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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Continue reading “Bring on the Bas-Rhin: Mochel, Mélanie & Co.”

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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”

Making a Habit of Excellence – Crémant d’Alsace by Jean-Claude Buecher

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”, wrote Aristotle. I had the great philosopher in mind (as you do) when we visited Jean-Claude Buecher in Wettolsheim near Colmar. A week earlier, we’d sampled one of the domaine’s (excellent) Crémants at a wine pairing dinner organised by Alsace specialist Thierry Meyer of Oenoalsace at the trusty Taverne Alsacienne in Ingersheim. Served as an aperitif, it brought murmurs of delight and surprise from the assembled company, a discerning bunch of wine growers/marketers/makers/lovers, including a number of dedicated Champagne drinkers and Crémant d’Alsace sceptics (there are many).

Buecher Cremant by Sue Style

So what’s special about Buecher’s Crémant? To put things in perspective, you need to remember that in Alsace, almost every wine maker makes almost everything that’s permitted: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois, Pinot Noir. Usually they throw in a bit of Crémant too. Chez Buecher it’s just the opposite. From the start in 1979, when the domaine was founded by Jean-Claude and Sylviane, they decided to focus exclusively on sparkling wine. (The AOC Crémant d’Alsace appellation came into being 3 years earlier, in 1976.) They were joined at the domaine in 2005 by their son, Franck, who has taken the bubbly ball and run with it.

They have 10.5 hectares in and around Wettolsheim, Wintzenheim, Eguisheim and Walbach, including holdings in Grand Crus Steingrubler, Pfersigberg and Hengst. They make about 45,000 bottles a year from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Auxerrois plus a little Chardonnay (permitted in Alsace only for Crémant). Focusing exclusively on sparkling wine allows them to concentrate fully and work to the best of their winemaking ability. (“Unfortunately, many  growers in Alsace regard Crémant as as a kind of poubelle [dustbin]“, remarks one Crémant maker, who prefers anonymity.) Yields at Domaine Buecher are kept deliberately low (ca. 40hl/ha), mainly through the timing of pruning and the method preferred. The estate is in the process of converting to organic status.

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Crémant d’Alsace is a méthode traditionelle sparkler, meaning it follows the same basic procedure as Champagne. At Buecher, accordingly, they first make a base wine, which is fermented in stainless steel tanks (and since 2005, partially in small oak barrels) and then bottled. A judicious dose of sugar and selected yeasts is added to provoke the second fermentation, the bottles are closed with the kind of stoppers used for beer bottles and stacked horizontally in wooden palettes for 24 to 36 months (the officially required minimum for Crémant d’Alsace is 12).

The bottles are then moved painstakingly, two by two, from the palettes to the gyropalette, a special metal crate which over several hours gently rotates the inclined bottles. The objective is to encourage the dead (and by now superfluous) yeasts to collect in a neat little plug in the neck of the bottle, from where it is removed in a step known as disgorging. The last step is to insert the bottle’s proper cork – the one that emerges with a satisfying pop. The wine is ready for market. But here too, Buecher Crémants deviate from the norm. They are matured far longer than is usual in Alsace (most are sold a year after they are made), and disgorged only as the market demands. The disgorgement date is further noted on the back label.

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The Buecher Crémant that was so admired at the Oenoalsace dinner was Insomnia (“it never sleeps”), vintage 2004. Still available at the domaine at €20, it’s an excellent product born of repeated and habitual practice. Aristotle would surely have approved.

Crémant Jean-Claude Buecher
31 rue des Vignes
68920 Wettolsheim, FRANCE
+33 (0)3 89 80 14 01
contact@cremant-buecher.fr

Two B&Bs for your Alsace Bucket List

Looking for a place to stay in the vineyards of Alsace, somewhere with character that doesn’t cost the proverbial arm + leg? Here are two we recently test-drove and enjoyed, one in the Haut-Rhin (Eguisheim) and the other in the Bas-Rhin (Boersch/St Leonard).

