The 2005 vintage in Alsace delivered high quality in all its major grape varieties and wine styles.
You'll find dry Rieslings with bracing acidity alongside elegant, apricot-laced late-harvest Pinot Gris and intense, floral Gewürztraminer dessert wines. Alsace enthusiasts and novices alike will enjoy the fruit-forward personality of the 2005s, as well as the bright acidity that makes them so compatible with food and promises fine development for top bottlings.
Alsace is best known for Riesling, which is widely planted there and consistently produces many of the area's top wines. The 2005 Rieslings are generally harmonious, showing peach, citrus and pineapple, as well as floral and mineral notes.
But 2005 was a good vintage for other varietals from the area as well. The racy acidity and purity of fruit that define the vintage helped most grape varieties excel, and this is probably best exhibited in Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. Both grapes have less natural acidity than Riesling, but in 2005, the wines remained focused, accenting a zesty edge and giving an enjoyable hint of bitterness to the flavors of fresh and dried stone fruits and citrus fruits that are typical of these grapes.
The acidity of the vintage also benefits the region's late-harvest and dessert-style wines: vendanges tardives (VTs) and sélections des grains nobles (SGNs). The VTs are on the market now, and the best versions show great concentration, with dried and tropical fruit flavors, terrific balance and silky texture.
Laurence Faller, winemaker at Domaine Weinbach, describes the 2005s, in general, as "racy, vibrant wines—as pure as can be—very good ripeness with excellent acidity." Weinbach led the pack among the dry-style wines reviewed for this year's report, along with Domaines Josmeyer and Zind-Humbrecht.
Weinbach's Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Ste.-Catherine L'Inédit 2005 (94 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, $79) and Josmeyer's Riesling Grand Cru Hengst-Samain 2005 (94, $75) each exhibit a lacy texture and finesse that can be attributed to the vintage's good acidity. This elegance showcases the purity of their fruit flavors and makes them very accessible on release.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Wintzenheim Clos Häuserer 2005 (94, $60), a big, powerful wine. Its acidity keeps it balanced and adds structure to concentrated flavors of smoke and dried pineapple.
Since our last Alsace report ("Crystal Clear," Oct. 31, 2006) more than 280 of the region's wines have been blind-tasted in Wine Spectator's New York office, more than half of them 2005s. (An alphabetical guide to all wines tasted begins on page 157.) Based on these tastings, I rate the 2005 vintage 94 points overall, putting it on a par with the outstanding 2001 vintage.
Tucked in France's northeast corner, Alsace is a haven for wine lovers who struggle to remember grape varieties associated with appellations in other French wine regions. The vast majority of its bottlings include a grape name on the front label, and the number of grape varieties used in Alsace is relatively small.
Most Alsace wines are made from white grapes, with Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer leading the way, followed by smaller amounts of Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Sylvaner. Pinot Noir, the only red grape grown in Alsace, is increasing its small share of the area's vineyard acreage.
Several producers stood out for their consistent quality in our tastings, making solid wines at a variety of price points and styles from the region's range of grapes. These estates are a good place to start for wine drinkers looking to try a new Alsatian grape variety or style.
New to us were the wallet-friendly wines of Pierre Bernhard and Domaine Baumann. For the most part, both labels made wines that scored in the very good range (85 to 89 points), and generally cost less than $25 a bottle. Try the floral and honeyed Pierre Bernhard Pinot Blanc Caprice 2005 (88, $17) or the elegant Riesling Vieilles Vignes 2005 (89, $24) from Domaine Baumann.
For $40 a bottle or less, sample the efforts of François Baur and Gustave Lorentz, whose wines received scores in the very good and the outstanding (90 to 94 points) ranges. I enjoyed the juicy François Baur Pinot Gris Herrenweg 2005 (88, $30). Also in this price range are Zind-Humbrecht's basic AOC Alsace bottlings and the dry wines of Domaines Schlumberger. Look for the dry, aromatic Zind-Humbrecht Gewürztraminer 2005 (90, $30) or the silky Domaines Schlum-berger Pinot Gris Grand Cru Kitterlé 2005 (91, $40).
While many vintages in Alsace rely on a long, moderate growing season to achieve ripeness and balance in the grapes, 2005 depended on well-timed weather changes from Mother Nature. A dry winter ended in late March with heavy rainfall, aiding budbreak in April.
Spring through mid-summer was warm and dry, even hot at times, encouraging rapid development of the grapes. Just when producers began to worry about the abundant number of dry days, significant rainfall in July and August provided necessary moisture. A cool period in August maintained acidity levels and checked the precocious maturation of the grapes.
After August, fine weather returned for harvest and lasted well into October. Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht says, "Needless to point out that such conditions favored good maturation, great acidity, excellent health and small berries with thick skins." Several producers spoke about the warm autumn weather and its positive effect on the harvest in general, as well as on the region's late-harvest and dessert-style wines, the VTs and SGNs.
Jean Trimbach of Domaine Trimbach says, "A superb Indian summer, misty mornings and sunny afternoons, which lasted from October 6th until the 20th, provided ideal conditions for the production of VTs and SGNs, mostly in Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer."
A 2005 Pinot Gris SGN shares the top spot on this year's scorecard with two other SGNs from different vintages. The classy Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Turckheim Clos Jebsal Sélection des Grains Nobles 2005 (97, $NA) is harmonious and lush, with apricot, lychee and honey notes.
The Weinbach Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Quintessence de Grains Nobles 2004 (97, $465) is tightly wound, with a laser beam of acidity and extreme precision. Gustave Lorentz shows how well a great Alsatian wine can age with its Gewürztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles 1989 (97, $120). It's nearly 20 years old, but it has lost none of its intensity, and displays flavors of hard candy, dried apricot, citrus and spice.
Also in the marketplace now are late-release 2004s and 2003s. From 2004, look for dry wines as well as VTs and SGNs. Domaine Marcel Deiss offers the best of the 2003s, with several wines that show good balance and acidity despite a particularly hot and challenging vintage. The top example from this domaine is the Grand Cru Schoenenbourg 2003 (92, $110), a field blend of mostly Riesling, with Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Muscat, and an elegance that belies its intensity.
Alsace rarely receives the fanfare of some of France's other wine regions, such as Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhône, for example. But with the exception of the 2003 vintage, Alsace has experienced an unbroken string of outstanding years since 2000. The 2005s in particular are delicious right now, and top versions will be enjoyable for the next 10 to 20 years. Given the region's high-quality track record in the new millennium and its stylistically diverse range of offerings, Alsace deserves renewed recognition as one of France's premier white-wine regions.
New York-based tasting coordinator Alison Napjus has been with Wine Spectator since 2000. Senior editor Bruce Sanderson contributed to this report.