Colmar and the volcano: Domaine Schoffit

Selection de Grain Nobles of Domaine Schoffit

Selection de Grain Nobles of Domaine Schoffit

Like so many Alsace winemakers, the Schoffits were and continue to be torch bearers who made wine to remember generations.  Though their history traces back more than four hundred years, the modernity of their oeuvre is a case of futuristic pioneering. That path is laid crystal clear by a tasting and a learning about their wines in discourse through the precocious young lens of Alexandre Schoffit.

During a week in Alsace we tasted many wines 25 years and older. At that age there can be no guessing. At Schoffit we were presented wines that fell into the four to fourteen range. No longer primary and not yet secondary, the assessments of adolescence can be difficult, confusing, beyond comprehension. The relationship between many wine’s character with its aromatics and flavours is usually that of gristle and fat on the bone of meaning. But not Domaine Schoffit. There is no gap between the structure and the wine.

The Harth Lieu-dit is the Alsace home vineyard and grounded muse for the varietal wines of Domaine Schoffit. Eleven hectares of Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Chasselas and Pinot Noir make up the core of the domain’s 100,000 bottle production. The alluvium, permeable pebble soils in Colmar and France’s most generous amount of sunshine provide the sustenance. Robert, Bernard and now Alexandre Schoffit are the facilitators of clockwork winemaking, on time, always with a shine.

If Harth is the guts, the glory comes from the volcanic sharp hillsides of the Grand Cru Rangen de Thann, acquired by Bernard in 1986. This is the only siliceous rocks and lava base in all of Alsace. It is here by the monopole and medieval church Clos St. Théobald that the foundation of the Schofitt legend lives. Rangen might borrow from the German, meaning “row.” Legend has it Saint Théobald brought the finger of the Archbishop from Bubbio, Italy because the ring was promised to the monks. The saint fell asleep in the vineyard and passed on. Another story tells of Hercules having been the one to sleep in the vineyard because the Rangen wine was so strong. His mace graces the label on the Schoffit coat of arms. Today the church and the monopole memorialize St. Théobald and his name.

From as far back as 1041 records discuss the 3rd incarnation of the monks who worked the vineyards on the treacherous slopes. Rangen Riesling and Pinot Gris need cellar time, to pay hommage to the provider’s history and to create one of its own. Grand Cru from these vines lives a life of its own. Notes Alexandre Schoffit, “in the Rangen we are not avoiding malolactic fermentation, but if it happens we are not bothered by it.” The monks knew of the connection between the Thur River’s dark waters and what happens to these wines after long rests in the cellar. “If you know the Rangen, you can tell it by the colour.”

Schoffit’s other Grand Cru is located in the Sommerberg, between the towns of Niedermorschwihr and Katzenthal. The granite hillsides are the proviso for mineral moxie and the resolution to provide what Riesling demands. Only le roi of Alsace grape varieties is made in Sommerberg. The crumbling granitic bedrock is ideally suited for the racy wines it begets.

Related – Walking an Alsace mile in their Riesling shoes

Riesling is royalty in Alsace and at Domaine Schoffit, it is king. When he introduces his family’s Pinot Gris, Alexandre Schoffit explains, “the wines are a little more simple; full-bodied, concentrated.” This attitude is prevalent across the region though some winemakers seem to love all of their children equally. Others, like Alexandre and like Jean Boxler (Domaine Albert Boxler) clearly put Riesling on the throne.

Pinot Gris is a different sort of child to raise. As a rule in Alsace and especially on the volcanic or granitic steep slopes, it must go deeper than Riesling, must burrow even further into the fissures of rock for nutrients. In Pinot Gris the mineral extraction and grape tannin suppress any thoughts of cloying or insipid sweetness.

In June of 2014 I sat down with Alexandre Schoffit at the winery in Colmar to taste 14 of his wines, along with Montreal’s Fred Fortin, Sommelier au Restaurant Laurea and New York’s Jonathan Ross, Sommelier at .  A tour of the facility showed us the stark minimalism and puritanical cleanliness that defines the three generations of winemakers at the domain. The wines echo their attention to detail, their storied history and a focus on keeping up with advancements of the times.  Here are the notes from Domaine Schoffit.

Domaine Schoffit, Colmar

Domaine Schoffit, Colmar

Chasselas Vieilles Vignes 2012 (Agent, $25.00, WineAlign)

Cropped at 40-50 hL/l because they are careful not to let it get out of control. According to Alexandre Schoffit this number is like 20 hL/L for any other grape variety. Chasselas here for easy drinking, with mildly sweet (4.7 g/L) flavours that express green herbs and vegetables. Round (12.8 per cent abv) and sound Chasselas, helped by the balance of the vintage. Though not exceptional in acidity (4.4 g/L) this is not the hallmark of the grape. A wine that is almost entirely exported to foreign markets.

Riesling Lieu-Dit Harth Tradition 2012,

From the winery’s home Colmar vineyard composed of gravel and sandstone, this has open-knit fruit of early morning flowers. An apricot tang, ripeness and just a few shades away from bone-dry (7 g/L RS) and yet in a balanced (7.2 g/L TA) dry style. To taste this is as traditional as Alsace Riesling can be. Proper, as expected.

