Alsace Pinot Noir: between Burgundy and Germany

 

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My title may hold true geographically speaking, but it hardly does so stylistically, at least for the majority of the wines that I tasted recently at the trade wine fair called Millésime Alsace, which is held every 2 years in Colmar. Good German Pinot Noirs often have more intensity and density. They can also be quite heavily oaked, which may or may not suit one’s palate. Burgundy is notoriously variable, ranging from the thin and weedy to those voluptuously velvety marvels that can put us down on our knees, generally bankrupt as we go down.

Alsace is the result of a sort of cultural melting-pot between France and Germany. Its grape varieties come from both sides of the current border that follows, mostly, the river Rhine: Riesling, Sylvaner and Gewurztraminer from the east; the numerous Pinot family from France and essentially from the Burgundy region. So Pinot Noir has probably been in Alsace for a very long time. Curiously in this region it has only quite recently been well treated and considered, by winemakers and consumers alike, with a very small number of exceptions as far as I know. The general impression one had of most Alsace Pinot Noirs until recent years was of a wishy-washy red that was often more of a rosé. Things have changed however. One can explain this by at least three factors: warmer climate conditions, better and more specific viticultural techniques, and winemaking clearly inspired by burgundian (and perhaps German) practices. One should inject into the equation, as always, a strong market factor which is the rising demand for good Pinot Noir wines from wherever. It is also worth mentioning that Pinot Noir remains a minority grape in this region, although plantings are on the increase, under the influence of the aforementioned factors.

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It should be noted that Pinot Noir does not (yet) qualify for Grand Cru status in Alsace, which is currently reserved for wines from just 4 grape varieties (Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Riesling) plus the occasional field blend. However a process to have it accepted as Grand Cru in some of the 50 odd delimitated plots is under way (these things take time) and one can notice the occasional allusion to the vineyard site in the initial letters used to qualify some of these wines.

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Here follow some comments on wines that I liked or disliked at this fair (see above for the room, or part of it). I should emphasize, as for the Rieslings that I tasted at the same fair and on which I reported last week, that there were some 99 producers there and I only tasted at a small number of these, choosing them in a fairly haphazard manner, mainly according to the available space at their tasting tables. I have placed the wines in alphabetical order according to the producer’s surname. Where I have given prices, they apply to Europe and, in most cases, to cellar-door consumer prices as given by the producers. They will therefore vary according to markets.

Lucien Albrecht, Pinot Noir Weid 2015: This brand and wine is now produced by the Wolfberger cooperative structure. Malolactic fermentation finishing in the barrel has given it a rich and ample texture and a long, smooth finish. Selling for around 20 euros, this is a very good exemple of the modern style of PN in Alsace and is quite good value (rare enough for this variety).

Barmes Buecher, Pinot Noir Vielles Vignes 2016: Very fine wine. Manages to combine finesse with a touch of refreshing bitterness. The oak ageing is still noticeable on account of a rather dry finish but it should soon be absorbed. Very good length. Here we also have one of the stars of the appellation and the top of their range for this grape, so expect to pay around 50 euros for this. Not sure that it is worth that, but it is very good.

Bestheim Pinot Noir Impatient 2015: I would recommend patience rather that impatience wih this intense, dense and well-oaked wine. 17 euros if you like them tough.

nb. this next wine was not tasted at the fair, but at home from a sample received recentlyHebinger, Alsace rouge, Pinot Noir 2016: The title description kind of situates this wine as a reference to the past, when Pinot Noir just produced the odd « red wine » in Alsace. It is well made, light and refreshing, best drunk cool when one can enjoy its crisp, red cherry-like flavours.

Albert Hertz, Pinot Noir La Marianne 2015: Very volatile on the nose. Simple and finishes bitter.

Hurst,  Pinot Noir Terroir « B » 2016: A lightish style and I even had the impression that this had had some carbonic maceration in its making. A touch of bitterness on the finish too. Not great and far too expensive at 30 euros.

