Alsace: A mosaic of vineyard sites enhancing varietal expression
By Jean-Paul Burias - Photographs: Courtesy of the estates, posted on 15 May 2023
Alsace is home to varietal wines even though several varieties can sometimes be blended. This apparently simple approach in actual fact belies the region’s remarkable complexity and array of vineyard sites. It promotes multiple combinations that lend the wines their unique characters.
At Cave du Vieil Armand, the bond between the soils and the work of the winegrowers is self-evident.
The image may seem simplistic but it encapsulates a very unique scenario in the French winegrowing landscape where geographical indications establish norms. Most of Alsace’s appellation wines are single varietals and labelled as such. Appellations are granted to the wines made from seven recognised grape varieties: Riesling (around 22%) which ranks first in the varietal range, closely followed by Pinot blanc – buoyed by the success of the Crémants (21 %) – then Gewurztraminer (20.5 %), Pinot gris (15.5 %), Pinot noir (10%), Sylvaner (7.5 %) and Muscat (3%), complemented by local varieties such as Auxerrois and Klevener de Heiligenstein. White wines account for a whopping 90% of volumes and Pinot noir, fermented as both rosé and red, remains the region’s only red variety, although its output is tending to increase. Alsace is renowned globally and has an image of simplicity, of light, easy-drinking and approachable wines. In reality, there is a huge difference in styles for a single variety from one company to another, due partly to the 51 designated vineyard sites whose boundaries are based on strict geological and weather criteria. These form Alsace’s mosaic of Grands Crus – wines that are recognised and valued around the world. Jump aboard for an exhilarating journey to the heart of a wine region that is much more complex than a cursory glance would suggest!
The board at Cave du Vieil Armand, chairman Laurent Franck (right) and vice-chairs Christine Sutter and Thiebaut Zimmermann.
Cave du Vieil Armand: Diversity and harmony
Established in 1959, the Cave du Vieil Armand offers an incredible stepping stone between the past and a radiant future. Its name stems from the rocky outcrop of Hartmannswillerkopf, one of the largest battle fields in the First World War. The co-operative is one of Alsace’s smallest but also very renowned – its 64 member families farm 153 hectares of vines nestled amidst the rolling hills of the lower Vosges. “Wines produced by the Cave du Vieil Armand offer a faithful rendition of Alsace – they are low-key yet also powerful”, explains Laurent Franck, the winery’s chairman. “The range truly runs the gamut, encompassing both traditional, medal-winning wines and others that have more of a terroir focus with village by village selections”. The three Grands Crus reveal the typicity of the soils and lend the varietals complexity. A Riesling planted on marly sandstone soils like Grand Cru Ollwiller shows distinctive balance between the powerfulness stemming from the marl and at the same time a certain lightness due to the occurrence of sandstone. The land instils exotic notes into all of the grape varieties – passion fruit for the Rieslings and candied mango for the Pinot gris and Gewurztraminers. The winery does restrict itself to a particular style, however. “Our strength is that we can offer our customers several styles”, says the winery’s vice-chair Christine Sutter. “We produce fruity and fairly dry varietal wines depending on the vintages at affordable prices, and also terroir-driven offerings that are more elaborate and complex, like our Grands Crus. These are designed for more knowledgeable consumers but their rich aromatics also reach out to less seasoned connoisseurs. All our lines reside together in harmony within the winery”.
The first three organically certified winegrowers at Cave du Vieil Armand in one of their vineyards blocks.
Domaine Henri Klée: Winegrowing expertise
The magnificent vineyard sites of Katzenthal have allowed the Klée family to let their creative juices flow for 12 generations. Since 2014, Martin Klée has been at the helm of the 13.5-hectare estate straddling 7 villages; he was joined by his brother Antoine in 2020. “The Alsace appellation is really booming and has made huge strides in quality over the past few years, particularly due to the upcoming generation which has successfully modernised the appellation”, claims Martin Klée. “Its yields and quality are nicely harnessed and it embraces a range of different vineyard sites. These are no longer simple, light, easy-drinking and approachable wines but full-fledged offerings that stand out for their complexity, their bond with terroir and a winemaking process where every winery adds its own personal stamp”. Eighty percent of Domaine Henri Klée is on granite soils.
