Thursday, 21 July 2016

Alsace Crus et Terroirs (ACT) - A Renaissance in the Rhine?

There I was, perhaps the happiest man in the world at that very moment.  After a fantastic morning tasting the new vintage's wines at Domaine Weinbach, I was in Catherine Faller's kitchen feasting on the most sensational baeckeoffe I had ever tasted ("You should never order this dish in restaurants," Catherine sagely advised while ladling out my fourth helping of the stuff, "because they never add enough wine to it!"), when one of the other guests mentioned something called "ACT".

The Chateau de Kaysersberg
Then the next day, I was having lunch in Kientzheim's popular Cote Vigne restaurant, when my dining companion E mentioned this mysterious acronym.  Curiosity piqued this time, I asked E more about it.  "It's a new association of Alsace wineries, started by Marc Rinaldi".  E pronounced "Rinaldi" in the French fashion, with the emphasis on the first and last consonants.  "He bought a winery, Martin Schaetzel, and built a new tasting room on the route du Vin.  You should check it out.  They only accept visitors by appointment but you may get lucky".

If you are ever lucky enough to visit Alsace wine country, do the little walk on the Route du Vin between Kaysersberg and Kientzheim, and you will see a shiny new cuverie with the words " g.c. Schlossberg Martin Schaetzel".  The Domaine Martin Schaetzel is the vehicle for Rinaldi's venture, purchased from the winegrower and academic Jean Schaetzel whose heirs had no interest in wine.  Rinaldi, a wealthy industrialist and Alsace wine fanatic, has turned to his latest project with the same drive and single-minded focus that typefied his career.  You may also, on occasion, see his red Ferrari parked outside.

The new cuverie of Domaine Martin Schaetzel
Founder of the successful Millésimes Alsace wine festival, together with Séverine Schlumberger of the renowned Domaines Schlumberger, he started the ACT, Alsace Crus et Terroirs, an association bringing together 19 of Alsace's top wineries.  

It was not for nothing that I mentioned the Fallers earlier, for Domaine Weinbach is one of their number.  In fact, the list is a who's who of Alsace wine: apart from Faller, Schlumberger and Schaetzel, it includes in its founding membership Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Albert Mann, Josmeyer, Marc Kreydenweiss, Muré, Zusslin, Barmès-Buecher, Andre Ostertag, Trapet-Alsace, Schoffit, Bott-Geyl, Boxler, Kientzler, Etienne Loew and Meyer-Fonné.  The notable omissions from this list are the great producer / negociants Hugel and Léon Beyer, but they do not qualify for membership simply because they do not market their wines by terroir (their great rival and friend Trimbach barely qualified, apparently by virtue of their producing a very limited release Grand Cru Geisberg wine from the vines of the Convent of Ribeauvillé).

Some of the founding members of ACT
The 7-point ACT Charter emphasises respect for nature and the differences it provides, care for the soil through organic and biodynamic viticulture, the production and marketing of terroir wines to establish the reputation of the terroir and increase the value of the wines.  It is rather long and while I would like to summarise it for you, much of it is rather floral and poetic and defies any attempt to abbreviate it meaningfully.  Here is the full text of the Charter:

1. Commitment

Since the commitment to the ACT Association is a free and voluntary act that involves both a shared spirit and a common ethical vision, this charter is aimed at setting out its basic principles that will constitute the guiding thread.

This charter is not designed to regulate everything but to lay the necessary foundations to make sure that everyone is given creative freedom – without which there is no Great Wine.
Joining ACT is a commitment to work collectively to better enhance our individual work, in an environmentally-friendly manner.

2. The Terroir

The terroir is the expression of a “Place”.
It is the interaction between a land, a sky, a vine and a winemaker.
The Bedrock and the Climate are the foundation, the “Materia Prima” of the Terroir, the Vine is the medium that allows it to be fixed and the Man is the spirit who enlightens it.
Because every Terroir wine is a unique and singular combination that cannot be modelled or reduced to a formula or a recipe, it therefore cannot be reproduced on an industrial scale. Accepting diversity is at the heart of the concept of Terroir.

