Last year our family holiday (remember them?) was in Brittany which, although convenient for the ferry ports, isn’t a quality wine producing region. My vinous needs therefore have to be met by trying various wines from the supermarkets, and of course many of those were from Alsace. Two rules of thumb were therefore brought into play:
French supermarket wines aren’t always great; they tend to be sold on the appellation name and at a low price, so the bottle contents (especially without a reputable producer on the label) tend to be very average.
Alsace has many family names shared by different wineries – so don’t assume it’s the same one.
On the second point, when researching the producer of this wine I found Famille Hauller in Dambach-la-Ville, but there was no sign of Hauts de Hauller on the website. A forensic review of the back label found that it was bottled by “JHF”; that turned out to be J. Hauller et Fils, a different company entirely!
Hauller “Hauts de Hauller” Alsace Sylvaner Vieilles Vignes 2017
Sylvaner can be a bit meh, but this bottle sported the magic words “Vieilles Vignes”. Old vines are prized for the additional concentration and depth of flavour they can bring to the finished wine, offset (for the vigneron) by lower yields. A modest price premium over wines made from younger vines is the balancing factor and looks after both the consumer and producer…happy days!
I picked a bottle of this up in Intermarché and liked it so much I managed to bring a couple home as well. I’ve often posited that Alsace Sylvaner is somewhere between the out-and-out raciness of Riesling and the rounder fruit tones of Pinot Blanc. These aspects are true for this Vieilles Vignes example, but it also has richness and some weight – almost like a dash of good Pinot Gris was added to the recipe. The end combination is a wine that is dry, crisp, refreshing yet incredibly appealing. I just wish I’d brought more back with me!
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!
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.
I was introduced to the wines of Domaine Zinck by Charles Derain of Nomad Wine Importers a few years ago, and have been lucky enough to taste them several times since, including the Grand Cru Eichberg Riesling which was my personal standout of last year’s SPIT festival.
The Zinck portfolio is split into four distinct ranges:
the everyday Portraitseries which typify their variety
the Terriorseries which are from smaller, better plots
the Grand Crus, the top of the Alsace quality ladder
Crémants, sparkling wines for celebration and fun
Earlier this year I was treated to a tasting of some standout wines from the range at Dax Restaurant in Dublin, hosted by Philippe Zinck and Charles Derain, followed by an interesting discussion over lunch (with more wine of course). Full disclosure: I was a guest of Nomad Wines, but all opinions on the wines are my own (unless noted). Of course, tasting French wines in a French restaurant with Frenchmen meant I had to wear my England rugby jacket!
Philippe’s father Paul started the winery with 2.5 hectares in 1964, although his parents already had some vines on their farm. Paul gradually improved quality and expanded the land under vine – it had reached 6 hectares by the mid 70s and 8 hectares when Philippe took over in 1997. Philippe accelerated the expansion so that by 2017 the Domaine covered 20 hectares and employed 8 people.
But even more than quantity, Philippe kept striving to improve quality, going fully organicin 2011 and practising biodynamics in some vineyards. He looks for purity and finesse in his wines, balance rather than power, and an authentic expression of where they are made.
What’s new? is a question asked of Philippe by some people in the wine trade – perhaps seeking new blends and new varieties – but each vintage is a new chapter in the story of Domaine Zinck. With only six years since full organic conversion, there are decades of tweaking viticulture and vinification for each variety in each plot – there are no limits in sight!
The biggest challenges are generally natural – the weather patterns in each vintage. Straight forward global warming could be taken into account, but climate change (i.e. more unpredictable, changeable weather) is far more difficult to manage.
Producing such fresh wines with unrelenting summer temperatures into the 40s centigrade is a major achievement. Lots of sunshine and high temperatures could over-amplify the aromatics, letting them get out of kilter, so the canopy is left as full as possible to shade the grapes.
Damp weather (particularly mist and fog) increases the chance of rot and other unwanted diseases, so the canopy is trimmed to allow air to circulate better. If there’s too much rainfall then grass is allowed to grow in between the rows; the grass competes for the water so the vines don’t get too much.
Sylvaneris a variety that is much under-rated; in decades past when quantity was key, Sylvaner would produce plenty of grapes but with little character at these high yields. Now that the variety is being given a fair crack of the whip it is producing some good wines that are worthy of interest. Although not one of the four “noble grapes” of Alsace, Sylvaner is now permitted in one Grand Cru –Zotzenberg.
One of the key challenges facing Alsace as a region is the huge gap between AOC Alsace and the Grands Crus. Additionally, some of the boundaries of certain Grands Crus are thought to be too wide and not suitable for all the varieties that are grown there. One important addition to the region is the introduction of Alsace Premier Cru. Philippe believes that this is definitely going to happen and he would look to have his Terroir series wines classed as Premier Cru. Whether Grand Cru regulations get tightened up is another story.
As the only black grape in the cool climate of Alsace, Pinot Noir hasn’t received much attention – in fact the resulting red wines are often treated more like rosés (quite pale and served at 10ºC in restaurants!) However, the combination of better understanding of how the grape performs in different local microclimates and warmer vintages has enabled some very good Pinots to be produced – so much so that Pinot Noir from vineyards within certain Grand Crus (such as Réné Muré’s “V” from Vorbourg) will be granted Grand Cru status.
For Charles, one of the key attractive features of Domaine Zinck is that it is one of the few producers who don’t make their wines too sweet – especially the “everyday” Portrait series. Even if there is some residual sugar the wines are balanced and not “sugary”.
