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Sweet on Alsace

Lettie Teague discovers that Alsace is full of charm—and full of controversy about whether the wines are too sweet.

Alsace was the first wine region I ever fell in love with. In fact, my feelings about it were so strong, it took me more than 12 years to go back. I knew the perils of attempting to replay perfection, the disappointments that come to those who try to relive the past. (I've read The Great Gatsby five times, after all.) Yet over the years, I heard reports from colleagues and friends: Alsace was unaltered, unchanged. The houses were still half-timbered, the winemakers friendly, the villages small. No outlet stores or "hospitality centers" had been built nor acres of Chardonnay planted. In Alsace, Gewürztraminer and Riesling still reigned supreme.

Of course, Alsace has hardly gone unaltered by history; there's no winegrowing region in France or possibly the world that's changed more than Alsace, at least in terms of nationality. Located on the far eastern side of France, bordering Germany, Alsace has been invaded by the latter and repossessed by the former many times in the past 150 years. (Before that, it was battled over by Romans and Celts.) The last exchange took place at the end of World War II, when France reclaimed Alsace, bombed-out and battered, from Germany.

Further evidence of this two-country tumult can be found in the wines themselves. Though French in name, style and classification, Alsace wines also look and taste somewhat German. The bottles are thin and flute-shaped, like those of Germany's Mosel region, and Alsace's star grape, Riesling, is the star of Germany too. Like Germany, the emphasis in Alsace is white wine, although unlike Germany, Alsace produces several other world-class wines besides Riesling.

Most notable of these is Gewürztraminer. Other important white grapes include Pinot Gris, a.k.a. Tokay, and Muscat (both produce grand cru wines) as well as Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner and Chasselas. It seems like just about every white varietal is cultivated in Alsace—except Chardonnay. I wondered if that was why I hadn't seen many Americans in Alsace 12 years ago. Back then, Chardonnay was for most Americans synonymous with white wine. On the other hand, it might have been because Alsace is hard to reach; there are (still) no direct flights from the U.S. to Strasbourg, its capital.

I decided to start my second trip to Alsace in the same place as my first: Obernai. A big tourist town, Obernai was even bigger than I remembered, with a lively souvenir trade. Maybe Americans weren't much in evidence but someone was buying up all the green-stemmed glassware, pottery and stuffed storks that were for sale. (The stork is the symbol of Alsace and is said to live on the top of chimneys, though I never saw one.) There were lots of pastry shops in Obernai too; apparently, stuffed-stork shoppers fueled up on petits fours. A good restaurant proved a harder find.

That was a surprise, since Alsace is almost as famous for its restaurants as its wines. There are probably more Michelin one-star restaurants in Alsace (27) than anywhere else in France and two three-star restaurants too. There is a one-star restaurant in Obernai (Le Bistrot des Saveurs) but it was closed the day I was there. So I chose a place called La Halle aux Blés because there seemed to be only Alsace natives inside. I ordered an onion tart, an Alsace specialty, which tasted like it came straight from the microwave, accompanied by a half bottle of Klipfel Riesling that managed to be both flabby and bitter. (Later I noticed the locals were all drinking beer; obviously they knew about Klipfel.) As I drove west toward Ottrott, I resolved for the future not to eat anywhere where the souvenir shops outnumbered the restaurants.

Ottrott, like Obernai, looked like a prosperous town, though its wealth wasn't in pastry or pottery, but in hotels. My hotel, the Beau Site, was one of six Michelin-reviewed establishments—a surprisingly large number for a place so small that a five-minute stroll meant a walk out of town.

That night I'd been invited to dinner with Marc Kreydenweiss and his family. The Kreydenweiss clan live in Andlau, which didn't look far from Ottrott on my map, but the Alsace wine route is not exactly a straight line. In fact, the 100-mile north-south (and occasionally east-west) route isn't even one road and sometimes seems to be just an idea of a road. That, of course, is part of its charm.

I'd hoped to visit Kreydenweiss my first time in Alsace but his tasting room wasn't open to the public back then. It still isn't—although it's possible to make an appointment. Some Alsace producers require appointments, while others maintain regular tasting-room hours. Directions aren't necessary (or given) in either case, as the producers' names can be found on signposts in their towns.

Kreydenweiss, who's famous for making very pure, very minerally Rieslings, is one of the few Alsace vintners who make completely dry wines. Others may claim to do so, but most of them do not. This is one of the biggest controversies within Alsace today: Many Alsace wines are vinified to an off-dry, even sweet style, though their creators like to say, "The grapes just got particularly ripe."