Sommerberg (c) Cassidy Havens, http://teuwen.com/

Sommerberg (c) Cassidy Havens, http://teuwen.com/

Riesling Grand Cru Sommerberg 2011

From granitic soil, the first reaction is to the beguiling strike of a match, the split to fissure of rock, the firing of a gun. The impression that begins is not just one of smell, but deeper, as if a deafening sound. This and the brisk surround of near-extreme acidity (7.7 g/L). Only 800 bottles a year are produced of this startling Riesling, a rare production for a wine of so much stone and that searing, direct energy. Clean as Riesling can and ought to be.

Riesling Grand Cru Sommerberg 2005

During a week in which many 2005’s are laid out on tasting tables, here is another spot on example. “The vintage makes the wine,” insists Alexandre and this Sommerberg drives the point. The age has had very little evolutionary effect on the aromatics. The lapidarian has perhaps had its stone face suffused by a fleshy permeate, Jacked by a temporary balladeering smother, though it will undoubtedly re-emerge hard-core lithic further on down the road. Typical, it seems, of granite-based Alsatian Riesling. Begins in matchstick, enters lanolin, beeswax and wooly sphericity at eight to ten years of age, then returns to flint later in life. Acidity is the catalyst in this development. “And if we are fools in love, then a happy fool I would rather be, and I’ll be glad to learn from you,” though I know Sommerberg has nothing to learn from me. Racy Riesling, seemingly understood but never really known. “Well that’s the magical kind cause its flowing all the time.”

Riesling Grand Cru Rangen De Thann Clos St. Théobald 2012 (Agent, $60.00, WineAlign)

Here the volcanic axiom. Not the one that includes magnetic reversals, dinosaur populations and the stock market, but yes, the one concerning global rhythms. The 2012 global and Alsace vintage heat sees Rangen yield at just under 40 hL/L, with soaring aromatics in a wine that will lack the stuffing for longevity. Simpler and so lifted in florals while herbiage balms and bombs the (“Schistes” label-designated aridity) in salinity and fruit driven to immediate assets. The Clos St. Théo’s young acidity is so much rounder than ’10 and ’07, though still very disciplined. Purely and effortlessly representative Rangen to enjoy while the others sleep.

Riesling Grand Cru Rangen De Thann Clos St. Théobald 2010 (Agent, $60.00, WineAlign)

The label is also known as the “Schistes,” indicating a new de facto dry style and another example to speak about the Schoffit purity, clarity and precision. A whiff of smoke pursues the ethereal in this terrific and exemplary 2010, like the 2000’s of a decade earlier, balanced and elevated by a low and slow evolution. The schist soil impart brings a lime acidity in piercing precision. The near-optimum vintage is taken full advantage of, perfect to show off the Schoffit style. The only imperfection is the lack of economics, a result of the yields (under 30 hL/L). Never mind the wash, this has aridity and salinity in frozen waves, immense like a raging river’s falls suspended in animation. Rangen Riesling is as dramatic an expression as any in the world and this ’10 perches amongst the top of the class. Drink 2018-2030.

Riesling Grand Cru Rangen De Thann Clos St. Théobald 2007 (Agent, $60.00, WineAlign)

The ’07 Rangen is not showing age with the same advancement as the Sommerberg but the idea is just the same in that the roundness or richness has stepped in to soften the volcanic salinity and mineral mouthfeel. The rigid attributes persist but currently reside in a purgatorial state of temporary stoicism. The dry finish is the locus point to indicate (five more years) time is needed to see past the salty breakwater and to reach the true meaning in its character. Also, because this ’07 has been through malolactic, unlike the Sommerberg, yet the consequences are not a question of compromise for balance. Drink this from 2019-2027.

Quelques grappes du futur Pinot Gris Grand Cru Rangen Clos Saint-Théobald 2013 (c) https-::www.facebook.com:schoffit:

Quelques grappes du futur Pinot Gris Grand Cru Rangen Clos Saint-Théobald 2013
(c) https-::www.facebook.com:schoffit:

Pinot Gris Tradition 2011

Here the Schoffit proclivity towards the potency of Pinot Gris as a straightforward and heady white. The sugar (13.1 g/L) is felt and yet its strength is conveyed by elasticity, bespoken towards needing to give this a few years to settle. Propellant wound acidity (5 g/L) keeps the proportion in flavours of peach, pear and the appendix of savour. Drink this paradigmatic Pinot Gris from 2016-2020.

Pinot Gris Grand Cru Rangen De Thann Clos St. Théobald 2010

In this volcanic soil plussed Pinot Gris the anxiety is palpable. The sugars are derived from orchard fruit at a ripeness pulled by acerbity (9.5 g/L) in clairvoyance of that volcanic mind, skewed and eschewed through utter dramatic density. A good bitterness prevails over the tension with a finish in citrus intensity. Moments of delicacy give a peek to where this will go, that and the incredulous observation on how remarkable 37 g/L of residual sugar is tempered along. Drink from 2018-2025.

Pinot Gris Grand Cru Rangen De Thann Clos St. Théobald 2000

So here is what 14 years provides from the depths of a steep volcanic slope high atop the Rangen. Like a burning candle meets crème brûlée, the wax smouldering, the sugars caramelizing, the symbiotic augmentation crystallizing in natural sweetness, in seamless fusion. This represents the reason we take time to look at and see what happens to Pinot Gris, from altitude-afflicted vines with volcanic interruption and through the neurasthenia of originally-picked unsullied, purest fruit. The cleanest botrytis. Rapturous PG. Drink now through 2025.

