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Mining the Minerality in Riesling: Dry Alsatian Wines Demonstrate Transparency and Express the Distinctive Character of Vineyards in Which the Grapes are Grown. Twenty-One Wines by Ten Outstanding Producers.

There’s no reason why the term ‘minerality’ should be controversial in wine descriptions, but since it is, maybe it’s better to think of it like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart did pornography: “I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Or taste it. The quality that winds up in tasting notes as ‘minerality’ covers a plethora of sensations that likely do not involve any actual minerals. Nor does it need to: When a Riesling is described as being ‘steely,’ nobody is expecting actual alloy-in-a-glass. When the word ‘minerality’ comes into play, it may lack the precision of, say, ‘kiwi fruit,’ but it is a summary of tastes that involve salinity, wet-stone freshness and a sort of granular powderiness in between chalk and seltzer. And for the record, it is nothing like ‘steeliness.’

Nowhere does this quality waft from the glass in a more recognizable form than in Alsatian Riesling, where it is a useful tool in identifying specific terroirs—the Grail of wine expression.

Alsace Rieslings Set a High, Dry Standard.

When you grow expressive grapes in ideal conditions, then refuse to mask subtleties or exuberances with oak, you have come close to achieving the holiest mission of Riesling in Alsace: Purity.

With the crystalline clarity of a Mozart concerto, the ideal manifestation of this style is sizzling and dry, linear (insofar as it should not lose any momentum on the palate) and hits the senses running. The classic nose shows citronella, grapefruit, peach, pear with lime blossom and nettle flowers. Depending on terroir, some will display cumin and fennel, but above all the mineral notes mentioned above will manifest themselves as gunflint and kerosene.

This organoleptic kaleidoscope is also renowned for its ability to mature with finesse over many years—potentially, for decades.

Riesling may be the ultimate Rhineland grape, but once it became acclimatized to the unique conditions of Alsace, it began to produce a wine utterly unlike the off-dry to sweet German classics. Having been introduced to Alsace at the end of the 15th century, the uptick in acreage only developed in the second half of the 19th century, and it was not until the 1960s that it reached the top position of production areas in Alsace.

Today, it is standard-bearer for a specific style of Riesling; acidic elegance, vigorous and exquisite aromas along with strong ties to the mineral world. Dryness is not a given, although the late-harvested versions will be designated as such.

Riesling: The Most Transparent of Grapes

The diversity of Alsace terroirs is ideal for this grape as it’s a transparent veil. Transparency, like minerality (and many other things ‘Riesling’) is often misunderstood. Essentially, it refers to a wine’s ability to translate the specifics of its vineyard site into flavors, aromas and textures that present themselves in the glass. Riesling is particularly adept at this, and the result is a flavor profile with an almost infinite variety of expressions.

Of course, this not a grape that suffers fools with foolish vineyard sites gladly. In order to give up this characteristic transparency, Riesling requires cool climate conditions, and in excessive heat, it quickly over-ripens and becomes flabby. Given long, slow ripening, however, Riesling’s power is without parallel. It’s no surprise that some of the world’s finest examples come from cold regions, where the vines are grown on terraces on steep slopes that maximize exposure to the sun. Some of the world’s top Riesling locations demonstrate marginal viticulture that walks a fine line toward greatness. Riesling, a grape that is often associated with struggle, thrives best in rocky, barren sites, but the reward of that struggle is the variety’s amazing ability to convey the signature of that site.

Alsace: A Geologist’s Dream

An Alsace cliché: ‘Walk 100 feet in any direction and you’ll find a totally different soil composition.’

The terroir of Alsace is, in fact, a mosaic of diversity; soils underlying the vineyards are a tapestry ranging from the schist and granite of the higher elevations (extending into the Vosges Mountains) to the limestone and chalk of the lower slopes and to the clay and gravel of the valley floors. However, it is the unique, reddish-colored sandstone of Alsace—known as grès des Vosges—that may be most interesting. Vosges sandstone runs in a large, horizontal swath through the range just below the granite layer from which it is derived and atop a layer of coal. Grès des Vosges is hard, compact sandstone composed mainly of quartz and feldspar. Its pink-reddish color is due to the presence of decomposing iron (iron oxide, as also seen in red soils throughout the world) that occurred as a result of the slow cooling of large masses of magma as it hardened into granite.

