When I began to learn about wine in my early 20s, Alsace was a region I was drawn to. I loved the opulent richness of the wines, from the semi-sweet floral Gewurztraminer and Muscat to the broad strokes of the rounded Pinot Gris and complexity of the Rieslings.
The good ones were balanced by a precise acidity and freshness but many that hit the high street could feel fat and flabby, lazily glooping across the tongue. I would grab a bottle of the lychee layered Gewurztraminer to pair with my Chinese take away, but it seemed these wines were falling from favour with my friends.
On a recent trip to Alsace, I was surprised to find these wines seem to have all but vanished, with winemakers instead keen to display leaner, bone-dry styles more in line with the modern palate. Thankfully they have not lost any of that delicious complexity that first drew me to Alsace.
These wines are fresh, zippy and retain a beautiful purity, but they are not simple or one-dimensional and they offer huge pairing potential. “Alsace wine is gastronomique wine,” explains Georges Lorentz of Gustave Lorentz.
Thanks to the region’s plethora of grapes and styles, coupled with some of the most diverse soils in the world, “We can match all the dishes of the globe from the fish of Northern Europe to the spice of Asia”. The flamboyance has been restrained to reveal dry wines with real delicacy.
Traditionally side-lined grapes are coming to the fore: I drank some sensational old vine Pinot Auxerrois, in particular Josmeyer’s “H” 2019, and beautiful Sylvaner from the Lieu-dit of Rosenberg by Domaine Barmès-Buecher, which, despite being bone dry, tasted like preserved lemons, satsumas and blossom.
I hope to see more of these varieties coming to our shores. Alsace was one of the original pioneers of the organic movement and the first biodynamic area in Europe, and new styles are emerging to build on that.
Textured white wines made with skin contact and natural wines that utilise Alsace’s variety and diversity make for bottles with real depth, length, and the ability to age. “We don’t have enough natural wine for the market” says Bernard Bohn, an instinctive winemaker of talent who exports across the world, from Mexico to Taiwan (and, luckily for us, the UK, too).
“But then we don’t look to be the biggest, we look to be the best”. Olivier Humbrect MW of Domaine Zind-Humbrect believes dry wines show the terroir and beauty of a wine better and that climate change will eventually bring an end to the sweet wines of Alsace.
But for now, Alsace traditionalists craving those headier wines can still find delicate, semi-sweet and sumptuous exotic ‘vendages tardives’ or late harvest versions.
Though white is really what the region is known for, big steps are happening for red, with Pinot Noir being allowed coveted Grand Cru status from this year onwards.