Pinot Gris Grand Cru Rangen De Thann Clos St. Théobald Vendanges Tardives 2010

Quite clean and lean for VT out of that exaggerated hyperbole of a terroir-driven vintage. The richness and fullness is on the palate at this early stage in its development. Very full (approximately 50-60 per cent) botrytis affected grapes in a repeat recording for hygienic, pellucid and precise. The aromas are from white fruit, flowers and tender apricot. The acidity (5.8 g/L) is unexceptional, observed in relation to a lower block’s fruit (on the middle slope) which is naturally lower in acidity and less concentrating (128 g/L) to the grapes. While the verve may have wandered away in marronage, the delicacy here stands apart. Drink sooner rather than later.

Pinot Gris Grand Cru Rangen De Thann Clos St. Théobald Sélection de Grains Nobles 2007

From a vintage of concentration for SGN. A very smokey note bristles with the highlight of lit beeswax intensity. Telescoped and rapt aromas of peach and apricot turn syrupy on the palate. This SGN is extremely young at heart and bounds about like a whelp of limitless innocence and energy. If the highest pinot in volcanic absorption could be measured in Alsace, this Rangen might top the bimetal thermometer. Fills the fullness and complexity kettle yet somehow, miraculously remains light on its feet. With “hair of gold and lips like cherry it’s good to touch the green, green grass of home.” This is oozing (265 g/L) dessert wine, sticky, infiltrating the pores of fingers the moment it leaves the glass. The finish is marked by citrus (9.5 g/L) and the classic Schoffit lit wick. From George Jones to a Scony Mack kind of SGN, like the back of a woman’s knee.

Pinot Gris Grand Cru Rangen De Thann Clos St. Théobald Sélection de Grains Nobles “Larme de Lave” 2007

A mere 500 plus bottles (with sugar at 510 g/L) are produced of this SGN which I believe will live forever. “This bottle is made to show what can be done,” says Alexandre Schoffit. “It’s more than a dessert wine. It’s a meditative wine.” When it pours into the glass it takes a moment to settle into itself. That’s how viscous it is. Moves beyond pure apricot, into the essence of a multitude of fruits. Picked hand by hand, seeking only the botrytis-affected berries. The unadulterated soul of natural grape sugar. Few words can express the need to ceremonialize its incredulity. With alcohol at 4.9 per cent and a potential of 37.2, the Lave will live more than 100 years, of that we can be sure.

Gewürztraminer Grand Cru Rangen De Thann Clos St. Théobald Sélection de Grains Nobles 2006

Richer, with an early increase in caramel, colour and in warm concentration. There is licorice (no, really) on the nose and also pine. “A really complicated vintage,” explains Alexandre. This has a drier sensibility as compared to the Pinot Gris, with dried fruit flavours of mango and apricot. An oily, petrol note adds to the confusion and a hard-pressed, on the spot ability to pick this out blind as Gewürztraminer would certainly be a reality. Orange peel and slate fall in late. The residual momentum (162 g/L), acidity (8 g/L) and alcohol (11.7 per cent) may be misfit bedfellows but messing with what the vintage and the slope gives would be a bite upon the hand that feeds. It is what it is, you can’t change it. This is the fragmentary varietal character of the Rangen.

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A Blanck slate in Alsace

Paul Blanck et fils Photo (c): https://www.facebook.com/Domaine.Paul.Blanck

Paul Blanck et fils
Photo (c): https://www.facebook.com/Domaine.Paul.Blanck

Philippe Blanck‘s wines are his tabula rasa; Riesling, Muscat d’Alsace, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Chasselas, Pinot Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. They are like children, young and innocent in their infancy, uncomplicated canvases, unaware of what complexities may befall them. Blanck begins with quires like Aristotle’s “unscribed tablets” and transforms these epistemological blank slates through nurturing, experience and perception. His wines are those of expression, not impression.

Domaine Paul Blanck announces to the world they are “Vignerons d’Emotions depuis 1610 en Alsace.” They embody “family spirit” with the objective “to create wines of pure pleasure for wine-lovers throughout the world.” Thirty different wines are produced from the property, separated into three main types. First there are the fruit driven wines to “enable the wine-lover to discover the aromatic finesse of the Alsace grape varieties.” Second are the wines with mineral characteristics, “the single vineyards and grands crus which express the plenitude of limestone, the sweetness and firmness of clay, the harmony of manganese and the racy bouquet and power coming from silica.” Then there are “les nectars,”  the late harvest and “grains nobles” issued from overripe grapes “which are mysterious, opulent, complex and exuberant.”

The English philosopher John Locke brought forth the nature versus nature proposal of the blank slate as “a tacit theory of human nature, namely, that human behavior is caused by thoughts and feelings.” The application of the premise to wine is viable because of the naked stage at which a yet fermented grape exists.

During the grape’s life cycle, genealogy and climate shape its development. But even after it is plucked from the vine it still carries no true identity, in so far as what it will become as a wine. This is the point where nature gives way to nurture. Environment now acts as the catalyst to shape the wine’s life. Wine does not evolve because of natural selection. It evolves at the hands of the winemaker.

The tabula rasa theory works with respect to wine with the only exception being “when innate characteristics are considered because “innate ability and blank slate are two totally opposing ideas, so how can they coexist?” Wine is a blank slate before it is crushed and sent to ferment. Its en route ability to acquire knowledge is anything but innate. Domaine Blanck’s wine is different. It’s tactility defines how it develops and ages. The Blanck 1983 Muscat proves the point. It’s mien is almost impossible to comprehend. Experience imprints knowledge.

