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Reconnecting with Alsace
By Michael Franz
Aug 8, 2006
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Last month, when seeing the gorgeous vineyards of Alsace for the first time in six years, my first thought was, "Why the hell haven't I been here for six years?"  Although I managed to travel to Alsace four times between 1992 and 2000, tasting explorations in other locales have kept me away more recently, resulting in several sorts of deprivation.

In aesthetic terms, it is widely understood that vineyards tend to be situated in beautiful places, and those of Alsace are among the prettiest of all--high on a short global list including Portugal's Duoro Valley, New Zealand's Central Otago, Italy's Alto Adige, South Africa's Cape Region and Germany's Mosel Valley.  Sweeping from the Rhine basin in gorgeous green swaths up into the Vosages mountains, the vineyards are exceedingly impressive.  They are made more scenic still by the forbidding medieval fortresses situated above them and the inviting gingerbread villages nestled below.

Then there's the food.  Alsace has a marvelous cuisine and the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants of any region in Europe.  Balanced between tradition and modernity and incorporating elements both indigenous and imported, Alsace food is endlessly interesting, never fussy, and always deeply satisfying.  I confess that I am defenseless against the charms of the region's foie gras and Munster cheese (among other attractions), which I do not regret even in an aftermath limited to celery sticks and salads.

And the wine?  Top Alsace wines are clearly among the world's best whites.  Generously flavored but still structured and stylish, they are wonderful with food-as befits a great culinary capital.  Delicious right out of the starting gate, they nevertheless age very impressively, and one of the prime treats of tasting in Alsace is the opportunity to taste older wines that have been perfectly preserved in producers' cellars.  (The highlight of this trip was a Trimbach Clos St. Hune Riesling from 1990, which was just hitting its stride at 16 years of age.  Scored at an arguably stingy 98 points, it may be the greatest dry Riesling ever to pass my lips.)

What is perhaps most impressive about winemaking in Alsace is its sheer breadth of excellence across different grapes and sweetness levels.  Most producers make a range of wines at two or three ripeness levels from Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Noir, Sylvaner and Chasselas.  Many make one or two blended wines as well, and then throw in a couple of sparkling Crémant d'Alsace bottlings to boot.  Do the math here and you'll know in advance that an appointment schedule is an entirely fanciful document in Alsace; a visit to taste at Rolly Gassman involved no fewer than 48 wines.

I was joined on this trip by WRO columnists Marguerite Thomas, Michael Apstein and Paul Lukacs, and you'll hear more from us in coming weeks about the 500+ wines and 13 producer visits that we packed into five days of "work."  I'm up first, and want to utilize the opportunity to address the current status of Pinot Blanc, which is the foundation of Alsace wine commerce.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, Pinot Blanc is the portal of entry to Alsace wine for most tasters around the world.  Very little Sylvaner or Chasselas is exported, and Muscat is becoming distressingly rare despite its potential greatness due to a range of difficulties it presents to winemakers and sales staffs.  Pinot Noir is rarely shipped elsewhere because the locals need something red to drink with meat during the long winters.  Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Riesling are all consistently more expensive than Pinot Blanc, often by 50% or more.

The upshot of this is simple:  If you are a young wine lover learning the ropes on a lean budget in Chicago or London or Singapore, chances are good that your first shot at Alsace will be a glass of Pinot Blanc.  And in a wine world that has turned from competitive to hyper-competitive during the past decade, there's a good chance that a young taster will never give Alsace a second shot if that first glass of Pinot Blanc doesn't pan out well.

On the plus side, a good Pinot Blanc has a lot going for it.  Light- to medium-bodied, with aromas and flavors that are subtle but satisfying, these wines are supremely versatile with food and unlikely to rub anyone the wrong way.  Pinot Gris can be too rich and sweet for some tasters; Gewurztraminer too pungent, and Riesling too sharp and austere.  But throw a really good Pinot Blanc into a circle of otherwise opinionated tasters and you'll find that everyone gets along with it.