Jean Huttard, Pinot Noir l’Etreinte 2016: This is the result of a blend between 3 different plots. Over-extracted and harsh on the palate as a result.

Kuenz Bas, Pinot Noir 2015: Simple, with little definition of flavours. Just about acceptable at a lowish price (forgot to ask this!)

Lissner, Pinot Noir 2017: Very attractively fruity wine that is quite simple but directly and clearly expressive and quite delicious, A very good above-entry level wine that has intelligently used a mixture of barrels and large wooden butts. Around 16 euros.

Lissner, Pinot Noir (cuvée still to be named) 2017: This wine was made from partially dried grapes and is not yet in bottle. Very intense and highly tannic, it is a good wine in its unusual and experimental style, but will probably not suit all palates.

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Albert Mann, Pinot Noir Les Saintes Claires 2016: Here is one of the very best producers of PN in Alsace. You will have to pay the price, but I have regularly enjoyed their wines which have everything that one can hope for from this very tricky grape. This wine gave me a wonderful impression of lift and purity of flavours, which were precise, delicate and fine. It’s long ageing of 17 months in barrels, of which 20% were new, is not perceptible in terms of oak-induced flavours. But it has considerably refined the texture and extended the length of this wine. 62 euros: probably worth it if you have that sum available.

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Muré /Clos Saint Landelin, Pinot Noir 2015:  A long and very savoury wine from this excellent producer whose regularity always impresses me. Manages to combine finesse with reasonable power. I also tasted the 2011 (intense) and the 2016 (elegant) versions of this wine.

I should add, a little out of context, that, although I did not taste the Muré family’s (Véronique & Thomas are now at the helm) Rieslings at this fair, I had a bottle at home of the Clos Saint Landelin Riesling 2015 that I drank over a period of about a week (and am having a glass as I write this), and consider it to be one of the best Alsatian Rieslings that I have tasted this year. It has considerable power (14,2% alcool on the label) but not a trace of the dreaded « petrol » aromas. I must ask them how they mange this. All their wines are usually to be highly recommended. 

Neumayer, Pinot Noir Schaefferstein 2016: This is dynamic with finesse. A lovely vibrant style that has kept to the line of freshness and purity.

Schaetzel, Pinot Noir « B » 2016: Rather austere and vegetal. Clearly lacking in flesh and fruit. Far too expensive at 30 euros.

Schaetzel, Pinot Noir Premier 2016:  This had the berries destemmed before vinification and is much better, with good fruit to surround the structure and excellent length. Not cheap at 35 euros but a good wine and a far better buy than the other PN from this producer.

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François Schmitt, Pinot Noir Coeur de Bollenberg 2015: A very elegant style, with gentle tannins that merely underscore the fruit and enhance the sense of finesse rather than imposing a feeling of power. I liked this very much and the price is quite accessible at 22 euros.

Jean Sipp, Osmose Pinot Noir 2015: A fairly rich style with moderate extraction. The oak is noticeable. Long and feels quite warm. Good wine.

Turkheim, Pinot Noir Rouge « T » 2015: This wine, produced by the eponymous cooperative winery, is totally dominated by its barrel ageing.

Zeyssolff, Pinot Noir cuvée « Z » 2016: A good wine, very true to its variety and combining a slightly firm structure with good fruit flavours and decent length. Well balanced all the way through.

 

Kind of a conclusion

I always find it fascinating when style changes and new things start to happen in any wine region. This is clearly the case for Pinot Noir in Alsace today. There were huge stylistic disparities (not to speak of the usual quality ones) in the wines that I tasted. But this is interesting and normal. It gives the consumer choice and it encourages the exploration of different paths by the winemaker. But do not expet to find good inexpensive Pinot Noirs in Alsace. In  most cases the cellar door prices will be at or above 20 euros a bottle: the ransom for a fashionable grape.

 

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