The prerequisites for great wines often include cool climate, ample sunshine and unique soils. Add grape varieties that express those characteristics and winegrowers who aim for the highest quality, and greatness is within reach. All of those elements come together in Alsace.
The vineyards of Alsace lie within a narrow 75-mile strip of land that runs along the north-south spine of the Vosges Mountains in northeastern France. The 51 best parcels are designated grand cru—choice spots that dot the headlands and foothills of the wooded peaks, never on the plain.
These plots face east, southeast and, due to numerous lateral valleys, also south, which provides optimal sun exposure. The region’s complex geology, a function of the Upper Rhine rift, means that each grand cru boasts its own unique soils.
France’s appellation authorities named the first Alsace grand cru in 1975, and they added more sites in 1983, 1992 and 2007. Despite those expansions, the grand crus represent just eight percent of the region’s vineyard surface, and they contribute a mere four percent of Alsace’s production. Although a relatively modern creation, the grand crus are historic, and their wines have been prized for centuries.
Some of the vineyard boundaries are controversial, like anywhere in the world where growers try to classify land. A legal change in 2011, however, allows each grand cru to have its own, specific set of regulations, which has encouraged growers to reassess each site.
Each of the 51 grand crus boasts a spirit and personality of its own, so it may seem unfair to highlight just seven of them. But these are truly la crème de la crème.
Everything about the Rangen Grand Cru is extreme. It’s the southernmost of all the grand crus, as well as the highest and steepest, as it rises from 1,050 feet to 1,470 feet above sea level and faces due south. The only grand cru with volcanic soils, Rangen’s vines seem to grow right out of the naked stones. It’s a suntrap whose dry, stonewall terraces are warm to the touch, even on frigid, sunny winter days.
The high altitude, steepness and exposure unite opposing extremes, which creates dramatic wines of historic renown.
“There’s great longevity in these wines, but also a huge capacity to balance everything: alcohol, acidity, residual sweetness,” says Alexandre Schoffit, who grows Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat here with his father, Bernard, for the family domaine. “There always is balance and always saltiness on the finish.”
“The ground is very poor,” says Bernard. “The roots have to go deep to find nourishment.” This leads to low yields.
“Right from the beginning, everything is concentrated,” Alexandre adds. Morning mist also makes part of the Rangen perfect for noble sweet wines. “We have botrytis almost every year, but it’s really clean, pure and intense.”
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht also farms Riesling, Pinot Gris and some Gewurztraminer on this mountainside.
“The Rangen has an incredible energy,” says domaine owner and winemaker Olivier Humbrecht, France’s first Master of Wine. “There are many great vineyards around the world that make good wine. But a wine that is extraordinary needs something more than just the slope, soil and so on. At some point, you have to go beyond technical explanations.
“It needs something that elevates the wine, something that conveys a strong force, an energy, a strong personality. When you are in the vineyard, you feel it is a good place, a place you have to respect. You cannot bargain with this vineyard. You either accept what it can do, or you don’t do it.”
With mechanization impossible on such a steep slope, Humbrecht emphasizes that the site demands absolute quality.
“You cannot exploit a vineyard as difficult as Rangen and make generic wine,” he says.
For Humbrecht, who stresses the long growing season of the site and its high day-night temperature swings, the “most obvious link to the vineyard is that the wines are usually very powerful, thick with a fine, salty acidity that will never be sharp.”
To show their full potential, Rangen wines need bottle age. The resulting wines are almost timeless, as evidenced by Humbrecht’s incredible dry Riesling from 1983. It just takes one sip to experience the magic of Rangen. Yet, despite an ample track record of the cru’s greatness, Bernard Schoffit expresses humility.
“After 30 years of working on this slope, we slowly begin to understand this vineyard,” he says.
Domaine Schoffit 2007 Clos Saint-Théobald Grand Cru Rangen Sélection de Grains Nobles Pinot Gris (Alsace); $80/500 ml, 96 points. Barley sugar, butterscotch, demerara sugar and the faintest hint of maple syrup suggest the richness of this SGN right away. The concentrated sweetness is countered with illuminating freshness and holds tons of tangy spice. Wow. This is incredibly concentrated and has an elixir-like bundled energy that seems to be alive. The effect is both mesmerizing and invigorating. Weygandt-Metzler.—Anne Krebiehl.