On the minus side, Pinot Blanc can't compete with the more complex character of Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer, and in relative terms it can't sell for as high a price.  Moreover, due to the peculiarities of Alsace's enduringly controversial A.O.C. legislation, Pinot Blanc grown in a Grand Cru vineyard cannot be labeled as such.  Not surprisingly, therefore, these wines aren't typically made from grapes grown on the best sites.  Lacking the potential and price of their more distinguished stablemates, Pinots are sometimes made indifferently by vintners who find it easier to cover flaws with excessive residual sweetness than to remedy the flaws with greater rigor in vineyards and cellars.

Most bottlings labeled as Pinot Blanc are actually not made solely from the grape of this name, but rather are blends incorporating Auxerrois and/or, more rarely, Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir.  Auxerrois is notably softer in texture and lower in acidity than true Pinot Blanc, and hence it is more widely planted in the cooler, more northerly stretches of the Alsace viticole.  Pinot Blanc can be steely and harsh when planted in too cool a site, so it begins to predominate as one moves south into the villages between Selestat and Mulhouse.  Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are bit players that can safely be overlooked, but the relative proportions of Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc are-along with the variables of site and residual sugar-crucial in determining the character of a finished Pinot Blanc wine.

We conducted a blind tasting of 41 Pinot Blancs on this recent trip under the extremely capable auspices of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d'Alsace.  I'm sorry to report that I can enthusiastically recommend only 14 of those wines, which are reviewed below in order of preference.  Many wines drew too much of their flavor from sweetness as opposed to fruit and extract, failing to finish with clean, focused flavors.  Whereas Pinot Blanc improved significantly as a category in the 1980s and held steady through the 1990s, I worry that quality is now slipping in a way that imperils not only this wine but Alsace's reputation more broadly.

If we had been getting flabby, unfocused results from wines made in the famously torrid 2003 vintage, my concerns would be allayed, but only two of the 41 wines were 2003s.  All the others were made in 2004 or 2005, which are vintages that are highly regarded in the region.

Alsace needs to get its act together if it is to remain the world's most famous source for Pinot Blanc.  In terms of sheer quality, I suspect that it has already been surpassed on average by Austria's South Styria, though Alsace has a lot more Pinot Blanc with which to work.  Alsace could use this category to compete very effectively for the large and still growing "bored-with-Chardonnay" market--but only if crop yields are reduced so that the wines can compete without the aid of excessive residual sugar.

Returning to the plus side, finding 14 strong wines shows that a rebound for Alsace with Pinot Blanc is entirely conceivable.  Some of the wines below will be familiar to North American consumers who are attentive to Alsace, whereas others will be tough to taste without traveling to Europe.  I have included the village names for each vintner in case you can manage that.  Prices for almost all of these would fall between $12 and $18 at current exchange rates:

Martin Schaetzel (Ammerschwihr) Pinot Blanc Vieilles Vignes 2004:  This gets off to a great start with very nice aromas, followed by flavor echoes of baked apples and ripe pears.  Although the texture is soft and rounded, there's plenty of acidity in the finish to keep this balanced and refreshing.  Complete and symmetrical, this is delicious and even impressive-which isn't a common characteristic for Pinot Blanc.  90

André Blanc (Kientzheim) Pinot Blanc "Rosenburg" 2005:  Perhaps the family name has something to do with this firm taking Pinot Blanc seriously, but, in any case, the wine is lovely.  Although this has 8 grams of residual sugar, the flavors are deep and dramatic.  The foundation is all baked apple, but there are also nice accents of spice and citrus that arrive in the finish.  Acidity is perfectly tuned to the weight of the fruit, and the spice note makes this especially interesting.  88

Meyer-Fonne (Katzenthal) Pinot Blanc Vieilles Vignes 2005:  This shows a lot of soft, fleshy fruit, suggesting that Auxerrois is playing a significant role.  Juicy fruit notes recall pears and white melons, and though soft in texture, this gains lift from a bit of unresolved carbon dioxide, which lends a little prickle of effervescence.  Essentially dry but nevertheless quite generous, this is very well done.  88

Wolfberger (Eguisheim) Pinot Blanc 2005:  My recollection is that Wolfberger is a co-op, which can be bad news but need not be (and the cooperative Cave de Turkheim is an exemplary case in point, offering some of the best bargains in Alsace).  The aromas are a bit shy, but the bright, zesty palate notes really make this shine, with apple and pear notes that finish dry but with persistent flavors.  87

