27 Feb 2012

Steiner school (Alsace, France - Day Three)

On my trip thus far I have had the opportunity to visit quite a few biodynamic growers and producers, from California to Casablanca. With 15% of all vineyards (anecdotal) engaged in biodynamic viticulture in Alsace, this may be considered the unofficial home of it. As an atheist and natural cynic, my initial impression of the biodynamic principles outlined by Rudolf Steiner almost 100 years ago was that it sat somewhere between a cult and a pagan rite. Even after studying the principles through my Masters degree I understood the reasons for doing it, but didn’t necessarily understand the philosophies and some of the practices involved. Perhaps it is also my business and marketing background that makes me a little more cynical about it and it may be a different case if I were an agriculturalist myself. In my trip I have learnt a lot about the concept and met many passionate and committed individuals, but I have also met as many cynics. At the end of the day, if it makes better wine, that is all I care about. I certainly don’t ascribe to gaining certification merely as a marketing strategy, and respect people who truly believe in it to produce healthier soils and vines. My week in Alsace saw me visit many of the top producers using the philosophy, and all three of my visits on the third day were BD producers.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht is one of the most famous producers both in the region and out of it for a number of reasons. The first is they are one of the best known proponents and promoters of Biodynamic viticulture. The second is that Olivier Humbrecht is not only an exceptional winemaker, but he is also the President of the Alsace Grand Cru Organisation. The third reason is that they produce wines from some of the finest vineyards in the region. The families date back to 1620, but the estate was created quite recently in 1959 through the marriage of Zenon Humbrecht and Emile Zind. I was both fortunate and unfortunate to be joining a group of very important visitors to the winery. It was fortunate because I was able to taste wines I could only have dreamed of had I visited alone. It was unfortunate because the Japanese visitors didn’t speak English, but did speak French, and as such I missed out on a lot of the information. This made me feel like a bit of a fifth wheel and an amateur, especially as these gentlemen were far more experienced than I. It also meant I didn’t really learn very much, which was a shame. I would love to have had the opportunity to discuss a great many things with Olivier, as the opportunity is rare.

Olivier Humbrecht and guests
To begin with I tasted three back vintages of the Goldert Grand Cru Muscat. The first was the 1981, had a very ripe tropical passionfruit and pineapple fruit character, a rich oily and complex palate with honey and cream, and showing some subtle savoury notes. The second was from the 1973 vintage, and had spectacular concentration. The aromas were completely unfamiliar not having tasted white wines of this age in my limited experience. There were some delicate herbal and steamed vegetable aromas, but late on the palate there was some caramel nougat and slightly smoky minerality. The wine was still showing youth, and will live another 25+ years. The final vintage was the 1967 (officially the oldest table wine I have ever tasted), and whilst the first two vintages were still very light and straw in colour, this was a richer golden hue. The 1967 was still showing plenty of ripe glazed fruit characters on the nose coupled with some salted nut and mushroom complexity. On the palate there was something so familiar but I couldn’t quite pin-point it, but settled on roasted artichokes. All three wines had amazing balance and length, and probably had some residual sugar when young which had dissipated in time.

Zind-Humbrecht Goldert Muscat 1973
Adjourning to the cellar tasting room we proceeded to taste through almost the entire range of wines, across multiple vintage. As such we ended up tasting 33 wines, which was a little too much and I was getting palate fatigue by the end. The 2010 wines that had recently been bottled included the Pinot Blanc, the Thann Riesling, the Clos St Urbain Riesling and Pinot Gris, the Clos Winsbuhl Gewurztraminer, and the Vielles Vignes Vendages Tardives Gewurztraminer. These wines were generally very concentrated and high in acid freshness, and were all far too young to be drunk now, with the possible exception of the Pinot Blanc. Almost half of the many wines produced by Zind-Humbrecht are rieslings, from numerous renowned vineyards including Hengst, Windsbuhl and Brand. There were a few standouts, such as the Turckheim 2008 which had some creamy oxidative richness and texture, and because of its demi-sec residual sugar would be fantastic with spicy Asian food. The Windsbuhl 2008 had very elegant and fine acids, lovely freshness and brightness, but was very young. The Brand 2009 had some lemon peel and dried mango notes, with some sharp tropical notes on the palate. There was also a magnum of the 1988 Rangen de Thann Clos St Urbain in the mix, which exhibited the classic aged riesling characteristics of kerosene and lime on the nose, but was still very fresh in its citrus notes on the palate.