Blanck the Darwinian is the keeper of blank slates baring little resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Not because their development incorporates the concepts of heredity, genealogy and culture. It is here within that the Blancks share a commonality with other traditionalists. Where Philippe’s take differs is in the anti-Descartes approach to making wine. Alsace is certainly a wine region with a storied history. It’s a place where sixth and eight and tenth generation winemakers have been passed down the torch of practice and the tools to work with varietals and their idiosyncratic tendencies. For this learned reason and because he approaches l’élevage with feelingPhilippe Blanck’s wines need to be assessed with a combination of art and science.

While it may seem absurd to think about Philippe Blanck‘s wines, or any winemaker’s for that matter as evolved and developed in direct connectivity to musings and dissertations, spend three hours tasting with him. You too will walk away with a poet’s perception, a musician’s intuit and a writer’s reverie. Philippe Blanck makes full use of human intellect and empirical familiarity to help realize his wine’s potential.

The Gewürztraminer Bird of Alsace, Domaine Paul Blanck

The Gewürztraminer Bird of Alsace, Domaine Paul Blanck

Philippe makes the wines with his brother Frédéric, “the artist, the solitary one.” Philippe self-describes himself as the “people person.” The domain is not organic but “we are close. Plowing is the key to organics, and grass, and compost. It’s enough.” No chemical products are used, unless it’s entirely necessary, like in 2006 and 2012 when botrytis ran rampant. “If you want to have low yields, why have fertilizers?” Blanck notes the importance of building up resveratrol in the grapes, essential for disease resistance and vine health.

The Blanck portfolio includes Les Classiques, single, classic-varietals with less than five g/L of residual sugar. Then there are Les Cépages Oubliés, a category which defines a series of wines, but not what they are capable of becoming. They are in fact a set of outliers, a group of grape varieties having fallen from vogue, kept alive by vignerons like Paul Blanck et fils. The varietal eccentricity of Chasselas, Sylvaner and Auxerrois. Les Vins de Terroir come from lieux-dits, spend one year in vats and another one to two in bottle. Les Grands Crus need six to seven years to reach potential but as Blanck exclaims, “after two or three years of cellaring the wine is exploding.” Les Nectars include Les Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) and Les Sélections de Grains Nobles.

Philippe Blanck, Domaine Paul Blanck

Philippe Blanck, Domaine Paul Blanck

In June of 2014 I sat down with Philippe Blanck at the winery in Kientzheim to taste 17 of his wines, along with Montreal’s Fred Fortin, Sommelier au Restaurant Laurea, New York’s Jonathan Ross, Sommelier at  and Chicago’s Doug Jeffirs, Director of Wine Sales for Binny’s Beverage Depot.  Philippe pulled out 10 bottles with at least 15 years of age on them, including an ’83, two ’85’s and an ’89, because “how often do you have the opportunity to open wines like this?” Philippe’s response? “When people come.”

Related – Giving Grand Cru Pinot Noir d’Alsace its due

Here are notes on 14 wines tasted that day in June. The other three are Pinot Noir, published (as noted within the link), back in September.

Tasting with Philippe Blanck, Domaine Paul Blanck

Tasting with Philippe Blanck, Domaine Paul Blanck

Pinot Blanc Classique 2013

Has an unoaked Chardonnay approach, from early-ripening fruit vinified in a clean, fresh style. The soils are gravel, sand and south-facing clay and limestone. The vintage is what Alsatians would call classic; consistently cool with low yields. Aromatic purity, of citrus and flowers move to a solid and slightly weighty bitter mid-palate, then give way to a sliding scale finish.

Auxerrois Vieilles Vignes 2010

This grape variety from Luxembourg came to Alsace in the 18th century. Blanck leaves it for one year on the lees, to add richness and to bring out aromas from gentle oxidization. The wine is then left in bottle for three more years before release. The oxygen-free environment couples with the earlier air transfer to complicate matters in beautiful didacticism. The aromatics are massively tropical and the wine is imperfectly clean. Full and fleshy, accessible but intensely cerebral. Auxerrois in awe of what must be.

Pinot Blanc 1989

This from granite soils, full of mineral and white tannin, yet never saw a moment in barrel. The location is the Grand Cru Furstentum, in a windy area, perfect for Pinot Blanc. Has that sense of Burgundian metallurgy, that texture and that buttery malo feel. “This is a paradox without being a paradox” says Blanck, because the tannins are in the vineyard. Even in hue you get a sense of the botrytis. “She’s a beautiful blonde,” quips Philippe, she’s “the sensuality of humanity,” adds Ross. Here Pinot Blanc lets it be, amazes with a pure, silky, textural feeling and a cleanse of the mouth. “All these years I’ve been wandering around, wondering how come nobody told me” there could be Pinot Blanc like this. Now I’ve got a feeling I’ll find more.

Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg 2010

This is what Philippe Blanck calls “a flagship wine.” From a cold vintage with excruciatingly low yields. The Schlossberg gives mineral and more mineral; Kaysersberg migmatite, granite of Thannenkirch, potassium, magnesium, fluorine and phosphorus. Blanck’s Riesling distills its rock heredity in classicism and minimalism. Matured on its lees in large oak barrels for 12 months, this is possessive of a roundness despite the vintage, with Sémillon like wax and back-end intensity. It should be considered a two to three-year Riesling, maxing out at the six to seven-year range.