Philippe noted that the 2016 Pinot Blanc is lighter than 2015 – the latter was a very warm vintage.
This is a fresh and fruity wine full of apple and quince. There’s a very round mid palate but a crisp finish which makes it very versatile.
Domaine Zinck Terroir Sylvaner 2014
Made from 35 year old vines on clay and limestone soil. This is highly aromatic! No dilute plonk here, this is probably the best Sylvaner I’ve ever tasted. Flinty and a touch smoky. Elegant and great for food matching.
Domaine Zinck Grand Cru Eichberg Riesling 2015 (12.5%, RRP ~ €34 at SIYPS)
The Eichberg (literally “oak mountain”) is mainly clay soil (good for water retention) and combined with a hot vintage has produced an amazing Riesling. This is a rich, profound wine even in its youth – and it should cellar well to the end of the next decade. The nose alone is fabulous and worth the entrance fee – complex citrus notes where you can pick out different fruits as you inhale. This is a dry Riesling, yes, but it’s far from austere and is so delicious right now that it would take an immense amount of self discipline to lay down!
Domaine Zinck Grand Cru Goldert Gewurztraminer 2013
The Goldert Grand Cru is just to the north of Gueberschwihr with mainly east-facing slopes, and is most renowned for Gewurz and Muscat. Zinck’s Gewurz vines are 50 years old giving intense, concentrated flavours. On tasting, I can only describe it as fecking huge in the mouth! It’s so soft and round, but has an amazing fresh finish. Charles finds some Gewurztraminers to be almost like a lady’s perfume (or in pre-PC days one might have said “smell like a tart’s boudoir”), but this is perfectly balanced.
Domaine Zinck Grand Cru Rangen Pinot Gris 2011 (13.0%, RRP ~ €48 at SIYPS)
Rangenis the most southerly Grand Cru of Alsace, with steep slopes on volcanic soil. and a river of the bottom of the slope which helps botrytis develop. Domaine Zinck buys grapes from Rangen as it doesn’t own vineyards down there. Yields are low and 60% of the vines are on south facing slopes.
This wine is the perfect example of why Pinot Gris is narrowly my second favourite grape from Alsace – it’s so complex, rich and spicy. Gingeris complemented by star aniseand liquorice, but to be honest the longer you taste it the more flavours you recognise. Isn’t that what makes wine interesting? Residual sugar is 30 g/L but it’s perfectly integrated and finishes off dry.
As in previous years Lidl Ireland are having a French wine sale this autumn, starting on 25th September. “Sale” means different things to different people – here it doesn’t mean price reductions on existing lines but rather a limited release of certain French wines which aren’t all sale all year round.
The wines come from several different regions including Bordeaux, Rhône valley, the Loire, the Languedoc and Burgundy; but of course I have chosen to focus on my favourite white wine region of the world, Alsace!
Disclosure: samples kindly provided for review
Jean Cornelius Alsace Sylvaner 2016 (12.0%, €8.99 at Lidl Ireland)
Sylvaner is often looked down upon as one of the poor relations in Alsace, though that has much to do with grape farmers being paid for quantity rather than quality – Sylvaner can produce high yields but becomes dilute and lacking in flavour. In the hands of a good vigneron it can produce good wines, though it’s more of a quaffing wine than one for contemplation.
This Jean Cornelius 2016 is a great introduction to the grape, if you didn’t know it before. It’s clean, unoaked and dry, which are all normal for Sylvaner in Alsace, despite misconceptions about the bottle shape (don’t mention the “L word”!) If you like Riesling and Pinot Blanc or unoaked Chardonnay then give this a try, as it sits somewhere in the middle of them flavour-wise – there’s a touch of apple and a touch of citrus, making it great for shellfish, subtle fish dishes or as an aperitif – went great with green olives!
Jean Cornelius Alsace Pinot Blanc 2016 (12.0%, €8.99 at Lidl Ireland)
Pinot Blanc is the great all-rounder of Alsace; it’s fruity and supple, rarely austere (which Riesling can be) but not as exotic as Gewurztraminer (see below) or its sibling Pinot Gris. In fact there’s a trick which Alsace producers can use – other grapes! Now they can’t just put any old grapes in, but a dash of Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir (without skin contact of course) or Auxerrois is permitted.
Crunchy appleand pearare the key flavours here. As the wine warms a little in your glass it goes from Granny Smith to Golden Delicious, but always finishes dry and crips.
Jean Cornelius Alsace Gewurztraminer 2016 (12.5%, €7.99 (50cl) at Lidl Ireland)
Gewurztraminer – more easily shortened to Gewurz – is very different from most other grapes. It’s highly aromatic and has a distinctive exotic perfume that can divide drinkers (a true “Marmite grape”). Due to the ease with which the variety produces sugar it is often made somewhat sweet – on the listing I received this wine is described as moelleux i.e. sweet, but it isn’t classified as either Vendange Tardive or Sélection de Grains Nobles which are the Alsace terms for certain classes of sweet wines.
And on pouring this revealed itself to be a typical Gewurz – rose petals and Turkish delight. There’s a little fruit sweetness which adds to the round flavours in your mouth, but it finishes perfectly dry – in fact there’s even a little acidity on the finish, something which isn’t always associated with Gewurz.
These wines won’t set the world alight, but they are a great introduction to the wines of Alsace and are good representatives of their varieties.