7 Wines That Are Making Alsace Cool Again
Bottles from the region's first-gen and up-and-coming naturalists.
Alsace, the French wine region tucked between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River, seems to be plagued with a perpetual identity crisis. For one, it's a cultural mishmash of French and German, having been part of both nations at different points in history. Most town and family names sound distinctively Germanic. And it shares many of its native grape varieties—Riesling, Gewürtztraminer and Sylvaner, to name a few—with its neighbors to the northeast. Yet, spend just a few short minutes conversing with an Alsatian, and you'll find little reason to question their absolute French-ness.
In recent years, Alsace suffered from a lack of clarity regarding the sweetness of its wines. That is, consumers couldn't quite decipher which bottles were dry and which were sugar-laden. A pro who'd tasted countless samples from the region's producers would know whose wines skewed dry and whose skewed sappy, but that did little to help regular Joes trying to pick out a nice bottle of white to have with dinner. That problem has largely been solved, first by the addition of a sweetness scale on back labels, then by the fact that the wines, as a whole, have become drier, and most recently by a new requirement as of the 2016 vintage to include the word sec ("dry") on the labels of wines with less than 4 grams of residual sugar per liter.
The international wine scene being what it is today, Alsace has run into another issue that will require a little more than a one-word fix. For a region so charmingly steeped in history—from its fairytale-like towns built out of equally fairytale-like cottages to its cellars lined with impresive hundred-plus-year-old foudres—its wines are perceived as, well, old. Compared to nearby regions like the Jura that have made waves by embracing the natural and the avant-garde, Alsace feels staunchly traditional. And despite the fact that over 15 percent of its vineyard land is farmed without chemicals (a large portion of that figure being biodynamic), it's not the first place that comes to mind in conversations on "natural wine".
That's all changing thanks to some impassioned young vintners and to wider appreciation for the region's first-gen naturalists. Here, 7 wines that could convert any wine lover to Alsace fandom:
NV Valentin Zusslin Crémant d'Alsace Brut Zéro ($29)
Brother and sister Jean-Paul and Marie Zusslin run this centuries-old family estate in Orschwihr. In 1997, they converted all of their vineyard holdings to biodynamics and with every vintage seem to further fine-tune their über-expressive, mineral-laced wines and their natural approach in the cellar. This now-iconic, racy sparkling bottling is pure Pinot Auxerrois, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, the 'Zéro' indicating nothing added—neither dosage (sweetener) nor sulfur.
2013 Julien Meyer 'Nature' ($20)
Although most Alsatian wines are labeled with the name of the grape they're made from, biodynamic vigneron Patrick Meyer calls this entry-level cuvée 'Nature' based on the idea that its mineral profile and vineyard expression trump variety. It's hand-harvested, native yeast-fermented, bottled with no added sulfur and perfect for pairing with cheese and charcuterie.
2013 Vignoble du Rêveur 'Vibrations' ($18)
This side project from Mathieu Deiss (of Domaine Marcel Deiss) is still in its infancy, but the early consensus is that it's a winery to watch. He vinifies this Riesling from plots in Bennwhir inherited from his maternal grandfather in the same cellar as the Deiss family wines, using indigenous yeasts and eschewing sulfur. It's dry, balanced and mouthwateringly mineral.
2013 Audrey et Christian Binner 'Vignoble de Katzenthal' Riesling ($25)
Because Christian Binner makes the rounds of the world's edgiest natural wine fairs, you might expect a bit of funk—or at least a punk rock attitude—in his wines. What you get instead are elegant whites and reds layered with rich fruit and spice, vinified in the most traditional way imaginable. This Riesling was harvested relatively late, allowing for more exotic fruit and floral notes, underwent long aging in 100-year-old barrels and was bottled without filtration.
2014 Laurent Barth Gewürztraminer Vieilles Vignes ($22)
When Laurent Barth took over the family vineyards in 2004, he pulled out of the local cooperative (where the fruit was being used for more industrially made wines), converted to organic farming and started bottling his own out of a micro-cellar in Bennwhir. Although he grows all seven of the traditional Alsatian grapes, he excels at the underappreciated aromatic varieties, like this subtly luscious old vine Gewürztraminer.
2013 Zind-Humbrecht 'Clos Windsbuhl' Riesling ($56)
Zind-Humbrecht is considered one of Alsace's most lauded, respected estates. But despite the fact that it's reigned for so long, winemaker Olivier Humbrecht—a Master of Wine and outspoken proponent of biodynamic viticulture—continues to push the envelope. His single vineyard wines, like this racy, peach-inflected Riesling, come at a price, but they're well worth it for the amount of fruit and mineral flavor they pack. Look also for his top bottlings, from the Clos St. Urbain parcel in the dizzyingly steep Rangen Grand Cru.
2015 Catherine Riss 'Empreinte' Pinot Noir ($30)
The daughter of local restaurateurs, Catherine Riss was the first in her family to try her hand at the vine. Now, with a modest 4 acres on a soil comprised largely of schist, she's turning out a pure, delicate Riesling, exciting skin-fermented whites and this bright, zero-sulfur, whole bunch-fermented Pinot Noir.