Millésimes Alsace

For ages I puzzled over the fact that Alsace’s annual Foire aux Vins in Colmar seemed to have remarkably little to do with wine. I remember commenting on this to Etienne Hugel a few years ago. He confirmed, with his trademark grin, that if you wanted to buy a tractor, or a mattress, or a ticket for a top-class pop concert, the Foire was great. If you were interested in Alsace wines, it was best forgotten.

This vinous lacuna was addressed in 2012 with the first Millésimes Alsace, a professional salon designed to showcase the best of Alsace. The third edition (it takes place every other year) was on June 13th. It’s held  – like the Foire aux Vins – at Colmar’s Parc d’Expositions, but it’s a very different animal – intentionally, on the part of the founder Marc Rinaldi, who saw the need for a totally wine-focused event that would show that Alsace is capable of producing some of the finest white wines in the world.

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Table of Domaine Etienne Loew, ready for action at Millésimes Alsace 2016 (photo by Etienne Loew)

The 2012 Millésimes was devoted exclusively to Riesling (see my report here). This year the scope was widened to include all the cépages grown in Alsace (viz Auxerrois, Gewurz, Muscat, Pinots Blanc Gris and Noir, Riesling and Sylvaner) – though Riesling still accounted for 50% of the total wines on show – plus a few blends and field blends. (For blends, grape varieties are grown and vinified separately and the wines combined later in the cellar; for field blends, varieties are grown side by side in the vineyard and the grapes harvested and vinified together.) Ninety-nine domaines from A to Z, Adam to Zusslin, presented their wines to a discerning and appreciative audience of wine writers, sommeliers/ères, wine merchants and assorted wine pros, both local and imported for the occasion.

New this year were some excellent fringe events, scheduled on the eve of the Millésimes salon. One, which took place in the gorgeously restored Art Nouveau rooms next door to the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar (formerly the town’s public baths),  was the presentation of a newly-pressed association of top-class growers known as ACT (Association Crus et Terroirs). Its 19 members include names like Bott-Geyl, Zind-Humbrecht, Albert Mann, Muré, Schlumberger, Trimbach and Zusslin, whose vineyards are situated in Alsace’s greatest and oldest established terroirs. [In a recent article on her site Jancis Robinson (subscribers only) draws a parallel between ACT and the VDP, Germany’s association of top producers, and asks if ACT is set to be Alsace’s equivalent.]

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Séverine Schlumberger of Domaines Schlumberger introduced the association and drew an elegant parallel between the long-overdue restoration of the legendary Unterlinden Museum and the (equally long-overdue) restitution of the image of Alsace as a fine wine region, which is now underway thanks to initiatives like those by Millésimes Alsace and ACT. Alsace wine, once dismissed as le p’tit blanc du comptoir (cheap, generic white wine served at the bar), or condemned as overly sweet, or headache-inducing, is finally resuming its rightful place among the world’s finest whites. “It’s critical”, concluded Séverine, “to rebuild the image of Alsace with the help of wines grown in the region’s historically great crus and terroirs, not forgetting the past but building on past glories.”

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Another event, this one hosted by Les DiVINes d’Alsace, the region’s association of women wine specialists headed by Mélanie Pfister, took place in the courtyard of Jean-Baptiste Adam in Ammerschwihr. In warm evening sunshine (a small miracle in itself this miserably rainy spring/summer) we mingled with Alsace’s top women professionals and tasted the fruits of  vineyards from the southernmost tip of the Haut-Rhin to the northern end of the Bas-Rhin, with classy nibbles to match.

