Alsace Riesling–The Best in the World (or at least close)

There are countless decisions that I made in my life that I would like to have back. In 7th grade I left my bike unattended (or locked) outside a store; the time I jumped over the fence at the Acropolis in Athens, frustrated that it was closed to the public the day I was there; and the, well, the hair style I sported for most of high school.

The bike was stolen; I soon was looking down the barrel of a Greek policeman’s gun; and, well, it was a mullet.

I could go on, but that is not the point I am trying to make. I have never done the math, but I would hazard to guess that my bad decisions outweighed the good ones by at least 10-1. One of those good decisions, changed my life completely, and has affected my life pretty much every day since (and almost always in a good way).

Back when I was a sophomore in college, I decided to spend my junior year in Strasbourg, France. Due to that decision, I eventually met my wife, have traveled the world, and, hopefully, become a better citizen of the world. Another decision, made halfway through that junior year in Strasbourg, likely led to my lifelong love of wine.

The first semester, I lived pretty far out of town with a pot-smoking pair of Bohemians whose idea of a tasty meal was under-cooked blood sausage with a side of over-cooked spinach. (I always say you have to try really hard to eat poorly in France, but Dominique and Véronique proved every day that it is possible.)

Thus, I made the decision to switch families for the second semester. While there was no doubt that my new family was horrendously racist, xenophobic, and had fascist tendencies, my new “mother” could cook. On top of that, the family’s patriarch was particularly interested in wine, specifically the wines of Alsace. While he would rarely offer even a greeting to me at other times of the day, at dinner he would pontificate on the merits of the region’s Pinot Noir (far better than Burgundy, per Monsieur Reiser), Pinot Gris (one did not dare say “Grigio” in his presence), and above all, Riesling.

Monsieur Reiser (I never learned his surname much less ever dreamed of addressing him with it) assured me that the greatest Rieslings in the world came from within 100 kilometers or so of where we sat for dinner every night. On a couple of occasions, I decided to tag along with him on his trips to go pick-up his monthly allotment of wine from his favorite wineries in Riquewihr.

The Schoenenbourg in Riquewihr.

On one such trip, we got into a bit of a heated argument over the movement to assign Grand Cru status to several of the vineyards in Alsace, essentially identifying those vineyards as superior to other vineyards in the region. The first Grand Cru vineyard in Alsace, Schlossberg, was identified in 1975. A few years later (1983), another 25 vineyards were classified as Grand Cru, and 24 more received the designation in 1992.

This is a view of the castle of Kaysersberg across the Schlossberg Grand Cru vineyard.

My French father, Monsieur Reiser, was not a fan of the Grand Cru movement, citing too much variation in soil types, he also believed that there was some bribery going on (which was probably true), and that it would set up a caste system in Alsace. Basically, like any good fascist, he was against any change in the region that might force him to evolve or change his world view.

The view of the Schlossberg from the Kaysersberg castle.

Fast forward a few decades and I was sent a few wines from the kind people at Les Vins d’Alsace to perform my own little tasting of three Grand Cru and three non-Grand Cru wines, which I tasted blind (I did not know which of the wines was in my glass). My conclusions? I love Rieslings from Alsace and need to drink more of them but also, the Grand Cru wines from the region are different: richer, more complex, dare I say “better”?

I know that Monsieur Reiser is likely turning over in his grave (I got word of his passing several years ago), but the Grand Cru system in Alsace has been a benefit to both the producers and consumers of Alsatian wines.


2018 Pierre Sparr Riesling Grande Réserve, Alsace, France: Retail $16. Under screw cap. Pierre Sparr is a big name in Alsace as, with the winery being founded in 1680, it has been around a while. When I lived in Alsace for a year and subsequently returned there just about every summer, Pierre Sparr was a wine that I knew would deliver quality on a consistent basis. And that is what we have here. Sure, it is not the best Alsatian wine I’ve had (or even the best Pierre Sparr), but it is clean, precise, exudes some petrol on the nose, is laden with fruit on both the nose & palate, races with acidity, and ends with a lengthy finish. All for a little more than ten bucks (in most markets)? Giddy-up. Very Good. 89 Points.

