The first Grand Cru in Alsace was the Schlossberg of Kaysersberg, a sort of trial balloon for the category that began back in 1975. Since then, 50 more Grands Crus have come into being. James Suckling takes a closer look at the top 10 Grand Cru wine bottles.
When it comes to French wines, the term Grand Cru has a magical connotation. But just how magical the name of a particular Grand Cru vineyard and the wines named after it really depend enormously on the region. Both in terms of reputation and to your wallet, it makes a huge difference if a Grand Cru white wine is from Burgundy or Alsace.
Let me give a few concrete examples. The world’s most expensive dry white wine is the Montrachet Grand Cru from Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy, which Wine-Searcher prices at US$12,750 for the 2015 vintage (the latest available) and US$19,590 for the 2014. In contrast, even the most expensive Grand Cru wines from Alsace are those from the Rangen Grand Cru site in the commune of Thann, produced by Domaine Zind Humbrecht, and they lie at just under $100 for the 2019 vintage. That’s a more than a hundred-fold price difference.
The question is whether that price difference is reflected in the wine quality. For us, the answer is… not necessarily. Sure, the best Grand Cru dry whites from Burgundy are amazing wines, and for sommeliers and collectors around Planet Wine, they remain the benchmark for the chardonnay grape. The Montrachet Grand Cru is an example of how enormous global demand for a very limited production combined with high-quality results in stratospheric prices for certain Burgundian Grand Cru wine.
For Alsace, demand is almost never as great, but what about quality? Recently, we tasted the 2018 and 2019 vintages of the Rangen Grand Cru wines from Zind Humbrecht and rated them every bit as high as the best Grand Cru whites of Burgundy. This situation creates a golden opportunity for savvy consumers, and our Top 10 is designed to help you make the most of it.
There’s another important reason to take these wines seriously. Many consumers wonder what the “mineral character” that sommeliers and wine critics often talk about tastes like. Alsace Grand Cru is an ideal way to find out.
The hashtag #alsacerocks is a marketing tool for the region’s wines, but it fits, because the best Alsace Grand Cru have intense notes of flint, chalk, wet stones and dry earth. This, together with the combination of generosity and freshness typical for Alsace whites, makes them a special category.
“A true Grand Cru is a singularity of character with consistently high quality,” says Marie Zusslin, from Domaine Valentin Zusslin. “That’s why my idea is to show the uniqueness of each site.” Her Riesling Alsace Grand Cru Pfingstberg 2017 is a magnificent expression of this idea.
“Alsace has enormous geological diversity within a small area, and each Grand Cru has its own identity,” Eric Kientzler of the Kientzler estate in Ribeauville told me. “For example, the wines from our three riesling Grand Crus are very different, though the Osterberg, Kirchberg de Ribeauville and Geisberg sites are neighbours.” With its combination of elegance and minerality, his Riesling Alsace Grand Cru Kirchberg de Ribeauville 2018 is an ideal introduction to the Alsace Grand Cru category.
Alsace Grands Crus are nearly always varietal whites, with the variety named on the label: gewurztraminer, muscat, pinot gris or riesling. Riesling is the most successful grape for Alsace Grand Cru in the market because these wines are always dry and their bright acidity accentuates this.
For us the Domaine Weinbach Riesling Alsace Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Ste Catherine is a near-perfect example of an Alsace Grand Cru, combining mineral subtlety with great concentration and length.
Top 10 Alsace Grand Cru Wines
These wines that exemplify the greatness of Alsace Grand Cru are all either currently in the market or about to appear.
DOMAINE WEINBACH RIESLING ALSACE GRAND CRU SCHLOSSBERG CUVÉE STE CATHERINE 2019
Enveloping, sensual bouquet of a thousand yellow fruits and some wild berries that’s just beginning to reveal its profundity. Gigantic concentration, but this remains as light on its feet as a prima ballerina.
FAMILLE HUGEL RIESLING ALSACE SCHOELHAMMER 2010
One of the world’s unique dry whites. This is so deep and spicy with a ton of candied citrus. Stunning concentration, power and structure on the palate.
DOMAINE ZIND HUMBRECHT PINOT GRIS ALSACE GRAND CRU RANGEN DE THANN CLOS SAINT URBAIN 2019
So spicy and smoky with a hint of mushroom, this is an enormously deep and concentrated dry pinot gris that’s just beginning to open up.
TRIMBACH RIESLING ALSACE GRAND CRU GEISBERG 2014
Aromas of limestone and hints of earth. Wet-morning forest floor. From the vineyards of the convent of Ribeauville, it’s been made separately since 2009. All organically farmed.
DOMAINE VALENTIN ZUSSLIN RIESLING GRAND CRU PFINGSTBERG 2017
Hang your nose into a glass of this astonishing dry white wine and let yourself be swept away in a cloud of smoke. Then, when you’re inside it, the wine’s subtle, citrusy beauty will unfurl and you’ll realise that it can only be riesling.
DOMAINE MARCEL DEISS GRAND CRU SCHOENENBOURG 2017
Super fresh for three years of age — the floral, honey and beeswax aromas are especially enticing.
DOMAINE PFISTER RIESLING ALSACE GRAND CRU ENGELBERG 2018
A masterpiece of cool elegance, in spite of this being the warmest vintage in living memory! Pristine with crystalline purity and a totally mineral personality.
MURÉ PINOT NOIR CLOS SAINT LANDELIN 2018
The stunning balance of very fine tannins and delicate “sweetness“ that pervades the long, super-silky finish reminds me of Grand Cru Musigny from Burgundy.
KIENTZLER RIESLING ALSACE GRAND CRU KIRCHBERG DE RIBEAUVILLÉ 2018
A complex and elegant Grand Cru dry riesling with tons of wet-stone character, married to nice lemon and fresh herb aromas.
DIRLER-CADÉ GEWURZTRAMINER ALSACE GRAND CRU SAERING 2018
Tons of spice and Turkish delight here, yet this is anything but opulent. Powerful and rich, but also minerally and properly dry.