5 reasons we’ve all been overlooking Alsace wines

5 reasons we’ve all been overlooking Alsace wines

Jamie Goode interviews Alsace rising star Sébastien Mann, and makes the case for an undervalued region.

It’s easy to forget about Alsace. I’m guilty as well, but on the times that I’ve visited – it’s really beautiful – and the times when I’ve simply popped a bottle, I’ve been smitten.

Alsace should be higher up the pecking order of classic wine regions. I suspect the reason it isn’t is fivefold. First of all, the complexity of the region, with several grape varieties all jostling for attention. And secondly, it’s primarily a white wine region: I think the relative lack of convincing reds has held it back a bit.

And could it also be about identity? The bottle shape is a German flute. The architecture looks more German than French. But this is a French wine region. The people in Alsace tend to consider themselves neither French nor German.

Then there’s the thorny issue of sweetness. Some Alsace wines are dry, some are off dry, and some are sweet. The fully sweet wines are usually indicated by Vendange Tardive or Selection Grains Nobles on the label, but there’s usually no way of telling which of the rest has some sweetness. Many producers try to get the message across with a pictorial scale, but there’s no standard.

And fifth, the classification system, with just over 50 vineyards designated as Grand Cru. This has been criticized in the past for not being selective enough, and progress towards delineating Premier Crus is moving at a glacial pace. Two of the region’s leading producers, Hugel and Trimbach, have chosen to disregard the existing classification, although Hugel have now begun to acknowledge the vineyard origin of some of their top wines.

Taking a lead on sustainability

But in its favour, Alsace has been a leading region for organic and biodynamic wine growing. One of the most famous proponents of biodynamics has been the eloquent Olivier Humbrech, of Zind Humbrecht. His wines speak beautifully of their place. And the likes of Marcel Deiss and Jean Paul Frick have also propelled the reputation of the region forwards.

Olivier Humbrech, of Zind Humbrecht, ploughing by horse in their Brand Vineyard.

Alsace excels with a number of varieties. Riesling takes top billing, and the best examples have an intensity and precision that puts them among the world’s finest examples.

Gewurztraminer (here with no umlaut over the u) is a remarkable and distinctive variety that does better in Alsace than anywhere else. Pinot Gris from the top sites in Alsace is a million miles away from Pinot Grigio, possessing a beautiful savoury dimension. And then there’s Muscat, here transformed into a gastronomic wine that ages and pairs wonderfully with white asparagus – try it! I also have a soft spot for Sylvaner, which is all old vine, simply because no one has planted it for so long. Now there’s increasing attention of the traditional method sparkling wines from the region: Cremant is a significant presence in Alsace.

A rising Alsace star

At The Sourcing Table we’ve managed to get one of the rising stars of the region on an exclusive basis: Domaine Mann. I caught up with Sébastien Mann, the new generation, who has turned around this family domain and is beginning to attract a lot of attention. He joined in 2009 after gaining experience elsewhere.

Jamie Goode (JG): Can you tell us a bit about your Domaine? What's the story behind it all?

Sébastien Mann (SM): We are a family estate and today we farm 13 hectares of vines biodynamically. We’ve been certified by Biodyvin since 2018.

We took a slightly unusual route. The vineyards are a legacy of the Freyburger family (our great-grandparents) who owned five hectares of vines on good sites in Eguisheim. Unfortunately, the 2nd World War decimated the family, and my grandmother was left an orphan. She married my grandfather (a Mann) who took over the vineyards.

Sébastien Mann and his parents in their cellar.

When my father took over the Domaine in the 1980s, he already had avant-gardist ideas, and wanted to produce more natural terroir wines. He was passionate about Alsatian geology. Maybe these ideas were too ambitious at the time, which made it difficult for my grandfather and father to understand each other.

Through marrying my mother, he took over a second family estate. This doubled the vineyard holdings, and my parents decided to stop bottling, and deliver our grapes to a cooperative, to be able to manage all the vineyards.

My father was a lover of great wines, and quite meticulous, and he continued to train with the best Alsatian winegrowers – like Ostertag, Deiss and Humbrecht. As a result, he stopped using herbicides in 1990, and we began producing our own wines again in 1998.

(SM) The vines have been farmed organically since 1998. From the first year we produced 35 cuvées, one for each parcel. Our idea was to make great wines, reducing by half the yields of the vineyard compared to what is allowed in Alsace. A necessary step to make terroir wines with aging potential.

The next generation

For my part, the situation was different, I first did general studies and then specialized in viticulture. I was lucky, my parents are very open-minded and absolutely wanted me to bring my style and ideas. So I had the opportunity to travel quite a bit before joining the family estate in 2009.

