Alsace wines have both bite and bark

Sunday, September 25, 2022 12:29 PM

Photograph by Germano Roberto Schüür

When I started learning about wine in my early twenties, Alsace was a region that appealed to me. I loved the opulent richness of the wines, from the floral medium-sweet Gewürztraminer and Muscat to the broad strokes of the round Pinot Gris and the complexity of the Rieslings.

The good ones were balanced with precise acidity and freshness, but many who arrived on the high street could feel fat and flabby, running lazily down their tongues. I’d take a bottle of lychee-layered Gewurztraminer to go with my Chinese takeout, but it seemed like those wines were falling out of favor with my friends.

On a recent trip to Alsace, I was surprised to find that these wines seem to have all but disappeared, winemakers instead wanting to display leaner, drier styles more in tune with the modern palate. Fortunately, they haven’t lost any of that delicious complexity that first attracted me to Alsace.

These wines are fresh, energetic and retain a beautiful purity, but they are neither simple nor one-dimensional and offer enormous pairing potential. “Alsace wine is a gastronomic wine”, explains Georges Lorentz of Gustave Lorentz.

Thanks to the region’s plethora of varietals and styles, coupled with some of the most diverse soils in the world, “we can pair any dish in the world, from Northern European fish to Asian spices.” The flamboyance has been contained to reveal dry wines of real delicacy.

Traditionally marginalized grape varieties are put forward: I drank some sensational old pinot auxerrois de vigne, in particular the “H” 2019 from Josmeyer, and the beautiful Sylvaner from Lieu-dit de Rosenberg from Domaine Barmès-Buecher, which, although very dry, tasted of candied lemons, satsumas and flowers.

I hope to see more of these varieties arrive on our shores. Alsace was an early pioneer of the organic movement and the first biodynamic area in Europe, and new styles are emerging to build on this.

Textured white wines made in contact with the skin and natural wines that use the variety and diversity of Alsace result in bottles with real depth, length and aging capacity. “We don’t have enough natural wine for the market,” says Bernard Bohn, a talented instinctive winemaker who exports all over the world, from Mexico to Taiwan (and, luckily for us, the UK too).

“But then we’re not looking to be the biggest, we’re looking to be the best.” Olivier Humbrect MW of Domaine Zind-Humbrect believes that dry wines better show the terroir and beauty of a wine and that climate change will eventually put an end to sweet wines from Alsace.

But for now, Alsatian traditionalists looking for those more heady wines can still find delicate, semi-sweet, and sumptuous exotic late-harvest or late-harvest versions.

While white is really what the region is known for, big steps are underway for red, with Pinot Noir achieving coveted Grand Cru status from this year.

Shirley M. Pinder