If you taste an Alsace Grand Cru riesling or a Wachau Smaragd riesling it will convert you to a riesling lover, I almost guarantee it. My resolution for 2018 is to drink more Alsace Grand Cru and Lieu Dit rieslings as well as more Wachau Smaragds (which I wrote about here) as well as delving into the very unique, delicate Mosel rieslings. I hope by reading this you will be encouraged to search out these wines as well.
I love Burgundy and its wines which is why I studied for the Burgundy Master Level and have bicycled through Burgundy and gone on a study trip with the noted journalist Andrew Jefford. While I have sipped Burgundy Grand Crus and part of the reason of studying Burgundy for me was learning about the nooks and crannies and value areas, the reality is, the prices of the great wines of Burgundy are in another galaxy. Some of the Burgundy grand cru wines of the Cote De Nuits, in particular, are more financial assets and are treated that way rather than wines. If I have the opportunity to drink a Burgundy Grand Cru I will relish it. The high altitude prices are the result of a supply, demand bubble for Burgundy Grand Cru wines that has occurred over the last 10 years that I think at some point will burst.
However, the great wines of Alsace are expensive but at earthly prices, yet they possess a lot of the same characteristics as Burgundy wines, have been produced since the Romans and won the lottery in terms of terroir just like Burgundy did. The Alsace Grand Crus have quality rules for yields, planting density, harvest, hand harvesting, all those criteria that make beautiful wines. Alsace wines are among some of the greatest wines in the world. I hope that by reading this you will gain a little insight as to why I love them, particularly the rieslings, and why I think they are such great relative value.
Since my first taste of a Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Émile riesling, I thought Alsace was a special wine place and didn’t know why. Then through the French Wine Scholar program, reading about the regions got me thinking more about Alsace and Burgundy and why the wines are so good, which is why I took up the Alsace Master-Level Certificate program.
For part of this program, I listened to a video lecture by Etienne Hugel (who sadly passed away in 2016) speak about Late-Harvest and SGN (Sélection de Grains Nobles, similar to German Auslese) and Olivier Humbrecht speak about traditional, organic and biodynamic viticulture. The series was lead by Decanter Regional Chair for Alsace Thierry Meyer. In 2006, Thierry founded L’Oenothèque Alsace, one of the most comprehensive modern resources dedicated to Alsace wines. There were 3 different talks on riesling by experts David Schildknecht, Thierry Meyer and Andrew Jefford. (bios here) as well as a seminar focused on the different grapes of Alsace (including the noble and very delicious wines made from Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris, wines from Sylvaner, Auxxerois and the many blends.)
Last year, I started to “follow the yellow brick riesling road”. The Alsace riesling road (I mean figuratively) is made of bricks of limestone, granite, sandstone, schist and more. Alsace has 13 major soil types and the soils can be broken down even further. Due to the variety of soil types there are a huge variety of rieslings which I have only begun to try. David Schildknecht (mentioned later in this piece, went into great detail on the varieties of riesling wine based on soil). When I think of Alsace rieslings, I picture yellow flowers marigolds, forsythia.
I conjure aromas of honeysuckle, meyer lemon and apricots.
Tasting, I think of Andrew Jefford’s richly dry, acidity, structure, and aromatics. I am at that point in my wine life where it is sometimes hard to articulate a characteristic but when I read or hear it, I think “aha” and Jefford’s term “richly dry” was an “aha” for me. (The whole issue of sugar, VT and SGN wines which are beautiful as well are a whole other post, so for purposes here I am referring to dry wines.)
A brief note on residual sugar. The Alsace Grand Cru in particular are balanced wines. Usually they don’t undergo malolactic fermentation so have a higher level of malic acidity. In one of Meyer’s lectures he referenced the fact that producers believe because of the acidity, there is no sensation of sweetness up to 6 grams of residual sugar. Then when you take the acid/sugar balance into account the RS can go even higher with the wine still tasting dry. Some producers now, not all producers, have a rating that is on the back label of the bottle. But as in the Wachau a little botrytis can creep in, which adds to their richly dry sensation.
My biggest takeaway in a very interesting lecture was Jefford’s description of Alsace rieslings as gifted because they contained attributes of northern and southern white wines. The first is being richly dry, which he attributes more to southern whites like the Rhone, white Chateauneuf de Papes. For northern whites, he thinks you find aromatic whites with electric acidity but not richly dry or with density and structure. In Alsace you have the acidity, the aromatics, the structure which results in ageability and long finishes. The only other wine area in his opinion that produces white wines with all three characteristics is the Wachau in Austria. He quotes Hubert Trimbach as saying that “no one can beat us on the dry, crisp style” which is Trimbach’s signature that I fell for immediately upon tasting their wines years ago. Their Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile (note-it is not an official Alsace Grand Cru) which comes from a specific plot within the Geisberg and Osterberg Grand Crus in Ribeauvillé or their world renowned Clos St. Hune riesling (note- this wine does not have the official Grand Cru AOC status,) a many centuries plot within the Rosacker Grand Cru in Hunawihr. As Andrew pointed out there are many different views towards the sugar, acid balance in the wines which really depends on the plot and the soil. (There are no rules for sugar in Grand Cru wines, it is up to the wine maker, but as of 2008, there is a maximum of .9% RS in Alsace AOC rieslings but not any other grape or VT or SGN wines.) That is the fun about Alsace rieslings is that there is such variety yet still possessing some similarities.
