Misfits of Alsace

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The wines of Alsace are a bit of an enigma. They are truly French, and yet certain aspects of their style, culture, and tradition are strongly Germanic. They are the only AOC-level French wine to have labeled their top-tier wines with the name of the grape variety for the last 40 years. They are also unique in that they have 51 Grand Cru vineyards, and yet not every producer or even every Grand Cru is thrilled about the fact.

Despite its long history of wine production, Alsace was one of the last of France’s major wine regions to be granted AOC status. The AOC was first created in 1962; the delightful sparkling wines of the region – Crémant d’Alsace – were awarded a separate AOC in 1976.

In 1975, Alsace awarded its first Grand Cru to Schlossberg, with more designated in 1983. Another 24 vineyards were promoted in 1992, and one more – Kaefferkopf, the 51st – in 2007. As of 2011, each of Alsace’s 51 Grand Cru Vineyards were awarded their own separate AOC.

With few exceptions – which we’ll discuss below – Alsace Grand Cru must be a white wine produced 100% from a single variety of the four “Noble” grapes of Alsace – Riesling,  Muscat, Gewurztraminer, or Pinot Gris. (Wines labeled as “Muscat” may be made with Muscat’s Ottonel, Blanc à Petits Grains, and/or Rosé à Petits Grains variations.) Alsace Grand Cru wines must be vintage dated, cannot be released until June 1 of the year following harvest, and must be bottled in a traditional, tall bottle – the Flûte d’Alsace. They are typically considered to be dry, although in some years a tickle of sugar can be detected; they may be produced in sweet styles as well. Vendage Tardive (late harvest) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (botrytis-affected) versions must be hand harvested and require an additional year of aging.

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Which leads me to the “misfits” of Alsace – meaning those Grands Crus that are delightfully unique and/or unusual.  With 51 Grands Crus, there is a lot of information to corral. (If you’d like to do just that, I suggest this link.) So here are a few of the outliers – the biggest, the smallest, and the three that have exceptions to the “noble grapes only and no blends” rule.

The First and the Biggest: Schlossberg – The Grand Cru of Schlossberg, located on the slopes above the communes of Kayserberg and Kientzheim in the Haut-Rhin, is the largest Alsace Grand Cru – clocking in at 197 acres (80 hectares). Schlossberg also happens to be the oldest of Alsace’s 51 Grands Crus – being the first vineyard to be so designated when the classification first began in 1975. The name “Schlossberg” comes from the 800-year-old castle (“Schloss” in German) located on the western edge of the vineyard.

The vineyard itself is comprised of two parcels, the majority of the area being one large plot of terraced vineyards on the south-facing slope of a large hillside; as well as a smaller parcel across the way. Riesling is the super-star here, with some excellent examples made by Domaine Weinbach, Albert Mann, and Paul Blanck.

The Smallest: Kanzlerberg – The Grand Cru of Kanzlerberg, at 7.5 acres (3 hectares), is the smallest of the Alsace Grands Crus. It also happens to be the most southerly, located in the commune of Bergheim in the Haut-Rhin Département. Kanzlerberg is located at an elevation of 820 feet (250 meters) with a due-south southern exposure, giving the vines wonderful, full sunshine and resulting in richly flavored, complex wines. Kanzlerberg is sometimes overlooked, being located just down the hill from the much larger – and very prestigious -Grand Cru of Altenberg de Bergheim. Tiny Kanzlerberg currently only has two producers – Sylvie Speilmann and Gustav Lorenz – both of whom also produce wines from Altenberg de Bergheim.

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Notable for Noir: Altenberg de Bergheim – Altenberg de Bergheim, located in the hills above the commune of Bergheim in the Haut-Rhin, produces typical Alsace Grand Cru wines from 100% Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris. However, it is unique for two reasons: it is allowed to make Grand Cru blends, and it is the only Alsace Grand Cru wine allowed to contain red grapes (Pinot Noir).  Blends must be 50-70% Riesling, 10-25% Pinot Gris, 10-25% Gewurztraminer, and may contain up to 10% (combined) Chasselas, Muscat (à Petits Grains or Muscat Ottonel), Pinot Noir, and/or Pinot Blanc. Chasselas, either of the Muscats, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc may only be used in the blend if planted before 2005. The Altenberg vineyard has been known for its outstanding wines since the end of the 13th century.

The Latest, the Contentious, and the King of Cuvée: Kaefferkopf – The Kaefferkopf Grand Cru is located in the village of Ammerschwihr in the Haut-Rhin Département. It is the most recently promoted of the Alsace Grands Crus, having just been promoted in 2007. This promotion  was not without its own controversy – producers in the area had declined Grand Cru status when it was first offered to them in 1990, and many once again contested the decision in 2007. The contentious issue was a certain plot of land – 37 acres worth – that was part of the Kaefferkopf Title awarded in 1932, but that was specifically excluded from the Grand Cru. Producers using the grapes from this plot thus lost the right to use the name “Kaefferkopf” on their wines – and have since used the more generic Alsace AOC.

That’s a crazy story on its own, but Kaefferkopf is also unique in that it is (along with Altenberg de Bergheim) allowed to produce Grand Cru blends. The blends of Kaefferkopf must be made using 60-80% Gewurztraminer and 10-40% Riesling; they may also include up to 30% Pinot Gris and up to 10% Muscat.

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The Sylvaner Specialist: Zotzenberg – Zotzenberg, located on a series of gently rising hillside slopes above the commune of Mittelbergheim in the Bas-Rhin, produces typical Alsace Grand Cru wines of 100% Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer. However, this 90-acre (36.5-hectare) vineyard is a traditional growing site for Sylvaner – an also-ran grape of Alsace is ever there was one. The laws of the AOC were revised in January of 2001 to allow Zotzenberg to produce a Grand Cru wine made using 100% Sylvaner. Excellent examples are produced by Domaine Haegi and Domaine Lucas & André Rieffel. Zotzenberg is the only Grand Cru in Alsace allowed to use Sylvaner in a Grand Cru wine.

For more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas – missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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