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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a version of my article published in the January 2016 issue of Decanter, entitled Alsace: Wine and Food Lover’s Guide. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the best food and the most exciting wine lists in Alsace today. I posted it over on www.suestyle.com and at the risk of repeating myself am including it here too – all the restaurants are standouts for their food, but a big bonus in each case is their wine selection, inevitably a rich source of Alsace finds. Some of the restos are new (i.e. newly opened and/or new to me); others are tried and true faves which feature on my Eating Out Alsace, Basel & Baden pages.
Alsace is one of those reassuring places where you are unlikely ever to go hungry or thirsty. The very name is synonymous with foie gras, choucroute garnie, pork pies in flaky pastry, wine-rich game stews, fruit tarts, ice cream studded with kirsch-soaked raisins, elegant Riesling and powerful eau-de-vie de Marc de Gewurztraminer.
This is a region with a deeply rooted, centuries-old culture of food and wine, with echoes of both its French and Germanic heritage. The snag about deep roots and ancient cultures is that things can get stuck in a deep rut. But thanks to its location on a major north-south axis and its shared – and shifting – borders, Alsace has always been exposed to external influences and open to new ideas. Alongside reliably good classic cooking and decently made wines, there’s constant renewal on the restaurant front and significant developments in the vineyards. Wine critic James Suckling describes Alsace today as “France’s most exciting wine region”, noting its astonishing diversity of wines from an array of grape types, soils, microclimates and producers. Time for some Alsace wine travel to catch up with what’s hot in this singular region.
This year’s hot ticket is the Villa René Lalique, north of Strasbourg in Wingen-sur-Moder. The brand-new restaurant is a luminous glass pavilion designed by star architect Mario Botta, juxtaposed with René Lalique’s 1920s timbered and gabled family home that was recently restored to perfection by Silvio Denz, Swiss entrepreneur, vineyard owner and CEO of Lalique. It’s a glittering showcase not only for Lalique crystal and glassware but also for some jaw-dropping kitchen fireworks by Chef Jean-Georges Klein, lured here by Denz from triple-starred L’Arnsbourg in Baerenthal.
The tasting menu is a magical succession of tiny surprises that combine and contrast crunchy with silky-smooth, spicy with sweet-sour, piping hot with ice cold. The wine list is a hefty bible which dovetails Denz’s own formidable cellar (big on Bordeaux and the US) with award-winning sommelier Romain Iltis’ hand-picked Alsace selection. Rieslings are writ large, from headline-grabbing new wines from old-established names (Trimbach’s Grand Cru Geisberg, Hugel’s Grosse Laüe) to grand crus from relative newbies Paul Ginglinger and Henry Fuchs. A revelation for those unwilling to believe Alsace’s potential for decent red wine is the page devoted to Pinot Noir, where Iltis ventures beyond the territory once monopolised by Albert Mann, Muré, Zusslin & Co. to reveal budding Pinot craftsmen like Jean-Paul Schmitt and Schoenheitz.
Heading south to Marlenheim, at the top end of the Route des Vins, Le Cerf ticks all the Alsace boxes with its timbers, geraniums, wood panelling and Spindler marquetry. Yet this family affair, founded by Chef Michel Husser’s great-grandfather, is constantly renewing itself. It’s reasonable to expect choucroute in a country inn, but Husser’s version, surmounted with bite-sized chunks of crackly-crusted, melt-in-mouth sucking pig and seared foie gras, is a contemporary triumph. A civet of local venison is par for the course too in game-rich Alsace, but the chef slips in a crisp samosa of morello cherries as accompaniment. Even that Alsace classic vacherin glacé gets a makeover with a gossamer layer of meringue enclosing multi-coloured sorbet nuggets. The wine list has a special place in its heart for top drops from the Bas-Rhin, including from Domaine Pfister, Mochel and Anne-Marie Schmitt.
