If Sisyphus pushed “Alsace Rocks” uphill, he’d have made it to the summit and ended an eternity of futility.
So the Greek myth survives to this day while “Alsace Rocks” is cresting – a nod to the unique red and white wines from one of France’s most unique terroir-driven regions.
“People in Europe don’t want heavy, oaky wines, so Alsatian wines, with their pure expressions,r, are really trending now,” said Foulques Aulagnon, an export marketing manager for Conseil Interprofessional des Vins d’Alsace.
Aulagnon was on hand in Cambridge (MA) in mid-April hosting a two-day event called “Alsace Rocks” that showcased dozens of the region’s top wines.
I attended the first session, held at Puritan and Co. on Cambridge Street, featuring white wines – Cremant D’Alsace, Riesling, and Gewurtztraminer.
They were paired with tasty lobster sandwiches, fresh oysters and crunchy fried chicken. Kudos to Puritan’s staff for such a wonderful buffet!
So what does Alsace Rocks mean?
“Alsace is one of France’s most beautiful places to visit and its wines are created from the most diverse soils and terroir in all the world,” said Aulagnon, noting 13 different soil types, ranging from limestone, granite and volcanic components that mix with various clay, sandstone and loamy soils.
“It’s a mosaic of soils,” he added … “The result are wines capable of being made in different styles and tastes. They have their own personality … creating a lot of possibilities with food from all over the world. That’s why Alsace Rocks.”
Alsace is located in the northeast corner of France, next to Germany and above Switzerland.
The region runs 75 miles long north to south and is known for its pioneering biodynamic farming efforts which began in 1969 – long before sustainable, eco-friendly vineyard practices became a worldwide movement.
While Alsace is susceptible to cold winters, it receives a layer of protection from the Vosges Mountains which are high enough to block rain-laden clouds and storms from the Atlantic Ocean. Vineyards are located on the range’s eastern side and receive some of the lowest annual rainfall totals (15.5 inches) in France; the western side, however, gets 90 inches a year.
Alsace produces about 121.5 million bottles of wine annually, 90 percent of it white.
What follows is my impressions of 18 wines (out of 31 on display) tasted during a three-hour session.
It’s noteworthy that unlike German Riselings, which can be very sweet, Alsatian whites generally are fermented to dryness in stainless steel or neutral oak.
Several of the wines sampled, however, were fermented off-dry with slightly higher residual sugar levels and I have made note of it.
In addition, all Alsace Rocks wines in this article have Massachusetts importers and are available. Included is the suggested retail price for each wine.
What is it? A sparkling, bubbly wine crafted according to methode traditionelle, the same two-fermentation process used to make champagne. Cremant represents 28% of all Alsace wine production.
Albert Boxler Cremant d’Alsace Brut 2017, $40, abv. 12.5% – A vintage blend of Pinot Blanc (30%), Auxerrois (50%) and Pinot Noir (20%) grapes grown within the winery’s hillside gand cru site Sommerberg. The dosage – 3 grams per liter – equals one quarter of a tablespoon of sugar, so this is a nice, dry expression from a small and detailed family-run operation (total production of 5,200 cases). Floral aromas, smooth texture (bottle-aged for up to 30 months) and pleasant citrus tastes put this in the top tier.
Pierre Sparr Cremant d’Alsace Brut Reserve, $22, abv. 12.5% – A rich, foamy mousse makes this dry Sparr-kler a winner from a certified, sustainably farmed winery (circa 1680) that’s located in Alsace’s finest district, Haut-Rhin. Nutty flavor components and clean mineral traits produce an impressive, elegant finish. A blend of Pinot Blanc (80%) and Auxerrois (20%). Excellent choice for the price.
Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose`, $24, abv. 12% – A 100 percent Pinot Noir bubbly that is one of my favorites. It’s slightly off-dry and beautifully accented with fresh aromatics and bright citrus flavors. The salmon color sparkles in the glass like the Northern Lights.
What is it? Alsatian Riesling is known for its intense aromatics, crisp acidity and stony minerality. Labeled bottlings must contain 100% of this variety.
Jean-Baptiste Adam Riesling Le Natures 2020, $25, abv. 13% – As pure and natural a Riesling you’ll find anywhere, from a producer that’s been around since 1614 when Louis XIII (“The Just”) ruled France. Vineyards rest on granite soils and have been organic and biodynamic since 2003. The wine is vinified in 100-year-old oak casks. I thoroughly enjoyed this nearly bone-dry, crisp Riesling (2.41 g/L) with its exuberant peach, honeysuckle, lemon and apple notes.
Melanie Pfister Riesling Berg 2018, $33, abv. 12.5% – An expressive and graceful example of what northern Alsace can deliver from its rolling hillside vineyards that consist of chalky limestone soils. Aged in stainless steel, it’s pure apple and pear fruit flavors merge delightfully with a clean minerality to add a refreshing lift.
