Alsace Riesling has a national identity problem

APRIL 08 2011


Another French Paradox: Alsace Riesling


Everyone is familiar with the French Paradox: the French eat a diet rich in fat, but have a low rate of heart disease.  Another French paradox is why Alsace Riesling is not more popular in the United States.  By all rights, it should fly off the shelves.

Riesling, especially from Alsace, is the single most versatile food wine.  When in doubt about what wine to serve with a meal, Riesling always works.  What’s more, Alsace Riesling is the only top-quality French wine to carry a grape name-the form of labeling most familiar to American consumers-and the wines are reasonably priced. You can find great ones, such as Trimbach’s Cuvée Frederic- Émile, for $35 a bottle, and many ‘entry-level’ ones for $12 to $15 a bottle.

One explanation is that Alsace Riesling has a national identity problem.  Many consumers wonder whether it’s German or French.  The tall green slender bottles evoke images of sweet German Riesling in the American consumer’s mind.  Séverine Beydon-Schlumberger (who, with her uncle, currently runs Domaines Schlumberger, an excellent Alsace producer), attributes the lack of recognition of Alsace wines in general to geopolitical forces as the region passed back and forth between France and Germany often over the last 150 years.  She notes that between 1871 and 1918, just the time when wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux were becoming famous throughout the world, wine from Alsace was left behind under German rule.  The German government prohibited Alsace from producing a quality product so as not to compete with German wine.  Even today, despite Alsace’s return to France after World War II, Séverine reports that even some French have told her they thought Alsace was in Germany.

Another explanation is the bewildering Alsace label.  Although Alsace labels typically identify grape varieties, this simple, US consumer-friendly system has morphed into a sometimes overwhelming Burgundian-like complexity of vineyard, subplot and proprietary names.

Fortunately, the basic wines-which represent good value and are usually the consumers first introduction to Alsace-are still labeled solely by grape name.  In 1975, the government identified vineyards, much like in Burgundy, capable of producing better wines.  The first vineyard identified as Grand Cru (unlike Burgundy there are no Premier Cru vineyards in Alsace) was Schlossberg in the village of Kientzheim. Twenty five more vineyards were classified in 1983, followed by another 24 in 1992, for a total of 50 grand cru vineyards whose name, along with the grape variety and the words, Appellation Alsace Grand Cru Contrôllée, appear on the label.

Many producers make multiple cuvées, each labeled slightly differently, from the same Grand Cru vineyard.  To make matters more confusing, over the last several years there has been an explosion of lieux-dits, specific vineyards with no official standing.  These labels indicate a vineyard and grape name along with Appellation Alsace Contrôllée (as opposed to Appellation Alsace Grand Cru Contrôllée).

Some prestigious producers, such as Trimbach and Léon Beyer, rejected the Grand Cru system.  Jean Trimbach insists that, for political reasons, the boundaries of Grand Cru vineyards were expanded to include parcels not worthy of that designation and that the soil types within each vineyard are too varied.  Marc Beyer, current head of the eponymous firm, believes, “A true vineyard classification in Alsace would need 500 names.”  Hence Trimbach and Beyer, among others, continue to use their traditional proprietary names, such as “Cuvée Frederic Émile” and “Comtes d’Eguisheim,” respectively, for Riesling made from grapes grown in Grand Cru vineyards.

My short-cut remedy for understanding the label in Alsace is similar to my advice for understanding Burgundy:   Find and remember the producer whose house style you like.

To my mind, the biggest impediment to more widespread popularity of Alsace Riesling is a lack of an identifiable style that can be generalized across the region.  When consumers buy Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc, they know what to expect.  But Alsace Riesling comes in diverse forms-from Trimbach’s enamel-cleansing ones to the more voluptuous-and sweeter-examples from Weinbach.

When a consumer selects a Riesling expecting dryness and gets sweetness, it is far more jarring that getting an oakier Chardonnay than you bargained for.  Jacques Sipp, winemaker at Sipp-Mack, notes, “You have to make an effort and know your Riesling.  The sweetness confuses people so they order Pinot Blanc to be safe.”  But it’s worthwhile to make that effort, according to Sipp because ” the value of Riesling is that its jungle of tastes never bores you.”

