Giving Grand Cru Pinot Noir d’Alsace its due

The Vineyards of Domaine Albert Mann<br /> photo (c) https://www.facebook.com/albertmannwines "Pinot Noir, like Riesling, is a mineralogist."

The Vineyards of Domaine Albert Mann
photo (c) https://www.facebook.com/albertmannwines
“Pinot Noir, like Riesling, is a mineralogist.”

You won’t find a rare or carefully considered older vintage of Pinot Noir tasted and discussed at a Millésimes Alsace Master Sommelier class. Nor will it be featured in a magazine article’s varietal spotlight on the great wines of the region. The world may ignore the potentiality and the well-established roots of the expatriate Burgundian in Alsace, but there are winemakers who know. The future of the grape with a long history is already entrenched in the Alsace progression.

Pinot Noir is the only red grape variety authorized in Alsace. The official marketing and regulatory board for the region, Le Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace (CIVA) recognizes the trenchant antiquity. “What is today considered a novelty in the region is in reality a legacy of the past that is becoming increasingly successful.” According to the Wine Society, the oldest recorded grape variety in Alsace is in fact Pinot Noir, predating Riesling by at least seven centuries.” That exaggeration aside, records dating back to the 16th century indicate that the grape variety was stored in Abbey caves and poached in tithes by the Church.

Out in the diaspora the affirmation of what best indicates Burgundy is the requiem for respect. Oregon, Central Otago and certain pockets of (cooler) California are well into their seasons of repute. Yet sometime around 10-15 years ago the $60 Sonoma Pinot Noir became serious fashion. Thanks to darlings like Kosta Browne, the sky became the limit, in California and elsewhere. A host of producers joined the ranks of the rich and famous. Looking back now, the black cherry bomb initiative temporarily cost the New World its mojo.

Those growing pains have worked to great advantage. Today you have to be better and fashion elegant Pinot Noir to attract an audience and become a hero. This goes for Sonoma County, Napa Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara, the Willamette Valley, Marlborough, Martinborough, Nelson and Otago. This applies to the Okanagan Valley and South Africa too. Niagara and Prince Edward County have followed suit. Vignerons like Norman Hardie, Thomas Bachelder, Moray Tawse and Harald Thiel understand what needs. Their wines have ushered in a $40-plus Pinot Noir era in Ontario. But Alsace? Please. Today a reckoning about Pinot Noir incites nothing but a series of car wrecks along the wine route from Thann to Marlenheim.

Burgundy and Bordeaux do not accept varietal expatriate inclusions. So, why should Alsace? For one, global warming. Say what you will about that load of scientific horse crap but the biodynamic culture that permeates much of Alsace is in tune and well aware of temperature change and ripening schedules. More and more growers are picking their whites earlier, to preserve freshness and acidity, not to mention the conscious decision to cheat botrytis and elevated residual sugar. Embracing Pinot Noir is on many of their minds. Some are ahead of the curve and have already made some exceptional wines. Many examples from the first eight years of the 21st century are showing beautifully in 2014. Phillipe Blanck poured a very much alive 1991. How many Alsace wineries can lay claim to one of those in their cellars?

It’s common knowledge to an Alsatian cognoscenti that white wines drive the mecca. Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer and their associations with the Grand Cru and lieu-dits are the it vines. Vendanges Tardives (VT or, Late Harvest) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN, or selection of noble berries) sit on thrones of glory. Even traditional varieties like Auxerrois and Muscat continue to outshine and suppress the possibilities for Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir has yet to receive any proper respect both in and outside of Alsace. Can there be justice served in a wine region where a noble variety must share nomenclature with a bottom feeder like Pinot d’Alsace, which is not really a Pinot at all. The scavenging white blend draws attention while making unsubstantiated use of the Pinot prefix. Pd’A need only contain a small percentage of any type of Pinot (Blanc, Auxerrois, Meunier or Noir) in conjunction with other white Alsatian varieties. According to wikipedia:”Lack of acidity and complexity often prevent Alsatian Pinot Noir from achieving anything more than pleasant, easy drinking, quality levels.” Them’s fighting words.

That faux Pinot sideshow is really a whole lot of nothing. The real terror is that if you grow exceptional quality Pinot Noir on Grand Cru terroir in Alsace you can’t label it as such. If you produce Riesling in the Hengst, you are good to go. If you grow Pinot Noir in any of the storied “male horse,” vineyards, the resulting wine, with respect to the variety, is only considered lieu-dit and must be labeled as such. This is the Alsace Grand Cru taboo.

As part of his recent three-part report on Alsace, British journalist Tom Cannavan covers some of the wines of the Grand Cru Hengst. Cannavan so rightly notes that “the problem is, not only is Pinot Noir ineligible for Grand Cru status, but the name Hengst cannot even appear on the label.” He did sample some basic Pinot examples and wondered aloud about the injustice being a non-sequitur. He missed the boat. Case in point Domaine Albert Mann. Back that up with Pinot Noir made elsewhere by Pierre Blanck, Jean-Pierre Frick and Mélanie Pfister, among others.

