What Alsace could do differently

So, this post is prompted by an exchange on Twitter about the wines of Alsace. The following paragraphs detail my thoughts about what Alsace producers could do to market their wines in a way that’s more relevant to modern consumers.

First, I think it needs to be admitted that there is a problem. The wines of Alsace are brilliant, but they aren’t as well known as they should be. It’s important here to realize that most consumers aren’t like us – if you are reading this blog, you are an involved wine drinker. You’re not normal. You know about Alsace and its wonderful wines. Most people don’t. They never buy them. They don’t drink them.

Some brave action is needed to make Alsace wines relevant to the next generation of wine drinkers. I’m talking here about the entry level – not the high end wines. The top wines are doing OK, and their target consumers are very different. So what would I change?

The bottle shape – this needs radical rethinking. Some people claim that the current tall bottle shape (known as ‘hock’) is a distinctive feature of Alsace wines. But to most consumers it spells ‘Germany’, and for the average consumer, Germany is bad. I’m not saying that’s right; just that that’s how it is. I’d suggest the Burgundy bottle shape.

Labelling – this needs to be modern and elegant. The important facts about the wine should be on the label, and this is where Alsace has a natural advantage: it has the grape variety on the label. So we need Alsace, grape variety and brand name all prominent – these are the three important details. Packaging really matters and communicates more to consumers than words on a label.

The contents – the problem with Alsace wines are that consumers just don’t know what they are going to get in terms of sweetness. I think that the wines at this level should be dry, perhaps with just a few grams of residual sugar to emphasize the fruit. And the fruit flavours need to be to the fore.

The varieties – these are an important asset for Alsace, and need to be communicated well. Explain what the key differences between Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Riesling are. These should be the first three varieties to work with. Then perhaps we can go to Muscat and Sylvaner, which will need a bit more explaining. The flavour of the wine should be varietally true, and the wine must be convincing.

The viticulture – this needs to be certified sustainable or organic. It’s important that the wines are authentic, made without too much manipulation, from grapes that are grown in a sustainable fashion. Then the brand has integrity.

There’s a place for off-dry wines, but this also needs communicating. It’s best to start with dry wines, though. And I reckon there could be a place for elegantly packaged wines (with no other names on the label other than brand, region and variety), in a Burgundy-shaped bottle, telling the story of Alsace to a new market, and priced just under £10 a bottle.

28 comments to What Alsace could do differently

  • Duncan

    Great post. Couldn’t agree more. The wines are fantastic but the marketing could really raise the regon to the next level.

  • Andrew Halliwell

    Hi – I agree with most of that and I am wondering if:

    a) There is some sort of generic Alsace marketing body that might suggest some of these changes to its members.

    b) If there is a problem with Alsace sales in general. If not, then they don’t have to change anything and can continue selling in France etc and in the UK continue being wines for people who like wine. Isn’t tradition good sometimes?

    c) If there are already any / many examples of Alsace wines packaged as you suggest. Maybe you could find one and put a photo on your blog.

    Lastly I’m not convinced with your comments about viticulture. I’m not sure that being organic is a selling point, especially amongst the demographic you are talking about. Maybe I’m wrong. Also what does “certified sustainable” mean? How many wines have this on the label? How many are sustainable but not certified? Both options might be a step in the right direction for the good of the planet, but I’m not sure that they are necessary steps to promote Alsace wines to non winos. I’d be happy to listen to anyone who has a contrasting opinion.

  • Richard Racynski-Floyd

    Jamie I wish you had written this a couple of weeks ago, it was the basis of a question in my Unit 3 Diploma exam last week.

  • Tom Hewson

    Really true – if dry wines were in a different bottle shape it would surely help them shift. You’re right that it would have to be dry though, drier than most entry level Alsace wines (including the Caves Vinicoles wines that go to the supermarkets) are at the moment. Perhaps a catergory would open up for truly dry entry level wines/Edelzwickers that could be marketed in a more international way? Anything other than properly dry in a Burgundy bottle would confuse consumers.

  • Rune Aresvik

    Speaking as somebody who is fairly sophisticated about wine (at least I fulfill your definition of regularly reading your blog :)), I can say that I have given up on Alsace wines after too many (to my taste) flabby and too sweet wines (from well known producers).

    To my mind the Pfalz is the “new Alsace” as I find a lot of what I used to like about Alsace wines in Pfalz wines. Maybe it is Global Warming????

