Sweet wine sales are on a steep and steady decline around the world as more wine drinkers prefer the taste of dry white wines. Where does this leave traditional white wine regions such as Alsace and Sauternes? Terroirs that grow some of the finest white wine varietals in the world are being forced to either change with the times, or stick with their centuries-old traditions. While Alsace thrives in its evolution, Sauternes struggles with its identity.
Alsace’s Newfound Identification
For centuries, Alsace has been synonymous with premium semi-sweet Riesling. In recent decades, some of its finest producers have noticed the shift in taste from semi-sweet to full-bodied dry, and have decided to change for the first time. Perhaps the best place to start a dry wine revolution is in Alsace, since many of its winemakers have fought against making overly sweet German wines over the past 100 years. Jancis Robinson says that winemakers in Alsace tend to ferment their sugars into alcohol, but this isn’t always consistent. She explains, “Today it is less uncommon to find some slight sweetness in the wines, though this is rarely indicated on the label, making it more difficult for consumers.”
As winemakers such as Zind-Humbrecht have realized, more consumers are turning to the region’s dry, raspy wines than the dessert-focused ones, throwing Alsace–and producers like Zind-Humbrecht–into a leadership position in the wine world. The producer explains that crafting excellent, dry white wines in Alsace isn’t a hardship. As the owners have said, “It is easy to predict great quality and drier style wines for Rieslings and Pinot-Gris.” Toward these ends, Zind-Humbrecht has allowed its recent Riesling vintages, such as the Clos Windsbuhl, to develop a greater balance of flavors, according to Jancis Robinson. Biodynamic growing techniques and earlier harvests have resulted in wines that are slightly more acidic than they are sweet. The wines grown on this Alsace estate now taste more ripe, with far less sugar overpowering the other flavors.
Over the past three decades, Alsace growers have started plucking their grapes from the vines in September, rather than October. The shorter time the grapes have on the vine, the less sweet the juice tends to become. Since sunlight and warmer summers have become more common in the area as a result of climate change, more producers are fighting against overly-sweet wines by harvesting their grapes about a month earlier than usual.
Now that Alsace has started to embrace dry Riesling, the region has grown in popularity, especially among Chinese collectors. Generally, the Chinese wine market is focused on bold red wines, with white wines remaining out of favor. However, about 2 percent of the total wines imported into China come directly from Alsace, making it one of the most popular white wine regions in the country. Part of the reason for this growth on the Chinese market is Alsace’s switch to slightly drier versions of its traditionally sweet varietals.
About 25 percent of the wines made in Alsace are exported around the world, and its international sales have spiked over the past 10 years. Collectors will want to invest in dry Alsace wine now if they wish to take advantage of this increased market value. The region’s emphasis on quality, in addition to its willingness to follow the dry wine trend, will make it one of the most powerful white wine producers over the next 20 years.
The Case of Sauternes
Unlike Alsace, Sauternes has yet to see a benefit in the dry wine trend. This region’s terroir grows juicy, sugary grapes that often exceed the sweetest Alsace wines in sugar content. The Sauternes climate is warm and sunny throughout the summer, which increases the sugar levels in its wines. In addition, morning fog coming from the Ciron River increases humidity, causing noble rot which further sweetens the grapes. Since this climate is ideal for growing the sweetest grapes, producers stick to three of the sweetest varietals in the world: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle. The wines take on a sap-like quality in this region as producers embrace these varietals’ natural sweetness. Premium estates such as Yquem use triple pressings and natural yeasts during fermentation, which brings out the sugars already abundantly present in the harvested grapes. The goal in Sauternes is to produce the sweetest, most complex wines possible.
However, this goal is in direct contrast with current trends. Early sales for 2014 vintages in the region are already down compared to previous years, and the region has been on a steady decline in worth for the past 30 years. Today’s Yquem wines are equal in quality to those produced in the 1960s, but fewer collectors are seeking them out due to the renewed interest in dry wines. Sauternes is facing yet another obstacle in the coming years: the proposed Ciron River Valley railway.
Construction companies want to build the railway along the river, which could disrupt the morning fog that gives Sauternes grapes their unique noble rot sugars. If the project goes through, Sauternes estates will either change their traditions to create wines that are less sweet, or hold strong to their principles in the face of hardship. Even though market values in the region are on a decline, most Sauternes winemakers view noble rot and extreme sugars as the identity of the region. Without these qualities, Sauternes would lose its defining characteristic.
Quality Above Wine Trends
As we have seen with Sauternes, wine trends are not always in alignment with the natural characteristics of a terroir. The dry white wine trend works in Alsace because the climate is diverse enough to produce dry whites that still maintain a complexity of flavor. In Sauternes, the wines’ nature is defined by noble rot, and without this essential component, the wines will not retain their characteristic flavors and their market value will likely fall as a result. The climate in this region will never produce an especially dry wine, so changing techniques will simply result in lower-quality wines. Sauternes should continue to fight for its sweet, high-quality wines, as these flavors have been perfected and prized for centuries.
With this in mind, collectors who want quality wine should consider investing in Sauternes despite its present unfashionability. Buying wines according to trends can result in cellars filled with wines that are a poor comparison to those that have embraced the natural terroir. Moreover, no one knows how long the dry white wine trend will last. It’s possible that 10 or 20 years from now, sweet white wines will make a comeback. The last thing collectors and winemakers should do is sacrifice quality for a trend.
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