Alsace – The New Generation Speaks Out (Part One)

Food & Drink

There is always a challenge for the new generation of wine producers, no matter where they live. Namely, how do we proceed in our work? Do we continue to make wines in the style our fathers and grandfathers did? Or do we implement a few changes to show our approach?

This is certainly true in Alsace, that lovely corner of northeast France, where some of the world’s greatest white wines are crafted. But the younger generation has other issues they must address to stay relevant in today’s wine industry. Namely, how do they get more consumers and wine buyers to take a look at Alsatian wines, which are criminally under represented on wine lists and retail shelves in America? Also, how do we compete with other white (and red, to a lesser degree) wines from around the world and make our wines better known and more attractive to younger wine drinkers?

Recently, I spoke with four of the newest generation of wine producers from Alsace: Jean-Frédéric Hugel from Hugel, located in Riquewihr; Laure Adam of JB Adam in Ammerschwisr; Mélanie Pfister of Domaine Pfister in Dahlenheim, and Anne Trimbach of Trimbach in Ribeauville.

The interviews are extensive, so I am dividing this subject into two articles; in this part, I will share the thoughts of Hugel and Adam, while the replies from Pfister and Trimbach will appear in the next edition.

Interview with Jean Frédéric Hugel

Tom Hyland: Your family is among the most famous, producing some of the most critically acclaimed wines of Alsace. Do you feel a special responsibility, to continually lead the way in Alsace?

Jean- Frédéric Hugel: Absolutely! Very often our wines are the first Alsace wines people try across the world; in places in Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, they are often the only Alsace wines available. With regards to that, we have a responsibility to our customers, first, producing the best wines possible, but also to our colleagues, who also make wines with pride and heart. If we want Alsace in its deserved status of greatest white wine producing region on the planet, it starts with producing amazing quality at every level. Then I don’t feel we should tell people what to do, as wine remains extremely personal and it should remain so. The market will decide then.

Hyland: Tell me the difference between Riesling and Gewurztraminer in Alsace. What are the characteristics and aging potential of each. What are your favorite food pairings with each?

Hugel: They are the two opposites. Riesling produces restrained, toned and elegant wines; Gewurztraminer opulent, generous and aromatic. The difference between a Woody Allen and a Jim Carrey, if you wish. But when it comes to ageing potential, which we pretty much elevate to the definition of nobleness for a wine in the family, both are very close. We age Gewurztraminer the same way we age Riesling, but not for the same reason. Riesling, over time will empower, gain in complexity, gain weight, round its acidity, while Gewurz will tone down, refine and digest its eventual sweetness (all Gewurz aren’t sweet, always good to remind people, Riesling neither by the way).

Pairing wise, I would pair Riesling with almost everything, but I am a bit of a Riesling freak. In a simple way, anything you would add a squeeze of lemon or lime to, or a touch of vinegar, you would pair it well with Riesling. Acidity is a flavor enhancer, take rice and raw fish, could it be more boring? Add rice vinegar and you have the recipe of a dish that took the world as a storm in the past decade. Well, Sushi is a great pairing to Riesling, grilled fish, crudos and ceviches are born for Riesling. And then the more soil and age you have on a wine, the more “meaty” you can go; for a 10 year old single vineyard wine, I would consider a bit more fat, butter and cream sauces, a beurre blanc (butter sauce) with that fish. I would even pour it with a beef tartar, goat cheese… With Riesling the sky is the limit. But acidity is key!

Gewurz on the other hand is less subtle, different pairing style, not here to compliment the dish, but to fight it. Gewurz is the wine for bold, flavorful dishes. I see many people intimidated by the grape, so here are a few personal guidelines: Gewurz loves spices: amongst my favorite pairings, a green or red Thai curry, the power of the curry associated with the roundness of coconut milk fits Gewurz perfectly. Indian curries or Malaysian dishes work equally as well. Gewurz also loves smoke; a dry gewurz with smoked salmon is a benchmark, works with eel, sturgeon, herring too. Finally, Gewurz loves sweet, bold and earthy: no wonder it is such a success at Thanksgiving; the turkey matters less there than all the side dishes, pumpkin, bacon, stuffing and sweet potatoes, chestnuts, all of them Gewurz friendly ingredients. And finally pungent: cheeses, the stronger the better.