3. The Vine

It is the singularity of a Place that makes it so unique. It is therefore necessary to support any practice that knows how to preserve and develop the uniqueness of this Place.
Namely, choosing the most appropriate grape variety, promoting deep rooting, and preserving and developing the soil life in order to achieve real biodiversity, both of the flora and fauna, to create the ideal living conditions in the Place.
An organic or biodynamic viticulture that makes the Terroir stronger and more durable is therefore particularly recommended and should even become the primary purpose.

4. The Harvest

Respecting the grapes is the very basis of a Terroir wine.
The performance will be adapted to the place and the year’s conditions.
In order to make a good wine, the grape must be ripe, obviously, but each has his or her own definition of maturity since it goes hand in hand with the notion of style.
A grape that is physiologically ripe – that is, with its pips capable of reproduction – seems to be the bare minimum.
As well, manual harvesting that preserves the integrity of the fruit and a relatively short time between harvesting and pressing in order not to alter the fruit, are essential.

5. The Cellar

The Cellar is only an underground and obscure extension of what is happening under the light in the Vine.
From the respect of the life of the vine comes naturally the respect of the life of the wine.
Namely, encouraging natural fermentation, limiting the inputs to a minimum and to the most urgently needed in the event of irregularities and banishing any traumatic technology.
The Wine is a reflection of its Place of origin and of the Man who makes it grow and produces it.

6. Image and reputation

Respecting our Terroir is also respecting our image through a just communication and a gratifying price.
Instead of selling off a Terroir wine at prices that make it no longer possible to deliver appropriate qualitative efforts, it is better to abandon the use of the name on the label and to downgrade it.
This is a responsible way to guarantee its future and that of its heirs.
A Terroir wine must be priced in line with its qualitative ambition since only the price-quality ratio provides access to Reputation.
Establishing a reputation is essential to enhance our work over the long term.

7. Culture and communication

In Alsace, mother of all the rocks, at the crossroads of climates and cultures, where the strongest temperaments meet, singularity is synonymous with multiplicity and this is exactly what we must communicate.
Our Terroir is our cultural cradle and we are responsible for promoting it and for making it known.
Let us not forget that Alsace is a home we all share and that our individual reputation, as high as it may be, will always depend on our common home.
Thus, if we improve the House of Alsace’s image, we also strengthen our own reputation.
Let us cease the traditional caricatures that devalue us and work for a wide distribution and a proper understanding of our Terroir wines through a thoughtful speech that gives meaning to our complexity, where others see complication.

What Do I Think?

I think the formation of ACT is a positive development for Alsace wine.

The body responsible for the commercial promotion of Alsace wine, the Conseil Interprofessionel de Vins d'Alsace (or CIVA) is funded by a levy on the volume of production.    There has been, for as long as I can remember, some tension within the winegrowers' community about how the marketing budget is used.  In particular, the large and powerful co-operatives of Alsace produce some 41% of Alsace wine and are not afraid to throw their considerable weight around.

Further, with four consecutive small harvests, the CIVA marketing budget is not overflowing, and funding for initiatives in smaller markets has been slashed, especially in those markets (such as Southeast Asia) where only a small number of domaines are represented.

To the extent that ACT works as a complement to CIVA, it will be positive because it will provide a separate marketing platform for Alsace wine, this time focused exclusively on top-quality independent winegrowers.

Here are a few of my thoughts on how this might play out:

1.  Price - I have to be honest: the references in the charter to a "gratifying price" and "pricing in line with its qualitative ambition" frighten me.  A lot of Alsace wine, especially here in Asia, is already not cheap, and further price rises ex-winery will simply result in further price increases for the consumer.  How many people do you know are prepared to pay SGD 120 retail (EUR 80) for a bottle of Alsace Grand Cru Riesling that you could buy in Europe for 28 euros?  At that price, you could purchase a decent bottle of white Burgundy premier cru, or  Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, arguably Australia's greatest white wine.  In Asia, the customer will, 999 times out of 1000, go for the Burgundy or the Aussie.

