Thoughts on the Wines of Alsace and Their Cousins

Last weekend I decamped with the family to the brightly greening hills of the Anderson Valley. Every time I go to Anderson Valley, I realize I have forgotten how beautiful it is, especially in the throes of approaching Spring. The vines are still bare, as are the oaks, but the newborn lambs and their new grasses both frolic when the sun is out.

I was in the valley for the International Alsace Varietals Festival — a celebration of the wines made in (and in the style of) France’s Alsace region. That means wines made of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and various combinations thereof. Anderson Valley has been producing wines of these varieties for many years, and with much (but often overlooked) acclaim. Every Spring, the region celebrates its heritage, and these wines, by holding a series of events, including a tasting of wines, a technical conference, and a series of dinners for wine lovers, the trade, and the press.

I’ve been invited to the festival for many years, but it is always scheduled the same weekend as the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and the Premier Napa Valley auction, and as a result I have been unable to attend.

But miraculously, this year they moved the event up a week, and so with great elation, I made my way north to taste and celebrate.

The morning before the grand tasting, a number of educational sessions are held. This year included a panel discussion between wine writer Dan Berger, sommelier Chris Sawyer, and distributor Alan Cherry. I failed to write down the exact title under which they had their conversation, but it was something approximating “The Future of Aromatic White Wines in the US.”

I took notes, and offer my attempt at a transcript. As with all such occasions when I take such notes, I summarize and edit in order to keep up. As a result, though it may seem so, the comments below are not verbatim.


Dan Berger: Talking about Riesling for me is not difficult. I’m on the board of the International Riesling Foundation. I’m now in the industry, so I can’t be objective. I’m willing to admit I’m really smitten by this variety, and by most varieties from Alsace. Just for the record I’d like to point out that the word “Alsatian” refers only to the dog, so we will speak about “the wines of Alsace.” Everything is set up for success. In the next 5 years, I think that Alsace varieties are really going to take off like a rocket. The millennial generation, different from Gen x and Gen Y, are not scared by price. That’s not to say they’re not looking for value, but they see that $5 gets them generic stuff, which does not satisfy them. Millennials seem focused on distinct differences between wines. They want something different. Chardonnay sales are sliding. If you remove Chardonnay from the marketplace figures, all the other white varieties are increasing.

New York retailer John Link reported that he’s been selling much less chardonnay, and more stuff like Torrontes, Albarino, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner. This was hidden about five years ago. Five years ago you couldn’t find people who knew what Riesling was. We are going to see a lot of emphasis on these varietals in the near future.

Now if only we could get the farmers on board. In the cyclical process of agriculture, there is a long delay before growers get the message. We can’t get these people to take the Chardonnay out, and they’re not risking putting riesling and Gewurztraminer in the ground. This is because the bankers are telling them to stick with Chardonnay. We’re not going to be able to keep up with demand.

If the winemakers don’t start screaming that they need more Riesling, the growers won’t be moved. Riesling sales are up 12% year over year according Neilsen in the last 12 months. That’s the highest growth of any wine variety. Pinot Noir is up 9% but that’s the next highest.

My message to everyone? stick to your guns it’s all going to be good.

Chris Sawyer: I also write about wine, but my main perspective is as a sommelier. I’ve been a sommelier for 17 years and I’ve watched a lot of trends happen. The growth of food knowledge in this country is astounding. Twenty years ago we’d be pairing Wonder Bread with Chardonnay. Today it’s completely different. When we talk about Riesling and Gewurztraminer, as far as the Alsace style goes, there’s so much more to talk about than what we used be able to. We’re in a culture increasingly enamored with exotic foods.

The story of these wines is not only the new releases, but also how you can age these wines, and that is important. I had an amazing Handley 2004 Riesling that blew me away last night. These wines are not about just right now. From the perspective of a sommelier we can talk about pradikat and the expensive wines from alsace, germany, etc. These wines are investments that we make. Dan is completely right that the younger generation is interested in investing. They want the best stuff they can get their hands on. This generation is here and ready to buy. I agree 100% with Dan.

These wines are the wines that we dream about as sommeliers and writers.

Right now sommeliers are a hot commodity. We get to work with great chefs. My job is to complement my chef’s food. I want people to have memories of what was in their glass as well what was on the plate. I say that to you winemakers who want to know how to sell your wines to someone like me.

When you approach sommeliers, learn what is on the menu. Be able to tell a story about how the wine pairs with the food. Approach us on our level. Don’t tell us about the new release and the price point. What we’re doing with Riesling and Gewurztraminer, they go with great food. Alsace wines cross the lines that many other wines can’t. Chardonnay with artichoke hearts, cauliflower soup, or asparagus just doesn’t work. Incidentally, it’s not just Riesling or Gewurztraminer that are great matches for many things that Chardonnay is not. It’s also the white blends that also have tremendous versatility. Another great grape variety in this bowl is Pinot Gris, and we need to help people understand the difference between it and Pinot Grigio. Pinot Gris that are made in the Alsatian style are really elegant. They go with things like Dungeness Crab dip for instance. Brie pizza with wild mushrooms. Arugula on top of that. Thinking food and wine is a very important thing right now. Cross over to different types of cuisine. Indian, Thai, and sushi. Try fish tacos with Gewurztraminer. It will blow your mind.

