Alsace: France, but efficient. The Germanic influences run deep – the cuisine, the shape of their traditional bottles, the names of both people and places – and, usually, they’re helpful in directing the often unfocused, occasionally counter-productive French impulse of dissent and divergence.
Sometimes, however, they’re not. The problem seems to be especially severe when it comes to crafting the region’s (comparatively) new wine law. For example, the rush to designate grand crus fundamentally and permanently hobbled the effort, with borders politicked into meaningless expansion and unsupportable round-numbered-ness. And now, this. An (alleged) attempt to change the very nature of Alsatian wine, from one centered on the variety to one centered on the site but to the exclusion of the variety.
Not having been privy to the INAO’s internal deliberations, I can’t say whether producers’ fears on this count are justified. I can say that the idea is ludicrous, and if enacted would send the region’s wines back into the Stone Age, in terms of brand identity and, more importantly, sales.
What’s wrong with a little site designation? Nothing, of course, and certainly current Alsatian wine law both allows and encourages it. But the spiritual model for such site designation, at least in France, is Burgundy, and it’s a region with an important difference from Alsace: the grapes are singular and can be assumed just by the color of the wine. In Alsace, there’s no indication what a Schoenenbourg sans variety might be, and little historical precedent to suggest a preferred answer.
The driver of this bus full of hooey is the inimitable Jean-Michel Deiss, who – it must be disclaimed – makes wines I don’t particularly like. He has gradually moved his domaine from one making the usual range of varietally-designated wines to one specializing in site-designated blends, and in the process I think he’s lost both the wines’ essential balance and – somewhat ironically – the terroir signatures he craves. But my feelings about his wines are irrelevant; if he thinks he’s expressing terroir with his blends, he’s certainly welcome to continue. And in fact, Alsace wine law was modified to allow him and others to do this very thing. (Deiss argues that this is a return to tradition, rather than a new step. As with most such claims of historical precedent, it’s necessary to cherry-pick the “traditional” era’s span of years, because there are precedents for both his argument and the counter-argument.)
The problem seems to be that, having succeeded in taking his place within the expanded wine law, he now wants to move that law definitively into his corner. I can only suppose that he feels this would be a marketing advantage for him, because I cannot see any other reason for wanting or advocating for such a change, except perhaps overweening arrogance about the exclusive correctness of one’s position (which, it’s worth remembering, would not be an entirely unusual pose for Deiss).
But rather than further personalizing the debate, lets examine it on the merits. Would Alsace benefit from abandoning its dependence on varietal labeling, a practice nearly unknown elsewhere in France (except among low-cost table wines)?
First, the organoleptics: as anyone who’s tasted Alsatian blends knows, one of the significant difficulties is the dominant character of several of the potential blending grapes. Gewurztraminer, unless picked very early, tends to bury everything else with its lurid perfume, weight, and tendency towards sweetness and/or alcohol. Muscat is lighter, but the aromatics are inescapable and obscure much else in the wine. Pinot gris brings spicy fat that texturally dominates. And while riesling provides laser-like acidity, its nearly unparalleled ability to express minerality cannot stand in the face of fatter partners.
One might think that careful blending could lead to wines with an interesting tension and balance, but the evidence is rather the opposite…only a very few sites (like the Kaefferkopf) seem to provide the terroir necessary to bring the various grapes into harmonious balance. Elsewhere, the result is much as one might expect: gewürztraminer with a disjointed spike of riesling crispness, muscat fattened by pinot gris to the diminishment of both grapes, convoluted messes of all four (or more) grapes that taste like lousy gewürztraminer, and so forth. Despite Deiss’ mission, and with one exception (pinot blanc and auxerrois), the grapes of Alsace tend not to play well with each other, as they do Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Bordeaux. The exceptions are delicious, but they’re most decidedly exceptions. And a wholesale expansion of the practice of multi-variety blending seems unlikely to prove counter to the prevailing trends.
Second, there’s the marketing challenge, which would be considerable. As Pierre Trimbach once opined in response to the semi-recent push for a raft of premier cru vineyard designations (and I’m paraphrasing, though just a bit), “that’s just what Alsace needs…another fifty unpronounceable Germanic names that no one knows anything about.” His words could almost apply to the site designations now in existence. The myriad lieux-dits which few have even heard of aside, even the majority of the established grand crus aren’t exactly household names. The known sites – Sommerberg, Brand, Rangen, and so forth – have qualitative reputations well-based in history, but they’re famous now because of the skill and fame of the producers that utilize their grapes, not because of the sites themselves. (Want evidence for this? Consider the Rosacker. It’s the source of Alsace’s most celebrated wine, yet few outside the region know its name, because that wine – Trimbach’s Clos Ste-Hune – doesn’t mention the grand cru anywhere on the label.)
I’m glad that the INAO relented from its overly-rigid stance and allowed Deiss and others the option to make site-designated blends if they wish. Options are good, albeit sometimes contrary to the French regulatory mindset. But to institutionalize site over variety in a region where the latter is traditional, and where the majority of such blends will end up tasting like bad gewürztraminer and carry confusing multi-syllabic names?
Dumb. Really, really dumb. This roll of the Deiss will come up snake-eyes.