Wines are much better lately at Pierre Sparr, and the reason is backwards from what you normally read.
Five years ago, the Alsatian winery was a small business that had been in the Sparr family for 300 years. Pierre Sparr rebuilt the winery and vineyards after World War II, and his sons took over from him.
By the early 2000s, the winery had slipped. It was buying a large proportion of its grapes from a local co-op, but the poor quality of the wines, and thus difficulty in selling them, was hurting the farmers as much as it was the Sparrs.
So the co-op, Cave de Bebleneheim, made an unusual decision: To buy the Pierre Sparr winery and brand.
This isn’t absolutely unprecedented: The Champagne brand Nicolas Feuillatte was bought by a co-op, which also improved quality. And since the Pierre Sparr purchase, a different Alsace co-op bought the bankrupt Lucien Albrecht winery, says Patrick Aledo, general manager of Pierre Sparr.
"One thing people said about Pierre Sparr is that it was inconsistent," Aledo says. "When we bought Pierre Sparr in '09, the target was to be consistent. To be a food-friendly wine. Not too much sugar."
This gets to the reason I'm writing this story. I received some Pierre Sparr wines in a box of samples from Alsace and, given my previous experience with the brand, expected to dislike them. Instead, I found them interesting and great value, and had no trouble polishing off some bottles that I used to pour down the drain.
Pierre Sparr Alsace "One" is a $13 blend of Muscat, Riesling and Pinot Gris. A few years ago, it was insipidly sweet and cloying. The 2010 is delightful: Pretty floral aromas combine with bright lime and white peach fruit in a refreshing wine that finishes with minerality. Despite the low price, the grapes were hand-harvested and spent six months on the lees in stainless steel tanks. It's a good enough wine to catch the attention of somebody like me who had sworn off the brand.
"The One is a good example of what we want to do," Aledo says. "If you have a pure variety, you have a lot of influence of the vintage. With the One, we keep the same grapes, but we change the percentage of each to keep the same style of wines each vintage. One year we can have a little bit more Muscat, and another year less Muscat and more Pinot Gris.
"The One is totally different from the other wines of Alsace. But always on the dry style. Not many people have knowledge of the dry Muscat. It's really something special."
Flexibility is Aledo's friend. Cave de Beblenheim wines are not as expensive as Pierre Sparr, and thus they're a good place to put grapes that aren't Grade A. Previously, the Sparr family used all of its grapes and purchased some besides. Now, Aledo says he has drastically reduced the yields from the family's former vineyards, and with moving some grapes to the co-op's wines, he uses about 20% of the volume of grapes that the property used to produce.
"If a batch that we have is not good, I can use it for the co-op," Aledo says. "I don't have to use it for Pierre Sparr. The co-op is really involved with the hyper and supermarkets in all of Europe. For the co-op, I need low cost of production. For Pierre Sparr, we can use more money (in making the wines)."
Aledo intends for dry Riesling and the sparkling Cremant to be the flagships of the brand. I really liked the Cremant rosé, which is as graceful as pink sparkling wine gets for $20. The Riesling is more simple, but at $14, it's food-friendly and good value. And the dryness has become a differentiating factor.
"Connoisseurs and sommeliers enjoy dry wines," Aledo says. "We have to take care because the consumer explains that they buy dry, but then they drink sweet. When you speak to a journalist or sommelier, they say dry, dry, dry. When you have the customer in front of you, he chooses the sweetest one. It's hard to have a good balance."
So how does he solve it? "We choose to be dry, but very aromatic," he says. "And I always say that, on wine lists, please put 'dry' before 'Riesling'."
Pierre Sparr also recently changed importers to Wilson-Daniels, which has a high-quality portfolio. This makes a difference because Wilson-Daniels will get the wine in front of some fine dining sommeliers who might not have paid attention to the brand before.
Aledo says his goal for the next five years is to rebuild his market in the United States.
"What we can do is only tasting, tasting, tasting," he says. "Four years ago we didn't have any relationship with the press. We have to rebuild it."
It worked on me. If you swore off Pierre Sparr in the past, it's time to taste it again.