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Alsace Pinot noir

There have been a few posts about Alsace pinot noir that I thought they deserve a thread of their own. Possibly there are wider issues about Alsace.
My initial thoughts are that:

  1. Alsace with its historical focus on unoaked aromatic whites is more akin to white wine production than red. Does it have a problem adapting to red wine making?

  2. Bearing the above in mind do we think that Alsace reds are too often made in a protective white wine style

3.Does the Alsace AOC system hinder the making of 1er and Grand cru reds so that it cannot compete with Burgundy

  1. Should Alsace reds focus on a target market of low medium price pinot noir and not try to compete with Pinot noir made in France.

I am not sure Alsace winemakers understand what they want to achieve.
Anyway I have thrown out some points that I hope will provoke a discussion.

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Perhaps. But it’s made Pinot Noir for quite a while. It might also be worth noting that in a conversation at a WS Dinner in Glasgow with the winemaker at Domaine Weinbach, he noted that they had planted Syrah recently…and also that Gewurz was becoming increasingly challenging due to warming.

Maybe it should try to compete with the better German Pinot Noir…not sure anywhere in Western Europe makes decent low priced PN (can we define that?). Chile might.

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I thought Alsace was in France!

It is, but is a French soul wrapped in a German body.

Hmm, really don’t agree with that. Either wine-wise or culture-wise. That makes it sound more German than French, and for sure it’s complicated, but not like that. Alsatians that I know would express their identity as distinctive, but certainly far more French than German. The wine is definitely far more French in style than German, too. Go to Alsace, and you’re in France - “a French soul wrapped in a German body” makes it sound like you’d think you were in Germany.

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Yes, and no, and more yes now, but when we first went, including to Rolly Gassmann, the bill was added up in German, the language in which the older people had gone to school, although the political loyalties were always to France. The most touristic villages like Riquewihr look more like Rothenburg than any other French village , not to mention labelling by grape variety and ranking by SGN, etc. And of course the food.

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For me the beauty of the place is in the way it straddles both cultures (not unlike Alto Adige) - linguistically and culturally, though of course, it’s easy for me to say as an outsider, without having to bear the burden of history.

A couple years ago, we got a bit lost on our bikes on the way to Riquewihr - and as neither of us speak French well, I asked a guy who was tending his garden for directions in German (which I’m more comfortable with). He responded in German, and we got there soon after. Then again, there is an undeniable Frenchness to the ambience of places like Strasbourg and Colmar, and bon viveur attitude to food and drink, which feels much more French. To me, it always feels like its own place - an amalgamation of two lovely cultures.

Incidentally, one of the tastiest Alsatian meals I’ve had was in a Weinstub(e) in Baden Baden. Go figure.

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Time for a more considered reply, which hopefully brings it back on topic, too. My slightly hasty response last night rather underplayed the Germanic influence on the area, which @SPmember and @Inbar rightly point out. The Alsatian language is Germanic, and there seems to be an increase in interest in it. Place names, family names, buildings etc are Germanic. But the Alsatians see that as THEIR identity - neither German nor French - and having been shuffled between the two countries they hold onto that. When you’re there, though, it feels far more French than German. Almost all of the village signs, though, have a discrete (and I believe illicit) “Im Elsass” added, following Hollande’s integration with Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne to form the Grand Est - that really wasn’t popular (though that also has to do with what they see as loss of money). They want to assert their own identity. It will be interesting to see what happens now that Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin have merged.

So, to bring it on-topic, if Alsace is going to start to make red wines more seriously, it will find a way to do it in its own image. It’s easy to forget that it reinvented itself as a maker of quality wine post-War - for a long time, and especially under German rule, it was seen as an easy source of cheap quaffers. So what we see as a historical focus on unoaked aromatic whites is comparatively recent in its current form. It’s at an early stage of more widespread production of quality red wine, but it has the terroirs to find its own place, and the existing methods are continually being challenged - the young winemakers get sent all over France and the world to learn their trade and pick up new techniques. The trend at the moment is towards competing with Burgundy, and you can understand why producers cast an eye at what’s probably the world’s most overpriced wine and want some small slice of that pie. What I’d hope for, is that this continues to evolve into its own style. I don’t think that going up against low end, New World pinots would be productive either - they’d never compete on volume, and it wouldn’t be commercially worthwhile. The Alsace pinot noirs that I currently enjoy the most fit somewhere between the two - unoaked or lightly oaked, a ripeness of fruit, but an Old World restraint and earthiness. I do feel that there’s a niche there for something distinctively regional*. I actually don’t doubt that the region is capable of evolving a more oaked style, but my worry is that I wouldn’t drink much of it, because I wouldn’t like the price.

*Cue someone telling me that that’s exactly the style of Spätburgunder. To my shame, I can’t actually remember drinking one. I really should. Edit: especially having re-read @MarkC’s post!

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I really hope you are proven right. I only had a handful of Alsatian PN, most of which were the unoaked examples, and to my palate they were their own thing, and all the more enjoyable for it.

