A recent tasting of Pinot Noirs from Alsace got me wondering: When did this region known for aromatic whites such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer start delivering plush, structured reds as opposed to thin, tart sippers? As it turns out, a collection of serious producers have been gradually rethinking their approach to Pinot, Alsace's main red grape, which has been growing in popularity. Plantings have more than doubled since 1980, from 1,425 acres to 3,980 acres in 2015—10.4 percent of the region's total vineyards.
Nestled in northeastern France, right on Germany's border, Alsace has a cool climate but stays dry thanks to the rain-shadow effect from the Vosges Mountains to the west. For many decades, it was difficult to ripen Pinot Noir to optimal levels here, but rising temperatures attributed to climate change have pushed the finicky grape in the right direction.
"When I started making wine in the 1980s," remembers Jacky Barthelmé, co-owner of Albert Mann, "we chaptalized [added sugar to] the reds. We didn't have the maturities of those [today]."
Thierry Fritsch, marketing manager for the Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins d'Alsace, remembers picking his first vintage in 1989 (considered a hot year) almost a full month later than the region's harvests nowadays. Remarking on the changes, Véronique Muré of Muré observed, "In the early 2000s, we had several years with very precocious harvests. Some years, we picked the Pinot Noir end of August. How do you respond to this challenge?" In 2009, Muré planted six rows of Syrah, which enjoys warmer temperatures than Pinot, as an experiment.
The improved phenolic ripeness has encouraged better viticultural practices for Pinot Noir. Reducing the traditionally high yields that have plagued Pinot here may have been just as important as the changing temperatures, believes Philippe Ehrhart of François & Philippe Ehrhart; he says that, without lower yields, the wines wouldn't be much better than when ripeness levels were questionable.
Alsace contains a patchwork of different terroirs, each of which suits specific grapes. Producers have come to the consensus that clay-limestone soils are best-suited to quality Pinot Noir in the region. Grapes grown on the region's gravel and sandy soils generally end up in crémant and rosé bottlings.
Pinot-friendly vineyards are looking to gain official quality recognition. As it stands, Pinot Noir cannot be labeled grand cru even if it is grown in one of the designated sites; that status is permitted only to white grapes, in particular the four known as the "noble" grapes of Alsace—Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat.
Three top vineyards, or lieux-dits, are lobbying for permission to label their Pinot Noir as grand cru: Hengst, Kirchberg de Barr and Vorbourg. Fritsch reported that the INAO, France's governing body for appellations, has given them positive feedback and laid out steps for further improvement of the variety within these terroirs. He thinks it will take a few years but feels confident they will win approval. Eventually, he predicts other sites will follow the three leaders.
The lineup of Pinot Noirs at the tasting I attended got me excited for the category's progression. Reserve and single-vineyard bottlings from Domaines Schlumberger, Barmès Buecher and Ostertag from recent vintages were poured. A wine from Domaine Bechtold, an organic and biodynamic producer unfamiliar to me, also impressed me. Slightly older vintages, a 2011 Albert Mann and a 2010 Paul Blanck, proved these wines can handle a little age. In 2016, the amount of Alsace Pinot Noir exported to the United States jumped to around 2,800 cases from 1,800 cases in 2015. This is still not a large number, but the wines are worth seeking out.
BARMÈS BUECHER Pinot Noir Alsace Vieilles Vignes 2014 Score: 90 | $60
This is light- to medium-bodied and finely knit, featuring crushed black cherry, mandarin orange peel, herbes de Provence and anise notes. Bright and appealing, with a persistent finish. Drink now through 2021. 116 cases made.—Alison Napjus
ZIND-HUMBRECHT Pinot Noir Alsace Heimbourg 2014 Score: 90 | $38
Ripe black raspberry and wild cherry fruit flavors are set in a well-balanced, light- to medium-bodied frame, accented by abundant spice and floral notes. A lively red, with light tannins firming the finish. Drink now through 2020. 100 cases made.—A.N.
OSTERTAG Pinot Noir Alsace Rouge E 2014 Score: 89 | $32
An aromatic version, with floral, baking spice and orange zest notes lacing the ripe currant and raspberry fruit flavors in this bright, medium-bodied red framed by light, taut tannins. Drink now through 2020. 47 cases imported.—A.N.
BARMÈS BUECHER Pinot Noir Alsace Réserve 2014 Score: 88 | $32
This aromatic red is light-bodied and bright, offering citrus and Christmas spice notes lacing flavors of wild cherry and raspberry fruit. Balanced, with a lingering finish. Drink now through 2018. 453 cases made.—A.N.
FRANÇOIS & PHILIPPE EHRHART Pinot Noir Alsace Domaine St.-Rémy Rosenberg 2015 Score: 88 | $24
This balanced red is light-bodied and creamy, with smoke and herb accents underscoring bright black cherry and dried cranberry fruit flavors. Pretty spice and citrus notes lace the fresh finish. Drink now through 2020. 270 cases made.—A.N.
ALBERT MANN Pinot Noir Alsace Grand H 2014 Score: 88 | $60
Refined and well-knit, this subtle version shows plumped cherry, star anise and mandarin orange peel flavors, with a smoke-tinged underpinning. Drink now through 2019. 25 cases imported.—A.N.