Alsace is France’s most distinct wine region. Its wines — imposingly full-bodied whites from Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, oily textured and extravagantly perfumed — stand worlds apart from the precise, salt-and-chalk profile established by the Loire Valley, or the lush, sumptuous portrait of Burgundy.
Situated on the country’s eastern border, Alsace has changed political hands several times over the centuries, from France to Germany and back again. It retains significant German influence culturally, culinarily and enologically.
Germany has historically been better known for expressions of these grapes that are off-dry, since its colder, northerly climes prevented full fermentation in the days before temperature-controlled tanks. Alsace was known for its dry expressions of the same grapes, although more recently there’s been a good amount of convergence. German producers have made more fully dry wines, while Alsatians have become more open to leaving in a little sweetness.
All of this is the dominant Story of Alsatian Wine. Its narrator is the Haut-Rhin, which, despite its name, refers to the southern section of Alsatian wine country. (Because the Rhine River flows north, ending at the North Sea, the “high Rhine” is farther south than the “low Rhine”.)
The Bas-Rhin, to the north, has not been producing wine for quite as long as its southern cousin (only since the 12th century, as opposed to roughly the 10th for Haut-Rhin), and it is not home to the most prestigious names such as Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Weinbach and Hugel & Fils. What it lacks in marquee value, though, it more than makes up for in vibrancy, elegance and precision.
“The style of wine is different further south,” said Melanie Pfister, the eighth-generation representative of her family’s grape-growing and winemaking history. “When tourists come to Alsace, they go to the Haut-Rhin because they want a riper, sweeter, richer style. We keep the drier, more focused style, more finesse.”
Although her family’s winery in Dahlenheim is only 60 kilometers north of the Haut-Rhin and temperatures are barely cooler, the overall effects of terrain, climate and soil are pronounced. The Vosges mountains offer less protection to the vineyards of the north, resulting in cooler breezes that maintain higher acidity levels in the grapes.
“This is often true of northern wine,” she said. “Think of Cote de Nuits in Burgundy, with more finesse than Cote de Beaune; or even the mineral expression of syrah in Cote Rotie as opposed to Chateauneuf-du-Pape … I am trying to promote our northern wine as a distinct style, our particularity.”
Melanie’s father, Andre, and mother, Marie-Anne, brought a new focus on quality and ecological sustainability to the family venture in the mid-1970s, but Melanie brings a uniquely worldly perspective. Before returning to Dahlenheim, she trained at some of the best wineries in the world: Zind-Humbrecht, but also Meo-Camuzet (Burgundy), Chateau Cheval Blanc (Saint Emilion in Bordeaux), Chateau d’Yquem (Sauternes) and Craggy Range (New Zealand).
“Through all of my training,” she said, “I was seeking to find the attention in each region to tradition and particularity, but only so I could return to Bas-Rhin and do the right thing for this area.”
Pfister credits her father with “anticipating the future.” Ahead of his time, Andre stopped using herbicides and grew cover crops that interact with soil and roots to “bring a kind of fertilizer, humus, life and diversity to the soil. Now, almost everyone has grass between their rows, and more and more people are using cover crops.”
Interestingly, Pfister sees environmental benefits to a relative view on organics. “If you are certified organic, then if you spray, it must be with copper (sulfate). Copper is a heavy metal, and will remain in the soil, kill worms and other fauna. This is against the primary feeling of my father, which is to promote life in the soil.
“With copper, if you spray on Day 1, and it rains on Day 2, then you have to spray again on Day 3. So in 2012, most of the organic growers in Alsace sprayed twice as much as we did. That is twice as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, twice as much compaction of the soil.”
This independent attitude aligns with Pfister’s general approach toward some of the most contentious issues in contemporary winemaking. All harvesting of the family’s 40 different plots on 25 acres is performed by hand. Pfister and her parents still work the vineyards themselves, aided by two assistants and 20 pickers during harvest (the same 20 every year).
All the crushed juice runs by gravity into stainless steel tanks (oak foudres are still the majority in Haut-Rhin, and were phased out at Pfister by Andre). Fermentation begins naturally with indigenous yeasts, guided by just enough temperature control to prevent heat spikes through the variable autumn. Fermentation lasts between three weeks and two months, depending on vintage, which is eons in an era of cultivated yeasts and rushed wines.
Alsace, like Germany, is well known for profligate use of sulfur during winemaking. Pfister charts a middle path, endeavoring to utilize as little sulfur as possible but refraining from fanaticism.
“In Alsace there is some trend toward natural wines with no sulfur, but I’m not fond of that because you lose the precision that we want to have. We use very low doses at pressing; during fermentation nothing; then a little bit after fermentation and a final adjustment at bottling.”
In the glass, this is evident. While Pfister wines have the hallmarks of the Germanic varietals’ exactitude and acid/fruit balance, they’re absent the flinty edge that excessive sulfur produces.
Pfister produces all of the region’s traditional varietals, but for now the wines’ Maine distributor, Crush, has chosen to distribute just the Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. These are a splendid introduction to the wines, though I sincerely hope they generate enough interest that Crush will be convinced to bring in at least one of the Rieslings.
The Pinot Blanc 2010 ($24), actually a 50-50 blend with the native grape Auxerrois, is beautifully perfumed and stout. Rich but taut and unflagging, it’s like a Meyer lemon marmalade, with a toothsome seed quality and the bitter hint of blood orange. The finish is almost unrealistically long, so that while it performs admirably at a meal it has to be a slow, conscious meal. If you sip and chew in too quick a sequence, you’ll cut short the magnificent subtleties in both your food and your drink.
The Pinot Gris 2011 ($28) is just stunning. My notes from first taste read “long, long loooonnngggg,” and when I bought a bottle later, the comment seemed an understatement. Ripe and quivering, full-bodied but athletically agile, it is somehow both classic and unconventional: classically oily and touched by smoke, but clean of line and measured to the nanometer. A perfectly refreshing summer wine, this Pinot Gris is nonetheless autumnal in how it holds onto every last glimmer of light.