It would be a bit sad if all energies are directed at mimicking Burgundy, because to my mind it may end up being just that - a pale (how very PN!) imitation. Interesting that you mentioned Spätburgunder, though! I can see more similarities there than with Burgundy, especially ones from Baden or even the Pfalz. But maybe it’s just my palate.

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Some Alsacians might take issue with that! the ones I know are (rightly) proud of their unique culture - they also seem rather disdainful of those from Lorraine… but lets leave quiche for another day.

Regarding Pinot Noir, perhaps the problem is the AC rules which effectively straightjacket the good vignerons of Alsace. Andrew Jefford has some interesting views in ‘The New France’, an excellent read.

Another rabbit hole for the Architecturally inclined, regarding French / German influence is Strasbourg cathedral. During the few hundred years of it’s construction it’s design flipped back and forth between French / German influence… and you can see this in the various layers as it grew taller.

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I wouldn’t repeat that in front of an Alsatian if I were you. you might get your head bitten off!

Hmm, I think that is a bit of a sore point in Alsace.

In WW2 it wasn’t just occupied, it was assimilated into Germany. So the young men were conscripted to fight for the Nazis on the Eastern front and, yes, German was taught in schools for a few years. But I doubt very much anyone there speaks German in preference to French or Alsatian.

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I seem, quite inadvertantly to have triggered two separate debates. One on wine, another on history.
Turning back to wine, Alsace has problems. Its classification system creaks at the seams. Large GC vineyards created with dry whites in mind now produce grapes in which owners struggle with issues residual sugars. The labelling does not always help.
It has no pyramid in quality for PN. So basically it competes with bourgogne rouge only and nothing higher.
As far as the UK is concerned if we take a big slice of the hospitality trade namely pubs and those with restaurants, Alsace PN is nowhere. Even its whites struggle to appear on lists. If a Riesling is listed it is either German or Australian. I know nothing about other countries.
Alsace may be moving in the direction of 1er crus but there is a disagreement between growers about reforming the top heavy GCs at the same time.
Alsace needs to consider its target market for reds. If it is aiming at mid price then there is competition both in France and further afield.The Languedoc is a place where low price PN is made. That is the area that sells in UK pub restaurant hospitality trade.

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I have always assumed that the target market for Alsace PNs (like the target for English wines) is official local dinners or local restaurants which have to offer local wines of all colours. The rest of us can and should ignore them. But I disagree that the whites ‘struggle to appear’ in the UK: any good restaurant (except specialist ones) will have at least one, and if you don’t know any of the wines, it remains true that it is usually the safe bet. At worst, it will be sweeter or dryer than you would have chosen, but it will be decent, not either acid or over oaked. It can be harder to think of a safe red choice (shiraz?).

Unfortunately, it remains true that what most pubs serve is below even the Languedoc price point.

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I am not sure. My experience in France is that all restaurants give priority to local wines both in terms of volume and price.
I work on the premise that in UK the average price people pay for a bottle is still around £5.80
My own research indicates that when eating out in pub restaurants people aim to spend around £25-30 a bottle. The focus is on Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnnay or Pinot Grigio. For reds Merlot, and cheap Shiraz, Rioja followed by Cabernet Sauvignon.
Riesling sells to a tiny minority. Gewurtz and Muscat…off the scale.

That seems very high for pub restaurants, but maybe you mean more something more upmarket than I would mean by ‘pub restaurant’. I admit I don’t see any rationale behind the various classifications the hospitality industry seems to use.

This is all quite a UK-centric analysis, and Alsace is chronically unknown and under-represented here. The latest figures that I could find were from 2017, and show that the UK forms less than 5% of their export market - Benelux, Germany and Scandinavia form a far greater proportion. Even then, only 25% is exported - France is far and away the biggest market, and you will always find a good selection of Alsatian wines in French restaurants, supermarkets and wine merchants. In the current climate, I can’t really see that increasing a tiny market share in the UK is a priority for anyone producing anything in the EU - even if they double sales, it’s still only a very small fraction of what they make. Commercially, a small increase in sales to somewhere inside the EU is easier to achieve, and has a bigger effect. But, talk to any Alsatian winemaker and they’ll tell you that the Chinese market is the one that they’d really like to crack.

Yes, the AOC rules will need to change, and this happens at a glacial and frustrating pace for the winemakers. This is true for whites as well as reds, but village appellations are starting to appear, together with proposals for Premiers Crus. Many of the Grands Crus are too big and not homogeneous enough, but that’s hardly unique to Alsace. Frankly, taking Burgundy as a comparison again, the rules are at least relatively simple and easy to understand - Burgundy’s myriad of classifications is only becoming more complicated by adding extra levels such as Bourgogne Côte D’Or.

Alsace pinot noir is fast changing, and a focus on quality wines with a distinctive character should, for me, be the way forward. We won’t see it in the UK, but then we don’t see many of the great whites that it already has to offer. Our loss.

See here for the export figures.

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