Can terroir turn Alsace's fortunes around?

Leading Alsatian producers have decided to promote their vineyards. This, says James Lawrence, could be a seismic shift.

The village of Hunawihr, Alsace
The village of Hunawihr, Alsace

France had been delineating superior vineyards in Burgundy during the Middle Ages. Today, the region’s Grand Cru/Premier Cru hierarchy is cemented in the minds of buyers and collectors alike, who will gladly pay a premium for a higher quality vineyard. The Burgundian framework remains commercially important and largely uncompromised.  

In stark contrast, terroir classification in Alsace has historically been mired in controversy and self-sabotage. The region did not attempt to classify its vineyards until the late 20th century; in 1983 Alsace launched a new Grand Cru appellation, which designated the superior vineyards within the region. Prior to its launch, several respected winemakers, including Jean Hugel, were asked to help define the vineyard boundaries and distinguish between ‘ordinary’ Alsace and Grand Cru Alsace. But to their anger, the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) decided to expand the classification beyond their recommendations. Now, 51 plots in Alsace are entitled to use the Grand Cru designation. 

“There should have been 20 Grand Crus, and the rest should have been Premier Cru,” said Jean Hugel. This famous winemaking dynasty, having been instrumental in setting up the classification, walked away from it, as did leading producer Trimbach. 

“There are several reasons why we decided to boycott the Grand Cru classification,” explained Anne Trimbach. “For decades, none of our Grand Cru wines actually made reference to Grand Cru on the label, as we felt the classification was too generous and not strict enough in terms of defining boundaries. The bulk of the quality-led Alsatian wine community simply ignored it.” As a result, the classification never reached ‘escape velocity’ and did not resonate with consumers.

However, Alsace’s leading producers such as Trimbach are beginning to embrace the 1983 initiative and market individual vineyards. This represents a significant cultural shift – Alsace is a region where the brand name has traditionally been king.  

Brand versus land

Although Alsatian merchants didn’t have the foresight to rank the most famous producers the way the Bordelais did, both regions have traded heavily on consumer recognition of specific brands. Moreover, Alsace references the individual grape variety on the label, which is generally unheard-of in France. Terroir was never historically used to market wines in Alsace; the industry was organised to sell individual combinations of brands and varieties rather than shared vineyards. This change of heart could have several intended, and indeed unintended, consequences.

This shift in attitudes was most recently witnessed in January 2020, when Maison Trimbach re-released a signature wine, the Cuvée M, as ‘Grand Cru Mandelberg Riesling’. The wine has been produced from grapes grown on this Grand Cru for years, although Trimbach never showed any interest in promoting the terroir.

Prior to that, Trimbach released a small volume of 2009 Riesling grown in the Grand Cru vineyard of Geisberg. Launched in 2014, they were the first Trimbach bottles to ever reference the Grand Cru designation. What prompted this change in thinking on Grand Cru? 

“There are several reasons for this change – it has been more gradual than one might think,” replied Anne Trimbach. “Firstly, when we leased the 8.5 hectares in Ribeauvillé from the convent, one of the conditions that the nuns put in place was that we would change our strategy and reference Grand Cru on the label.” The Trimbach family discussed it at length, deciding it was a natural progression. “It just seemed like the right time to take that step, as I felt buyers and sommeliers were increasingly aware of and interested in terroir in Alsace.”

Winemaker Pierre Trimbach agreed. “I was never vehemently opposed to the classification, just unhappy with its implementation,” says Pierre Trimbach. “But in 2011, the classification was updated, with a tightening up of the regulations concerning the minimum ripeness level and maximum yield. Moreover, whereas Anne’s grandfather was fixated on the grape, today everyone in Alsace is talking about terroir.” Maison Hugel, a firm which derided the classification when it was launched in 1983, also had a change of heart in 2017 and decided to start promoting Grand Cru vineyards.

While it’s a major cultural shift, it will take at least a decade before a critical mass of labelled Grand Cru wines from top producers are circulating in the market. 
“Currently, the knowledge of how important place names are in Burgundy is much more familiar territory to our guests. I don’t think having Grand Cru on the label of an Alsatian wine would have much commercial clout,” said Raj Vaidya, head sommelier at Daniel Boulud’s 2- Michelin-starred flagship restaurant in New York.