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I’m a sucker for Muscat, my desert island spring apero, and discovered a new one (to me) from Domaine Maurice Griss in Ammerschwihr that ticked all my Alsace Muscat boxes: gorgeous nose, full-on grapey flavour, dry finish and good length. My fave food associations included properly toasty Flammekueche segments with a floral Pinot Blanc from Domaine Alfred Meyer in Katzenthal, toothsome vegetable verrines with a mineral-laden Riesling GC Froehn from Becker and a  10 month-old (young, yes, but delciously precocious) Comté cheese from Colmar cheesemonger Jacky Quesnot served with Mélanie Pfister’s ripe and fragrant Pinot Noir, always a special favourite of ours. My final marriage made in heaven was a totally swoonworthy Stilton proposed with a nectar-like Gewurz Sélection de Grains Nobles from Domaine Hubert Metz.

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It’s clear from Millésimes Alsace and its associated events that the finest Alsace wines – like the wonderful Musée Unterlinden – are busy dusting themselves off, appearing in a new guise and strutting their stuff with pride. If you’re still burdened with misconceptions about Alsace wines and have missed out on this burgeoning transformation, it could be time to revisit.

7 thoughts on “Millésimes Alsace

  1. Very interesting, Sue. What was the vibe at the event like? And as a local, what are your thoughts on the ACT initiative?

    I visited Rinaldi’s Domaine Martin Schaetzel in April, and was quite impressed with some of the newer vintages coming online.

    1. Hi Julian – I got v. positive vibes from the actual event which built on the first 2 Millésimes, and a feeling that a turning point has been reached. I think the ACT association is a big step forward, an initiative from Olivier Z-H and headed by Séverine Schlumberger with all the top names represented (Muré, Zusslin, Trimbach etc. etc.). I have yet to visit Schaetzel, but plan to soon

      1. Thanks Sue, good to hear.

        I did read the ACT charter, and one thing I did notice was that the aim was for the “terroir wines” to achieve better prices on the market. Frankly, that is one thing that doesn’t resonate much for me here in Asia (Singapore), where many Alsace wines are already overpriced relative to alternatives.

        And while I like the fact that the very best of Alsace are united in this effort, there is also a lot of “diversity” (putting it politely) within the group. You have the larger, richer domaines such as Schlumberger, Trimbach and Schaetzel (backed by Rinaldi), the mid-sized domaines such as Z-H and Weinbach who already fetch top prices for their wines and have strong international markets, and the small domaines such as Barmes-Buecher who, while excellent, are still largely reliant on family and have very small teams. I really hope, to borrow a phrase, that they have more in common with each other than the things which divide them, and that ACT doesn’t get bogged down in inactivity as a result of such divergent interests.

  2. The business of pricing is a tricky one, isn’t it? You say that ‘many Alsace wines are already overpriced relative to alternatives’ – which alternatives? The argument of ACT members (and others) is that the top wines of Alsace are underpriced in relation to fine wines from other parts of the world. However, to make achieving better prices on the market an explicit aim is a questionable way of going about it – better, surely, to distinguish yourself by excellence. That’s what I hope for ACT and the top wines of Alsace, which are imho excellent and can compete on the world market as such. Meanwhile, I’m quietly celebrating that these top wines are still affordable – not cheap (which they will never be, nor should aim to be) but good value for the money spent.

    1. Hi Sue,

      Forgive my recourse to examples.

      Here in Singapore, you buy Weinbach Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg (not the Schlossberg Ste Catherine or Inedit) for $120 (or 80 euros), same price roughly for Deiss’ Riesling Altenberg de Bergheim. For the same money, you can buy a good white Burg 1er Cru, or Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay. Here in Asia, no prizes for guessing which one the public will opt for.

      If the producers raise their ex-domaine prices, doubtless the importers will look to pass the pain on to the consumer. And in the $80 – $120 range, the emphasis is on value, so any increases in price will make Alsace uncompetitive. I agree with you that explicitly aiming for a price rise is a bit orf, and with the large diversity of pricing even within the ACT membership, where will they draw the line between commercial commonsense and “elevation of the terroir”?

      Like you, I really love my Alsace wine so my questions are borne out of a good deal of concern of where this could all be headed. I really like the idea that premium tier producers get their own marketing vehicle outside of CIVA, but I also really hope they manage to keep it all together.

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