Epic tasting at Zind-Humbrecht
After trying some much older vintages of the same wine, it was nice to try the current release of the Goldert Muscat, which had the typical musk and dried grape notes, but was very fresh without obvious fruit on the palate. The Rotenberg Pinot Gris 2009 had some very subtle truffle and foie gras aromas, and was surprisingly savoury on the palate with a dry finish, a true hallmark of an Alsatian pinot gris. Olivier accidentally opened a Clos St Urbain Pinot Gris 1994, which was very oily, rich and powerful, and is sitting in a very expressive place at the moment. Some of the gew├╝rztraminer wines were on the heavy and fat side, such as the Hengst 2008, whereas some of them were very soft and gentle like the Clos Winsbuhl 2008. To finish with we looked at a SGN GWT from 1986 which was very earthy and had characters of fungi and cream, with a lanolin creamy texture on the palate. Tasting through the pinot gris and gew├╝rztraminer wines showed how important texture viscosity and residual sugar can be to these varieties, but in terms of style seemed somewhat disparate from the very elegant and fine rieslings. This made determining the style of Zind-Humbrecht difficult, and will require more tasting to determine.

1986 SGN GWT
Feeling a little weary from the huge tasting that lasted three hours, I drove to the north of Alsace to visit Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss in the very picturesque village of Andlau. Due to a miscommunication I visited 24 hours late when the winemaker Antoine Kreydenweiss was not in, but I was still able to taste the wines and find out a little about the winery. It is a relatively small production and the winery exports most of it. The focus of the wines is obviously on expressing the terroir, and it is done in a number of ways. The first is by using biodynamic principles in the vineyards to allow the natural environmental harmony to express itself through the vines. The second is by respectful winemaking, which starts from when the fruit is harvested all the way up to when it is bottled. Across the range there is a standard label for all the single vineyard and blended wines, and each vintage there is a new design commissioned by an artist. As you can see below there is great variety in the designs. The wines are naturally designed to be aged, but they exhibit elegance and balance in their youth that they can be enjoyed young.

Marc Kreydenweiss riesling wines
Looking at three rieslings from the 2008 vintage, two of which are classified Grand Cru vineyards, was a good opportunity to see the subtleties between sites not very far away from each other. The Clos Rebberg had some amazing toffee and honeycomb vibrancy, and was very delicate and pure on the palate with some savoury cheese elements on the finish. The Wiebelsberg Grand Cru had a talcier and more herbaceous nose, with savoury smoked honey complexity on the palate with some richness to boot. The Kastelberg Grand Cru was a lot more brooding and closed than its partners, with a much later dark honey component and more subtle austerity. The Clos Rebourg Pinot Gris 2007 moved from honey into beeswax honeysuckle, had soft balance and well-contained fruit, with wonderful concentration and elegance. To finish with the Moenchberg Pinot Gris 2009 was exhibiting some dark earthy berry components on the nose, complemented by leesy honey notes. On the palate it was showing some nutty texture and richness, and whilst powerful it was still very elegant.

Domaine Ostertag
Very close to Kreydenweiss both geographically and in terms of friendship is Domaine Ostertag, in the village of Epfig. A relative new player on the Alsace scene, Andre Ostertag has gained a cult following not only for the quality of the wines they produced in limited quantities, but also the distinctive branding the winery uses as designed by his artist wife, a professional artist. Once again biodynamic principles determine the viticultural philosophies, but purely to produce better fruit with which to make better wine. Andre was a pioneer in the region in the use of oak barriques to ferment and mature his white wines, most notably his pinot gris’. At the time this was very unusual, as the norm was to partially or fully ferment whites in either stainless steel tanks or 5,000 litre foudres of over 20 years of age. Andre is a very pragmatic winemaker and businessman, whilst having an artistic temperament. He believes in the expression of terroir, but through grape variety. He also understands that to produce wine that will age in the bottle, and will also travel to markets around the world, the addition of sulphites is necessary. He does some crazy things, like special bottlings of very rare wines, in super crazy bottles too. I admire this kind of logical insanity.

Crazy bottle at Ostertag
The Pinot Blanc 2010 to start with was bright and fruity on the nose, but very soft and pleasant on the palate, a little light but adaptable with food. The Fronholz Riesling 2009 had very steely quartz minerality, a salty and bold texture, and an underlying honey note. The Muenchberg (not to be confused with the Moenchberg) Riesling 2009 was more subtle and supple on the palate, with wonderful elegance and length whilst still being juicy and fresh. The Zellberg Pinot Gris 2009 showed the influence of barrique maturation, as it had a crunchy oak-derived texture rather than a residual sugar viscosity. The Fronholz Vendages tardives Gewurztraminer to finish was not obviously sweet, nor was it particularly dry. Very floral and fresh, it had great integration of acids, sugar, alcohol and texture, but was definitely showing its youth.

Domaine Ostertag range
Click here to see more photos from Day Three in Alsace, France.

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