Pinot Gris Grand Cru Schlossberg 1998

The bottle had been open 10 days so we were tasting this just for fun, for experience. Philippe did not see the purpose in a formal tasting note. With allegiance to the informal tasting note, the presented wine conjured up one word: Incroyable. So very alive in depths despite the heart worn on its sleeve. Flowers seemed to suddenly enter the room as its complexities were revealed. I could only ask how this could not work itself into my passive consciousness, this wine that had shed its skin and borne its naked ass to the world for so long. It had nothing to hide and nothing left to prove.

Philippe Blanck in the Schlossberg Photo (c): Cassidy Havens, http://teuwen.com/

Philippe Blanck in the Schlossberg
Photo (c): Cassidy Havens, http://teuwen.com/

Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg 2009

Tasted from a 375 mL bottle, under screwcap. A crystalline expression, touched by silky tannins, citrus angles and dry, chaste class. The vintage has bestowed it with a broad mid-palate, excellent structure and admiral length, all in admonition of its preparation. The ’09 Schlossberg will live long, in ways that a current look at the ’03 is showing, by gaining tropical flesh and a meringued texture as it ages.

Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg 2003

At nearly 11 years of age this archetypal Blanck confab to Alsace Grand Cru clambake sips swimmingly youthful and offers the first and most near-recent look at the house style. Restraint, beauty and intensity are summed up in citrus, mineral and granitic tannin. Quite a quenelle or three of creamy, sherbet-like texture fills the centre of the gelid exterior. Will develop to maturity with another 11 years and a retrospective look back at that time will reveal the glory of the Blanck Schlossberg narrative.

Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg 1994

Popped from a 375 mL bottle, the ’94 is the first to be propelled by petrol. Twenty years ago it came from the Schlossberg’s crenelated granite summits with the simple thought of “gonna be a blank slate, gonna wear a white cape.” Two decades on it’s a national symbol of a father to son enfeoffment, a Riesling of handed down knowledge and analysis. Now in phase two of the atomic launch, it’s also quite sexy, skirting flesh, cut above the knee and showing magical, mineral flanks. A sweet bitterness prescribes its packed and protracted punch. This 1994 shows signs of a melting, leading it into the finest years of its life.

Riesling Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru Schlossberg 1991

From a tough vintage, especially considering the trilogy of exceptional wines made in 1988-1990. The yields were frighteningly low (less than 20 l/hL) but this, in Blanck’s estimation, “is a poetic wine.” The oeuvre here is all about tannin and acidity, from granite (of course), which is what gives it the intangible quotient of age. The ultramafic rock, igneous and nurturing in origin, intrusive by nature. Drink it any earlier, says Philippe and “you miss the culture and the experience.” There’s a mineral funk here, like a crust upon the granite, a slice of stinky wet rock, chiseled off and dissolved into the wine. This Schlossberg lacks the flesh and the naphtha of the 1994, nor will it suddenly discover it. Time to drink up.

Riesling Grand Cru Wineck-Schlossberg 1992

Wineck-Schlossberg gets its name from the ruined 13th-century Wineck Castle, between the villages of Ammerschwihr and Katzental, three km’s south of the Schlossberg. The soil is granite, like the Schlossberg, so it’s the same, but different. The advanced decomposition means more granitic fine material, a geological phenomenon that seems to make for a finer and more palpable mineral texture in this Riesling. Yet it seems more terpenic, with a level of orchard fruit in both aroma and flavour not present in the Schlossberg Rieslings. A calm and purposed ’92 from Blanck.

Domaine Paul Blanck st fils

Domaine Paul Blanck st fils

Riesling Grand Cru Furstentum 1993

Switching geological gears here, this is Riesling from limestone, obviously a different animal. Philippe Blanck does not offer his understanding of what calcaire does for Riesling as much as he muses on the poetic and the abstract. “This is a wine that gives an understanding that is just about being.” The existentialist take is curious, coming from a winemaker who speaks more like Donne or Baudelaire than Nietzsche or Dostoevsky. The investigation requires more precision and a foray into the gestalten, something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts. There is a feeling of miel in this ’93, the first in the line-up to give that sweet feeling. The Furstentum shows Philippe as a dreamer and a lover. He and this Riesling are a matter of election, not selection. This wine is the exception to the Blanck rule.

Muscat d’Alsace Réserve Spéciale 1983

From Altenbourg, a lieu-dit located at the base of the Furstentum vineyard. Here is Blanck’s “fairy tale,” a wine you would have always heard about but never had a chance to taste or likely ever seen. The terroir is limestone mixed with clay and you will have to excuse my Alsatian, but a single sniff and taste releases the expression, “are you fucking kidding me?” This 31-year old Muscat is an impossibility, a first time feeling, a never before nosed perfume. Speaks in a limestone vernacular, of grapes given every chance to survive long after their innocence had been lost. A forest herb, tree sap, evergreen resin, lemongrass and bitter orange coagulation rises from its viscous mist. The acidity has lost nothing on the fruit, acts in perfect foil and leaves you with a sense of loneliness that is just beautiful.

Paul Blanck Muscat d'Alsace Réserve Spéciale 1983 and Riesling Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru Schlossberg 1991

Paul Blanck Muscat d’Alsace Réserve Spéciale 1983 and
Riesling Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru Schlossberg 1991

Gewürztraminer Grand Cru Furstentum 1985

Elegant and refined but decelerated in the old ways, “my father’s and uncle’s way,” admits Blanck. Here a wine defined by aromatics and tangible consciousness. Spices abound, of the far east, tomato pulp, tarragon, sage, tangerine, mint and eucalyptus. It’s balmy with a streak of cool garrigue. It’s Gothic in its green grandiosity. So, it reflects pure Furstentum Alsace, back to the doyen, to the territory of the wise.

