27 Feb 2012

Difference of opinion (Alsace, France - Day Four)

One of the major goals of my journey is to discover first hand what makes each great region in the wine world unique, to find a consistency if there is one. With so many regions to choose from as a wine consumer, it helps to have some element of the product to distinguish it from everything else. Most major regions in Europe usually have more producers than all of Australia, and when you only visit six of them it isn’t always easy to get an accurate snapshot. If you are visiting very high quality ones it does help, as the tenets of quality are usually the same (low yields, natural yeast fermentation etc.) Even in these circumstances you can get producers that have almost completely different philosophies, yet both produce outstanding wines. This is one of the many things that makes wine such an amazing product, and working in it exhilarating.

Old foudre with tartrite build-up at Kuentz-Bas

The Kuentz-Bas name has been associated with super-fine and elegant Alsatian wines for decades, and thanks to their vineyard holdings and grower relationships it is a reputation richly deserved. In the early part of this century the owner of the estate and the long-serving cellarmaster parted ways, and a new winemaker was brought on board. With new-world sensibilities the style of the wine changed, and many within the industry and wine media reacted to this shift. In 2004 the winery was sold to another Alsatian producer, who decided to appoint a winemaker who could return the estate to its former glory. This man was Samuel Tottoli, a former sommelier who had been working for the new owner’s winery. Fruit is pressed in whole bunches very gently, and juice is transferred to tanks for cold settling and racking. The fermentation is split between stainless steel tanks and mature foudre barrels, and is conducted naturally where in some cases it can take up to two years to complete, but this is rare. There are three levels in the Kuentz-Bas range; the Tradition comes from mostly grower vineyards, the Collection range comes from Grand Cru grower vineyards, and the Trois Chateaux range which comes exclusively from estate vineyards.

Domaine Kuentz-Bas
The wines in general are of an extremely light pure and elegant nature, showing wonderful balance of fruit and savoury notes, and serious potential for ageing. The 2010 Tradition wines (Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer) were all very fresh and consistently high-quality varietal examples, showing texture and food-friendliness. The Collection wines (Riesling 2010, Pinot Gris 2008 and Gewurztraminer 2008) I tried were all exceptionally good, with the Pinot Gris the standout showing slightly smoky reductive pear notes on the nose, and restrained richness and creamy earthiness. Of the Trois Chateaux wines I tried (Riesling 2010 and Pinot Gris 2009), the Riesling stood out with its salty earthy minerality on the nose and palate, with great concentration and texture, but without weight and overt fruit. The Pfersigberg Grand Cru Riesling 2010 was closed and far too young, but had wonderful complexity and length on the palate. The Eichberg Grand Cru Pinot Gris 2010 had a very dark floral honey nose, had wonderful density and savoury complexity, but was very elegant and harmonious.

Just a few wines before lunch
Visiting Domaine Paul Blanck in the village of Kientzheim was the most refreshing I had whilst in Alsace, and immediately endeared me to the estate. I was familiar with the Gewurztraminer from back at home, as it was the staple GWT in our Alsace range at King & Godfree. Once of the things I liked about it apart from the quality and purity was that it was sealed under a screwcap unlike every other Alsatian wine we stocked. I met with Frederick Blanck, the generation of vintners, who took me straight to the winery to try 2011 wines from tank and barrel. This was the only opportunity I got to do this in Alsace, so this was already a good start. Frederic prefers to ferment his wines dry to allow a cleaner fresher expression of the variety. As we tasted wines we discussed wine production and the topic of packaging came up. Frederic was the first winemaker to seal his wines almost entirely under screwcap after spending time with Jeffrey Grosset and seeing how well they can age. He initially tried to convince his colleagues to follow suit, but everyone said he was mad. Now there are a number of detractors who have started to make the switch. It actually now reminds of Fritz Hasselbach from Gunderloch in the Rheinhessen region of Germany… Frederic doesn’t buy into the theory that corks, like barrels, allow micro-oxidation critical to the ageing of wines. His response is that if this were true in the case of oak, then a 5,000L foudre would be empty in seconds with all of the pressure of the weight bearing down on it.