Hyland: Has there been much in the way of climate change over the past 10-15 years? If so, how? What must you do to combat the effects of climate change? Has climate change been helpful in any way?

Hugel: If you need (another) proof of climate change, ask the vintners, because grapes and their transformed products are great witnesses of it. My grandfather at the beginning of his career saw a regular harvest start on October 15th. That was a good average date to bring pickers in and start a 6 week-long harvest. Today we harvest in 4 to 5 weeks and start on average 15th of September! 2018 and 2017 respectively, even 7th and 5th of September! And the sugar content in the grapes are way higher than at the time. And that is in one lifetime!

Overall in Alsace, climate change has been a blessing. Keep in mind we are a northern wine region, our main challenge is ripening our grapes. I should say was, because the two unripe vintages per decade are long gone. Good thing, because they would be impossible to sell today, in our globalized world. And the two exceptional vintages per decade have gone to four, maybe even six! My ancestors would not believe it if they came back to life.

Nonetheless we are seeing the first issues with climate as well, our Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers often reach 14; 14,5, 15% of alcohol, despite early picking. The Gewurz show higher residual sugar than they used to, and we are generally known for producing dry wines in the family, so this is not helping us. The profile of wines has changed also due to shorter ripening seasons, the aromatic development of the wines is different, we sometimes feel a little bit of nostalgia, knowing the wines our ancestors used to produce will most likely never be made again.

Hyland: Alsace wines are not as well known by consumers as other wines of France (especially Burgundy and Bordeaux) or as well known as wines from California or some regions of Italy. Why is that? Is the subject of Alsatian wines too confusing to consumers (too many varieties)? Is it because consumers don’t know these varieties? What must the producers of Alsace do to change consumer awareness and improve sales? What must they do to have sommeliers show more interest in Alsace wines?

Hugel: Alsace is a unique region, a complex region, just take its history, torn between France and Germany, producing wine “the French way” with “German grapes”, its culture and history is Allemanic, its nationality is clearly French. The flute shaped bottle is of the Rhine, but it is on the (only) French side of the Rhine. The wines are French, but only for the past 70 years.

Being unique is a great advantage of our region, unfortunately, it is also a greater deal of explaining, promoting, sharing and educating. Keep in mind we are comparing Alsace, 15,000 hectares with Bordeaux: 118,000 hectares, Burgundy, 30,000 hectares. We are a relatively small region compared to the rest of the French wine country. (Editor’s note: A hectare equals 2.47 acres.)

I do not know what others should do, all I can say is that when I open a bottle of an old Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer, there is no sommelier, however interested, knowledgeable, passionate, that doesn’t ends up impressed. And generally if tasted blind people get it wrong by 30 years. The wines of Alsace are impressive through their ability to age, to show terroir and to express over time. They are the greatest white wines on the planet and deserve to reconquer this status.

The rest is putting them in people’s mouths.

Tasting notes on Hugel wines:

Gewurztraminer “Grossi Laüe” 2011 – In Alsatian dialect, Grossi Laüe refers to the finest vineyards; this term is similar to Grosses Gewächs in Germany or Grand Cru in Burgundy. For Hugel then, their Grossi Laüe wines mark a return to their exceptional family values. Aromas of lychee, Anjou pear and cinnamon. Medium-full with a rich mid-palate, good acidity and notable persistence. Offering excellent varietal character and impressive harmony, this is nearing peak; enjoy now and over the next 2-3 years. Excellent

Riesling “Grossi Laüe” 2013 – Bright golden yellow; aromas of apricot, yellow peach and yellow pansy. Rich mid-palate, good acidity, lovely ripeness, excellent persistence, outstanding varietal character; slightly lush character. Dry, complex finish with marvelous complexity. Delicious now – enjoy over the next 7-10 years. Outstanding

Pinot Gris “Grossi Laüe” 2011 – Rich, deep yellow; exotic aromas of red apples, guava and honey. Medium-full with excellent concentration, this is a luscious wine with distinct notes of yellow spice in the finish, backed by good acidity and impressive persistence. This displays secondary aromas and flavors and has marvelous complexity and beautiful varietal purity. Stunning example of Pinot Gris. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. Superb

Interview with Laure Adam

Laure Adam, J-B Adam

Tom Hyland: What is the biggest advantage Alsatian wines have in the world of wine? What is their strongest identity?

