Bring on the Bas-Rhin: Mochel, Mélanie & Co.

Whenever clients sign up for one of my vineyard tours, or we have a bunch of wine-inclined friends visiting, I automatically home in on the vineyards of the Haut-Rhin in the southern part of Alsace. Two reasons for this: firstly, I live closer to these so they’re my logical first port of call. Secondly, the Haut-Rhin – in wine terms stretching from Thann northwards to St Hippolyte – is where pretty much all the best-known Alsace estates are situated – think Trimbach, Hugel, Zind-Humbrecht, Faller, Muré, Zusslin, Albert Mann just for starters…

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If you’re familiar with the sweeping, densely planted slopes of the Haut-Rhin where vines can seem like the only game in town, the Bas-Rhin vineyards, extending roughly from St Hippoltye up to Marlenheim, feel like a different region altogether. The Vosges mountains are more of a distant backdrop up here, the widely scattered vines are interspersed with fruit trees, sprawling rhubarb plants and tight heads of cabbage (this is prime choucroute country). You can easily fall into the error of thinking the Bas-Rhin isn’t quite as single-minded about winegrowing as its southerly sister. Big mistake: there are some serious players up here too and they’re worth exploring. Serge Dubs, a Meilleur Sommelier du Monde and nowadays honorary sommelier at Alsace’s Auberge de l’Ill once claimed that “la finesse est du coté Nord” (“the north wins on finesse”).

One of the first B-R growers I visited was Domaine Frédéric Mochel in Traenheim, situated in that beautiful sweep of vineyards known as the Couronne d’Or out to the west of Strasbourg. I went on a recommendation from Chef Emile Jung after I’d done a short stage (internship) in the kitchens of Le Crocodile, and have been grateful to him ever since for the introduction. The Mochel family has been here since 1669, in one of those traditional timbered houses (pictured on their labels) with a cobbled courtyard, decked out in summer with a riot of geraniums.

When I first started visiting, papa Frédéric was at the helm; in 2001 his son Guillaume took over, though both parents are still very present, gently smiling and welcoming clients in their cool (as in chic, not chilly) tasting room. A visit here is pure delight – the Mochels have that rare gift of making you feel as though you are an old friend of the family – and provides an opportunity to buy a range of elegant wines at very approachable prices.

They have 10 hectares (25 acres) of south- and southeast-facing vineyards in prime sites around the village, half of them in Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergbieten, one of the Bas-Rhin’s most celebrated. Both clay-limestone and gypsum are present, giving (says Guillaume) great vivacité to the wines. A little over thirty percent is down to Riesling, followed by Gewurz (20%), with the remaining 10% shared between Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (for their Crémant).

The wines I usually home in on include the elegant Riesling Cuvée Henriette (named after Guillaume’s grand’mère) from GC Altenberg de Bergbieten, the delightfully floral, entry-level Muscat (100% Ottonel, and one of my fave Alsace Muscats) and Pinot Gris Altenberg de B. I also enjoyed two newish departures, one called Traenheim (a Pinot Blanc-Gris blend made in a joint venture with several of the village’s vignerons and aged in used Coche-Dury barrels) and another called Trovium (the ancient Roman name for Traenheim), this time a 50-50 Pinot Blanc/Gris, aged in one-third new/two-thirds used barrels – both of them unusual/original (oak is seldom used for Alsace whites), lively and fun.

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A small parenthesis: if your tasting works up an appetite and you’re looking for a simple place to eat, try Zum Loejelgucker in a beautiful half-timbered house in the centre of the village. And if you come unstuck with its Alsatian pronunciation (or spelling – Madame Mochel, who recommended it warmly, had to write it out for me), just ask for the Auberge de Traenheim, which it also answers to. It’s the place for robust, ribsticking Alsatian classics of the kind you feared lost and gone forever, including boudin noir/black pudding, lewerknepfle/liver quenelles with choucroute, schieffele/smoked pork with navets confits and kugelhopf glacé.

