A huge fan of the wines of Alsace, Melvyn Crann reports occasionally for wine-pages from the region. Here he considers the less heralded, but often good value, wines of Alsace.
Class distinction is rife in Alsace. The ‘noble’ grape varieties lord it over the vineyards – Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat – but what about the commoners: Auxerrois, Sylvaner and Pinot Blanc, which receive little attention and are often used in blended wines: edelzwicker and sparkling Crémant d’Alsace?
Why should wine drinkers bother with these losers? There are three possible good reasons: they occupy a different part of the flavour spectrum; they are normally cheaper than wines made from the noble varieties; they allow the most skilled winemakers to reveal the real potential of these varieties.
I have often suspected that lesser grape varieties are locked into a vicious circle: if a grower can’t get a good price for them, there is no point in lavishing the care on them that would be worthwhile with a ‘superior’ variety so the wines confirm their inferior status. But on recent visits to Alsace I have paid more attention to the hoi poloi of the vineyards than usual, with some interesting results.
This is little grown outside of Alsace and is not frequently encountered on British wine merchants’ shelves. Jancis Robinson has described Auxerrois as producing a “rather dull wine high in acid and fairly high in alcohol,” which is a slightly puzzling verdict as a the dominant impression of the grape in Alsace is of fairly low acidity.
In most wine regions if a producer labels a bottle with a grape variety which it doesn’t contain he is heading for trouble with the regulatory authorities. However tradition in Alsace sanctions an exception to this rule. A wine presented as Pinot Blanc or simply ‘Pinot’ will often be a blend with Auxerrois, or even 100% Auxerrois!
This is the case with a large number of producers. For example, in Eguisheim Leon Baur Pinot Blanc 2015 (100% Auxerrois) is quite a delicate version, fairly pale with a rounded palate, even slightly unctuous, lightly sweet, but with some balancing acidity. It has a lingering finish with a hint of marzipan on the aftertaste that is typical of the variety.
An example of a fuller flavoured style can be found in J. B. Adam of Ammerschwihr’s old vine version, labelled as Auxerrois. The 2014 vintage is quite deeply coloured, with a gentle, ripe nose. The palate is soft and rounded, with that hint of marzipan again. It combines some sweetness with a refreshing touch of acidity, but overall has some voluptuousness. One partly drunk bottle was returned to after five days and was still full flavoured, always a positive indicator for a wine.
A good but less well-known producer is René Meyer et Fils (not to be confused with Meyer-Fonné, another good producer just up the street). Katzenthal is a village in a small side valley between Ingersheim and Ammerschwihr and most passing drivers will register the striking white church tower in the distance, but not many visit. Rather coyly the Meyer version is simply called Katz and is 100% what they call Pinot Auxerrois. It is fairly dry, with tangy acidity, but also peach and banana, with a soft fleshy fullness of flavour.
One of my favourite producers is Rolly Gassmann. The current wine maker, Louis Gassmann, produces several different versions of Auxerrois from different sites. The basic one has the trademark lushness derived from producer’s practise of using very ripe grapes. It is golden in colour, with pineapple on the nose and palate. What is striking is how well this “inferior” grape ages. Still available at the cellar is the 2003 Rotleibel de Rorschwihr, still in full bloom.
Pinot Blanc itself is a better known variety with a wider distribution across the world, but is often unimpressive. It can resemble a rather wishy-washy version of Chardonnay. However, Josef Gruss, another Eguisheim producer, regularly wins prizes for his Pinot Blanc. The Clos St-Etienne Pinot Blanc 2015 exhibits ripe fruit suggesting sweet melon, tending towards a dry but full and warm finish. Josef Freudenreich’s 2017 vintage is a lighter style, an anagramatical combination of lemon and melon flavours.
To quote Jancis again, “Pinot Blanc of Alsace is specifically not for ageing.” This provides a cue for the entry of a talented winemaker who produces what are amongst the most individualistic and thrilling wines in the region. François Burn is the current talent at Domaine Ernest Burn, based in the attractive old village of Gueberschwihr, with it lovely hillside location providing views across the Rhine to the Black Forest and the Kaiserstuhl vineyards in the Baden wine region. The wines of this producer are often not released until they have some maturity and the clear bottles show off the deep colouring. The 2010 Pinot Blanc in no way justifies the description ‘wishy-washy’. The colour is a seductive gold and the nose reveals a ripeness of fruit that carries through to the palate, with flavours of baked apple and hints of pineapple. There is sweetness on the start and the mid-palate. The mouth-filling richness carries on to a lingering aftertaste, remaining full and rich for some time and developing a touch of spice. No sign of any unsuitability for ageing here. The 2014 vintage is more reserved, dry but rich, with a juicy acidity. A good food wine.
On the same tack, Rolly Gassmann’s 2003 Pinot Blanc is golden, with a mellow nose, rounded and deep on the palate, with hints of pineapple. It manages to combine an almost unctuous fullness, with some acidity and savoury characteristics.