Maurice and Jacky Barthelmé of Domaine Albert Mann shirk the system with the use of a simple letter, an “H” or a “G” in place of Hengst and Pfersigberg. Philippe Blanck of Paul Blanck & Fils does the same thing with an “F” for Furstentum. It’s a wink-wink, say-no-more kind of approach. A grand parade of life-giving packaging. The brothers Barthelmé and Mr. Blanck know what excellence lies in their Pinot Noir holdings and understand the bright red future for Alsace. “Pinot Noir, like Riesling, is a minerologist,” insists Maurice. Don’t think of the brothers as pioneers so much as pragmatists. CIVA has surely taken note and despite the resistance to add Burgundy to the charges, change is inevitable. The Pinot Noir eyes never lie.

Here are two dozen Pinot Noirs tasted in Alsace during a week in June.

Domaine Albert Mann

@Smallwinemakers

Diversity of the parcels of land, disseminated and however subtly intertwined, which are the particularity of the domaine

François Bruetschy

Pinot Noir (and Pinot Gris) of Domaine Albert Mann

Pinot Noir (and Pinot Gris) of Domaine Albert Mann

Pinot Noir Clos De La Faille 2012

Though geologically speaking this Pinot Noir out of 1997 plantings in calcaire and redstone soils is a fault on the hill of nature, as a wine it shows no discernible impropriety. This represents a tectonic shift for Alsatian Pinot Noir, a lithe and floral wine of articulation and an eye opener to prepare for the intensity of Mann’s Grand letters. It’s a lightly woven, silky soft Pinot, with a furrowed brow and the necessary Mann clarity of responsibility. Density is through a looking-glass, a gateway to Alsace and what future varietal decorum may be achieved.

Pinot Noir Les Saintes Claires 2012

From calcareous soil and still the Albert Mann zealous clarity, with similar intensity and protracted density. There is a lacuna permeated by a hint at black cherry but the ken is never fully realized. At 13 per cent abv and with a set of fine, sweet tannins (even more so than La Faille), these 20 year-old vines have procured a piled Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir Les Saintes Claires 2010

A top-notch (though cool and late harvested from a small crop) vintage for Mann (and Alsace) Pinot Noir, here the calcareous parcel at Sigolsheim above an old monastery called “Les Clarisses.” Some early rot and bottle reduction have both been stabilized as the wine peels off the rust and goes mellow, in full humanizing and sensual mystery. “How great the wine is when you can see the vintage, ” chimes Maurice. Controlling the effects of both nature and fermentation seems no biggie to the brothers Barthelmé. The act is of such minor tragedy, the climax characterful and sacred. A tingle of eastern spice twitches over bright fruit and a certain florality, materializing what can only be described as obvious commitment. It’s all about the journey.

Domaine Albert Mann Pinot Noir Les Saintes Claires 2008 and Grand P 2012

Domaine Albert Mann Pinot Noir Les Saintes Claires 2008 and Grand P 2012

Pinot Noir Grand “P” 2012 (Tasted from a 375 mL bottle)

From a blend of plantings (1975 and 2004) in Wintzenheim limestone-sandstone soils on the Grand Cru Pfersigberg. Whole bunch pressed grapes (60 per cent) saw a range of oak; 25 per cent new, 50 one-year old and 25 older barrels. A light filtration was used to combat some reduction. This P is a touch ferric, not unlike Volnay but also because of the vintage. The vines in ’12 were subject to cool, then humid, then dry weather. The flux makes for a full floral display, from iron through to roses, but the wave stays linear and rigid. In its youth, the P is calm and on a level plain along its ECG-considered PQRST journey. It will soon spike past Q, up to R and then settle in for the long haul. Will hit its glide at S and T at the end of the decade.

Pinot Noir Grand “P” 2011

From what Maurice Barthelmé describes as a “paradoxical vintage” that started out dry and turned rabidly humid. This has huge personality, less refinement but more delicacy than the Hengst. Once again it’s a touch reductive and that tenuity is in the form of cured meat. The style here emulates Burgundy more than any of the P’s, much more than the H’s and worlds beyond the Failles and the Claires. The iron gait exceeds ’12 with a railroading layer of grand P funk. A chain of earth-resin-tannin has “got the knack,” jumps up, jumps back, does the locomotion with “a little bit of rhythm and a lot of soul.” The 2011 Pfersigberg is unlike any other Alsatian Pinot. It requires plenty of air and even more time to unwind. Look for it to become a classic 20 years after release.

Pinot Noir Grand “P” 2009 (Tasted from a 375 mL bottle)

In the ’09 you can smell how five years of bottle time (slightly accelerated by the small format) brings Pfersigberg Pinot fruit into a Grand Cru station. This is in the zone and just about as perfect an example can be to represent the young cottage industry that is Alsace Pinot Noir. Five more years would send it into philosophical complexity. The classic “P” reduction is there, with amazing structure from the palate. Wonderful funk, the proverbial Brett-esque creature of Pfersigberg, along with cherry and resin of pine. Wonderful animal.

