1. The Alsatian cliché dies hard
In the collective imagination, the wines in the land of flamekueche are (too) sweet or of average quality. I’m not inventing anything, in my former life as a wine merchant, I lost count of the number of times my customers cringed when I offered them the famous tall bottle , also known as the Alsatian flute. Muscat was shunned, Sylvaner was given the middle finger, and I won’t get started on the stigma against Pinots. The rejection was strongest when I mentioned Gewurztraminer.
‘Trust me’ I told them, ‘this one is not sweet, it is a maceration, an orange wine!’ What wine?! Yes, you heard right, an orange wine!
Well, otherwise try this nice Riesling, it grows on the beautiful hillsides of Zotzenberg and is a natural wine, vinified by a young winemaker! What wine?! A natural wine: a wine that is alive.
2. The origins of monotony in the bottle
To understand natural wine, we have to go back to the root of prejudices, to the creation of clichés, which usually starts from somewhere… After the Second World War, the Alsatian vineyard, like many others, ended up frozen in chemicals, pesticides and other glyphosates. We can add to that a well-ordered AOC (registered designation of origin) classification and wines which do not exceed by a millimetre what is asked from them, that is to say not very alive.
The result is a vineyard saturated with chemicals, wines that look alike, and winegrowers who compete for a limited market. And yet this classification was, in my opinion, a good one. In particular the recognition of the ‘great’ terroirs, where the vine has taken root for a hundred years or so.
We had something, but the economic and productivist drifts sent everything up in smoke, aiming at so-called quality but above all at real quantity. In fact, the specifications of the different appellations are often much less strict than we imagine. High yields are allowed, as well as sometimes dubious oenological practices (yeasting, fining, added tannins, intensive filtration…).
3. The pioneer winegrowers
This consumerist madness didn’t predict a handful of winegrowers arriving, lovers of the terroir, nature and vinification without snake oil. Often viewed as outcasts, their juices are now found on prestigious tables. Tightly packed and united together, these pioneers believed in their value, their instincts and their palates.
- Pierre Frick in Pfaffenheim
- Christian Binner in Ammerschwihr
- Bruno Schueller in Husseren-les-Chateaux
- Patrick Meyer in Nothalten
- Achillée in Scherwiller
Today, they are the models in which the young and not-so-young generations of winegrowers find meaning and real inspiration! Here are a few who deserve a visit:
- Ludovic, André et Charline Rohrer in Mittelbergheim
- Catherine Riss in Mittelbergheim
- La Grange de l’Oncle Charles in Ostheim
- Stéphane Bannwarth in Obermorschwir
- Philippe Brand in Ergersheim
- Kumpf & Meyer in Rosheim
- Florian & Mathilde Beck-Hartweg in Dambach
4. Hope is in the soil
Alsace is currently divided, but will hopefully be reunited in a better way in the future. The quantities of ‘conventional’ wines produced far exceed the quantities sold. As a result, the winegrowers are on their knees, they no longer know what do do with the wine from the previous year and many of them have a dry cash flow. Organic wine is doing rather well, representing 4% of the production. As for natural wine, it is booming, representing a little less than 1% of the production. 1% indeed, but hear it roar!
5. Tomorrow is today
Alsace is demonstrating that it is above all a great terroir, interpreted by a few grape varieties with a thousand faces. From the Haut-Rhin to the Bas-Rhin, the raiders of the vineyard compete with talent and creativity to offer ever more astonishing experiences.
Conventions have exploded as a result of grape-blending, orange wines, amphora wines and above all terroir wines, proving that anything is possible in the land of monovarietal wines. Disregarding conventions, those who were originally only four are now one big family that is constantly growing.
It is a tribe of about forty winegrowers who give the best of themselves, so that their wines have every chance of being unique, vibrant and just like them: free, original and sincere. Between innovation and tradition, mountain and plain, good tables and bewitching bottles, this region will take you back to the taste of essential.
For more information:
- My tastings, interviews with winemakers and articles about natural wine on Instagram