Tasting Events

Fruit and Balance [Alsace Vault Vol. 1]

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Françoise Gilley (L) & Agathe Bursin (R)

Last year, thanks to the generosity of Françoise and Seán Gilley of Terroirs in Donnybrook, Dublin, I had the opportunity to meet one of the young stars of Alsace wine, Agathe Bursin.  And not only meet her, but to have her guide us through a tasting of her wines and then try the wines with the excellent food of Forest Avenue.

Like many people in Alsace, Agathe Bursin had a connection to winemaking when she grew up, although not directly from her parents like some.  In her small infant school she was the only girl along with four boys; that is, four boys who all wanted to be a tractor driver on their family’s vineyards, so it was only natural for the young Agathe to dream of this as well.

Secondly, while her family had been selling their grapes to the local cooperative since 1956, her grandfather did make some small amount of wine for family consumption – and Agathe was fascinated by the equipment and the process.

Fast forward several years to 2000, and she graduated in Oenology, but when her first wines were made back home in accordance with her textbooks, they didn’t feel like her wines at all.  She learnt from this minor setback and took an entirely new approach; stripped back and providing a gentle hand of direction only when required.

Since then she has followed organic and biodynamic practices (though has not sought certification) including the use of herbal teas in the vineyard and only indigenous yeast for fermentation.  Interestingly, it is the yeast present in the cellar rather than the vineyard that usually win the biochemical war that is fermentation.  She neither encourages nor discourages malolactic fermentation, it is simply permitted to happen if it happens.  Thankfully though, it usually happens spontaneously in the red wines and not in the whites.

Agathe’s Domaine now totals around 5.5 hectares, split over the Grand Cru Zinnkoepflé and the Lieux-dits Bollenberg, Dirstelberg, Strangenberg, all around her home village of Westhalten.  The split of varieties is: 5% Muscat, 15% Pinot Gris, 20% Riesling, 20% Gewurztraminer and 20% Sylvaner.  Some of the vines are co-planted – more on which later.

Here are my tasting notes on the wines, with the rider that je ne crache pas les blancs….

mdePinot Noir Strangenberg 2015 is from grapes grown on marl and limestone soil.  The grapes are hand picked then partially de-stemmed (40% – 60% depending on the vintage).  There is no cold soak; fermentation begins in stainless steel tanks with eight days of maceration (longer would lead to the wine being too vegetal) before being transferred into used 228 litre pièces to complete the two months of fermentation.  Maturation is for 20 months.  This Pinot Noir shows bright red and black cherry fruit; it’s a smooth wine that has taken a touch of weight and roundness from its time in oak but very little obvious flavour.

Dirstelberg Riesling 2016.jpgRiesling Dirstelberg 2016 is grown on the highest vineyard in Alsace at 500 metres above sea-level.  The soil is red sandstone, sheltered from the wind but still cool (which Riesling prefers).  The vines are trained as Double Guyot which tends to give small berries.  According to Agathe, with age these wines take on chalky, mineral characters rather than diesel.  At this young age it is racy, nervous and tangy, full of fresh citrus – lime lemon and grapefruit – and orange blossom.

mdePinot Blanc Parad’Aux 2016 is a blend of Pinot Blanc and its close relation Auxerrois.  The former has high acidity (which is why it is so popular in Crémant d’Alsace) whereas the latter is quite floral and has moderate acidity.  The two varieties are co-fermented and the local yeast naturally leaves a little bit of residual sugar (6 g/L) which comes across as roundness rather than sweetness (Agathe believes her indigenous yeast are “quite lazy”).  Soft stone fruits are the order of the day here, with a touch of peach, apricot and nectarine.

mdeL’As de B 2016 is a proper field blend, where the different varieties are all planted in the same plot, are harvested and then vinified together.  Bizarrely, while the different varieties would normally ripen at different times in their own blocks, when planted together they mature together!  The blend is – are you ready for this? – 5% Muscat, 15% Pinot Gris, 20% Gewurztraminer, 20% Riesling, 20% Pinot Blanc and 20% Sylvaner.  The residual sugar for the blend falls between 10 and 20 g/L depending on vintage.  The 2016 shows lots of spice, with the Gewurz and Pinot Gris particularly showing through.   Interestingly, although the blend stays the same from year to year, different grapes seem to come to the fore with each vintage.

mdeL’As de B 2008 shows how well this wine can age – it still shows great freshness as well as development, but is not yet fully mature.  It seems soft and gentle, as though it had settled in to itself with age.

As I speak reasonable French I presumed that “As de B” signified “L’As de Bursin”, i.e Bursin’s Ace, but this is not the case.  The grapes all come from the Bollenberg; the story is that when the blend was first vinified, someone chalked “Edelzwicker” on the tank – the traditional Alsace blend – but as Edelzwicker is not usually a field blend, Agathe didn’t want to use that term.  Instead she preferred “Assemblage de Bollenberg”, but as that was far too long she settled for L’As de B – and the name stuck.

Dirstelberg Pinot Gris 2016.jpgPinot Gris Dirstelberg 2016 is grown on the same red sandstone as the Riesling.  RS is off-dry at 14 g/L which is my preferred style for the grape.  The palate has delicious quince and pear plus exotic spices.  It is rich but nowhere near cloying.