The fact that Marc Haeberlin of the legendary Auberge de l’Ill is consultant chef for Strasbourg’s Les Haras is apt to set pulses racing and raise expectations, which are not invariably met. The point here is the place, not what’s on your plate. You climb up the swirling spiral staircase to the first floor where, suspended beneath the rafters of what were once the stables of Strasbourg’s National Stud, designer Patrick Jouin has conjured an award-winning contemporary dining space. There’s a buzz of happy, shiny people tucking into French brasserie fare of the sweetbreads/magret de canard school, with occasional Asian and Latin American intrusions, washed down with Meteor draft beer and wines from all the usual suspects (Hugel, Josmeyer, Zind-Humbrecht).
Back on the Route des Vins at Au Potin in Barr, owner and antiques collector Hervé Duhamel has created a Parisian-style Alsatian bistro complete with mirrors, brass hatstands and copies of today’s Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace hanging from wooden newspaper holders. From the kitchen comes a pleasing mix of old-school favourites (tarte flambée, choucroute, foie gras) and daily-changing specials (fresh pasta, succulent low-temperature meat), plus creative all-vegetable main dishes – a rarity in carnivorous Alsace. Open wines come from Duhamel’s winegrowing friends and neighbours, including André Ostertag, Lucas Rieffel and Patrick Meyer.
A sidestep up into the Vosges takes you to Hotel-Restaurant La Cheneaudière in Colroy-la-Roche. Chef Roger Bouhassoun sources everything possible within about a 20-kilometre radius of his kitchen and then butchers, fillets, cooks or preserves everything from scratch, simply because he can’t conceive of doing things any other way. The result is food with attitude and a strong sense of ‘somewhereness’ (soft-boiled eggs with chanterelles from the Vosges and the chef’s home-cured ham, locally farmed snails bathed in a herby foam, slow-cooked pigeon breast with the legs parcelled up in crisp brik pastry). Sommelier Rodrigue Palvadeau is brimming with good suggestions on what to choose from his extensive list and well attuned to what’s new in Alsace, including a seductive Pinot Noir from Vignoble des Deux Lunes.
Down in the vineyards in the ravishing village of Bergheim (as good as Riquewihr but with fewer tourist buses) is Wistub du Sommelier, a classic wine bar/bistro that’s a haunt of local vignerons and a favourite with visitors in search of l’Alsace authentique. Owned by Antje Schneider, it’s the place to tuck into home-made foie gras or Presskopf (brawn) followed by ox cheeks braised in Pinot Noir and an iced soufflé laced with Marc de Gewurztraminer. Antje’s list is an Alsace anthology, ranging from near-neighbours Deiss, Lorentz and Sylvie Spielmann to others she would like you to discover such as Beck-Hartweg, Gérard Neumeyer and Clément Klur.
At L’Atelier du Peintre in Colmar’s stunning town centre, Michelin-starred Loïc Lefebvre is one of France’s young chefs who has the perfect riposte to anyone who claims French food is passé. Come here for handsome, contemporary, intensely flavoured food based on local seasonal ingredients served at eye-rubbing prices (the midweek lunch menu is a snip). The chef’s partner Caroline gives a warm welcome and the sommelier is a fund of vinous knowledge.
A two-minute walk away is L’Un des Sens, a wine bar and shop whose sommelier-owner, Alexandre Dumont, is an evangelist for quirky, left-field wines, chiefly organic/biodynamic/natural, mainly French with a strong showing from Alsace. Explain your interests and tastes, a bottle will be offered for sampling (at any given moment there may be 20 whites and 20 reds open, always fresh, thanks to a brisk turnover) and if not to your liking, an alternative is proposed. There’s no kitchen but they serve top-notch charcuterie, cheeses from celebrated Colmar fromager Jacky Quesnot and wicked bread from Le Pain de Mon Grand’Père.
La Taverne Alsacienne in Ingersheim, owned and run by the formidable famille Guggenbuhl, is a favourite of local winegrowers and the venue for celebrated wine-pairing dinners hosted by Decanter World Wine Awards Alsace Regional Chair, Thierry Meyer. Chef Jean-Philippe is famous for his skilled fish cookery (throughout the year shoals of monkfish, brill, skrei, pike-perch, lobster and crabs land in his kitchen), his brimming mushroom basket (days off are spent foraging in the Vosges), his wine list (drawing on top domaines from Alsace to Burgundy, Rhone to Bordeaux) and his winning lunch menu, outstanding value for money.
