Alsace 2000 and 1999

Alsace is one of the world most picturesque growing regions, but with the sheer number of different cuvees most producers offer each year (often two dozen or more), and two new vintages to taste, I was lucky to see daylight on my most recent tour of the area's best addresses in early May. I traveled to Alsace to get an early look at the very rich 2000 vintage, as well as to sample the '99s from bottle. While crop levels continue to be too high in the region as a whole, Alsace's most quality-conscious estates have generally done well with their superripe fruit in recent years.

It is essential to emphasize that my characterizations of these two vintages (good in the case of 1999 and very good to outstanding in 2000) are based on the wines made by the region's top two or three dozen producers, who represent the tip of the quality iceberg. The vast majority of Alsace's estates and negociants, even those capable of perfectly competent winemaking, typically began with crop levels too high to have produced wines with real concentration and soil character in 2000 and, especially, 1999.

At the same time, I am happy to report that the region appears finally to be addressing the problem of industrial-level grape production. Alsace is France's only appellation controlee (A.C.) that allows labeling of its wines according to variety, rather than by vineyard site, and it's hardly surprising that with wines emphasizing varietal character rather than soil, yields often exceed 100 hectoliters per hectare, especially at the level of the region's quantity-minded negociants and co-ops and on flatter land. Technically, estates can produce 80 hectoliters per hectare, plus the P.L.C., or plafond limite de classement, the amount by which growers are allowed to exceed the rendement de base, or base yield. But that's an estate-wide average, and can be achieved by producing more in certain vineyards and less in others. So there are still too many opportunities to overcrop, especially in naturally prolific years.

But there is evidence that Alsace is at least taking its 50+ grand cru vineyards more seriously. These favored hillside sites in theory are capable of conveying terroir character, but controlled yields are essential to capturing and communicating site specificity. Late last year the maximum yields for the region's grand crus was cut to 55 hectoliters per hectare, plus the P.L.C., which is usually 20% for these wines. Alsace's association of wine growers is also currently attempting to convince the INAO to officially reduce maximum yields for vineyards used to produce vendanges tardives (VT), or late-harvest wines, and to raise the minimum potential alcohol levels for fruit harvested for Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN). In addition, provisions now exist for the establishment of an intermediate category of wines between grand crus and A.C. Alsace (which includes regional and communal wines), possibly to be called premier crus and sure to have their own yield maximums.

A look at the 2000 vintage. The most recent vintage featured a growing season of extremes and a very early harvest. The flowering took place under hot and dry conditions during the beginning of June, in some areas as much as two full weeks earlier than normal. As elsewhere in France, July was extremely cool, with sporadic rainstorms and even some hail. Then August was once again very warm, and rainy. Without problems of heat stress, grape sugars mounted rapidly, but some sites showed signs of gray rot by the end of the month or by early September. The harvest for the grand crus started early, on September 21, but many growers began with their lesser sites a week or more earlier. There were some periods of rain in late September, and then conditions began to deteriorate on October 11. But if the weather largely cooperated through most of the harvest, clever picking strategies and strict selection of the healthiest fruit were essential to making good wine in 2000.

"It was so warm in early September that the bees were still active when the fruit got rich in sugar," Olivier Humbrecht told me in early May. "It doesn't take a lot of damage from wasps and bees to precipitate acid rot and a strong smell of vinegar in the vines. We literally had to remove the affected grapes in September, and we couldn't even leave them on the ground because of the fruit flies." Of course, fruit that was not yet ripe during the heat spell in mid-September suffered much less from insects. Under mostly dry and less hot conditions later in September, the fruit continued to ripen and many of the problems of gray rot and acid rot began to subside. Many sites benefitted from a very early spread of noble rot in mid- to late September, and some outstanding, remarkably glyceral late-harvest wines were made from fruit picked in September, a rarity for the region. The quality of VT and SGN wines from fruit harvested in October was largely a function of which vines had been strong enough to have avoided gray rot following the August rains.