Sharing equal billing on my list of favourite Bas-Rhin growers is Domaine Pfister in Dahlenheim, just the other side of the D442 Molsheim-Marlenheim road from Traenheim. The family has been here since 1780 and today they have 10 hectares (25 acres), scattered around the village in 40 different plots, all limestone. The domaine took a big step forward in 1972 under André Pfister and his wife Marie-Anne, with a fresh focus on quality, big investments in the cellar and a particular emphasis on improving environmental practices in the vineyard.

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Some years ago, after studies in Bordeaux and Burgundy (including a spell at Méo-Camuzet), their daughter Mélanie, the 8th generation of the family to make wine here, returned to the family fold and took the reins. Lively, dynamic, with close-cropped hair and what the French call un regard pétillant (a twinkle in her eye), she looks barely old enough to be running a winery. Somehow along the way she found time to co-found Alsace’s formidable women-in-wine group Les DiVINes d’Alsace (though she’s recently taken a back seat from organising events). Her beautifully paced, fairly priced wines regularly win plaudits and prizes around the world.

On the white front, I find her Riesling GC Engelberg pretty irresistible (the vineyard features in the photo in the header), elegant with bright minerality (I steer clear of the word normally, but it feels right here), which I first met when it struck gold at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Her Pinot Gris provides an example of how well this often over-ripened grape can do in the cooler, more northerly parts of Alsace (it’s that finesse Dubs talked about), while Cuvée 8 (in honour of her being the 8th generation), is a lively blend of all 4 Grand Cru varieties (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurz and Muscat) and makes a great aperitif.

 

Mélanie has devoted considerable care and attention to her Pinot Noir (inspired/influenced by her time at Méo-Camuzet), of which she makes two cuvées. “In recent times we’ve planted much improved Pinot Noir clones and nowadays we also get more ripeness –  we can make something really worthwhile,” she observes. The entry-level cuvée, gently infused and raised in stainless steel, is fun, simple and quaffable (serve it lightly chilled); more exciting still – even worth ageing a bit – is Pinot Noir Rahn (used to be called Barrique), grown in a named site with lower yields, careful berry selection and 14 months in (used) barriques.

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In October I had some clients whose trip was due to finish up in Strasbourg – the perfect opportunity to lure them away from the usual Haut-Rhin growers and explore these more northerly vineyards. They found it an eye-opener (Mélanie’s Pinot Noir in particular took them by surprise) and shared my excitement.

Overlook the Bas-Rhin at your peril. It has considerable class, and it’s just waiting to be discovered.

Frédéric Mochel
56, rue principale, 67310 TRAENHEIM
Open Mon-Sat, 9 to 12 and 1.30 to 5.30 p.m., preferably by prior appointment.
Tel: +33 3 88 50 38 67
contact@mochel.alsace

Domaine Pfister
53, rue Principale, 67310 DAHLENHEIM
Tél : +33 (0)388 506 632 +33 (0)388 506 632
vins@domaine-pfister.com

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Harvest in Alsace: Dirler-Cadé, Zusslin, Martin Schaetzel by Kirrenbourg, Bott-Geyl & Jean-Marc Bernhard

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.

Continue reading “Harvest in Alsace: Dirler-Cadé, Zusslin, Martin Schaetzel by Kirrenbourg, Bott-Geyl & Jean-Marc Bernhard”

Pinot Noir from Alsace

When you consider the wines of Alsace, it’s probably fine, fragrant whites that come to mind. That’s understandable. The Alsace wine grower has six white grape varieties — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner – to play with. Most growers make wine from all six, with multiple cuvées of each. But there’s a seventh grape variety permitted in this slender winegrowing region on France’s eastern side, and it’s red: Pinot Noir.

Given Alsace’s white wine proclivities, it’s hardly any wonder that Alsatian Pinot Noir of old – pale, thinnish, often somewhat unripe — felt a bit like a red wine that was actually a white at heart. The fact that it was almost always bottled in the tall, slim, Rhine-style flûte (obligatory for white wine, though not for red) only served to reinforce this impression.

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The classic flute shape for Alsace white wine, pictured at Domaine Weinbach

But change is afoot, and the classic red grape of Burgundy, once the Cinderella of the Alsace family, is slowly coming into its own. Though fine, world-class Pinot Noir remains rare here, there are nonetheless a few producers (Albert Mann, Muré,  Zusslin, Hugel et al) who have already taken this famously fickle grape in new and — for Alsace — unaccustomed directions.

