When you consider the wines of Alsace, it’s probably fine, fragrant whites that come to mind. That’s understandable. The Alsace wine grower has six white grape varieties — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner – to play with. Most growers make wine from all six, with multiple cuvées of each. But there’s a seventh grape variety permitted in this slender winegrowing region on France’s eastern side, and it’s red: Pinot Noir.
Given Alsace’s white wine proclivities, it’s hardly any wonder that Alsatian Pinot Noir of old – pale, thinnish, often somewhat unripe — felt a bit like a red wine that was actually a white at heart. The fact that it was almost always bottled in the tall, slim, Rhine-style flûte (obligatory for white wine, though not for red) only served to reinforce this impression.
But change is afoot, and the classic red grape of Burgundy, once the Cinderella of the Alsace family, is beginning – albeit tentatively — to come into its own. Though fine, world-class Pinot Noir remains rare here, there are nonetheless a few producers (Albert Mann, René Muré, Lucien Albrecht, Hugel) who are taking this famously fickle grape in new and — for Alsace — unaccustomed directions, and making wines that can hold their heads high in any company. “We’re beginning to see some good Pinot Noir in Alsace,” comments Maurice Barthelmé of Albert Mann, probably the domaine that’s done most to raise the bar locally for this grape variety. And great ones? “Il y en a – mais pas beaucoup!” (“there are some – but not many!”) he acknowledges with a cheerful grin. (He can afford to be cheerful; Albert Mann Pinot Noir is acknowledged to be among the greats in Alsace.)
So what has changed to persuade some Alsace growers that it’s worth trying to make proper Pinot, rather than rosé-style wines? Several things, starting with the climate. “Global warming has helped us,” confirms Barthelmé. Bringing grapes to the requisite degree of ripeness is no longer an issue in this relatively northerly vineyard.
The second development is that Pinot Noir increasingly takes pride of place in top sites, including in Grand Cru vineyards, even though it’s not one of the officially permitted varieties. Lucas Rieffel in Mittelbergheim in the Bas-Rhin (northern Alsace), who took the plunge 7 years ago and planted a few rows in a prime site in the celebrated Zotzenberg vineyard above the village, observes: “When you plant Pinot Noir in a Grand Cru vineyard,” “you lose something – you take a risk.” Why so? Because Pinot Noir in Alsace cannot label itself a Grand Cru, so the wine maker automatically forfeits the price-premium that comes with such a wine.
Another big change is on the clone front. Thierry Meyer, formerly taster and selector of Alsace wines for the prestigious Bettane & Desseauve Grand Guide des Vins de France, explains that after the Second World War, when the region set about rebuilding its devastated vineyards, there was “une course aux rendements” (a rush for big yields). Overcropping is one of the enemies of Pinot Noir, which only gives of its best when yields are reined in. The high-yielding, big bunch clones that were planted in the rebuilding phase are gradually ceding ground in favor of less vigorous clones with smaller bunches.
So if you’re looking for a cool-climate Pinot Noir as an alternative to bog-standard Burgundy, consider what Alsace has to offer. Pinots from here have a range of delightful raspberry, strawberry and cherry fruit flavors. Tannins are discreet and oak is carefully used. With no tradition of oak-ageing for its whites, Alsace is soft-pedalling wood for its red, making it the perfect partner for white meats or soft cheeses.
Apart from the well-established names cited above, there are others worth singling out. One of Thierry Meyer’s Oenoalsace tasting-dinners at La Taverne Alsacienne near Colmar matched 16 different Alsace Pinot Noirs with Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl’s winter menu of terrine de gibier, a perfectly poached egg laden with truffles, civet of venison with ceps, celeriac and Spätzle, a selection of superb cheeses from Jacky Quesnot in Colmar and pears poached in red wine with Berawecka ice cream. Several names shone out, among them François Schmitt and Valentin Zusslin, both of them in Orschwihr, Agathe Bursin in Westhalten and Laurent Barth in Bennwihr in the Haut-Rhin. From the more northerly Bas-Rhin came Lucas Rieffel in Mittelbergheim, Clément Lissner in Wolxheim and Mélanie Pfister in Dahlenheim.
Some of these wines are exported to the UK and the US – check your local fine wine importer or www.winesearcher.com. Better still, plan an instructive trip to Alsace some time soon and taste them on the spot.