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…

20171022_102206_resized

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.

20171211_184729_resized-001

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.

pfister-001

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.

20171211_184758_resized-001

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

Advertisements

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”

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”

Maison F. E. Trimbach, Ribeauvillé

1-IMG_6646The 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.

ste hune
The famous church in Hunawihr which features on the Clos Sainte Hune label

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.

IMG_7810-1If 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