Alsatian Wines Strike a Balance of Dry and Sweet

Alsace did not always draw a blank in America. In the 1980s, when I was first learning about wine, the slender bottles from Alsace were known as delicious high-quality values, dry contrasts to the generally sweet wines from Germany made from a similar set of grapes.

It helped that André Soltner, the superstar chef and owner of Lutèce, New York’s leading restaurant back then, was Alsatian. His list was full of the top names of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but the wines of Alsace were his favored selections with the cuisine.

In the ’90s, estates like Zind Humbrecht became critical darlings. But the wines also seemed to ebb from the general consciousness and slowly slip away.

The problem was that over time, too many of the historically dry wines of Alsace were sold with residual sugar in them. These wines were sweet, heavy and out of balance, with no indication of sweetness on the label. The problem is not new, and much has been done to rectify it. But the perception appears to linger.

Mr. Ostertag attributed the increasing sweetness to American critics who favorably rewarded those wines. “The sweeter the wine, the higher the score,” he said. “More and more wine appeared with sweetness and nothing more.”

Winemakers in Alsace have been working on solutions to the sweetness issue for years now. Partly, the problem was the result of idealism. Producers like Zind Humbrecht and Domaine Marcel Deiss, who work organically and biodynamically, were loath to pick grapes before they achieved absolute ripeness. They refused to add powerful store-bought yeast to complete fermentations that the indigenous yeast had not finished, which left residual sugar in the wine.

Over time, Olivier Humbrecht, whose family owns Zind Humbrecht, adjusted his viticulture so that ripeness could be achieved with less sugar in the grapes. You can taste the difference. Bottles that I used to find almost syrupy are now sharp and focused, even when they do have some residual sugar.

For years, Zind Humbrecht has put a code on its label to show the level of sweetness consumers can expect. The numbers, or indices, run from 1 (dry) to 5 (rich and sweet). I tasted a 2015 riesling from the Clos Häuserer vineyard, marked Indice 3, that was clearly sweet, yet it was vibrant and refreshing, with a balancing zing of acidity that I would not have found a decade ago.

Zind Humbrecht’s dry 2015s are lovely, including a fragrant gentle muscat from the grand cru Goldert vineyard and a deeply mineral, concentrated riesling from the grand cru Brand vineyard. I was especially impressed with their pinot gris, a grape that seems particularly susceptible in Alsace to cloying heaviness.

“There’s a lot of work done in the vineyard getting the precision right in pinot gris,” said Jolene Hunter, Zind Humbrecht’s export manager. “If you hesitate for a day, the acidity drops massively and alcohol shoots up.”

The 2014 pinot gris from the Rotenberg vineyard was beautifully balanced, fruity and saline, deliciously refreshing.

At Domaine Marcel Deiss, Jean-Michel Deiss and his son, Mathieu, have also been working in the vineyard to achieve riper grapes with less sugar. Mathieu Deiss’s side project, Vignoble du Rêveur, allows him to experiment with techniques popularized in natural wines: macerating white wines with their skins in the manner used for making red wines, fermenting and aging in amphoras, and working without sulfur dioxide, the stabilizer used in most wines.

The 2015 Vignoble du Rêveur Singulier Sec is, like many of the Deiss wines, a blend of different grapes, in this case riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc and pinot noir. It’s a beautiful amber, textured and tannic, bone-dry, fresh and energetic. It reminded me of the wines of Radikon, the great producer from Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Residual sugar does have an important place in Alsace, as long as the wines are balanced and consumers know what to expect. But Deiss leaves this responsibility to the wine trade and to consumers themselves rather than indicating on its bottles the characteristics of its various bottles.

For example, the Engelgarten wines — from a gravelly terroir where muscat, pinot gris, pinot noir and riesling grow together — are generally dry, earthy and savory. But wines from the limestone Grasberg vineyard — combining riesling, pinot gris and gewürztraminer — are invariably floral, spicy and sweet, though balanced by excellent acidity.

“The nature of this vineyard is the expression of residual sugar,” said Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, commercial director and enologist for Deiss. “The wine never completes fermentation. This balance comes from nature.”

She said, though, that Mathieu Deiss’s experiments indicate that fermentation can go more smoothly with skin maceration, and suggested a future application in wines like the Grasberg.

“It raises new questions,” she said.

At Domaine Valentin Zusslin, where Marie Zusslin and her brother, Jean-Paul, have managed the estate since 2008, there is no question about which wines are dry and which is not.

“In Alsace, heavier, sweeter wines were understood,” she said, noting that that is not the case internationally. To eliminate confusion, the Zusslin wines are dry unless clearly indicated.

From the Clos Liebenberg, a southeast-facing vineyard outside Orschwihr in the southern part of the region, you can see the Swiss Alps on a clear day. Riesling is planted in rows and on terraces. Beehives are nearby for honey and pear trees for making eau de vie. Like all of the Zusslin estate, it has been farmed biodynamically for almost 20 years. Each element of the undulating terrain is different, with varying microclimates, exposures and soils.