  • Is this perception of tall bottles equals poor quality “German” wine only true for the UK market I wonder ? The Germans have, on the hole, kept to the tall bottle and their industry seems to be thriving. Okay not much comes to the UK but then most producers don’t have to rely on export. Is Alsace similar, most Alsatian wines being sold at the cellar door or locally. Point is, and I don’t know any figures, but does Alsace have the excess production to need to export wine, at an undoubtedly low ex-cellar price, to fulfill the demands of the mainstreram UK industry.

  • Skippy

    I guess the question is, does the average UK wine consumer, the majority that consider wine in the same manner as any other FMCG product, really care / understand / seek provenance in wine?

    My opinion is no, not really which is a major concern for all wine producing countries or regions. Alsace will be OK not playing in the sub £10 bracket and keeping it real with the wine lovers out there..

    Totally get what your’e saying though Jamie, it’s about trying to bring these awesome wines to a broader audience…

  • Funny, looks like some Dutch joke. Change bottle shape, keep it dry, certify your wines (for supermarkets???) and keep it ACAP (as cheap as possible) :o))) too late for April 1st :o)))

  • My impression is that neophytes think dry, but actually enjoy a bit of residual sugar. I guess there hasn’t been the same Riesling craze in the UK as in New York, but I wasn’t under the impression that Alsace was really suffering as it is now.

  • Great post Jamie. I am interested in your comment regarding the fact there is a problem, because when last looking at Alsace export data I noticed that although sales appeared flat overall, sales to English speaking countries were down (and sales to Northern Europe seemed to mask the decline). This highlighted another problem in my mind: that of the position of the many New World producers of the same “aromatic” varieties – lovers, no doubt, of Alsatian wines – who seek to emulate Alsatian styles in much the same way that pinot producers benchmark against Burgundy, for example. While I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that these producers are in any way “wrong”, it highlights the possibility that the problem is larger in scale than just the position of Alsace itself. As much as I too enjoy Alsatian styles, I think you have touched on the issue that these styles are not exactly in vogue with the wider market, in the Anglo countries at least.

  • David bennett

    The bottle shape is defined in the inao regs as an “Alsace flute”. It is a different shape to the “hock” bottle, having different upper shoulder and neck shape. Just sayin” for clarity :-))

    I.m a HUGE fan of region having visited as a guest of the Colmar RT 59 some 15 years ago. Stunning wines and what hospitality!

  • Even if Alsace wines were selling strongly across the board, there’s still the need to think about the next generation of consumer. It’s looking to the future.

  • Mark T

    Agree with most of it. Not the bottle shape, though – I think this is a distinctive feature and as such should be kept. I think some clever labelling and marketing would obviate negative associations without losing character.

  • I am a “next generation” and fairly new wine drinker. My only qualified is about the shape of the bottle. As a new and next G drinker i can tell you that the shape of the bottle will not deter me from trying more wines from this region. What will influence my purchase is knowledge and information. Educated distributors and sellers could be an area of focus.

  • Having just come back from Alsace I agree with quite a lot but not all of this.

    Bottle shape? Not convinced about burgundy bottles. Why eliminate a point of difference? Clearer, more contemporary labels certainly yes. Alsace could take a leaf out of Austria’s book in this respect.

    In fact if they hadn’t grubbed up so many vines I’d argue for putting the emphasis on Sylvaner as a great introduction for new drinkers – Alsace’s Gruner Veltliner.

    Eliminating sweeter styles is difficult especially with Pinot Gris and Gewurz for a number of reasons which I’ll be posting about in the next few days (will flag up on Twitter). Apparently it’s mainly Brits who object to sweetness. It’s popular with neighbouring Belgians and Germans and of course in Far East and of course in the home market.

    Bio wines? Absolutely. Already well ahead of the field in terms of number of producers who are organic and biodynamic. Hard to deliver at entry level prices tho.

    More to follow ;-)

  • keith prothero

    Think it is fine as it is,so the price of these great wines is kept reasonable.
    German riesling in my view is even more confusing.
    Keep the wider audience away please,as inevitably prices will rise.

  • Ben

    I actually find the Alsatian bottle shape aesthetically pleasing and is one (among many) reasons I enjoy buying Alsatian wine. Is that tantamount to saying I only buy certain wine because I like the label?

  • Gosh, I swear I remember writing this five years ago. And ten years ago. And fifteen years ago… ;-)

    Unfortunately, other than ever-escalating residual sugar (and often-concurrent escalations in alcohol), nothing ever changes. The problem is, some of the reasons Alsace is in deep trouble are at least partially out of its control (I’m speaking of climate, of course), and they’re in an increasingly paradoxical situation in which some of their “best sites” are becoming the most problematic.

