Rolly-Gassmann is based in Rorschwihr, a small Alsatian village close to Ribeauvillé; a ten minute drive along the D18 takes you past André Kientler on the outskirts of Ribeauvillé and close to Gustave Lorentz and Marcel Deiss in Bergheim. Even amid Alsace’s highly diverse soil types Rorschwihr is something of an extreme case; the faultline that passes through the village created 21 different soil types, and so there are lots of small climats with their own peculiarities and specificites. These are so important to the local vignerons that, when the powers than be tried to amalgamate them into larger plots for grand cru classification purposes, they refused and said that “either there would be 12 Rorschwihr Grand Crus or none at all”. So none it is!
Rolly-Gassmann’s Domaine dates back to 1611 but the current name is decades rather than centuries old after two wine families became intertwined through marriage. The estate includes 40ha in Rorschwihr plus 10ha in Bergheim, all run on organic and biodynamic lines. Despite the lack of grands crus, there are lots of lieux-dits belonging to the domaine, each suited to a certain grape variety.
Silberberg – Riesling
Kappelweg – Riesling
Pflaenzerreben – Rieslings
Rotleibel – Pinot Gris
Oberer Weingarten – Gewurztraminer
Stegreben – Gewurztraminer
Rolly-Gassmann is well known among Alsace cognoscenti but aren’t seen outside France that much; it transpires that only around 20% of sales are exports, and that the domaine has a large cellar of bottles including many older vintages, so well worth a visit.
The bottle I review below was a very kind gift from my good friend Peter Dickens. I had saved it for a special occasion and shared it with my wife last weekend, though didn’t manage to take a photo before the bottle was whipped off to recycling (first world problem, I know) so I even nicked Peter’s photo!
Rolly-Gassman Alsace Pinot Gris Rotleibel de Rorschwihr Vendanges Tardives 1996
When you open a bottle of white wine that’s over twenty years old there’s a definite pang of nervousness: will it be totally oxidised? corked? vinegar? While good Alsace Pinot Gris definitely benefits from a bit of bottle age it’s not normally regarded as having the longevity of Riesling. This bottle had also been in and out of the wine fridge several times as it was going to be opened on a few previous occasions .
But thankfully the wine was amazing! Not even a cracked cork!
Vendanges Tardives (VT) is the Alsace term for “late harvests”, a sweet wine from grapes that are left on the vine for several weeks after the regular harvest so that they continue to ripen and produce more sugar. Rotleibel de Rorschwihr is the name of the lieu-dit, literally meaning “red soil” – which I imagine includes plenty of iron oxide – that are perfect for the extravagance of Pinot Gris.
And extravagant this wine is – so powerful yet fresh, full of ripe tropical fruits, ginger, cinnamon, honey and marmalade. It’s a sweet wine without any hint of flabbiness, and one that could happily pair with certain main courses as well as desserts. The complexity is mindblowing.
Lidl Ireland’s latest wine promotion is broadly termed “Iberian” – very broadly in fact as it includes Chile (Spanish speaking, granted) as well as Australian and New Zealand wines. Kicking off on Thursday 21st May, the wines will be on limited release – once they are gone, they are gone.
Here I look at two examples from New Zealand. The first is from NZ’s biggest and best known region – Marlborough – though isn’t a Sauvignon Blanc. The second is from one of the longest standing NZ wine regions – Hawke’s Bay – which is roughly two thirds the way down the east coast of the North Island. The brand Outlook Bay appears to be a Lidl private label, i.e. you only find these wines in their stores.
Disclosure:both bottles were kindly provided as samples, but opinions remain my own
Outlook Bay Marlborough P.G.R. 2019
P.G.R. stands for Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer1 & Riesling, though immediately below the wine name on the back label it gives the blend as Pinot Gris, Riesling & Gewürztraminer2, so P.R.G. would be a better name. Perhaps PGR is now a “thing” in New Zealand, or sounds better in other languages? Ours is not to reason why…
Although the blend might be unusual for New Zealand, it makes sense; all three grapes are classed as aromatic and the long, cool growing season in much of Aotearoa – particularly Marlborough – therefore suits them, just as it suits Sauvignon Blanc. And where else is famous for its aromatic wines? Alsace of course! And as these are the three key Alsace grapes (in my opinion) I have no compunction in calling this an Alsace blend.
