My definition of an absolute no-no includes descending on winegrowers slap-bang in the middle of harvest. They’re commuting between the vineyards and the cellar, picking (and tasting) grapes, checking up on the health of the grapes, peering into refractometers to measure the potential alcohol of the wine, supervising tractorloads of deliveries, sorting, selecting, fermenting, pressing… This is soooooo not the moment to propose a visit.
So how come last week I broke my own self-imposed rule? I had a couple of people from the States sign up for a vineyard tour, and these were the only dates they could do. I hate to miss the chance to share the latest excitements in our little wine world (ça bouge en Alsace!), so I agreed – but warned them we might not be able to see all my favourite people (FPs), for all the reasons outlined above.
I needn’t have worried. I contacted several of my FPs and put together a full programme of visits. At every turn we got an amazing reception. Far from finding visitors an unwelcome distraction at this crucial time of the year when all’s to play for, all the winegrowers we saw took infinite trouble to respond to my visitors, both of them new to Alsace and its wines (though quite savvy about wines in general) and eager to learn about what the region had to offer.
The first day they hit the ground running, going straight from the airport – with a pit stop for lunch at the redoubtable La Taverne Alsacienne in Ingersheim – to Hugel in Riquewihr, where they were royally received by Jean-Frédéric Hugel and treated to a superb tasting. The visit climaxed with a wander up into the Sporen vineyards to check up on (and applaud) the pickers, followed by a quick check on how things were progressing in Schoelhammer, a tiny plot of 30 rows of vines hidden in the heart of Grand Cru Schoenenbourg, celebrated since the 17th century as one of Alsace’s finest sites.
Next day we began at the southern end of the wine route with a visit to Dirler-Cadé in Bergholtz, a medium-sized (18ha/43-acre) family-owned, biodynamic winery, with almost half their vines in Grand Cru vineyards (Spiegel, Saering, Kessler). Under ordinary circs, it’s Ludivine Dirler, daughter-in-law of the Dirler family who welcomes us but she was busy (ahem – didn’t I say you should never visit during harvest time?) and had delegated her father-in-law to look after us – one of the advantages of multi-generational, family-owned wineries is that there’s always someone on hand to take care of wine-travellers.
Monsieur Dirler got us off to a good start with a crisp, sappy, old-vine Sylvaner – a grape that’s been alternately abused and neglected in Alsace in the past but which is now staging a bit of a comeback (in the right hands, as here). Riesling is Dirler-Cadé’s strong suit and we worked our way through a fair few. New to me was their off-dry Belzbrunnen, a belter of a Riesling from a lieu-dit (named vineyard) that’s in line for promotion to Premier Cru status. We had an instructive lesson in terroir by comparing/contrasting Rieslings from different Grands Crus: super-dry, saline Kitterlé (grown on volcanic soils), for example, against the fleshier Kessler (clay over red sandstone). Pinot Gris GC Kessler 2013 wore its 26g/litre residual sugar with remarkable insouciance, managing somehow (it’s the balance, stoopid) to finish with a suggestion of dryness. The parting shot was a 2009 Gewurztraminer GC Spiegel Sélection de Grains Nobles (marl-sandstone) – nobly rotten, naturally sweet, seasoned by beautiful ripe acidity.
At Domaine Zusslin in the nearby village of Orschwihr we were received by Paul – not a member of the family, but [as my newfound friends commented] so seamlessly integrated into the Zusslin operation that he feels like one. If you’re a regular reader of Eric Asimov in the New York Times, you’ll know that he recently praised the precision winemaking of this small (13ha/32-acre) family-owned, biodynamic estate, today run by brother-and-sister team Marie and Jean-Paul Zusslin, who took time off later to say hello.
We tasted their stylish, non-dosage (i.e. super-dry), no-sulphur Crémant from Pinot Auxerrois (a Pinot Blanc mutation) with a smidge of Riesling, which clearly (at €31.50) believes in itself, just as the Zusslins believe in the potential for fine Crémant from this region. Of their 5 different Rieslings, I loved the (new to me) Neuberg, from a clay-limestone lieu-dit with Premier Cru aspirations and the stunning, citrus-floral Clos Liebenberg (“the lovely hill”), their wholly-owned vineyard enclosed by walls and hedges, which sits on the shoulder of Grand Cru Pfingstberg. Regarding red, Zusslin have long believed in the region’s potential for Pinot Noir, which accounts for 20 per cent of their production, the best coming from the limestone slopes of lieu-dit Bollenberg. Grapes are picked highly selectively, macerated without stems, regularly punched down (including by the occasional stray harvest visitor), gently pressed and aged in partially new barriques.
Third up in our day’s programme was a brand-new (2015), super-modern winery created by Marc Rinaldi, a renowned mover and shaker in the Alsace wine world who made his first fortune in the construction industry, followed this up with Ferraris and now with a vineyard venture. He masterminded Alsace’s top-class wine salon Millésimes, and his avowed goal is to raise the profile of Alsace wines. He has assembled 10-ha/25-acres of vineyards in Grands Crus Schlossberg and Brand and is focusing almost exclusively on Pinot Noir and Riesling. They are currently in the process of conversion to organics and biodynamics under supervision by Christophe Ehrhart, who hosted us.
Of the five different cuvées of Pinot Noir, I was torn between the elegant Terroir B (from Grand Cru Brand, granite bedrock with sandy topsoil) and the ripe, round and complex Pinot Noir Premier from a small limestone enclave between Grand Crus Mambourg and Furstentum. Amongst the Rieslings, Grand Cru Schlossberg ran away with the spoon compared to Terroir S, from young vines grown on the Grand Cru (described as “the 2nd wine of the Grand Cru” – i.e. not yet worthy to bear its name). An interesting venture, one to watch.
Next day found us at Bott-Geyl in Beblenheim, another family-owned, biodynamic, 17ha/42-acre estate, established 1795, where we joined Jean-Christophe Bott as he took in tractorloads of ripe Riesling grapes. Their vineyards are scattered around between 6 different Grand Crus as well as lieux-dits Grafenreben and Kronenbourg, both potential Premier Cru material. Bott-Geyl do spectacular Riesling and Gewurztraminer, and they have a firm belief (which I share) in the value of lipsmacking, mouthfilling blends – I’m going back to stock up on their Points Cardinaux Métiss, a blend of all four Pinots (Blanc, Auxerrois, Gris and Noir), fleshy but dry. “Complexity through diversity”, as Jean-Christophe Bott observed.
Last – but by no means least – of our stops over the two days – was at Domaine Jean-Marc Bernhard, a small (9.5ha/23-acre), unpretentious, charming winery, organic since 2012, with vineyards in 6 different Grand Crus. This is one of my go-to addresses for delicious, well-made, fairly-priced wines. Frédéric Bernhard nipped up from his cellar duties to take us through a succinct tasting which included a lively Pinot Gris-Gewurz blend named Vogelgarten (“bird garden”), an understated Gewurz and a classic Pinot Gris from the lieu-dit Hinterburg. We took our leave with a perfectly lovely schluck of Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles 2013.
Moral of the story: if you can choose your dates, try and avoid harvest time for visiting winegrowers. But if you should happen to fetch up on the doorstep when the vendanges are in full spate, know that in Alsace at least, you will be warmly welcomed. Even if the timing’s not perfect, there’s a fierce desire to share the news about the wonderfully complex, elegant wines of Alsace.