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An IGP would be ‘a deadly threat’ for Alsace, says vigneron

There are calls in Alsace for the creation of an IGP, and for the establishment of a premier cru quality marker. Conal Gregory reports on the latest developments, which are ruffling feathers in the French region.

Alsace is the land of the stork, a bird that arrives each year in the French region to breed, and symbol still adopted by many wine producers. After years of decline owing to their being hunted in Africa, and accidents from electric lines, the stork population has finally stabilised. Their nests can weigh up to 500kg and span 2 metres in diameter. Parallels with such a resurgence are made by many wine producers.

There is no premier cru designation in Alsace. Yet there are strong calls for such recognition for sites on the region’s lower slopes and hill tops. The AVA (Association des Vignerons d’Alsace) has worked on such a proposition for 12 years. It would form a level in a pyramid: 51 grand crus at the top, one Alsace AOP at the base and 13 named villages with single vineyards (lieux-dits) in between.

Each has different rules of production, which are mainly based on the maximum permitted yield, such as 40hl/ha for red and 50hl/ha for white grand cru but higher for simple Alsace wines (60-75hl/ha in 2022 depending on the grape variety).

Communities have been asked for their opinion, and examples if the law were to change. Premier cru would remain within the single Alsace AOP but with a criteria based on such aspects as history, notoriety and yield. Tastings over a decade of vintages would be made by an INAO-approved committee.

“There is a major problem (in furthering such a change) because Alsace is a complex geological maze,” says Olivier Humbrecht MW, who predicts five years further work.

In Ribeauville, which has three grand crus (Geisberg, Kirchberg, Osterberg), Julian Trimbach says Weinbaum (where he has Sylvaner planted) should be a premier cru and Muehlforst in Hunawihr (where the firm has Gewurztraminer).

Jean-Frederic Hugel cannot see any grand cru being declassified to premier cru “anytime soon.”

Geology on labels

Rather than wait for such recognition, the Cave Vinicole de Turckheim has described distinctive plots by the name of their soil structure since 2004.

After consumer discussions, it has stopped revealing the specific names on wine labels and has instead created a “collection terroirs” range composed of vines grown on granite, marl, limestone and sandy-gravel.

“This decision to simplify the terroirs has been successful, and there is no place for premier cru in our range,” says Emmanuelle Gallis, sales director of the Cave Vinicole de Turckheim.

Instead of a field name, the Cave typically writes ‘Heimbourg-Marnes et Calcaire’.

It uses three terroir designations on its labels – Marnes et Calcaires, Granit and Sables et Galets – but they are not translated into English, or any other language.

Wines made from grape varieties which are not on the authorised, and now somewhat historic, vine list may only be sold as Vin de France.

Yet such is the demand for these that producers are packing in three-litre units and cannot use any regional designation.

Trimbach says he is not against it, adding “We are really focused on our great terroirs, grand cru and others in organic production.”

An IGP for Alsace?

There is currently no half-way measure, such as an IGP.

Gallis says if such a designation was created: “It would give more publicity to Alsace.” His co-op is an important player with 150 members holding 400ha of vines.

Humbrecht disagrees: “The region does not want IGP. It would confuse customers and destroy prices as these wines would be made with no strict rules of yield, irrigation, density. For my Zind cuvee, I’m happy to remain as Vin de France.”

Hugel says, “An IGP would be a deadly threat for the region.”

By law, Alsatian wine has to be bottled in a flute, even for half bottles. This has given a distinct aesthetic to the wines but has meant that no train or plane can carry Alsatian wine as the bottles are too tall for transport refrigerators. This is embarrassing not only to supporters of the TGV but also to Air France.

Non-AC, usually sold on a bag-in-box basis, is forbidden to indicate any regional character on the presentation. It must exclude pictures of their pretty villages, any mention of the main term for a blend (Edelzwicker) or the three designated varieties of Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Sylvaner. Only the three Pinot vines can be named. Pinot Blanc and dry fruity Pinot Gris form a popular duo.

The Cave Vinicole d’Eguisheim, which trades as Wolfberger, vinifies Chardonnay as Vin de France and calls it L’art d’un grand. Oenologist Emilie Lejour has a rich inventory from 301 members whose vines yield around 80,000hl annually from 1,287ha.

Sweetness scale

For decades, potential consumers of Alsatian wine have had little or no label advice as to the relative dry or sweet character of the wine. Some producers have always fermented their wines to dry, notably for Riesling.

