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Alsace: Indicate Dryness Levels Up Front
By Panos Kakaviatos
Jul 24, 2018
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Last month in Colmar, at the biennial "Millésimes d’Alsace" event, the Alsace Wine Council introduced a new logo and refurbished website (vinsalsace.com) including excellent information on all 51 grand crus from this famous French northeastern wine region. 

A stunning video to promote the new logo was also provided, one that matches the quality of a glitzy Champagne marketing campaign, complete with drone-shot HD images of gorgeous vineyard slopes, accentuating the region’s many terroirs. 

Shortly after viewing the video, I joined a wine writer for lunch, where we enjoyed a Domaine Allimant-Laugner Alsace Grand Cru Praelatenberg 2014. 

You may have not yet heard of Praelatenberg -- and might wonder about its pronunciation -- but the new Vins Alsace website, translated into 10 languages, explains it nicely: “The panoramic viewpoints from the majestic Haut-Koenigsbourg castle overlook the sharp slopes of Praelatenberg.  This rich terroir produces generous and structured wines founded on a base of intense minerality.”

That’s very appealing, but still, any of us might wonder, how dry was the wine?

Thankfully, it was bone dry, and went very well with the roast chicken.

However good a website is, in however many languages it is translated, the dry-versus-sweet uncertainty regarding Alsace wines brings me the gist of this column:  An enduring obstacle to selling Alsace wine better is the need to more clearly define its dryness (or sweetness).  Too often, wine drinkers accustomed to dry whites notice excess sweetness coming from the residual sugars in Alsatian wine -- including some supposed-to-be-dry Rieslings. 

So why not include easy-to-understand dryness levels on the front label of every bottle of Alsatian white wine?

Some producers include such indications on back labels; an excellent initiative.  But just as important as showing off place names (preferably with varieties) on front labels is to indicate dryness levels.  If Alsace seeks a broader buying public, this will become even more important when a new category of “Premier Cru” designations will be added to the grands crus in the near future. 

Some would say that Alsace wine already sells well enough, thank you very much -- and that people should learn to appreciate place names and grapes, where possible, on front labels.  But Alsace would be able to gain so much more market share if average consumers could quickly see that a wine is, say, “Dry” or “Off-Dry.”  Sure, it may be complicated for wine authorities to get producers to agree to what actually constitutes dry or off-dry:  Four grams of residual sugar in a wine can taste sweeter than seven grams, depending on the acidity balance.  So, perhaps a jury of qualified tasters could determine the label for each vintage. 

Such designations work well for Champagne, and they would work just as well in Alsace:  Both for bubbly Crémants and still wines.  Just as consumers need to know if their Champagne is “Extra Brut” or just “Brut,” consumers would be able to buy Alsace with more reassurance if they had that more specific indication up front. 

To complicate matters further, some producers do not include grape designations on the front label, either.  Take for example a series of Grand Crus from the highly acclaimed producer Marc Kreydenweiss:  Grape designations are left off the front label.  I enjoyed this producer’s Wiebelsberg Grand Cru 2016 (a Riesling) on account of its opulence and elegance, with a finish marked by pleasing bitterness.  Indeed, the new Alsace website stresses that this terroir makes mainly Riesling that tends to be, “…svelte and refined, nestled perfectly within this large terroir curve.”  The vines grow on a southeast facing steep slope of pink sandstone near the edge of the village. 

But another Kreydenweiss Grand Cru is actually a Pinot Gris, only not indicated on the front label.  “Are we expected to know this?” mused fellow taster Christer Byklum of Norway.  Especially--he stressed--when the Grand Cru source of this Pinot Gris, Moenchberg, is home to Riesling vines tended by other producers.  Indeed, the new Alsace wine website explains that the nearly 12 hectare marl-limestone-slate and colluvium soils of this Grand Cru site is planted to no fewer than three grape varieties:  Riesling 62%, Pinot Gris 23% and Gewurztraminer 15%.  If Moenchberg were exclusively Pinot Gris for all producers, I could somewhat understand. 

