Alsace grape varieties and wine labelling

Here I list the grape varieties in Alsace, and describe how they relate to the names on Alsace wine labels. This is not nearly as easy as you might think when you get into the detail, especially when aiming for strict accuracy whilst still making the information easy to access. Let me start by giving the varieties allowed in the AOCs of Alsace and Crémant d’Alsace.

Grape Varieties
Auxerrois
Chardonnay
Chasselas
Gewurztraminer
Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains
Muscat Ottonel
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Riesling
Savagnin Rose
Sylvaner

In this list I use what I would call a commonly understood definition of grape variety. For example, although Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are clones of Pinot Noir, I treat all three as separate varieties, not least because the AOC regulations do so. Likewise, and for the same reason, I count Gewurztraminer and Savagnin Rose as separate varieties, even if they are both clones of Savagnin. I also list two varieties of Muscat, but here it is because they are in fact different varieties, however much that may sometimes be glossed over. But for Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and Chasselas I do not separate out their white and pink clones. The AOC regulations do refer to both colours, but each time one is allowed the other is too, so nothing is lost by lumping them together. Besides, I don’t think it is at all usual to separate out the pink clones for these varieties. For more detail, each of these grape varieties has a sizable section in Wine Grapes.  Internet searches will also give plenty of information about them.

Label Text Permitted Grape Varieties
Auxerrois Auxerrois
Chasselas
Gutedel
Chasselas
Gewurztraminer Gewurztraminer
Muscat Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains
Muscat Ottonel
Muscat Ottonel Muscat Ottonel
Pinot Blanc Auxerrois
Pinot Blanc
Pinot
Klevner
Auxerrois
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Pinot Gris Pinot Gris
Riesling Riesling
Sylvaner Sylvaner
Pinot Noir, red or rosé Pinot Noir
Klevener de Heiligenstein Savagnin Rose
Edelzwicker Auxerrois
Chasselas
Gewurztraminer
Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains
Muscat Ottonel
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Riesling
Savagnin Rose, only from Heiligenstein area
Sylvaner
Crémant Auxerrois
Chardonnay
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Riesling
Crémant, rosé Pinot Noir

The right hand column in the above table is relatively straightforward as I have already explained what I mean by these varieties. Any variety in a list in the right hand column can be used in any proportion.

The left hand column is a bit of a mixed bag. From Auxerrois to Pinot Noir, it contains what the AOC regulations call the dénomination en usage, a sort-of varietal name for the wine. Gutedal is an alternative name for Chasselas, and Klevner for Pinot. More on Klevener de Heiligenstein below. Another denomination en usage is Edelzwicker, which means noble blend even if it is now not required to be particularly noble. Finally we have the two colours of Alsace crémant wines. Except where noted, you should assume that all wines are white.

The main areas of confusion surround the usage of the label terms Pinot Blanc, Pinot, Klevner and Klevener.

Let’s deal with Klevener first. Klevener de Heiligenstein is, as far as the Alsace AOC regulations are concerned, a geographical name that may appear on the label. And like other possible geographical names, in addition to specifying where the vines can be grown it restricts the grape varieties that are allowed in the wine. For Klevener de Heiligenstein it just so happens that only one variety is allowed: Savagnin Rose. And that variety cannot be used with any other additional name on the label apart from Edelzwicker, and in all cases, Savagnin Rose has to come from the area around Heiligenstein. However, to most people, Klevener de Heiligenstein reads like a grape variety: the Klevener variety of Heiligenstein. And indeed, in the book Wine Grapes, Klevener de Heiligenstein is listed as a synonym for Savagnin Rose. So when you see Klevener de Heiligenstein on a wine, feel free to think of it as a form of varietal labelling. Just be careful not to confuse it with Klevner, which has a different spelling, and its own set of complications.

According to the regulations, Klevner is simply an alternative label name for Pinot, and as such it includes a range of grape varieties. But you should also be aware that Clevner and Klävner (also Klevner according to some sources) are used in Alsace as synonyms for the variety Pinot Blanc. So if someone says something that sounds like Klevner, you will need some context to know if they are talking about Savagnin Rose, Pinot Blanc, or a wine that can contain any of several Alsace varieties. If your head is starting to hurt now, do push on – the worst is over.

Normally in the EU, if a wine has a variety mentioned on the label, it must contain at least 85% of that variety. However, according to the Alsace AOC regulations, wines labelled Pinot Blanc can contain large proportions of Auxerrois, and they often do. Apparently (reported by Jancis Robinson on her forum, quoting correspondence from CIVA) this is because in this context Pinot Blanc, contrary to appearance, is not a grape variety but a dénomination en usage, and usage has always been to confuse the varieties Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois. However, this does not work the other way round, so if the label says Auxerrois the wine must be 100% of that variety.

Another fudge, I understand, is that Chardonnay used to be tolerated in Pinot, even if strictly speaking it never was allowed. But no more. It is only permitted in white crémant. Which leads me on to another notable fact about Crémant d’Alsace: rosé crémant must be 100% Pinot Noir. It is not permitted to make rosé by mixing white and red grapes, as it is in Champagne and many other sparkling wine regions.

