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.
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!
The end of January to April is a very busy time in the Dublin wine calendar, with lots of country, producer and distributor portfolio tastings. Among the many excellent events is Tindal’s Portfolio Tasting at the swanky Marker Hotel in Dublin’s Dockland. I had less than sixty minutes to taste so had to pick and choose; here are the white wines which impressed me most.
Domaine William Fevre Chablis 1er Cru Montmains 2012 (€45, Searsons (online & Monkstown) and 64 Wine (Glasthule))
William Fevre is undoubtedly in the top echelon of Chablis producers with an extensive range across the chablis hierarchy. This Premier Cru is better than some Grand Crus I have had, combining zingy acidity, minerality and ripe fruit. Drinking well now but will continue evolving over the next decade.
Domaine William Fevre Chablis Grand Cru Bougros “Côte Bouguerots” 2009 (€90, Searsons (online & Monkstown), Gibneys (Malahide))
Moving up to Grand Cru level and an older, warmer vintage brings even more complexity, fruit sweetness and integration. There is still Chablis’s trademark stony minerality and acidity, so it remains refreshing. Would pair well with white and seafood up to gamebird.
Domaine Bouchard Père et Fils Meursault “Les Clous” 2013 (€47.50, Searsons (online & Monkstown)
Whereas a ripe Chablis might conceivably fool you into thinking it came from further south in Burgundy, the converse could not be said of this Meursault – it is decidedly of the Côte d’Or. Bouchard was established close to 300 years ago and have expanded their land under vine at opportune moments.
Meursault is probably my favourite village in the Côte de Beaune, and is the archetype for oaked Chardonnay. This being said, the use of oak is often judicious, and so it is here; there’s plenty of lemon and orange fruit with a little toastiness from the oak. Very nice now, but a couple more years of integration would make it even better.
Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2013 (€27.95, Searsons (online & Monkstown), Parting Glass (Enniskerry))
This is a cool climate Chardonnay from one of my all time favourite producers, Craggy Range. The origin of the usual name is explained on their website:
Its namesake, Cape Kidnappers, comes from an incident that occurred during Captain Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769. When Cook attempted to trade with the native Maori in an armed canoe, a Tahitian servant of Cook’s interpreter was seized. The servant later escaped by jumping into the sea after the canoe was fired upon.
Hawke’s Bay does have some fairly warm areas, with the well-drained Gimblett Gravels in particular perfect for growing Syrah and Bordeaux varieties, but cooler parts are located up in the hills or – as in this case – close to the coast. The aim is apparently to emulate Chablis; with only a little bit of older oak and clean fruit, it’s definitely close. The 2013 is drinking well now but will benefit from another year or two – the 2008s I have in my wine fridge are really opening up now!
Another intriguingly named wine. In 1298 the Abbots of the nearby Murbach Abbey were given the status of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Frederick II, and were henceforth known as Abbot Princes.
This is clean and somewhat simple, but fruity and expressive. When done well, Pinot Blanc can be versatile and more approachable than many other of the Alsace varieties – it will go with lots of things, is well balanced and fruity enough to drink on its own.
Schlumberger have Riesling vines on several of their Grand Cru properties, and it’s a wine geek’s dream to taste them head to head to see what the difference in terroir makes. All wines are organic and biodynamic; whether you place importance on these or not, the care that goes into them certainly pays dividends in the glass.
This 2012 Saering is still very young, showing tangy lime and grapefruit, but a pleasure to drink nevertheless.
This late harvest Gewurztraminer is named after the family member Christine Schlumberger who ran the firm for almost 20 years after the death of her husband, and was the grandmother of the current Managing Director Alain Beydon-Schlumberger.
All the fruit is picked late from the Kessler Grand Cru vineyard, packed into small crates so as not to damage the fruit, then taken to the winery for gentle pressing. Fermentation can take from one to three months using ambient yeast.
On pouring, fabulous aromas jump out of the glass – flowers and white fruit. They continue through to the palate, and although the wine feels round in the mouth it is tangy and fresh, far from cloying. A seductive wine that exemplifies the late harvest style.
Lionel Richie’s Commodores were easy on Sunday morning, but when it’s a bank holiday weekend it means Sunday evenings are even better than the mornings.
This Sunday evening I was invited to my brother-in-law Andrew’s for take out and wine – what a relaxing way to spend a Sunday evening – with the rider that his wine-loving friend Noel and family would also be there. Andrew sorted the food, and Noel provided most of the wine, with a bit chipped in from Andrew and myself.
