Alsace’s white wines offer incredible diversity—from fresh, vibrant wines that sing across the palate to sweet, floral off-dry whites that make for exquisite food pairings. The problem is that consumers cannot always tell which style is in the bottle they’re looking at in the store. Now a group of local winegrowers is working to clear up the confusion by requiring dry wines to be labeled as such.
Under current regulations, the European Union defines four tiers of sweetness for wine producers: sec, demi-sec, moelleux and doux. Wines can be called sec, or dry, if they have no more than 4 grams of residual sugar per liter, or up to 9 grams per liter if acidity levels meet a minimum standard.
On March 25, the Association des Viticulteurs d’Alsace (AVA) voted almost unanimously to require the word “sec” or “dry” on a wine label if it meets those standards. The proposition will now be taken to the Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité (INAO), which oversees all French appellations. Proponents hope to see the change on labels for the 2016 vintage.
“[The proposition] came from a common conclusion that not knowing the style of a wine probably stops sales,” said Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht.
With the current lack of rules, consumers have to know which styles of wine an Alsatian producer makes, leading many unseasoned wine drinkers to shy away from the region altogether. “Even in Colmar, in a restaurant, people order Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé or Sancerre,” said Jean-Claude Rieflé of Domaine Rieflé.
Michael Engelmann, the wine director at New York restaurant the Modern, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner with a heavy emphasis on Alsatian wines, sees this dynamic often. “People have a bad experience with one wine, and they cross off the whole region,” he said. “That’s the last thing you want.”
But the residual sugar debate is not cut and dry in Alsace. The proposed rules aggravate a decades-long controversy among the region’s vintners about what Alsace wines can and should be.
On one side are producers who believe Alsace’s roots and future lie in dry wines. Felix Meyer, winemaker at Meyer-Fonné, believes this measure will help consumers understand that a classical Alsace wine is, in fact, dry. Thierry Fritch, an enologist and export manager for the Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins d’Alsace (CIVA), agreed. “The next step will be to convince the wine producers who produce rich wines, or unbalanced wines, to vinify these wines in a drier style,” said Fritch.
Others worry that the regulation will detract from the diversity of wine styles in Alsace, however. Pierre Gassmann, of Rolly Gassmann, voted against the proposition. As a producer of these richer wines, he believes that Alsace’s semi-continental climate and patchwork of soils are conducive to multiple styles. He considers this the “good fortune of Alsace” and that producers need to embrace their terroir, not work against it. His calcareous soils allow him to produce semi-sweet to sweet wines, which he often holds for extra aging. “If I had [different soils], of course I would make a dry wine,” he said.
Even though most producers voted in favor of the proposition, enthusiasm seems lukewarm. Many who support the idea also believe just labeling or not labeling a wine is simplistic. Some winemakers have long voluntarily indicated sweetness levels on their labels, while others use numerical scales to relate a range of sweetness.
Kimberly Cavoores, sommelier at Café d’Alsace in New York, sells a lot of wine from the region and has to constantly navigate these indices. “That’s an excellent thing to do for the consumer,” she said. “But what is Josmeyer’s 1 through 5 in relation to Gresser’s 1 through 10?” Producers have expressed interest in creating a common scale, but keeping it in accordance with existing European laws has proved challenging.
Drier styles are gaining popularity over their sweeter counterparts, according to sommeliers. “Almost 99 percent of the time, when a guest wants Riesling now, they want a dry style,” said Meghan McDonnell of New York’s Nice Matin, a Grand Award winner.
“I applaud the use of sec,” said Paul Grieco, Riesling enthusiast and cofounder of the Terroir wine bars in New York. “I am at the same time somewhat fearful of what it means for all those other wines.”
Mathieu Deiss, of Marcel Deiss, produces a richer style of wines, and is one of few producers in Alsace to focus on field blends as opposed to varietals. Deiss fears making the labeling mandatory for everyone will lead to a certain loss of individuality—that the measure could put pressure on producers to make a dry wine to satisfy the market, even if their terroir does not favor it. Skeptics foresee harvest dates being pushed earlier, and wines losing complexity as a result.
“We have trouble explaining our terroir to our consumers, because we want to simplify and standardize,” said Gassmann. The new rule may make it easier for consumers to tackle Alsace wines, but it also suggests a more comprehensive solution is needed.