April 2012 : Understanding Alsace Grand Cru wines : the time is right for a paradigm shift

For the last 50 years, Alsace wines have been labeled and sorted by their single grape variety, with a specific level of sweetness and a quality level. The typical quality scale was topped by the Alsace Grand Cru appellation, and Alsace wine lovers have been praising several terroirs for their incredible capacity to produce great Riesling or great Pinot Gris wines. If sweetness and later on concentration was the main criteria to determine quality, in the modern world of high-quality wine production these can no longer be the basis to identify the best wines. Complexity is what makes great wine distinctive, since it can only be achieved by a great terroir. A stronger focus on complexity may change the point of attention of wine lovers, with grape variety becoming a support to express the complexity of the best terroirs. Read more to understand why today is the best time for a paradigm shift...

Before the early 20th century, Alsace wines were famous worldwine, and defined by their origin, either the name of a village (Riquewihr, Marlenheim, Eguisheim), or a terroir  (Kirchberg de Barr, Sporen, Altenberg etc.). In addition to these great wines, known for their longevity, basic wines of poor quality were also produced and drank locally. The surface cultivated culminated to 30 000 hectares, nearly twice the current size of the Alsace vineyard.  In order to structure the production and increase the quality, during the 20th century the wine region has gradually banned non-qualitative grape varieties, reduced the areas where vine could be planted, and started to communicate around the 7 major grape variety. Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir became the main reading grid for Alsace wines, completed by the VT/SGN mention in 1984, and the Alsace Grand Cru appellation in 1975, 1983 and 1993. For many, the unique Alsace Grand Cru appellation followed by the name of one of the now-51 places was a way to identify the best Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers. Their average quality was due to a noble origin (one of the 51 places which could qualify for the Alsace Grand Cru appellation), but also due to restrictive production criteria, especially maximum yields 1/3 lower than for generic Alsace wines.

Regardless of a better average quality, the character and originality of each Grand Cru became secondary, the objective being to allow most villages to own their Grand Cru and produce most of the 4 allowed grape varieties. Journalists and restaurant chefs followed this quality scale, and you can still read grape variety-based wine&food pairing recommendations in magazines, suggesting to drink Riesling with fish, and Riesling Grand Cru with noble fish. Grand Cru had become de facto the label to recognize a premium quality among the selected grape varieties, regardless of any originality.

For the past 40 years, several estates have started to produce low yield, perfectly ripe wines from areas not classified as Grand Cru. On the other hand, some Grand Cru wines started to become cheaper, to the point that you can easily find grand cru wines under 8€ a bottles these days. What a waste for some of the best terroirs in the world, which have been renowned for the quality of their wines. It is time to stop thinking that Grand Cru are just one level on the grape variety quality scale, representing one step of concentration further from lesser appellations. Some of the largest winery price lists are just demonstrating this way of thinking : wines are sorted by grape variety, then by price, with Rieslings going up from generic Riesling to cuvées Reserve, cuvée Spéciale, to Lieux-dit, Grand Cru, then Vendange Tardive and Sélection de gains Nobles.  This pricing model used by most wineries suggests that the concentration / production yields is the main driver of quality, and that a Riesling vendange tardive should be priced higher than a Riesling grand cru.

The main quality of a grand cru should be its complexity, giving a specific personality to every place, especially given the high diversity of Alsace geology. The time has come to think about terroir complexity, and the best way for a wine to express this complexity, rather than just trying to understand how to produce a better Riesling. This important paradigm shift is key to understand the true complexity of the best Alsace wines when they come from the best terroirs, and how to promote them. The challenge is to position Alsace wines from the best terroirs  where it should be, among the best wines of the world.

An important regulatory change in 2011 has transformed the unique AOC Alsace Grand Cru into 51 single appellations. Alsace Grand Cru Brand is now a different appellation from Alsace Grand Cru Rangen. I had the opportunity to taste thousands of Grand Cru wines these last 10 years, and it is now time to start differentiating these 51 grands crus, because not all of them are equal. Not equal in terms of personality of course, but also in terms of quality. Some Grand Cru have a real potential to produce highly complex wine, a potential that has been achieeved by some of the best producers. Some Grand Cru have a similar qualitative potential which has not been achieved yet, at least in recent vintages. Last, some Grand Cru may not have the potential to be as complex as the best ones, staying in second or third categories behind the leaders.

Establishing a preliminary ranking based on actual wines produced and tasted, regardless of any marketing and communication aspects, is going to be an interesting task this year. Keep reading…

Thierry Meyer