La Nouvelle Auberge in Wihr-au-Val on the main road from Colmar to the Munster Valley is not just any old roadside inn. Breton-born chef Bernard Leray is in the kitchen and his wife Martine is out front (or down in her wine cellar). The ground-floor bistro is packed with locals who come for their lunchtime fix of home-made terrines, steaming plates of choucroute or bread-and-butter pudding (made from kugelhopf) with wild bilberries and ice cream. Upstairs in the Michelin-starred restaurant there are hints of both the chef’s Breton heritage and his adoptive Alsatian identity: a brilliant green snail fricassee, sweetly dressed crab with fine shreds of pickled turnips, chunky ceps from the Vosges with a foaming sabayon or sweetbreads with a miniature spring onion tart. The all-French wine list leans heavily (but by no means exclusively) towards Alsace, notably the admirable Domaine Schoenheitz, whose vineyards rise up above the village and with whom they stage spectacular wine-pairing dinners.
“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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ,” 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 and Mathilde Beck-Hartweg, 5 rue Clemenceau, 67650 Dambach-la-Ville
The Trimbach family and their distinctive timbered and turreted property seem so firmly anchored in Ribeauvillé that it’s easy to suppose they must have been here for ever. The celebrated dynasty has indeed been based in Alsace for centuries: the first Jean Trimbach came originally from the eponymous town in Switzerland, arriving at the beginning of the 17th-century with the wave of settlers invited to re-populate Alsace after the ravages of the Thirty Years War. He established himself initially in Riquewihr, where in 1626 he was made a burgher of the town.
Some 200 years later Jean’s descendants moved to Hunawihr, where in 1839 Frédéric Emile was born. He was to become a pivotal figure in the family’s history, establishing the reputation of Trimbach wines on the international stage. His initials, F.E., live on in the firm’s title and his name is honoured in their Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile. Finally, at the conclusion of the First World War, the family transferred operations to Ribeauvillé.
The dynastic tradition of this great winemaking family continues undiminished. Today the firm is presided over by elder statesman, Hubert, with nephews Pierre and Jean playing leading roles as winemaker and export director respectively. Hubert is enjoying semi-retirement, having shared export responsibilities – and a punishing travel schedule – with Jean for many years. Similarly, Pierre understudied his father Bernard (now retired) for several years before taking over as chief winemaker in 1985.
The allocation of key roles in a family business can be a tricky one. As luck would have it, the two brothers’ particular skills dovetail perfectly and each clearly enjoys huge job satisfaction. Jean, urbane and multi-lingual, travels the world spreading the Trimbach message, spending at least two months a year in the States. David Schildknecht, who for many years reported on Alsace for The Wine Advocate, refers to the family’s “ambassadorial status in the US”. Pierre, the only one actually living ‘above the shop’, is most often to be found in Ribeauvillé watching over his wines with an eagle eye. And Pierre’s daughter Anne, who represents the thirteenth generation of the family, now aids Jean.
After the US, the next biggest market is France, where their wines figure on all 26 three-star Michelin restaurants. Serge Dubs, head sommelier at the Auberge de l’Ill and a Meilleur Sommelier du Monde, recalls that back in the 1970s Trimbach wines were “already making eyes sparkle”. He pays a warm tribute to the strength of this family enterprise, which has managed to evolve steadily while maintaining the famous Trimbach style.
Ah, the ‘Trimbach style’. It is invariably characterised as dry, sometimes steely, even a touch austere. Pierre finds an insistence on ‘dryness’ to be reductive and simplistic, as if the mere absence of sugar was some kind of automatic guarantor of quality. He prefers the term ‘balanced’ (“the rest is blah, blah, blah”). In theory, it’s not hard to make dry wine. In practice, as he observed at a recent conference at the Lycée Viticole in Alsace, it’s difficult to make a great dry wine.