Continue reading “Pinot Noir from Alsace”

Muscat Made in Alsace

Crisp, dry, delicately aromatic and distinctly grapey, Muscat is the classic Alsatian spring aperitif. In restaurants all around our region at this time of year, un verre de Muscat is regularly proffered as an appetite sharpener – très typique and lots more fun than the conventional choices like Champagne or Crémant d’Alsace.

Amongst all the (many and varied) wines of Alsace, Muscat is probably the least known – and the most surprising – of them all. Its relative obscurity is explained by the fact that there’s just so little of it. Of the total vineyard area in Alsace, Muscat accounts for just 362 hectares (900 acres), or a little over 2 percent of all plantings. Compare this with Riesling (3376 hectares, 8300 acres or 22 percent) and you get the picture. There’s just not enough of this wonderful wine to go round.

Why such tiny quantities? Mainly because Muscat is famously difficult to grow. I reckon that if grapes were people, Riesling might be a nicely brought-up young chap, mature beyond his years, a touch preppy, a sure hit with mothers-in-law. Muscat, by contrast, would be the temperamental teenager – every parent’s nightmare. She’s moody, susceptible to the slightest rebuff and always ready to flounce out in a huff, in a word: complicated. Continue reading “Muscat Made in Alsace”

New Vintage chez Barmès-Buecher and Zind-Humbrecht

Every spring, wineries in Alsace open their doors to regular customers to present the new vintage. If you’re in the neighbourhood, it’s a good opportunity to catch up on what’s cooking at the domaine and/or to stock up the cellar. Recently it was the turn of both Barmès-Buecher in Wettolsheim and Zind-Humbrecht just outside Turckheim. As they’d chosen the same day for their portes ouvertes I could kill two birds with a single stone.

Barmès-Buecher, 30 rue Sainte Gertrude, 68920 Wettolsheim, +33 3 89 80 62 92
info@barmes-buecher.com

I arrived in the morning for this – my first – visit to the domaine and was made to feel very much at home by the warm welcome. The family’s 17-hectare estate in Wettolsheim, close to Colmar, was founded in 1985 when Geneviève Barmès (née Buecher) and her husband François Barmès brought together the vineyards of their respective families, who had owned vines here since the 17th century. (Note that there are loads of Buechers in Wettolsheim: see also Amélie and Cécile Buecher’s Les 2 Lunes and Jean-Claude Buecher on this site.) In 1998 they began the conversion of the domaine to biodynamics and received certification in 2001. With the untimely death of François in 2011, their two children, Sophie and Maxime, moved quickly to support Geneviève in the running of the estate, with Maxime on the production and vinification side and Sophie assisting her mother in the vineyards and with sales and marketing.

Continue reading “New Vintage chez Barmès-Buecher and Zind-Humbrecht”

Les 2 Lunes, Wettolsheim

Even if you’re relatively up to speed with the wines of Alsace, you may not have heard or seen much of Les 2 Lunes. I first discovered the wines of this small (14-hectare) family domaine thanks to the sommelier at La Chenaudière, a Relais & Châteaux hideaway up in the Vosges, whose list is studded with little nuggets of curiosity. Thanks to him, we tasted (and were agreeably surprised by) their rather decent Pinot Noir Céleste. Made in minute quantities (2 barrels only), it comes from a small clay-limestone block in nearby (and nearly unpronounceable) Voegtlinshoffen and it demonstrated the kind of progress that’s being made with the grape here, provided it’s planted in the right place and treated with TLC. It’s gone on my list of Alsace Pinots to look out for.

