Alsace Challenges Our Ideas about Riesling

alsace-all-winesMany years ago, when I was first learning about Alsace (region in North East corner of France), I learned three things: there are lots of different soil types, various grape varieties and mainly produce single variety wines. And I learned, generally, that each variety was meant to be planted in a particular soil. As many of us find out through time (with any topic), it takes a long time to gain a true understanding of a subject. In the beginning, we learn the sort of “CliffsNotes” of a topic – an abridged version. But in reality, well, not every variety needs to be coupled to one particular type of land.

Riesling

It is great that Riesling has been getting some love lately, yet the love is still too little considering the pure awesomeness of this variety. It is a white grape variety, and so it is already fighting an uphill battle for prestige. Riesling can be many things, but it will never be a big, alcoholic wine – even though weight, body and type of acidity will certainly vary depending on vineyard, producer and vintage. Riesling typically makes racy, exhilarating wines that pair nicely with a diversity of cuisines. That is why Paul Grieco, former wine director/partner of Hearth restaurant in NYC, made 40% of the wine list there Riesling (even though it is an Italian restaurant) when he was still associated with it. He even started the now infamous “Summer of Riesling” campaign at his chain of Terroir wine bars. But he himself is still frustrated with the lack of popularity of this noble grape variety. Last year, at a wine seminar, he exclaimed, “Is this not the time for Riesling? Why is this still so g*ddamn hard?”

Alsace Riesling

But I have just as much frustration with not only the struggle to take Riesling more main stream, but also the still constant struggle for notoriety for Alsace Riesling wines even among Riesling enthusiasts. Of course, Germany and Austria are great classic Riesling producing countries, but somehow Alsace always gets tucked away in the corner, and in the end, it is the wine consumer, as well as the Riesling winelover, who ends up missing out. Well, to paraphrase Patrick Swayze, no one puts Alsace in the corner!

What makes Alsace Riesling special?

Even through Alsace is pretty far north, it receives a significant amount of sunshine as well as having the Vosges Mountains protect it from intense winds and rains – and so the wines get a lovely ripeness while keeping their zingy acidity. Also, going back to the idea of the assortment of soil types, another great point about Alsace is that they are not afraid to grow Riesling on what might be considered unorthodox soils in other areas. Alsace Rieslings are capable of expressing extraordinary notes that I would never associate with Riesling wines from other countries. Their wines keep me guessing and coming back for more.

Granite Soil

alsace-weinbachI was taught many, many years ago in wine class that the epitome of great Riesling wine was associated to slate soil. Now I love the Mosel as much as the next wine nerd, but there is not only one way to express greatness. I realized that the first time I had an Alsace Riesling from granite soil, such as the one I had recently, a 2013 Domaine Weinbach Riesling from the Grand Cru site “Schlossberg”. This site tends to have poor soils with low water retention which produces highly aromatic Rieslings. This was certainly true with this wine, with an intense floral nose, a touch of spice and exotic pineapple note.

Limestone Soil

alsace-agapeWell, even though granite and Riesling were always a well respected combination in the wine world, many may not know the magical combination of Riesling and limestone. Earlier this year, I went to a seminar led by John Winthrop Haeger, who wrote the book Riesling Rediscovered (a great reference book by the way), who not only told us why the combination is a fantastic one, but showed us through tasting us on sixteen Rieslings wines grown on predominately limestone soil. There have been studies that link high amounts of calcium, as present in limestone soil, to help retain acidity even late in the season; that means a producer can keep the grapes on the vine longer gaining more flavor. The 2011 Domaine Agapé Riesling from the limestone dominant Grand Cru site “Rosacker” had an incredible flinty minerality and crisp acidity while still having juicy lemon confit flavors on the palate and dried wild flowers on the finish.