Antoine, Philippe and Martin Klée.
The winery focuses on single-vineyard wines where the vineyard block is selected based on its aspect, the age of the vines and ripeness levels so that a unique wine style can be crafted from a specific spot. These natural conditions enhance the inherent varietal characters, lending them character, depth and identity. The varietal’s contribution is more at aroma and flavour level, revealing hallmark Riesling traits of fruitiness, minerality, balance and food-friendliness. “People often talk about Alsace’s white grape varieties but Pinot noir has a great future ahead of it”, stresses Antoine Klée. “This red variety is rapidly extending its footprint on our estate. People are increasingly drawn to its weight, colour and aromatic characters. Climate change over the past few years has led us towards improved quality and it can easily hold its own against neighbouring regions that grow it too”. When harvested early, Pinot noir shows striking freshness, fruit and elegance. The older vines with their moderate yields are harvested later and display impressive weight, structure and appetising flavours which, with more elaborate barrel maturation, leads to remarkable age-worthy reds.
Harvesting at Domaine Henri Klée.
Domaine René Fleck et Fille: The Vallée Noble
Nestled in the Vallée Noble – so called because of the many noble families who lived here in the 16th century – Domaine René Fleck enjoys both propitious weather conditions for growing vines and an outstanding terroir. Set in the heart of the Ballon des Vosges national park, it seems protected by the Petit (1,267 metres) and Grand Ballon (1,427 metres) mountains, sheltered from the prevailing winds with updrafts that caress the hillsides. In 1995, Nathalie Fleck took over at the estate’s helm after studying viticulture and oenology, including a placement in the United States. In 2002, she was joined by her husband Stéphane Steinmetz. “Vineyard management, winemaking methods and particularly the soils and aspect have a huge influence on the style of the wine, even when winegrowers farm the same grape variety”, explains Fleck. “Alsace’s good fortune is that it is home to multiple vineyard sites. We have been growing our vines sustainably now for several years using environmentally-friendly techniques and have been certified organic since 2022”. Half of the couple’s vineyards are classified as Grand Cru and they focus their work on achieving absolute finesse and pitch-perfect balance. They produce a wide variety of wines, some of them light and fruity, others more complex and fat, prioritising vineyard sites like the Grand Cru Zinnkoepflé Louis Riesling label which is rich, dry and shows magnificent length.
René Fleck and his daughter Nathalie Steinmetz.
Stéphane Steinmetz from Domaine René Fleck.
Domaine Boeckel: The stamp of terroir
Here, excellence has been in the genes of winegrowers since the first labels appeared with Frédéric Boeckel (1812-1873). Originally a butcher and innkeeper, like his ancestors, he became a wine merchant before establishing his own winery in 1853 which would develop over time. The estate now boasts 24 hectares of organically farmed vines. “The influence of terroir is undeniable. The same grape variety can produce much more profound wines on the finest vineyard sites than on the less complex slopes”, stresses Thomas Boeckel. “Our aim is to make fine Pinot noir on magnificent sites. Just like Riesling, it acts like ‘blotting paper’ due to its ability to encapsulate the specific features of the soils. But that’s also true in many French wine regions”. The estate offers several echelons of wines – the classics which purely reflect the varietal and the Midelberg range for village-designated wines with a more subtle definition of the different varieties - Sylvaner, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewurztraminer for the whites and Pinot Noir for the reds.
Thomas and Jean-Daniel Boeckel.