Most of the wine-making villages in Alsace are built on four or five different formations in a juxtaposition of often-restrained parcels, providing a montage of uniquely abundant and diverse soils. These infinite variations are the very heart of the exceptional diversity found in the Vins d’Alsace.

Grand Cru: Singularity of Character, Diversity of Climats.

As a gold medal represents the highest award that an Olympic athlete can win, in the wine world, Grand Cru is the highest designation to which a plot of land can aspire. If you are a lover of French wine (a rhetorical point since you are reading these words), it is no doubt a term that is both mysterious and sacred, as various pieces of earth have been considered in religious tradition from time immemorial; Kashi Viswanathan in India, Mecca in Arabia and Lourdes in France. Although not imbued with supernatural powers of healing, Grand Cru vineyards are saturated in terroir that is considered the ne plus ultra of any wider appellation.

At least, that’s the theory. In our continued exploration of Alsace, we find that Grand Cru status has an additional determining factor: Politics. This is not to suggest that these are not the finest wines that Alsace can produce, only that it may not be a guarantee of it, at least compared to Burgundy. Alsace has enormous geological diversity within a fairly constrained area, and each Grand Cru may rightly claim its own unique identity rather than an absolute commitment to rules that would ensure top quality and singularity of character.


Domaine Dirler-Cadé

As the name suggests, Domaine Dirler-Cadé is the union of two historical Alsatian winegrowing families. Jean Dirler is a 5th generation winemaker whose family had been making wine in the tiny village of Bergholtz, tucked into the lower hills of the Vosge Mountains, since 1871. Ludvine Cadé’s family owned vineyards in nearby Guebwiller, known as Domaine Hell-Cadé. The marriage of Ludvine and Jean in 2000 produced Domaine Dirler-Cadé, one of the finest domains in Alsace, with almost half of their 44 acres in Grand Cru vineyards, as well as plots in five lieux-dits.

A century before natural winemaking was in vogue, Jean’s family had been practicing winemaking under the motto ‘natural wines, fine wines.’ But during a training course with François Bouchet in 1997, Jean and his father Jean Pierre became convinced that biodynamics is the best possible way to produce true terroir wines.

Jean explains the eureka moment: “Right after the Bouchet course, we began to cultivate organically and biodynamically in order to best express the exceptional personality of these terroirs. In many parcels, we plough partially in autumn and completely in spring to ensure th destruction of the superficial roots and then let natural grassing reconstitute in summer to create a balanced and vita ecosystem.”

Jean-Pierre adds, “The soil in the vineyards is plowed four to five times a year by horse. The team removes flowers versus green harvesting, and old canes are not pruned off until March. Other organic practices such as natural crop covers, herbal teas, and homeopathic doses of horsetail instead of fertilizers. It doesn’t stop there—at harvest time, a small, close group of vineyard workers share food and wine during the season, as it is important to harvest the fruit by hand in a joyful and good mood, with a positive energy.”

In the winery, Dirler-Cadé uses slow, whole-cluster presses, spontaneous fermentations, and prolonged maturation on the lees. The resulting wines are expressive and complex, with a versatility that makes them just as fitting at a three-star Michelin restaurant as they are at a natural wine fair.

Domaine Dirler-Cadé, 2022 Alsace Riesling ($32)
Built from declassified Grand Cru grapes, Dirler-Cadé’s basic Riesling retains many of the markers of their vineyards of origin, juicy, supple, and aromatic, with intricacies of lime, verbena, herbs, and spice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Grand Cru Kessler: “Exceptional Minerality Issued From Rich Sandstone Soil.”

Kessler Grand Cru is not only shaped like a basin, ‘basin’ is what Kessler means. The site is sheltered from the cold winds blowing along the Guebwiller valley, where dry stones form an unmistakable tie between the neighboring Grand Crus of Saering, Spiegel and Kitterlé. The blend of sand with heavier scree and its steep slope stimulate the production of wines full of character.

Kessler sits on a sandstone substrate from the Buntsandstein Vosges area, where erosion has produced red soils with rather abundant mineral deposits. At its base there is a linear outcrop of Muschelkalk limestone covered by sandstone. This creates compact and erythemal soils with a scant water table. But vineyards thrive only by developing a very deep root-growing system.

