Sweet on Alsace

[grape-eating bear, Andlau]In the most recent issue of The Wine Advocate, critic David Schildknecht’s report on Alsace includes a typically long and thoughtful preface assessing the current “state of the region.” In it, he makes many points I’ve been making for years (as, I should note, has he), with a special emphasis on the growing problem of residual sugar:

No doubt the sweetness in much of today’s Alsace wine is to a significant extent a reaction to high grape sugar, and many of the factors driving this – a long streak of very ripe vintages; selectivity at harvest; changing fashions; and a tendency to perceive more-as-better when tasting wines as parts of large line-ups – are hardly unique to the region. But whatever the cause, as more than a few concerned growers reminded me, steering a course and striking a balance between alcohol and sugar is becoming an increasing challenge (often exacerbated by precarious acidity), one ultimately demanding a re-thinking of vineyard and cellar practices. And those too-many Alsace growers whose wines display deficiencies in extract on account of high yields lack a critical tool for buffering alcohol or burying sugar.

He then goes on to identify manifestations of this problem…not only in gewurztraminer and pinot gris, where they’re ubiquitous and exacerbated by the problems of escalating alcohol and declining acidity, but also in the previously-iconic riesling and muscat. The latter is especially dismaying, as there’s precious little dry muscat on the market these days, though admittedly there has never been much of an export market for it in any form.

To fans of the region’s wines, this is all well-trodden territory. But in his essay, Schildknecht edges up to a major but largely unspoken cause of this problem in a way few high-profile critics have done, yet turns away before drawing the inevitable and self-damning conclusion: it’s, at least in part, critics’ fault.

Yes, as he says, climate change has a significant role to play. Certainly freak vintages like 1997, 2000, and 2003 are more the norm than the exception these days, and sugar levels are up everywhere (not just in Alsace). And it’s important to acknowledge that improved viticulture’s effects can be a mixed blessing, as the more reliable, even ripening at a previously-underperforming property is paralleled by the temptation of ever-longer, sugar-elevating hangtimes at better domaines.

But when Schildknecht writes:

Are not the most profound wines of which these varieties are capable apt to be in the realm of selective picking, vendange tardive, and residual sweetness? One could make such an argument, and my ratings would support it. But such a conclusion by no means warrants sweetness throughout a grower’s range.

…he misses the bigger problem: ratings, as a rule and from the greater mass of critics, do reward sweetness throughout a grower’s range.

Schildknecht may be an exception to this rule, given his ratings thus far, but if so he’s a rare one. Who gets the majority of the highest ratings major critics give? Generally, wineries who produce powerful, rich, sweet, and often alcoholic wine. Even dry-preferring wineries are frequently rewarded for wines in which residual sugar is presented as an “unavoidable”1 alternative to Port-like alcohol in a dry-fermented wine. People can and do disagree on whether these wines are balanced or not2, but there’s dismayingly little disagreement among major critics about “better,” in Alsace, almost universally correlating with “sweeter.”

Given this critical climate, what’s a sensible, export-minded winemaker to do? Unless there’s a rock-solid reputation on which to trade (e.g. Trimbach), one possible answer is to do what the critics appear to want, and pump up the volume.

“Well,” some are no doubt already objecting, “don’t the critics just reflect what people actually like?” If so, why are Alsace wine sales in the States so stagnant? Why does Trimbach continue to dominate certain regions with their dry or barely off-dry wines while other excellent, but sweeter, wines languish on the shelves and in distributors’ warehouses? And why do the biggest exporters to other markets, other than the top names that can sell almost anywhere3, seem to be négociants and cooperatives whose wines are, yes, dryer than most? I don’t think it’s because the bulk of Trimbach’s products, which are the yellow-label négociant wines, are inherently better than their competitors; I wouldn’t say they were, though they’re of reliably fine quality. And above that level, which Alsatian wines most regularly appear on top restaurant lists? The highly austere “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” and Clos Ste-Hune Rieslings, the ultra-restrained “Réserve Personelle” Pinot Gris, and the increasingly unique “Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre” Gewurztraminer, much more than other fine grand cru4 wines from other producers. So it would, in fact, appear that critics are not reflecting popular taste…or if they are, they’re singularly unconvincing when it comes to these wines and this region.

The thing is, I don’t think they’re doing anything other than reflecting their own tastes. As, of course, they should be; their opinions, rather than some form of polling data, are what they sell. But when there’s a changing of the guard, as their has been at The Wine Advocate…from the sugar-loving (this is not a criticism) Robert Parker, though the sugar-appreciating-but-occasionally-suspicious Pierre Rovani, to the much more conflicted Schildknecht…the effect of years of the sugar=points equation is thrown into stark relief. Drinking the major names, these days, it can be very, very difficult to find anything that’s not overpoweringly sweet. This was not the case ten years ago, either, so one can see how quickly and completely this shift has occurred.

Will the paradigm swing back? Not soon, if ever. For one thing, many critics are still enamored of the more, more, more!!! style of winemaking, no matter which region is under review. For another, warming effects aren’t going away; in fifty years, the Furstentum may be more appropriate for syrah than it is for gewurztraminer. Now, maybe this will have a long-overdue positive effect on Alsatian pinot noir, but losing the wines that have actually made Alsace’s reputation would seem to be an astronomical price to pay for such an unheralded achievement.

1Of course, “events” like 2003 aside, it’s not entirely true that such results are unavoidable. The problem is that alcohol-reduction steps in the vineyard need to start long before a grower knows whether they have 1998 (a fine, balanced year) or 1997 (hot and sticky) on their hands, and by the time they have an inkling, it’s too late to do much. But there are still steps that can be taken, and some growers are starting to do them as a matter of course: picking earlier (or picking a portion of grapes earlier to preserve acidity for the final blend), and late-season canopy retention to avoid the greatest ripening excesses. Among others.

2What works elsewhere doesn’t necessarily work in Alsace. Even before the sugar revolution, Alsatian wines were “too heavy” for some, due to relatively warm, dry conditions for the Germanic set of grapes they employ, and the resultant levels of alcohol and dry extract. Adding sugar and even more alcohol to these wines while stripping their remaining acidity is a singularly bad idea, unless one is trying to produce syrup.

3Except, it sometimes seems, the States. I’ve gotten in trouble for revealing this in the past, but even the best-known names don’t always sell that well here. Prices are a major factor (especially at a few top addresses), and visits to the market are a must too often ignored by some, but the availability of the highest-rated Alsatian wines long after their release and initial ratings would be surprising to those who haven’t seen it first-hand in the marketplace. There has to be a reason for this, and there is: see the main essay.

4Which these are, though they’re not labeled as such.

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