Ten years ago Thierry Meyer (formerly contributing editor for Bettane & Desseauve wine guide, Alsace Regional Chair for Decanter World Wine Awards, leader of Alsace master-level education programme for the Wine Scholar Guild and all-round Alsace wine geek) founded Oenothèque Alsace (www.oenoalsace.com).
To celebrate the 10th anniversary, Thierry conducted a mystery masterclass in Colmar – “mystery” in the sense that none of us knew in advance which wines would be presented/discussed, nor what the key themes would be. Wines would be drawn from the Oenothèque’s stock of around 1200 bottles collected over the last decade, currently valued at around €18,000. We were promised that such a wine selection shows up only once every 10 years and we shouldn’t miss it. I didn’t.
I like the way Thierry does his tutored tastings/masterclasses. Rather than just rows of people faced with endless flights of wine sniffing, slurping, spitting, tapping into their iPads/laptops, sighing and/or silently making notes, this is an interactive job. He puts us to work. Take the different themes – which were only flagged up as we began each flight of wines. They’re always thought-provoking; they raise questions, which participants (aka us) are expected to address.
The first flight (3 wines per flight), we were asked simply to identify the grape variety. Wine 1 was greenish-gold, kinda minty with very lively acidity, Wine 2 deep golden, quite evidently superripe (botrytised?) and Wine 3 pale with a greenish tinge, smoky/toasty, dry and drop-dead gorgeous. I thought we were into Pinot Gris (and I think I wasn’t alone). Da-da…Sylvaner!! (from Otter, Loew and Kuentz-Bas respectively). Good spoof all round – and it confirmed my suspicion that Sylvaner, in the right hands with yields under control and respectful vinification, can give complex, interesting wines which can also age well: all wines were 2007, 9 years old, whereas people tend to DYA (drink youngest available) with Sylvaner.
Next up we were asked to spot the terroir responsible for the wine. I’m hopeless on this, haven’t a clue what limestone is going to do for a wine that granite doesn’t (even supposing I knew what kind of terroir the vineyard in question was). No matter; the point is to learn. Wine 1 was spicy with light curry hints, super body and beautifully fresh; No. 2 citrussy, mouthfilling. the fleshiest of the 3; No. 3 super-dry with a salty lick at the end. No prizes for guessing the variety this time (it was Riesling, that much I did get, phew), and all 2007s again. The first (Clos Windsbuhl, Zind-Humbrecht) turned out to be from calcareous (limestone) soils, the second granite (Domaine Weinbach, Schlossberg, Cuvée Ste Catherine) and the third marno-calcaire (with a little Muschelkalk, supplied my neighbour helpfully) – the newly introduced Schoelhammer from Hugel. I’m not greatly the wiser, but since everyone’s talking terroir and the effect it has on wine at the moment, I was happy to tag along.
The third flight was entitled “L’Alsace n’a rien à envier aux grands Bourgognes!” (“Alsace has no reason to be envious of great Burgundy!”). Wine 1 was pale straw-coloured with a greenish tinge and a striking grilled sesame oil nose, very direct. The second was pale golden, lipsmacking and satisfying; the third deeper gold still. All were fully dry and mineral-laden. The clue was in the heading: clearly one was a white Burgundy and we were asked to say which one. No-one got it (phew again). In fact it was No. 1 (Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Pucelles, Leflaive, av. price on Wine Searcher €250). Nos. 2 and 3 were Rieslings, GC Pfingstberg Cuvée du Paradis from François Schmitt (recent vintages sell at between €16 and €18) and GC Rangen Clos St Urbain by Zind-Humbrecht (av. price on Wine Searcher €52). All were 2005, the first two calcaire (limestone) vineyards, and the third (Rangen) volcanic. I came away still none the wiser on terroir (but v. much the wiser on what a bargain good Alsace wines still represent).
The fourth theme concerned so-called ‘cult wines’, and whether they’re really worth their generally high cost. Thierry gave us a nudge and a wink with mention of Trimbach’s iconic Clos Ste Hune as a cultish example so we all set about trying to identify which one of the 3 was IT. Much sniffing, slurping and spitting. One brave person announced that if he’d paid the price he knows Clos Ste Hune commands (€133) for wine No. 1, he would have been greatly disappointed. Ha! Inevitably No. 1 (the most golden of the three, marmalade/citrus, totally dry) turned out to be our cult wine; No. 2 (v. typé Riesling, little initial bouquet but opened up beautifully) was Clos Eugènie from Boeckel in Mittelbergheim, bought by Thierry @ €9.50 and No. 3 (golden with green tinge, petrolly, gorgeous) was Trimbach again, Cuvée Frédéric Emile. All were 2001. Moral of the story? Cult wines benefit from brilliant marketing, may not be worth shelling out for but are fun to taste (preferably at someone else’s expense).
After this we were let off the hook a bit with a taste of two bonus bottles, and no deep questions to be answered: a 1989 Clos Ste Hune Vendanges Tardives Hors Choix (i.e. produced in very few years and in minute quantities), deep golden, leggy, beautifully balanced with marmalade and mentholated flavours, still youthful, incredibly persistent. From the floor came a 1986 Gewurz Les Archenets from Josmeyer. As promised by Thierry, these were were bottles that show up only rarely. Amazing to see with what grace and elegance premium Alsace wines can age.
Theme number 5 had us exploring old vintages and how they might illustrate what Alsace was doing back in the 60s, with a bow to some vignerons present. The first wine smelt like a beach at low tide (but in a good way – sea spray, iodine, seaweed, not fish), with a bit of buttery toast for good measure and turned out to be a 1961 Pinot [sic] from the Cave de Beblenheim. Number 2, which had me wavering between marmite and truffles (just getting into my stride with this tasting thang), was unveiled as a 1967 Riesling Schlossberg from Pierre Sparr (“granite”, murmured my neighbour). No. 3, a 1966 Gewurz Réserve from Paul Ginglinger, was exotic-verging-on-odd, with a whiff of old roses. Every wine was deep golden, all drinkable and deeply intriguing – a bit like tasting old vintages of Champagne.
The last chapter was devoted to botrytis (noble rot) and the degree to which it helps us in our understanding of terroir (or not). I sipped a deep golden 2005 Sélection de Grains Nobles GC Altenberg de Bergheim from Deiss, a somewhat paler but more intensely aromatic 2005 Clos Windsbuhl Vendanges Tardives from Zind-Humbrecht and a citrussy 2010 SGN Gewurz Altenbourg from Domaine Weinbach. Who knows whether the evident botrytis in all of them gave clues as to the terroir (not me) but each one was nectar. You can tell how much I enjoyed them by the fact that I can’t find a picture of them (though I swear I took one).
An illuminating masterclass, and thanks go to Thierry for allowing us to help him raid his Oenothèque cellar, with able guidance from him on what to look out for and how to appreciate the riches that Alsace has to offer.