Although it was easy, it was also a very enjoyable evening, with some cracking wines noted below. Where there is an Irish stockist listed on Wine Searcher I have added it, otherwise a UK stockist.
A good rule of thumb for Austrian Grüners is that the alcohol level is an indicator of the wine’s style, and so the 12.0% of this Birgit Eichinger proved true to be a light, summer-quaffing style. Fresh and light, it doesn’t scream its grape variety, but is remarkably easy to drink.
Pauillac is probably the most prestigious appellation on the Médoc peninsula, Bordeaux’s left bank with grand names and grander buildings. Three of the five First growths are in the commune – Châteaux Lafite, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild – with world famous reputations and prices to match.
The small village of Saint-Lambert within the Commune of Pauillac is home to the much more modestly priced Château Gaudin. Its wines are very much true to the general Pauillac style, being dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon (85%) with support from Merlot (10%) and Carménère (5%) plus tiny dashes of Petit Verdot and Malbec.
2009 was the middle year of three fantastic vintages within six years (2005 – 2009 – 2010) and was perfect for Cab Sauv. With such a high percentage of that grape one might think that five or six years from harvest is too short a time for a wine to be approachable, but this is already drinking fantastically now. The fruit is still dense and the evidence of 18 months ageing in new oak barrels is still apparent, but there’s no reason to wait!
Château La Tour Carnet Haut-Médoc Grand Cru Classé 2010 (€55, O’Briens)
Made by widely admired superstar Bernard Magrez of Pessac’s Pape-Clement, La Tour Carnet was officially classed as a Fourth Growth in 1855. Debate as to the relevancy of that classification continues, but it is useful as a general indicator of quality.
Average vine-age is 30 years. The precise blend changes from year to year, but it is usually led by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with small contributions from Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. After fermentation, 70% of the blend was aged on the lees in French oak barrels for 18 months (30% of which new) and the balance in stainless steel.
Although from a very good year, in comparison with the Ch. Gaudin above it was perhaps a little awkward and not quite sure what it wanted to be. A very nice drop which, with a bit of patience, might integrate more fully and blossom in a few years.
Castellare I Sodi Di San Niccolo IGT Toscana 2010 (GBP 40.42, Exel, €61.67 (2011) Millesima)
I have to confess I hadn’t heard of this wine before, but after asking the google it seems as though I really should have! Widely decorated, it’s a blend of 85% Sangioveto (the local name for Sangiovese) with 15% Malvasia Nera. The name “I Sodi” refers to land so steep and uneven that it has to be worked manually, not even using horses.
Castellare di Castellina was born in 1968 from the consolidation of five farms in the Chianti Classico region, and became solely owned by Paolo Panerai around ten years later. At that point he carried out a detailed survey of all the vines on the property so that the best genetic material could be selected.
Subsequently Paolo engaged in partnership with the University of Milan, the University of Florence and the Institute of San Michele all’Adige to carry out ongoing research on the best clones as well as the production of grapevines selected for the renovation of the vineyards.
On pouring I thought it very pleasant, but not amazing; very smooth and drinkable without bring special. However, after a bit of time in the glass it really started to open up, herbs and liquorice layers on top of cherries and blackberries. This is a fine wine that I will definitely be trying again.
An interjection between the reds, something sweet to go with dessert. From the pride of Ribeauvillé, this is a late harvest (that’s exactly what Vendanges Tardives means in French, or Spätlese in German) Gewurztraminer from 2001.
Probably not overly sweet in its youth, it is still sweeter than a normal Gewurz but is not at all “sticky”. The ageing process reduces the wine’s sweetness (though I have not yet found the mechanism) and there is still some acidity to offer balance. As you expect from Gewurz there’s a real floral aspect to it on the nose, with stone / white fruit such as peach and lychee on the palate.
It was actually a little too restrained for the chocolate brownie and ice cream dessert, but off itself was delicious. It’s showing no sign of slowing down at the moment so it might well make it as far as its 20th birthday.
Château Giscours Margaux 3ème Cru Classé 2009 (€100, McHugh’s)
Giscours was a Third Growth in the 1855 Classification, but its fortunes have waxed and waned several times since, mainly as ownership has changed and more or less was put into the vineyards. Margaux is the most feminine of the Médoc’s big four appellations, often with a higher percentage of Merlot than the others and a certain silkiness to the wines.