Gewürztraminer Altenbourg Vendanges Tardives 1985

Nearly 30 years have condensed and melded this late harvest wine together. This represents the Blanck intangible revenge. The series of sneaks. It’s a veritable, tropically creamy and alcoholic shake of coconut, pineapple, guava and mangosteen. Mixed in are herbs and spices. In their infancy, wines like this are a “big blank slate every day.
Big blank canvas staring at me every day.” With time they creep into my consciousness. The ’85 VT is silky, evolved and very much alive. It’s so deep and so pure it absorbs every colour of visible light expect what is to come, so it reflects back the purity of the past. Might require a spoon to enjoy to the fullest.

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Consider the Gaspereau Valley

Benjamin Bridge, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia

Benjamin Bridge, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia

No one gets us like we get ourselves. Not so long ago that statement still held more water than the combined towers in all of Canada’s small towns. Here’s another grandiloquent statement. Exceptional wine is made in British Columbia and in Ontario. The proverbial and parochial Canadian wine thinker is privy to that erudite credence, as are many global wine experts, but what of Nova Scotia? If you didn’t already know, Benjamin Bridge and more specifically, Peter Gamble have launched the revolution.

Related: The tides that bind: East Coast swing

Just past the mid-point of my July 2014 east coast swing there happened a planned yet improvisational reconnaissance with Gamble, Canada’s flying winemaker and A-team consultant. Gamble’s work with Stratus, Southbrook and Ravine Vineyards in Niagara, his partnership with Ann Sperling in B.C. and at Versado in Argentina are well documented. His work with Benjamin Bridge Vineyards is already the stuff of Canadian wine lore. What he will touch in his new appointment at Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards will make Nova Scotia history.

Godello, Winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers and Proprietor Gerry McConnell

Godello, Consulting Benjamin Bridge Winemaker Peter Gamble and Proprietor Gerry McConnell/Godello, Benjamin Bridge Winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers and Proprietor Gerry McConnell

I noted that “it is there, in the heart of the Gaspereau Valley, that the essence of Nova Scotia’s wine industry walks out from beneath the fog to reveal itself in an elongated moment of clarity.” I tasted with Gamble, Benjamin Bridge winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers and proprietor Gerry McConnell at the Gaspereau Valley winery. The next day I toured the vineyards of Lightfoot & Wolfville with Peter, along with owners Mike and Jocelyn Lightfoot, as well as winemaker Josh Horton. We also tasted through barrels. Other visits and tastings were done at Gaspereau and Luckett Vineyards. After the visit with Lightfoot, I was duly impressed.

Nova Scotia is home for Peter Gamble. When Gerry McConnell invited him to assess the potential for making wine in the Gaspereau Valley, Peter insisted, without equivocation, that the concepts of Vinifera and Sparkling be the driving equation. McConnell always wanted to make Sauvignon Blanc so the first idea was a given. But Sparkling wine? In Nova Scotia?

Peter Gamble had more than just a hunch. The Gaspereau’s cold, yet specific micro-climate was perfectly suited to ripening Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the classic varieties that make up traditional method, Champagne-styled Sparkling wine. The grapes in the Valley could be developed and harvested with the right level of brix (sugars) and acidity, as well as pH. Though still wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc were less obviously suited to the climate, setting their place in Nova Scotia’s wine future had begun.

Hans Christian Jost was the first to plant in the Gaspereau Valley, in 1992-1993. Gerry McConnell bought his (seventh generation Westcott family) farm land in 1999. “We know what we don’t know and we don’t pretend to know what we don’t know,” admits McConnell. It was Gamble (recommended to McConnell by Jost) who sparked the idea of bubbles in 2000.

“Our mission was sparkling wines, world class,” says McConnell. They hired the late, great Champenois expert, oenologist Raphaël Brisebois to consult after Peter went to England for some collaborative discussion with Tom Stevenson, the British writer who many regard as the world’s leading authority on Champagne. Then in 2008, Jean (Lebron) Benoit Deslauriers was drafted from California on Raphaël’s recommendation.

McConnell wanted to plant all 50 acres “but I talked him down,” jokes (not) Peter. It took nearly 10 years but in 2010 they began to release what they considered to be their first (2004) crop of world-class Sparkling, a Brut Reserve and Blanc de Noirs.

Benjamin Bridge Vineyard

Benjamin Bridge Vineyard

So what makes Benjamin Bridge tick out of a region that resides in relative global obscurity? Number one, the river that runs through the valley doesn’t freeze; it’s a tidal flow. That water keeps the lower part of the vineyard safe, like a warm winter blanket. It conveys the moderating effect of the Bay of Fundy. Two, the soils are extreme in granulation, in rocks and stones under clay. Three, there is great air flow, between, in and out of slopes. Four, the vineyards are south-facing, almost direct and in full advantage of the westerly sun. Last and just as important, “there is always a factor of luck.” Words to make wine by, from the ever thankful and pragmatic Peter Gamble.

