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In the last few years, we've witnessed a growing interest in natural wines from Alsace. Along with a small group of older winemakers who paved the way starting in the 1980s, there are now a slew of younger winemakers who have inherited family vineyards, and are producing exciting and dynamic wines, often without filtration and with little or no added SO2. Considering the long history of organic and bio-dynamic farming in the region, and the rising popularity of natural wines, it's no surprise that this gradual shift is occuring. Also, thanks to the work of small importers in the US who are taking more chances with Alsatian wines, we have more access than ever to the "hippest" wines from this traditionally "un-hip" appellation. That said, we do want to reassure our readers that we will be bringing in some classicly styled "typique" wines from Alsace as the year progresses. There are many fantastic producers who have been organic forever and deserve a spot on the shelf, so do stay tuned! For now, we present a casual review of our favorite natural wines from Alsace, in no particular order. -Eben Lillie
Pinot Auxerrois with 5%Pinot Noir. Capped when the sugar is around 17-18g residual. A small amount of red wine was added to give some structure and aromatic complexity. This is a really tasty Pet-Nat with fine bubbles and gentle acidity. Laurent says it's the kind of wine that gives you "juste le temps de bat le sil," (enough time to bat your eyelashes) before it's gone! EL
This is a beautiful expression of Riesling, in many ways a bit raw and peculiar, but very much alive and well worth exploring. There is some reduction on opening, and a faint tingle on the tongue, so we recommend a long decant if possible. The minerality of the wine is refreshing and crunchy. A unique (and totally clean) unfiltered, no SO2 Riesling from the promising young winemaker, Philippe Brand.
Tout Terriblement is all Gewurztraminer from Philippe Brand, an up and coming winemaker in Alsace, whose family domaine is about 20 minutes west of Strasbourg. Though we don't have the analysis in front of us, my guess is that there are somewhere between 1-3 grams of residual sugar here, giving it a ripe fruitiness, and making it a very worthy pairing for asian cuisines and food with a bit of spice. The nose is classic Gewurztraminer, though a bit dialed back on the spice/white pepper notes. A really pleasant wine. EL
80% Pinot Gris and 20% Riesling from Philippe Brand in Alsace. There's a delicate floral aroma here, and plenty of orchard fruit on the nose (apples and pears). Ripe, with long mineral finish and a subtle oxidative lean, it should be a welcome addition to a picnic - flavorful enough to stand up to food, and with plenty of acidity to cleanse the palate! EL
This is a maceration of Pinot Gris that we wish we had barrels of in our basement! In fact a blend of 80% Pinot Gris and 20% Pinot Noir, the wine has delicious red fruit, and tangy freshness. There's no tannin, so it should be a bit chilled. A simple wine, not particularly long in the finish or with layers of complexity, but it sure is fun to drink! EL
Sometimes a Riesling will slap you in the face to make sure you're paying attention. The Grand Cru Frankstein is just that kind of Riesling! It's impossible to take a sip and not focus on the burst of ripe and powerful fruit which quickly gives way to extreme acidity and salinity in the finish. 2015 was a very hot vintage, but here you see how the work in the vineyard paid off for Florian and Mathilde. They use a tool called a 'rolofaquer' to flatten tall grass and create mulch, which then encourages good hummus and maintains moisture. The fruit in their parcel grew slowly compared to their neighbors and the berries were perfect, not too fat or big. They're convinced that the hard work in the vineyard and the cultivation and protection of living soil is the most important part of winemaking, and they are generally hands off in the cellar, letting the wines develop in classic large Alsatian barrels, and bottling without added sulphites.
This is a field blend that was made to show the character of the soil in Dambach. Florian and Mathilde selected three vineyards that produced what they call the most "salivant" wines (salivant roughly translates to mouth-watering). This quality is common with wines that come from Granite terroir, hence the name of this cuvée. The area around Dambach-la-Ville is known for a high percentage of Granite soils, so this is very much a Dambach wine. A blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Riesling, it has a faint pink hue, and a fascinating saline/mineral quality. No SO2 added.
This is a classic dry Riesling from Laurent Barth. Plenty of complexity and salinity with nice granitic character in the finish, but still round enough to please a variety of palettes.