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2014 Clos Saint Urbain Rangen de Thann Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace); $120, 96 points. What to mention first? A hint of mossy earth, chamomile tisane, Cox Orange Pippin apples or lemon zest? All of these aromas dance on the nose. They are still totally shy on the taut, dry and concentrated palate. For now, it is mossy citrus that is most aromatic while rich fruit still needs to unfurl. This strikes a note of utter purity, of something soaring and bright. Right now this is totally brisk, invigorating and refreshing but its true colors won’t show for some time. Drink 2020–2035. Kobrand. Cellar Selection.—A.K.
Biecher & Schaal 2015 Rangen de Thann Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace); $50, 95 points. A lovely touch of flint and smoke carry a touch of residual reduction. Underneath that is lemony purity. The palate adds a touch of stone fruit, a touch of ripe mirabelle plum—its generosity only underlined by the taut lemon freshness that pervades the wine. There is something stern and stony at the core, something fundamental and profound. The body is precise, dry and powerful and incredibly moreish. This is lip smacking but has not even started to show itself properly. The finish is clean, stony and lasting. This is one to keep. Drink 2020–2040.—A.K.
Geisberg is another steep, terraced, south-facing site that rises to 1,150 feet above sea level. The lower portion lies right in the timbered village of Ribeauvillé. Standing in the vineyard, you look directly down on the tiled, red roofs of the medieval houses.
It’s wedged between two other grand crus: Kirchberg to the west and Osterberg to the east. While they’re all steep and based on Triassic limestone, sandstone and marl formations, their exposure is different. Geisberg faces fully south and is an excellent site for Riesling.
However, since 2008, Domaine Trimbach has leased another part of the Geisberg from the local convent. It now bottles this limestone-rich parcel separately and lists Geisberg on the label.
“Today, we have to talk about grands crus in Alsace,” says 14th-generation family member Anne Trimbach. “Some people say soil makes Riesling speak, but perhaps it’s the other way round.”
The domaine is known for its precise, taut style.
“It’s always windy in the Geisberg, and that’s why the wines always have this acidity, this tension,” Trimbach explains. “Then there is the bone-dry style in which we vinify. When the wine is young, it is very austere. But with age, it’s a little fleshier.”
She’s convinced that the wines from Geisberg need bottle age to show their true potential. It was her grandfather, Bernard, who started the tradition of keeping single-site Rieslings for late release—an expensive practice that the family still adheres to today.
“He was thinking ahead as early as the 1950s and really had to tighten his belt to make this happen. Merci, grandpapa!” says Anne. “The wines are a bit shy when they’re young, but we release them when we think they are ready.”
The current release of Cuvée Frédéric Emile is the 2008 vintage. She also likens the wine style to her father, Pierre, who makes it.
“At first he’s a bit reserved, but after a little while he’s totally at ease.”
Trimbach 2008 Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling (Alsace); $60, 95 points. A perfumed note of citrus peel and soft pine create a bracing nose that nonetheless suggests ripeness. The body is lithe and light, with a backdrop of stone and subtle nuttiness. With a little more air, the characteristic notes of mature Riesling appear: some lifted chamomile and candied orange peel, but only in their early stages. This is a wine of immense depth and deceptive lightness that has years of life ahead. Drink through 2030.—A.K.
André Kientzler 2014 Geisberg Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace); $90, 91 points. A slight apple scent perfumes the nose. The palate expresses more tart apple fruit and shows a central line of taut lemony freshness. The flavors are very clean and might need a little cellar age to come into their own. The finish is clean and dry. Drink now through 2020.—A.K.
Muenchberg, the most northernly of the seven vineyards, was created as part of a monastic settlement in the 12th century. The soil is red sandstone with volcanic sediments from some 250 million years ago. André Ostertag, who farms biodynamically here, takes the grand cru idea beyond physical properties.
