Alsace’s Tangled Path to the Avant-Garde

In Alsace, winemaking culture has historically veered towards the routine, but that’s beginning to change. Jon Bonné on the producers chasing the avant-garde in this famed French region, and the wines that may come to define its future.

alsace wine jon bonne

“We are totally has-beens. We’re totally obsolete.”

Jean-Michel Deiss and I are sitting in his dining room. I’d told him I was writing about the new French wine, and we’re around two hours into a conversation on his grand integrated theory of this topic, one that has touched on the Carthusians, the moral bankruptcy of French appellations and, crucially, changing tastes. That last topic is where we are now, and I can see why Deiss, whose wines are legend, isn’t entirely loved by his fellow Alsatians. In a quality trait I can appreciate, he might be too forthright for his own good.

“The wines of Alsace in no way comport modernity,” he continues. “They don’t meet the tastes of the era.”

This might not be a total shock from the man who stopped making wine the way nearly everyone does in Alsace—by grape variety—in favor of blends that pay homage to great sites like Altenberg de Bergheim. And he might have been overstating it a bit. Alsatian wines have long been the great, charming outliers of France. They aren’t entirely French, in that the region is culturally as much German as French, having been ping-ponged between the two nations for centuries. They are, however, historic and culturally essential.

And yet, to Deiss’ point, they don’t quite fit into today’s wine world—which has long surpassed the old flat-world map, the one that started in France and stopped in Germany. Today’s white-wine lovers live in a glorious Babel, one constructed with carricante from Sicily and assyrtiko from Santorini, plus choices from Austria and Galicia and the Amalfi Coast, California and the Swartland. Alsace, it’s increasingly clear, has been drowned out in this world, no longer the white-wine region of importance it once was. In fact, the only place you’ll broadly find Alsatian wine on offer is France, perhaps because of the country’s remarkable habit of ignoring nearly any wines made beyond its borders.

Admittedly, it’s hard for me to acknowledge that the region’s wines are out of fashion. I have a longtime sentimental love for Alsace and have enjoyed the wines for two decades: the rieslings, although I was more compelled by their Teutonic brethren, but also fruity pinot gris, savory chasselas and sylvaner and opulent gewurztraminer. I defended the wines even as most everyone else was more or less¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

So, at first, my inclination was to just chalk up the current lack of interest to the merciless cool-hunting of today’s wine buyers. But that didn’t make sense; if anything, Alsace should be in their wheelhouse. It has been, perhaps, the most committed to organic and biodynamic farming of any French region (its first organic fair was held in 1981). And its dirt is extraordinary: Alsace is one long rift valley, the earth dropping away from the Vosges mountains to the west. What remains are some of France’s most diverse soils—a mix of old Vosges granite, limestone from younger marine sediment and much more, which supports a wonderful hodgepodge of grapes.

What’s more, Alsace remains one of the most pleasant places to visit in France, organized and, by French standards, impeccably clean. Towns across the country compete in the contest of Villes et Villages Fleuris—civic pride expressed through an abundance of flowers. More than a few Alsatian communes have taken national championships, and villages like Ribeauvillé seem almost defined by blossoms in every window box and square inch of public space. To the north, Strasbourg is a study in charm, with its high Gothic cathedral and gleaming trams. Colmar, the region’s wine capital in the south, brims with tidy homes and a city center that feels extracted from a postcard of midcentury European bliss. And Alsatian cuisine remains one of France’s most distinctive: Rich dishes like choucroute garnie and flammekuche are just right for well-structured white wines—and, crucially, thriving in a country that is increasingly losing its gastronomic soul.

Why, then, have the wines fallen out of favor? The Alsatians tend to blame their current wine market hardships on sugar, namely the longtime concern that their wines haven’t been identifiably dry or sweet. This was indeed a problem, but one that has increasingly been solved. For one thing, Alsatian wines are generally getting drier, or at least finding the balance of sugar and acidity that the Austrians and Germans have finessed. And it has become easier to identify whether they’re sweet or dry, thanks in part to European regulations that enforce clarity. Alsace’s current woes, it turns out, have something deeper at their core.