Laure Adam: An incredible diversity between grapes varieties and terroir for a small region. Our strength is Riesling, the king of grapes varieties in Alsace, able to flourish on our terroir to create unique wines.

Hyland: Tell me about your production. What is your leading wine in terms of quantity?

Adam: 20 hectares of vines cultivated in biodynamic + purchase of grapes. Crémant d’Alsace represents 20% of the production, then Riesling, Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer.

Hyland: Has there been much in the way of climate change over the past 10-15 years? If so, how? What must you do to combat the effects of climate change? Has climate change been helpful in any way?

Adam: Over the past 10 years we observe that the beginning of the harvest is earlier every year (more than 1 month compared to 10 years ago). The fact that we cultivate our vines in biodynamic help us a lot and then we adapt our vinification every year. The positive effect of this is for the Pinot Noir, the phenolic maturity and extraction is better than before (for example the 2018 Pinot Noir is very concentrated and very qualitative).

Hyland: How have your wines changed for the better over the past decade? Have you received comments from importers or consumers as to the style of your wines or Alsatian wines in general?

Adam: Our wines are much more concentrated, elegant and have a salinity that our clients enjoy.

Hyland: Alsatian wines are not as well known by consumers as other wines of France (especially Burgundy and Bordeaux) or as well known as wines from California or some regions of Italy. Why is that? Is the subject of Alsatian wines too confusing to consumers (too many varieties)? Is it because consumers don’t know these varieties? What must the producers of Alsace do to change consumer awareness and improve sales? What must they do to have sommeliers show more interest in Alsatian wines?

Adam: We are a small region with an incredible diversity of wines, it is a strength and a weakness at the same time. In our domaine, we tried to simplify the understanding, for example we have a sweetness scale on the back label. Also we have a consistent style of wines for the past 400 years especially for pinot blanc, sylvaner and riesling which are dry every year!

Tasting notes on JB Adam wines:

“Sec Si” 2018 – A blend of 70% Sylvaner, 30% Muscat. Appealing aromas of apricot, yellow peach and orange blossom. Medium-bodied with delicious ripe fruit, very good acidity and balance, this is quite tasty and works well on it own or with simple chicken or pork dishes. You don’t think about this, you merely drink it! Enjoy over the next 1-2 years. Very Good

L’Auxerrois “Vielles Vignes” 2016 – Auxerrois is a varietal planted throughout Alsace; it is typically used as a blending varietal. Deep yellow; aromas of dried pear, dried yellow flowers and a light brown herbs. Medium-bodied, this is quite dry, with good acidity and very good complexity. Not overly ripe or powerful, this is a nice wine to pair with quiche, paté or sautéed vegetables. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years. Very Good

Pinot Blanc “Les Natures” 2016 – Aromas of apple peel, quince and Bosc pear. Medium-bodied, this has excellent freshness, very good acidity and a dry finish with subtle spice notes. This is a delightful wine that offers much more character than most examples of Alsatian Pinot Blanc. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years. Excellent

Riesling “Les Natures” 2017 – Aromas of lemon peel, lilacs and orange blossom. Medium-full with very good concentration. Lovely varietal character, good acidity and persistence; excellent harmony. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. Excellent

Riesling Grand Cru Kaefferkopf 2015 – Attractive aromas of yellow peach, apricot, kumquat and yellow poppy. Medium-full, this is beautifully ripe with excellent varietal purity. Impressive persistence, very good acidity and complexity. Precise and extremely clean – excellent winemaking. Delicious now – enjoy over the next 5-7 years, perhaps longer. Outstanding

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