Kaefferkopf in Ammerschwihr, the mountain shaped like a... ladybird !
Mention Alsace and people immediately think of Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer and Riesling. That’s because the vast majority of Alsace wines are single varietals. There are, however, some still white wines made from several grape varieties. Find out what they are.
The oldest designation is ‘Zwicker’, which means ‘blend’, and was widely used historically when wines came from mixed plantings of Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner and Chasselas. Subsequently, when some of the vines were replaced by more aromatic and lower yielding varieties such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat, the prefix ‘Edel’ or noble was used to specify the change.
Raphael and Sylvie Fahrer
Edelzwicker & Gentile, the two most common terms
When the proportion of noble grape variety (s) is over half, the labelling statement can then be transformed into ‘Gentile’, to underscore its noble character - think ‘gentleman’ or ‘gentilhomme’ in French. To guarantee a superior quality wine, the marketing board’s charter defining Gentil requires that each grape variety be fermented separately. And lastly, the wines are only released for sale after the blend has been tasted and approved.
Despite this, the Gentile designation is rarely used, even when the wines are entitled to it and Edelzwicker remains the better known of the two, although its notoriety is fairly relative. Marie Seyer of the Alsace wine marketing board CIVA claims the two of them together total around 20,000 hectolitres per year and therefore only represent 2 to 3% of Alsace wine production. Volume is stable from one year to the next, with the exception of the bumper crop in 2016, a particularly favourable year for Alsace, across the range.
Truly accessible wines
Raphael Farher, a fourth-generation winegrower in Saint-Hippolyte, explains: “Of course, at Domaine Sylvie Farher (his mother), we produce excellent Riesling, Pinot gris and other wines traditional to Alsace (Fig1). But when it comes to aperitif time with friends and I ask them what they want to drink, the answer is often: I don't know!” Raphael therefore created a fresh, light wine blended from Muscat, Riesling and Pinot Gris, which is not sweet. Although it is not officially called Gentile, that is essentially what it is and it was quite naturally named ‘Je ne sais pas’. With a price tag of under €7 (at the cellar door), it makes the aperitif an even happier occasion (Fig2).
With some of the younger generations switching from wine to cheaper beer or poor quality spirits and indulging in the terrible habit of binge drinking, this type of wine seems like a very competitive, good quality alternative.
And if you’re looking for something even more affordable, the estate also produces a classic Edelzwicker, mostly made from Pinot blanc though the exact blend proportions vary depending on the year. It is sold in one-litre bottles as plastic drums are banned in the Alsace appellation area. Screwcaps are used and are perfectly suited to a wine that should be drunk within the first three years. The price tag is a mere €5, but the Farhers nevertheless harvest the grapes and ferment the wines separately, even for the Edelzwicker. Their clients, both restaurateurs and private customers, offer proof of the wine’s popularity: although ‘L'Edel’ can be used to cook a good Baeckeoffe, it is also perfectly suited to Kirs or for a swig of white wine by the glass.
Mixed plantings are not necessarily a handicap
At a time when some wine regions are increasingly specialising, and taking an almost industrial approach to wine growing with the same clones per plot in a bid to keep total control over the vines, the erstwhile technique of mixing grape varieties can come as a surprise.
So when Guillaume Rapp recovered a plot containing rows of Muscat and Gewurztraminer, he was intrigued (Fig3). At the family estate, where vines have been farmed since 1765, this was not customary. But when it comes to wine growing, vines are rarely planted at random, and Guillaume decided not to rip them out.
There was no option with a blend of this kind but to produce a very aromatic wine. The question was, could two such distinctive grape varieties be blended? Experience has shown that the technique can have its advantages. A major risk with vines has always been shatter, which is when rainfall occurs just as the vines are in bloom, causing the loss of all or part of the crop. Since Guillaume took over the plot, this has of course occurred, but as the two varieties flower at different times, the mixed plantings provided him with a safety net. “There is always something good to make wine from”, says Guillaume. Another issue is whether the two grape varieties ripen at the same time. Experience has proven that they do on this plot facing due south, where the fruit must not be harvested too late to maintain balance (Fig4).
Mixed Edelzwicker plantings, akin to Burgundy’s Passetoutgrain (now called ‘Coteaux Bourguignons’), can therefore be worthwhile. In Guillaume’s case, they have produced his ‘Les Larmes de Thor’ label, named for its roundness and the village of Dorlisheim whose medieval name was Torolvelsheim, a village near Thor forest. (Fig5) The crisp fruitiness of the Muscat, complemented by the spicy touch of the Gewurztraminer, along with its evocative name, have contributed to the wine's success. Young consumers in particular are asking for more.
When blending is a strength
At Domaine Albert Klee, son Jean-François, who has been tasked with winemaking for several years, is of course continuing the tradition of blended wines. He produces a simple, easy-drinking Edelzwicker for local consumption, and also sells a blend of noble grape varieties. The blend boasts ageing potential, but is rarely labelled Gentil because the process is complicated.