Continue reading “Les 2 Lunes, Wettolsheim”

Albert Boxler, Niedermorschwihr

I was reminded by Andrew Jefford in a recent Decanter article of this treasure of a domaine and have made a note to myself to revisit soon. Their 13ha of vineyards are dotted around the gorgeous village of Niedermorschwihr, including in Grand Cru Sommerberg (view below, taken from the top of the vineyard) and Grand Cru Brand. sommerberg-2

Continue reading “Albert Boxler, Niedermorschwihr”

Oenothèque Alsace: 10th Anniversary

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. Continue reading “Oenothèque Alsace: 10th Anniversary”

Millésimes Alsace

For ages I puzzled over the fact that Alsace’s annual Foire aux Vins in Colmar seemed to have remarkably little to do with wine. I remember commenting on this to Etienne Hugel a few years ago. He confirmed, with his trademark grin, that if you wanted to buy a tractor, or a mattress, or a ticket for a top-class pop concert, the Foire was great. If you were interested in Alsace wines, it was best forgotten.

This vinous lacuna was addressed in 2012 with the first Millésimes Alsace, a professional salon designed to showcase the best of Alsace. The third edition (it takes place every other year) was on June 13th. It’s held  – like the Foire aux Vins – at Colmar’s Parc d’Expositions, but it’s a very different animal – intentionally, on the part of the founder Marc Rinaldi, who saw the need for a totally wine-focused event that would show that Alsace is capable of producing some of the finest white wines in the world.  Continue reading “Millésimes Alsace”

Riesling Schoelhammer, Famille Hugel

The launch of Famille Hugel’s 2007 Riesling Schoelhammer in April 2015 took most wine lovers and students of Alsace by surprise. It wasn’t simply the wow factor of this remarkable dry Riesling, which has already acquired cult status – though that undeniably played its part. Eyebrows were raised, rather, at the fact that the Hugel family, winemakers in Riquewihr since 1639 who for the past forty years have shied away from any mention of classified grand cru slopes or other named sites on their distinctive canary-yellow labels, suddenly bowled a googly by releasing a wine that proudly declares its precise provenance: a plot-specific cuvee from a mere 30 rows of vines hidden in the heart of Grand Cru Schoenenbourg, celebrated since the 17th century as one of Alsace’s finest sites.

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The headstone in the Schoelhammer vineyard. Photo credit: Famille Hugel

It marked an important change of strategy in the family business. Where in the past all the emphasis was put on the Hugel name – the brand has long enjoyed extraordinary recognition outside Alsace with 90% of their wines exported to over 100 different countries – now came a significant shift in favour of terroir, that trendy but ill-defined concept that seeks to pin a sense of “somewhereness” on a wine. Schoelhammer (its Alsatian dialect name, “shell-hammer”, fuses elements of the fossil-rich, chalky-clay soils in which the vines grow with the hammer used by the Hugel ancestors in their original calling as coopers), which is recognisably rooted in a small corner of the Hugel vineyard, thus pins its colours firmly to the mast. “You could call it a kind of “terroir coming-out” for us”, admits Etienne Hugel, the firm’s commercial director.

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Etienne Hugel, Riesling champion. Photo credit: Famille Hugel

A mere 4288 bottles of Riesling Schoelhammer (compare this with the 240,000 bottles of Riesling across the whole Hugel range) were made in 2007, a year generally acknowledged as a textbook Riesling vintage, producing wines of extraordinary complexity with huge ageing potential. Hugel describes the wine as “un vin de patience” – the family sat on it patiently for seven years before allowing it to make its debut.

You could steel yourself and stash it away in your cellar for at least another seven but it’s a thing of beauty already – tasting notes from Serge Dubs, a Meilleur Sommelier du Monde, evoke the wine’s crisp bouquet of spring flowers and fruit and its precise minerality with appley, peachy notes and lime, lemon balm and verbena thrown in for good measure. Uncork it alongside a noble fish like turbot or John Dory, or a sweet and succulent roast lobster, or a dish of pasta liberally laced with white truffles. Better still, lose yourself in its limpid depths without the distraction of food and with (a little) help from a hand-picked, wine-loving friend.

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Riesling Schoelhammer 2007. Photo credit: Famille Hugel

Famille Hugel
3 rue de la Première Armée
68340 Riquewihr, Alsace
+33 (0)3 89 47 92 15
www.hugel.com

This article was first published on March 17th 2016 in the online edition of ft.com’s  How To Spend It. Barely one month later, the tragic and untimely death was announced of Etienne Hugel of Famille Hugel. See here for my tribute on decanter.com to this tireless champion of Alsace wines and of Riesling.