“It’s not at all about soil and climate and perfect drainage and all of these rational things,” he says. “What makes a grand cru is, first of all, beauty. Second is force—a power, a place where you feel the elements. Third is wisdom. This is difficult to explain in scientific parameters. What makes a grand cru is all of these elements, but they only come together when there is a human being behind it.”
Gazing at the Muenchberg’s sinuous slopes from a distance and later standing in the vineyard, the deep stillness and peace of this secluded valley becomes apparent. The Riesling from this densely planted site has the same quiet, convincing power.
The site is “absolutely protected, almost hidden, a microcosm in itself,” says Ostertag. “A very gentle, very soft amphitheatre. The place is very complete. It’s between something that is sacred and magical.”
Domaine Ostertag 2014 Muenchberg Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace); $65, 95 points. Wonderful notions of ivy leaves, citrus peel and conifer greet the nose. The aromatic impression leads onto a slender, dry and fluid palate that still seems tightly coiled and closed. But those subtle aromatic hints and a concentrated, stony palate promise future pleasure. This will blossom into a perfumed marvel. Drink 2019–2030. Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant.—A.K.
Jutting into the broad plain, just above the village of Rouffach, is Grand Cru Vorbourg, which provided Heddo, the Archbishop of Strasbourg, a source of income in the eighth century.
Meaning “foothill,” compared to the tall Vosges behind it, with peaks that reach to 4,600 feet above sea level, Vorbourg lives up to its name. But it rises steeply, with terraces, dry-stone walls and a rocky outcrop, to about 935 feet. The grand cru is south-southeast facing and dominated by different limestone formations and clay. Its core parcel, known as Clos Saint Landelin, faces due south.
“We have sunshine almost all day, and it’s protected from the cold winds that come from the lateral Soulzmatt valley,” says Véronique Muré, who farms here with her brother, Thomas. “But we also have a warm wind, called foehn.”
Foehn results when Atlantic winds hit the western side of the Vosges Mountains, which compress and warm the gusts. That allows the winds to rise across the mountains and ventilate the grapes in the Vorbourg vineyard.
“This really lowers the disease pressure,” Thomas says.
The limestone in Clos Saint Landelin is covered with a thin layer of iron-rich clay that has a lovely reddish tint.
“The link between the geology and the wines is that the limestone subsoil gives a certain direction and straightness,” says Véronique. “At the same time, we have this rich clay, which gives fullness and roundness and power.”
The Murés grow mostly Riesling and Pinot Noir on Vorbourg, with a little Pinot Gris, Muscat, Sylvaner and Gewurztraminer. Riesling is on the terraces, while Pinot Noir is planted on the windiest part of the vineyard, where there is the most iron in the soil.
Interestingly, Pinot Noir is not currently allowed as a grand cru variety—only Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewurztraminer have that privilege. (The sole exception to that is Sylvaner, in the Zotzenberg Grand Cru.) But that’s set to change: Vorbourg will be among the first grand crus for Pinot Noir. Ratification by French authorities is expected by next year.
The Muré siblings believe in the absolute affinity between Pinot Noir and Vorbourg.
“Vorbourg is not about aroma, but about texture,” Thomas says.
They both believe that high-density planting helps express the site’s character. These Pinot Noirs offer freshness and graceful power derived from fruit concentration, rather than from extraction. Véronique mentions the “tight and elegant tannins,” while Thomas says that Alsace Pinot Noirs are less about richness and more about structure and subtle balance.
The Riesling from Vorbourg, on the other hand, Thomas describes as “crystalline.” But brother and sister also find a rounder phenolic texture that Thomas attributes to the rich clay, balanced by limestone salinity.
René Muré 2014 Clos Saint Landelin Vorbourg Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace); $50, 95 points. The purity of juicy, tart, red apples runs like a fault line through a very taut, linear, whistle-clean Riesling. This has purity and precision, linearity and drive. Still tightly wound, this needs time to unfold but promises to be a wine of great longevity and expression. Resolutely dry, the purity and concentration of flavors will always remain. Drink 2018–2030. Gargouille Collection.—A.K.