2018 Hugel Riesling Classic, Alsace, France: Retail $25. DIAM 5 closure. Hugel is perhaps the name in Alsatian wines, with the house founded in Riquewihr in 1639, and this is their flagship wine. A light straw color with golden highlights, there is a distinct lemon zest and green apple combo on the nose with just a hint of petrol. The palate comes of as quite dry (but there is 3.7 g/l of residual sugar), with plenty of fruit and boatloads of tart, lip-smacking acidity. While this is fantastic on its own, there is no doubt that this will shine even brighter with food. Excellent. 90 Points.

2018 Gustave Lorentz Riesling Reserve, Alsace, France: Retail $25. Under screw cap. Another big name in Alsace, Gustave Lorentz is a family owned winery in Bergheim, in the shadow of the Château of Haut-Kœnigsbourg, and just around the corner from Domaine Marcel Deiss. The scores for this wine on Cellar Tracker (where I keep both my personal and samples inventories) are all over the map, ranging from a high of 89 points all the way down to 70 (really?). I am at the very upper end of that register (maybe higher) as this is a classic Alsatian Riesling. Nearly bone dry (1.5 g/l of residual sugar) with extremely tart citrus fruit, a splash of petrol, and a lengthy finish. Like most Rieslings from my adopted home (I studied there for a year), this is fantastic as an apéritif, but would really shine with some seafood or, of course, a choucroûte. Very Good. 89 Points.

2015 Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Saering, Alsace Grand Cru, France: Retail $35. Whoa. I have had a few wines from Domaines Schlumberger, but this is only the second Saering I have had the pleasure to try (the other was a 2005 and it was phenomenal). The winery is located in the town of Guebwiller, south of Colmar, and while I have never visited the town or the winery, it is near the top of must-sees the next time I am back in my adopted home region of Alsace. Slightly golden in the glass and while a half-dozen years “old” this wine is still but a babe. Dried apricot, ripe nectarine, lime zest, white flower, a touch of petrol, and loads of minerality and verve on the nose. Whoa. I could stop here and be a happy camper. But of course I didn’t (and ever so happy for that decision). Rich, luscious fruit initially coats the mouth with a comforting roundness but that is quickly followed by a searing (see what I did there?) tartness that clears out that roundness quickly and replaces it with a mouth-watering yearning for foooood. Holy cow. It keeps going through the finish which tingles, lingers, and pirouettes on the tongue long enough to forget you still have an ounce or so left in your glass. Yes, this wine is so good it will cause you to neglect the remaining wine so as to savor what you just experienced. Whoa. Outstanding. 95 Points.

2015 Sipp-Mack Riesling Rosacker, Alsace Grand Cru, France: Retail $45. Under cork. There are currently 51 Grand Cru vineyards in Alsace (there is a rather long story there) and Rosacker is tucked into some prime real estate–in Hunawihr, halfway between Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé, two of the most picturesque village in all of France. And this wine does it justice. Rich aromas of peach, baked golden apple, and a twist of lemon rind emit from this close to golden wine. Whoa. The palate is incredibly rich, layered, and balanced. Fruit, a hint of sweetness (but that comes from the luscious fruit), an intense zinginess, and a weight that you just don’t find in many wines. Holy Cow. Outstanding. 94 Points.

2016 Domaine Bechtold Riesling Engelberg, Alsace Grand Cru, France: Retail $35. Under cork. Jean-Marie is the fourth generation Bechtold to run the winery located in the tiny hamlet (what’s smaller than a hamlet?) of Dahlenheim, due west of Strasbourg and just north of Molsheim on the Alsace Wine Trail. The Bechtolds control just 12 hectares (about 28 acres) of vineyards, but have holdings in three of the 51 Grand Cru Vineyards. This slightly golden Engelberg is extremely well-balanced with luscious golden apple, a twist of lemon zest, intense lanolin, and just a whisper of the petrol that characterizes so many Rieslings. The palate is rich, tart, layered, and wonderful with some surprising chalky minerality. Fantastic. Outstanding. 93 Points.


About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Alsace, Riesling, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Alsace Riesling–The Best in the World (or at least close)

  1. strafari says:

    A fascinating story, both tender and scathing at the same time. We love it!


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