I did a stage in Côte-Rôtie at Pierre Gaillard, which gave me experience with making red wine. It’s no secret for Pinot Noir, it is absolutely necessary to have very small yields to obtain great results!

I worked for a year in Champagne at Domaine Bertrand Gautherot - Vouette & Sorbée - which allowed me to understand how to make top-of-the-range Crémant, before my arrival my parents did not make bubbles.

I also had the chance during this year to learn about biodynamics with Bertrand. I met Jean-Michel Florin, the president of Demeter France, who transmitted to me his passion for considering the vine as a truly living being ... I fell in love with biodynamics! I also went to Austria and Australia for six months.

As soon as I got back, I went straight to the Domaine and I made all our wines in 2009. There was no question for my father that there was an important transition between him and me. In 2010, we decided to convert the entire Domaine to Biodynamics and joined the Biodyvin group in 2015.

The style of the wines changed very quickly, now more than 95% are dry. It was not an easy task. [Alsace is one of the warmest and driest regions in France, grapes can easily ripen with a high sugar level.] I don’t think my father could imagine that with biodynamics we would be able to achieve such a great evolution, achieving phenolic maturity while making dry wines.

JG: What is your approach today in the vineyard?

We love living vines. We are still in search of balance; we can no longer work the vines like 30 years ago: global warming is well established, and we must adapt to it.

I think that thanks to biodynamics we have succeeded in bringing an additional element to our vines. My father made wines essentially linked to the earth; I have a much more holistic style, linked to the stars.

We make composts that we apply before winter. The thinking is: we feed our soils and not our vines, which pushes the vines to seek out the mineral elements available in their environment.

During the summer season, we hardly ever trim our vines, to avoid any loss of energy. The vines are pruned from the start for moderate yields.

We apply biodynamic preparations in spring, summer and autumn. Most of our treatments are with herbal teas of wicker, horsetail, nettle, chamomile, valerian, yarrow, comfrey, and dandelion, which we make. This allow us to fight against vine diseases, but helps against periods of drought or heavy rains.

We consider that 90% of the success of our wines comes from the vine and not from the cellar.

I am not saying that there is no work in the cellar but that if the quality of our grapes is not extraordinary when it arrives in the cellar, we cannot make very great wine.

JG: What is the situation generally in Alsace now? Do a lot of people cultivate more sustainably?

SM: I think the situation is the same as in other wine-growing regions, there is a two-speed viticulture: there are those who want to work by hand and those who do intensive production.

I also think that the world is changing and that the new generation of consumers is today much more sensitive to the ecology and the future of our planet. One day I hope we will see 100% organic viticulture, and it won’t even be necessary to note it on the bottle.

JG: Do you look to any wineries or winegrowers for inspiration?

SM: Yes of course I appreciate many other winegrowers in Alsace and France who inspire me, but I never told myself that I wanted to achieve exactly the same thing as them. I think there are so many characteristics that go into making great wines and that it belongs to the personality and character of each of the winemakers.

This result is the work of several generations. We work continuously to understand our vines, our terroirs, the environment that surrounds them. Despite everything, my dad tells me each time we finish the harvest and despite his great experience: "Here is another vintage that I had never known".

There are of course plenty of Domaines that I appreciate. There are three that come to mind first. In Alsace, Domaine Ostertag for its purity and the precision of its wines; in Côte du Rhône, Château Rayas where I am always impressed by the airy side of these wines in this sunny region; and in Champage it was emotional being able to taste at Domaine Jacques Selosse, Champagnes of incredible vinosity.

JG: Which varieties do you enjoy working with most?

SM: I love Pinot Noir what a beautiful grape! I am of course also a very big fan of Riesling. There is also another grape variety that I like a lot and that we have worked a lot (over 10 years) to make great dry wines, it is Pinot Gris.

JG: I particularly like your Crémant. Can you tell me a little more about this? It seems to have more character than many Crémants d'Alsace.

SM: For me, Crémant was a big challenge, my parents did not produce it, but given my career in Champagne, it was impossible for me not to when I returned to the Domaine.

In my initial idea, was to choose beautiful plots on limestone soils to bring the chalky side that I like in Champagne. My first negotiation was therefore with my father what parcel of Pinot Noir I could have to make this wine. In 2010 it represented 5% of our production and it was intended to make our reds.

I had chosen a plot on the heights of our village of Eguisheim. The first year my father kindly accepted that I use 30% of the grapes from this vineyard. The result was magnificent and suddenly the following year I was able to have 50% and the following year 100% of the grapes.

We now make two Crémants. Brut Nature, a blend of Pinot Auxerrois, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And a longer aged prestige cuvée, produced in the best vintages.

If you're intrigued by Alsace explore our selections from Domaine MANN and Zind Humbrecht.

Wines to try