The nose is very floral (apple blossom?) with lychees – that’s the Gewurz3 showing its superpowers. The palate is something of a conundrum; it has a gentle, juicy attack then a textured, dry mid-palate. There’s round pear and apple yet spice as well. There is a little sweetness here, but the slight (pleasant) bitter hints on the crisp, citrus finish resolve it as fruit sweetness rather than sugar.
Stockists: Lidl Ireland
Outlook Bay Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2018
Marlborough does make some remarkable Chardonnay, but Hawke’s4 Bay’s richer style seems to be more in demand at the moment, and that is where this wine hails from. It’s unmistakably oaked Chardonnay on the nose, with toasted coconut and pineapple – almost like the coconut “mushrooms” and pineapple cubes that were around when I was a nipper – but not as synthetic.
The aromas continue through onto the palate which has a rich, creamy, tasty texture. The sweetness promised by the tropical fruit on the nose is more moderate in the mouth; I would guess that a good proportion has been though MLF but not overwhelmingly so as there is lots of tangy freshness.
This isn’t going to covert (m)any people of the ABC = Anything But Chardonnay crowd, but for those in my ABC = Always Buy Chardonnay camp this is a cracking example and ridiculously good value for money at a tenner.
Stockists: Lidl Ireland
An easy one – buy both!! These two wines are quite different in style, but happen to be styles that I’m very partial to. They are well made and absolute bargains at the price.
It’s fair to say that all châteaux, castles and palaces have history – they’ve generally been around a long time – but some have more than others. The first recorded mention of Château d’Orschwihr dates from 1049 – almost a thousand years ago, and even before the Battle of Hastings – so that’s old in anyone’s book. It has changed hands many times over the centuries, but one notable owner was royalty: at the end of the 13th century it was bought by Rudolf Habsburg, founder of the Habsburg dynasty, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor.
Wine has been made in the area since Roman times, but the earliest existing record of wine made at Château d’Orschwihr is from the 16th century. Viticulture waxed and waned over the years, but the Hartmann family reestablished it in the 1950s (Martin) and significantly expanded it in the 1980s (Hubert). Gautier joined the family business in 2006 and took over as head in 2011.
The Alsace Wine Hierarchy
Most wine lovers know that there are three appellations in Alsace, namely:
AOC Crémant d’Alsace
AOC Alsace Grand Cru
Since 2011 each Grand Cru has its own AOC rather than just being mentioned after Alsace Grand Cru. Other changes were introduced in the same year; unknown to most, there are three “sub-divisions” of AOC Alsace which have increasingly stringent regulations to improve quality. They are:
Regional – just AOC Alsace
Communal / Inter-communal – AOC Alsace followed by a name (normally that of a commune)
Lieu-dit – AOC Alsace followed by the name of a specific vineyard
There are around 130 of the communal labels – they are specifically mentioned by name in the regulations – but there is no official list of the lieux-dits. The best and most consistent of them have the chance to be part of the future Alsace Premier Cru designation, whenever that comes to pass!
Château d’Orschwihr Alsace “Bollenberg” Pinot Gris 2014
Bollenberg is a lieu-dit, and is one of the highest climats in Alsace at 363m (see also Agathe Bursin’s L’As de B, Assemblage de Bollenberg). Château d’Orschwihr make five different varietals here including this Pinot Gris and an excellent Riesling. The Gris vines were planted in 1963 (80%) and 1990 (20%) so a Vieilles Vignes bottling would certainly be possible!
When poured it shows as medium gold in the glass, mainly due to age as it sees no new oak and is dry. The nose is complex and spicy, with hints of lemon and lime twisted around quince and peach. These notes continue onto the palate where they are joined by (preserved) mixed peel. The wine is technically dry but has a real richness about it that comes with top drawer Pinot Gris. This wine would definitely deserve a Premier Cru label!