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Our room (No. 5) at Le Hameau d’Eguisheim (photo from their website)

Our first stop was at Le Hameau d’Eguisheim, owned by the Pierre-Henri Ginglinger wine-growing family and situated right on the main street. They have 5 cosy guest rooms and 2 gites/apartments. The decor is simple and appealing with plenty of restful whites and greys. All rooms have their own bathroom, TV and wifi; some have a kitchenette. Included in the B&B price (€80 when we were there) is a generously furnished breakfast buffet served in what must have once been one of the domaine’s wine cellars. Or if you prefer, you can totter down Eguisheim’s beautiful main street to the baker, where there will be fresh kugelhopf (both sweet and salty, with bacon and walnuts) in the morning. There’s also a butcher’s shop with some terrific ham, cold meats, tourtes, pies, quiches and sundry other goodies, to eat in or to take home.

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Sweet kugelhopf (left, with almonds) and salty (right, with walnuts and bacon) in the window of Eguisheim’s bakery

And then there are all Eguisheim’s famous winegrowers just waiting to show you their wines. Leon Beyer is the town’s best-known and one of the oldest-established, always worth a visit. Also notable are Paul Ginglinger, whose Gewurz Grand Cru Pfersigberg carried off a Regional Trophy in the Decanter World Wine Awards. Eguisheim is also the home of newbies Hubert and Heidi Hausherr, organic and biodynamic growers whose wine we discovered recently at L’Un des Sens (great little wine bar in Colmar – and btw a new entry in the Eating Out Alsace/Basel/Baden page of my other site –  which specialises in quirky, natural, organic and/or biodynamic wines).  The Hausherrs left the local cooperative fairly recently to strike out on their own and I’ve yet to visit them…watch this space.

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Our second B&B was a bit further north in the tiny hamlet of Saint Léonard, near Boersch. Clos Saint Leonard  is owned and run by Béatrice Muller-Spindler. If you’re into Alsace at all, the name Spindler will ring bells: Charles Spindler’s atelier here in Saint Leonard was (and still is) world-famous for its marquetry/intarsia, which combines different varieties and colours of wood to create pictures and to decorate furniture. (If you have ever been to the famous Betty’s cafe in Harrogate, Yorkshire, you may remember that there is a whole room downstairs decorated with Spindler marquetry panels.)

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Béatrice Muller-Spindler, owner and spirited host at B&B Clos Saint Léonard

Saint Léonard, according to Béatrice, was once a Benedictine abbey, built by a hermit in around 1100 AD and consecrated in September 1109. It later became a school, and continued as such till the Revolution, when it was destroyed and the brothers evicted. The present house, Béatrice’s home, dates back to 1860, built by Victor Laugel , friend of Charles Spindler, whose “Foyer Artistique” was set up next door. Try, if you can (unlike us – we were there on a weekend), to stay here midweek so you can visit the marquetry studios and learn about Spindler’s art.

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The front door of Clos Saint Léonard

Even if built as ‘recently’ (well, compared to the original Benedictine abbey) as 1860, the house is deliciously ancient, reeking with character and stuffed with antiques, with magnificently creaky wooden floors, a wonky staircase and a bathroom big enough to swing several cats in. (It’s predictably draughty in winter, so bring your longjohns and/or warm pyjamas.) Besides the B&B suite with two bedrooms and said bathroom there’s also a delightful self-catering apartment on the ground floor, which is fully equipped for a longer stay than one night.

Breakfast, which is included in the price of the suite (€170), is served by Béatrice in the dining room. Expect a mountain of freshly baked croissants and kugelhopf on Sundays, lashings of coffee, gorgeous jams (made by her son) and sundry cold meats and cheese. Apart from the famous Spindler marquetry studios, don’t miss the Romanesque church of nearby Rosheim and the 11th century Dompeter in Avolsheim.

Staying here you’d be within easy reach of two of my favourite Bas-Rhin wine growers: Mélanie Pfister in Dahlenheim (superb Riesling from Grand Cru Engelberg) and Frédéric Mochel in Traenheim (fab Riesling too, theirs from GC Altenberg de Bergbieten, and a late harvest Pinot Gris that never got anywhere near the spitoon), both domaines worth a detour, if not a special journey.

