Close Menu

ALSACE: Fashion victim

It has the all the characteristics of a modern wine success story: refreshing reds, aromatic whites and good sparklers. Yet, notes Patrick Schmitt, Alsace is held back by its unstylish image

As in any sector, the wine trade has winners and losers. Products that peak, slide, and then revive. Much of what is written centres on the successes, raising publicity for the already prominent, and further sidelining those items where sales are slipping. But what of the future? Who is hot-tipped for a turnaround? How can they tap into emerging trends? Forecasting is fraught with problems but certain developments do seem increasingly prevalent. One of these includes the demand for lighter, more aromatic wine styles. Another is products with authenticity, history. Then there’s the rise of Pinot Noir, as well as sparkling. Finally, in food, all flavours Asian appear on the up.

Now, there is a place in the world that caters for all these requirements. An enduring source for light reds, sparkling wines, and aromatic whites that perfectly partner Asian cooking. Yes, New Zealand does tick these boxes – it is right on trend and growing globally – but no, this is not the focus of this feature. It’s somewhere that has been making refreshing whites and reds a lot longer; a home for wines that can handle spicy food, and indeed many other styles of cooking. Sadly, it’s also an area that appears to be backed into a rather unfashionable corner.

Yes, it is of course Alsace – a place well-suited to tap into so many current consumer desires, but also, as noted, an area that appears marginalised by the mass market.

Why might this be? And how can it attract a more widespread following? What are the aspects to Alsace that could be altered to improve its performance?

To answer the last point, certainly one source of confusion to the detriment of Alsace is the varying levels of residual sugar in the wines. Without a clear indication for consumers, finding a preferred wine style is an uncomfortable exercise in hit and miss. Hence, some believe the simplest solution would be to legally enforce that all wines from Alsace should be dry – that is, unless they are clearly labelled Vendange Tardive or Selection des Grains Nobles. Josmeyer, Trimbach and Beyer are certainly advocates of this approach. “We have the luxury of two AOC rules – one for dry wines and one for Selection des Grains Nobles and we should not play with it,” says Marc Beyer, referring to the blurring boundaries between the two stylistic ends of the spectrum.

For others, residual sugar levels should vary according to varietal or quality level – for instance, all Riesling should be dry, or just Grand Cru d’Alsace. But, surely if a range of styles is justifiable it should be with a clear indication of sweetness level? Zind Humbrecht and Rémy Gresser believe so, and each have their own systems. “We have to write on the label what we have in the bottle, a clear segmentation of the offer,” says Gresser. “I added three years ago a numbered sweetness scale on my back labels and it has been very successful – after all, around 90% of wine is not hand sold, so people need information on the bottle.”

However, Alex Heinrich, MD at Chateaux & Terroirs, holding company for the Pfaffenheim coop, defends his decision not to include the likes of a numbered system on his winery’s labels. “It is not just a simple matter of sweetness level, you should also indicate acidity and taste.”

And it is interesting to note, for instance, that Philippe Dry, Cave de Ribeauvillé’s managing director, is a promoter of bone-dry Riesling, but suggests that there is a need for a sweeter style of Pinot Gris because “it is very hard to get ripe Pinot Gris under 11 grams per litre”. However, Tim Marson, wine buyer for France at Cave de Ribeauvillé’s UK agent, Bibendum, suggests an entirely opposing approach for the British consumer. “We have made the Riesling more rounded, less lean, and we are looking for a cleaner, drier style of Pinot Gris.”

Summing up the problem, Richard Kannemacher, marketing director for the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace  (CIVA) says: “The journalists prefer drier styles, but producers noticed it was easier to sell sweeter wines.”

In the meantime, while such variation exists, without clear indication, the safest route is to buy by brand.

The wrong message
If there’s another area that could be altered to benefit sales of wines from Alsace in key export markets, it must the area’s image. Ideally, the French wine region should be renowned as a white aromatic wine specialist, the home of Riesling, and a source of wines with both complexity and purity – the use of new oak in Alsace is almost non-existent (for whites). In reality, this trend-tapping message has failed to reach the consumer, who appears to associate Alsace more with Germany than France, and thus sweeter wines. This is not surprising considering the prevalence of German place names as well as brands, along with enforced use of the flûte or Vin du Rhin bottle.

There’s also an issue with quality levels in Alsace – no clear tiering exists. With over 90 lieux-dits (particular soils of AOC Alsace), and 51 grands crus, there is much to remember. Furthermore, not all producers subscribe to the grands crus system. For instance, Trimbach, Leon Beyer and Hugel don’t market any wines with grand cru on the label, despite the fact over half their domaines are in grand cru vineyards. Why? As  Hugel says, “We will use grand cru on the label the day when chaptalisation for grand cru is forbidden.” (Currently, chaptilisation is only outlawed on  Alsace vendange tardive and selection des grains nobles.)

Of course, individual producers have their own tiering system. Cave de Ribeauvillé labels its wines “prestige”, “reserve”, and “grand reserve”, while Turkheim has a mid-level range of wines entitled “Terroirs d’Alsace”, which includes the name of the underlying soil, instead of the more numerous list of lieux-dits.

For the industry as a whole however, Heinrich believes the region should adopt a premier cru as a springboard to grand cru. “The lieux-dits would become premier crus, like, for example, a Volnay in Burgundy. This would give consumers a step between generic Alsace and grand cru.” As for simplifying the grands crus,  Cave de Ribeauvillé’s Dry believes the current total of 51 is far too many. “We should have 10, or seven like Chablis.”

