By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 11 July 2020
This week’s column is dedicated to one of France’s most beautiful wine regions, which sadly has been the worst affected in the country by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is extraordinary that the tiny region of Alsace (just 15,000 hectares of vineyards) on France’s eastern border sandwiched between Germany’s river Rhine and the wood-topped Vosges mountains, which has had such a long history of hardships and upheavals, has yet again been struck by disaster.
The reason why Alsace was so badly affected was due to a large authorised four day-long religious meeting in Mulhouse, south of the region, which began on 18 February with over 2,500 people. Some had travelled thousands of miles to take part, although coronavirus had already arrived in France on 23 January. This prayer meeting acted like a virus timebomb spreading through this small region affecting some local winery families – forcing Germany to partially close its border on the Rhine with Alsace.
Looking back in history, Alsace is no stranger to difficult times – it must be the most tortured region in France.
It was one of France’s top wine regions during the German-Roman empire and a favourite with Elizabeth 1’s royal court – but during the C17 Thirty Years War, the Alsatian people were terrorised, its region ransacked and the vineyard area halved, so they had to start again from zero.
Between 1870 and 1945 Alsace changed hands four times between Germany and France. In 1941 all books, symbols and the French language were suppressed in the region and one third of Alsace was forced to join the Nazi party with swastikas flying in the streets of their mediaeval villages and their young men sent to fight against the Allies in Normandy or to fight for the Germans on the treacherous Russian front with catastrophic casualties. In January 1945 Alsace’s vineyards on the slopes of the Vosges became the epicentre of Hitler’s last offensive.
Here we are again in 2020 – with Alsace at the front line of another crisis in Europe. Yet the people of Alsace seem to have an amazing resilience and are no strangers to hard work and commitment. Many of their wineries are small family-owned businesses with some of France’s oldest wineries: Trimbach was founded in 1626 and Hugel in 1639 and both still thrive today owned by the same families.
“We are used to facing challenges”, says Severine Schlumberger of 200-year-old Domaine Schlumberger, Alsace’s largest independent vineyard owners with 130 hectares based in Guebwiller, just 20 minutes north of Mulhouse. “Over the last 75 years we have made amazing friendships over the world with our wines. We are positive and confident we can get through this - and in Alsace we know what patience is about”, she says.
“Nature doesn’t wait”, says Schlumberger. “Despite difficulties caused by the virus, work has had to continue in vineyard and cellar. We look forward to 2020 vintage which is looking exceptionally good and it will be about 3 weeks early after our warm spring. History has shown us that in difficult times we are often rewarded by a fantastic vintage”, she says.
Amazingly 1945 post-war was one of the best vintages in the C20 for Alsace and in 2008, during the economic crisis, it was one of Alsace’s top vintages – so winemakers are hoping 2020 will be the same.
Here is a reminder of why Alsace is one of the wine world’s treasures and why we should try to support its winemakers in this difficult time. Alsace white wines have such an exuberant personality - often made from aromatic grape varieties like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, they have thrillingly expressive aromas, textural richness and a real vinosity. Whilst its wine prices are never cheap, Alsace’s Grand Crus are relatively inexpensive compared to Burgundy.
CREMANT D’ALSACE NV Bruno Sorg
Stylish floral richly appley and creamy Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris traditional-method based fizz. Alsace sparkling Cremants make up over 50% of all French crémant production and are hugely popular in France, but barely known in the UK.
RIESLING 2017 Trimbach
£15.99 Luvians; Virgin Wines; Great Western Wine; Exel Wines
For those who like steely dry Riesling, Pierre Trimbach’s example is a serious classic with its lime and grapefruit aromas, racy acidity, very dry, quite tense and minerally with citrus fruit palate.
RIESLING GRAND CRU SAERING 2017 Domaine Schlumberger
£25 Noble Green Wines; Oxford Wine
Another superb example of bone-dry Alsace Riesling with pretty floral nose, quite savoury herby palate, bright citric fruit with intense minerally palate with saline notes.
RIESLING GRAND CRU SCHLOSSBERG 2016 Domaine Kirrenbourg ***STAR BUY***
£34.50 Raeburn Fine Wines
Floral, apricot, gingery aromas, tangy refreshing palate with a hint of sweetness from very ripe fruits, long lingering length – fabulous rich just off-dry example from top Schlossberg vineyard by winemaker Samuel Tottoli.
GEWURZTRAMINER 2017 Bruno Sorg
£16.50 Tanners £19 St Andrews Wine Co; Fortnum & Mason
Surprisingly rich powerful and so delicious for the price - an off-dry, typically Gewurz rose-petal nose, zesty acidity and lightly spicy.
CLASSIC GEWURZTRAMINER 2016 Hugel
£17.99 Luvians; Great Western Wine
Gewurztraminer is one of Hugel’s finest wines. Mango and apricot notes, gingery undertones, scented palate – such an elegant classic example of Alsace Gewurz.
GEWURZTRAMINER LES PRINCES ABBEES 2016 Domaine Schlumberger ***STAR BUY***
£14.99/£16.99 Majestic Wine; £17 The Wine Society (for 2017 vintage)
One of the best priced Gewurztraminers – it is enhanced by Grand Cru fruit with attractive rose-petal and musk aromas, gentle spicy, slightly off-dry, rich mellow creamy textured palate.
Join Rose’s Meet the Winemaker virtual wine tastings focusing on South Africa: with JC Martin from Creation Wines on Friday 31 July www.rosemurraybrown.com; Charla Bosman and David Trafford from Sijnn Wines on Friday 7 August www.rosemurraybrown.com