Nor does either brother have much patience with the Protestant-versus-Catholic device that’s regularly wheeled out as a shorthand descriptor for two distinct Alsace wine styles. (The lean, precise, upright Trimbach style supposedly places them in the Protestant camp; the opulent, exuberant character of wines from, say, Rolly-Gassmann earns them the Catholic label.) Steven Spurrier talks rather of clarity and precision right across the range, adding “once you get used to [Trimbach wines] it becomes very difficult to go back to the fuller, fatter styles.”
As guardian of the Trimbach style, Pierre is widely admired. Shy and self-effacing, he shrugs off the multiple plaudits, insisting that “wine comes first of all from terroirs, not from the hand of the winemaker”, adding with a sheepish grin: “well, maybe a bit – after all, I was voted [by Decanter, in 2006] as one of the world’s top ten white winemakers”. Thierry Meyer, regional Alsace chair for Decanter’s World Wine Awards, tips his hat to Trimbach, not only for their iconic Clos Sainte Hune and Cuvée Frédéric Emile wines but also for their ability to produce large volumes of reliably good, widely available and affordable Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Behind this stands Pierre’s expertise and experience in blending the fruits (both own and purchased grapes) from the different parcels that make up the mosaic of the Trimbach vineyards.
Their 43 hectares of vines are scattered over seven different communes, including many in the top grands crus. Most famous is the precious 1.67-hectare Clos Sainte Hune, a south-facing limestone enclave that sits snugly inside Grand Cru Rosacker, with vines averaging 50 years old. They also own vineyards in Grand Cru Osterberg and Geisberg, and have recently added to their Geisberg holding by leasing vines from the nuns of the Couvent de Ribeauvillé (“Protestant wines from Catholic vines”, observes Pierre, almost managing to keep a straight face).
An important new development has been their acquisition, after lengthy and patient negotiations, of a 1.6-hectare chunk of Grand Cru Schlossberg. To general astonishment (given the well-chronicled scepticism about Alsace’s grand cru system by Trimbach, as well as Hugel and Beyer) [though Hugel has now also swung round on this], the Geisberg wines from the convent’s vineyards and the Schlossberg wines will may be labelled grand cru. However, as Pierre acknowledges, “the day we bring out our first grand cru, it’s got to be irréprocheable (beyond reproach), so if 2012 [the first possible vintage, and a particularly challenging year] is not up to it, we won’t do it.”
So what has prompted the change in thinking on grand cru? Jean downplays the suggestion that Trimbach was ever vehemently opposed, preferring to say they were “not happy” with the original set-up. But today, he admits, things have improved a lot. A new generation of wine-buyers and sommeliers know (and respect) the leading grands crus and it would be “unthinkable to buy 1.6ha of top vineyards today in Grand Cru Schlossberg and not label the wines as such”. How well these newborns will ultimately rub along with their famous Clos Sainte Hune, Cuvée Frédéric Emile and Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre siblings – and above all, where they will fit into the already well-established hierarchy – remains to be seen.
If there seems to have been a revolution in thinking on the grand cru front (“it is a bit of a scoop”, admits Pierre ruefully), other changes have been more evolutionary. In the vineyards, pruning is shorter than in the past and yields are now no more than 55hl/ha for Riesling and 45hl/ha for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer (compared with ceilings of 80-96 hl/ha for Alsace AOC and 55-66hl/ha for Alsace Grand Cru, across all varieties). Chemical fertilisers have been outlawed on the estate since 19521972, and Pierre was one of the first to introduce confusion sexuelle techniques, which drastically reduce insecticide use. Since 2009 Clos Sainte Hune has been farmed along organic lines, a development that most winegrowers would trumpet from the rooftops, but which chez Trimbach has gone largely unnoticed. Pierre sees it simply as a logical development of their already established viticultural philosophy.