For these wines, straying from the straight and narrow as some have done in the past – by blending leftover wines and wines from the end of the pressing cycle – is not an option. A viticultural engineer and trained winemaker, Jean-François is very attentive to quality. Each grape variety must be harvested at peak ripeness. At the end of summer, he tests his grapes by tasting them. Just like in the Médoc where he worked – at places such as Léoville-Las-Cases – he assesses skin, pulp and pips whose degree of bitterness in the centre is an indicator of ripeness. The harvest then lasts 8 to 9 weeks (Fig6). The grape varieties are pressed, fermented and matured individually because Jean-François insists on the need to develop each grape variety separately to obtain terroir and varietal characters. Just 48 hours before bottling, he brings his wife and parents together to work on the blends. They taste each wine collectively and then decide on proportions. (Fig7)
Jean-François recounts how, in the 1960s and up until 1980, grapes often lacked ripeness and alcohol content was boosted by chaptalization, or adding sugar. Then, a change in weather patterns in the 1990s made it easy for the grapes to reach the requisite 12-13%. Some grape varieties such as Pinot gris and Gewurztraminer, which reach their full aromatic ripeness later in the season, now come in at 15 or even 16° of potential alcohol, but also have 20 to 25 g of residual sugar. How can balance be restored in this style of wines? How can powerful aromatics be produced, whilst keeping the wines dry and nervy? Jean-François’ answer to the issue came in the form of his Cazindale label. By blending in Riesling, with its very pronounced acidity, he can restore balance and in very rich years when the summer season is hot, he simply increases the proportions! Dry Pinot gris may well have its days numbered, but blending has a bright future ahead of it.
Jean-François Klee, 3rd, on the right, with grape pickers
Dominique Soler, the director of the Hunawihr co-operative winery which has 110 member growers, (Fig 8 & 9) also advocates quality. Edelzwicker must not come from declassified wines. His aim is to make a wine that is dry in style, and affordable for “students, housewives and pensioners”.
However, not including the name of a single grape variety on the label may be worthwhile, he explains. If you produce a Riesling, many consumers will see it on supermarket shelves and compare it to the wines next to it. Therefore, the buying cue is likely to be the price, and as prices continually spiral downward, the choice is bound to come at the expense of quality!
Conversely, by taking advantage of the reputation of Alsace’s gourmet food culture, why not design a wine and label it ‘For sauerkraut’ (Fig10), or ‘For seafood’...? The total freedom afforded by Edelzwicker's blends allows producers to fine-tune the desired taste to suit market demand. A well-chosen name facilitates the issue of food and wine pairing, which remains a little arcane for many, and encourage people to buy the product.
So in Hunawihr, the blending committee tests the ideal formula for a wine ‘For asparagus’ (a subtle blend of Pinot blanc and Muscat) and other profiles such as a Sushi selection. (Fig11).
Blended wines for export
Georges' family at Domaine Gustave Lorentz has been making wine since 1836. In addition to their 35 organically farmed and certified hectares, they also have a trading business. “I buy grapes”, says Georges, who aims to control the quality of the fruit and ferment and mature the wines himself (Fig12). Georges traditionally produces an Edelzwicker, mainly for the trade market. The blend of Pinot blanc, Chasselas and Sylvaner is marketed in 1-litre bottles and often served by the pitcher.
But about twenty years ago, a few large Belgian breweries expressed their desire to buy a fruity wine with a reasonable price tag - “Not as fruity as a Muscat, but more than a Riesling”. So Georges developed his Fleurelle label, a blend of Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner. This ‘afternoon wine’ is designed to replace a beer, but can also be served with a starter or seafood. The wine was a success and it opened up a new market in the Netherlands.
At the Hunawihr winery, which also exports, Dominique explains: “Each country is a market with different tastes. The United Kingdom does not dislike sugar and the proportion of Gewurztraminer can be significant. Denmark likes drier wines, blends of Pinot blanc and Riesling, while Sweden only wants Riesling, and Italy only Gewurztraminer”.
Customs figures show that in 2017 Alsace exported almost 40% of its Gentil, Edelzwicker and non-varietal wines. The key, therefore, is in finding the right formula.
Grands Crus also have blends
With the exception of Crémants, all Alsace wines are labelled with just two appellations: Vin d’Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru. Edelzwicker and Gentil are therefore Vins d’Alsace, and all Grands Crus are made from noble grape varieties and not blended. All of them? Well, not quite: Altenberg de Bergheim and Kaefferkopf allow blending and are produced on a boutique scale of 150 hectolitres.
Francis Klee (Fig12b), the winemaker in charge of Kaefferkopf at the Jean Geiler co-operative winery, explains: “On Kaefferkopf hill, which is shaped like the head of a ladybird (Fig13), hence its name, there is a history of quality blended wines. In fact, this is one of the reasons why it was not entitled to Grand Cru status at its inception. But when winegrowers were able to demonstrate that the tradition of blending was connected to the Kaefferkopf area, as evidenced by the statement on labels in the 1880s, we joined the Grands Crus (in 2007)”.
The dominant grape variety is Gewurztraminer, complemented by Riesling, Pinot Gris and Muscat. Most of them are grown in separate plots, but there are some mixed plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer. The juice is fermented individually (Fig14), then the wines are matured on the lees in large oak barrels, with regular stirring (Fig15). The resultant wines are rich, ranging from 13 to 13.5% with residual sugar sometimes reaching 25 g/litre. Co-operative winegrowers are also planning to prepare for the future by slightly reducing the proportion of Gewurztraminer, which will help to maintain a balanced style.
The price, around €13, remains very reasonable for a Grand Cru, providing further proof, were it needed, that Alsace blends offer excellent value for money. And add another string to the region’s bow!
By Alain Echalier - Photographs: Courtesy of the estates