Dopff & Irion 2009 Vorbourg Grand Cru Pinot Gris (Alsace); $30, 92 points. The lift of heady aroma precedes the pear-fruited and herbal tisane-scented nose. The palate is gentle and has that same herbal softness. The fruit is rich with residual sweetness and characterized as ripe pear. This is balanced by zesty, pleasantly bitter citrus. The effect is of harmonious, gentle and generous balance. This mature Pinot Gris is now perfectly à point. Its flavors linger long and pleasantly.—A.K.
René Muré 2014 Signature Pinot Noir (Alsace); $25, 90 points. Very pure notes of cherry and strawberry pervade this wine. They are perfumed with a slight conifer scent that spells freshness and lifted ease. The palate has an unforced, elegant concentration. This is charming and fresh, with convincing depth, purity and a lasting, fresh finish. Gargouille Collection.—A.K.
Close to the village of Riquewihr, Schoenenbourg has enjoyed international fame since the 16th century. It rises to 1,250 feet above sea level, but its middle section is most prized.
“Schoenenbourg is, I think, one of the most complex sites from a geological point of view,” says Jean-Christophe Bott of Domaine Bott-Geyl, as he points to the mid slope. “It’s a marl-keuper soil, a Triassic formation, with a high amount of gypsum, but you also have sandstone and limestone formations from that same period.
“I think the gypsum brings something very specific to the wine, something complex and somehow bitter, like mandarin and orange peel, something vibrant but delicate,” he says. “The Schoenenbourg wines have spirit, but are suave.”
Bott says Schoenenbourg is a late-ripening site—it’s always the last vineyard he picks—but the wines have an exceptional ability to age. “They are a little introverted when they are young. Complexity arrives over time,” he says. “It’s is one of the most emblematic sites of Alsace.”
The Hugel family also owns land in this vineyard and have traditionally bottled the wines from this site under their Jubilee label. More recently, they’ve singled out one particular mid-slope parcel, known as Schoelhammer, which has been in the family for more than 100 years. Winemaker Marc Hugel says that their 15 parcels of Riesling in the Schoenenbourg have been vinified separately for the past 15 to 20 years.
“Every year, the Schoelhammer gave us the most interesting wine,” he says. “It really represents the essence, spirit and personality of Schoenenbourg, so in 2007, we decided to bottle it separately.”
That 2007 wine wasn’t released until 2015.
“Some white wines need to age, much more so than people think,” says Jean-Frédéric Hugel, Marc’s nephew, and the 13th generation to work in the family winery. “Schoenenbourg wines start to get interesting at seven years. At around 10, they open up. After 20, they reach their plateau and can be drunk for 40 years. We release wines when we think they are starting to get ready.”
Domaine Bott-Geyl 2014 Schoenenbourg Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace); $41, 95 points. The heady scent of grapefruit and tangelo peel immediately add savoriness to the crisp green-apple fruit that is evident on the nose. But there are also richer hints of honey and yellow apple. The palate remains taut, slender and linear but that tangelo spice is boosted by enticing herbal notes of yarrow and a dollop of yeast. This is an aromatic marvel. The finish is dry and intense. This will keep your interest for years. Drink now through 2035. Vineyard Brands.—A.K.
Dopff Au Moulin 2014 Schoenenbourg Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace); $34, 92 points. Aromatic notes of tart, baked apple fill the nose. On the palate these aromas revert to the flavors of fresh yellow apples with juicy tartness. The palate is fresh and vivid, dry and brisk. The finish is clean and really lip smacking. It’s the apple notion that lasts longest.—A.K.
Hengst means “stallion,” and this grand cru, dating to the 9th century, lives up to the name with wildly powerful wines. The site slopes down from 1,180 to 885 feet toward the village of Wettolsheim and faces southeast. The soil of calcareous marl doesn’t look as stony as some other vineyards.
While Riesling and Pinot Noir do well here, Gewurztraminer excels. Maxime Barmès farms all three varieties, planted more than 50 years ago. He runs Domaine Barmès-Buecher with his sister, Sophie, and mother, Geneviève. Since 2014, he has farmed his parcel of Hengst solely by horse to avoid soil compaction.
“Hengst is rich—it’s a generous grand cru,” says Maxime. “It gives spice and rich fruit to the Gewurztraminer, lots of phenolic power to Riesling, and both tannin and color to Pinot Noir.
