Facts and opinions on Alsace Grand Cru system

This is another piece I wrote for my WSET studies. It is not that deep, but I hope it can be useful.

The Alsatian Grand Cru is a set of 51 AOCs providing for particular rules stricter than the basic Alsace AOC and applying to limited areas recognized as particularly suitable for viticulture and capable of producing superior wines.

The system started as a single AOC in 1975 with the concession of the status to the Schlossberg lieu-dit and was further expanded in 1983, 1992 and 2007. In 2011 each Grand Cru became a single AOC. The higher quality should be guaranteed on one part by the vineyards, ideally placed in favourable locations, both from a climatic and a geological point of view, and on another part from the more rigorous rules governing grape growing and winemaking: yields are normally lower, with a maximum limit of 55 hl/ha, the density of plantation is at least 4500 vines/ha and various dispositions control (between the others) canopy proportions, pruning limits and minimum sugar levels. Chaptalization and acidification are not permitted. Only four grapes (so called “noble”) are admitted in Alsace Grand Cru and they must compose 100% of the blend: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. However there are exceptions (Altenberg de Bergheim, Kaefferkopf, Zotzenberg).

Though the system is widespread in the region, there has been a good amount of criticism towards it. Some growers and some cooperatives are accused of producing wines of mediocre quality, just cashing on the “Grand Cru” title, but the biggest issue lies in the appellations themselves. In a very interesting article, Olivier Humbrecht MW writes that “At the time of the classification process, many Alsace producers didn’t perhaps understood fully the concept of terroir as precisely as it was done for example in Burgundy.”. For Hugel, one of the most famous wineries to have boycotted the system, the Grand Crus are too much and their boundaries inadequate: in an interview featured in the June 2015 issue of Decanter Marc Hugel states that “If the classification had been honest it would have taken one minute, because everyone knew where the boundaries should have been.” He is echoed by his nephew Jean Frédéric, for whom “There should probably be 20 Grand Crus, and the rest should be Premier Crus.” Indeed some AOCs are really enormous: Schlossberg reaches 80 ha, but vineyards of 60 or 70 ha are not rare. Such a large area may host a very wide range of meso-climates, thus rendering the “single vineyard” title almost meaningless. Furthermore some plots are only of moderate quality and truly shine only when planted with one or two varieties. Of course wines of quality are produced, but much depends on the attitude of the single grower.

Maybe in an attempt to resolve these problems, a 2001 decree has been issued giving more power to the locale syndicates to improve quality of their respective lieu-dits (the so called “gestion locale”). The basic limits are fixed by law, but producers may decide for example to increase the minimum ripeness level, lower yields, increase vine density and even introduce new grape varieties for Grand Cru status (limited to the vineyard in question). Thus a Pinot Noir “Grand Cru” is theoretically possible.

Indeed the absence of this red variety from the Grand Cru varieties roster is puzzling: why such a noble grape, capable of producing the most fine wines of the world, should not considered “noble” in Alsace? The legislation is probably outdated, a legacy of a time before global warming had become an evident issue and when the optimum ripening level of Pinot Noir grapes was still below the Alsace region. A human factor may also be pointed out: for Marcel Orford Williams, buyer at The Wine Society, Alsatians lost the skills for top red winemaking due to the cyclical long wars that devastated the area. The low reputation of Alsace Pinot Noir when the regulation was outlined may have persuaded law-makers to exclude it from the “noble varieties”. However this situation persists, despite the fact that unofficially Pinot Noir Grand Cru wines already exist, they simply can’t be labelled as such: Albert Mann Pinot Noir Grand H or Paul Blanck Pinot Noir F are two examples, respectively from Hengst and Furstentum Grand Crus.

There is much need for a review of the rules in Alsace Grand Cru AOCs. The “gestion locale” seems to be a good tool to adapt the rules to the evolving reality of the world of wine, but since its inception criticism has not faded (and 14 years have already passed). Revision of the vineyards boundaries, the yields, the allowed varieties, maybe introduction of a multiple levels system: there is much for the Alsatians winemakers to consider. If they care.

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