It’s fashionable to look back to a supposed golden age when all Alsace wines were dry (unless late harvest or botrytised) and to bemoan an apparent swing to sweetness – though there’s evidence that this particular pendulum is ripe for correction. Meanwhile Maison Trimbach continues quietly and without fanfare to do what it has always done best: making fine, upstanding, beautifully balanced wines that encapsulate what David Schildknecht defines as “the classic, dry profile of Alsace wine”. A longer version of this article appeared originally in the August 2013 issue of Decanter
The vexed question of sweetness in Alsace wines refuses to lie down – it’s been the subject of vigorous and enlightening discussion in recent French Wine Society forums in connection with the Alsace Masters-Level Program currently running, headed by Thierry Meyer. Here’s the nuts-and-bolts of a piece I wrote for Decanter in 2009. Sadly, the picture hasn’t changed much since then: there’s still no consensus on how best to inform the consumer, and confusion continues to reign.
“Alsace is on the dry side of the Rhine” or so Pierre-Etienne Dopff of Dopff au Moulin was fond of saying in the early 90s when I was researching my book A Taste of Alsace. He wasn’t alone in holding this view. The wines’ traditional image – rich, aromatic, fruity but reliably dry – was well established, nurtured alike by winemakers and by CIVA (Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins d’Alsace, the region’s wine promotion body), and well understood and appreciated by the consumer.
But of late things appear to have slipped a bit and the claim that many wines are getting too sweet for their own good is fast becoming a clamour. Jancis Robinson in the Financial Times, Eric Asimov in the New York Times and Tom Stevenson in his Wine Report have all complained on occasion that it’s getting harder to decode Alsace wine, and impossible to tell before popping the cork how dry (or not) this particular drop will be.
Is all this talk of an Alsace sugar rush just something got up by the Chattering Glasses? Or is there a real problem?
There certainly is, commented Jean-Louis Vézien, Director of CIVA. “People are deserting us for other, simpler appellations. We’re failing to attract newcomers to our wine because of confusion about likely sweetness levels.”
Marcel Orford-Williams, the Wine Society’s Alsace specialist who buys from fourteen different producers, concurs. “Our customers insist that they want dry wines, not heavy, overly sweet ones that don’t work with food.”
Etienne Hugel, whose family firm (along with Trimbach, Beyer and others) has been a standard-bearer for dry wines in Alsace, is similarly emphatic. “Our image as a dry-wine region is at risk.”
Where exactly does the problem lie? Not with Vendanges Tardives or Sélection de Grains Nobles wines, which are by definition sweet-natured. Nor with the great, old-established houses (Hugel, Trimbach, Beyer) who have made their name with dry wines. Neither is there an issue with those eminent winegrowers (Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Weinbach, Schlumberger, Rolly Gassmann) who have carved out a niche for themselves with consistent, well understood and widely admired wine styles that are often characterised by some residual sugar.
The problem lies mainly with entry-level AOC wines, but also with some Grand Crus and lieux-dits (named vineyard sites), any of which can be startlingly sweet. Such wines are failing to connect with their most obvious market – the undecided buyer who’s looking for clear, bright, fresh varietal character, wines that are pleasurable but not simplistic, “plaisant, mais pas complaisant” (to quote consultant oenologist Denis Dubourdieu, who has advised the Ribeauvillé Cave). Most punters, when faced with the hurly burly of Alsace wines and their unpredictable sweetness levels settle rather for the deep peace of a generic Sauvignon or Chardonnay.
How has Alsace, for years known as a producer of aromatic, fruity, reliably dry white wines, ended up in the dock for producing too many sweet ones? A number of possible explanations are wheeled out, ranging from global warming (average summer temperatures in this already sun-privileged region have certainly increased in the last two decades) to reduced yields (down from an absurdly high 120 hectolitres per hectare to 80-96 hl/ha for straight AOC wines, and 55-66hl/ha for Grands Crus). There’s even a suggestion that the region’s passionate dash to biodynamics could be a contributory factor. Any of these propositions are apt to raise eyebrows. After all, global warming, reduced yields and biodynamics are not exclusive to Alsace, but common to other vineyards at similar latitudes, where raised sugar levels are not, seemingly, an issue.