Pinot Noir Grand “H” 2012 (Tasted from a 375 mL bottle)

From a south-facing plot in Wintzenheim on the Grand Cru Hengst. The soils are deeper, the clive made of consolidated clay or marly limestone and sandstone. All aspects of the Pinot Noir here are enriched by the density of nutrition; extract, spice and tannin. Any thoughts of overripe character in any way are thwarted a circular saw of energy that cuts through the cake, breaking it down with extreme prejudice. Tasted at 9:00 am this is a wake up call of the highest order. Notes Maurice Barthelmé, “this must be planted in calcaire soil.” Strike another notch on the Grand Cru petition.

Pinot Noir Grand “H” 2009, 

Typically Hengst, with a whiff of reduction, though never as pronounced as the Pfersigberg. In the ’09, which was a star-caste vintage, the “H” stands for high. As in hue, extract and phenolics. It could be imagined that Syrah were blended in (Maurice said it) and like its namesake (German translation), “Hengst is a stallion.” The reduction is (sic), as Eleven Madison Park’s Jonathan Ross noted, “favourable flavour. A creaminess comes from grape tannin, not oak.” This is meaty Pinot Noir, seeking out rare flesh, in beef or game. It will travel well and live for a decade or more.

Kientzheim, Alsace

Kientzheim, Alsace

Pinot Noir 2008

This vintage preceded forward seasons that brought out warm, fully ripe and optimal phenol-realized fruit. From Maurice Barthelmé’s vineyard, between Mambourg and Furstentum, in Kientzheim. Clear, clean and precise. This was perhaps a bit ambitious in its oak soak from a year that Maurice considers “difficult and early,” but the parcel never lies and what a parcel it is. “Pinot Noir, like Riesling, is a mineralogist, ” says Barthelmé. This is Mann’s purest Pinot, if a touch under ripe, but that is the key. Whole bunch pressing and the oak envelopment has created a round flavour lock and Maurice feels he needs 10 more years to master this technique. Though this may have been the early stages in the development of the Mann Pinot candidacy, by 2018 it will reign in Alsace.

Paul Blanck & Fils

@rogcowines

“We’re looking for authenticity. Not wines of impression, but wines of expression.

Philippe Blanck

Phillipe Blanck, Domaine Paul Blanck & Fils

Philippe Blanck, Domaine Paul Blanck & Fils

Pinot Noir 2012

From granite and gravel soils, the former bringing a bitter component, the latter what Philippe Blanck calls “a facile aspect.” Dark fruits, like black cherry and plum are flecked with pepper and cloaked in a silky robe. “Almost a sort of texture wine,” considers Blanck. The bitterness is beautiful and offers a window of proof towards the ageing capabilities of Pinot Noir in Alsace. “Everybody has an idea of what is a Pinot Noir in the world,” says Philippe. “This is a classic one. And they age crazy.” Classic vintage too. From now and for 10 years.

Pinot Noir 1991

From 20-year old vines (at the time) and a low-yielding (20 hl/ha), cold vintage. The wine was not filtered and 13 years on remains very much alive. Retains the unmistakable smell of Fragaria Vesca, fraise de bois, the herbaceous and wild alpine strawberry. Mix in a metallic, iron and wine tinge and still viable tannins and you’ve got yourself a wonderfully aged Alsace Pinot. An example to encourage a future for the grape variety in Alsace. “So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten.” Blanck said “nothing to prove, just to experiment. Some wet, moldy berry in here.” Roasted game lends a note as well to this upward, over the “mountain wine.”

Pinot Noir “F” 2009 

The F is for Furstentum, the Grand Cru on the northern slopes of the Weisbach valley split between the communes of Kientzheim and Sigolsheim. The soil is marl. Philippe Blanck insists “we’re looking for authenticity. Not a wine of impression, but a wine of expression.” Here is cherry set on high, bright and exploding, with savoury wild herbs and direct linear of acidity. Authentic yes, silky no. Can age for 10 more years and somewhere along that line the direction will find a more approachable intersect.

Domaine Pfister

Pinot Noir 2009

From a vintage Le Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace (CIVA) called “precocious” and of irresistible wines. Mélanie Pfister’s ’09 comes from the calcareous Clos Bamhauer, went through two weeks maceration in Inox and then spent a slow 18 months in Burgundy barriques. Incredibly fragrant, with a rich density and a charge of wood spice. Its black cherry waft brings Burgenland to mind, that and the elastic, silty grit by way of some vines grown on gravelly soil. What sets it apart from everywhere else not called Burgundy is the lack of any sort of varnished note. Purity prevails.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht

@TrialtoON

Pinot Noir 2012

To Olivier Humbrecht, the location and managing the ripeness of Pinot Noir is key. “You can’t hide green character in Pinot Noir,” he asserts. Fruit comes from the Heimbourg vineyard, from west-facing slopes out of marl and limestone. This is a cooler, later ripening position with a draught between the hills. At 13 per cent alcohol it is pleasantly ripe but not as rich and intense as 2009. Still ripe enough for positive and effective phenols. Tannins are present and accounted for, wrapping a veil over the chalky, chewy, slighted coated fruit. The mineral is felt in texture coming from what is a simple, proper and elegant palate.

Domaine Pierre Frick

“Wine is not intellect, it’s emotion.”