“There also is lots of iron in the soil. When it’s humid in spring and summer, you can see how red the soil is,” he says. “Hengst amplifies everything. It adds a masculine factor to each grape variety. For me, the typicity of the Hengst is strength, ripe acidity and a fresh finish.”
Domaine Barmès-Buecher 2014 Hengst Grand Cru Gewurztraminer (Alsace); $48. Totally sumptuous peach notes dance on nose and palate. They are boosted by plump sweetness and given shape by zesty freshness. Everything about this is opulent and intense. The freshness of 2014 makes it lip smacking and bright, despite all of its richness. This finishes medium sweet while the peachy flavors last and last. Petit Pois.—A.K.
Schlossberg was the first grand cru, designated in 1975. It also was the first vineyard that compelled all owners to restrict yields via a 1928 charter, though the site has been famous since the 15th century.
The Schlossberg is a south-facing, terraced vineyard with granitic soils. It rises to 1,150 feet above sea level behind the villages of Kaysersberg and Kientzheim. Between the vines are shards of rock that shimmer and glisten in the sunlight.
One of the estates to hold land here is Domaine Weinbach, run by Catherine Faller, with the help of her son, Théo.
“It really is Riesling terroir,” Catherine says. “Riesling is like a gem: It is hard, but like a diamond, it is carved and polished by the Schlossberg. Riesling is a demanding grape variety. It requires low yields, especially in the Schlossberg.”
She says the stony soils composed of granite, gneiss and quartz retain the warmth of the sunshine and help ripen the grapes. To her, Schlossberg Rieslings always have “raciness, elegance and florality.”
“The Rieslings are expressive when they are young, but also age beautifully,” she says. “The wines are never one-dimensional.”
Théo points to the Schlossberg’s steepness, where terraces were built hundreds of years ago.
“It’s difficult to work,” says Théo. “The Schlossberg does not like weeds. It is very well drained, and so the weeds would take water away from the vines.” The rows have to be plowed, and the stone walls that form the terraces often have to be repaired and rebuilt. Théo estimates that the Schlossberg takes about 40 percent longer to farm biodynamically than flatter vineyards.
“It requires a lot of work, but it brings out a sort of salinity in the wines,” Catherine says. “You encourage a deeper root system and favor the development of soil organisms. There are a lot of worms, flowers and birds nesting in the vineyard. It just brings life.”
While the Fallers also have a little plot of Pinot Noir on the same parcel, they agree that Schlossberg seems made for Riesling.
“Every grand cru has its own characteristics, but what is very important is the work in the vineyard,” Catherine says. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort, and both Riesling and Schlossberg are demanding, but the wine is our reward. There is no compromise. The drive for excellence and quality cannot be compromised here.”
Domaine Weinbach 2015 Clos des Capucins Cuvée Ste Catherine Schlossberg Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace); $64, 96 points. A fragrant and pure nose of slightly floral tangerine peel opens this wine. It offers a ripe fruit-driven dance of aromas and freshness—think tangerine, ripe lemon, crisp apple and a beguiling floral dimension. Lovely now in its primary-flavored youth, it’s certain to become even more disarming in the future. Drink 2020–2035 or later if you like it really mature. Vineyard Brands.—A.K.
Jean-Baptiste Adam 2014 Schlossberg Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace); $54, 94 points.Glorious apple freshness jumps from the glass, there is the slightest touch of honey, too. On the palate, the apple notions persist: there is fresh and baked apple, adding both crisp and mellow notes. Everything is brightened by lemony freshness on a concentrated but elegant and balanced body. Flavors last and have a long, clean and bone-dry finish. This is good enough to go the mileage. Drink now through 2030. The Sorting Table.—A.K.
Paul Blanck 2012 Schlossberg Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace); $36, 93 points. A lovely lemony lift jumps from the glass and immediately signals maturing Riesling. The palate is still taut with freshness but has the harmonious balminess of bottle age. Hints of dried pear and candied lemon peel appear. The palate is as precise and taut as ever, brightened by utter apple and citrus crispness. The finish is long, dry and utterly clean cut. Skurnik Wines.—A.K.