80% of the wine is from the heart of the press of Pinot Auxerrois, and 20% from a parcel of Pinot Noir (direct press) that Laurent acquired in 2016. This is a beautifully structured wine, simultaneously charming and serious, with ripe stone fruit on the nose and ample acidity on the palate. A rare and special treat! Eben Lillie
A fantastic dry Riesling from Catherine Riss, arguably the hardest working woman in Alsace! Intense lime and lime blossom notes on the nose, with a perfect balance between density and refreshing acidity. Electric! EL
Woah! What a nose. What a peculiar little Alsatian gem. 60% Pinot Auxerrois/40% Sylvaner. Honeydew Melon, stone fruit, white flowers on the nose. Though a touch volatile at first, it blows off after about 15 minutes. There's a fatness to the wine, with some lemon-curd and hay notes on the palate. Though overall a relatively soft wine, there's a precise mineral side coming from the sandstone soils that lends a long dry finish to the wine. EL
Always a treat, Catherine Riss' Pinot Noir is here in tiny quantity. The nose shuffles between blueberry fruit, candle wick/gunpowder, and brambly crushed berries. A very mineral Pinot, from sandstone soils. Two weeks whole cluster maceration with daily pump over, bottled without filtration or added SO2. EL
We are big fans of Alsatian Pinot Noir, not just because there is a general scarcity of Pinot Noir from Alsace, but because Pinot Noirs from Alsace are truly unique among other expressions from Burgundy, USA, New Zealand and beyond. To me, there is a type of darkness and depth to the wines, and often more grit and earthy, mineral tones. This Pinot Noir from JP Rietsch is no exception. There's a beautiful purity of fruit, and it's immediately enjoyable, though we do recommend giving it time to open up, as it doesn't seem to stop evolving over time. Sturdy and elegant for a wine without added SO2 - in fact I don't think anyone would guess that this was a "natural wine," as it's technically flawless. Decant or drink over several days (if possible!). EL
Pas a Pas is a special offering from JP Rietsch. A solera wine made from a grape called Savagnin Rose (related to the Savagnin Blanc from Jura, but this is the pink one). I had never heard of a pink Savagnin before meeting Rietsch, and still haven't heard of any other producers (anywhere) who have plots of this variety, so comparisons will not be made...nor could they be considering that there are multiple vintages carried over to make this perpetual wine that will constantly change from bottling to bottling. The current iteration is a wine to geek out on. Open it with your most poetic and wine-obsessed friends and spend a few hours with it! Though there is ample acidity giving the wine freshness, the dominant quality is its density and ridiculously long finish. Bravo, Jean-Pierre!
Muscat Ottonel is a cross between Chasselas and Muscat d'Eisenstadt (see Wine Grapes: J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz). Paler and earlier ripening than the more commonly planted Muscat, it yields a wine that is perhaps less spicy on the nose, with some softness and predictable floral aromatics. Rietsch lets the juice and skins sit together for a very short period of time, mostly in an effort to ensure a safe and sound fermentation to get a totally dry wine. I really like this delicate expression of Muscat. It's balanced and light at 11% (some Muscats can easily hit 14% or more) and not overwhelming. This would be ideal with less spicy Asian cuisine, as an afternoon glass with a fresh salad, or simply as an aperitif. EL
Frick made two versions of the GC Steinert Riesling in 2012, one with filtration and the addition of a small amount of SO2 at bottling, and a second with no filtration and no sulfites added. He took great interest in watching my father and I taste the two, and the anticipation of our response was accompanied by a touch of childlike excitement. I think I remember him being quite pleased that we both preferred the second version. Truth be told, I like them both. The first had a bit of residual sugar, and was very classic, but I ended up preferring the second because it was drier, and had a subtle salinity to it that carried the wine on the palate in a much more interesting way. There's a touch of honey dew melon, lemon, and saffron, and is a bit fleshy on the palate. The Steinert parcel is oriented East, on a terroir of limestone, with relatively dry soil. A great wine to have over the course of many days. Eben Lillie
100% Pinot Auxerrois from Pierre and Chantal Frick. There's subtle white stone fruit on the nose, with sharp acidity balanced by a soft, fruity character in the mid-palate. EL