Bordeaux was the first wine region I fell in love with, no doubt influenced by the fact that I could visit several vineyards on a day trip from my parents’ home in the Charente Maritime. To this day there is a map of “Le Vignoble de Bordeaux” in my kitchen which I bought in Saint-Émilion over twenty years ago.
Founded in the heart of Bordeaux in 1983, Millésima is a fine wine and en-primeur specialist which sells directly to consumers in 120 countries. It is a family run company, now in the hands of second generation Fabrice Bernard who succeeded his father Patrick as CEO in 2017.
Before being invited to write this piece, I was already familiar with Millésima, both through online advertisements and their sponsoring of the Millésima Blog Awards (which my friends Michelle Williams and Mike Turner were winners of in 2016).
Looking further it appears to me that Millésima’s key strengths are:
Selection: they have 2.5 million bottles to choose from. The emphasis is on Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, then other French regions and ten other countries.
Provenance: they source their wines directly from the producer so that their condition and (especially) their authenticity are guaranteed.
Packaging and delivery: they pride themselves on speedy deliveries which arrive in perfect condition. The wines I ordered were picked and packaged in a double-layered corrugated cardboard box covered with a thick layer of shrink-wrapped plastic.
Compliance: unlike some unscrupulous distributors I have heard of, they are fully compliant with the excise and tax regulations of the countries to which their wines are shipped. This is especially important in Ireland which (unfortunately) has the highest rates in Europe, and so puts Millésima on a level playing field with local importers.
So, when invited to try some wines from a Bordeaux-based fine wine supplier, what type of wine did I order? That’s right, some of my beloved Alsace wines from the far side of the country! But rather than being awkward, the decision was deliberate and common sense: it would show the breadth of Millésima’s range and would put me in an informed position when reviewing the wines.
To select a mixed case is simple: click on Special Offers on the far right of the top menu
then Create your own tasting case
and My own tasting case.
The wines I chose mainly feature my two favourite grapes from Alsace – Riesling and Pinot Gris – from three top producers, and both young and aged examples:
Heimbourgis a lieu-dit or named vineyard close to Turckheim, the home village of Domaine Zind Humbrecht. It receives a lot of sunlight as it faces onto the Munster Valley and hence isn’t overshadowed by the Vosges Mountains.
The wine pours bright gold into the glass – a combination of age, possibly some noble rot and the grape variety. The nose is highly aromatic, mainly showing rich honey notes (I’m not a honey connoisseur, but those bees have been feasting on some pretty tasty nectar) and stewed figs. One of the best noses I’ve ever experienced!
The palate reveals the wine to be mature with some rancio streaks, possibly just past its peak, and dry. Being dry is no bad thing in itself but is something of a surprise given the amount of honey on the nose. The fruit is subdued and mainly stewed, accompanied by walnuts and brazils. For matching with food, think of mature cheeses and nuts or even slow roasted beef.
Maison Trimbach Pinot Gris Réserve Personnelle 1998 (13.0%, €45* at millesima.ie)
Trimbachis arguably the most famous producer in Alsace and its wines are well distributed. Its main yellow label wines are often the default choice for Alsace, whereas its flagship Clos Sainte-Hune Riesling is regarded by many as the best wine of the region. Sitting between the two are the premium range of Riesling (Cuvée Frédéric Emile), Gewurztraminer (Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre) and this Pinot Gris (Réserve Personnelle).
The nose is clean with no oxidative notes, showing cumquat, apricot, exotic spices such as cinnamon and star anise, wrapped up with some light honeyed notes. The palate has medium flavour intensity and reflects the nose very well. This is a tasty, lively wine which isn’t going to improve further and would be best drunk sooner rather than later, but it would still be going strong in a year or two.
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris “Herrenweg de Turckheim” 1999 (13.5%, €48 at millesima.ie)
The Herrenweg is the vineyard where Zind Humbrecht’s HQ is based, on a complex mixture of sand, silt, clay and alluvial deposits. Grapes here tend to ripen quickly and be very expressive.
