Can terroir turn Alsace's fortunes around?

Leading Alsatian producers have decided to promote their vineyards. This, says James Lawrence, could be a seismic shift.

The village of Hunawihr, Alsace
The village of Hunawihr, Alsace

France had been delineating superior vineyards in Burgundy during the Middle Ages. Today, the region’s Grand Cru/Premier Cru hierarchy is cemented in the minds of buyers and collectors alike, who will gladly pay a premium for a higher quality vineyard. The Burgundian framework remains commercially important and largely uncompromised.  

In stark contrast, terroir classification in Alsace has historically been mired in controversy and self-sabotage. The region did not attempt to classify its vineyards until the late 20th century; in 1983 Alsace launched a new Grand Cru appellation, which designated the superior vineyards within the region. Prior to its launch, several respected winemakers, including Jean Hugel, were asked to help define the vineyard boundaries and distinguish between ‘ordinary’ Alsace and Grand Cru Alsace. But to their anger, the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) decided to expand the classification beyond their recommendations. Now, 51 plots in Alsace are entitled to use the Grand Cru designation. 

“There should have been 20 Grand Crus, and the rest should have been Premier Cru,” said Jean Hugel. This famous winemaking dynasty, having been instrumental in setting up the classification, walked away from it, as did leading producer Trimbach. 

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