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Alsace: A Long Struggle for Quality

Julia Mann
Posted: February 3, 2000

Bruce Sanderson reports on Alsace's 1997 vintage.

Search our tasting notes database for more wines from Alsace.

For more about the 1999 harvest, see our Harvest Diaries feature.

Back to Harvest 1999 main page.

Alsace: A Long Struggle for Quality

By Julia Mann

For much of 1999, vintners in Alsace fought against unseasonable weather conditions, which resulted in uneven quality in the dry white wines for which this region in northeastern France is best known.

A number of violent rainstorms hit the region in May and caused some concern about the future health of the grapes. Then, from June through mid-August, Alsace -- which typically benefits from very dry summers -- experienced unusually humid weather, encouraging the onset of mildew, which damaged many vines. The damage caused leaves to fall off and delayed ripening.

"It was one of the worst attacks since 1959," said Marc Hugel of Hugel & Fils. "Some of the vines were totally stripped naked and suffered from a lack of maturity, but unlike 1959, most of the vineyards were saved." Using new vineyard technology and knowledge, many winegrowers were able to limit the extent of the damage.

The mildew hit fairly early in the vineyard cycle, which can cause reduced yields, but it did not affect the quality of the grapes, according to Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht. "Despite this, many vintners have harvested a large quantity of grapes," he said.

The year's harvest turned out to be slightly more than in 1998, totaling about 1,250,000 hectoliters (91,875 tons). "What surprised everybody this year was that even after the green harvest [the cutting of unripe grape clusters to reduce yields and improve quality] in August, the size of the berries was huge, which meant that the size of the harvest was larger than expected," said Hugel.

"The gap between the top wines and the generic wines will be bigger than usual this year due to the yields," predicted Pierre Trimbach, co-owner of Trimbach, which makes both generic and estate-grown Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer.

The redeeming element for Alsace was three weeks of very hot and sunny weather during September, which allowed the grapes to reach high levels of maturity. "We had great acidities, almost ideal," said Hugel. "For the Gewürztraminer, it is comparable to 1998, and the Rieslings are showing average acidities."

Although the grapes ultimately ripened well, the harvest lasted longer than usual, with rain delaying the picking of late-ripening grape varieties. "It was one of the longest harvests I have ever known," said Hugel. "We started with the Pinot Noirs, which were very ripe on September 23. We started again on October 18 with the Rieslings and Pinot Gris and continued until November 16."

Due to the unusually long harvest period, some producers did not concentrate as much on Alsace's sweet wine categories, the Vendanges Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles. "At our domaine we made a little VT, but the skins at the end of October were very ripe, and we couldn't really wait any longer, apart from the Gewürztraminer," said André Ostertag of Domaine Ostertag.

"There wasn't as much potential as 1997 for VT," Humbrecht commented. "Due to the very dry weather at the end of August and into September, the skins remained very resistant to the botrytis."

Summing up the year overall, Hugel said, "There will be huge variations in quality depending on each grower. This wasn't an easy vintage; we had to fight, not like in 1997 when everything was great."

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