The race for Riesling

Image of Jancis Robinson

It’s not just the Greeks who are fearful of the Germans. The wine producers of Alsace in eastern France have reason to be grateful to the German tourists who flock in to buy their wares, but they are starting to be seriously worried about the competition posed by Germany’s new generation of dry wines.

For a long time Alsace vintners had the dry Riesling field to themselves. Until recently the Germans made a completely different style of Riesling – light-bodied and fruitily sweet rather than the steelier, food-friendly versions for which Alsace has long been famous. But now that German summers are warmer, and fashion has led Germans to see sweetness as a cardinal sin, Riesling grapes can be persuaded to ripen sufficiently to make good dry German wines. So Germany is now the source of a significant amount of top-quality dry (trocken) Riesling, including some particularly sought-after examples labelled Grosses Gewächs.

The Alsatians are feeling the need to put a very obvious stake in the Riesling sand. They may grow all sorts of other grapes too – Gewürztraminer, Pinots of all shades, Sylvaner and a little bit of Muscat – but Riesling is their most planted and most revered variety. They feel as though the Germans have become just a bit too proprietorial about the increasingly fashionable Riesling grape (which the Austrians are also rather good at now).

The result of all this soul-searching was La Journée du Riesling, held early in June, when 56 Alsace wine producers invaded the exhibition centre in the Haut-Rhin capital, Colmar, to show off their finest Rieslings to media, trade and public. Normally, events like this are pretty patchy. All the biggest producers, including the most careless merchants and worst-run co-ops, have to be represented for reasons of local politics. But because La Journée du Riesling was the brainchild of an independent Colmar entrepreneur, wine-loving Marc Rinaldi, he was allowed to choose who exhibited.

The result was that I spent the day in Riesling heaven, flitting from peak to peak rather than trudging up foothills, reminding myself just how good Alsace Riesling can be. We tasters were interrupted only once, to hear the inevitable speeches from local worthies, and from Rinaldi himself, who argued, “our Grand Cru Rieslings are great wines which should command the same price as top white burgundies. Riesling is dry and I believe that in future people will increasingly seek dry white wines.”

He has assembled a marketing budget of €8m and is particularly keen to aim it at American and Japanese wine media, as well as the best-known wine guides. (In fact, he appeared rather miffed that the two French journalists who give their names to the Bettane et Desseauve guide did not attend themselves but sent a colleague instead.) Those of us who had come from Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Norway (Riesling has an especially strong market in Scandinavia) and were only too keen to taste in person were rewarded in a significant way the night before. A dinner with some of the top producers at the famous three-star Auberge de l’Ill was devoted to showing how wonderfully well Riesling can age.

We started with an 1865 from the Auberge’s own cellars, which was the most extraordinarily youthful 147-year-old. Admittedly there was no proof it was made from Riesling, as varietal labelling was yet to be invented, and it may well have contained some other varieties too, but it was a heartening start. We fast-forwarded over the period when Alsace was known as Elsass, and under domination by You Know Who (twice), to arrive at a stunningly vibrant 1947 Riesling from the Mandelgarten vineyard made by Preiss, a wine that seemed at its peak – at 65 years old!

After that, carefully matched with classic dishes from the Auberge, such as ragoût de homard Breton aux morilles fraîches et au vieux Riesling, we made a serious impact on the world’s remaining reserves of some of Alsace Riesling’s greatest hits, wines such as Trimbach’s Clos Ste Hune 1995 and 1990 and the Vendange Tardive Hors Choix 1989. Another standout from the 1990 vintage was Domaine Weinbach’s Cuvée Sainte Catherine from the Faller family coven, while a 1989 Rangen was the most memorable Riesling from Zind Humbrecht. And the particular joy was that all but the oldest of these wines was served from handsome, tall, fluted magnums.

I learnt several things from the following day’s tasting – how well the 2007 Alsace Rieslings are now showing, how expressive the 2009s will be (eventually), how tiny and also backward the 2010 vintage is, and how the 2011s may well be ready before the 2009s and 2010s. I also learned about the new appellation Alsace Communale, somewhere between the basic Alsace appellation and the Alsace Grands Crus whose boundaries have, as you may imagine, been so hotly disputed. Eleven different communes, such as Ottrott, St-Hippolyte and Wolxheim, have jumped through the bureaucratic hoops required to establish their own sub-appellations. It is notable that these new communal appellations do not include any of the most famous wine villages; these already have glory in the form of their own Grands Crus. I’m afraid that, as so often, this development in labelling will not help the consumer much. As a local expert observed, “These 11 villages don’t necessarily make better wine than the rest; they’re just better organised.” Perhaps more useful are the new lieux-dits or individual vineyard designations (other than Grands Crus) that are to be allowed on the label.

According to Jacky Barthelme of Domaine Albert Mann, the UK market was “superb” for Alsace wines 15 years ago but those darned New World wines got in the way and it’s now very difficult. This is a shame because Alsace can offer some real bargains. Rolly Gassmann, for example, holds on to its wines for an extraordinarily long time. It doesn’t plan to release its Kappelweg Riesling 1990 until 2014, and asks only €19 a bottle from the cellar for its delicious Plaenzerreben Riesling 1997.

Go, Alsace! But be warned: Germany has the brilliant 2011 vintage up its sleeve.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of

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