Jean-Pierre Frick

@LeCavisteTO

Pierre Frick Pinot Noir 2008 and 2009

Pierre Frick Pinot Noir 2008 and 2009

Pinot Noir Rot-Murlé 2009

This block is literally le muret rouge or, the red stone wall. From brown, ferric (ferrugineux), hard calcaire soils. In 2008 you could not write organic on the label (this changed with the 2012 vintage) so Frick sub-labeled the bottle Vin Biologique Zéro Sulfites Gioutés. Natural wine. Rustic, full of horns on acidity. The combination of clay, marl and the fact that the plot benefits from extended late-afternoon sun all lead to vigor, rigor and rigidity. This is Jean-Pierre Frick’s thickest and most Romantic brushstrokes. Richly textured like a Gaugin portrait of the The Schuffenecker Family. Post-impressionist Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir 2008

From the Strangenberg lieu-dit, a hill parcel known as la colline aux pendus. Soil composition is hard, durable brown calcaire. After a quick whiff of farm droppings blow off, Jean-Pierre Frick’s Pinot Noir reveals a bright, light and feminine side. It is now blessed by gentle, resolved tannins. The generous spirit, kind heart and gentle soul of this Pinot offer nothing but calm pleasure. Its coat has not even a trace of primer. It is simply thoughtful and considerate. The iron minerality persists but with static and clinging trace fibers. A wine perfectly suited for a middle course at today’s table.

Pierre Frick Pinot Noir Strangenberg 2003 and Pinot Noir 2008

Pierre Frick Pinot Noir Strangenberg 2003 and Pinot Noir 2008

Pinot Noir Strangenberg 2003

Sub-label notes this ’03 as Vin Biologique Vinifié Sand Souffre. Years before it was fashionable or righteous to farm and vinify organically and without sulphites, Jean-Pierre Frick was looking to the stars. The Strangenberg is a very dry part of Alsace, Mediterranean in climate. This is earthy Pinot, like reds from Corbières or Sardinia, with its mutton-funky and roasted game aromas. Here is proof that non-sulphured wine can age, with the simple equation of fruit, acidity and tannin. It’s actually hard to believe so much tannin can emit from the collines of Haut-Rhin in Pinot Noir. Crazy actually. There is an underdeveloped green note along with some roasted and cooked flavours so peak has been reached. When left for 30 minutes in the glass the tannins begin to dry out. Like southern French and Italian reds, another 10 years would bring caramel, soy, figs and raisins. Either way. now or then, this Frick will also be interesting.

Domaine Schoenheitz

Pinot Noir Linzenberger 2013 (Barrel Sample)

Spent six months in one-year old (Allier forest) barrels. Bright, tight, full-on red cherries. A quick, fun, pure expression, clean and full of cherry. A two to three-year Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir Sainte Gregoire 2012

From the Val Saint Grégoire lieu-dit, the historic name of the Valley of Munster (before the Protestant reform). The soil is decomposed granite rich in micas. Leans warm and extracted but with a high-toned, spiced coat tension. A generalization would place it more New World than Old, verging to black cherry, though again, the spirit is high. In contrast the yields were low (17 hl/ha) from the Cru, let alone the top-level of output from such a low yielding vintage. “When nature isn’t generous the yields go down fast,” confirms Dominique Schoenheitz. Good balance and well-judged.

Gustave Lorentz

@AmethystWineInc

Pinot Noir La Limité 2009

From the lieu-dit Froehn on the edge (the limit) of the Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim. Such a spicy florality and the underlay of calcaire from what is ostensibly hard limestone and Jurassic Lias marls meet one another in a geological confluence of fossils, red ferruginous soil and hard rock. A slow 12-month accumulation to fermentation has brought this Pinot Noir to land’s end. It bares un uncanny resemblance to the Prince Edward County Pinot Noir ’12 by Norman Hardie. Over exposure to sun, wind and everything else nature delivers gives this wine its vigor, its core strength and its vibrant personality.

Edmond Rentz

Pinot Noir Piece de Chene 2011

The Rentz take on Pinot Noir grows up in oak for 14-18 months, from a mix of new and used (no older than four years) barrels. The style is decidedly rich Pinot of a sweet tooth with a soft spot for quality chocolate. Spice supplements of orange and cinnamon, along with ethical acidity bring forth a wine bien charpentée, agreeable and ready for PDQ consumption.

Domaine Paul Zinck

@liffordretail

Pinot Noir Terroir 2012

Flat out fresh, mineral Pinot Noir. Only 100 cases were produced from a chalk and clay single parcel, on the Grand Cru Eichberg. GC yes to Phillipe Zinck, “but not official.,” Very little barrel influence here, in fact two-thirds of the Terroir was fermented in stainless steel, “to keep the mineral.” The cherry scents has tinges of plum, licorice and black olive, but just around the periphery. It’s otherwise bright and fresh with a quiescent streak throughout. Excellent.

Domaine Boyt-Geyl

Pinot Noir Galets Oligocène 2010

From the village of Beblenheim, this Pinot Noir gets the moniker from deposits of Oligocène of the tertiary period consisting of conglomerated rock on a base of marl. Jean-Christophe Bott considers the low-lying grapes of this terroir on lower slopes to be Grand Cru (in quality). Picked early to avoid resinning, cooked or jammy flavours, the wine was matured in (one year-old) barriques for 14 to 18 months. Quite earthy and spiced explicitly by cinnamon, though delicious, this is Pinot that flirts with what Bott wants to avoid. Served with a good chill it harmonizes its intent.