Thierry Meyer gave a lecture that both recapped the uniqueness of riesling, its thick skin, late-ripening, high acid and sugar levels. For me, it explained partly why Alsace rieslings can be so richly dry, the cold winters but long sunny falls which is unique to Alsace, allow the riesling grape to develop the cold weather aromatics but at the same time ripen fully, which you don’t find all the time in rieslings from other wine regions. By ripening fully, Thierry explained the myth about riesling and petrol is dispelled. He described the good and bad petrol. The bad petrol smell which unfortunately most beginning blind tasters are taught, is the smell from the bitter elements of badly pressed grapes or unripe grapes. The good petrol is the pine resin smell that develops in older rieslings, 10 years or older.
It was fantastic to have Thierry lead this program because he has such knowledge of all the wines. The course was jam-packed with helpful tips of producers, vintages, soils, grapes and much more. He gave us a “How to Bluff Your Way in Alsace Wine Cheat Sheet”. As part of that he cited Allimant-Laugner (Orschwiller, GC Praelatenberg), Schoenheitz (Munster Valley, Lieu-Dits Herrenreben, Linsenberg), Trimbach (Ribeauvillé – GC Osterberg, Geisberg, Hunawihr, Rosacker- Clos St Hune) and Weinbach (Kientzheim, GC Schlossberg, Furstentum, Sigolsheim – Mambourg) as producers of riesling to look out for. He listed the iconic, holy trinity of Alsace producers cited by wine critics, Domaine Marcel Deiss (GCs Altenberg de Bergheim, Mambourg, Schoenenbourg), Domaine Weinbach (mentioned previously), Domaine Zind-Humbrecht (GCs Brand, Goldert, Hengst, Rangen and Clos Windsbuhl). One other grouping among many that I have not mentioned was the trio of the historical negotiant/producer houses, Leon Beyer, Hugel & Fils and Trimbach.
One thing with wine and both Craig Perman of Perman Wines in Chicago, Anne Trimbach said it when we visited her and so did Philippe Blanck when we sat in the Furstentum vineyard with him, they all have said it in different ways, you can be as intellectual as you want about a wine but when you sip it, how do you feel and do you like it? Does it make you happy, do you want to take another sip? I can say yes to the above, particularly when it comes to an Alsace grand cru riesling from any of these producers.
The three lectures on riesling each contributed to giving a well-rounded view of the grape and the grape in Alsace. These lectures inspired my curiosity about riesling in general as well as Alsace. David Schildknect focused on the nobleness of riesling or “gentil aromatique” as it was known in earlier centuries, its German origins and its notoriety. Most of his talk was about Alsace riesling and the role geology plays, the variations on its personality based on the soil. How the florality is enhanced by granitic soils and the structure and ageability enhanced by limestone. In the midwest at least, it is hard to find a diversity of Alsace rieslings. But David gave a list of Alsace rieslings for “terroir on a budget”. Since I am always on a budget this is a great list to have. The wines are not necessarily grand cru, but the plots are either lieu dits or next to grand cru sites but represent a huge differsity of soil type made by quality vignerons again if you can find them.
His suggestions were to do a comparative tasting to see the difference soil makes:
Domaine Barmès-Buecher, Wettolsheim (Steingrubler GC)– Riesling Rosenberg (marl, limestone), Riesling Clos Sand (Granite reduced to sandlike consistency)
Domaine Paul Blanck et Fils Kientzheim (Schlossberg and Furstentum GC) Riesling Patergarten (alluvium) and Riesling Rosenbourg (weathered granite below Schlossberg)
Domaine Etienne Loew Westhoffen Bas Rhin Riesling Muschelkalk (limestone chalk) , Riesling Bruderbach Clos des Frères sandstone, Riesling Suessenberg (marl, limestone next to Engelberg GC)
Meyer-Fonné Katzenthal (Wineck-Schlossberg GC) Riesling Pfoeller (muschelkalk) and Riesling Vignobles de Katzenthal (young vines of GC)
Rolly-Gassman Rorschwihr (12 prestigious Lieu Dits) Riesling Plaenzerreben or Silberberg (muschelkalk), Riesling Kappelweg (marl, limestone)
Domaine Marc Tempé Zellenberg (Froehn GC) Riesling St. Hippolyte (weathered granite), Riesling Zellenberg (near the GC), Riesling Grafenreben (marl, lime, adjacent to Schoenenbourg GC)
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Turckheim (Brand GC) Riesling Herrenweg Turckheim (gravel and alluvial silt), Riesling Turckheim (granite) Riesling Gueberschwihr (Goldert GC located in the town) limestone, Riesling Thann (Rangen GC located in the town) graywacke, volcanic mix, declassified Rangen)
The hard part in all the diversity in Alsace rieslings is their availability in the US. I suggest looking on wine lists, like the one at Cherry Circle Room in Chicago which has an incredible diversity of riselings on their list (not so much for Alsace wines, but it is a short but high quality list) or the luxurious Everest owned and lead by renowned Alsatian chef Jean Joho. If you come across an Alsace Grand Cru or riesling from any of the producers mentioned, do not hesitate, say yes.
Other resources for Alsace rieslings and its other delicious wines are this beautiful 9 min, video produced by the GuildSomm. As a Guildsomm member among the many resources available online is a seminar by MS Chris Tanghe on Alsace wines. Of course, as I mentioned above the Wine Scholar Guild has their comprehensive French Wine Scholar program.
It is an entire new post (which I will do at some point) but the food and beverage pairing with rieslings is a varied as the soils in Alsace. I think as consumer habits change and people eat lighter foods, spicier but not so steak and potatoes focused where a Bordeaux or Barollo is a great tannic match with the meat, riesling is a perfect wine to seek out to accompany the food. As I said earlier, these wines are not cheap but their prices are within earthly limits. So I suggest tasting one and seeing if it makes you happy!