Just returned from a lovely Christmas trip across Europe: Paris for four nights (to celebrate our 10 year anniversary of eloping there on December 21st), Frankfurt for four nights with friends, and then a trip to Alsace. Alsace was also a return from 10 years ago, and given the Finger Lakes has a fair amount in common on paper with Alsace, we were eager to catch-up on the wines. Here are the notable tidbits and what I still find myself pondering:
ABVs are way down from 10 years ago. Alsace is on the forefront of dealing with climate change with the Riesling + Friends family of grapes, and it is clear that a course correction is starting to occur. 10 years ago it was full throttle for 14%+ ABV Rieslings (to say nothing of the riper grapes), and through some combination of vineyard management and pick dates, that is clearly not the dominant idea amongst the best producers any longer. We had people bragging about lower ABVs, to put a fine point on it.
When we last visited Alsace it was just after New Years, and the region was a ghost town other than the buzz around the remaining Christmas markets in Strasbourg. This time we were there between Xmas and NYE, and woo-boy was it a different experience. The small wine villages that we couldn’t find a place open to eat in 10 years ago, were so busy with tourists from all over Europe (Spain and Italy especially) and intra-France, that you had to park two miles outside of town along a highway and walk in past the two miles-worth of cars that had parked ahead of you. It was fascinating, but if we had done it for more than one day I think I would have found it too much chaos. The Christmas decorations and markets are pretty, but not worth the headache for us as wine tourists.
Which leads to my main thought from this trip. Alsatian wine is a dead-end in the US for sales, and Alsatian wineries rarely-if-ever participate in conferences outside their own borders (this is something that confuses the larger Riesling world, when 75 wineries from across the globe show up and not a single Alsatian does). And I have to think it is a direct relation to how stupendously popular they are as a tourist region for ~9 months of the year. The incentive to participate in conferences or push sales in other markets is markedly less when you have people beating down your door to buy everything you make. There are a flabbergasting number of random wineries in every town that hang a sign out front, but there are so many bus-fulls of tourists coming through they probably all can sell everything they make (sometimes even regardless of quality). This is not a critique, just an observation. But it helps me understand a bit better why Alsatian wine marketing and some winemaking is the way it is.
And last but not least, Alsatian Pinot Noir is a real treasure if you can find it. Mind you, it is hard even to find in the wineries themselves there. No one is making a ton of it, the vineyard system is all geared towards their white grapes (no Grand Crus have been approved for Pinot Noir yet in all of Alsace… and that is a laugh given just about every other spit of land is a GC there), and what they do make is mostly consumed by locals. Some really beautiful wines, however, and priced for a song.
So I think that is that. And thanks to anyone for reading, if nothing else it was nice to be able to type this up for someone!
Thanks for the update and info. The two mile hike to the Christmas market sounds decidedly not fun. My wife and I were talking about doing Strasbourg or a similar town at the holidays but didn’t realize it had become such tourist craziness!
Your perspective on the Alsatian wine market is really fascinating. Explains a thing or two!
I should note, if you are planning to do Strasbourg or Colmar for the Christmas Markets, I would think you will be mostly fine. We still loved both for their markets, but those cities (especially have the Strasbourg) have the infrastructure to handle the influx of tourists. You’ll feel a bit packed in, but nothing crazy. The little towns were where it was a real mismatch between infrastructure and visitor numbers.
Thanks for the report! I’ve been to the region a few times and really enjoy spending time there despite how touristy the towns are. That said I am a bit surprised to hear about the lower ABV levels since I still often struggle to find Riesling below 13.5% ABV from Alsace when browsing online.
That’s fair - I think there is now a bit of a rift happening in the region between those who are shifting down versus fine with going all-out ABV. Hugel is now a big proponent of the former, and Zind-Humbrecht is doing similarly bit by bit.
Muré was a huge stand out for us in that regard, although we would put Weinbach + Pfister not too far behind. Schoffit and Kientzler make ‘entry level’ PNs only, meanwhile but we thought they were absolutely lovely. We were lucky to find a couple stores that actually carried these wines, as some of the producers themselves couldn’t even sell them to us. Au Millésime in Strasbourg was one, as well as the wine store owned by Hugel that is next to their tasting room in Riquewhir.
