August 3, 2009

The Problem With Alsace Wines Is…

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There is one major problem with the wines from Alsace. It is not the old issue with bottle shape – the singular reason many retailers spout for the poor sales of Alsatian wine (they aint gonna abandon those Germanic flutes without a fight mate) – and it isn’t the top-heavy Grand Cru vineyard grading either. (There are 51 Grand Cru vineyards but no other rungs on the quality ladder, Premier Cru for example).

Step forward Miss Sweetness; the issue that I have with Alsatian wine (ignoring those washed out Pinot Noirs obviously).

A lunch in Mittelbergheim, Alsace recently is a case in point. Our charming, stylish and gracefully French host (although technically from Scandinavia) was enthusing over the delights of Slyvaner – in particular the one Grand Cru hillside where it is grown – and ordered a bottle to accompany a fish course (Rieffel Sylvaner Grand Cru Zotzenberg, 2007).
With no disrespect or embarrassment meant to our host the match was a disaster. The wine was far, far too sweet to accompany the food.

In addition to highlighting the sweetness problem it also reflected badly on the high-aiming restaurant too, for not indicating such a potential conflict from one of their wines.
Yet from the label there is no indication of how dry or otherwise the wine is.

Simple – let the producer add a designation of sweetness on the label. It would be ‘relatively’ simple to set a residual sugar level equalling a specific sweetness. But “a wine with 16g of residual sugar” is not terribly consumer friendly and frankly such vino-tech talk is off-putting even to many wine aficionados.

There is a further complication – perceived sweetness. That Riesling may have 16g of residual but its high acidity and steely, mineral backbone gives the impression that it is much, much drier.
Some producers, such as Zind-Humbrecht since 2003, have taken the initiative to implement their own sweetness grades and put them on their bottle labels.

A tasting though at Zind-Humbrecht demonstrated how fraught this can be. A wine (Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Clos Saint Urbain, Rangen de Thann, 2006) they originally graded as a 4 (on a 1-5 scale, with ultra-sweet Vendage Tardive being at 5) has, the wine maker, Olaf Richter, thought as we sipped and slurped our way through a majestic array of wines, dropped to a 3 over time. Which really doesn’t help in the slightest.

I don’t have the answer and at risk of ending on a flippant note this is exactly why wine is such a fascinating subject – you just have to try and taste EVERYTHING!
Berry Brothers currently list the Rieffel Sylvaner Grand Cru Zotzenberg, 2005 vintage at £14.60. The 2005 Riesling Rangen de Thann from Zind-Humbrecht can be purchased from Gauntley’s of Nottingham for £426.00 for a case of 12.

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Top :: Comments

  1. Suzele August 5, 2009

    That’s very interesting…
    My personal preferences lean towards drier wines as well…(read bone dry…)
    And I agree that there are some wines that are on the sweeter side in Alsace.
    My personal impression is that the grand majority of wine in Alsace is quite dry (although I haven’t managed to try every single bottle produced yet…give me some time…I’m sure I’ll manage it someday 😉
    With mainly Gewurztraminer, Selection de Grains Nobles, and Vendange Tardives being “sweet”.
    Although I have run into a very small number of wine makers who seem to prefer to make their wines somewhat sweeter…
    In fact, when I walk into a winery in Alsace, it’s one of the first things I want to know…
    “Where would you rank your wines in general for sweetness amongst all wines in Alsace?”
    Then I know what I’m in for (most of the time)…at least regarding sweetness (which is something that’s important to me)

  2. Dylan August 5, 2009

    I admire you taking the experience in stride, and, in fact, letting it fuel your enthusiasm for what makes tasting wine so fun. It’s an endless journey of experiences as new as we allow them to be for ourselves. You take the good with the bad in this experience because in the end you can look back on a path enriched by an open mind. Rather than the calculated path, usually limited to the same few good wines, and a testament to the limits imposed by a comfort zone.

  3. Félicien Breton August 14, 2009

    I propose that the Vouvray grading is rather expressive:
    Tendre (rather than Tradition which is meaningless)
    Any Alsatian winemaker could use that.

  4. Wine of Month Club August 15, 2009

    Well we already publish blend % and alcohol content on wine, so some sort of sweetness score could be done as well I’m sure. Now, I’m sure a lot of producers wouldn’t be happy about it because such a large % of US consumers would simply purchase the wines with the largest sweetness score….which would certainly be bad for the industry as a whole.

  5. wine_scribbler August 17, 2009

    They certainly need something although I imagine they would want to implement something uniquely Alsatian…


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