Good to go!

https://twitter.com/mgodello

 

The cru chief of Alsace: Zind Humbrecht

Le Clos Windsbuhl de Hunawihr PHOTO: http://www.zindhumbrecht.fr

Le Clos Windsbuhl de Hunawihr
PHOTO: http://www.zindhumbrecht.fr

Were Olivier Humbrecht, MW a Rock ‘N Roll star, he would be the guy, the man, the boss, the one everyone wants to hang around. He’d be invited to every benefit concert, like No Nukes at MSG, Live Aid, Live 8 and a Tribute to Heroes. He would sing the biggest parts on the raise awareness and relief funds records like We are the World. He would headline every star-studded gathering to celebrate an influential musician’s career, like that of George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan.

Olivier Humbrecht is a winemaker. He’s also smart, France’s first Master of Wine, rooted in his region’s history and hyper aware of every nuance in each terroir. He’s an extreme scientist, biologist, geologist, viniculturalist and viticulturalist. Olivier Humbrecht is a student of many Alsace genres, techniques and methods. He’s a bit of a perfectionist. So are many Alsatian winemakers. But Olivier also has the charisma, the persona and the drive to strive for bigger and better. People want to be near that.

The rock star complex manifests itself at a tasting of the Zind-Humbrecht portfolio. Olivier has laid 14 wines on the cellar room table for a group of eight journalists and sommeliers. After leading the group through the lot, he checks his watch and sees there are a few minutes left in the allotted time. He opens two more bottles, then two more. Time is up. The group must press on. He opens another. Just one more, “for perspective,” he says. He can’t stop. The adrenaline is pumping. One more encore. Just one more Sélection de Grains Nobles…

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht is well-known to the world, considered the consummate professional vigneron d’Alsace. The wines are immaculate to a fault; pure, precise considerations out of a multitude of variegated and diverse terroirs; of those around the winery’s home in Turckheim, Wintzinheim, in Gueberschwihr, Thann and in Hunawihr. The Grand Cru holdings of Brand, Hengst, Goldert and Rangen de Thann provide the stuffing for exceptional produce but can any other winery in Alsace lay claim to so many exceptional wines from their lieu-dit and single-vineyards not classified Grand Cru? The trifecta phenomena of the Zind-Humbrecht hill parcels, “Les Clos”; Häuserer, Windsbuhl and Jebsal may as well be Grand Cru squared. The wines from these most worthy soils are dreamy and in top vintages, impossibly perfect.

Most vintners in Alsace are connected to a village, have vineyard holdings surrounding or on slopes leaning upwards from the town. Many crush and ferment in caves beneath their homes right there in the ancestral village. Above ground Zind-Humbrecht is more modern than most, in many ways the embodiment of the 21st century Alsatian facility but Olivier’s wines are deeply connected to Turckheim, the village closest to a large proportion of his vines. The region’s regulatory board decision to eliminate a village like Gueberschwihr from being used on a Riesling label is both curious and counter-productive. Olivier is an island here, not having found any other producer’s support to keep such a designation alive. The irony is not lost. A winemaker incredibly passionate about soil having to label his wine by that very concept and against his will.

I had the opportunity to taste with Olivier Humbrecht on two occasions, thanks to CIVA and SOPEXA, at the winery and at the Millésimes Alsace trade event on Monday, June 16th, 2014. Humbrecht’s brain is in constant churning motion. He will never rest and settle for the status quo. He has learned everything and has everything yet to learn.

Biodynamic farming is at the nucleus of Zind-Humbrecht’s practicum and by now spoken as an apothegm, not ad nauseam. Olivier notes that Colmar, the vinous hub of Alsace and just down the road from Turckheim, is the driest town in France. “We are in a region that in the past we had to fight for ripeness. This is not the case anymore. I have not had to chaptalize in 20 years.” Global warming has had a great effect on phenols but Olivier stands firm on timing. Plants, including grapevines, have very specific life cycles, from flowering to ripening. “I will be ready for picking September 1st,” he insists, “regardless of the weather.”

On varieties, Muscat D’alsace remains “important and fantastic.” Humbrecht insists on keeping it viable and alive. “Reds are trendy,” but not significant to Zind-Humbrecht, adding up to less than one per cent of total production. Ninety per cent are single-varietal wines. Riesling persists as the core variety. It’s a grape that hates to ferment so noble rot should be avoided, because it arrests fermentation.” For Riesling to succeed? “You need a majority of tartaric acid, slowly, coolly, through the cold of winter, to achieve proper malic acid, to achieve good Alsace Riesling. Basically you don’t even want to know it’s happening.”

Olivier is an ally to both phenol and tannin. “Phenols in white wine is something that is always neglected,” he says, and “I do appreciate tannins in white wine, especially in low acidity grapes like Gewürztraminer.” Too many people do not understand the aging capabilities in the wines of Alsace. “We’ve gotten rid of too many phenols in white wine,” he complains. “We love the anti-oxidants, which will not allow the wines to age well, with no protection against oxidation.”