    It’s probably time to start a heretical but necessary discussion on whether or not they’re still growing the right palette of grapes, but I think it’s more likely they’d abandon the flûte before they’d have that discussion in any serious way. And I consider the chances of either to be approximately 0%. So there we are.

  • I agree with all your points! Great post.

    Concerning sugar level in terms of what’s inside the bottle in August 2010 there was a new in Decanter about information about new initiative.

  • Firstly, you’re so right about ‘us’ (ie people who read your blog and others’, or somehow connected to the wine trade) being different from normal wine consumers. Sadly (imho) for normal wine consumers, things like bottle shape, labels and the info and graphics on those labels are important! Whereas for ‘us’ the proof is inside the bottle (well, I like to think so!).

    Also important is the generational demographic thing. ‘We’ no doubt are of a certain age and possibly even like ye olde worlde labels that are out of fashion, but the millennials probably won’t give them a second glance!

    And, as Andrew says above, ‘Does Alsace actually have a problem with their sales?’ maybe they don’t need to change anything in general, though of course an enterprising forward-thinking producer could benefit tremendously by sales in the UK market.

    I’ve not tasted very many wines from Alsace, and the only one I remember is a natural wine by Gerard Schueller (and I don’t remebember the bottles shape or label!)

  • Hugh

    Just wondered if all this sounds like applying the Australian formula, and we know where that can lead. I agree more info on sugar levels is required on the label, and at the lower end dry should be the choice – that’s the style most people want. Differentiation is key for me, and to compete in a global market, something unique and honest will win out in the end.

  • Great, sensible stuff (though I’m not sure how much the organic / sustainable thing matters to the type of person you’re talking about!)

  • Ed Masciana

    Total nonsense and my friend Hubert Trimbach would probably agree. Sorry, guys, but Alsace is just fine the way it is. We don’t need more “me too” wines in the world. Reading Parker has provided too many of those already. Let Alsace be a “find” instead of a given. I’ve been in love with these wines for nearly 40 years and they probably disappoint fewer times than wines from much more heralded appellations. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  • bob parsons alberta

    Overall, a good piece of thinking there Jamie! It helps to have Alsace on the top shelf, more visible profile! The store where I help out from time to time has a great Alsace selection and the wines move well for those who are knowledgeable.

  • Hello Jamie and everyone! This is Ali from emma wellings pr with a note / reply on behalf of Alsace Wines (CIVA) in Colmar…

    CIVA have read your blog and all the comments with great interest. No one is more aware than us that Alsace Wines can be prisoners of our own past, particularly when it comes to labels and marketing our wines to the consumers. As a generic organization, we can only pass comments like these on to the producers and encourage them to listen to our advice. For example, for the last five years we’ve been telling Alsace producers how important it is to give the information that the consumer is looking for on the label and have suggested a ‘sweetness scale’, but we can’t force them to take it up.

    What we would say is that things are moving forward, albeit a bit slowly sometimes. For example, Grand Cru’s have been around for centuries but only became a reality in law recently…

    Jamie – perhaps it’s time for you to come and visit Alsace????? (Yes, Jamie – Ali).

  • Lee Newby

    Good piece, I agree whole heartedly, I should do well on my unit 3 WSET exam, well on this question ;)

  • I love Alsace wines and am acutely aware that this is one of the world’s top wine regions that I have yet to visit – something that I will try to remedy asap

  • Jamie,
    I would like to acknowledge the fact that your marketing suggestions regarding Alsatian wine are not only genuine and helpful, but also (as Ali has pointed out on behalf of CIVA) will change the outlook of Alsace’s wine industry and give it a major boost, in face of strong future competition.
    Since more wine producing countries enter the global market, with China being a leading example, and global wine supply rises, it is just a matter of time for wine prices to fall and even major and traditional wine producing strongholds to be affected by this process.
    Local Alsatian wine producers will inevitably have to face foreign competition (if they are not already doing so) and offer a differentiated, yet strong brand name, aiming to win the custom of the “next generation” wine fans.
    Those with already established wine knowledge are already aware of the weak and strong points of Alsatian wine varieties. I think it is the “next generation” who are thirsty for more knowledge (as DxPepper said in his comment) on subjects like food pairing, dryness or sweetness and in general what to expect from a bottle they might have never tried before. Alsatian wine producers should listen to them and give exactly that. It will turn into a very strong competitive advantage and maintain the level of sales and profit in the long term.

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