How sweet it is

Alsace might be getting it right. For a change.

Faced with disastrous sales — a recent visit included a lot of producers’ shrugs and “our American market is dead”-type laments — and an increasingly sugary regional identity, the time has apparently come to do something about it.

Rémy Gresser, a forward-thinking winemaker who doesn’t share the ludicrous fetishes of some of his peers and is now in a position of regional influence, thinks there should be sweetness indicators on bottles. He’s absolutely right. Because aside from Zind Humbrecht’s indice, there’s no way to know what one is getting unless one knows the stylistic preferences of the producer (and even then, it’s easy to go wrong).

Global warming has a lot to do with this; look at Alsace’s varietal range and then look at where else those grapes are planted. In almost every case, Alsace is the hottest and driest member of the club, and it’s not exactly getting cooler or wetter. But there’s a lot of blame to be assigned to ripeness-loving critics and writers, as well. The desire for the gargantuan points (and prices) achieved by Zind Humbrecht or Weinbach has led to a lot of long-hanging viticulture without corollary concentration or the sense of balance occasionally achieved by the former and more regularly achieved by the latter, and that means a lot of wines that aren’t pleasantly off-dry or easy-to-drink soft, but instead are just sugary and leaden. This has been a disaster for the region, as sales demonstrate.

Sweetness labeling isn’t going to save Alsace, but it certainly won’t hurt. What’s more, I suspect it will have an unintended effect: faced with the prospect of labeling nearly everything they produce as sweet, more than a few wineries are going to rethink the absence of dry wines in their stable and (re)start producing some. This, too, can’t hurt.

(It’s possible that this isn’t actually an unintended effect. Gresser may very much intend this exact outcome. Good for him, if so.)

I fear that, over the long run, Alsace — like many other regions — may be forced to consider rethinking their traditional varieties in favor of something more climate-appropriate. How much sweet gewurztraminer and sweet pinot gris does the world really need, after all? But in the meantime, this represents unquestionable progress. I only hope the producers heed the message of the market and join in.

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