminded me of this lovely type of wine, and in part what spurred my writing this entry in the first place. The difference is that at least 50% of Gentil must be made from one of the noble varietals. Gewurztraminer, Riesling, or Muscat are typical.  The only common example I know of available here in Boston is the one made by Hugel though I'm sure others exist.  For me, Genitl is pretty much synonymous with Hugel though they do make plenty of wonderful varietal wines both dry and sweet.  They have effectively branded Gentil as a mid-range wine for easy everyday drinking with a little prestige and class added in as a bonus to the consumer.  The wine is typically dry, consistent from vintage to vintage, and has an easy to pronounce French name that people feel confident vocalizing.  It's great for restaurants to pour by the glass and makes a good hostess gift for when you've been invited to a dinner party with its pretty packaging.  I imagine Hugel must get away with using a lot of its less marketable but excellent quality Gewurztraminer and Muscat without losing a ton of money by putting it into its very successful Gentil bottling.

Yet another individual swimming against the current, is one well-known and influential wine-maker that has chosen to go completely against the varietal labeling majority altogether.  Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss grows all types of varietals, noble and otherwise, side by side in his vineyards, sometimes within the same row of grapes - a generally unheard of viticultural practice.  He even takes the idea another step toward the extreme by throwing all of the grapes into the same fermentation vat to co-mingle in the wine-making process to make glorious age-worthy wines that reflect the terroir of his best vineyards rather than the character of any one particular varietal.  He calls these examples Vins de Terroirs and they transcend any Edelzwicker or Gentil that I have ever had. Though he makes excellent varietal wines, he challenges consumers by pricing his Vin de Terroirs at a premium. Whether you agree with his philosophy or not, it's hard to deny that his wines are delicious when you taste them for yourself.  Seek out a bottle and you won't be disappointed - "Engelgarten" is a particular favorite of mine.  They are especially good with a cheese course or on their own as a vin de m├ęditation, a wine meant to spark conversation after dinner even in the most awkward of situations.

No matter what style of wine you usually drink, those from Alsace are interesting to consider because there is so much in debate right now regarding the production of, marketing of, and labeling of the finished product. Not even the winemakers can agree if it's best to bottle varietals on their own, as a mix, or by the place where the grapes in the bottle were grown. Tradition in this case, unlike most other parts of France, cannot dictate whether one philosophy is more desirable than another simply because the history of wine-making has been repeatedly interfered with and interrupted by changing political regimes, ambiguous labeling laws, and fashion.  It should be interesting over the coming years to see this region evolve and to see which philosophy eventually prevails. We might witness a case of vive la difference or that of survival of the fittest depending on what the tastes of the global market dictate.  One thing is for sure... Keep your eye out for some controversial wines coming out of Alsace in the coming years, and you're bound to be filling your glass with some thought-provoking and delicious stuff.  All the more reason to drink them up and enjoy even more!

No comments:

Post a Comment