The phenol-tannin-sugar-acidity sequence only succeeds when PH is in the mix. “PH is more important than acidity. Low PH is a guarantee for good evolution in bottle, and good phenols.” That said, skin contact is to be avoided in Humbrecht’s world. “Alsace already has high aromatics so contact is contradictory.” It can lead to the inclusion of green phenols which would be detrimental to making sound wine. Ripe phenols come from the vines and Olivier continues to refer to structure and acidity as a direct consequence of what happens in the vineyard.

The ZH processes include high density planting, hand harvesting, gravity feeding, cold cluster pressing and the use of wild (indigenous) yeasts. The total annual output is approximately 300,000 bottles from 40 hectares, a capacity reached in the mid 1990’s. “We are not interested in getting any bigger,” concedes Humbrecht.

The last piece and going forward of the Zind-Humbrecht puzzle concerns vintages. “Vintages are very important and different in Alsace,” says Olivier. “2014 is very precocious.” Flowering was done the first week of June, almost two weeks ahead of the norm. This is similar to 2003 and 2011. “We made a lot of mistakes then, because it was the first time we had this.” The plan is to adapt to the climate by cooling down the soil, with more grasses to retain moisture. They will also let more branches grow to restrict sun and more canopy management. Biodynamic farming at work.

Olivier Humbrecht and Godello PHOTO: Cassidy Havens, http://teuwen.com/

Olivier Humbrecht and Godello
PHOTO: Cassidy Havens, http://teuwen.com/

Here are notes on the 20 Zind-Humbrecht wines tasted in Alsace on Monday June 16th and Wednesday June 18th, 2014.

Pinot Noir 2012

To Olivier Humbrecht, the location and managing the ripeness of Pinot Noir is key. “You can’t hide green character in Pinot Noir,” he asserts. Fruit comes from the Heimbourg vineyard, from west-facing slopes out of marl and limestone. This is a cooler, later ripening position with a draught between the hills. At 13 per cent alcohol it is pleasantly ripe but not as rich and intense as 2009. Still ripe enough for positive and effective phenols. Tannins are present and accounted for, wrapping a veil over the chalky, chewy, slighted coated fruit. The mineral is felt in texture coming from what is a simple, proper and elegant palate.

Muscat Goldert 2012

Like any self-respecting winemaker in Alsace, Olivier Humbrecht is intent on keeping Muscat d’Alsace alive with hopes that someday it will once again thrive. The white and red coloured, longer ripening, small berry Muscat Petite Grains receives minor (one or two per cent) support from grapey, soft and aromatic Muscat Ottonel. Raised from olitic limestone and marl soil, this Muscat is blessed with terroir inducing greater acidity and a dichotomous, silty ripeness, like a green, unripe Sauvignon Blanc. One has the sense that in this unique vintage the noble variety may age with an almost unexpected stride through the years.

Riesling Terroir d’Alsace Vin Sec 2012

This is the most basic and tenable wine in the Zind-Humbrecht portfolio. For the uninitiated it is an ideal embarkation point from which to engage the dry elegance and saline minerality of Alsatian Riesling. This “entry-level” effort is from 11 year-old vines, a slow ripening vintage and the stark reality of granite soils. The ever-present Humbrecht honesty and richness is here but in its most subtle (and only 2 g/L residual sugar) scale. Quick notes of lime, chalk and ginger. Olivier says it is made for the Brasserie or the Gastropub market. Never mind that it’s the most junior of his Rieslings. Nobility begins here with this reassuring, air-dried, easy to understand wine.

Riesling Herrenweg de Turckheim 2012

Here rolls the rock of the ZH stable. From gravelly, well-drained, poor soils around the winery. The citrus factor is front, centre and in surround sound but a natural richness and sweetness brings balance. This means the wine will gracefully incline through to a dry yet fruity future. A savoury austerity will increase the ageing quotient, in addition to the omnipresent mineral flavours by way of old (47 year-old) vines that burrow deep in the gravel, providing grit and strength, especially in drought vintages.

Riesling Calcaire 2012

The artist formerly known as Gueberschwihr is no longer. The new regulation regarding the production of village wines became effective with the 2011 harvest so, alone in its support for the quality of wine for the village, Humbrecht had no choice but a switch to the Calcaire nomenclature. From richer, cooler, alkaline soils. A touch more sugar (8 g/L) than the Turckheim counterparts, this also has higher acidity. Technically not so dry but this is the elevated, though not quite astronomical PH talking. It is dry enough to be considered Sec. Momentarily stuck in the proverbial petrol and mineral fence. The door will open shortly, to the ZH airy density and so physically speaking, this will taste drier as it ages. Even if “all this science I don’t understand,” I do know “it’s gonna be a long, long time” before the Calcaire comes down to earth and settles into its skin. Ten years to be sure. Rocket man.

