"Monsieur," I said to a host during the solemn process of being inducted into the Confrerie Saint-Etienne back in 1968, "how do you explain the difference between your riesling wines and those made only a short distance further north in Germany?"
"Sir," he replied with a most complacent look, "the Germans make wine to sell; we Alsatians make ours as we like them."
Above all, Alsatians like their wines dry. Since wines with some sweetness are still favored in many countries in addition to Germany, only now are the quality products of Alsace being widely recognized for their intrinsic worth.
Apart from a hang-up on dryness, Alsatians also pride themselves on such things as: minimum interference with natural processes in vinification; great restraint in the use of sulphur (for comfort below the belt and a clear head the morning after); that all explorts are 100 percent of the named varietal; that they are all bottled in Alsace to avoid jiggery-pokery by middle men; and that they sell for a fair price.
The quality of Alsatian wines is closely associated with the Confrerie Saint-Etienne. This is a fraternal organization that, among other activities, each January assembles a group of experts to assess merit of wines from the penultimate vintage. This year, setting for the operation was a splendidly renovated 15th-century chateau in Kienzheim, which the Confrerie has recently acquired.
According to records, the Confrerie was established in the 16th century in Ammerschwihr, a small village on the "route du vin," near Colmar. Its terms of reference were "to control the production of wines so that only those of irreproachable quality would reach the market." But only in 1951 did the Confrerie assume similiar responsibilities for the whole of Alsace.
While the principal watchdog effort for wines in France is, of course, a government responsibility, a supplementary form of control is the annual wine competitions, organized in various regional centers. Though not without a country-fair incentive for the production of high-quality wines, most such events are commercially oriented. The Saint-Etienne degustation, on the other hand, would seem to do more for consumers.
For example, with all wines already pre-selected by their producers, it recognizes the hair-splitting inevitably involved in identifying a first, second and third wine in each classification. Accolades are therfore awarded for all those judged to be of good quality. With about 60 percent chance of receiving recognition for their efforts, probably more producers are encouraged to strive for quality products. Also satisfaction is offered on many more bottles available to consumers.
All the major Alsatian producers are represented in the Confrerie. Though each one is allowed a maximum of six wines for adjudication, submissions totalled only 109 rieslings, 107 gewurztraminers, 35 tokays (pinot gris), 34 muscats, 9 pinot blancs and 6 sylvaners, for a total of 304 samples of the six "noble" Alsatian wines, 1976 vintage.
Starting at the civilized hour of 2:30, each seven-to-nine-man jury had about 35 wines to work on, with bread only to clear the palate, and no time limit. Alsatian, routine for tasting more than a few wines of a type is excellent. The first step is to agree on the size of sub-groups (six being popular) to be judged in sequence. All wines in the first sub-group are then quickly tasted to identify one that is both good and typical for the region. A rating (usually 7, 7 1/2 or 8 out of 10) is agreed, and it then becomes a "standard" reference during tasting of all wines of the type.
Two numerical assessments on each wine are required; one for quality and a second for how typical it is, both relative to rating given the "standard." A description is also required for each wine, with a specific reason for any rejected (most important). A serious effort is made to limit intra-jury discussion until all wines have been assessed. But inevitably the characteristics of each wine in a sub-group are well debated during tasting.
Assessing the six sylvaners, the 13 pinot blancs, and 9 of the tokays, in my jury this year was relatively easy (only one rejected of each type). But from past experience I can confirm that rying to sort out the relative merit of 35 Alastian wines, of a single type, can tax the taste buds and concentration of any judge. Nevertheless, jury presidents usually seem to summarize individual assessments into a fair consensus for their final report.
Of the 304 wines involved in the 1978 degustation, 193 were accepted, 74 rejected, and 47 reserved for a second assessment, two days later. The latter are normally tasted by a panel of 10 to 12 senior citizens of the Confrerie. This seems to be an admirable feature of the system. It clearly compliments the intention and appearance of fairness for all competitors, and adds to credibility of the Confrerie accolade for consumers.
Regarding the relatively high, first-round rejection rate, I am reminded that a member of my jury noted he had seldom if ever tasted 13 pinot blancs of such uniformly high quality. In view of this, the small rejection rate of our jury, and a consensus that 1976 was an outstanding vintage ("best of the century perhaps," according to one gentleman who has been around to taste them all), my estimate is that a good many Alsatians are much harder to please on quality than most foreign consumers!
Even though relatively few of the accolade-winning wines at a Confrerie tasting find their way across the Atlantic, there can be little doubt that the efforts of the Confrerie have a lot to do with the standard of all Alsatian exports. Moreover, the quality of those wines we get to drink in the United States is really extraordinarily high, and for a very reasonable price.
For anyone doubting this, I recommend a chat with Harry Siegel of ACE Beverages, a connoisseur and longtime enthusiast of Alsatian wines, and currently the largest U.S. outlet for one of the best known products.