But what about your average wine buyer?  The names -- already rather Germanic and hard to pronounce for some consumers -- are hard enough to master.  Is one supposed to know that that particular Grand Cru from this particular producer is necessarily Pinot Gris?  In my opinion, the producer should return to indicating the grape variety on the front label. 

I acknowledge that strong brands -- including Kreydenweiss -- sell well regardless of whether they take my advice regarding indications of sweetness or varietal composition, due to their brand and historic reputation.  I do not think that Maison Trimbach, for another example, is suffering in terms of sales. 

Many in Alsace say that they should have Premiers Crus like the Burgundians, and focus on terroir -- an oft heard refrain.  But key consumer information indicators are missing, or at least they are not clearly indicated.  Aside from some of the established brands that do sell well, other Alsace producers could potentially increase sales by displaying essential information, up front, including place names. 

As Byklum commented, understanding the Premier and Grand Crus of Burgundy is relatively easy to “digest” because (a) they are all dry, and (b) they leave little doubt as to the grape:  Either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.  Furthermore, the modern designation of Grand Cru in Alsace is a far more recent phenomenon, not having officially come into existence before the mid 1970s.  In that sense, Alsace makes any Burgundy “minefield” seem like a picnic.

Tasting reflections based on specific examples can indicate why stating dryness levels upfront could be useful. 

One obvious case in point is the famous Marcel Deiss Altenberg de Bergheim 2012, which blends grapes -- and comes across as rather sweet.  The wine is very well made and the bottle looks amazing, but when I served an older vintage to a friend a few years back, she was put off by the sweetness.  It sells well because the producer has a loyal following, and cares deeply about expressing terroir.  But the lack of clarity about dryness can lead to consumer confusion. 

Vintages matter, too.  Take Domaine Zeyssolff Grand Cru Zotzenberg Riesling 2014:  Refined, nuanced, and with very little residual sugar.  The 2015 rendition, however, contains 6.9 grams of residual sugar, and is evidently richer in style.  This difference between vintages of the same wine provides a clear case in which an indication of sweetness would be very helpful for consumers.

Comparing two versions of a wine from the same terroir, and the same grape variety (even from the same producer) also is instructive.  Take Domaine Weinbach Schlossberg Riesling 2017, which shows class and elegance, and shows why Weinbach enjoys such a great reputation.  One wine writer who tried it was surprised by the well integrated 6.5 grams of residual sugar:  He was convinced it was just four grams because it was evidently dry.   But Weinbach also produces a special cuvee of the Schlossberg Riesling called "L'Inédit," which includes some late harvest grapes, and clocks in at about 20 grams of residual sugar (for the 2017 vintage). 

I once served an older vintage of "L'Inédit" at dinner, explaining the style to the others who were present.  While some loved it, myself included, others were put off by evident sweetness.  Respected wine merchants like Justerini & Brooks explain the wine as “…a unique, off-dry cuvee from 65 year old vines found in the heart of the Schlossberg vineyard, where many of grapes are left to achieve exceptional golden ripeness and even botrytis.”  That’s very helpful information,  but of course it wasn’t available on the wine’s label, and consumers can hardly be expected to know the precise sweetness indicated by a proprietary term such as, “L'Inédit.”  Why not add “Off Dry” on the front label, which could help consumers understand the wine’s character more easily?

Although I believe that clearer label designations would be very helpful, the fact remains that white wine lovers with an eye for quality should seek out Alsace wines.  They offer some of the very best price/quality ratios for white wine in the world, and this is true quite generally--not just in relation to well-known producers.  Prices that seem low in relation to the quality of the wines is a happy fact for buyers, of course, but a price imbalance such as this isn’t good for the longer-term prospects of producers.  By extension, we can observe that producers will be able to improve quality if they derive appropriate income from their wines, which is actually good for consumers from a long-term perspective.  The current imbalance between selling price and wine quality may very well be traceable to Alsace wine labels not being as clear as they should be.