So what’s to be done? For a start, better information is needed about likely sweetness levels, acknowledges Jean-Louis Vézien. Over the years there have been countless proposals, including 1) a single designation to cover dry wines (with the implication that all other wines were sweet(er)); 2) a sweet-only designation for wines exceeding a prescribed residual sugar level (thereby emphasizing precisely the trait – sweetness – that most would like to see in retreat); 3) a pictogram indicating sweetness on a scale from 1-10 (Zind-Humbrecht uses a scale of 1-5, and there are countless others, all different); and 4) an upper limit on residual sugar in Riesling.
A system proposed by CIVA in January 2009 to its 7000-odd members was to adopt European regulations on sugar levels. According to this system, AOC and Grand Cru wines would fall into one of four categories: sec, demi-sec, moelleux or doux (dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, sweet) with each category subject to strictly defined sugar and acidity levels. The system has been adopted with some success by Ribeauvillé’s Cave Cooperative.
The problem was, the four-tier categorisation was only ever optional (to make it compulsory would have required a decree by the French government, a complicated and lengthy business). CIVA could thus only urge but not oblige its members to adopt it, so there was little chance of it ever being adopted. Latest news is that CIVA has abandoned this idea in favour of a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the driest and 10 the sweetest).
Debate will doubtless continue to rage and there seems little risk of an imminent solution. Meanwhile, take a tip from Thierry Meyer who advises that “the best way to figure out what you have in a bottle is to know Alsace wine better!” Set up some tastings using a range of bottles sourced wherever you are. Better still, travel to the region (on your own or with the help of one of my vineyard tours). Then work your way through the different cépages, get to know the diverse terroirs, the geology of the various vineyards, the particular house style, the vintage and all the other factors that together will influence the perception of sweetness in the wines. Then you can decide for yourself which wines suit your palate, your pocket and – most importantly – your menu. It will be a voyage rich in vinous discoveries. At the end of it you will be entitled to speak with authority on which wines in Alsace are dry, which sweet, and which somewhere in between.
Squeezing into the courtyard of Domaine Hering right on the narrow main street of Barr at the northern end of the Route des Vins is a ticklish business. “Pour les vendanges,” admits Fabienne Hering rufeully, “c’est un peu rock-and-roll!”. If it’s hard to navigate with a car, I can’t imagine what it must be like at harvest time, with tractors and trailers jostling for position.
The family has made wine here since 1858, and the 10-hectare domaine is owned and run today by Jean-Daniel together with his wife Fabienne. It’s well worth a visit when you’re up in these northern parts (Strasbourg is only about 15 minutes away). They make delicious, smiling wines (around 70,000 bottles p.a.) and sell them – online or in the beautiful panelled boutique – at prices fit to restore your faith in humankind (entry-level wines around €6, Grands Crus not much over €14). They belong to Tyflo, a kind of organic-lite organisation created in Alsace in the ’90s whose members work according to sustainable agricultural practices.
If you have time, take a stroll through the Grand Cru Kirchberg vineyard that rises just up behind the house. From the trail, which is well signposted, you get heavenly views of the town and the surrounding countryside, not to mention an up-close-and personal perspective of the vines – lovely in spring when buds are about to break, or a little later when in bloom (vine flowers have a delicate, elusive, kind of elderflowerish smell), or in autumn when the foliage is burnished yellow/copper/red and the rows of vines are a hive of activity.
6 Rue du Docteur Sultzer
Tel. 03 88 08 90 07
Open Monday to Friday 9h30 – 12h and 13h30 – 18h30
Saturdays 9h30 – 12h and 13h30 – 18h00
Sundays 9h30 – 11h30 or by appointment
Wihr-au-Val, a small village that lies just off the main road leading from Colmar up to the Munster Valley, feels like an unlikely place to find fine wines. Here the broad, flat-bottomed valley is vividly green, fringed alternately by vineyards — some of which climb to altitudes of 500 metres — and steeply rising forests of mixed broadleaf and coniferous trees. It’s not even on the Route des Vins, for goodness sake… but it’s well worth the detour – for the wines of Henri, Dominique and Adrien Schoenheitz. If you haven’t already tasted them, it’s time. Go.