When poured this Pinot Gris was an amazing amber colour – perhaps even burnished copper! The nose is primarily stewed and some fresh stone fruit, with spice and honey. It’s relatively subtle on the palate with the same notes but all of them are intertwined – the interplay between them is intriguing. There’s still a little sweetness on the finish to accompany the honey aromas and flavours.
Domaine Marcel Deiss Alsace Riesling 2017 (13.0%, €28* at millesima.ie)
Domaine Marcel Deiss is an estate founded on tradition, but tradition for a reason. Based in Bergheim, just a few clicks from Ribeauvillé, the Domaine is known for its focus on field blends – how wine was made in Alsace (and much of Europe) for centuries, before different grape varieties were properly identified and planted separately. This, however, is from the Deiss vins de fruits or vins de cépages range – more about their grape variety than the locality where they were grown. As with the entire range, this Riesling is Certified Organic and made following biodynamic principles from Deiss’s own vineyards only.
There’s a veritable array of citrus on the nose: lemon, lime, grapefruit and more. The first sip shows that it has a little more body that you’d expect from a dry Riesling. It’s young, fresh, citrus, mineral and steely with a long, dry finish. This is quite a serious wine, but then, Riesling is a serious business!
Domaine Marcel Deiss Langenberg 2013 (12.5%, €39* at millesima.ie)
The Langenbergis from Deiss’s Lieux-Dits range which consists of nine different named vineyards with their own distinctive terrior. They don’t have Grand Cru status but when Alsace Premier Cru is established I’d bet that many of these nine would be included. The Deiss website explains that Langenberg is a field blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Beurot, Muscat and Pinot Noir. To the best of my knowledge Pinot Beurot is simply a synonym for Pinot Gris, but as that is already listed it might be a particular clone.
This is a highly aromatic wine with a wealth of tropical notes: pineapple, grapefruit, guava, banana, coconut, passionfruit and exotic spices all feature. It has a silky, generous texture in the mouth. The enticing palate is full of the tropical fruits found on the nose (mainly contributed by the Pinots Grises and the Muscat) but brought round to a crisp conclusion by the Riesling component. A magnificent wine!
*Note: all prices include Irish Duty and VAT and are the relevant prices for individual bottles as part of a mixed selection.
Disclosure: this is a sponsored post, but all opinions remain my own.
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….
Pinot 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.
Riesling 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.
Pinot 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.
L’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.
L’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.
Pinot 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!
Gewurztraminer 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.
Riesling Grand Cru Zinnkoeplé Vendanges Tardives 2015shows 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.
Gewurztraminer 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!
In the lead up to #AlsaceWineWeek 2019 (starting 20th May) I will be publishing a series of Alsace-related articles – though, given my tastes, that’s not such a big surprise anyway.
The wines of Domaines Schlumberger will be on the Tindal / Searson’s table at the #BigAlsaceTasting on 22nd May – see here for more details.
Earlier this year I dropped in to the Tindal Wines portfolio tasting and tried the wines from several producers, including the excellent Domaines Schlumberger (from the town of Guebwiller in the south of the Alsace wine region) which were being shown by Séverine Schlumberger. Her commentary was very insightful and has been paraphrased in the notes below.
Most of the land around Guebwiller had been owned by the Prince Abbots of Murbach Abbey – hence the name of the Princes Abbés wines – but it was taken out of their hands during the French Revolution. Later, the shrewd Ernest Schlumberger added to the family’s holdings by buying up plots in the early 1800s.
The map on the left gives you an idea how steep the hillsides are around Guebwiller – as steep as 50% incline, and coming right down into the town. The map also highlights the four Grand Cru vineyards of Guebwiller (the only town or village in Alsace to have four, all of which were among the first batch of 25 recognised in 1983); Schlumberger have land across all four amounting to 70 hectares, half of their total holdings.
