Alsace 1998 and 1997

Alsace identity and reputation are threatenedby two alarming trends:the region's extremely highcrop levels of recent years and the steady climb in residual sugar in the wines, exacerbated by hotsummers.Today, the good name of Alsace is upheld by a scant 40 or 50 quality-conscious producers (tougher critics might say two dozen) who are holding yields to reasonable levels, while region-wide figures rise to well above 80 hectoliters per hectare-by far the highest production of any major wine area of France.Meanwhile, consumers in France, where Alsace wines have long been favorites at the dinner table, increasingly complain that they no longer know what to expect when they order a familiar bottle.Will it be the dry wine they remember or will it be too sweet to accompany the dish they've paired it with?

The number of traditionalists bucking the trend toward sweeter wines continues to shrink with each passing year.This is an issue with no obvious solution, as Alsace's climate is not the same as a generation ago. "As a region, we're used to picking as late as possible," exlains Marc Beyer. "It's our tradition to wait for thorough ripeness.But with the superripeness we've gotten in recent vintages, it seems we have two choices today:either label these wines vendange tardive or harvest earlier." "The mode today," adds Marc Kreydenweiss, "is to pick vines late, without regard to retaining sufficient acidity and without any concern as to whether the superripe fruit will express its terroir."

The '97 and '98 vintages, which I ventured to Alsace to taste in May, both posed challenges.It is important to note that my generally favorable impressions of these two vintages are based in large part on my tastings at 22 of Alsace's best addresses, and on a handful of other wines subsequently sampled in New York.I did not, by and large, see the dilute and often insipid wines perpetrated by the region's lesser producers (although I ran across a few of these bottles in the restaurants of the region), but then there's no reason why you should either.

1998.This is a complex vintage, following a growing season of extremes.An exceptionally hot August literally burned the fruit in some southwest-facing sites; water stress in many lighter soils had the effect of temporarily blocking the maturation of the grapes (heavier, water-retaining soils were less affected).The first half of September was then plagued by substantial rain, causing grape sugars to drop and triggering outbreaks of botrytis in many vineyards.Grey rot was a particular problem in pinot gris, which often had to be harvested before it was completely ripe.The harvest for the grand crus officially began on September 24.After a week of mostly fine weather, the October 1 through 11 period was rainy again.Many serious wines, including potential vendange tardive and selection de grains nobles bottlings, were brought in between October 12 and 24, after which the rains returned.

Region-wide production levels were enormous, although yields for late-picked fruit were much smaller due to the concentrating effect of rot, noble and otherwise.Many vineyards benefitted from a strong and rapid spread of noble rot in October, which in numerous cases had the beneficial effect of concentrating acidity in the grapes.For example, Bernard Schoffit describes '98 as the year of the century for botrytis wines in the grand cru Rangen.Tokay affected more by noble rot than by its evil twin grey rot was often highly successful.Gewürztraminer crop levels, due to a very successful flowering, were often excessive where botrytis did not reduce quantities.Riesling was generally healthier (1998 was a vintage that favored the traditionally late-picked varieties), and yields were actually lower than those of '97.

Some growers describe 1998 as the second consecutive low-acid year, but others say acid levels were average, and higher than those of '97.The acidity of '98 is typically ripe and harmonious, the kind of acidity that frames rather than clashes with the fruit flavors.I generally found more flavor definition in the '98s than in the '97s, but in some cases it's simply a matter of the balance of the wines:the '98s are often less dense and fat in the middle and thus need less acidity to give them sufficient delineation.On the other hand, many '98s retained more residual sugar than the same wines in '97, and these bottles can be cloying if acidity levels are insufficient.As in '97, moderate yields were critical to making wine of distinction, and relatively little chaptalization was needed.

1997 This was an even warmer year, but, in contrast to '98, the harvest was for the most part dry.August of '97 was hot and mostly sunny.September then brought record sunshine and heat, and did not feature the cool nights that kept acidity levels high in '96.The harvest began early; without the heat of September, many growers would have had trouble ripening their often huge crop loads. "Both '97 and '96 were based on sun," said Andre Ostertag, "but '96 featured the north wind, like the Mosel, while '97 was more like the Rhone Valley."Due to the dry weather, there was virtually no rot in '97, and, not surprisingly, little SGN wine was made.But with high sugars due to passerillage (the desiccation and concentration of the grapes by sun and wind), there was a lot of vendange tardive.

Maurice Barthelme (of Domaine Albert Mann) describes 1997 as an "immoral" vintage. "It was too easy to make good wine; it didn't take much in the way of sacrifice.The year may even have favored the negociants," he added. "With their generally higher crop levels, they might not have had as much overripeness."Other growers described 1997 as a classic hot year, like 1990, though with a tendency to produce heavier wines.

The '97s are generally atypically rich and full, but can lack verve and grip due to excessive yields or low acidity.Some wines show their rather high levels of alcohol because there is less buffering material or because tumultuous fermentations left them with too little balancing sweetness.But although numerous estates made powerful dry wines, as in '98 there are relatively few wines that don't have at least five or six grams per liter of residual sugar.The best '97s should be mid-term agers due to their dense material, but this is generally a low-acid vintage with significant immediate appeal, best suited for relatively early consumption.Many growers describe the '97s as the perfect introduction to Alsace for drinkers unfamiliar with the wines of the region.These wines are especially user-friendly compared to the bracing, minerally, high-acid '96s, which are for connoisseurs with cool cellars.

Tokays in '97 tend to be rather massive but low in acidity; crop levels for tokay were generally average to above average.But riesling yields were huge by recent standards, thanks to a near-perfect flowering and the large size of the riesling grapes in '97.Still, producers like Marc Kreydenweiss and the Trimbachs rate this vintage five stars out of five for riesling.Many of the most exciting '97s are the explosively rich, expressive and generally firm gewürztraminers, which rank with the excellent '94s as the best recent vintages for this variety.The best '97 gewürztraminers offer succulent, layered, complex fruit, lovely balance and enticing freshness; for partisans of this variety, 1997 is a must purchase.

On the following pages, I offer my tasting notes on '97s and '98s from the producers I visited in May.Wines are reviewed in the order in which they were presented to me.Sometimes '97s were shown first, in other cases '98s, and in still other cellars I had the opportunity to taste both vintages of various cuvees side by side.Note that all '98s and most '97s listed as VT or SGN are not yet "official":to be entitled to these label designations, the wines must be submitted to, and approved by, the INAO the second spring and summer after the vintage.All grand cru vineyard names are denoted by italics.As always, wines not yet in bottle are scored with a range rather than a precise number.Suggested retail prices are provided for wines currently available in the U.S. marketplace; obviously, many more wines reviewed in this article will be shipped here over the next year or two.(One final note:all acidity figures provided are expressed in tartaric acidity, which is roughly 1.5 times acidity expressed as sulfuric.)