Alsace's 2005 Vintage

Alsace did not enjoy most-favored region status during France’s beautiful summer of 2005, but this continental corner of northeastern France benefited significantly from Indian summer conditions in the middle of October. Following a warm and dry summer, some cool weather in August helped to preserve acidity levels in the grapes. The region then endured a couple days of substantial rainfall in early September, which brought an element of dilution to the grapes in some sites. The rest of that month was dry and warm. Estates around Colmar and further south brought in some of their best fruit during the last days of September, generally with solid sugar levels and little or no rot, perfect for making drier-style wines.

The first week of October was then overcast, with several days of moderate precipitation. The following two weeks, by all accounts, featured near-perfect conditions for the spread of noble rot: foggy mornings and sunny afternoons following the rainy period. As the grapes lost water and and gained in concentration, sugar levels rose and acidities remained healthy. Some of the late pickers made sizable quantities of high-quality late-harvest wines in 2005, not just Vendanges Tardives but, where noble rot was rampant, Sélections de Grains Nobles too.

Riesling, so often the standout in cooler and less sunny years, was less consistent than either pinot gris or gewürztraminer in 2005. Riesling vineyards with the hottest expositions and with thinner soils often suffered from a blockage of maturity during the hot, dry conditions of July and early August, and some of the late-picked riesling was also subject to rot in October. While a number of growers brought in riesling rich in noble rot, others admitted to having grey rot too, and some rieslings from 2005 lack purity and definition.

Based on my extensive tastings last September, pinot gris and gewürztraminer were often splendid in 2005: aromatically expressive, wonderfully fruity and rich wines with enough acid support to give them freshness, shape and the structure for at least mid-term aging. Yields were down, often by a wide margin, from the elevated levels of 2004. Yes, too many Alsace wines continue to be bottled with a surfeit of residual sugar, but in a vintage like 2005 at least, the better wines have enough acidity to maintain balance.

I’d rate the 2005 vintage four stars plus (out of five) for gewürztraminer, four stars for pinot gris and three stars plus for riesling. Not surprisingly, it’s also a year in which pinot noir was particularly fleshy and ripe. Pinot noir has not been commercially important for more than a tiny minority of Alsace’s producers to this point, but global warming is no doubt lifting the average quality of this variety in Alsace, just as it’s making it ever harder for the top estates to produce dry wine.

Many 2005s have the seductive fruit qualities to offer great early appeal, but some of the richest wines, as in Chablis and the Côte d’Or, are quite austere today and will need extended bottle aging. The best of these latter wines, though, appear to have the concentration, acid spine and mineral underpinning to repay cellaring. I recommend that you use the tasting notes and don’t rely entirely on the scores to select wines you’re likely to enjoy. You will quickly understand that, as with white wines from Burgundy, 2005 is a vintage in which sheer ripeness of fruit frequently trumps vineyard character, at least in the early going. As in those other two areas, plenty of outstanding wines were made, but not all of them will satisfy drinkers who crave classic, dry, soil-driven wines—as opposed to fleshier, more fruit-forward examples they may well view as too New World in style.

As veteran IWC readers will recall, I published notes on 2004s last fall, based on my tastings in Alsace in September, but held off publishing on the 2005 vintage due to space constraints, and because these wines were not yet in the marketplace (top bottlings from a number of the estates included in this issue will not arrive until this fall or next year—or even later). So please refer to my brief profiles on Alsace’s top estates in Issue 129 for more detailed technical information. My brief comments on each producer in this issue focus mainly on the 2005 vintage. The overwhelming majority of notes are on finished wines. In a number of cases where I tasted wines prior to bottling in Alsace last September, I was able to taste the finished wines in recent weeks.