Kreydenweiss, a tall, rather spare man in his late fifties, answered the door himself and led me upstairs to a modestly furnished tasting room. We tried several Rieslings, including a glorious 2002 Grand Cru Kastelberg with a remarkably persistent finish and a more austere 1999 Grand Cru Wiebelsberg that Kreydenweiss said would last 20 years. (There are about 50 grand cru vineyards in Alsace, modeled after the Burgundian classification system, though unlike Burgundy, Alsace has no premier cru vineyards. Unlike Burgundy's, Alsace's crus are a recent creation, established in 1983.) In addition to Rieslings, we tried the rich 2003 Les Charmes Kritt Pinot Blanc, one of the most complex Pinot Blancs I'd ever tasted.

I broached the topic of too-sweet wines over dinner and Kreydenweiss nodded: "I went to a restaurant nearby and asked the sommelier for a dry Alsace Pinot Gris. He brought me one that had 15 grams of residual sugar!" (The same amount found in some dessert wines.) Kreydenweiss poured a lovely red with the meal, a Grenache blend that he and his sons produced in the southern Rhône Valley. They had bought vineyard land there because none was available in Alsace. "You can't support several families on what we make here," Kreydenweiss said, but added that he still expected his entire family to live in Andlau. That, he said, was the way it should be.

It was a sentiment I was to hear often during my travels; even the region's best winemakers wanted to stay home. They weren't looking to consult in foreign countries or to create international alliances. They wanted to hold onto and improve what they already had—and given their history, I understood why.

The next day I met a group of German hikers on their way out of Ottrott, into the vineyards. This is another part of Alsace's appeal; its vineyards, like Burgundy's, are accessible to all. There are even signs for pedestrians, some more visible than those of the wine route itself.

The signs for the wine route are actually quite varied: Some are practically billboard-size while others are little more than numbers painted on rocks. The villages that the wine route passes through are more uniform; the houses are half-timbered or painted cheery primary colors, their window boxes full of flowers. Signs invite travelers to stop and taste wine. The worst thing that could happen in Alsace, it seemed, was a bad bottle of Riesling.

I'd stopped at such a sign on my original trip and tasted the wines of Marcel Deiss (one of the highlights of that trip). When I passed Deiss's sign this time, I was already late for an appointment but I stopped anyway.

The tasting room at Marcel Deiss was crowded with what looked like children's furniture: tiny coffee tables and even smaller rush-bottomed chairs. (Had they begun catering to schoolchildren?) On my visit 12 years ago, Deiss's wife, Clarice, had poured a generous selection of wines. This time there was only a silent woman behind a desk, and no bottles in sight. The woman didn't reply when I asked for Clarice; I found out why later. Apparently, Deiss had divorced Clarice several years earlier—though the bigger surprise was that Deiss's seventysomething father had decided at the same time to get divorced too.

Trimbach, the producer I was on my way to meet, is one of the best-known names in Alsace wine. Unlike most Alsace winemakers, Trimbach is focused on the American market. (About 10 percent of Alsace's 1,000 or so producers export to the States.) "We are not the Gallo of Alsace, although Americans think we are because we are so visible," Jean Trimbach said.

A 44-year-old 12th-generation vintner, Trimbach looked the very picture of a prosperous businessman in his pinstriped shirt and blue zip-up cardigan. "My Uncle Hubert and I spend five months a year in America spreading the gospel," he said, "Alsace first, then Trimbach." And the Trimbach gospel was absolutely dry wine. "There is no residual sugar in Trimbach wines. We are the only producer left in Alsace that makes dry wines," Trimbach asserted.

I reminded him of a few others, like Kreydenweiss, and we launched into the same conversation about too-sweet Alsace wines. "It is a very big problem for Alsace," said Trimbach. While 12 years ago it had been hard to find a sweet wine in Alsace, now the opposite was true.

Trimbach makes a wide range of wines, all very good and all very dry. But the glory of Trimbach is its grand cru wine, Clos Ste. Hune. It is not only one of the greatest Rieslings in Alsace but also one of its longest-lived; coincidentally, I'd had a 1973 Clos Ste. Hune only a few weeks earlier that was remarkably vibrant and fresh. When Trimbach opened the most recent release, the 1999 Clos Ste. Hune, it had the same extraordinary persistence and finesse, even though it was still extremely young.

Clos Ste. Hune is part of the grand cru Rosacker vineyard; and while it's the most famous, it's not the only wine that's made there. Were there other wines from Rosacker that Trimbach admired? I asked over lunch at the Wistub du Sommelier in Bergheim, which serves perfectly prepared Alsace dishes like onion tart and choucroute. There were quite a few winemakers having lunch there that day, and all of them seemed to be friends with Jean Trimbach.

Trimbach named the Rosacker of Mader as a wine he admired. I had never heard of the Mader winery. Where was it? "Go to Hunawihr and take a left at the fork in the road," Trimbach answered—a typically Alsace-style direction.