For the whole Giscours estate’s 94 hectares under vine, the split of grape varieties is 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot and the balance Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Of course the Grand Vin receives a higher proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon than the second and third wines, particularly in a good year such as 2009. The estate matures the Grand Vin in 100 % French oak barrels (fine grain and medium toast) for 15 to 18 months, 50% of which are new and 50% have had one previous use.
Although still relatively young, this was not dumb, tight or closed – it was already singing. Modern Claret is sometimes overdone in the search for Parker points and so needs a decade before approaching, but it wasn’t the case here. Perhaps this was infanticide on a wine that will go on to greatness, only time will tell.
Penfolds Bin 707 South Australia 1998 (GBP 180, WinePro)
Grange occupies the sole spot at the top of the Penfolds pyramid, but Bin 707 isn’t too far behind. Whereas Grange is virtually all Shiraz based, the 707 is the King of Cabernet., allegedly named after the fancy new Boeing airliner of the time.
Grange’s first (though non-commercial) release was in 1951 and the 707’s inaugural vintage was 1964. It hasn’t been made every year since; between 1970 and 1975 there was a conscious decision to put the best Cabernet fruit in other wines, then in the years 1981, 1995, 2000, 2003 and 2011 winemakers didn’t have access to the appropriate style and quality of fruit.
Both Grange and Bin 707 are both multi-regional blends, that is, the fruit comes from several different vineyards in several different regions within South Australia. For the 707 these are Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, Padthaway, Robe and Wrattonbully. Maturation is for 18 months in 100% new American oak hogsheads (300 litres).
So 17 years on, how did it fare? To the eye the age was apparent on the rim which was quite red brick in hue, though the core was still opaque black. The nose showed spearmint, menthol & eucalyptus with dried black fruit and just a tiny hint of oxidisation.
To taste there was a touch of mint and lots of fresh blackcurrant, with some raisins in the background. It was really smooth and still monumental in mouthfeel, despite an abv of 13.5% which is quite modest by today’s standards. Above all it had an amazing length, a small sip lingered in the mouth for several minutes. A stunning wine.
Château Dereszla Tokaji Azsú 5 Puttonyos 2006
To cap it all off was a sweet – sweet wine. As I’ve mentioned before I reckon 5 putts is probably the *ahem* sweet spot for Tokaji, the perfect balance between flavour, sugar and acidity. Château Dereszla also produce 3 and 6 puttonyos wines, plus the legendary Aszú Eszencia
This showed typical apricot, honey and marmalade notes, quite sweet but not at all cloying. This is a wine to get up in the night to drink!
They say “Planning Prevents Poor Performance” – but sometimes it’s better to be a bit more spontaneous. And so when my wife Jess suggested having a late-notice drinks party at the end of June, I chimed in with agreement.
Below are a few of the bottles which grabbed my attention – many of which were kindly brought by guests (you see what nice friends we have?)
A Starter For 10 – Sainsbury’s Blanc de Blancs Champagne Brut NV
In the run up to Xmas 2012 this delightfully light and crisp Champagne was on double-bubble reduction – I ended up paying about £11.50 per bottle which is an absurdly low amount, especially when you can pay over twice as much for a very ordinary big brand. At that price you don’t mind how many you open over the Xmas period!
The extra 18 months or so bottle age has helped add a little more funky complexity – it’s even better now, but I wouldn’t hang on to it until next summer.
The Blanc de Noirs from Sainsbury’s is great as well – especially with 25% off – and give more of a voluptuous red fruit vibe rather than citrus.
Random Light Whites
In a previous post on the Wine Society’s American Dream Tasting I mentioned Viña Litoral Sauvignon Blanc from the Leyda Valley in Chile. That time it was the 2013, but the 2012 (on the right above) shows that well made Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t fade after a year in bottle.
The Muros Antigos Alvarinho is an Albariño-beating wine made just across the Portuguese border from Riax Baixas. When showing it compared to some slightly pricier Spanish competitors at a tasting some years ago, even the Spanish attendees grudgingly admitted it was great. This is probably a year or so older than you might normally drink it, but again age has been kind. Available from Sweeney’s of Glasnevin.
And finally, the beast in the middle – not a light white at all! This is unreconstructed oaky Chardonnay, so beware if you don’t like that style. The Montes Alpha range is great across the board (well done Liberty Wines), but in my biased opinion the Chardy is the best of the lot.
