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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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. 

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

Domaine Paul Blanck, Kientzheim

Paul Blanck winesHere’s the first of what I hope will be loads of posts on Alsace Wine Travel. I’m in the process of updating my Alsace sections for Wine Travel Guides, a pleasurable task that I fit in around general writing, travel and food assignments and one that will be spilling out onto these pages.

To explain the WTG approach: for each of the three Alsace micro-regions, I select 12 growers to profile. Updates are a chance to refresh my selections, so each year a few drop out of the mix and new ones step into their place. I’ve tasted Paul Blanck wines on a number of occasions, including at Thierry Meyer’s  Oenoalsace dinners, but never visited. Today was the day.

Domaine Paul Blanck is a 35-ha estate producing approximately 230,000 bottles a year, of which an astonishing 80% is exported – the US and Benelux are faithful clients. They grow the usual 6 Alsace white grape varieties (riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurz, Muscat, Pinot Blanc & Sylvaner), plus Chasselas, and some Pinot Noir. Their vineyards are scattered around 5 different Grands Crus – Furstentum, Schlossberg, Wineck-Schlossberg, Sommerberg and Mambourg – and they also own a whole slew of lieux-dits in and around Kientzheim. The estate is run nowadays by Paul Blanck’s two grandsons, Frédéric, the wine maker, and Philippe, responsible for sales and marketing .

The property, snugly ensconced inside the medieval walls of the picturesque village of Kientzheim (home of the Confrérie de Saint Etienne, Alsace’s wine fraternity) is clearly marked and their sign said ouvert but repeated pealings on the doorbell drew a blan[c]k. Finally we raised someone and stumbled down into the cellar, grateful to take refuge from the March snow flurries. The slightly gloomy and cobwebby nether regions come as a huge surprise after the slick professionalism of their website, www.blanck.com.

But while the cellar and tasting space may be a little dusty, the wines fairly sparkle. We started with an ’09 Auxerrois (aka Pinot Blanc, at the more aromatic end of the spectrum), fragrant and bone-dry, progressing to their entry level Riesling ’11, lightly fruity, not especially typé, crisp and green apple-y. Staying with the Riesling theme we tried a Rosenbourg ’09 (more petrolly, also crisp and bone-dry), a GC Sommerberg ’08 (gorgeous, grapefruit) and a GC Furstentum ’05 (marked petrol aromas, more minerality, less citrus).

Next up came a couple of Pinot Gris, first a 2010 Patergarten, a lieu-dit just south of the village that runs right up against neighbouring Kaysersberg (recognisably PG, perfect balance sugar/acidity), followed by a GC Furstentum ’09, which was richer, more complex, with perceptibly more residual sugar. Then came two Gewurzes, Altenbourg ’07 (understated Gewurz character, lovely spicy finish) and GC Mambourg ’07 (as expected, more flesh and sinews – and natural sweetness – than the Altenbourg). We wrapped it up with two Pinot Noirs, the entry-level classique 2011, light, fresh (a bit too chilled), a little green and a Pinot Noir ‘F’ ’08, grown in Grand Cru Furstentum but not entitled to call itself a GC because not one of the officially permitted varieties – pale garnet, bitter almonds, a good mouthful, some length (has had a spell en barrique) – but IMHO the €19 they’re asking for it might be better invested in a Baden Spätburgunder from across the Rhine (Dr Heger, Becker, Johner et al).

A domaine that’s definitely worth a visit and I’ll be recommending them on the WTG site. They’re wonderfully welcoming and full of enthusiasm for their work, their wines and their region. They note on their site that “aucune obligation d’achat n’est requise” (no obligation to buy) – which is generous, considering that at the drop of a hat they will uncork a wide range, from young, generic wines right through to Grands Crus raised at a leisurely pace and given yet more ageing in bottle: you can always find older vintages still for sale here (currently wines from 2005 to 2011 listed). Prices are reasonable for the quality offered, and we happily invested in some Pinot Gris Patergarten (€12) and Gewurz Altenbourg (€13).

Domaine Paul Blanck
29 Grand’Rue
Kientzheim
Tel. 03 89 78 23 56

Paul Blanck PG-1

PS Every year on Whit Monday the Blancks – along with a host of other Alsace wine growers – throw open their doors for the annual pique-nique chez le vigneron. It’s always a joyous event and huge fun, whatever the weather. The deal is you bring your own provisions; the wine growers provide trestle tables, benches, glasses – and the wine to go into them. In the Blancks’ case, there are also visits to the vineyards and cellar. Music (piano accordeons) is not unknown. This year’s picnic is on Monday 20 May – booking essential, either by phone, or via their website, www.blanck.com