Ostertag Riesling Les Jardins 2020, $35, abv. 13 – The scent of passion fruit from the glass was a sign of good things to come, and this dry, biodynamic Riesling proved exceptional with chilled oysters. It’s aged 12 months, sur lie, before bottling which presents a gentle roundness and beautiful finish to Ostertag’s offering.
Pierre Spar Riesling 2021, $19, abv. 13% – An easy-drinking, balanced Riesling for quaffing the every-day thirst. Clean, pleasant and flavorful at a good price.
Schoffit Riesling Harth Tradition 2021, $23, 13% – Pineapple, mango and orange notes dominate this enticing, mouthwatering Riseling that is nearly as dry as the Mojave (1 g/L in residual sugar). Despite no maceration (skin-juice contact) in fermentation, the wine yields a smooth texture. Grapes are organic, grown on steep vineyards that were replanted 30 years ago in alluvial soils of pebbles and gravel.
Trimbach Riesling 2020, $31.99, abv. 13% – A familiar favorite that is low in residual sugar (1.1 g/L) and yet, despite the dryness, produces a subtle sweetness to its lemon and citrus flavors. A slate minerality emerges mid-palate and extends the clean finish. The vintage is organic. Interestingly, the wine is fermented in both steel tanks and older casks for a period of 12 days to three weeks before being aged in bottles.
Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Roche Granitique 2018, $39, abv. 12.7% – As the name implies, grapes are grown in granite-infused soils that characteristically result in more structured wines. This Riesling is outstanding in my view. Delicious, elegant and vibrant, it sends the palate swooning for sip after sip without tiring. The winery’s been in Humbrecht family hands since the 17th century and has been certified organic and biodynamic for two decades.
Albert Mann Riesling Grand Cru Wineck-Schlossberg 2020, $60, 13.5% – The complexity of this wine is evident on the first sip, where pure fruit expressions of apple pie and cinnamon spice saturate the palate in a rich textural style. Organic grapes come from a parcel reserved for 60-year-old vines on granite soils. One of my top picks and well-worth the price for a Grand Cru Riesling of this long-lived stature. (Scored 95 points from Vinous reviewer Anne Krebiehl.)
Barmes-Buecher Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2020, $50, abv. 14.5% – Crisp minerality (marly limestone soil) and fresh pear notes defines this dry, energetic white from husband-wife team of Genevieve Barmes (Buecher) and Francois Barmes. Appealingly harmonious with low residual sugar (1.7 g/L), generous alcohol level, and food friendly acidity.
Schlumberger Riseling Grand Cru Saering 2019, $41, abv. 14.2% – The family-owned winery (seven generations) is Alsace’s largest in total acreage (346) and features four Grand Cru vineyards, including the limestone-rich Saering site which was an island in the 13th century. Grapes are organic. Saering is fresh in lemon and citrus notes and distinctively dry, getting a nice lift from salt air minerality on the long finish.
What is it? Gewurtztraminer is a full-bodied yet delicate wine characterized by a rich, exuberant palate and complex tastes that alternate between spicy and bitter.
Famile Hugel Gewurztraminer Grossi Laue 2011, $85, abv. 14.8% – This 12-year-old wine is aromatic, spicy, sweet, syrupy (20 g/L of residual sugar) and absolutely delicious. It was sensational with Puritan and Co.’s fried chicken. The Hugel family has 370 years of winemaking experience in Alsace and isn’t shy about creating bold, innovative wines that represent the region’s best potential.
Lucien Albrecht Gewurztraminer Reserve 2020, $22, abv. 13.9% – Vibrant and off-dry (17.34 g/L), Albrecht creates a nice contrast of fruity and bitter notes in this approachable wine. Makes for a good introduction to one of Alsace’s noble varietals.
Willm Gewurztraminer Clos Gaensbronnel 2019, $27, abv. 13.76% – The Willm family owns the Clos Gaensbronnel lieu-dit, a small, unique vineyard parcel in Barr that produces high-quality Gewurztraminer. The 2019 is no exception. It’s like drinking a gingerbread cookie – tasty and spicy – on a honeyed texture. With 28.44 g/L of residual sugar, the sweetness is impressionable but not overbearing – offset by good acidity and smokey notes on the finish. If there’s a hot Indian curry dish in your near future, Willm’s the one.
Zind-Humbecht Gewurztraminer Clos Windsbuhl 2017, $45, abv. 13.5% – In 1963, The Searches hit the pop charts with the song “Sugar and Spice.” The lyrics went like this: “Sugar and spice and everything nice, Kisses sweeter than wine …”
Well, here’s an intensely crafted fruit bomb, filled with concentrated sweet and spicy flavors that get a nudge of smoke, leather and nutmeg on a cresting palate. The sweet wine rides a lush, viscous frame. Yes, I liked it. But at 44.5 g/L of residual sugar – which equates to 5.9 tablespoons of sugar per liter (33 ounces) – I’d limit myself to one glass with my meal.
Gewurzstraminer might not be for everyone, but it is a singular delight when paired with the right cuisine: spicy Asian, Chinese, and Indian dishes, foie gras, blue cheese, dark chocolate desserts and ripe fruit salads.