Marl-Limestone-Sandstone Soil

alsace-kientzler2010 Domaine André Kientzler Riesling from the Grand Cru site “Osterberg”, which yes, has marl-limestone-sandstone soil, had an intense linear minerality – like a blade. This wine had a remarkable backbone of fierce acidity that made my mouth water and exhilarating flavors of lemon zest and wet stones on the finish. I did not want to look up the info on the particular vineyards until after I tasted it because I did not want to be influenced by what I read. Well, funny enough, in Riesling Rediscovered, Haeger said that the Osterberg site was, “powerful, with iron-fisted minerality”. Yeah, that definitely describes what I got from this Riesling that was grown in marl-limestone-sandstone soil.

Volcanic Soil 

alsace-zind-humbrechtI honestly have to admit that I have never thought of Riesling grown on volcanic soil, but it makes sense. The wines from the volcanic soil of Mount Etna, Sicily are hot! If you want to see a bunch of wine geeks in New York City lose it, just bring out some Mount Etna wines. But their recent popularity is well-deserved with their alluring aromatics that make one feel they could get lost for hours in those wines. Well, the same can be said for Riesling grown on volcanic soil. I was able to get that smoky, volcanic quality out of the 2014 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos St Urbain Grand Cru site “Rangen de Thann”. This wine had a great precision with pristine white peach fruit and again that incredible intoxicating smoky note. Wow! This should be the next wine that wine geeks lose their sh*t over.

Sometimes being Uncomfortable is Good

Riesling has an affinity for terroir, a specific type of place, and sometimes in our own dogma we forget that we cannot truly know it until we experience its transformation from a diversified selection of vineyards. The same can be said of Alsace – if you have had a couple of Alsace wines and you feel that they are not exciting, then I’m afraid that a couple of examples can never let you know how thrilling a wine region it can be.

All of us have our dogma to a certain degree, whether we like to admit it or not, and we do not want to be forced out of a certain mind set because it makes us uncomfortable. But if we are not willing to become uncomfortable then we became jaded, only mildly content with life. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be that way. I want to shake up my life, question everything I know all the time, and feel like each day is an adventure. And so, I invite you to drink Riesling from various soils and taste them side by side. Go out and try a wine region that you have given up on in the past. Have someone blind taste you on a combination of your favorite and least favorite wines – the results may surprise you… make you feel silly at first… but ultimately it will ideally make you wake up the next day giggling at the fact that life still has a lot more fun surprises in store for you.

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  • While everything you said is basically correct… it is a little misleading in a classical sense. Great Mosel Riesling is hugely acidic and has a very crisp mouth-feel, in spite of the sweeter auslese and trockenberenauslese styles. These characteristics are sometimes missing from the Alsace versions, affecting potential age-ability. I agree, most Alsacian wines are highly aromatic. The Gewurtz is particularly fascinating, but the best Riesling still comes from the Mosel. It is as if the grape was intended to be grown there!

    • Hi Doug, I did not mean to give the wrong impression. Yes, Germany, especially the Mosel, produce some of the most acidic Rieslings in the world. And I will also say it was Mosel Riesling that got me hooked on premium Riesling wines many, many years ago. I would also agree that many Alsace wines are not meant to be aged long term, but there are a few Grand Cru sites, if in the hands of the right producers can achieve a wine with a great backbone of acidity that will help them to make great old bones. But in general, it is another expression of Riesling, and so I would never say Alsace is better than Germany when it comes to Riesling but to urge Riesling lovers to try other expressions of Riesling coming from another lesser know region. And yes, I agree that Mosel Riesling is unique and stunning and I have never had another Riesling that could come close to their wonderful aromatics… I know it is not possible but I feel I actually can smell the slate on Mosel wines.

  • Joost Molegraaf

    I have been visiting Alsace for quite some time now and I’m also quite annoyed by those who keep on insisting the German Rieslings are better. Yes, of course, there are Alsace producers (among the 800 !) that leave too much sugars, but on the other hand, there are plenty of Alsace producers (and not only the great names!) that easily win any Riesling-contest with any German producer on finesse, elegance, character and fine acidity etc.

    • Joost , Yes, that was exactly my point. There are a lot of average producers but there are great producers with great sites making extraordinary wines. Any Riesling lover should try to seek out the wines from the quality minded producers.