“The Alsace Grand Crus are unknown by name to the virtually all consumers in the UK. But I suspect the same could be said of the Chablis Grand Crus. The more they appear on labels, the more likely they are to become known,” added Peter Mitchell MW, the wine director of London’s Jeroboams Group. 

Embracing the 1983 initiative may have important long-term repercussions; the newfound emphasis on individual vineyards could slowly transfer power from the merchants to the growers. This will be welcomed by some of Alsace’s farmers, many of whom sell grapes for less than two euros per kilo. 

The consequences

This may lead to the type of conflicts observed in Champagne in the early 1990s, when growers sought to increase their own income at a time when Champagne prices were rising. EU regulations forbid the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) from fixing grape prices, and the average price per kilo has risen to more than six euros. Although demand for Champagne has fallen in several key markets in recent years, overall prices have been rising, benefiting the grower but not the consumer. 

“Much depends on how consumers respond to the changes in nomenclature,” said Mitchell MW. “If consumer interest and recognition grows, then the Grand Cru s will become more commercially relevant, and so growers will demand higher prices. We may then witness a tug of war between grower and producer.” 

There is already evidence that leading houses expect this to happen. Trimbach has dramatically increased their vineyard holdings, ensuring that they can directly control grape supply and prices, making them Alsace’s fourth largest vineyard owner. The firm embarked on a buying spree in 2008, when they leased 8.5 ha belonging to the convent of Ribeauvillé, including 2.6ha of Grand Cru Geisberg. Today, they own or lease 60 ha, of which 80% are in the prime villages of Ribeauvillé, Bergheim and Hunawihr. Their most recent acquisition occurred in 2016, when Trimbach purchased two hectares of the Grand Cru Brand. According to Anne Trimbach, the first vintage (2018) will be launched in 2021.

This change of heart concerning the Grand Cru designation will potentially help Alsace to better market its wines – the region suffers from a general lack of profitably. Although average wine quality is arguably higher than ever before, prices in the middle and even top end of the market are paltry compared to what Burgundy can command.  Consumer interest also remains disappointing overall, with leading buyers and sommeliers reporting disappointing sales.

“Alsace has a big problem in gaining wider recognition as a fine wine region,” says Mitchell MW. “Sales remain very slow.”

Raj Vaidya agreed. “Alsace has overall been a low vector and almost a non-existent part of sales for us with the notable exception of the Clos Saint Hune bottling from Trimbach.” 

The wine from Clos St Hune is unquestionably Alsace’s greatest Riesling; however, there’s no mention of the official cru name, Rosacker, on Trimbach’s label. But the name and classification on such a prestigious wine would serve to validate and raise the cru’s image, and by extension, that of the entire classification. Yet it remains to be seen whether Trimbach will change their labelling of Clos St Hune, although Anne Trimbach insists the family is now fully committed to using the Grand Cru designation.
“Obviously, some customers are aloof to the idea, but wine enthusiasts and sommeliers who visit Trimbach increasingly ask about our vineyard holdings - the characteristics of each cru, for example. In that sense, there definitely is a commercial advantage in promoting terroir,” said Trimbach. “There is a small, but important consumer demographic that is now genuinely interested. It would be foolish, therefore, not to market this point of difference.” She added that wine labels that refer to past family members are no longer attractive. “Consumers aren’t interested in drinking something named after my great grandfather or long-deceased uncle. Terroir is now king in Alsace.”

Nothing is likely to happen quickly, as terroir takes time to promote – Austria and Germany have only relatively recently started to classify their superior terroirs as Erste Lage (Premier Cru). Consumers are still largely aloof to Erste Lage, as they appear to be to Rioja’s single vineyard project.

Yet this newfound focus on marketing individual vineyards can benefit brand Alsace as a whole – respect and understanding of terroir is likely to sit well with influential sommeliers and buyers. If Trimbach decides to promote more Grand Crus, including Rosacker, it will provide a point of difference that Alsace so desperately needs. 

James Lawrence

This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription.

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