Also, it may just be our palates, but the standout PNs for us were often those on granite or gravel (and not the limestone examples that you would expect to be best a la Burgundy).
To me, Alsatian Pinot Noir is still a minefield. I do agree that when it’s good, it’s really good. However, even today, some producers make Pinot Noir that is nothing more than deeply-colored rosé, while others try their best in making very “Burgundian” wines, which usually translates to clumsy, super-ripe wines with more oak than the wine can handle. Fortunately these styles are slowly disappearing as more and more people learn to work with Pinot Noir, but I think it’s still a work in progress.
I visited Alsace in January 2018 prior to a business trip in Basel. It was just for a couple of days. My wine visits were to Dirler-Cadé and Trimbach. Boxler was closed to visitors that month. I didn’t find any issues with alcohol levels in Riesling, but that was not the case with Gewürztraminer. With one exception, 2011 Trimbach Vendanges Tardives, all that I tasted showed heat from elevated alcohol percentages. Climate change is not Gewürz’s friend. That was the only Gewürz I brought back along with 15 bottles of Riesling.
Thanks for the report. My lone visit to Alsace in 2003 was a disaster due to the volume of people. Then there was the backlash against us as Americans at the time. We had made a prior appointment with a very famous domaine, and they slammed the door in our faces when we showed up.
So not going back anytime soon, but still enjoy wines from Trimbach, Dirler, Kientzer, etc.
Thanks for the report. Brings fond memories of my travels to the region.
Although I’ll chime in with a different perspective on local tourism and the wine business. My wife and I were there between Christmas and New Year in 2016. Agree with seeing buses after buses of European-based tourists. But I noticed that they fill in those wineries with large, some are sleek and modern, tasting and retail rooms. We were able to email-schedule, a couple of days prior to, appointmens at 2 smaller family-run operations in Dom. Henry Fuchs and, to a larger degree, Kienztler, both in Ribeauville. No buses, no tourists, just wife and I with the welcoming principal winemakers who tried best to enlighten us, as they struggled in English, with their respective wines and wineries. From what I learned, they still are looking to being able to get their products to sell abroad, with America as a prime target, in order to make their economics work.
That’s a very good point. I’ve only visited two wineries in the region, Boxler and Bott-Geyl, and I reckon neither is a likely target for those large bus groups of tourists. Boxler obviously has no trouble selling everything they produce at relatively high prices.
Indeed - I stand corrected! And I’m glad to see they are correcting that injustice!
As for the Pinot Noirs there, I’d agree they can be hit or miss, but I find that generally true of Pinot Noir the world over, so I appreciated the much lower ‘entry price’ for these. Again, though, with a handful of exceptions that are clearly trying to Burgundy in style and price point.
Our experience lines up with yours (right down to Boxler being closed when we went by, although we stumbled into a shop next door that turned out to be the home of the best jam-maker in the world and someone we adore: Christine Ferber). Rieslings seem to be handling things well, but Gewurz is tougher to find balance in Alsace now. We returned with zero Gewurz and three Muscats, actually.
Agreed with you and Ramon both - I think the tourism issue is just for general visiting and ease of getting around/finding places to eat and sleep. The wineries we were seeking out tended to be calm and incredibly welcoming. Frankly, most of the tourists we saw did not look like they cared much more about wine than if it came warm, mulled, and in a plastic cup. (Not to hate on the vin chaud, which I also have a softspot for, but there is more to Alsatian wine than that!)
Kelby - Thanks for the great report. One factor re the crowds may be it being the first New Years post Covid-restrictions. We were in Paris for new years, and instead of 400,000 showing up for the fireworks as projected by the Paris police, it was 1-2 million, surprising everyone. (It was awesome & completely peaceful.). We had friends visiting in Paris from Alsace - and they brought me among other things a bottle of Alsatian Pinot - now I’m excited to try it (my first; from a lifelong Burg drinker). Glad you had such.a great time in Alsace!
Absolutely a factor - a lot of pent up demand and interest. And, at least for Colmar and then the small villages of the wine region, Strasbourg no longer has all their Christmas markets between Christmas and NYE - so everyone who showed up expecting those had to head elsewhere to find them.