The Benjamin Bridge pansophy adheres to low-yielding productivity. The average yearly production (excluding winter effect) is one to one and a half tons per acre. “We consider the fruit from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on this property to be Grand Cru,” insists Gamble. ” The climactic micro-reality is really important here,” adds Deslauriers, in reference to the BB style. “All great wines have the acidity to express a sense of their environment. We want to express the vineyard in the bottle.”

Related – Notes on previously tasted Benjamin Bridge Sparkling wines:

Nova 7 2013, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia (256289, $25.95, WineAlign)

Nova 7 2012, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia (256289, $25.95, Nova Scotia $24.99, WineAlign)

Nova 7 2011, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia (256289, $25.95, Nova Scotia $24.99, WineAlign)

Brut Reserve Méthode Classique 2007, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia (275396, $74.95, NSLC 1012526, $74.79, WineAlign)

Brut Reserve Méthode Classique 2005, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia (275396, $74.95, NSLC 1012526, $74.79, WineAlign)

Benjamin Bridge

Here are notes on four new wines tasted.

Benjamin Bridge Wines from left to right: Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Brut Rosé Sparkling 2010, Brut Methode Classique 2009, Brut Reserve Methode Classique 2008

Benjamin Bridge Wines from left to right: Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Brut Rosé Sparkling 2010, Brut Methode Classique 2009, Brut Reserve Methode Classique 2008

Brut Methode Classique 2009, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia (1018464, NSLC $44.99, 313106, B.C. $49.97, WineAlign)

Essentially, or at least philosophically a Blanc de Blancs, the blend is 57 per cent L’Acadie Blanc, 25 Chardonnay and 18 Seyval Blanc. The acidity is key and certainly elevated (12.8 g/L), keeping line tabs on the stone ground, clean fruit in gingered mousse. A defined elegance and accumulated synergy of site comes from a lower-slope perceived sweetness, down by the river. By no means piercing, there is a length here that lays down the foundation for the high-end, Vinifera-driven Sparkling wine program. The Brut ’09 conveys the growing environment, in freshness and in ripeness. A wine with such a refreshing upside.  Tasted July 2014

Brut Rosé Sparkling 2010, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia (1015073, NSLC $44.99 WineAlign)

A blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the 2010 Brut Rosé is possessive of intricate intensity and unparalleled elegance for the style and genre. It is the watershed bottle, anywhere in Canada. These bubbles are the confluence of early picked red berries, distinct platinum minerality and bitterless savoury edges. Whether or not the bitter principle is masked or eliminated by a feigned sweetness matters little. “You taste so bitter and so sweet, oh I could drink a case of you darling and I would still be on my feet.” This sets the new benchmark for Rosé sparkling out of Canadian soils. It’s so blush and melodic it’s blue. In fact, the treatment here is tender, slow and steady, sad even, also spare and beautiful.  Tasted July 2014

Brut Reserve Methode Classique 2008, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia (275396, $74.95, WineAlign)

The 2008 Brut Reserve is composed of 61 per cent Chardonnay and 39 Pinot Noir. If any wine in the Benjamin Bridge continuum defines the legacy left behind by Raphaël Brisebois and passes the sparkling torch to Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, this ’08 is it. Here is the vintage that begins to emulate the grower’s Champagne of the motherland, in deeper learning, understanding and connection to the estate’s vineyards. At present this is such an infant, reductive and with a blowzy palate that suggests a fidgety, elemental state. The attack is in burgeoning mousse. After spitting, the wine persists, as if there remains a mouthful, causing the cheeks to expand. The citrus is weighty in texture and this ’08 goes deeper than the previous Brut reserves. Three years will be required to allow for a settling and 20 years lay further ahead for secondary, tertiary and quaternary development.  Tasted at the winery, July 2014

Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia (1019689, NSLC $27.79,  WineAlign)

The 2013 marks the inaugural release for a wine that is “the by-product of an unconditional labour of love in commitment.” Gerry McConnell always wanted to make Sauvignon Blanc, Peter Gamble fostered the dream and Jean-Benoit Deslauriers made it a reality. A de facto Sauvignon force is behind the wine, 13 years in the making. Fashioned from drastically low yields, the ’13 SB is concentrated in literally handfuls of berries. It’s a style that could almost be considered eccentric. It feigns lees effect, slow fermentation, years of barrel age and late harvest. It’s a magnetic, beast of intensity, goes sweet up the middle (7 g/L residual sugar) and finishes extremely dry. There were 206 cases made.  Tasted July 2014

Lightfoot and Wolfville

This apple farm turned organic and biodynamic winery will take everything anyone has ever thought about the Nova Scotia wine industry and turn it on its head. Hybrids and local varieties will continue to be a part of the stratagem. In the unpredictable climate of Nova Scotia’s wine growing regions that is a necessity but it’s what Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will do that will put the province on the map and the world’s stage.

Young Vines in Lightfoot and Wolfville's Oak Knoll Vineyard

Young vines in Lightfoot and Wolfville’s Oak Isle Knoll Vineyard

Up on a hill near Avonport with a view of and at the head of the Gaspereau Valley is “Le Corton,” the Oak Isle knoll. It is here that Lightfoot and Wolfville, with the expertise of Peter Gamble, are banking on the future success of Vinifera grapes. There is more vigor up here in these vines (as compared to Benjamin Bridge) and the varieties planted are dual in purpose. One hand can make a serious Chardonnay, the other a Sparkling. It’s a question of vintage and ripening. The plan is essential for making wine in Nova Scotia.

