September 17th 2012 : What happened on the Alsace Trip!
Alsace Wine Region Trip
Location, location, location this is what we have learnt above all on our trip to Alsace - the effect that different soils have on the structure of the wines - the racy acidity of limestone, the minerality of granite, the fuller weight of clay and marl. But I would also add to that People, People, People as I will remember the people who make these wines as much as the wines themselves. From the foxy lady at Fuchs to the dynamic Christophe at Josmeyer, the powerful Monsieur Beyer, the entrepreneurial Julien Schaal, the intense Olivier Humbrecht, the elegant Dominique, lovely Myriam. Their characters so often reflect the wines they produce. This is what coming on a wine trip brings us - seeing the place the wine is made and meeting the people who make it. It brings the wine alive in a unique way and enriches our experience and enjoyment.
Alsace wines - pure wines that translate terroir and are perfect dinner partners. Terroir, purity.
So many of us look to the white wines of Burgundy, the Loire or New Zealand when choosing wines for dinner that we overlook the beautifully defined and concentrated whites of Alsace.
The Hansel & Gretel villages peppered along the foothills of the Vosges are surrounded by sloping vineyards which are reminiscent of Burgundy's Cote d'Or in some places. However the climate is drier than Burgundy with only 400mm of rain a year and the soils are somewhat different. The bedrock is granite laid down over 500m years ago and in various places it is overlaid with sandstone, limestone, marl and the occasional volcanic outcrop such as the famous one at Rangen Grand Cru.
This is a region which can provide a great lesson in tasting various terroirs. Compare the same vintage of one estate's Grand Crus Rieslings and you will be able to taste the difference. Made as it is in a very natural and pure way without the variables of malolactic fermentation or new oak, it literally is the terroir (soil, exposure, slope, microclimate) which accounts for the differences. Limestone can give a chalky edge to the nose but for me was distinguished most easily by the racy streak of acidity which develops on the sides of the tongue. Granite gives a minerality and acidity which underlines the wine all the way through. Heavier clay soils give weight and richness up front with the acidity coming later.
Henri Fuchs, Ribeauville
Excellent first visit to this small producer with just 10 hectares of hand-crafted wines. Showed us the cellar. Extensive tasting with one wine where they had only produced 300 bottles.
Paul Blanck, Kientzheim
Very generous tasting again including some wines dating back to 1996. Philippe managed to keep us under control - just! Extensive tasting of Rieslings from different soils: granite and limestone demonstrating the different structure these soils bring to the wines.
Extremely well made wines that display each grape variety's characteristics perfectly. David Ling talked very knowledgeably about the history of the estate and of Alsace.
A fantastic exposé of biodynamics by the very dynamic Christophe Erhart. Very pure and precise wines.
Leon Beyer , Eguisheim
We were greeted by the 13th and 14th generation of the Beyer family who supply many of the top UK restaurants. Delicious Gewürztraminer. We subsequently ordered some Beyer wines in the evening at various restaurants in Colmar and they were all excellent.
10 hectares of their own which are run biodynamically, plus 25 ha of bought in grapes. Very good Auxerrois (they say a good test of an estate is to taste their cheapest wine) and good value 2009 Riesling Collection (mid price). Also Pinot Noir 2009.
Biecher-Schaal, St Hippolyte
Young entrepreneur Julien took us through a terroir tasting of his Alsace Grands Crus range. Fascinating to see the difference the soil makes, the racy acidity from limestone, the fuller weight from marl, the power from granite and a certain extra dimension from the volcanic outcrop of Rangen which we have also noted elsewhere. Julien also very kindly provided a super lunch - see the photo. These were probably the best value wines of the trip and members left laden with cases to take home on the coach. We also tasted Julien's South African Chardonnay and Syrah.
Olivier Humbrecht gave us a fascinating exposé on viticulture as we stood in the vineyard around the winery. The vignerons amongst us learnt all about terminal buds, hedging and green harvesting! This was followed by an extensive tasting of 2010 wines of extraordinary finesse (but a price tag to go with it!).
Schoenheitz, Wihr au Val
Lovely wonder Dominique led us through her range of elegant wines which included two very fine Pinot Noirs, a very good Cremant and a lovely Pinot Gris from a single vineyard. Schoenheitz is the highest vineyard in Alsace and the only grower in Wihr au Val to bottle their own wine as everyone else's cellars were destroyed in the war and they now sell to the coop in Turckheim (next stop).
Cave de Turckheim, Turckheim
With an 8 million bottle production this cooperative includes 250 growers who all adhere to sustainable viticulture standards. Emmanuelle gave us an extensive tasting of 15 out of a potential 50 wines that they produce. Very well made, clean wines which demonstrated why they have such a good reputation.
Jean-Marie Haag, Soultzmatt
Myriam and husband Jean-Marie have a small 6 hectare vineyard around Soultzmatt and the famous Grand Cru of Zinnkoepfle. This south-facing limestone hill in a closed valley is very reminiscent of the Corton hill on the Cote d'Or in Burgundy. Gewurztraminer ripens particularly well here as the limestone soil helps it to keep its acidity. This valley produces the most Vendanges Tardives and Selection de Grains Nobles of Alsace and is obviously a special place.
Wines to look for
For dry and dry(ish) wines to go with sushi, seafood and various hors d'oeuvres, select a Riesling. For a wine to go with several different courses or types of food, including pork and lamb, select a good Pinot Gris. Go for Grands Crus when you can. With cheese (or foie gras) a Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives goes beautifully. I personally prefer VT to Selection de Grains Nobles, also from a value for money point of view, but if I had a glass I'd be tempted to have it instead of dessert in order to savour the intense balance of sugar and acidity.
One problem with Alsace wines is that some turn out to be sweeter than one expected and there is at present no indication of sweetness on the label (apart from VT and SGN of course) unless the producer includes mention of it on the back label. However the trend seems to be towards making drier wines.