Tom's blog

Alsace: the forgotten and neglected

Every time I have a riesling or pinot blanc from Alsace, I am enveloped in regret The only ageworthy riesling I have in my cellar is from Washington state. The last time I ordered one in a restaurant was when I spotted a deal for a 10-year-old Weinbach pinot blanc. It was sublime, but did I go out and buy some of the current vintage? No.

Colmar, the commercial center of Alsace.

Colmar, the commercial center of Alsace.

With that in mind, I recently dived into a flight of Alsace pinot blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir from several Alsace providers.  All of these pinot iterations are deceiving: all are descendants of pinot noir. Pinot gris in Alsace is pinot grigio in Italy. Same grape, just a different interpretation of "gray" that describes the grape skin. Pinot blanc is slightly different in that it is a genetic mutation of pinot noir.  Any flavor differences between the three white grapes is mostly a result of terroir and climate.

First, let me say Alsace producers should get out of the red wine business. For centuries they have struggled to make a decent pinot noir and I have yet to taste one. The two I sampled were awkward, vegetal and astringent. With great pinot noirs coming out of Burgundy and the West Coast, there are ample comparisons.

Second, the region's rieslings and pinot blancs are showing less sweetness nowadays. Just one pinot gris from Emile Beyer exhibited some residual sugar in my tasting flight. The 2013 Albert Boxer pinot blanc reserve was unique -- five years of bottle age gave it a riper, slightly maderized profile I loved. And it was dry.

The 2016 Domaine Paul Blanck Pinot Blanc was a perfect example of a simple Alsace wines with varietal stone fruit flavors, a dash of mineral and citrus.

The pinot blancs and pinot gris are great summer sippers. The austere French pinot gris is superior in my mind to the fruity, extracted Italian pinot grigio.

Sparr: starting anew in Alsace

Wine history is littered with stories of family breakups. The Mondavis and Krugs are just two examples in Napa. More rare in Europe, generations of wine families go deep. That's not so much the case with the Pierre Sparr family in Alsace. Founded in 1680, the company is now 12 generations deep but not all of the family is together.

Pierre Sparr died several years ago and his family disagreed on whether to sell the company to Wilson Daniels. His son and winemaker, Pierre Sparr, opposed the sale with his 18 percent share and lost. While his cousins continued to run the business under new ownership, Pierre launched his own winemaking operation with his son, Charles. Domaine Charles Sparr -- presumably named to avoid a conflict with Pierre Sparr -- has been making wine just outside Colmar for a couple of years. 

I happened to run  across Pierre at a recent wine dinner. He said he promised his father on his deathbed that there would be no acrimony with the family, but Pierre dreams of the day when he gets back the family property. Meanwhile, he's content to be making wine with his son.

Charles has introduced biodynamic and organic farming methods to the vineyards --- one of the first to do so in Alsace -- and he is striving to make drier wines. This is a goal of other young winemakers in Alsace who are eschewing their ancestors' practice of making off-dry rieslings, pinot blans and gewurtraiminers.

Said Pierre, "It's his turn."

He said at 22 he persuaded his father to let him make cramant d'Alsace, so he appreciates the need for change.

Pierre Sparr wines are dry -- nothing special from what I tasted but worthy of note nonetheless. 

I feel sad for Pierre, a delightful and earnest winemaker like others in the often forgotten Alsace region. He has such pride for his family and its wine history, but can only watch from afar as its 11 generation.