The tasting room was closed when I arrived. But when I knocked at the door, a woman opened a window and asked, in French, what I wanted. To buy of bottle of your Rosacker, I replied. A few minutes later, her 24-year-old son appeared. Jerome Mader was surprised to see an American in his town. "We have almost no American tourists here," he told me. His wines aren't sold in the United States "except in Virginia." Why not? Mader shrugged his shoulders: "We do nothing to sell our wines; we just answer the phone and the doorbell."

If Mader appeared content, Etienne Hugel seemed downright ebullient. "Do you want a winery tour or a town tour?" asked the 47-year-old Hugel, who looks like an Alsatian George Clooney and who runs Alsace's second-most-famous winery. Based in Riquewihr, one of the most beautiful towns in Alsace, the Hugel family has been making wine for more than 350 years.

Hugel gave me a brief tour during which he remarked that the firm was "expanding." At last, was there an Alsace producer planning a major consultation, an international alliance? In fact, no. Said Hugel: "We're building a wine shop next door." The shop, featuring "all the great wines of the world," would be next to Hugel's tiny tasting room where "anyone can stop in and taste 20 or 30 wines," according to Hugel, including, presumably, the gorgeous 1989 Vendange Tardive Gewürztraminer he opened for me. (Hugel is to late-harvest Gewürztraminer as Trimbach is to dry Riesling.)

My next stop along my southbound route was Zind-Humbrecht, another top Alsace producer that specializes in Gewürztraminer. The Z-H winery, just outside of the city of Colmar, is a modern American-style building. My tasting there was more straightforward and more American-style too.

Margaret Humbrecht, the stylish Scottish-born wife of winemaker Olivier Humbrecht, brought out several wines for me to taste and described a new Z-H index that classified bottlings from one through five according to their level of sweetness. It sounded like a good plan, though I was puzzled as to how customers would understand what the numbers meant if there was no explanation on the labels. "Zind-Humbrecht customers," she informed me, "would understand." Did she think that too-sweet Alsace wines were a problem? (The Zind-Humbrecht wines, though beautiful, are certainly on the richer end of that scale.) Humbrecht replied tartly, "If you want truly dry wines, you should go to a different region." I made a mental note to let Jean Trimbach know.

My next stop was Domaine Weinbach in Kayersberg. Laurence and Catherine Faller, who run Domaine Weinbach, are inevitably described as "the beautiful Faller sisters" by (male) journalists, and though this is certainly true, what's more notable is their remarkable graciousness. I was half an hour late (following the wrong village signpost), but they ushered me into the front parlor of their house and opened what seemed like every wine that they made. The parlor, said Laurence, the winemaking sister, was where they brought everyone to taste. (The domaine is open to the public.)

The Faller wines are much sought-after and their style is distinctive: rich and opulent, enhanced with botrytized grapes that add complexity and aromatic depth though not excessive sweetness, according to Laurence. The 2002 Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Ste. Catherine l'Inédit Riesling was a perfect example of the Faller style. Special lots of botrytized grapes had been added to the blend, giving the wine a luscious burst of fruit along with its still-firm thread of minerality. The sisters stopped opening wines only to offer me lunch. It was hard to leave but I had one more winery to visit, Boxler, in the (unpronounceable) town of Niedermorschwihr.

"We don't sell our wines for export; we want our liberty," Jean Boxler, the 32-year-old grandson of Albert, said to me as we sat down at a picnic table on his front porch. (In fact, he later admitted that he exported half of what he produced.) Did much come to the States? Boxler wines, I knew, were hard to find. Jean Boxler didn't know. And his American importer was unlikely to say. "He told me not to meet with you," confided Boxler. The importer, it seemed, didn't trust journalists.

I was glad Boxler had some faith in journalists, or was at least willing to show a few of his wines, as they were some of the best that I had on my trip. Stylistically a cross between the austerity of Kreydenweiss and the voluptuousness of Weinbach, they were rich and substantial but with a correspondingly firm backbone of acidity. I was particularly impressed by the aromatic 2002 Grand Cru Sommerberg Riesling.

As we talked, I admired the winery's old-fashioned label, festooned with grapes and an old village scene. But it was too modern for Boxler: "I want to return to the old label," he replied, and showed me an example (which to my American eyes looked much the same as the first).

I thought about this as I drove to Rouffach, my last stop and the same town where I'd ended my trip a dozen years ago. The great winemakers of Alsace honored the past without ignoring the future. They sought greatness but not at the expense of everything else. While some were more successful than others and few seemed to share the exact same vision (especially when the topic was sweet wine), the world they'd created was (still) remarkably beautiful, remarkably pure. Perhaps it was possible to replay the past—at least in a place like Alsace, which has been cherished so well.

Published May 2005
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