Alsace appellation “confusion”? Bring it on!

By Panos Kakaviatos for 

20 February 2015

I just had a news article published on about plans to add two more appellations to the 53 that already exist. Some posters in social media react with the remark that far more important is for consumers to understand if the wines are sweet or dry. Indeed, sommelier Morgan Harris tweeted the suggestion to label Alsace wines like the Loire does: “Sec, Demi, Moelleux…or whatever, use German terms..”.

He and others make the valid point that consumers can get confused with Alsace wine, as they are not sure to get a dry white. More and more producers provide a scale on back labels from dry to sweet, but do all consumers bother to read the back label, tweeted #winelover Fabien Lainé.

Yes, the myriad choices of Alsatian wines – from varying levels of residual sugars in “dry” wines to the evidently sweet late harvest wines – can bewilder consumers. Shapes of bottles furthermore lead neophytes to make comments akin to “this is a really good German bottle”, a remark made by the wife of a journalist friend of mine who was then met with cold silence at a somewhat stuffy Alsatian restaurant in Paris, she said. But can you blame her? With Germanic sounding names, from Altenberg de Bergbieten to Zotzenberg – just two of 51 grand cru ACs by the way – the nomenclature ain’t exactly Grand Nation Napoleonic.

But lovers of wine embrace all this! As legendary winemaker Olivier Humbrecht of the leading property Zind Humbrecht (the first ever Frenchman to earn a Master of Wine) explained to me recently about this initiative: “We want consumers to have a more precise understanding of Alsatian terroir.”

OK, so that means understanding all the other stuff:

The fact is that the Germanic shaped bottles and Germanic sounding names are part of this region’s rich and interesting history. And that you do get producers with different styles. Some who favor more residual sugar in their “dry” wines; others who go bone dry. But as I found out in researching THIS ARTICLE, a current generation of young winemakers is making dryer wine today. They understand that most consumers – domestic or international – want a dry white to go with their dinner. Kind of like relying on Sancerre. You should be able to rely on Alsace, in that sense. So, this issue of sweetness levels – at least for Alsatian Riesling – is becoming a red herring. If you order Alsatian Riesling (that is not late harvest), you will most likely be getting a dry white. Of course other varieties can be richer, sweeter – including Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. But that’s part of the fun of discovering and understanding Alsace. And what about the lovely expression of both Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner? These are both dry whites that could get a party started.

So what do I think of the idea to add “Alsace Cru” and “Premier Cru” to the hierarchy of Alsatian terroir appellations? I embrace the idea! You will always have poor producers making so called grand cru or premier cru, or whatever cru, as you have in Burgundy.  So that is not the issue. The issue is that Alsace has such a rich and varied amount of soils and exposures that it is only natural for its terroirs to be more precisely defined. Some naysayers believe that this would lead to further consumer confusion,  but I think that in the long run it will serve consumers rather than confuse them.


Worthy candidate for premier cru: Clos Sand with co-owner Sophie Barmes

Let’s take but one example, to keep this blog short, because I need to get to bed. When I visited the wonderful Domaine Barmes Buecher in Wettolsheim just over a year ago, I was utterly enchanted by the domain’s Clos Sand, which is made from a relatively colder climate vineyard. Too cold to be considered for grand cru status, but probably just right for premier cru – much as one can expect from, say, Burgundy. So it is no surprise that the domain has applied for that terroir to be a premier cru.

Indeed, I was lucky enough to be invited to an all magnum bottle dinner with Alsatian producers, and just loved to sip that Clos Sand, which tends to exude precision and freshness and handles different vintages well. The 2009, for example, was perhaps a bit more accessible, but I admire the 2008 very much. The 2008 has more freshness and exudes lime (more than 9 grams per liter of acidity and just 3.7 grams of sugar per liter), whereas the 2009 is more suave and is more grapefruit and lemon.

If the terroir is better than some others, then why not explain that to consumers with a more precise appellation? Consumers will in the long run understand that Alsatian terroir can be appreciated on a regional level (Alsace), on a village level (Alsace Cru), on a special lieu dit level (Premier Cru) and on an extra special lieu dit level (Grand Cru).

Makes sense to me. And, yes, I am a wine geek.


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