2004 Alsace Wines

Due to the sheer volume of wines I tasted in Alsace in September and the size of this issue, I will present my coverage of Alsace in two installments, the 2004s in this issue and the 2005s in the near future. Only one or two producers I visited in September will ship more than a basic wine or two from the '05 vintage to export markets before the end of this year. In most cases, the first serious wines will begin to arrive next spring, and a number of producers told me they will hold back their top vins de terroir (and not just their grand crus) until late 2007 or even 2008. There's no question, by the way, that virtually all site-designated bottlings (as opposed to less expensive wines, often blends from multiple parcels, meant to showcase varietal character) really require at least a year or two in bottle before they show what they're made of.

In recent years, the wines of Alsace have struggled in the U.S. market. Some low-end, inexpensive wines continue to sell briskly in the mass market, but at the level of Alsace's serious producers-those who normally keep their vine yields to reasonable levels-today's more price-conscious market has been buying sparingly. One problem is that there is currently no effective Alsace trade organization to present the region's wines to export markets, and to educate new wine drinkers who may not even know that Alsace is part of France. And for wine drinkers with histories of enjoying these wines, the difficulty of finding truly dry wine in an Alsace bottle has been a problem for a while now, as has the vast number of labels offered each year by the typical domaine. But the best Alsace wines are utterly delicious and remarkably food-friendly. For those readers who are not familiar with these wines, I predict that 90% of the wines rated 88 points or higher in this issue will offer fresher and more interesting drinking four or five years years down the road than the overwhelming majority of, say, California chardonnays from the same vintages, and they will also be far more useful at the dinner table. And this year, happily, I got the distinct impression that many estates are finally attempting to make wines with less residual sugar.

It's hard to avoid the feeling that, even though excellent and even outstanding wines were made in both 2004 and 2005, Alsace did not get the best of the weather in either year. Regions like Burgundy benefitted in 2004 from a clement September and a dry start to October following a difficult summer, and were thus able to bring in much of their fruit in good conditions. Most of Alsace's wine-farmers, on the other hand, harvested their most important vineyards in and around substantial rainfall that began on October 8. According to Marc Hugel, the village of Riquewihr received just 9 millimeters of rain during the first week of October, but 72 during the second week, 36 during the third week and 81 more during the last 10 days of the month. This was quite unusual for Alsace, which normally enjoys dry weather in October. Not since 1993 has total October precipitation been even half as high as the roughly eight inches of rain that fell over much of the region in 2004.

Two thousand four was a humid year with a huge crop-exactly the opposite of 2003. July was cool, in contrast to 2003, 2005 and 2006-but rainfall was barely average. The second half of August was cool and rainy, but these conditions helped to preserve acidity levels in the grapes. When the weather turned bright again at the beginning of September, the fruit, by most accounts, was still in surprisingly good health. Some very good pinot blancs and sylvaners were picked in September, and muscat was also widely successful. But most growers had to let their normally later-ripening varieties hang because crop levels were generally high and the fruit was not thoroughly ripe. Following a warm and dry first week of October, the rains arrived and except for a break from the 21st through the 24th there was some measurable precipitation in the region every day until the 30th.

Under these difficult October conditions, the rot that affected the grape skins was often grey rot, noble rot's nasty sibling. Some grapes rotted before they ripened properly. Many producers did not bother to let their fruit hang until late October: they picked quickly, eliminated as many affected grapes as possible, and attempted to make more classic wines. Some who let their fruit hang with the hope of making late-harvest bottlings from sugar-laden grapes were caught out by the weather and made rather blurry wines; relatively few wines really gained from the concentration of sugars and acids, and the added glycerine, that noble rot normally brings as the grapes shrivel and lose water. Few producers will offer much in the way of vendange tardive or, especially, selection de grains nobles bottlings, the latter particularly dependent on the spread of noble rot.

Still, there's a lot to like about the 2004s. The wines have fresh but ripe acidity and rarely come off as hard. Most of them will be drinkable early, though the top rieslings should age well. Many wines are also drier than usual, which is all to the good-at least in the opinion of those who lament the steady decline in recent years in the number of classically dry wines from this region. Riesling, which matures slowly and late, tolerates cold and even damp weather reasonably well, and I tasted numerous superb examples from the 2004 vintage. Most estates agree that 2004 was best for riesling. Gewurztraminer, on the other hand, prefers sunshine and heat, and in many sites, especially where crop loads were very heavy, this variety struggled to ripen in 2004. (On the plus side, I tasted some drier-style examples that are more flexible at the dinner table than usual, especially with spicy cuisine.) The thin-skinned pinot gris was widely picked with less-than-perfect skins, even when this was not obvious to harvesters, and as a result many wines show a slightly earthy, mushroomy quality that detracts from their fresh fruit aromas. While 2004 is not generally a vintage for late-harvest wines, there are some notable exceptions.

Incidentally, I generally preferred 2005 for pinot gris and gewurztraminer, but hot weather and dry conditions through much of the summer interfered with the ripening of the rieslings in the driest sites with less water-retentive soils. And this vintage was affected by some September rainfall that introduced an element of dilution into certain wines. On the other hand, some estates that were willing to let their fruit hang made wines with a truly exhilarating combination of sugars and acids (Weinbach and Zind-Humbrecht are two that come to mind). In a number of cellars, I preferred 2005 to 2004, but this was more often a function of the grape variety than of the vintages in general. But then vintage generalizations in this region are nearly impossible, due to the different ripening times and climate preferences of the region's various grapes, and the long harvest period.

In my coverage in this issue I have also included notes on a few 2003s that the growers insisted on showing me. I am not a fan of this vintage, as the extreme heat produced wines with freakishly high alcohol and dangerously low levels of natural acidity. Their aromas can be downright strange. Some wines are even short on flavor, no doubt due in part to vine shutdown. Many wines needed to be acidified, and, as this is not normal practice in Alsace, some winemakers did not do this very gracefully. But there are also a handful of very interesting bottles, including some powerfully stony and petrolly wines that will require, and reward, extended bottle aging. In a few instances, I was shocked by the amount of acidity in these wines-acidity that the winemakers swore was natural, not added. And of course 2003 was an unusually ripe, if not exceptional, vintage for pinot noir in Alsace, which in normal years and from most estates can be pallid in color and flavor.

A couple of final notes: First, all grand cru vineyard names in the Alsace wines reviewed in this issue are denoted in italic type. Also, acidity figures provided are expressed in tartaric acidity (normally used in Alsace as well as in Germany), which is roughly 1.5 times acidity expressed as sulfuric (the scale normally used in Burgundy). Long-time IWC readers are urged to consult Issue 111 for tasting notes on many 2002s and 2001s that may still be available in the retail market.