‘And what is so rare as a red Alsace?
Then, if ever, come redolent ripe
Pinot noir from clay and loess.
Too little is made for media hype.
Whether we slurp, or whether we guzzle,
It’s Rouge d’Ottrott we pour down our muzzle.’
- Apologies to James Russell Lowell
Demographically, Alsace is about 90% white, with the rest of the population made up primarily of immigrants from the Maghreb and Turkey. Vinographically, it’s about 90% white, too, with the rest of the portfolio being made up primarily of light, lyrical, lazy-day and somewhat anemic rosés made from pinot noir.
And then there is Ottrott. A tiny commune in the department of Bas-Rhin, about twenty miles southwest of Strasbourg, two things about it stand out as remarkable: First, its population is the same in 2013 as it was in 1813, and second, it is among the only spots in Alsace that produces red wine that is not pink wine.
Now, one of the first rules a budding vinographer learns about pinot noir is that the color does not necessarily reflect the intensity of the wine. The next lesson a fledgling francophile learns about pinot noir is that a lot of the times, the color is a pretty good indicator of the intensity of the wine. For the most part, Alsace’s pinot noir are overly-extracted or under-ripe, occasionally thin and sometimes gamey, and despite having begun the push the development of serious red wine in the 1980s, the region has not reliably kept pace with Germany’s spätburgunder reformation.
And then there is Ottrott. The deep red, très rare wine of the commune is grown on about 85 acres of vineyards and dates to the Middle Ages. Around 1109, the Benedictines of Cluny came to town bringing soil and pinot noir seedlings in barrels and planted them on the walled and terraced slopes of Mont Sainte Odile Ottrott. The red wine d’Ottrott was mentioned many times throughout antiquity, by Popes (Alexander IV) and Emperors (Karl Friedrich) alike; always with praise of the highest order.
We lesser mortals would be praising it to the highest order too, especially if we could order it in order to praise it. But we can’t—the Alsacanese keep it for themselves or flog it to fellow Frenchmen. I lucked into a bottle of Klipfel 2011, and underwent the surprise and delight so coveted by corporate marketing mokes—the wine was full-on ruby red and rich with raspberry and cherry flavors; lightly herbaceous on the nose, but not offensively so. Nothing to compete with a Côte d’Nuit, of course, but well within the range of a pinot noir that Alsace could proudly parade.
And that’s as rare as a day in June in the middle of August.