After an informal agreement to place a sweetness scale with an indicative marker on wine labels was largely ignored, a legal requirement has emerged, commencing with the 2021 vintage. To give it full clout, it has EU backing.

The legislation refers to the relative sweetness at the time of harvest rather than at bottling.

This essentially places the onus on the vine grower as to when to pick the grapes and the subsequent style of wine to be created.

The new law requires the information to be displayed on either the front or back label with two options: one of four terms (dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, sweet which correspond to up to 4g/l, 4-12g/l, 12-45g/l and over 45g/l) or a scale with an arrow pointing to the specific level.

There is no label uniformity.

The scale approach is used by Domaine Viticole de la Ville de Colmar for Tesco and by both Kuhlmann-Platz (Cave Vinicole de Hunnawihr) and Schlumberger for Majestic.

Sainsbury says that “using a 1-4 scale would not be consistent with the rest of our range. Using it is not mandatory as we include the term ‘medium dry’ instead.”

Its own scale was introduced 12 years ago and is “linked to perceived sweetness rather than g/l of sugar.” Sainsbury rates Gewurztraminer 2021 as three out of nine.

The Cave Vinicole de Turckheim scores four for Gewurztraminer on a 1-5 scale with M&S, and additionally calls it “medium sweet”.

Single terms are applied by Hugel (Majestic), by Cave de Beblenheim (Waitrose) and the Turckheim Cave (Morrison).

The latter supermarket says its Gewuztraminer is 12.8g/l but calls it “medium dry”.

Cave de Bestheim-Bennwihr says that its old vine Gewurztraminer for Lidl is “medium dry”.

New AC for dry wines

Aware of the global popularity of dry wines – notably Sauvignon Blanc – a new AC has emerged: Alsace Sec.

It has a strong focus on Riesling with an emphasis on acidity.

Marc Beyer of Leon Beyer is pleased that there is now recognition for classic dry wine from Alsace, saying it is “probably the only one producer in Alsace which never slipped to sugary wines. All varieties (excluding the late harvest) have been vinified dry.”

Terminology can still confuse. Producers quite often refer to Klevner, but label under its new name of Pinot Blanc.

Yet there is also Klevener d’Heilingenstein, which is actually Savagnin Rose but is a white wine.

Five villages are authorised to produce this type of wine: Bourgheim, Gertwiller, Goxwiller, Heiligenstein and Obernai.

It is not the Savagnin Noir, which is the term for Pinot Noir in the Jura. Zwicker can no longer be used, but Edelzwicker and Gentil are permitted for blends.

The proportion of each vine variety is often not disclosed in statistics with Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois (sometimes called Pinot Auxerrois) frequently combined even though the latter is usually 15-20% more expensive.

In 2022, Pinot Blanc alone was 2,882ha (18.5% of the vineyard area) and Auxerrois 454ha (2.9%).

Often some of the 3,156 producers like to emphasise they still have old vines. In common with other regions, there is no regulation as to the minimum age to label as vieilles vignes but the informal agreement is at least 26 years old.

Grand Cru developments

The pricing of grand cru is often not understood by merchants and consumers alike.

Gallis says it has paid growers on the surface area since 2001, not on the yield. “We want the grand cru to be the real premium wines,” he says.

No new grand crus have been designated since 2017, which now number 51 but one change in the law is to add the Pinot Noir variety to the authorised list. History supports outstanding sites and perhaps the legislators overlooked this vine. As an example, the ‘lieu-dit’ of Hengst in Wintzenheim has been designated as top quality since the 9th century. The Eguisheim co-op has members with holdings there.

In anticipation of the new status for Pinot Noir as grand cru, Etienne-Arnaud Dopff of Dopff ‘au Moulin’ replanted part of this vine on 1.5ha at Schoenenbourg in Riquewihr. The other permitted sites are Hengst and Kirchberg de Barr.

Vine plantings in Alsace (2022)

  • Pinot Blanc 21% (largest as used for Cremant)
  • Riesling 21%
  • Gewurztraminer 19%
  • Pinot Gris 16%
  • Pinot Noir 12%
  • Sylvaner 5%
  • Muscat 2%
  • Other (eg. Chardonnay, Chasselas, Klevener de Heiligenstein) 4%

Source: Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace (CIVA)

Vineyard planting (2022)

  • Total surface 15,529ha
  • Young vines 372ha

Source: CIVA

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