Domaines Schlumberger Les Princes Abbés Alsace Riesling 2014 (12.5%, 2.8 g/L, RRP €22.95 at Searsons, Monkstown; searsons.com)
With its large number of Grands Crus (51), permitted grape varieties (13) and soil types (13), Alsace is complex – but it doesn’t have to be complicated! With so much choice some sommeliers and retailers don’t even know where to start, but a clean, dry, fruity Alsace Riesling is an excellent place to start. If there is a dish which partners well with a crisp, dry white wine – think Sancerre, Chablis, Muscadet etc. – then a Riesling such as this “Les Princes Abbés” would also be well suited – it’s dry (2.8 g/L of residual sugar), clean and has zesty lime fruit.
Domaines Schlumberger Les Princes Abbés Alsace Pinot Gris 2016 (13.5%, 9.6 g/L, RRP €22.95 at Searsons, Monkstown; searsons.com; JJ. Fields and Co, Skibbereen)
Alsace Pinot Gris is the ultimate all-rounder at the table – it can partner well with so many dishes – shellfish, fish, chicken, pork etc. – that, if a group are sharing a bottle but eating different foods then this is the one which works best. The technical analysis reveals this to be very slightly off-dry, but sweetness is hardly noticeable at all – instead, it adds to the roundness and mouthfeel of the wine.
Domaines Schlumberger Les Princes Abbés Alsace Gewurztraminer 2016 (13.4%, 20.4 g/L, RRP €26.95 at Searsons, Monkstown and searsons.com)
Gewurztraminer is a speciality of Domaines Schlumberger. This “Les Princes Abbés” is so good that for most restaurants and merchants there’s little point in listing both this and the Grand Cru Kitterlé – it’s one or the other. This is a very well balanced example of Gewurz – for me, balance is the biggest let down of many Alsace Gewurz wines. The nose has floral notes but they are not overdone. On the palate this is clean with a mineral streak but nice roundness.
Schlumberger make three Grand Cru Rieslings; Kitterlé, Kessler and this Saering. This is the most flexible of the three so tends to be the one picked when a restaurants wants to list a single Grand Cru Riesling. The 2015 Saering is powerful with 14.0% alcohol but not hot. Dry, floral and zesty, it has a lovely citrus sensibility with a strong mineral backbone and a long, elegant finish.
Domaines Schlumberger Alsace Grand Cru Spiegel Pinot Gris 2014 (12.4%, 28.4 g/L, RRP €31.95 at Searsons, Monkstown and searsons.com)
In Alsace, Pinot Gris grapes destined for inclusion in Grand Cru wines is picked later than that for normal Pinot Gris wines (this was worded very carefully as some fruit from Grand Cru vineyards is used in the second wines). This gives the grapes higher ripeness but does have a cost; as a grape it has a very short harvest window (between sufficient ripeness and over-ripeness) so needs to be monitored very carefully. This is a luscious and generous wine, spicy and rich. It is style unique to Alsace which makes Pinot Gris narrowly my second favourite variety of this amazing region.
Does the word “Château” as part of a wine name impress you or leave you indifferent? Here are a couple of excellent Château-monikered wines from regions which are not synonymous with that word on the label:
Château de Sancerre 2016 (13.0%, RRP ~ €28 at independent wine merchants)
The Loire Valley is probably home to the most celebrated châteaux in the country, if not Europe as a succession of French kings tried to outdo each other in their weekend retreats. To my shame I became very bored of the them and didn’t even try the local wine on my last holiday there – but in fairness I was only ten years old.
As experienced wine drinkers we try to discipline ourselves not to judge books by their covers, but we can at least admire beautiful covers like this one. Thankfully, the contents live up to the label’s promise. it has typical Sauvignon Blanc freshness, but isn’t hollow, like some Sancerres. It has a touch of richness and body which elevate it above the hoi polloi – to be honest you would expect refinement in this price bracket but you don’t always get it. Regular readers will know that cheese isn’t my thang, but the classical match of Sancerre with goat’s cheese would work well, or alternatively a lightly spiced stir fry.
A quick flick at any tourist guide will tell you that there are lots of châteaux in Alsace. However, unlike the palaces of the Loire, many were functioning fortified castles – and bear the scars of countless battles. This is the only one I know of which is a wine producing entity in Alsace – and it’s a beauty. The Château d’Orschwihr make some excellent Grand Cru wines (watch this space) but this particular bottle is from the lieu-dit of Bollenberg – perhaps a future Alsace Premier Cru?
