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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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