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Alsace in an uproar over varietal labeling

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Yesterday, I blogged about California’s system of appellations, and how it has come to be defined by the “European model” in which a particular grape variety or varietal family is pegged to each region.

But now it turns out that the European model may be crumbling…in Europe.

Meininger’s Wine Business, Decanter and others are reporting on a civil war brewing in Alsace, the French wine region that has been the storm center of so many European wars.

alsace

Like its counterpart appellations in Burgundy and Bordeaux, Alsace has a tiered classification system, in which certain vineyards are recognized as superior Grand Crus. In the past, most bottles of Grand Cru Alsatian wine bore also the name of the grape variety, the most important being Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris (Tokay). This is unusual for France. Because most appellations are so tightly tied to specific varietals, it would make no sense for, say, a bottle of red Burgundy to say “Pinot Noir” on the label, or for a Sancerre to be called “Sauvignon Blanc.” When you buy Sancerre, you know, or should, that you’re getting Sauvignon Blanc.

But Alsace evolved differently from the rest of France. Because the soils are so complex, many varieties were cultivated there and proved their worth, which is why producers decided to name the variety on the label: so consumers could know what they’re getting. For example, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht has a Grand Cru vineyard, Hengst, and another called Clos Saint Urbain Rangen de Thann. But the former is a Gewurztraminer and the latter is a Riesling. Unless it said so on the label, you wouldn’t know — unless you took the time to memorize all 51 Grand Crus and remembered what grapes they grow.

This is the background for the Alsatian civil war, sparked by a proposal from the Alsace Viticultural Association (AVA) to remove the varietal name from Grand Cru labels. Two hundred local Alsatian vintners recently signed an open letter declaring that such a move would be “a catastrophe” that would “confuse consumers” and possibly cause Alsace to lose the luster it has long held in the wine world. No less than “the future of Alsatian viticulture is at stake,” the letter warned.

Why did the AVA, via its grand cru president Jan Michel Dreiss, propose such a drastic step? For one thing, because they could; since 2005, the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, which governs all things wine in France) has given Alsatian producers the option not to include the varietal name on the label (and a small handful have stopped doing so).

But Dreiss’s main reason seems to be that eliminating the varietal name on the label would emphasize the terroir of the Grand Cru vineyard, stressing the primacy of soil and climate over grape variety. And terroir, as we all know, always has been near and dear to the hearts of the French.

I can understand the unrest the AVA’s proposal has caused, but I can also understand the complexities of the situation. Every so often, I get sent a bottle of wine with a proprietary name and absolutely no information about what grape varieties are in it. This always annoys me, because I think that part of my job for readers is to say “This is classic Zinfandel” or something like that, and if I don’t know what the grape is, all I can do is talk about “cherries” and such. (What, you expect me to know what it is without being told?)

When I get one of those mystery bottles, it also makes me wonder why the producer omitted that vital information. Is it simply sloppy paperwork, a clerical omission for which a naive producer may be forgiven? Or is it because the producer is deliberately saying, in effect, “I’m not telling you the grapes because I don’t want you to conceptualize what you’ll find, or impose your expectations upon the wine. I want you to experience the wine for itself, not for what you think a (Zinfandel/Syrah/Sauvignon Blanc or whatever) should taste like.”

If it’s the latter case, it’s a pretty good argument. It gets back to the notion of single blind tasting, double blind tasting, open tasting, tasting in context and the whole nine yards. Maybe that’s what M. Dreiss has in mind: When you taste a Zind Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl Grand Cru, do you really need to know it’s Gewurztraminer, or is it enough to appreciate all the qualities that slope, soil, light, temperature, stones, rain and wind have brought to the wine?

My own feeling is, let me know the grape[s] or a little context. I don’t think that will rob my appreciation of the wine’s terroir. Rather, it enhances it.

  1. I guess the French would like to sell *less* wine to every other country but themselves and England???

  2. Hi,
    Let me correct a few elements if you don’t mind (I’m Alsatian ;-):

    You wrote “For example, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht has a Grand Cru vineyard, Hengst, and another called Clos Saint Urbain Rangen de Thann. But the former is a Gewurztraminer and the latter is a Riesling.”

    No, Zind-Humbrecht uses different varities both on the Hengst and the Rangen and always states them on the labels. Same with all their Grands Crus, and same with 99% of today’s production in Alsace.

    You wrote “Unless it said so on the label, you wouldn’t know — unless you took the time to memorize all 51 Grand Crus and remembered what grapes they grow.”

    That’s why today 99% if not more of the growers who are on Grands Crus write the varieties on the labels.

    You wrote “Maybe that’s what M. Dreiss has in mind: When you taste a Zind Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl Grand Cru, do you really need to know it’s Gewurztraminer, or is it enough to appreciate all the qualities that slope, soil, light, temperature, stones, rain and wind have brought to the wine?”

    It’s Mr Deiss, not Dreiss. He’s trying to push his own views because he “complanted” his vineyards (various varieties on the same parcel). Do we really need to know if there’s gewurz or riesling in a bottle of Rangen? Hell, yes!!! Try a gewurz on oysters or a riesling on chocolate cake and you’ll see… Or should Alsatian wine, or even DZH’s only be for die-hard wine connoisseurs?

    You wrote: “My own feeling is, let me know the grape[s] or a little context. I don’t think that will rob my appreciation of the wine’s terroir. Rather, it enhances it.”

    Spot on!
    I’m afraid it’s a war between ‘complantation’ and ‘pure varieties” rather than between “terroir” and “varieties”. But as you rightly said, varieties are not the enemy of terroir, but exactly the contrary. What would display the Scheoenenbourg’s minerality better than riesling? Complantation with pinot gris and gewurz? Come on!

    Sorry if I sounded harsh or patronising, it’s just that these matters… err, matter a lot to us Alsatian wine lovers.
    And congrats on a great blog!

    Santé!
    Serge

  3. Dear Serge, thanks for straightening me out on the DZH wines.

  4. Wow, Serge’s comment offers a great complement to this post. Information helps us make informed decisions as consumers. To withhold that information from us for the sake of simplicity in labeling would be the truly confusing part for consumers.

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