Alsatian Riesling: A Brief History & Comparison
Wine: Domaine Zind Humbrecht, Domaine Gresser, Hugel & Fils
Vines: Biodynamic - Sustainable
Production: Small - Large
Price: $20 -$27
What does every great wine have in common with all other great wines? The ability to age. Beyond deliciousness, availability or rarity, white or red, the most prestigious wines the world over undeniably improve with age. Like people. Who can forget how much smarter they were at 30 compared to 25? And smarter still at 35? I'm sure when 50 comes around I'll roll my eyes at my now 40-year old self and how little I knew "back then."
Encountering a 25, 30 or 40 year old wine is rare, an elite game left to a small gaggle of insiders with expendable income and deep cellar connections. You can find them - their avatars anyway - on Instagram and Delectable. They love to post photos of the old wines we will never try. (On the odd occasion that this writer gets to drink an aged beauty, it absolutely will be grammed, with abandon). But before I get carried away with age, I want to visit the many aspects of Alsatian wines that make them so interesting. That they are characteristically built for time, is just one.
Reasons Alsace is an exceptional winemaking region:
- Wines are varietally labeled
- 90% of the wines are white
- A strong German-French identity centuries old
- At least 20 major soil types provide a wide variety of styles
- Tucked between dual positive influences of the Rhine River and the Vosges Mountains
- Rieslings are - with marked exception - always dry
- New oak is almost unheard of
- Everything is, by law, bottled in tall, slender flutes
Alsace has a storied history anchored in disputes between neighboring France and Germany. Reaching back to the 1600s, before Germany was Germany and then part of the Holy Roman Empire, Alsace-Lorraine was claimed by France at the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648. Two hundred years later, under Napolean III, Alsace was annexed to Germany post the Franco-Prussian War. In 1911, Alsace was granted limited autonomy from the German Empire. They even had their own flag. At the end of WWI, France occupied Alsace and began nationalizing the region by forcing many native German speakers across the Rhine and back into Germany. During WWII Alsace was annexed by Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler declared all Alsatians to be German citizens, then forced about 100,000 residents to fight for the German armed forces. In 1945, at the end of WWII, Alsace was again returned to France where it has remained ever since. In the three generations before the cease fire, the region switched citizenship four times. As did the primary language.
Though many vineyards were destroyed and wineries shuttered, winemaking never ceased. Each of the producers I've written about here are family run and were originally established in the 1500 and 1600s. No doubt they have tales and memories to dot the chronological landscape of Alsace.
The long cool growing season and vineyards sheltered from extremes by the Vosges and the Rhine make it a perfect environment for white wine varieties, which almost seems antithetical considering how cold the winters can get. Where's that big, bold red to warm you up? These wines may be white and crisp with acidity, but they carry their weight well, touting rich textures and bright flavors that love food, even bone-warming comfort dishes like baked chicken in cream, hearty sausage and roast pork. That they are, as a general rule, never adorned with new oak, allows them to be vehicles of vintage and vineyard. This is, for me, what makes Alsace truly special.
With so many different soil types come an array of styles, mixing adventure with interest. In the Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson gives us a general rule of thumb for understanding soil influence on a wine; heavier clay and marl soils make wines with broader flavors, weight and body, while limestone and sandy soils make wines with elegance and finesse. Flint, schist, shale and slate produce wines with an oily texture and piercing mineral notes often described as petrol and gunflint. I find this to be particularly true of German rieslings from the Mosel.
The producers I'm highlighting today are from three different villages, depicted in the borrowed map below. I altered the image to point out the respective domaines. Sample bottles of riesling from Domaine Rémy Gresser, Hugel & Fils, and Domaine Zind Humbrecht were provided by Teuwen Communications, which represents Wines of Alsace, for this post. I chose riesling to demonstrate Alsace's uniqueness in part because the common misconception that rieslings are universally sweet is immediately debunked. Unless a bottle is marked sélection de grains nobles (SGN) or vendange tardive (late harvest), the wine will be dry.
Other varieties to look for in Alsace are pinot blanc, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, sylvaner, muscat d'Alsace and pinot noir, which is the only red grape. A field blend labeled as edelzwicker can be fun too.
domaine rémy gresser riesling Kritt 2012
This is the oldest producer of the bunch and the oldest wine I tasted for this piece. It's also the only lieu-dit specific, from the estate's Kritt vineyard. Rémy Gresser comes from a long line of winegrowers in the village of Andlau in the Bas-Rhin, or Northern Alsace. He farms his 35.5 acres biodynamically and highlights the varied soils of Andlau through the many wines he makes. This riesling is grown in granite soils and made by traditional methods, meaning native yeast, slow fermentation and aging in large, neutral barrels.
Despite being the oldest of the three, it was the most youthful in it's bright, lean acidity and shyness. It's what we call a tight wine that I expect will become incredibly interesting and generous with ten or twenty years of age. Underripe pear and apple with some citrus notes and mineral stony notes. $20-$22 retail. Find it on wine-searcher.
Hugel & Fils Classic Riesling 2014
Hugel is among the largest producers in Alsace and probably the most recognized on U.S. wine shelves. The bright yellow label and clear importer branding - a Wildman & Sons tag adorns the bottle's neck - are hard to miss. In fact their website states that over 90% of their wines are exported to over 100 countries, "where Alsace is often synonymous with Hugel." They make roughly 110,000 cases a year.
In true Alsace form, their wines are clear of oak and undergo slow, cool fermentations. The "Classic" riesling is grown in clay and limestone in the village of Riquewihr, and exhibits the most fruit and floral notes of the three wines in this study. That said, it's hardly a fruit bomb, with green apple notes and bright acidity grabbing the attention upon first sip. For $20 or less, this is a great introduction to Alsatian rieslings. Find it on wine-searcher.
Domaine zind humbrecht riesling 2013
The Humbrecht family has been making wine in the village of Turkheim since 1620, and was officially branded as Zind Humbrecht in 1959. The grapes for this bottling were blended from different plots mostly from the estate's Herrenweg vineyard on sandy, gravelly soils on the valley floor. Because of the mountainous terrain in Alsace, most producers grow at least some of their grapes on the hillsides, often on steep slopes not easily reached. This wine demonstrates how a slightly more fertile and sun-exposed planting on flatter ground can produce a riper wine.
The 2013 riesling went through malolactic, which is more rare than not in Alsatian winemaking, and then spent some extended time on the lees. As a result, it has more body and richness than the previous two wines and is distinctly more expressive. I found toasty notes intermingled with ripe apple and pear. It finishes dry. It is priced at $25-$27 retail and can be found on wine-searcher.