The Grand Cru system of Alsace

Based on a long tradition

In Alsace, vines have been cultivated at least since the 4th century. There are documents showing that already then, the inhabitants had quite a clear idea about which locations that produced better wine than others. This is in line with the development of specific superior growths in Bourgogne, Rhône and the Mosel valley.

The first official classification in France was the historic 1855 classification of Bordeaux domains. Although it was not a strict classification of terroirs, the idea was to create a useful system to the benefit of the consumers. Today, however, even the informed consumer has a hard time to keep up-to-date with the significance of various official designations and ranking systems.

The bill regarding the Grand Cru system of Alsace was passed in 1975 and in was force from the 1983 vintage. In principle, the system is very simple.

To date, 51 vineyards have Grand Cru status. Most of these have been recognized as outstanding since at least the 14th century. The smallest Grand Cru is Kanzlerberg with 3.2 ha (Bergheim) and the largest is Schlossberg (Kientzheim/Kaysersberg), which is as large as 80.3 ha. For comparison, the Grands Crus of Chablis cover 280 ha in total.

The first 25 Grands Crus got their status by INAO in 1983, a second batch got it in 1990. The latest addition is Kaefferkopf (Ammerschwihr) that was elevated in 2006. This is surprising, since Kaefferkopf was selected as one of two, Mandelberg (Mittelwihr) was the other, as supreme vineyards already in the 1930s.

There are several criteria that applies. The vineyard should yield superior wines, it should be historically recognized, it should be reasonable homogeneous and it should have more than one owner.

The requirement that more than one owner should be active on the terroir means that excellent but small terroirs such as Clos Windsbuhl of Zind-Humbrecht and Clos Rebberg of Marc Kreydenweiss cannot get Grand Cru status.

Freedom of choice

Three producers of great reputation have chosen not to use the Grand Cru designation. These are:

  • Hugel of Riquewihr, who has a Jubilée cuvée from Grand Cru Schoenenbourg (Riesling) and Grand Cru Sporen (Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris)
  • Leon Beyer of Eguisheim markets a Gewurztraminer Cuvée des Comtes d´Eguisheim from Grand Crus Eichberg, while the Riesling Cuvée Particulière is a Grand Cru Pfersigberg.
  • Trimbach of Ribeauvillé whos famous Clos Ste-Hune is a Grand Cru Rosacker, while the Cuvée Frédéric-Emile is made from grapes from Grand Cru Geisberg and Grand Cru Osterberg.
Miles of text have been written in the press about the position taken by these domaines. The main argument put forward is that the domains claim to have parcels of superior quality, far above the least outstanding parts of the Grand Crus in question. On their web site, Hugel has an interesting ethical discussion on this topic.

As an outsider, one can also see that the three domains have brand names that are at least as strong as the names of the Grands Crus. For example, there is only one Clos Ste-Hune on the market, while there are at least 30 producers of Grand Cru Rosacker, none of which will surpass the quality of Clos Ste-Hune on a long-term basis. Furthermore, the domains do not have to be subject to the bureaucracy, control and limitations associated with the Grand Cru designation.