 

Florian Beck-Hartweg, Dambach-la-Ville

 

On this year’s first freezing morning of winter, we paid our first ever [freezing] visit to Florian Beck-Hartweg in Dambach-la-Ville. Florian’s warm welcome soon thawed things out and after a brief visit to the ancient cellar with venerable old burping wooden casks (the wine, in November, is in full ferment) we proceeded to taste in the tiny, scruffy, reassuringly cobwebby room nextdoor to the cellar.

Florian Beck-Hartweg's cobwebby bottles by Sue Style

The family has made wine since 1590 in the beautiful village of Dambach-la-Ville (which recently flirted with changing its name to Dambach-les-Vignes), in the Bas-Rhin or northern part of the Alsace vineyards, close to Sélestat. Florian, who runs the estate together with his wife Mathilde, is the fourteenth generation of the family to work the vineyards.

Thierry Meyer of Oenoalsace.com, who writes extensively on wine and is Regional Chair for Alsace in Decanter’s annual World Wine Awards, had alerted me to Beck-Hartweg’s wines and I’d promised myself a visit for ages. One of the wines I was keen to taste was their Pinot Noir – not an obvious choice for Alsace, you might say (“Alsace wine is all white, right? Wrong!”) but Pinot Noir is increasingly making its mark in Alsace, as noted here in my piece for Zester Daily. Beck-Hartweg’s snuck in at No. 100 in wine critic James Suckling’s recently published mini-guide to Alsace’s 100 best wines.

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The domaine has just six hectares – which makes it possible for Florian and Mathilde to man/woman the estate alone with help from Florian’s [nominally] retired parents, plus the occasional hand (with pruning, harvesting etc.) as and when needed. They work organically, use all wild yeasts and add only as much sulphur as is strictly necessary. Riesling and Gewurz are their most-planted grapes, followed by Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, and in smaller quantities Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner. In a ‘normal’ year, they expect to make around 25,000 bottles. “This year [2015],” he told us, looking slightly pained, “we’ll be lucky to make 15,000”, echoing other Alsace (and French) growers – quantity is down because of this summer’s extreme heat and resulting water shortage, while quality is exceptionally fine thanks to super-ripe, healthy grapes.

As we sniffed, slurped and spat, in sympathy (and in time) with the still-fermenting wines nextdoor,  I asked if Florian would describe his wines as ‘natural’ (his Sylvaner/Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris blend is named “tout naturellement“). He clearly doesn’t care much for the term because it is inexact and ill-defined and comes burdened with preconceptions. He explains instead that the house philosophy is low- or no-intervention (“We work with what we’re given”), and that they respect – and do not interfere with – the natural, self-regulating ability of the vines. By any measures that I know of, these are certainly ‘natural’ wines. What sets them apart from others of that ilk that I’ve tasted is the fact that, while distinctive – quirky even – they are eminently drinkable – not always my experience with so-called natural wines.

Of the ten or so wines tasted, his Crémant fell a little flat, while the tout naturellement blend was fun, lively and uncomplicated. I didn’t thrill to his entry-level village Riesling, which was a bit austere, but I liked the earthy purity of Riesling from Grand Cru Frankstein (granite and sand). The Pinot Noir Prestige had a nice lively Pinot nose, fragrant and fresh and a snip at around €10 while the Pinot Noir ‘F’ (from GC Frankstein but not allowed to say so, since PN is not one of the permitted GC varieties) was a bit of a cherry bomb and quite acidic. Standouts for me were his Pinot Gris which had the backbone that much Alsatian PG lacks and his two Gewurzes, both Grand Cru Frankstein and the Cuvée de l’Ours (here’s the bear, below, who greets visitors out in the courtyard). I’m curious to see how they fare back home (and will report).

Florian Beck-Hartweg's bear, emblem on his Cuvée de l'Ours by Sue Style

Florian and Mathilde Beck-Hartweg,
5 rue Clemenceau,
67650 Dambach-la-Ville

Tel. 03 88 92 40 20

http://beckhartweg.fr/en/ 

Useful info: Florian and Mathilde have a pre-Christmas open house on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 December