Both the 2010 and 2014 were tried at a DNS Wineclub tasting earlier this year and the differences were an excellent illustration of how wines can change from year to year – vintage variation. Age itself is a factor, of course, but the particularities of each vintage and how the producer adapts to them in the vineyard and the winery are part of what makes wine so interesting. 2010 was a very warm year and so the grapes had lots of sugar at harvest time – much was turned into alcohol (14.6%!) but a little was left as residual sugar (9 g/L). The resulting wine is rich but not flabby – the alcohol doesn’t stand out and the slightly off dry finish is the perfect compliment to the ginger, pear and honey notes. Cries out for Thai!
Celebrity wine is not a new thing and it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. among the “celebs” with their name attached to a wine are people from sport (golfers Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, Greg Norman…), the music business (Cliff Richard, Madonna, Sting…) and the film industry (Jolie-Pitt, Sam Neill, Francis Ford Coppola).
The degree of involvement varies significantly; some of them are simply adding their name to the label of a wine made entirely by someone else, whereas others such as Francis Ford Coppola come from a family with a tradition of winemaking and are directly involved. Sam Neill’s Central Otago wines have been recognised for their intrinsic excellence and are aimed at serious wine aficionados with regards to their price, style and availability.
Flamboyant chat show host Graham Norton was approached by New Zealand newcomers Invivo in 2011 to see if he’d like to try their wines, and he liked them so much that he ended up producing his own varietal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc with them from the 2014 vintage onwards.
To that were soon added a New Zealand Rosé (Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc grapes from Marlborough (50%), Gisborne (30%), Hawke’s Bay (20%)) and a South Australian Shiraz. Last year the Sauvignon and the Rosé accounted for 10% of all Kiwi wines sold in Ireland. Norton isn’t involved in the vineyards but he does have the final call on the blend – even single varietal wines are usually a blend of different sources of fruit – so he does more than just add his name to the label.
How have the wines become so successful? In my view there are a number of factors:
The wine categories themselves are well known and popular (there’s no Graham Norton Franciacorta, for example)
Each wine is made in a very approachable, drinkable style to appeal to a large number of people
There’s a good match between the populism of Norton’s TV programmes and the style of the wines – unpretentious and accessible
The latest addition to the portfolio is “Graham Norton’s Own Prosecco DOC Extra Dry”. It follows the same principles as the previous wines – Prosecco is the most popular type of sparkling wine in the UK and Ireland, and it’s made in a medium-dry style (confusingly labelled Extra Dry, but that won’t put many people off).
As the (much bigger) UK market is more of a target than Ireland, the decision to go for a fully sparkling Spumante style rather than Frizzante makes sense – the wire cage over cork closure projects more quality than the latter’s bit of string. It does make the wine a little more expensive in Ireland than it needed to be due to the double duty attached to Spumante (as is the case for Champagne, Cava, Crémant etc) but the retail price of €17.99 at Tesco Ireland should still see it flying off the shelves!
What will come next? My guess is either a Pinot Grigio or an Argentinian Malbec…
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!
Edelzwickeris 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!
Gentilis 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:
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
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 Laquenexybut 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!
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 (Zotzenbergand Kaefferkopf) do not allow any Muscat at all.
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)
Chardonnay(although not permitted in still Alsace wines, an exception is made for Crémant )
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:
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.
Here are ten fantastic whites which really impressed me in 2017 and I plan on drinking more of in 2018!
10. Les Deux Cols Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Zéphyr 2016 (14.0%, RRP €22.99)
“Les Deux Cols” translates literally as “The Two Hills” but also refers to the two founding colleagues Simon Tyrrell and Charles Derain. Now joined by Gerard Maguire perhaps they will look to plant on another hill? I’m an admirer of Les Deux Cols’ main red wine, the Cuvée d’Alizé, but for me their white blend on is another level entirely. Made from very 100% Roussanne it manages to have richness and freshness at the same time, lovely texture and zestiness.