The way that we eat today means that these wines are here to stay.

Alan Cherry: A lot of what I have to say is to second a bunch of what Chris had to say. I’ve been selling wine in Mendocino for about 20 years. I’ve seen such a huge difference in where these wines are. When I started out, Riesling was a blending grape for Chardonnay. People didn’t understand the Alsace wines. I remember a tasting in the 82, with a bunch of wine industry folks. We didn’t understand the wines. They were too intense, too complex. Lots of Chardonnay was “sweetened up” over the years with Riesling in this market. That was one of its great places in the marketplace.

We’re in a trendy industry, but Alsace didn’t become part of the trend until we saw Stony Hill and Navarro start making dry, complex stuff in the Seventies. Marketing and selling these wines from my standpoint is all about starting them in restaurants. These wines have become acceptable partially because of the Asian cuisines we see everywhere today. Here in the area chefs have been pairing these wines for a long time because they match great foods here.

It’s no coincidence that Alsace has more Michelin Starred restaurants than anywhere else in France. A lot of people tell me their first great experience with these wines were in restaurants for good reason.

Chris Sawyer: This festival is wonderful because we get to see some of the diversity in America — There are wines from Oregon, Michigan, Washington, etc. It’s great to see how these wines do in competitions and how favorably they compare to others.

A couple years ago I went to IPNC, the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon, and Doug Frost and I got invited to a little tasting where winemakers brown bagged a whole set of Oregon Rieslings to surprise us. What a great story they have there in Oregon with Riesling. Tasting these different examples from different states is a joy.

Dan Berger: Within the last 30 years we have seen that real evolution that Chris is talking about. It’s food consciousness and flavor consciousness. We are now a culture that has driven the creation of branded food products — Niman Ranch, Frog’s Hollow, etc. These are products where you get more for your money. Penzi’s are developing spice stores all over the place. This food culture has already begun, and it’s only going to get stronger. More people are going to be paying attention to the flavors in your wines. The younger generation is paying attention to what goes with what.

At this point the floor was opened to questions.

QUESTION: Dan you mentioned you expect that in the next 5 years we’ll see an explosion in demand for these wines, Chris you mentioned food culture and its drive towards these kinds of wines. So my question is , what is the style we are going to be seeing. Will they be dry or sweet?

Dan Berger: That’s a great question. I think dry is going to be for the more sophisticated buyer. Sweeter wines will continue to sell where sweet wine sells today, in the South, etc. If you look at the bigger more sophisticated markets, you’ll see a lot more dry white wines being sold. The one step that has to be made, is that people need to understand that the dry Riesling is going to cost you more than a sweet one. It will have to be higher quality fruit, and therefore has to cost more.

Chris Sawyer: There’s still a sweet tooth there in middle America. It’s important, it’s kind of the phase that many of us went through with Mateus and Lancers. These wines started people drinking wine. That’s good. If people are drinking Riesling and it’s a sweet riesling, that’s great from my perspective. I tend towards the dry style myself, but I tend to always have a sweet wine on the menu. I was looking back into my older edition of the Hugh Johnson World Atlas of Wine and looked into what he said about Alsace. He said “German wines lean on the sweet, but Alsace wines lean on the strength.” It’s important with food to really find a mixture of those styles. I would like to see more blends out there. Something of the sweetness of a Gewurztraminer offset with dry Riesling and see how it works magic inside the bottle is like a Bordeaux blend. I see these kinds of blends happening more and more in the future.

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I think the sentiments of the panel I agree most strongly with are the thoughts about the increasing popularity of Asian cuisines and their effect on the market for wines made with the traditional Alsace grape varieties. To go a little deeper, we are not only seeing a continued explosion of interest in these cuisines, we are seeing a gradual emergence of the “haute” versions of these cuisines in many ways. The attempts by ambitious chefs to create upscale Asian restaurants invariably means that such restaurants will have wine programs and talented folks like Mr. Sawyer behind them.

Last night I had dinner at Tamarind TriBeCa in New York, which couldn’t typify this trend any more perfectly. Definitely the swankiest Indian restaurant I’ve ever seen, it had a great wine list full of several pages of Alsatian, German, and Austrian Rieslings before the (rather silly, but necessary, I suppose) pages filled with $500 Napa Cabernets. My perfectly chilled 2000 Trimbach Gewurztraminer was poured into a spotless Riedel stem, and went perfectly with my Hydrabadi lamb cardamom curry.

This trend in food, combined with the adventurousness of the Millennials, the largest and most diverse wine drinking generation in American history, I do believe bodes well for the future of these wines. Which, while I celebrate and encourage, also makes me a little selfishly sorry, as I’m sure that their rising popularity will come with increased scarcity and higher prices.

Stay tuned for my tasting notes from the event.