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.
Three producers of great reputation have chosen not to use the Grand Cru designation. These are:
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.
All formal systems are criticized, even in France (sic!). Regarding the Grand Cru system of Alsace, the critique fall into three categories:
Although the arguments put forward by Hugel and others are valid, there are arguments in the other direction as well. With my very, very limited experience I would still argue that:
Finally, is hard to see how exciting young producers such as Jean-Marc Bernhard, Fabien Stirn and Agathe Bursin should have got going without the help of the Grand Cru designations. Furthermore, these producers could also serve as role models for how the characteristics of each Grand Cru should be expressed and developed.
INAO elevated Kaefferkopf of Ammerschwihr to Grand Cru status as of 2006. The area is 71 ha, which makes it the second largest after Schlossberg. The wines may either be sold as pure variety wines or simply as Kaefferkopf. In the latter case the composition should be 40-60% Gewurztraminer, 10-40% Riesling and 0-30% Pinot Gris. Muscat is not allowed.
A classic Kaefferkopf blend offers the body and depth of flavour of a Gewurztraminer with the freshness and complexity of aromas of a Riesling and goes with virtually every dish.