Owners Jocelyn and Mike Lightfoot in the cellar at Lightfoot and Wolfville Vineyards

Owners Jocelyn and Mike Lightfoot in the cellar at Lightfoot and Wolfville Vineyards

The winery will manage Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Chasselas and Scheurebe with New York Muscat and Vidal. I tasted through the 2013 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir resting in barrel, along with a most intriguing 2012 Late-Harvest Chasselas.

Lightfoot and Wolfville Winemaker Josh Horton with barrel samples of 2013 Chardonnay

Lightfoot and Wolfville Winemaker Josh Horton with barrel samples of 2013 Chardonnay

Pinot Noir 2013

This will be L &W’s first Pinot Noir, from 15 year-old vines in Canning, near Blomidon Estates and aged in three year-old (Stratus-used) barrels.  The fruit comes by way of a grower named Al McIntyre, who was convinced to reduce yields by dropping fruit, as he traditionally made Sparkling from more vigorous vines. The profile is both fresh fruity and gravelly, like Burgenland, or perhaps Baden. Bright, black cherry meets marly earth. The tannins are present and accounted for post-traditional two-year Burgundian élevage. This is Nova Scotia Pinot Noir and it is remarkably pure.  Tasted July 2014

Chardonnay 2013

From a sample out of a neutral barrel transferred halfway through the process into two year-old barrel. The old world autolytics are textbook and this Chardonnay has already added much of its weight. The reduction at this stage is at a nearly indiscernible level. If this does not intimate Chablis, it would be tough to imagine what does. Beautifully clean Chablis, with a wild yeast accent and tropical accessories. The tannins head straight for the back of the cheeks. This is Chardonnay from Nova Scotia? Yes, it is.  Tasted July 2014

Chardonnay 2013

From a sample out of a brand (medium toast) new barrel with Meursault the intended target. It certainly leans Côte de Beaune, with a lemon, honey and wet glade aromatic soup. The latter note comes across as something herbal without being earthy and sorry to use the M word but the minerality is definitely in here. Rich and glaring in grape, not wood tannins, the length is a testament to future endeavors.  Tasted July 2014

Chardonnay 2013

A blend of the two samples brings the ghosts of the farm’s apples together in the glass. Overall the fruit came in (early November) at 21.5 to 22.8 brix. The pH falls in at 3.18-3.2 and the total acidity 9-10 g/L.

Chasselas Late Harvest 2012

A sweet wine with stinking acidity and a dry finish. At 100 g/L, this has both sugar and acidity through the roof. “It wanted to be this,” notes Josh Horton. “We didn’t plan to go this route, but we did.” Unleashed and wild LH.

Gaspereau Vineyards

After a morning spent with the Lightfoots, Peter Gamble brought me to taste at Gaspereau Vineyards with Rebecca Griffin, Associate Winemaker & Vineyard Manager at the winery’s parent entity, Devonian Coast Wineries. Gaspereau winemaker Gina Haverstock, who I tasted with at Brock University’s Technical Sparkling Wine Symposium in May, was away on holiday. After being guided through Haverstock’s Rieslings, I can safely say that I will look forward to tasting future (and hopefully library vintages) with her on my next visit east.

The Rieslings of Gaspereau Vineyards - Front Label

The Rieslings of Gaspereau Vineyards – Front Labels

Griffin led us through renditions of Nova Scotia’s signature white Tidal Bay, an Icewine and five exceedingly promising Rieslings. The tightly wound and magnanimous acidity of the lot impressed not just for their food versatility but also their kinship with some of the greater Riesling producing regions of the world. Both Clare Valley and the Beamsville Bench came to mind, as well as the Okanagan Valley and Alsace. Here are notes on the wines tasted.

The Rieslings of Gaspereau Vineyards - Back Labels

The Rieslings of Gaspereau Vineyards – Back Labels

Riesling Black Dog 2010

The vintage gives rich fruit, tempered by a mineral and lime layering. Though very dry and somewhat angular with a clamp down bite, the warmth inherent and abundant flavours give it bounty.  Tasted July 2014

Riesling Black Dog 2011

Tighter even, full-on snare driven Riesling. Less luxuriant than the ’10, with more pierce, a zigzagging beat in angles and relentless drive that’s “gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.” Gets the lead out with a juicy burst of orange zest. This Black Dog is a howler and goes on for minutes on end.  Tasted July 2014

Riesling Warner’s Vineyard 2011

This single vineyard Riesling shows more brightness, in white fruit and an increase in mineral. Conversely it also displays a reductive funk. Wild, in ferment, with eyes that never lie and a timeless, earth-driven, low and slow layering.  Tasted July 2014

Riesling Estate 2011

Bottled in a 500 mL format because of drastically low quantities. Only 125 cases in the half litres were made. At first it’s fresh, bright orchard fruit with a minor key in funk. Moves into ginger, lime and the white heat of lit limestone, or more specifically, gypsum. Smells a bit like machine gun powder, leading to a plugged in “ignited fever and I can’t put out the flame.” Hot Riesling in a band of gypsies, with a rat tat tat sound and a nose for excitement.  Tasted July 2014

Riesling Tri0 2012

The Trio is assembled from Warner, Black Dog and Estate vineyards. Richer, warmer, rounder Riesling. The aromatics are more pronounced but also muddled together. Not as stark as compared to the others. Not so much sweeter as rounder, fuller and less piercing. Still, the Gaspereau Riesling funk persists.  Tasted July 2014

Good to go!

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