The biodynamic producer, Dirler-Cade (sometimes mentioned on the wine-pages’ discussion forum) uses 50% Pinot Blanc and 50% Auxerrois and coaxes unusually intense flavours from the grapes, acidic, long and dry. Whether Jancis’s comments about ageability are justified here I don’t know, but the 2013 vintage I opened at home was somewhat oxidized (or is it simply that biodynamic wines are more prone to oxidation?).
This grape occupies a place near Sauvignon Blanc in the spectrum of flavours, but without such a distinctive varietal character. It tends towards high acidity and a suggestion of green fruits. Calling Jancis as a witness again we have the testimony that it is “best described as neutral . . . not a wine for our times.” Its value tends to rest in providing freshness in a blend, especially in a cremant. However, it can do better than that.
Bruno Sorg makes the Vieille Vigne Sylvaner 2015 with a lovely delicate touch. It is light, clean and lemony, a typical sea food wine, somewhere between Muscadet and Sauvignon Blanc, with the lingering finish that the citrus character endows. As it warms and opens up in the glass, however, it develops slightly fatter flavours, like light Chardonnay. The same citrus character is obvious in Dirler-Cade’s 2013 Sylvaner (no oxidation here), but there is no sharpness in the acidity, a touch of herbs and an enjoyable mellowness.
It seems to me that there ca be a risk in trying to extract deeper flavours from Sylvaner some bitterness may result. Josef Gruss Vieille Vigne Sylvaner 2015 reveals a fruitiness recalling green apples and a long, dry, but slightly bitter, finish. Again, the wine develops greater richness as it warms in the glass.
As might be expected Rolly Gassmann produces a distinctive version. The 2010 vintage is a deep gold, the nose a fat combination of lemon, pineapple and butterscotch. The palate starts off full and round and then a seam of acidity appears, creating a combination of fleshiness and acerbity.
However, it is Ernest Burn, again, who provides the most remarkable example. Their Le Dauphin Sylvaner 2000 is probably the best Sylvaner ever produced anywhere. The grapes were semi-raisined and pressed in January. The wine was matured in a single three year old barrique. It is a glowing amber in the glass. The nose is redolent of butterscotch. The flavours are big and raisined, with a touch of oak. It is delicately sweet and yet almost dry. There are undercurrents of typical green fruit, with oranges, caramel and tropical fruit, but everything is melded into a luxurious whole. It has that combination of sweetness and acidity that is sought in sweet wines. The bad news is that the only way you are likely to taste one of the remaining bottles is by marrying into the family.
Fortunately there is a regular version of the Le Dauphin Sylvaner (a dolphin appears in the wrought-iron sign outside the premises) which is produced every year. Relatively deeply coloured, it has a mouth-filling, almost marzipan, richness with some honey and barley sugar overlying the acidic substrate. Very satisfying.
Sadly few Ernest Burn wines appear to be available in the UK – a compelling reason for visiting the premises.
The term ‘edelzwicker’ means ‘noble blend’, but strictly speaking most of the Alsace wines listed under that name should be given the term ‘zwicker’ because the blend is typically ignoble. The price is the give-away: edelzwicker is not only the cheapest wine from most producers but it also comes in litre bottles. Even from good producers it tends to be nothing special. It’s OK as a cheap, dry white wine to have with a light lunch. Or, if you’re dining with guests you could take Kingsley Amis’s advice and serve them this transferred into the bottle of a better wines, whilst you modestly sip the wine now housed in the edelzwicker bottle. The smaller number of producers who do use noble varieties may avoid using the term ‘edelzwicker’ because of its negative associations. The alternative label is ‘Gentil’, although its adoption is not universal.
Hugel’s is the best known Gentil, although probably the version most familiar to UK wine enthusiasts is the Wine Society’s Vin d’Alsace, made by Hugel (£9.50). Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner have been joined by the four noble grapes to give a much more characterful flavour exhibiting that Alsace touch of spice.
The Wine Society now also stock a wine specially made for them by Josef Cattin (producers of a huge range of wines which are modestly priced but usually decent quality – visit the new building with smart tasting room and wine bar in Voegtlinshoffen, just up the road from Gueberschwihr). The fragrant Edelzwicker Special Cuvee 2016 (£8.50) is completely different from the Hugel as the dominant grape on the nose and palate is Muscat.
However, my all-time favourite edelzwicker (and they do use that label) is Rolly Gassmann’s Terroir des Chateaux Forts (available from the Wine Society at £12.95). It is a blend of Gewurztraminer, Auxerrois, Sylvaner and Riesling. Although the grapes may be the same each year the proportions may change so there is an extra variability in addition to vintage difference. The current vintage is 2016.Generally there is a lovely rich and fragrant combination of lychees, violets and grapefruit from the Gewurz, with marzipan from the Auxerrois and freshness from the Riesling and Sylvaner. The highly rated warm 2015 vintage for me produced too much sugar and not enough spice. The currently available 2016 vintage has a slightly stronger Muscat character. I would rate Rolly Gassmann’s edelzwickers above many producers’ wines from noble grapes.
On the basis of these examples it seems that it is time for the proletariat of the wine world to rise up. They have nothing to lose but their chain stores (which they have never had) and it would be nice to have a better range available in the UK. Until then the hardship of undertaking the toil of visiting vineyards, producers and restaurants in situ must be endured. Back to the grindstone.