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The Mouth-Watering Rieslings of Alsace
By Linda Murphy
Aug 19, 2008
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For acid freaks like me, there are few places in the world better than Alsace for delivering white wines whose acidities take a layer off the tongue, get the drool going like Pavlov's dogs, and give new context to the phrase, 'hurts so good.'

Okay, I'm being overly dramatic, because there is nothing painful -- it's all pleasure -- about drinking wines that tingle with mouthwatering acidity, as do the table wines of Alsace, located in northeastern France, and where Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and other white varietals and blends comprise 92% of the total A.O.C.  Alsace production.  In this most Germanic of French regions (the two countries warred over possession of Alsace for centuries, with World War II settling things), its enological strength is its Rieslings, with their racy acidity, intensity of flavor and sturdy structure, and an ability to provide immediate drinking pleasure as well as a long life in the cellar. 

Refreshment is the No. 1 role of any wine, and acidity provides this thirst-quenching characteristic, balancing the fruitiness, alcohol and any sugar that remains after the grapes have been fermented.  Think of acidity as the squeegee that wipes the shower tile clean, leaving it spotless and inviting for the next shower.  With a meal, a wine's acidity cleanses the palate, preparing it for another bite of food.

In Alsace's 6,300 acres of A.O.C. and Grand Cru vineyards, acidity develops naturally in grapes grown in the dizzyingly diverse soils, with compositions which include granite, shale, limestone, sandstone, marl and volcanic.  Fifty million years ago, the Vosges mountains and the now-German Black Forest were one land mass; the formation collapsed, creating the Rhine plain.  In between the Vosges and the plain lie Alsace's vineyards, planted in a mosaic of soils that were uplifted in the collapse, and strewn about by the coming and going of three ancient seas.

As Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, in the locality of Turkheim, says, 'You can drive from San Francisco to New York and find less soil diversity than from one part of Turkheim to another.' As a result, he says, 'Alsace is like Burgundy and Champagne; little plots with many owners.'

Alsace's mineral-rich soils encourage the growth of vines that produce firm acidity in the grapes.  In many regions throughout the world, winemakers must add tartaric or citric acid to their wines to give them a tangy palate impression they couldn't get from the vineyard.  Yet it takes a deft hand with acidulation to produce a balanced wine, and natural acidity is always preferred.  Alsace Rieslings have it in spades.

They also have a ripe, plump fruitiness to go along with their acidic backbone, thanks to the warm, dry growing season in Alsace.  The wines see little, if any, oak contact, and the secondary malolactic fermentation used to soften the acidity in many white wines in the world is rare, thankfully, in Alsace Riesling.

Yet there has been much complaining by the wine press and connoisseurs that Alsace white wines, including Riesling, have become too sweet and alcoholic, where they were once dry and moderate in potency.  Is it due to global warming?  Lower yields of more intense grapes?  Have some winemakers become lazy, using sweetness to mask phenolic bitterness in their wines?  Is it that Alsace has been catering to its strongest export markets, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and the United States, where many drinkers perhaps enjoy sweeter wines?

Buying Alsace Riesling can be confusing for consumers because it's difficult to know whether a Riesling is dry, off-dry or sweet.  The high-end Vendage Tardive (VT) and Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN) Rieslings, which are made from grapes with extremely high levels of sugar, are easy to spot by their labeling and price (as much as hundreds of dollars per bottle), yet most A.O.C. Alsace table wines do not give any indication of their residual sugar content.

That's slowly changing.  Zind-Humbrecht, producer of some of Alsace's most sumptuous wines, prints a 1-to-5 sweetness scale on its back labels: '1' is bone-dry; '2' is not technically dry but the sweetness is not apparent on the palate; '3' is medium sweet; '4' is sweet, and 5 is high sweetness.  Domaines Schlumberger is also moving to a sugar scale on its labels.

However, people perceive sweetness in different ways, so a wine that Olivier Humbrecht might rate a '3' could taste more dry to you and more sweet to me.  The complex chemical bonding of sugar, acidity, pH, alcohol and phenolics (skin, seed and stem tannins) creates a scenario in which an Alsace Riesling with 12 grams of residual sugar per liter could taste dry, and one with 8 grams of sugar could taste sweet.

A set of complicated formulas has been introduced that is supposed to ensure that A.O.C.  Alsace Rieslings have a proper balance of residual sugar to acidity in order to be perceived as tasting dry.  But the formulas don't apply to wines labeled with village, vineyard or Grand Cru designations -- Alsace's best Rieslings -- so the legislation is practically worthless, and does not apply to any other Alsace varietals such as Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, which tend to be sweeter than Riesling.
As Alsace sweetness sorts itself out, there is great comfort in knowing that the No. 1 exporter of Alsace wines to the United States, F.E. Trimbach, produces very dry Rieslings (along with the intentionally sweet VTs and SGNs) that are nervy and often austere in their youth, with the structure and acidity to age for decades. 

'Alsace exports 25% of its wines, and Trimbach exports 90%; 40 to 45% of that is to the U.S.,' says Jean Trimbach, whose family has made wine in Ribeauville since 1626.  'We use no malolactic fermentation, and we try to ferment the wines to dryness, to below 5 grams of sugar for Riesling.'

Trimbach Rieslings are widely available in America, giving the impression that the winery is a huge producer.  Yet its production is around 100,000 cases per year, which would qualify it as a mid-sized winery in California.  From its basic Classic Riesling to its phenomenal Clos Sainte Hune Riesling, which takes six to seven years in the bottle to hit its drinking stride, Trimbach is a sure bet for shoppers looking for exceptional dry Riesling.

Whereas Trimbach purchases grapes to supplement its own vineyards, Domaine Weinbach, run by sisters Laurence and Catherine Faller and their mother, Colette, produce wines only from their 70-acre, biodynamically farmed estate in Kayserberg.  Like Trimbach, Laurence Faller, the winemaker, strives for a dry style of Riesling, yet her wines are opulent, luscious and distinctively aromatic.

'Biodynamics adds depth, complexity and minerality to the wines,' she says, 'and low yields give them concentration.  We harvest very ripe fruit, even allowing some botrytis (noble rot) in the dry wines to add more complexity and aroma.'

Even with the botrytis addition, most of Weinbach's Rieslings taste dry -- to me, at least.  The reason:  high natural acidity, which comes from the vineyard.  The Domaine Weinbach 2005 Grand Cru Schlossberg 'Cuvée Sainte Catherine Riesling is rich and rewarding, minerally and with candied lime peel, yellow peach and tropical fruit notes that are kept vibrantly fresh by the acidity.  The 2004 Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Sainte Catherine 'L'Inedit' Riesling, made from grapes too ripe to ferment to dryness, has a whopping 30 grams of residual sugar, yet tastes remarkably dry and succulent despite the heavy botrytis component. 

The best thing I can say about a wine is that it's mouthwatering, and very many Alsace Rieslings are exactly that -- crunchy in their acidity.  Until winemakers take more steps to inform consumers of the sweetness levels in their Rieslings, word of mouth and wine reviews are the best guides.  You'll find 13 reviews of current-release Rieslings that impress me for their fine balance of sugar and acidity -- as well as their refreshment value -- on the WRO Reviews page.