Per Agathe, with age the Pinot Gris Dirstelberg gains notes of smoke, toast and flint – this sounds very intriguing and something I hope to experience for myself in the not too distant future!

mdeGewurztraminer Dirstelberg 2016 is the wine which gave Agathe the most worry.  On the Dirstelberg, Gewurz naturally produces lots of leaves, but as winds tend not to be strong there is a significant risk of bunch rot if they are not trimmed back.  Once harvested, the grapes are given a very gentle pressing over 6 to 8 hours in order to extract only moderate phenolics – this also results in the wine looking somewhat paler than the average young Gewurz.  This is a gentle, restrained Gewurztraminer that really does live up to Agathe’s desire for fruit and balance.  If only more could be like this, I think the grape would have more fans.

mdeRiesling Grand Cru Zinnkoeplé Vendanges Tardives 2015 shows how sweet Riesling can be a magnificent, balanced rapier.  Residual sugar of 65 g/L is the counterpoint to thrilling, racy acidity.

It’s still very young and tangy – and very enjoyable – but has years of magnificence ahead of it.  If I had a case or two, then yes I’d be tempted to dive in now and again, but I think, despite the expletives of joy in my tasting notes, this is one that will be legendary in a decade’s time.

mdeGewurztraminer Grand Cru Zinnkoeplé Vendanges Tardives 2015 is getting on for the longest name of any wine I’ve ever reviewed!  Harvesting took place at the beginning of November, so this is a true Vendanges Tardives.

Obviously sweeter on the palate than the Riesling above – both in terms of higher RS at 89 g/L and softer acidity – this is a mighty fine example of late harvest Gewurz.  Compared to some it’s relatively muted – but as the grape can be such an overblown, blousy, tart’s boudoir, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

 


Post Script: Does Agathe drive a tractor now?  You bet she does!

 

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Alsace Blends

Alsace is mainly known and loved for its stunning single varietal wines, but less widely known are its blends.  In fact, there are even more types of blend than many wine lovers know, so, in advance of Alsace Wine Week, here’s a quick rundown of the six types I have counted!

Edelzwicker

 

Edelzwicker

Edelzwicker is probably the most well known Alsace blend.  The word comes from the Alsace dialect for “noble blend” (it’s a Germanic dialect more closely linked to Swiss German than textbook German) although noble grapes aren’t a requirement nowadays. In fact, any of the officially permitted Alsace varieties can be blended in any proportion.

The grapes used are usually those from the less favoured sites and which aren’t required for varietal wines, and so the proportions change a little from year to year.  However, despite their modest origins, Edelzwickers can be a very nice everyday wine – more than the sum of their parts!

Gentil

hugel gentil alsace

Gentil is the French word for “kind”, though quite why the term was awarded to this style of wine I do not know.  A Gentil is very similar to an Edelzwicker except that the four “noble grapes” of Alsace should be at least 50% of the blend:

  • Pinot Gris
  • Muscat
  • Gewurztraminer
  • Riesling

Pinot Blanc

Paul Ginglinger Pinot Blanc

Yes, Pinot Blanc is a variety, and a wine so labelled could be a varietal, but the rules in Alsace permit four grapes to be used:

  • Pinot Blanc itself
  • Auxerrois
  • Pinot Gris
  • Pinot Noir (vinified white, i.e. no contact with the skins)

Auxerois is a sibling of Chardonnay and is sometimes given its full name Auxerrois Blanc de Laquenexy but more often known as Pinot Auxerrois or Clevner/Klevner – though the latter is especially confusing as it is also the synonym for Pinot Blanc!  Interestingly, the amount of true Pinot Blanc in still wines has fallen over the decades as it is in such high demand for Crémant!

Muscat

Domaine Zind Humbrecht Muscat Alsace

There are three different members of the Muscat family allowed in Alsace wines:

  • Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (White Muscat with small berries)
  • Muscat Rose à Petits Grains (Pink Muscat with small berries)
  • Muscat Ottonel (thought to be a descendent of Pinot Noir Précose, Chasselas and an unknown other member of the Muscat family)

Blends of these different varieties are allowed in AOC Alsace; however, most of the AOC Alsace Grands Crus do not permit a mix and two (Zotzenberg and Kaefferkopf) do not allow any Muscat at all.

Crémant d’Alsace

dopff irion cremant d alsace brut

Alsace’s traditional method sparkler is the second most popular in France (after Champagne, of course).  It doesn’t have to be a blend, but usually is – with the exception of the rosé which has to be 100% Pinot Noir.  The permitted varieties are:

  • Pinot Blanc (usually the biggest component)
  • Pinot Gris
  • Pinot Noir
  • Riesling
  • Auxerrois
  • Chardonnay (although not permitted in still Alsace wines, an exception is made for Crémant )

Field Blends

BURG Domaine Marcel Deiss

The final category is also probably the rarest, but also actually the most traditional:  blends created from different varieties which are grown, picked and vinified together.  The original practice for Edelzwicker was to make it from field blends, but now separate vinification before blending is mandatory.  Instead, a few producers still make field blends the “old fashioned way”.  Most notable of these is Domaine Marcel Deiss who make a broad range of “Cru d’Alsace” wines named by their lieu-dit rather than varieties.  As an example, the Deiss Burg is nearly a full house as it contains:

  • Pinot Gris
  • Muscat
  • Pinot Blanc
  • Sylvaner
  • Gewurztraminer
  • Riesling

On a smaller scale, Agathe Bursin’s “L’As de B” is also a field blend.  The name is actually short for “L’Assemblage de Bollenberg ” – which translates as “Bollenberg Blend” – and contains the same six grapes as Burg.