Alsace Willm (Barr) Pinot Blanc 2005:  A complete, classy wine, this shows subtle fruit recalling golden apples and a nice smoky note that more frequently shows up in Pinot Gris bottlings from Alsace.  It is nicely balanced with acids that are lively but not screechy, and the finish is long and harmonious.  86

Bott-Geyl (Beblenheim) Pinot Blanc 2004:  A simple but delicious drink, this features soft, gentle fruit recalling poached pears.  Medium-bodied and substantial, it will serve equally well as a stand-alone sipper or a partner for delicate foods.  86

Kuentz-Bas (Hussern le Chateaux) Pinot Auxerrois "Collection" 2004:  This is one of only two wines labeled explicitly as Pinot Auxerrois to be included in the tasting, and the only one to earn a recommendation.  Opinions differ on whether Auxerrois is even related to the Pinot family of grapes (I doubt it), and though 'Pinot Auxerrois' is technically not a permitted designation, my understanding is that it is 'officially tolerated' by CIVA.  Be that as it may, this wine suggests that tolerance is in order, as it offers lots of juicy, expressive fruit recalling peaches and pears.  That peach note was the only one to show up in the entire tasting, and is thus presumably a characteristic of Auxerrois.  Acidity is (predictably) low but nevertheless adequate to keep the fruit in balance, and it is so appealing and juicy that you couldn't fail to like this.  85

Kuentz-Bas (Hussern le Chateaux) Pinot Blanc "Tradition" 2004:  This is a bit brighter than Kuentz-Bas' Auxerrois, but still quite soft and generous.  Pear fruit is just edgy enough to avoid seeming overly soft, and though the wine is neither complex nor particularly challenging, it is very nicely integrated and balanced, with subtle aromas and flavors that will make this a very versatile foil for food. 85

Albert Mann (Wettolsheim) Pinot Blanc 2005:  This is a very nice wine that offers plenty of fruit and body, and does so with only minimal sweetness in the finish.  It shows a soft, faintly musky tone that I associate with Auxerrois, but there's also a bit of green apple brightness here suggesting that true Pinot Blanc is also playing a significant role.  Overall, it is very effectively balanced between softness and structure.  85

Ostertag (Epfig) Pinot Blanc "Barriques" 2005:  Wood notes make this an unusual wine, and yet they are so subtle and well integrated that they don't prove jarring in either aromatic or flavor terms, and likewise do not dry the finish at all.  Bright apple fruit is quite effectively lifted by fresh acidity, with little notes of spice and smoke lending additional complexity.  85

Sipp-Mack (Hunawihr) Pinot Blanc 2004:  The juicy, delicious pear fruit in this soft, appealing wine is set off with just enough acidity to keep it fresh and focused.  Although it could use just a bit more spine for use at the table, it is a lovely wine for near-term sipping.  85

J. B. Adam (Ammerschwihr) Pinot Blanc "Reserve" 2004:  This shows a lot of depth and ripeness, though it could stand a little more acidity.  Still, the baked apple and poached pear fruit is winningly juicy and immediate, and there's just enough acidity to keep the wine focused and fresh.  84

Hugel (Riquewihr) Pinot Blanc 2004:   A well balanced wine with a taut core of apple fruit, this shows just a little soft pear around the edges.  Acidity is well above average, and the overall impression is of good quality and wide versatility.  84

Metz (Itterswiller) Pinot Blanc 2005:  Interesting aromas of flowers and straw made this one of the more distinctive wines in the tasting.  Although the acidity is ripe and not terribly prominent as a distinct element, the wine conceals its 7 grams of sweetness very impressively, and ends up coming off as fruity rather than sweet.  84

Concluding Note: I tasted other excellent Pinots Blanc on this trip, though it does not seem fair to include reviews of them here for the simple reason that they were not considered abreast of the winners of the blind tasting under equally "objective" circumstances.  Nevertheless, you are strongly advised to try the Pinot Blanc offerings of Leon Beyer, Albert Boxler, Dirler-Cadé, Rolly Gassman, Schlumberger, Trimbach, and Domaine Weinbach.

Questions or comments?  Outraged rejoinders from Pinot Blanc producers?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com