Riesling Clos Häuserer 2012

Also Turckheim in origin (specifically Soedlen) but from marl soil atop really aggressive limestone from just under the Grand Cru Hengst’s nose. One of the highest in PH, this is austere and currently shut tight within a dry (4 g/L sugar) free lime zeppelin drum. Though aromatically mute, the mineral density on the palate is striking, like a reduction of half and half spread on sourdough toast. The 18 month lees program is most noticeable here and this Riesling will be led towards a petrol induction future. When it gets there, a taste will bring you into the Häuserer of the holy. The deep marl soil on top of calcareous Oligocene mother rock will speak and it will ask  “are you dizzy when you’re stoned?”

Riesling Brand Grand Cru 2012 (SAQ 11532951 $73.00, WineAlign)

There is a roundness to the Brand, in beautiful calming aromatics in defiance of the hard biotite granite, black and white mica soils. The pure mineralized clay silica brings heat to the land, with a high surface exchange quotient, not so different from the Schlossberg. This is precocious and precious Grand Cru that demands the wisdom and the fortitude of old vines, of a minimum 25-30 years of age. Zind Humbrecht’s average 66! With two per cent noble rot in the mix the wine reaches for more sugar (11.5 g/L) out of its desperately low yields. There is a high mineral ripeness and a tropical tingling, in melon and clementine.

Riesling Clos Saint Urbain Rangen de Thann Grand Cru 2012 (SAQ 12133871 $101.00, WineAlign)

The Thann is a 22-hectare, low yielding Grand Cru. The terra is volcanic and dark sedimentary soil, very steep and homogeneous. The high mineral altitude and poor attitude means the Zind Humbrecht ambition is aromatically challenging to assess, even if to taste it’s so obviously exquisite in concentrated depth. Such a rich, intense grapey nose but the flint smothers the smoky smoulder that should be present. A tight, angular and sobering expression, more isometric and idiosyncratic than anything tasted to this point. An island in the line-up. Not the most loveable Rangen, like its name, which is too old to even know its meaning.

Riesling Heimbourg 2012

From the village of Turckheim, the vines are planted on the steepest aspect of the marl covered, oligocene limestone slope. More noble rot present here than in the Brand, resulting in, naturally higher sugar (15 g/L), richer fruit and a deeper hue. “The sweetest Riesling we’ve made in 2012,” admits Olivier. A most interesting specimen too, an upside down cake in alternating layers of apricot and crushed rocks. The flavours are high-toned, not necessarily tropical, but lush.

Riesling Clos Windsbuhl 2011, Alsace, France (agent, $80.00, WineAlign)

“Vintages are very important and different in Alsace,” notes Humbrecht, exemplified by this blasted 2011 in contrast to all the ’12’s at these tastings. Here the fruit leans in the most elevated petrol direction, from a warm year and an earlier harvest. A younger evolution is taking place, showing immediate and gratified balance. The terroir is cool, rocky limestone with shells, similar to Burgundy. The clos is a gently sloping, six-hectare parcel. Overall it’s anti-floral, wet chalky creamy and striped by linear acidity. Only 4.5 g/L of sugar. These last two numbers mean nothing if you don’t recognize the PH because there are different acidities in wine. Here the acidity walks the fine line, side by side with its partners.

Riesling Clos Windsbuhl 2007

From a different era, this was fermented bone-dry, dire, with less than 1 g/L of residual sugar. A Riesling to show just how tight the Zind-Humbrecht band was back then and it is just beginning to communicate in its mid-life, mineral voice. If as a lieu-dit subject it was once “incommunicado,” with no comment to make, this has changed. The notes are layered and together, the mid-palate extraordinarily full, the length in reverberating, extended play. Here in today’s communique he’s come clean, having moved on from the strict, straits style, once spun unbending. The experience of great players and exceptional monopole (Grand Cru deserving) terroir has given the ’07 Windsbuhl the foundation to realize a classic Riesling.

Pinot Gris Calcaire 2012

Fruit comes from the Heimbourg, providing pure limestone effect and a great nutty character. The sugar is nothing to forget about (10.6 g/L), here already commissioned and integrated. Provides support for Olivier’s declaration that “if anything should happen to a wine, it should be before you bottle it.” Much more accessible than the fastball-curveball-changeup, out of the strike zone ’11. Here it’s all down the middle,  juicy, hittable fastballs.

Pinot Gris Rotenberg 2012

The Rotenberg’s shallow, red soils (located on top of the Hengst) bring a whole new set of parameters to Pinot Gris, in stark contrast to the Calcaire. Two bottles were poured. A two-day old sample showed settled and mellow flavours. A new bottle was crackerjack reductive, leesy and with a shocky aridity so unusual for Pinot Gris. The soils bring concentration, here magnified and compressed by the hastened moment. All the hallmarks of the Zind-Humbrecht style are there, if suppressed; tang, herbiage and a spicy spike. Very dry (4 g/L) and really invigorating white wine.

Pinot Gris Clos Saint Urbain Rangen de Thann Grand Cru 2012 (SAQ 11545233 $74.25, WineAlign)

The noble grape in this Muschelkalk (calcareous) vineyard comes through in high concentration, with an increase in noble rot from very low yields (12 hl/L). There was hail here in 2012, just after flowering, not a devastating storm but enough to minimize quantity. The sweetness (35 g/L) is heightened and uncompromising yet always mitigated by intense mineral activity. The richest and most unctuous wine of the morning (to this point) with direct, pure ripe tree-fruit flavours. This is a Pinot Gris that remains firm against the dangers of oxidation and it will develop smoky and toasty aromas. The structure is what I would call remarkable but not exceptional. Time will tell. Here the wait needs to be a minimum five years and then to drink well past 2025.