Domaine Gilbert Ruhlmann Fils: the essence of the seven grape varieties
Set at the foot of the storied Haut-Koenigsbourg castle, this family estate has been passed down through the generations since 1958. Its vines are carefully tended and its fairly sandy, silica and gravelly soils are conducive to growing vines, promoting a wide range of styles. “We produce single varietals with fruit flavours and several factors define them”, explains Guy Ruhlmann. “Our wines tend to be fresh with varietal characters and a mineral note stemming from each terroir. The nature of the soil and training techniques, along with ripeness or over-ripeness have a major influence. So, we can equally produce a dry, light, easy-drinking, lifted Riesling that works well with shellfish or a richer, more mouth-filling, complex wine pairing with fish or meat”. Across an extensive range which embraces all of the seven Alsace grape varieties and includes eighteen different wines, provenance is clearly asserted. The vines put down roots in search of nourishment and ripen their fruit, thereby expressing terroir characteristics. At the same time, mineral elements lend complexity and identity. “Riesling is a grape variety that is well-suited to our vineyard sites”, continues Ruhlmann. “It produces a beautiful variety of dry white wines, which become more complex with extended hang-time of the fruit. These are food-friendly wines showing distinctive site-expressiveness, which is a great advantage in international markets although we should be developing our exports as they still only represent a minority of our sales”.
The Ruhlmann family in their vineyards.
Domaine Robert Klingenfus: Opening export doors
The history of this estate is marked by one of constant renewal, with excellence as the unchanging focus. Since Guillaume Klingenfus, who acquired the first few rows of vines in 1863, five generations of talented winegrowers have followed on from one another, before another Guillaume Klingenfus joined the estate. With his father Robert, his firm guidance has shaped the estate’s future, developing export sales of their signature wines displaying expressive, charming aromatics. “The difference in style for the same variety from one winery to another stems from the way they are handled”, he explains. “You can feel the signature style of the winegrower who made it. Then comes the type of soil, where the structure and make-up lend the wines different typicities”. The Signature label encompasses fruity, floral wines that are easy to enjoy with their varietal aromas. The terroir-driven and Grands Crus ranges offer more complex wines that show minerality and great concentration. “Producing Alsace wines is an advantage in export markets”, adds Klingenfus. “They may not enjoy the same level of notoriety as some other French appellations, but they have a distinctively varied aromatic spectrum which is easy to identify, and that is an absolute plus”.
Fifth-generation winegrower Guillaume Klingenfus.
Domaine Koehler Jean-Claude et Fils: Whites and Pinots noirs
Home to a family of winegrowers since 1621, this estate farms vines in one of Alsace’s finest sites. Established in 1966, the present-day estate now boasts seven hectares of vines spread over three villages. Son Christian took over the estate with his wife Frédérique in 1999. Their aim was to produce wines with differing styles shaped by vineyard management, aspect, soil types, sub-soils and winemaking techniques. “Firstly, you should be able to recognise the grape variety, then the influence of terroir shows through based on the input of the winegrower”, explains Christian Koehler. “Around a core of the seven Alsace grape varieties, we produce 25 different wines, which vary depending on the vines, exposure and desired ripeness”. The estate also values Pinot noir and was the first in the village to plant the variety. Fermented in barrels and matured in Corton Grand Cru casks to imbue it with greater finesse, fat and persistence, the Cuvée 1621 – a nod to the estate’s birth year – is bottled in a heavy container so as to allow it to age for at least twenty years.
The Koehler Family.
Christian Koehler and his wife Frédérique.
Christian Koehler in his barrel cellar.