Riesling – The Prince Of Grapes
Some people remain unconverted by Riesling, but that leaves more for the rest of us. The awesome foursome hail from the steep slopes of Alsace and the southern climes of Tasmania.
The latter was the oldest and the leanest of the lot. Tazzie is generally the coolest state in Australia which has made it a perfect location for sparkling wine production. It is now spearheading the cool-climate Chardonnay revolution as Penfold’s now source the majority of the grapes for their “white Grange” Yattarna from Tasmania, and Shaw + Smith bought a fantastic Chardonnay vineyard not too long ago. Sauvignon Blanc has already found a home there, so why not Riesling?
South Pirie Riesling 2007 was lean and racy in the Eden Valley style – lime with a sideorder of lime! Can be a little bit austere for the feint-hearted, but well worth a try.
I had seen a few of Domaine Muré’s wines in the past but it was luck and happenstance that I (almost literally) fell into their outlet in the centre of Colmar last year. This Clos Saint-Landelin is from their own walled vineyard within the larger Vorbourg Grand Cru. To be honest, it was nice but would really benefit from a few more years to balance out and open up.
I’ve already waxed lyrical about Bruno Sorg’s Séléction de Grains Nobles, but here we have a pair of just-off-dry Rieslings from the Grand Cru sites of Florimont (straddling the villages of Ingersheim and Katzenthal) and Pfersigberg (located close to Sorg’s home village of Eguisheim). They aren’t sweet, but the little bit of residual sugar really balances the striking acidity and brings out the pure fruit.
A Brace Of Contrasting French Reds
A delicate Pinot Noir from Burgundy and a stonking 15.5% Malbec from Cahors provide proof that wines can really vary within the same country.
The Ladoix was quite flat for a good time after opening but eventually blossomed, showing red fruits sitting in a light crème anglaise. It’s part of the Côte de Beaune, the sourthern part of Burgundy’s heartland the Côte d’Or.
The Cahors is a recent favourite from Sweeney’s of Glasnevin (it was my wine of the night at the MackenwayFrench tasting). Tasted blind you would probably guess the big plum and bramble flavours were the producer of Argentina rather than south west France.
The Odd Couple
In fairness these wines aren’t a couple – just slightly off the beaten track compared to some of the more well-known bottles.
Wagner-Stempel Rosé Rheinhessen 2013 (available from The Corkscrew) has previously come close to wooing me before, but as my buddy Tara brought it round I had to give it a go. Chris – you were right, it’s lovely. I’m not generally a Rosé drinker, but more of this please!
Albert Mann’s Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives Altenbourg 2008 is a mouthful in more than one way – this is exactly how I like my Gewurz. This late harvest beauty is something you could sit and savour at any time of the year.
The Grande Finalé
Pretty bottles! Belle Epoque is Perrier-Jouet’s prestige cuvée – it almost seems a shame to open such a lovely bottle.
Dom Pérignon needs no further introduction (otherwise why are you reading this blog?), but this 1995 example showed why mature Champagne is such a treat.
Sweet wines are under-appreciated and undervalued. They are expensive to make and can show intensely concentrated aromas and flavours that make you savour every last single drop. As they are generally unfashionable at the moment they are great value for money!
So, any trends in my choices? Of course! Call me predictable if you like:
Alsace features highly – no surprise given that it’s one of my favourite wine regions in the world, and makes some fine sweet wines.
The majority are Late harvest and / or Noble Rot styles (see below) rather than using wines made using air dried harvested grapes, Icewine, fortifieds or wines sweetened after fermentation (e.g. German Süssreserve).
Domaine Bruno Sorg Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles 2007
Domaine Bruno Sorg in Eguisheim was one of the “must visit” places for our family trip to Alsace in 2013, one of the few we wanted to see again after visiting the year before. They produce the whole range of Alsace wines, from Crémant and basic (but great value) Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner, Grand Cru wines and Marc.
After tasting our way through most of the range, I’d decided on Pinot Blanc and a variety of Rieslings as the wines to buy for home. Almost as an afterthought we asked to try the Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN), a dessert wine made from grapes affected by noble rot (which sounds only slightly better than the scientific name of botrytis cinerea), a fungus which dries out grapes and concentrates the flavours under certain favourable conditions. The German equivalent is Trockenbeerenauslese, thankfully known as TBA for short.