Crop levels were full in 2000, especially for muscat, though generally not as excessive as those of '99. Sugars were high, and wines made at reasonable crop levels tend to possess very good acidity, including a relatively high percentage of the more stable tartaric acidity. (Still, a few late harvesters told me that it was essential to plan picking strategies to protect against overripeness and loss of structure and acidity.) The later-ripening riesling benefitted by being harvested in October and generally produced the finest wines of the vintage. The best 2000s, especially the rieslings and the botrytis wines that benefitted from a concentration of acids rather than merely sugars, should have considerable early sex appeal but maintain their shape in bottle. Many of the most seductive late-harvest wines were not the product of single tries (i.e., passes through the vines) for rot-ennobled fruit, but rather included a percentage of healthy berries, which in 2000 may have contributed acidity and snap.

The 1999 growing season and wines. Following a very warm, humid spring, a generally large flowering mostly in the middle two weeks of June set the stage for a huge '99 crop. (The flowering, however, was dragged out in some spots and was less successful for gewurztraminer and, especially, muscat.) Continued periods of high humidity through much of June and July triggered widespread problems with mildew. Rainfall was frequent well into August. (A precipitation chart given to me by Etienne Hugel showed that the town of Riquewihr received more water-nearly five inches-in August '99 than in any previous month since January of '95.)

Then a period of sustained sunshine began in mid-August, allowing the vines to ripen their heavy loads of grapes. Temperatures during a mostly dry September were quite high-close to those of a normal August-and the grape skins largely recovered from the difficult conditions of early summer. But a period of rain in late September forced many growers, especially those with high yields or with thin-skinned or low-acid grapes, to rush out and pick. These rains further swelled the fruit and resulted in dilution.

The harvest began in earnest at the beginning of October. Generally speaking, those growers who were in a position to wait brought in stronger raw materials. Happily, even though conditions were variable through much of the vendange, there was relatively little rot, of either the noble or ignoble variety.

The grapes in '99 had generally sound sugars, requiring little chaptalization when yields were not excessive, and acidity levels were typically average. While relatively little classic, botrytized late-harvest wine was made in Alsace as a whole, the top estates still managed to bring in sugar-laden fruit, frequently of vendange tardive must weight.

Clearly, the Achilles' heel of the vintage is the high yields. Growers who were not able to limit production through short pruning or green harvesting made wines that largely lack thrust and vineyard character, if they don't come across as simply dilute. Gewurztraminer generally was a weak link in '99. But for those growers who began with more moderate crop levels, 1999 is a classic, dryer-styled vintage that can be very good for riesling and pinot gris in particular.

In both 1999 and 2000, but especially in the latter year, the fruit was often so ripe that it was difficult to make truly dry wines. Where acidity levels are sound, the wines from both years can be wonderfully balanced; many '99s have a tendency toward austerity, while the '00s tend to be juicier. But where yields were high and acids low, wines frequently come across as sugary or hollow.

A word on prices. There has been some recent leveling off of wine prices in Alsace as a result of the copious harvests of '99 and '00. Bulk prices for riesling are down from their peaks; according to one grower I visited, they're now actually lower than pinot blanc prices, the latter bid up by the huge popularity in the eastern half of France of Cremant d'Alsace, the region's sparkling wine made via the Champagne method. Top late-harvest wines and grand crus from the region's superstars are rarely cheap, but when wine quality is high, these wines are well worth their cost. (Note that retail prices in the U.S. market can also vary widely according to the markups taken by American importers.) And Alsace still provides a host of solid values in the $12 to $20 range.

On the following pages, I offer my tasting notes on '99s and '00s I sampled in May. Wines are reviewed in the order in which they were presented to me. In some instances, the '99s were shown first, in other cases '00s, and in still other cellars I had the opportunity to taste both vintages of various cuvees side by side. Note that all '00s and most '99s listed as VT or SGN are not yet "official": to be entitled to these label designations, the wines must be submitted to, and approved by, the INAO the second spring and summer after the vintage. All grand cru vineyard names are denoted by italics. As always, wines not yet in bottle are scored with a range rather than a precise number. Suggested retail prices are provided for wines currently, or soon to be, available in the U.S. marketplace; obviously, many more wines reviewed in this article, especially the young 2000s, will be shipped here over the next year or two. (One final note: all acidity figures provided are expressed in tartaric acidity, which is roughly 1.5 times acidity expressed as sulfuric.)