Gewürztraminer Calcaire 2012

As of the 2011 vintage, the Wintzenheim bottling became the Calcaire, for village designation (or lack thereof) reasons. Fruit here in 2012 is mostly (not necessarily typically) from the Hengst Grand Cru vineyard. The marl and limestone leads to a very typical Alsatian and even more typical Zind-Humbrecht Gewürztraminer. Full on glycerin, creamy, perceptibly sweet and protracted wine. Even at 35 g/L it is tempered by high tannic animation, as much as in Burgundy. Skin tannins are much more interesting than those from oak because they elevate the acidity by way of contrasting balance to the sugar. This is why they succeed.

Gewürztraminer Hengst Grand Cru 2012

From old vines of the Hengst, the yield is half of the Calcaire, the concentration raising the bar in the opposite direction. The residual number is the same but the sugars are more complex, intensely natural and variegated. The texture and flavours cover a creamier, wider spectrum and even though some typical rose petal/lychee components are noted, they remain submerged beneath the piquancy and the richness. This Hengst will gain flesh and weight as it ages, elevating the potential for late harvest sensations and alcohol.

Gewürztraminer Clos Windsbuhl 2012

The Muschelkalk calcareous, southeast facing slopes of this Clos employ slightly cooler temperatures and the stretched elasticity of slow-ripening to bring a sense of balance and poise to Gewürztraminer. The same can’t be said for Riesling on the same site, at least not in 2012. The Windsbuhl here speaks in more sweetness and less alcohol. “If you can see the differences of terroir in Gewürz,” says Olivier, “then you won’t see it in Riesling.” Here is an example that backs up one of his most telling axioms. “It’s the phenols of the grape that make it age gracefully better.” Age it will. Drink this beginning in 2020 and through 2040.

Gewürztraminer Vendanges Tardives Hengst Grand Cru 2011

A wine not often made because of the dry climate in this Herrenweg vineyard. The gaining of full botrytis expression only happens once in every five or six years and when it does, this eager and vivid sweet wine is the result. Harvested at high ripeness and proportion (50 per cent) of noble rot, with a quick (one month) fermentation to achieve a sweet balance (vin liquoreux) not that far from some SGNs. At 102 g/L it is obviously quite sweet though once again, with acidity, PH and exceptional phenolic character it strikes a balance. I don’t normally imagine late harvest wines to speak in terms of elegance or restraint and I’m not sure those are the most apt descriptors here. Yet the Hengst is as subtle as it gets for the genre and never enters the arena of the cloyingly sweet and absurd.

Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl Sélection de Grains Nobles 2010 and the tasting table PHOTO: Cassidy Havens, http://teuwen.com/

Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl Sélection de Grains Nobles 2010 and the tasting table
PHOTO: Cassidy Havens, http://teuwen.com/

Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl Sélection de Grains Nobles 2010

The residual on the 2010 Windsbuhl is remarkably high, this as a result of its long but (not compared to 2009) fermentation. From a historic vintage, with top-notch acidity (the goal was 16 g/L) and clean, precise botrytis. With the complexity and structure provisos of the Muschelkalk calcareous terroir and (43 year-old) vines, this exceptional dessert wine was given all the tools necessary for success. A parabola of a dessert wine, one sip and “we barely remember who or what came before this precious moment.” Attacks the mouth with an unparalleled sugar/acidity/tannin continuum. The flavours bring to mind quince, apricot and creamy mangosteen in out of control concentration. There is a reason sweet wines like these are so rare and receive such high praise. Exceptional fruit of uncompromising quality and a winemaker’s reverence are the reasons. Olivier Humbrecht prepared this 2010 to succeed and to live for decades. Drink from 2025 to 2055.

Pinot Gris Clos Jebsal Sélection de Grains Nobles Trie Spéciale 2009

A south-facing, very steep slope of grey marls and gypsum. A vineyard that yielded a miniscule 10 hl/H. A stratospheric residual sugar quotient (in the realm of 500 g/L) and incredulous acidity to prevent the development of the yeasts. A fermentation that finally finished in the late winter of 2012. A wine aged in demi-guid. Selection of grapes of a botrytis so pure and dry. These are the specs of a wine I may never taste again. Olivier concedes he “really tries not to obtain the highest sugar concentration possible” but this 2009 is a “monster of a wine.” It will take forever to assimilate and digest the sugar. Unctuous, lush, rich and gorgeous does not do it justice. Pure distillation of fruit and stone, accented by spice, wild herbs and flowers. Like an injection of pure, Pinot Gris adrenaline. All this from dry extract, slowly rehydrated with magic pixie dust and the wonders of the natural world.  Will live for a century and then some.

Pinot Gris Clos Jebsal Sélection de Grains Nobles Trie Spéciale 2009

Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl Sélection de Grains Nobles 2010 and Pinot Gris Clos Jebsal Sélection de Grains Nobles Trie Spéciale 2009

Good to go!

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