Travels in Alsace Part 1: Perfectly Uncool

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-20-2016

What is the future of classic wine regions that are neither associated with the more insidious effects of Parkerization, nor with the rarefied wine auctions of aristocratic collectors, nor with, exactly, the recent trends embraced by hipsters? I’m talking about regions like Brunello, Rioja, and, the subject of this writing, Alsace. How do these regions gain a market over and above the idiosyncratic preferences of individual consumers? Can they ever become regions automatically identified with obvious collectability? Can they gain wine geek street cred?

In a recent issue of Tong, editor and publisher Filip Verheyden raves: “I love Alsace.” A recently published posthumous book by philosopher Jacques Derrida announces, essentially, the same thing. Now more than ever, after a recent, late-November trip, I know why.

IMG_2700In the wake of a difficult period marked both by Parkerization and by global warming, a period that was becoming difficult to defend as a collector of Alsatian wines, Alsace is once again demonstrating that it produces the world’s best Riesling. In my opinion, now that the region has moved beyond its slavish appeal to collectors by featuring rare and sweet wines, ironically, the wines of Alsace demand the attention of serious wine collectors.

 In the Tong piece, Verheyden speculates, “Alsace breathes the same deep history as Burgundy.” Not only this, but to my palate, it produces wines that are Burgundy’s equal. Riesling, of course, but also a handful of Pinot Noirs, such as the ones I tried at Albert Mann, that—it’s time to admit—are truly excellent and much stronger QPR wines than you’ll find in Burgundy.

Austria, don’t get me wrong, I respect you; I forgive the antifreeze incident and your wines get better all the time and your most important city is named after wine. But the beautiful villages of Alsace, characterized by the half-timbre mansions of wine merchants, speak to an even longer and even more profound history of experience with fine wine. For god’s sake, Hercules left his shield in the Rangen vineyard after over-imbibing on Alsatian wine!

Germany, you’ve got the stronger claim to my affection. But for all of your staggeringly steep slopes, even you can’t match Alsace for sheer terroir diversity (don’t be jealous, nobody else can either, except perhaps Burgundy, and maybe not even them). Plus, as much as I nod in agreement at just about everything Terry Theiss has to say, I just don’t find your pretty, delicate wines as versatile—or, I have to say, as easily likeable—as their heartier siblings from Alsace. I concede that I may be a philistine, an oaf.IMG_2715

 Yet, despite my affection, the region continues to be little more than an afterthought among American consumers, collectors (with the important exception of Trimbach and also some rare, sometimes silly, SGN wines), and the wine geek crowd. I already hinted at some of the reasons for this. Despite the celebrated innovations of thought leaders in organic wine making at wineries such as Zind Humbrecht, JosMeyer, and Marcel Diess, Alsatian wine in the oughts was often too big, too sweet, too blowsy—even among, and sometimes, perplexingly, especially among, the regions’ most innovative biodynamic producers. (One important exception: during this time, Trimbach, of course, never bowing to trends, remained a stalwart producer of predictably excellent, collectable wine.)

Indeed, even the bad times were marked by plenty of forward-thinking, cutting edge viniculture; Alsace was a, maybe the, thought leader in the organic wine movement. But great ideas weren’t enough. Blowsy, alcoholic wines were never going to win over the wine geek crowd, no matter how “honest” or terroir-driven. And, as I pointed out already, collectors—the market that likely drove the trend towards sweetness—liked the points those sweet wines got, but mostly shrugged.

For those of us that began collecting wine in the early oughts, we were already priced out of the Burgundy market and were about to be priced out of Bordeaux too. Worse, we also found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Parkerization movement. For these reason and others, the wine geek crowd, after much soul searching, began seeking out wines from less trammeled regions—Loire, Jura, even Sicily—where winemakers were producing “honest” wine from often obscure, indigenous grapes. We can say now that this movement, orchestrated New York and San Francisco sommeliers, gathering strength on “underground” wine boards like winetherapy, changed the industry.

IMG_2708Turning away from Parker and the point-driven collectible market not only opened up a world of good, affordable wines, but also made us feel like rebels. Only squares bought $300 bottles of Burgundy when you could get a $20 Arbois. We had disrobed the emperor, and, like good hipsters do, we could look down on those “pointy people” as pretentious, uninformed sheep. Sure some of the wine was good, even great, but that was hardly the point: obscure, organic producers were, above all, cool.

It’s too easy to write an article like this as a gentle rumination on Alsace’s fairy tale villages, warm people, and unparalleled history. But there’s a flipside to this. It’s true: there is nothing cool at all about Alsace. Sometimes, standing in its swirling cobblestone streets, I need to shake the image of twee Hummel figurines out of my head, images of puffy-faced white children fishing, holding umbrellas, bathing in wooden slat washtubs. I loathe those things. It’s not so much that I hate twee, exactly, as much as that I instinctively distrust it. It is too cozy, domestic and, frankly, bourgeoisie.

The type of people that like to dwell in an imagined long ago time when it made sense for white children to push carts with flowers in them without having other scary races there to steal them are no doubt the same people that want to “make America great again.” But I digress.

At its worst, Alsace seems like the kind of place meant to attract the lumbering schools of aging British and German tourists that, in fact, it does attract. And for us ever-cool, idiosyncratic, compulsively-individual wine geeks, working the oddball perimeters of wine consumption, deconstructing the industry’s dominate narrative and values, Alsace’s traditions can make it seem too stuffy, too on-the-nose, too boring.

Like so many fluted bottles precariously stacked in my cellar, waiting to leap out and crash atop my head, Alsatian wines just don’t seem to fit in. To many French, Alsace is not French enough. To many Americans, Alsace is not red enough. To wine geeks, Alsace is not cool enough. In all cases, Alsace doesn’t conform to the wine world’s vision of itself.

But I think that, among those of us that sought out alternatives to Parker’s vision of the wine world, regions like Alsace, written off as uncool, were too easily overlooked. This is because we valued cool even over quality.

But I’m ready for quality. And Alsace has what just about no other wine region does: ancient traditions that guide an unparalleled commitment to quality. In Alsace, the timeless value of quality makes our postmodern appeals to coolness seem shoal and insipid.

Indeed, I love Alsace because it frees us from the requirement of coolness, valuing excellence instead.

And the fact that its wines are both of impeccable quality, and considered uncool by many American consumers, makes me love it even more.

My most recent trip to Alsace included visits to wineries such as Leon Beyer, Albert Mann, and Trimbach. I highly recommend each. But in the next section, I’d like to take some time to celebrate my favorite winery in my favorite wine region and one of the best in world: Trimbach.

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