25 Feb 2012

Palette fatigue (Alsace, France - Day One)

In 2010 the Alsace region was one of the five I visited whilst I travelled in France for three weeks, and was thus the second region that I would be returning to in Europe. Much like Champagne it is quite a different sight to see in winter compared to summer, but unlike Champagne has its own natural beauty not reliant on vines covered with leaves. The region is as I remember it, and supported my comparison with the Pfalz region. It should be noted that Alsace is not Germany, nor is it really France. The people here are very relaxed and generous, and certainly more humble than their counterparts in other French wine regions. One similarity they have with their German neighbours is their focus on single varietal wines, and a lot of them. In my honest opinion there is not one outstanding variety like there is in the Pfalz, but three (riesling, pinot gris and gew├╝rztraminer). Between the numerous varieties and the dry and sweet wines, along with the classifications of vineyards, each producer may have as many as 30 wines at any given time, which would suggest dilution and confusion. I think it is both fantastic for variety, and also challenging to be able to promote such varied styles.

Brand vineyard
It just happened that the first winery I visited for the week was one I was returning to. Domaine Josmeyer in the village of Wintzenheim has been producing wine for over 150 years, and prior to this the family were wine merchants. Their reputation generally revolves around two things. The first is they are a certified biodynamic producer, receiving certification in 2004. The second is for their very steely and crisp white wines, not so common in this region. Having already seen the cellars the Managing Director Christophe Ehrhart very generously took me up into the vineyards above the village, to show the major differences not only in the soil differences, but also the impact that biodynamic viticulture has on the vines and soils. The winery only produces from estate grown fruit, and has plots in several grand cru vineyards including the Hengst vineyard which Christophe is the director of. Perhaps due to their relatively young age (many houses in the region are at least 400 years old), Josmeyer have a somewhat modern approach. Of course the focus is on variety and translation of terroir in the wines, but the labelling of the wines has a very modern art feel, and serves to distinguish them from the more traditional and classic labels of the region.

Christophe showing the soil type in the Hengst vineyard
Of the 13 exceptional wines I tried there were a few stand-outs. The Le Kottabe Riesling 2009 was showing very bright mineral salty notes with hints of lime and peach blossom, and was purer and lighter than many I tried across the border. The Les Pierrets Riesling 2009 was more brooding and less bright and flinty, showing complexity and texture and a tropical fruit nature. The Samain Hengst Grand Cru Riesling 2007 had wonderful concentration depth and volume, bold ripeness and minerality and was pretty extreme on the palate. Returning to the 2009 vintage the Le Fromenteau Pinot Gris had a rich ruby ripeness on the nose, great balance and texture, and a full flavour without clumsiness. The Brand Grand Cru Pinot Gris 2005 was looking quiet, and had very gentle mid-palate ripeness with a slight sweet and sour component. The Hengst Grand Cru Gewurztraminer 2007 had a very earthy salty nose, immense length but seemed to build on the palate as it worked its way back.

Josmeyer Grand Cru Hengst Samain Riesling 2007
The Beyer has been involved with wine in Eguisheim since 1580, but it wasn't until 1867 that the winemaking domaine was founded by Emile Beyer. The house has been passed down through the generations to its current owner, Leon Beyer II, who runs it with his son Marc. Leon Beyer wines today grace the wine lists of almost every three-star Michelin restaurant in France, and exports about 70% of its total production. The estate vineyards cover a total of 20 hectares with the balance of fruit coming from loyal growers in the area. Wines are produced and matured in historic cellars, some of which are located under the vineyards themselves. In the past these cellars were used for storing large blocks of ice after winter thanks to their cold temperatures, and also for cultivating mushrooms. Wines are vinified in a very traditional method using gentle presses and fermentations in very old foudre barrels of 5,000 litres. This tradition carries through to the labels, which have barely changed in 50+ years.

Domaine Leon Beyer
The standard Riesling 2010 had a very tropical lime aroma reminiscent of a caipirinha on Ipanema beach, and was juicy and concentrated on the palate with a clean finish. The Les Escaillers Riesling 2008 had complex pie crust and caramel honey aromas overlaying the kerosene and lime, and had a toasted hazelnut mid-palate texture. The iconic Comtes d"Eguisheim Riesling 2007 was showing more nougat and orange blossom aromas, was more voluptuous and rich on the palate, but was developing quickly due to the sample bottle being a half-bottle. Looking at a slightly older vintage, the "R de Beyer" Riesling 2004 had some rich ripe passionfruit and minerality on the nose, and was surprisingly fresh on the palate for its age. The Comtes d'Eguisheim Pinot Gris 2007 had a bold and slightly wild nose of spices and pear, and on the palate managed to sit perfectly between dry and sweet, with some toasty and oily texture and viscosity. The Comtes d'Eguisheim Gewurztraminer 2007 had a smoky rubbery reductive character on the nose, but was very powerful and yet mellow on the palate, with some salted caramel complexity. The 2003 vintage of the same wine was certainly pushing the wildness and had picked up some fatty volume and richness from age. The Selection de Grains Noble Gewurztraminer 1998 to finish was significantly more subtle on the nose than the previous two, and was exhibiting treacly molasses and cookie dough volume whilst still retaining some freshness and acidity.

Traditional foudre at Leon Beyer
As 11th and 12th generation winegrowers Rene Mure and his children carry on a long tradition since 1648 in Rouffach in the south of Alsace. The future of the business was cemented in 1935 when Rene's grandfather Afred purchased the fabled Clos St Landelin vineyard of which they are the sole owners. This vineyard had been in the hands of the church for hundreds of years until the French Revolution was separated amongst a number of owners, before falling under German ownership until the end of WWI. The vineyard covers 37.5 acres and is situated at the southern end of the Grand Cru Vorbourg. The classic Alsatian soil composition of clay and limestone and the south-facing terraced slopes make this vineyard quite exceptional for producing ripe yet mineralic wines. Fermentations are performed using indigenous yeasts at low temperatures, and the wine is left on the lees to provide stability and texture to the wine. Like many of their colleagues they produce dry and sweet wines from many varieties, but also produce a range of marcs.

Spectacular view from the tasting room at Rene Mure
Not having tasted any pinot noir wins from Alsace, I was not familiar with the style. From a purely unbiased quality perspective I found the pinots from Mure lacked depth and structure, but were very clean pure examples of the variety. The riesling wines were were the best quality were, starting with the Cote de Rouffach Riesling 2009 which had a talcy spritzy lime sherbert aroma, full flavour ripe citrus peach and good intensity. The Vorbourg Riesling 2008 was brighter and tighter in the acid structure, with a dusty minerality, less fruit but more expressive. The Clos St Landelin Riesling 2009 had a floral wattle lemon barley aroma, was rich and soft on the palate, but requires some cellaring to fully express itself. The 2010 vintage by comparison was more powerful in its minerality and had a nice dried herbal element, exhibited finesse and elegance with spectacular balance. The Clos St Landelin Pinot Gris 2009 had a very subtle smoky cheese charcuterie nose, was lovely and rich on the palate, with great volume and suppleness. The gewurztraminer wines were a little out of balance, showing too much ripeness and sweetness for the acids and alcohol. The Clos St Landelin Selection de Grains Noble Pinot Gris 2002 had lovely creme anglais lemon toffee aromas, but seemed to lack the necessary acid balance for longevity and freshness. The wines are generally of very good quality, and expressed their terroir very well.

Rene Mure tasting
Click here to see more photos from Day One of Alsace, France.

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