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”

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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”

Alsace Wine & Food Lover’s Guide

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. 

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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.

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The Villa René Lalique, once the glassmaker’s home, now a luxury hotel and restaurant

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.

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Chef Jean-Georges Klein’s slow-roasted duck breast with “opera” of quetsch plums and almonds

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.

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Chef Michel Husser’s carpaccio of scallops on toasted potato bread

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.

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Upstairs under the rafters at Les Haras restaurant, Strasbourg

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).

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The entrance to bistro-café Au Potin, Barr

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.

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Chef Roger Bouhassoun’s lobster extravaganza

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.

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Wistub du Sommelier in Bergheim, on the Route des Vins

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.

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Nougat glacé topped with choccy kisses from chef Loic Lefebvre at L’Atelier du Peintre, Colmar

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.

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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.

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Chef Jean-Philippe Gugggenbuhl is a wizard with fish – here skrei with roasted endives

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.

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Bernard and Martine Leray’s La Nouvelle Auberge, with the bistro on the ground floor and the resto upstairs

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.

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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.

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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