One of the better theories is that the region is stuck in a rut because, after centuries of being traded between nations, the Alsatians still haven’t gotten over the inherent tension, in the words of winemaker Christophe Mittnacht, of “two cultures grating at each other.” That does help to explain their fraught relationship with terroir: They live under a very French system of grands crus that confounds even dedicated experts, one they now hope to make even more complex with the addition of a tier of premiers crus. Yet they also embrace a system that promotes making and selling single-variety wines: Riesling is riesling and muscat is muscat. Deiss and a few others have willfully rejected this notion, blending grapes and arguing that site trumps all. But even the burgeoning natural-wine roster in Alsace tends to follow the expected conventions and keeps their grapes separate.

That might explain what I found to be a sort of monotony in the wine these days, one that stems either from a lack of creativity or an aversion to risk. In fact, the latter could describe a lot of current Alsatian winemaking—which veers toward the routine, all steel tanks and early bottling. While it’s tempting to imply this is just Alsace’s Germanic side coming out, only a few miles east across the border German winemakers are taking plenty of risks, producing exceptional dry white wines.

I think the problem stems more from the utter confusion that the Alsatians have imposed on themselves. How the hell are you supposed to hone an identity when at each cellar door you’re confronted with 15 or 20 wines, made from five or six different grapes? Plus, their everyone-wins approach to terroir yielded a full deck of 51 grands crus, even more than Burgundy, which assures that most of them are roundly ignored. As Jean-Pierre Frick points out, even in the top vineyards many farmers don’t bother harvesting for expensive grand cru wines because they earn more by growing grapes at high yields and making cheaper bottles: “That’s one reason the grands crus in Alsace haven’t really taken off.”

That has created a system in which terroir can’t possibly triumph. Yes, a few grands crus have become famous, like Rangen, in the village of Thann, or Brand, in Turckheim. But when last did you encounter a wine from the grand cru Frankstein? For that reason, while Burgundy nerds rhapsodize over Echezeaux, Alsace lovers seem to be guided by a short list of star producers, namely Trimbach and Hugel, the region’s two key names, plus a few other exceptional estates like Zind-Humbrecht, Albert Boxler and Domaine Weinbach. That preference for personality over place isn’t hard to understand, given the crazy-making web of geography, geology and grape. (Even Clos Ste. Hune, arguably the region’s most famous plot, is really more about Trimbach than it is the Rosacker vineyard where it’s located.)

All of which made me wonder: If a place is so hard-wired to obscure greatness, how does anyone pursue it? A growing number of producers have taken a natural-wine tack, which seems like a particularly curious choice in Alsace. It’s one thing to buck the French mainstream in the Loire, where industrial farming and cronyism have created a legitimate villain. But if Alsace’s screwy appellation rules have an upside, it’s that they tolerate nearly anything; even most naturalists make the same range of single-variety wines as everyone else.

Mostly, natural wine in the region seems to be about eschewing sulfur dioxide. A few producers, like Frick, seem to have mastered this approach, but I would have been more enthusiastic if I hadn’t encountered an unsettling number of wines marked by oxidation and the flaw known as mousiness—including from some popular names. Perhaps it’s one way to show an unfamiliar generation of drinkers that this is not their parents’ Alsace, but it also is the biggest way to fuck up a good thing—to put fad ahead of quality.

Yet for all that, there is still much to like about Alsace. Gewurztraminer, of all things, has become a base material there for skin-fermented wines, and the handful of examples I tasted were all terrific, as were wines like Jean-Pierre Rietsch’s Pas à Pas, a solera-style wine made from the rare savagnin rose. (Rather than take sides, Rietsch’s solution has been to embrace both traditional wines—riesling from the grand cru Zotzenberg—along with “Insolites” (“freaks”) like Demoiselle, an unsulfured and skin-fermented gewurztraminer, which he mostly tries to keep under the radar from the appellation tasting committees.) And there is newfound promise with sylvaner and muscat, two of the region’s more out-of-favor varieties, among a handful of serious practitioners, like Laurent Barth, who deserve more attention.