Even in Europe, Alsace wines are as popular as they are because they represent value for money.  I visited the Trimbach cellars back in April, and noticed it was decked out with mementoes of occasions on which Trimbach wines were served, such as Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and various occasions for Swedish royalty.  When I made a comment on the underlying Swedish theme, Anne Trimbach offered the explanation that for public occasions, Swedes took pains to emphasise quality and value and not to appear too ostentatious, even if the organisers could afford more expensive wines.  Alsace was therefore a very good fit for them.  Would this be the same once prices become "gratifying"?

Related to this point is the diversity of prices currently being charged by ACT members; prices for grands crus range from 22 euros to 65 euros.      

It is worth noting that at the top tier, Zind-Humbrecht's prices, which stand out from its peers', were originally driven by Robert Parker's favourable reviews and ensuing demand in the English-speaking world.  As the Sage of Monkton winds down to a well-earned retirement, no Anglophone critic has stepped up to the plate, no one wields anywhere near the same influence in setting prices, and certainly not with respect to Alsace.  The ambition to price ambitiously will, I hope, be tempered by caution and commercial commonsense.

2.  Diversity of Membership - ACT's membership is extremely diverse.  You have larger, wealthier entities, such as Schlumberger, Trimbach and Schaetzel (with Rinaldi's financial backing), mid-sized domaines which already fetch healthy prices for their wines and have thriving export markets (Weinbach, Zind-Humbrecht) and smaller domaines which have limited financial and human resources and therefore less to contribute to marketing efforts. And at this early stage, ACT itself has no name, so its members drive its profile, not the other way round. 


ACT has started modestly and cautiously, marking its debut at the newly renovated Musée Unterlinden in Colmar.  To achieve its goals, the next events must take them further afield, to Paris, London, outside of Europe.  It is in these more demanding ventures that fault lines will invariably emerge, and the disparity between the members will be highlighted.  For ACT to succeed in its own right, the richer, better-resourced members will need to subsidise / support the less wealthy, and they must do this without resentment.  To borrow a phrase, I hope they find that the things they have in common outweigh the things which divide them.

3.  Failure of Current Marketing - I strongly believe that the markets of Asia present the most compelling potential growth story for Alsace wine.

Yet the marketing of Alsace wine in Asia has largely been a failure.  Asia, a continent of 4.5 billion, makes up a mere 4% of Alsace's export market.  Belgium, a country with a population of 11 million, drinks up 25% of Alsace's exports.  Why is this?

There is, in Alsace, a tendency to talk about the rapport of food and wine, which has its roots in the region's culture.  Every grower I have spoken to, after some remark that Asia is a very small market for them, always follows up with "But we should be bigger, seeing our wines go so well with the food there".  But there is no culture of food-and-wine pairing in Asia, so this line does not resonate at all.  If the guy likes the wine (or the wine is collectible), the wine will sell, simple as that.

Another issue is one of mixed messages.  Outside of Hugel, no other maker made regular visits to Southeast Asia, a market of 570 million, or to India, a market of 1.3 billion.  The efforts that did promote Alsace in these markets, did so as a region.  As a region, Alsace is very complicated, from its terroirs, styles, varieties, etc.  As an attendee at the events at the last Singaporean promotion in 2012, I struggled to discern a clear message coming from the promotion.  Sadly, a few of the wines weren't even any good.

What the Asian market lacks is (a) a reference point, and a compelling storyline behind that reference point; and (b) the feeling of a connection to the wine, or its producer.  A promotion that seeks to represent all facets of Alsace cannot succeed because it does not present the consumer with a reference point or personal connection.  It presents too much information in total, and too little information on any single product / producer to foster such a connection.  Can ACT, with its charter and its "common story" behind all of its members (namely the (generally) family-owned, terroir-focused, artisan producer striving for quality over quantity), provide this missing reference point?

This is the challenge I put to the members of ACT (quite a few of whom I have had the pleasure of sharing a glass with).  
If ACT truly believes it can tell the story of the quality end of Alsace and give consumers a clear reference point, it will make a big difference by focusing some part of their effort here in Asia.  There is a clear field of opportunity here, a body of consumers with (already large and) growing disposable incomes and a growing appetite to explore the world of wines, but no promotional endeavours being undertaken.  This is where the education is needed, and this is where handsome rewards will be paid in the future.

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