Marlborough started out as a fairly corporate production area, but gradually smaller grapegrowers began making their own wines. This was the story for Ross and Barbara Lawson who began making their own wines in 1992 after twelve years of supplying others. And what a great decision that was! Among the many great wines they make is this delicious off-dry Riesling, full of racy lemon and lime plus elegant floral notes.
8. Turner Pageot Les Choix 2014 (13.5%, RRP €39)
This was one of the highlights of the Winemason portfolio tasting, a skin contact wine with finesse. Maceration is for five weeks which is much shorter than some orange wines – and personally I think it shows in that the underlying character of the Marsanne grapes still shines through. This isn’t a wine for everyone but it’s very interesting and very drinkable at the same time – what more could you ask for?
7. Jordan Stellenbosch Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2015 (13.5%, RRP €20.50)
Just to clarify, this wine is made by Jordan Wine Estate (of Stellenbosch, South Africa) as opposed to Jordan Vineyard & Winery (of Sonoma County, California); as it happens, both produce great Cabernet and Chardonnay, and it’s the latter which has made this list. As the name indicates the wine was fermented (and then matured) in French oak barrels, giving a lovely biscuity creaminess. I like this style of wine in general but this is a great example, complex yet balanced, and seriously good value.
A barrel-fermented style of Sauvignon from a single vineyard in Marlborough. Like the Jordan above, this was a little tight on release in early 2017 but had really blossomed in the second half of the year. My money would be on increasing complexity over the next three to five years. Very good wine for the money.
Kevin Judd’s barrel-fermented Sauvignon has made regular appearances in this blog’s Top 10 lists over the years, chiefly because it’s so damn interesting. I have nothing against regular Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs (in fact I often like them) but this style gives so much more, and bridges the gap to Chardonnay for those torn between the two grapes. Wild yeast and barrel fermentation give intriguing funky and toasty notes
4. La Chablisienne Grand Cuvée 1er Cru 2015 (13.0%, RRP €34.95)
I’m a big fan of La Chablisienne’s range, from the everyday Petit Chablis up to the superlative Grands Crus. The Grand Cuvée is a blend of grapes from seven different Premier cru sites with an average vine age of 25 years. It has a fair bit of oak – more than you might expect from a Chablis – but it is integrated seamlessly, lending a bit of body plus notes of toast and spice. This is an elegant wine which knocks spots of many more expensive wines from the Côte d’Or.
It would be a little misleading to call Matt Thomson “the Michel Roland of the southern hemisphere” not least because his involvement as a consultant doesn’t overshadow the wines, but his advice is much in demand. After more than 20 vintages in each of the southern (for Saint Clair and others) and northern (for Alpha Zeta and others) hemispheres, Matt decided to get off the merry go round and focus on his personal project Blank Canvas. This 2016 is the first vintage of Chardonnay and it’s a big winner! It has the funky notes I’d expect from a wild-yeast barrel ferment but with a gliding, ethereal finish that leaves you wanting more.
2. BlankBottle Moment of Silence 2016 (13.5%, RRP €24)
And so to a bottle which has caused almost everyone who has tasted it to sit up and pay attention – not least for the concept of a wine whose blend can change from vintage to vintage – and not naming the constituent varieties on the front means the wine drinker isn’t thinking about them (apart from me because I’m a wine geek!) The 2016 is made from Chenin Blanc from four different sites, plus Grenache Blanc and Viognier (Chardonnay is no longer in the mix). After being fermented in barrel the wine rests on its lees for twelve months. It’s a big mouthful, this wine; peach and apricot with cream and nuts.
It was difficult to choose between Philippe Zinck’s Grand Cru offerings (first world problems) but the added complexity and richness of the Pinot Gris won me over. The Grand Cru of Rangen is the most southerly of Alsace so, when combined with the vertiginous steepness of its slopes, gives the wines considerable power. Of course, power on its own is nothing – when combined with acidity and complexity it can make a great wine such as this. Move over Riesling, Pinot Gris is King!
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1. Domaine Zinck Grand Cru XXX Pinot Gris XX (XX%, RRP XX)