Alsace Riesling


Alsace Riesling
Vins & Vignobles
Alsace Riesling
The village of
in Alsace, the best
vineyard plots
are reserved for
whenever you have the good
fortune of discovering something that is
unusually rare and wonderful—a novel,
a work of art, a piece of music—it’s only
natural to want to share it with friends, to
help them see in it what you do. When you
are especially passionate about its virtues,
it can become an obsession of sorts. That’s
how I feel about Alsace Riesling, which
I think is the most lamentably underappreciated of France’s greatest wines.
This bothers me so much that I’ve been
badgering friends about it for years.
They’ve always taken it graciously—it
probably helps that my diatribe comes
with a glass of delicious wine.
Fortunately for those of us who do
appreciate Alsace Rieslings, their lack of
popularity means they are tremendously
underpriced. During the late 19th and early
20th centuries, top Rieslings were prized—
and priced—as highly as the best bottlings
of Bu rg u ndy a nd Borde au x. Tod ay,
Riesling no longer plays in that prestigious
league, and even among white wines,
sales consistently lag behind Chardonnay,
Fr a nce • w inter 2006 -07
Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris/Grigio.
This is not because of a decline in quality.
I’m confident that most experts would agree
that the Rieslings produced around the
world—in France, Australia, Austria and
Germany—during the past 20 years are the
best ever made. The problem lies elsewhere;
namely, in the fickle arena of fashion.
Trends in vinous fashion have been
running in a drier direction for decades,
and Riesling, like Port, has suffered as a
consequence. This is unfortunate in both
cases but especially unfair to Riesling,
which often isn’t sweet at all and in fact
is usually dry. German Rieslings are the
exception, and even they have been getting
drier during the past 15 years. Still, Riesling
hasn’t been able to shed the stigma of its
reputed sweetness, which leads many consumers to the mistaken conclusion that it is
an old-fashioned dessert wine, ill-suited as
an aperitif or as a partner to savory foods.
Recent fashions in wine have a lso
favored big, oaky, alcoholic wines. This
adds up to three strikes against Riesling,
which is almost always lean and light, and
is very rarely made with any overt wood
notes. Thankfully, the big bruiser fad
seems to have peaked, and I see indications
of a consumer backlash in the rise of light,
fresh Pinot Grigio and explicitly “unoaked”
Chardonnay. Riesling is well positioned to
catch this wave and regain its proper place,
which in my opinion is at the very top of
the white-wine pyramid.
I say this because no other grape varietal
is so versatile, ages so well or is as capable
of conveying the particular character of
its place of origin. Riesling can excel as a
bone-dry wine, an unctuous dessert wine
and at every level of sweetness in between.
Excellent examples are remarkably durable,
improving for decades when properly
cellared. And no other variety—white or
red—can match Riesling’s ability to convey
the subtle nuances of soil and climate that
give great wines a sense of place.
I would not relish the prospect of being
limited to a single geographic source for my
Riesling, but if forced to choose, I would
pick Alsace. Top Rieslings from this region
are more complex and age better than their
counterparts from Austria and Australia,
and whereas most German Rieslings need
sweetness to counterbalance their abundant
natural acidity, Alsace Rieslings can be
harmonious even when made in a bonedry style.
So if Alsace Rieslings are such great
wines, why aren’t they better known? The
main reason is that they are relatively rare.
Alsace is the only place in France where
wine laws permit planting Riesling, and
within Alsace, it is only one of seven vine
varieties grown by winemakers (the others
are Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc,
Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Sylvaner).
A novice might mistake Riesling for just
another grape in this crowd, but almost
every vintner I’ve interviewed regards it as
Alsace’s most noble variety. Consequently,
it is usually treated to prime sites within
the region’s vineyards, and it manifests its
greatness differently depending on the soils
in which it is planted. It shows intensity
©scope /J. guill a rd ; courtesy of be yer
by Michael Franz
and firm structure in granite soils, and a
softer, richer profile in clay. Sandy soils
produce wines that are light but mineral
and elegant, whereas alluvial soils lend
more body and lower acidity. Limestone
conjures R ieslings that are especially
restrained in their youth but supremely
intricate and nuanced when mature.
A lsatian R ieslings can also show a
remarkable range of aromas and flavors,
with fruit notes ranging from apple and
citrus to stone fruits, along with accents of
flowers, flint, freshly cut grass, fennel and
honey. Of course, there’s no substitute for
direct experience, so here are brief notes on
my six favorite Riesling producers. Once
you’ve tried them, I know you’ll want to
tell your friends.
an excellent generic Riesling; a Reserve
bottling made from young vines planted in
Grand Cru vineyards; and Grand Cru wines
from Brand and Sommerberg that are always
among the best in Alsace. Tel. 33/3-89-27-1132; Fax 33/3-89-27-70-14.
Working 38 acres of vines using biodynamic
techniques, this house produces an excellent
generic R iesling, a strongly minera l
rendition from a lieu-dit called Belzbrunnen
and several extraordinary cuvées from the
Grand Cru vineyards in Spiegel, Saering
and Kessler. These Rieslings are open
and generously flavored but also seriously
structured and capable of long aging. Tel.
33/3-89-76-91-00; Fax 33/3-89-76-85-97;
E-mail: [email protected].
léon beyer (Eguisheim)
F. E. Trimbach (Ribeauvillé)
Marc Beyer is a 13th-generation proprietor
of this venerable family firm, and he makes
exceedingly complex, impeccably dry
Rieslings that are treasured by restaurateurs
around the world. All of his Rieslings are
lean and steely in their youth, adding depth
and dimension with each passing year. The
generic Riesling is remarkably consistent.
The top bottlings, Comtes d’Eguisheim
and Les Escaillers, are made only in great
vintages and can improve for two decades.
Trimbach Rieslings are uncompromisingly
dry. Although they can be bitingly acidic in
their youth, they can also mature over decades
to develop remarkably complex floral, fruit
and mineral notes. The generic Riesling is
very serious and consistent. Cuvée FrédéricEmile is deeper and more concentrated but
still quite taut. Clos Ste Hune is widely
regarded as the world’s greatest dry Riesling,
and the Clos Ste Hune Vendange Tardive
couples greater richness with astonishing
acidic balance.
Albert Boxler (Niedermorschwihr)
Domaine Weinbach (Kaysersberg)
Boxler is a family firm that crafts some of
Alsace’s most exciting wines from grapes
drawn entirely from its own 30 acres of
vineyards. All Boxler Rieslings are very
intense in flavor and are structured with an
abundance of racy acidity. The range includes
Weinbach Rieslings have been models of
purity and balance for decades, though
recently the balance has shifted a bit toward
the drier side of the spectrum under the
talented guidance of winemaker Laurence
Faller. Her Rieslings are all generously
flavored despite being only slightly sweet,
with Cuvée Théo, Sainte Catherine and
Schlossberg achieving consistent excellence.
Schlossberg Cuvée Sainte Catherine is
often a striking wine showing an uncanny
combination of restrained focus and
profound depth.
Dirler-Cadé (Bergholtz)
Domaine Zind Humbrecht (Wintzenheim)
A range of Rieslings by the venerable winemaker
Beyer in Eguisheim.
This extraordinary producer makes as many
as 10 different Rieslings plus additional
Vendanges Tardives and Sélection de Grains
Nobles cuvées. Fermentations are performed
naturally with wild yeasts, sometimes
concluding with quite notable sweetness in
the finished wines. Top Bottlings: Brand,
Clos Häuserer, Clos Windsbuhl, Rangen de
Thann Clos Saint Urbain. Tel. 33/3-89-2702-05; Fax 33/3-89-27-22-58.
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