Domaine Paul Blanck
Most of his wines are fermented in stainless steel, and he has been slowly reducing the amount of sulphites added to the wines, and will soon make a transport trial on a no-sulpher pinot blanc to see how it goes. Comparing the same wine with and without sulphur was great, as the sulphured example had a very reductive nose whereas without sulphur it was much crisper and fresher. The range consists mostly of varietal wines, and it was good to see the 2011 wines were very fresh, light and vibrant, and showed wonderful purity of fruit. The Muscat had that unmistakable musk aroma, but without the viscosity and oiliness you can sometimes get with the variety. The Gewurztraminer reminded me of the lolly teeth I used to eat when I was young, sitting somewhere between musk sticks and spearmint. Tasting two of the Grand Cru wines, the Schlossberg showed very floral and white peach aromas, and was more intense and balanced in the texture and acidity. The other Grand Cru was the Furstentum Riesling, which was richer, fuller and broader on the palate, showing more tropical citrus notes and more texture. To show how the wine ages we looked at a 2005 vintage of the same wine, and it was showing the wonderful mineral kerosene nose riesling gets, with ripe pineapple and pear fruit on the palate.

Domaine Marcel Deiss
Domaine Marcel Deiss in Bergheim is a unique winery to say the least. Back when the winery was established in 1744, times were different. Growers would plant different varieties in their vineyards to overcome the vicissitudes of vintage, so that there was always some ripe and healthy fruit. The top wine of each estate would be a blend of varieties, and would often come from the best vineyards (long before Alsace began to officially classify their vineyards). Then through market and technological changes, the variety became more important as you could use various techniques to ensure you would get good quality fruit each year, and the customers wanted single varietal wines. Thus the reputation Alsace has compared to other regions for making single varietal wines has only been over the past 50 years. The blends of variety and vineyard then became the high volume simple wine of each estate, and some wines became very famous (Hugel Gentil springs to mind). When Jean-Michel Deiss took over from his father, he wanted to return to the traditional approaches, and allow the terroir to be the expression of the wine rather than the variety. The vineyards are all certified organic to help this expression of terroir, and the wines are vinified traditionally and with minimal intervention. Jean-Michel has also taken the bold step to pre-emptively label the non-Grand Cru vineyards that are better than simple AOC as Premier Cru, in anticipation of when the authorities get around to introducing the revised classification system.

A few of the Deiss wines with the mineral composition of their vineyards
There are a number of single varietal wines in the Deiss range, but the majority of them do not indicate it to maintain consistency across the range. The Langenberg 1er Cru 2009 had a flinty and bright minerality, was full and bold in fruit and was quite rich whilst being pure and restrained. The Schoffweg 1er Cru 2008 by comparison had a soy mirin and oyster sauce nose with very shy fruit, and was much more subtle in the minerality and savoury elements on the palate. The Gruenspiel 1er Cru wine is an oddity as it contains some red pinot noir in it, and it was interesting comparing two vintages. Whilst the 2007 had some red and white berry aromas and was very soft but slightly astringent, whereas the 2004 was showing the influence of age on the colour of the wine (orange onion colour) and on the palate, picking up some savoury mushroom and berries and nuts. The Mambourg 2009 had a creamy vanilla aroma derived from barrel work and malolactic fermentation, with a bold and earthy mid-palate structure. Of the Grand Cru wines from 2008, the Schoenenbourg had a lovely pure mineralic stone fruit nose with rich sweet texture and balance, whereas the Altenbourg was much bolder and more powerful with some nut and mushroom complexity. Both wines were exceptionally well balanced, fresh and elegant and will live for a long time in the bottle.

Marcel Deiss Altenbourg 2008
Click here to see more photos from Day Four of Alsace, France.

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