Jean Trimbach is adamant that the range of sweetness costs Alsace customers.  If consumers try a Riesling that is surprisingly sweet, they “will not buy another bottle’ and as a result that consumer ‘is lost for Alsace.”  Beyer believes that this is a problem that all Alsace growers need to over come.  He has heard of more than one consumer reject Alsace wines in general because their first bottle was sweeter than they had expected.

Listing the residual sugar on the label would not help the consumer because it is the balance and interplay between acid, richness of flavor and sugar that conveys sweetness.  Two wines with the same residual sugar will differ in sweetness on the palate depending on the levels of acidity.  A relative ‘sweetness scale’ might be helpful, but would be a kiss of death in the US market for any wine not described as “dry.”

It matters little that wines with a hint of sweetness are the perfect match for spicy, Asian fare and other full flavored dishes.  Moreover, most producers’ best Riesling, those from Grand Cru vineyards, contain slightly more residual sugar than their basic ones.  The wines’ richness, which comes from the superior vineyard site, is balanced by all the other elements.

Nonetheless, sweetness in wine has such a pejorative connotation among US consumers that it affects marketing. Möet & Chandon avoided any reference to sweetness when they introduced their White Star Champagne to the US market.  Too sweet to be labeled Brut, Moet & Chandon wisely decided against labeling it as Extra-Dry (which is, paradoxically, sweeter than Brut) and just omitted any reference to level of sweetness on the label.  Despite Americans’ voiced desire for dry wine, White Star is now the top selling Champagne in the US.

The way to avoid surprises when buying Alsace Riesling is to know the producer, just as in Champagne, Burgundy, or other fine wine regions.  For example, all of Trimabch’s Rieslings (from their entry level bottling labeled simply as Riesling, to their Riesling Reserve, to Cuvée Frederic-Émile, to their exquisite Clos Sainte Hune) are stylistically similar, with a racy, fresh style invigorated with very energetic acidity.  They are at their best with food, being a bit grating for aperitif purposes for many tasters.  Close to the other end of the spectrum are the wines from Domaine Weinbach or Domaines Schlumberger, whose Rieslings are fleshier and softer and could be consumed before a meal as well as with it.

One style is not “better” than another.  Since most Alsace Rieslings are well-made and distinctive, subjective enjoyment comes down largely to personal preference and a correspondence between expectation and product.  The situation is analogous to Champagne, where wine style differs from house to house but quality is generally quite high and prices are fairly uniform.  Sure, Bollinger is full-bodied while Taittinger is notably lighter, but both make lovely wines within their particular stylistic template.

The key to enjoying Alsace Riesling-like Champagne-is knowing which producers make the style you prefer.

Jacques Sipp, who knows the American market well (he’s married to an American and has worked in a Texas winery) puts it nicely, “There are over 1,000 different families in Alsace making Riesling.  There is a mosaic of a hundred villages and soils. The wines range from sweet to dry.  Riesling is interesting in all its different styles; you just have to be prepared for the style you are getting.”

To help the uninitiated explore the delights of Alsace Riesling and navigate “the jungle of tastes” that Jacques Sipp treasures, I have attempted below to categorize producers’ style based on a spectrum of richness or sweetness.  This guide is certainly not comprehensive, but includes a sampling of producers whose wines are likely available in diverse markets.

There are several important caveats:

1) Vintage plays a large role.  Everyone made riper wines in 2003-but position on the spectrum remains similar in comparative terms.  Although riper than usual, Trimbach’s 2003s are still significantly leaner than Schlumberger’s 2003s.

2) Similarly, vineyard location is critical.  (Even Jean Trimbach, whose family firm exemplifies the dry style of Riesling, agrees that wines from Grand Cru vineyards will always have a touch more residual sugar).  Nonetheless, comparing grand cru to grand cru, the producer’s relative position on the spectrum of richness remains constant.

3)  Aged wines always taste drier than young wines, and that makes a difference in this category, since good Grand Cru Riesling takes several years to open and will continue to develop for a decade or more.  I can’t explain what happens to the sugar; I suspect it undergoes a chemical transformation such that it is no longer capable of stimulating the taste buds that recognize sweetness.

4)  Admittedly, house style is not fixed in stone.  For example, Weinbach’s Rieslings, while still opulent, seem to be more tightly wound in recent years.  Nevertheless, house style remains the best guide to selecting Alsace Riesling.





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