However, if there is an advantage to the current system in Alsace, it is the longstanding inclusion of the grape and place-name on the label, giving wines both a terroir and varietal story. Unfortunately, as noted, most of the particular sites have German names, while the varietals, aside from Pinot Noir, are not as easy to sell as Sauvignon Blanc – whites from Alsace contain Riesling, Muscat, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. The latter grape, does, perhaps unsurprisingly, perform better when labelled under its Italian name, Pinot Grigio, as Cave de Turkheim discovered. “We fought to label our Pinot Gris as Pinot Grigio, and we were eventually allowed by law. This did solve a temporary problem of oversupply and the wine was more Pinot-Grigio-like in style – with around 1.5 to 2 g/l residual sugar,” explains Emmanuelle Gallis, export manager.

Interestingly, however, a raft of Pinot Grigios from Alsace have not followed Turkheim’s example.

As for changing the region’s signature tall, narrow bottle, few seem to support a different look (not that the law allows it for whites). With Pinot Noir, the region is authorised to use a Burgundy bottle, but Heinrich is “not convinced this would be better”. After all, Burgundy is only a little over two hours drive south of Alsace, and a similar bottle could cause confusion. For the whites, the CIVA’s Kannemacher believes that, even if the use of a Burgundy bottle was allowed, it would ensure “Alsace merges into the ocean of Chardonnay”. For him, “It is better to be associated with Germany, for Alsace to be in the family of Riesling.”

Design and packaging
When it comes to the labelling of wines, while some established brands in Alsace have an easily recognisable, memorable shelf presence due to old-fashioned but striking designs, such as Leon Beyer’s beautiful Comtes d’Eguisheim range, or Josmeyer’s Artist Series, many would do well to update their appearance. In fact, Beyer does have a clean, elegant, modern-looking Riesling in its line-up, launched eight years ago, and many others have subsequently updated their packaging for export markets. Notable among these is Ribeauvillé, who relaunched their labels four years ago using a bright yellow background, while Hugel, longtime user of yellow, is altering its appearance – for the first time since 1921. This, Etienne Hugel promises, will be done with the utmost sensitivity. Then there’s a new wine range from Chateaux & Terroirs called Comtes d’Isembourg, which, launched a year ago, features a silhouette of the Vosges Mountains, inspired by New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay packaging. This is a rare example of Alsace looking to the New World for inspiration.

A further gradual packaging development in Alsace involves the use of screwcaps – widely believed elsewhere to be ideal for aromatic whites. Adoption is slow in Alsace – for instance Hugel has opted for Diam agglomerated cork, keen to eliminate TCA, but wary of alienating a conservative and loyal audience. For most, cork is the preferred closure because, according to Pascal Schielé, export manager for Gustave Lorentz, “around 80% of Alsace wines are drunk in north-east France”. This local, traditional market also explains the antiquated appearance of many of the wines. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that, also according to Schielé, domestic consumption is declining.

Finally, modernisation in Alsace is slowed by the near absence of outside influence – either investment from abroad or other areas in France. This is primarily a result of land prices in Alsace – which are the second most expensive in France after Champagne (E150,000/ha versus E600,000/ha, records Heinrich). Etienne Hugel points out that Michel Chapoutier has bought 5ha in north Alsace and France’s biggest wine producer, Les Grands Chais de France, has created the Artemis brand from Alsace-sourced wine. As for French umbrella brands, UK agent Bottle Green is adding an Alsace to its French Connection range. But, some outside expertise and internal consolidation could be for the long-term benefit of the region.

> If there’s a story of success within Alsace that seems to have surprised the producers themselves, it is the rise of crémant. It is currently almost 20% of production in the region – from nothing 30 years ago. Initially, the sparkling wines, made using the traditional method, attracted a local following, which then spread nationally, and now, slowly internationally (see table, p47, for export growth). Today, Crémant d’Alsace, according to Richard Kannemacher, at the CIVA, is the leading sparkling wine in France, after Champagne. Outside France, Kannemacher says the crémant is “exploding in markets such as Belgium, Germany and the US”. And the growth trend continues, helped along by the rising price of Champagne, encouraging yet more sparkling wine drinkers to try alternatives.

Organic and biodynamic
Where Alsace does appear to be pioneering, however, apart from its position as international benchmark for aromatic whites, is in the development of organic and biodynamic viticulture. Most of the larger co-ops have an organic wine range, many of the smaller producers are in the process of conversion, and several practice at least a lutte raisonnée approach in the vineyard. Christophe Ehrhart, managing director at Josmeyer, where all the wines are biodynamic, suggests that nearly 10% of Alsace’s vineyards are either organic or biodynamic. In terms of share of the 15,000ha region, Alsace has a higher percentage of biodynamic vines than Burgundy, widely considered the champion for this movement. Not only does Alsace’s extremely dry climate (Colmar has the second lowest rainfall of any French city after Perpignon) facilitate the region’s development of an organic wine movement, but it also fits the Alsace winemaking ethos – which is about minimal intervention: for instance, there is an almost complete absence of malolactic fermentation or oak ageing. If only Alsace could position itself along these lines, market itself as a place for purity – both ecologically and oenologically. It could certainly justify the claim – especially if it reverted to drier wine styles – and  hit a consumer trend towards the unadulterated. Presently, sadly, Alsace has fallen foul of that fickle concept: fashion. This is a particular concern while New Zealand, currently in vogue, works hard to become the world’s leading grower of aromatic whites.

> For more on Alsace Grands Crus and their suitability with Asian food see February’s drinks business (Asian Persuasion, pages 24-26) or click here 

db © October 2008

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No