Domaine Ostertag-Hurlimann: The power of fusion
The sense of conveyance of family values since 1890 demonstrates this family’s attachment to independent winegrowing. In 2007, after graduating as a winemaker, Sylvie Hurlimann joined the 18-hectare estate which makes around twenty different varietal wines and terroir-driven offerings. “The vineyard sites remain unique and our work is governed by land registry boundaries”, she explains. “We use wild ferments and age our wines on the lees. We treat every crop with utmost care in order to craft wines that best reflect varietal characters and the original vineyard sites. We focus on producing balanced, fresh wines whilst also preserving the finesse and fruitiness of the grape varieties”. The fusion between these two aspects bolsters the unique character traits of the wines. The range features both fruitier wines that showcase the freshness and lightness of the grape varieties, and terroir-driven offerings displaying distinctive minerality and concentrated fruit. “Riesling is our preferred grape variety”, adds Hurlimann. “We have very bountiful vineyard sites for growing Riesling. It adapts well to them and stays beautifully fresh with liveliness on the finish. It offers a combination of fruitiness and food-friendly characters and is very popular in export markets because it stays dry and pairs with many different types of food”.
Sylvie Hurlimann and her brother Yannick, the fifth-generation wine growers at the family-run Domaine Ostertag-Hurlimann.
The entrance to Domaine Ostertag-Hurlimann.
Domaine Justin Boxler: Balanced vineyard sites
At this family-owned estate, established in 1672, experience combines with excellence. Nestled in
Niedermorschwihr, in the heart of the prestigious Alsace Wine Route, the vineyards extend over 12 hectares and 5 village boundaries. The estate complies with strict production specifications and has been certified organic since the 2022 vintage. The long journey required to achieve this was undertaken by eleventh-generation winegrowers Charlotte Boxler and her cousin Florent Wiss. “Winegrowers and the younger generations that are gradually setting up are investing huge amounts in the image of Alsace wines and the region itself. This brings new challenges but also ambitious goals”, stresses Boxler. “Alsace is no longer a region producing simple, easy-drinking white wines with residual sugar made from vines that have higher yields than the national average. There is consistency across the region. Every vintage champions the balanced vineyard sites, Crus and modern spirit”. At Domaine Justin Boxler, the range of sites lends the wines very different structures. The winegrowers’ task is to enhance the soils and grape varieties with a broad range of textures. “Our primary aim is to encapsulate sense of place in the most accurate way by intervening as little as possible with the fruit”, says Wiss. “We have the good fortune to grow vines on several granite soils, like the Sommerberg, Brand and Wineck-Schlossberg Grands Crus, the three granite sites with two micas”. The result is a show-stopping combination of elegance, finesse and purity. The acids are also very different, depending on whether the soil is granite or limestone. In export markets, Riesling is still the most popular grape but other dry white wines like Sylvaner are also relatively successful.
The team at Domaine Justin Boxler during harvesting in Sommerberg.
Pierre Boxler, with his nephew Florent Wiss and Charlotte Boxler, who took over the estate in 2022.
Export sales are headed north
Every producer will tell you that the grape variety – as we all know – is a fundamental criterion in Alsace and is a critical buying cue for end consumers. However, the concept of terroir is increasingly factoring into the equation for wine enthusiasts. A Riesling grown on granite, for example, does not have the same structure as a wine grown on sandstone or limestone. It isn’t too far-fetched to predict that over the next ten years, the soil aspect will be an even more integral part of understanding Alsace wines, and not just for the Grands Crus or designated vineyard sites. Most Alsace producers market a varied range of wines with classic lines that meet the basic needs of their customers, but also special or novel iterations that are appealing to a new consumer audience. The wide variety of vineyard sites allows each winery to stand out, and the mosaic of soils and climates is so extensive and complex that you can sometimes witness four or even five different soil types in a single village. Riesling is the grape variety that offers the most site-expressive renditions, acting as a true mirror to its terroir and successfully expressing itself in a variety of fashions, whilst at the same time retaining its aromatic identity. These unique features can also be traced back to human input. The way the vines are farmed is perceptible in the ultimate style of the wine, its freshness and fruitiness. Over time, it also often reveals beautiful mineral notes framed by a robust structure, and these aspects become real plus points in export markets. In this respect, Alsace wines have garnered great success, with export sales growing by 15% across all markets in 2021, including Asia and most notably China and South Korea. Alsace winegrowers have made it their mission to consolidate that success.