And it was pure, heavenly nectar. When we had finished our tasting samples we almost broke the glasses open to get at the last few drops inside. Thankfully the tasting room manager gave us a drop more while he packed our order. He did mention that the SGN is only produced in years where quantities are abundant, in the first place, so that they have enough left over from the grape quotas required to make the regular dry wines. Additionally, there needs to be significant humidity (e.g. through fog) so that botrytis is encouraged, but so much that it turns to grey rot which is undesirable.
At €57 for a half bottle it worked out at twenty times the price of a regular Pinot Blanc…but it was stunning, probably the best sweet wine I have ever tasted.
Pegasus Bay “Encore” Noble Riesling 2008*
Peg Bay’s vineyards are in the Waipara district of Canterbury, just north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. As well as great Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, they do several different Rieslings: Bel Canto is dry and produced every year, Aria is a late harvest made roughly two in every three years, and Encore is a botrytis style only produced in exceptional years when the conditions are right.
The 2008 Encore is full of exotic and citrus fruit on the nose, with tones of mushroom from the the botrytis. It is fabulously concentrated on the palate, sweetly succulent and honeyed but balanced by fresh acidity which stops it from being cloying.
Oremus Tokaji 5 Puttonyos 2000
Long time readers might remember my Restaurant Review of Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill, Dublin where I mentioned the production process for Tokaji. The bottle above which I saved until Christmas was getting deep in colour from bottle age, but the sugar levels from 5 Puttonyos and high acidity meant it was still in the spring of youth. It showed the classic apricot and mandarin flavours with hints of mushroom (weird, but not out of place) from the botrytis.
Oremus is owned by the Ribero del Duero house of Vega Sicilia – what a name to have behind you!
What’s in a name? Variations on the name Tokay have been used for several very different wines in different countries. Hold on to your hats, this can get very confusing…
Alsace Pinot Gris – before 1994 it was referred to as Tokay d’Alsace, thereafter Tokay Pinot Gris, but that name has also been prescribed since the 2007 vintage. Even in drier versions, this is a rich, oily wine.
Tocai Friulano, meaning Tocai from Friuli (near Venice in NE Italy) is a synonym of Sauvignon Vert, (sometimes called Sauvignonasse), a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc which is responsible for a lot of the substandard Chilean swill labelled as the latter. See also the Merlot / Carmenère labelling Snafu. What is it with the Chileans and grape names? Slovenia is just next door and has also had to relabel their Tocai, this time as Sauvignonasse.
Rutherglen Topaque, a fortified wine made from Bordeaux’s minor Muscadelle grape, used to be known as Tokay. Confusingly, Muscadelle planted in California is sometimes known as Sauvignon Vert
Hungarian Tokaji (Anglicised to Tokay) – the real deal!
Trimbach Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives 2001*
Vendange Tardive (VT) is the Alsace version of the German Spätlese, both meaning late harvest. From a technical point of view VT is actually a closer equivalent to Auslese, the next rung up on the Germanic ladder. As grapes continue to ripen on the vine their sugar content increases, meaning higher potential alcohol and thus a potentially sweeter wine, depending on when the winemaker stops fermentation.
This particular VT is suffixed with an s on each word – the plural often indicates that several passes have been made through the vineyard to pick the grapes when they are perfectly ripe. Trimbach is one of the biggest names in Alsace, noted for their excellent dry Rieslings, but they also produce excellent VTs and SGNs when conditions allow. Gewurztraminer is an excellent grape for making Vendange Tardive as it is naturally high in sugar.
Arthur Metz Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles 2007*
Arthur Metz is predominantly a Crémant d’Alsace specialist, but sometimes other bottlings are seen on the shelves – this was picked up at random from a French supermarché. This SGN is made in the Grand Cru Steinklotz, the most northerly of Alsace’s Grand Cru vineyards, which gives it a lighter texture than some other Gewurztraminer SGNs.
Domaine Engel Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Noble 2010*
Labels have to be studied carefully in Alsace as there are many common family names among vintners, sometimes closely related and sometimes distant branches of the family tree. For example there are both Louis Sipp and Jean Sipp in Ribeauvillé plus Sipp Mack a few clicks away over the hill in Hunawihr.
Similarly, this is made by Domaine Fernand Engel et Fils of Rorschwihr rather than Domaine Engel Frères Christian & Hubert of Orschwiller – and it’s wonderful. Hopefully someday I will get to do a multiple Alsace family taste-off!
I hope you liked this post, please leave a comment and/or follow my blog if you haven't done so already.