Henri grew up here in the valley, while his wife Dominique comes originally from Burgundy; they met at wine school in Beaune. In 1980, their studies completed, they came back to the Schoenheitz family fold and resolved to re-establish the estate and restore the village’s reputation. This was a herculean task: at the end of the Second World War when troops swarmed down the valley in the final push towards Colmar, laying waste to everything in their wake, all the vineyards and almost all the fine old Alsatian houses were destroyed — walk around the village today and you’ll see that most of the buildings are of undistinguished post-war construction.
Over the years the few remaining wine growers in the village had more or less abandoned the vines and reverted to polyculture. The few who still owned vines sold the grapes to the local cooperative. Henri and Dominique set about rescuing and restructuring these vineyards of ancient repute and proceeded to prove by the quality of their wines that here was something worth saving. Nowadays, together with their son Adrien, they work 15 hectares. Their vineyards, which rise up steeply from the village at altitudes between 350 and 550 metres, are all south- and southwest-facing: the perfect combination of height for freshness and good exposition for optimal ripeness. Granite predominates in this part of the valley – typical of vineyards in close proximity to the Vosges mountains – giving wines of firm structure and some finesse.
They divide their wine list in three sections: Classiques (i.e. entry-level), Exclusifs (a notch up, from lieux-dits or named vineyards) and Mythiques (special cuvees, late-harvest and Sélection de Grains Nobles wines). There are no Grands Crus here, but the Schoenheitz’s have vines in four lieux-dits (named vineyards) dotted around the village. Linsenberg or ‘lentil hill’, mainly decomposed granite, is planted above all to Riesling with a little Pinot Noir. Holder (‘elder’), a little heavier with granite and clay, is good for Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurz . In the lighter, sandy soils of Herrenreben (the gentlemen’s vineyard) there is more Riesling and Pinot Gris, including — in the best years — some spectacular late-harvest wines. The vineyards in Val Saint-Grégoire (which was the original name of the Munster Valley) have always been a terre de predilection for Pinot Blanc. The Schoenheitz’s also have some Pinot Noir and Gris planted here.
Every year over the Whit Weekend (some time at the end of May) the family puts on a splendid Pique-Nique chez le Vigneron or ‘picnic at the winery’. A small tent is pitched, precariously, on a narrow shelf high in the Herrenreben vineyard, and furnished with simple trestle tables and benches. You walk up carrying your own picnic (a good icebreaker is to bring something to share with the rest of the table) and the house wine flows in abundance. After lunch there’s a chance to get up close and personal with the grapes and to hear Dominique and Henri explain the development of the vines and grapes so far as they walk you back down to the winery through the vineyards. Check their website for dates and if you can, mark your calendar and sign up for this fun event.
The French Wine Society, based in France and Washington DC, is a not-for-profit organisation responsible for a series of wine study programs, both at scholar and masters level, as well as study trips to selected French wine regions. Their newest is the Alsace Master-level program, created jointly by the French Wine Society and Alsace resident and expert, Thierry Meyer, who will be the lead instructor.
The program, which is offered entirely online, allows you to explore Alsace from the comfort of your own office or home. In addition to preparatory reading assignments, online study modules and review quiz, there are 8 live webinars by lead instructor, Thierry Meyer. There are 6 further webinars by Olivier Humbrecht MW (on traditional, organic and biodynamic winemaking in Alsace), Etienne Hugel (on late harvest and Selection de Grains Nobles wines), Andrew Jefford (with an outside perspective on the wines of Alsace), David Schildknecht (on Riesling from Alsace), Thierry Fritsch (on the structure and economics of the Alsace wine industry) and me on Alsace wines with food.
The course includes your copy of the Alsace Master-Level Study Manual, reading and tasting assignments to accompany each lecture, online review quizzes, access to instructors via the Q&A forum, an optional study immersion trip to Alsace in June of 2013 (additional fees apply) and an online, proctored exam sit. You’ll find the detailed curriculum outlined here.
The whole thing goes live on March 4th so hurry, hurry and sign up now! The cost is around US$310, with a nice reduction to my friends and contacts (insert promotion code STYLE when you register).
Looking forward to exploring the wonders of the world of Alsace wines with you!