I am aware that some of what I have written here is in conflict with what I have seen in other places, both online and in print. Some errors my well have slipped into my post (and if they have please let me know) but my sources were the current official regulations. Specifically, the documents I used were:

CAHIER DES CHARGES DE L’APPELLATION D’ORIGINE CONTRÔLEE « ALSACE » ou « VIN D’ALSACE » homologue par le décret n° 2011-1373 du 25 octobre 2011, modifié par le décret n° 2014-1069 du 19 septembre 2014, publié au JORF du 21 septembre 2014

Cahier des charges de l’appellation d’origine contrôlée « Crémant d’Alsace » homologué par le décret n° 2011-1373 du 25 octobre 2011, JORF du 28 octobre 2011

A trip to Alsace

Just a week after returning from Santorini, I was waking up to a very different view from the bedroom window – green, misty and with a touch of frost on the ground, the Vosges mountain range in the background rising over an Alsace village, Villé to be precise. Another beautiful European wine region, but so, so, different.villeIn fact the Alsace vineyards could hardly be more different, with neat rows of lush vines in fertile soil, just starting to take on autumnal colours. When you see how different the regions are, it seems almost incomprehensible that both Alsace and Santorini are capable of producing good wine. But they are, and do.alsace-vinesAs in my last post on Santorini, I am not going to attempt anything too systematic here. In Alsace I tasted over 120 wines and visited nine producers, but I am just going to mention two of the most memorable visits – the one that stood out at the time when I experienced them.

Domaine Xavier Wymann, Ribeauvillé

wymann

We were welcomed warmly, and treated to a tasting by Madame Schaeringer. She is the wife of Jean-Luc (both pictured here), who took over the company from his uncle in 1996.

The wines that impressed me most were a couple of Rieslings, Steinacker de Ribeauvillé 2014 and A mon grand-père 2013, and the Equilibre Pinot Gris 2014. What I liked about all the wines, and these in particular, was the understated elegance and complexity, the Rieslings already seeming to show hints of maturity. And very reasonable prices, each of my favourite three wines coming in under €10.

We said hello to Jean-Luc as he packed our order, and had a quick look round the winemaking room where fermentation was in full swing in most of the tanks. Incidentally we had already had a discussion with Madame (I really must learn to be a better journalist and get names), who was keen to improve her already excellent English and amongst other things learn the correct terms for the various winemaking vessels. We reached an uncertain consensus that rectangular stainless steel ones were probably best called tanks. I was also interested to see a bucket – if that is the right term, as I think this was rectangular too – of warm liquid yeast culture, ready to be used in the next batch of must.  Didn’t realise it was done like that.

Oh, and along with our order we were slipped an additional bottle, which was drunk with our evening meal. I also enjoyed that one a lot. On the label was Minori, Rizling, Ribo’bulles. Make of that what you will. I think it was a pét-nat. In other words, a wine with a slight sparkle created by bottling before the fermentation had completely stopped. No sulphur and, as evidenced by the cloudiness, no filtration,. It reminded me of apple pie, complete with cinnamon, pastry and cream. Different, interesting, and good.

Domaine Ernest Burn, Gueberschwihr

I had never encountered Xavier Wymann wines before, and as far as I know they are not available in the UK . Ernest Burn was a little more familiar, but until I visited I did not know what strength in breadth they had.

Here was a very different tasting experience. No intimate tasting room, nor chatting about tanks and Brexit. There was a large area with several tables, surrounded by foudres, and no one representing Ernest Burn at our table as our host was mainly occupied with other people. But we had a very generous tasting, where bottles were just brought to the table with minimum introduction, and we were trusted to pour for ourselves. It is nice to hear what a producer has to say, but there are also advantages to being left to your own devices, as it is easier to concentrate on what is in the glass.

The number of different wines produced was a lot larger than Wymann, so we focussed more – on the cuvées from Clos Saint-Imer, in the Grand Cru of Goldert. They all looked enticingly golden in their clear glass bottles. Was it a deliberate marketing decision to play on the golden colour of the wine and the name of the Grand Cru?

burnSo many of these wines were of excellent quality, and together they made for a wonderful tasting. VTs and SGNs apart, all the Clos Saint-Imer wines were €18, which I thought represented good value. I don’t want to mention them all, but for me the Pinot Gris 2007 particularly stood out. In fact, if I were to nominate a Wine of the Trip that would probably be it. Intense, mature, spicy. Off dry but with high balancing acidity, so overall it left the mouth with a refreshing tingly feeling. Wonderful stuff.

Josmeyer Mise du Printemps – Alsace Pinot Blanc

mise-du-pintempsSo often, wine conforms to expectation – perhaps that is simply what the wine is like, or maybe that we can be too blinkered. But sometimes our expectations are given a jolt. Pinot Blanc is at best neutral and refreshing, right? Merely an inexpensive food-friendly wine? Well, no, not always. With memory jogged by my tasting note database, I can think of as many as… let me see… four exceptions from personal experience: Kuentz-Bas 2004 (appley and floral), the English wine Stopham Estate 2013 (gooseberry and herbs), Weinbach Réserve 2008 (for all the world like a botrytised Pinot Gris), and finally, the subject of this blog post.

The full name on the label is a bit of a mouthful, and it is difficult to know the intended order of reading, but it is perhaps Josmeyer, Mise de Printemps, Vu par Isabelle, Le Pinot Blanc, with the appellation of plain Alsace. Prices in the UK seem to vary from £12 to £22, which IMO is the difference between excellent value and barely worth it.

I have tried the 2014 and 2015, both within a year of their release. My brief tasting note for the 2014 indicated medium acid, dry, intense, citric, with fennel seed and mushroom. For the 2015… Pale greeny gold. Intense on the nose. Sharp fresh apricot. Orange and lime. Primary, but complex and mouth-watering. High acidity and dry. Palate aromatics as nose. Hugely powerful and intense, and exceedingly long. Someone else said savoury and meaty, and I could just about understand that, but doubt I would have come up with it unprompted. Drink now I think, but it might be interesting to see how it ages. A lot better in my opinion at a coldish fridge temperature than when allowed to warm a little in the bottle *****