Along those lines, Alsatians also might benefit from being more inclusive about grapes. They remain fixated on bottling by individual variety and restrict grands crus to only four (riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris, muscat). But blends have long had a place in Alsace—both the traditional edelzwicker as well as more deliberate efforts, including Deiss’ and others, like Barth’s flamboyant Racines Métisses, and these are some of the region’s best successes. And frankly, the naturalistas might want to worry less about sulfur and embrace their quirky, charming side. As Jean-Marc Dreyer poured me a taste of his sylvaner, I thought: Who wouldn’t want to drink a wine called Ziggy?

At the same time, there’s hope as the next generation either takes over at established properties or founds their own wineries, like Vignoble du Rêveur, from Jean-Michel Deiss’ son Matthieu, or Domaine Clé de Sol, founded when the Baltenweck family withdrew their family land from the local co-op. That’s crucial, because even more than in Burgundy, high land prices make the region inhospitable for new talent. “It’s not quite the mafia, but all the great terroirs go to families that are already rich,” says Catherine Riss, one of the region’s emerging virtuosos.

For that matter, while the Alsatians’ relationship with terroir is fraught, it isn’t entirely misguided. Rather than fixating on new premiers crus, the more efficient choice might be an alternate plan for village-level appellations, as in Burgundy, so that the rest of us could comprehend the geography in a less granular way. In fact, properties like Binner and Schoech are already doing just that, labeling some of their wines not with a vineyard but with their village: Côtes d’Ammerschwihr.

Even Deiss, despite his skepticism, remains a great believer in Alsace. If anything, he doesn’t want to get rid of the system; he wants to rebuild it, in a way that quiets the obsession with grapes and gives priority to that deep French love of place. “You need to be able to not live in a prison, to get some air, to be able to be different,” he told me. “That’s an Alsatian problem. It’s very difficult to stand apart from the community, to stand out. To be a radical.”

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FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • John Winthrop

    As a longtime and passionate believer in the wines of Alsace, and an especially devoted follower of Jean-Michel Deiss, I much enjoyed reading this entertaining and well-written article. I was, however, dismayed to see the oft-repeated (but highly inaccurate and historically unfounded) suggestion that Alsace is the illegitimate offspring of mixed Franco-German parentage, that Alsace has “ping-ponged between the two nations for centuries.” Germany, of course, did not even exist as a nation state before 1871, so it was hardly capable of much pinging or ponging before that. Alsace did belong briefly to Germany from 1871-1918; and it was occupied but not annexed by Nazi Germany during WWII. The salient point is that Alsace is a region unique unto itself, with an indigenous culture, language (not a dialect of hochdeutsch), and history of its own. This singularity reflects precisely the distinctiveness of its wines.

    Finally, a small quibble, but one that a fact checker should have caught: gewurztraminer in Alsace is written invariably without the umlaut that decorates the grape to the east of the Rhine.

  • Mitchell Pressman

    It’s great to read an article about Alsace and its wines, and the ongoing struggle to balance place, grape and personality. While Alsace holds a unique place among France’s wine regions, in the end its struggles are shared throughout the country. Even Burgundy, with its much better known and defined hierarchy of Grand Crus and more limited number of key grape varieties, is driven by the personalities of its best producers. Taste and fashion always change – sometimes that clashes with family tradition. The producers who best navigate that tension across generations are the ones who lead the rest.

  • Jamie

    Love Alsatian wines. My husband and I visited there last December and the wines were amazing. Here’s a great article about the trip: http://uncommongrape.com/blog/alsace-part-3-marcel-deiss