Domaine Dirler-Cadé, 2013 Alsace Grand Cru Kessler ‘Heisse Wanne’ Riesling ($45)
As the estate’s flagship wine, the iconic Heisse-Wanne bottling is from 80-year-old, southwest-facing vines grown on steep terraces at the upper limits of the Kessler, where plowing must be done by horse. Always notably richer than standard Kessler, it is striking for the intensity of the mineral extract and the concentration of Riesling fruit; peach, green apple and lemon peel.

 

 

 

 


Domaine Weinbach

Named after the little stream which runs through the property, Domaine Weinbach was first planted with vines in the 9th century and established as a winery by Capuchin friars in 1612. After being sold as a national property during the French Revolution, it was acquired by the Faller brothers in 1898, who then left it to their son and nephew, Théo Faller. Following his death in 1979, his wife Colette and daughters Catherine and Laurence continued the family’s passion for great wines until the untimely deaths of Colette and Laurence. Since 2016, Catherine has led the estate winery with her sons, Eddy and Théo.

Domaine Weinbach owns 65 acres of vineyards in the Kaysersberg valley in the Haut-Rhin of Alsace at between 600 and 1300 feet above sea level. Vines are grown organically with a view to quality rather than quantity and grapes. Unlike most producers in Alsace, who purchase from négociants, Weinbach vinifies only estate grown grapes, and their aging philosophy is best described as passive, carried out in huge old oak foudres, a technique they believe allows each climat and each terroir (along with the other unique characteristics of grape and vintage) to shimmer through and produce elegant and sophisticated wines.

Domaine Weinbach, 2020 Alsace Riesling ($35)
Pineapple and ginger on the nose, with grapefruit, peach, pear and cut grass appearing mid-palate along with notes of honeycomb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Domaine Weinbach ‘Cuvée Théo’, 2019 Alsace Riesling ($39)
Harvested in the granitic sand of the monopole Clos des Capucins, the 2019 ‘Cuvée Théo’ displays a slightly flinty nose and classic Riesling intensity with lychee and mangosteen, lime and crisp Granny Smith apples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Domaine Weinbach ‘Cuvée Colette’ 2019 Alsace Riesling ($54)
Cuvée Colette comes from a portion of Schlossberg not entitled to Grand Cru status, but has many of the characteristics that elevate the vineyards in this part of Alsace, resulting in a silken, pure and refined wine, fresh with wet stone and the bright bouquet of white peach and lemon, finishing with a spark of salinity.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Grand Cru Schlossberg: “Graceful and Floral, Freshness Drawn From Granite Soil.”

About five miles from Colmar, Schlossberg overlooks the Weiss valley from the outskirts of the town of Kientzheim up to the medieval Kaysersberg castle. The 150-acre Grand Cru sits on very steep hillside. The lieux-dits, therefore, are covered by a succession of terraces between 750 and 1300 feet in altitude, with the majority facing due south on the Bixkoepfel hillside, with a small detached portion looking towards the east.

Schlossberg is solidly Riesling country, with coarse and sandy-clay soil creating a rich surface with a wide diversity of mineral components like potassium, magnesium, fluorine or phosphorus. Combined with low water retention, this is the sort of high-altitude neighborhood in which Riesling can likewise reach great heights.

Domaine Weinbach, 2021 Alsace Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling ($99)
Wild herb and dried citrus zest drive a sensationally crisp wine with hints of mandarin orange, persimmon, jasmine and chamomile. The fruit is ripe and the acidity is vibrant, leading to an intense, long finish flecked with salty minerality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


2021 Domaine Weinbach ‘Cuvée Ste Catherine’ Alsace Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling ($135)
From 60-70-year old vines on the mid-slope of Schlossberg. It was fermented over a full year and stopped at around 5 grams/liter of residual sweetness—rich for the domaine, but with sufficient acidity to carry it off. The nose is ripe with orange blossom and pineapple; the palate shows a bit of smoky reduction framed by the crystallinity of the granitic terroir.

 

 

 

 

 


Domaine Albert Mann

According to David Schildknecht of The Wine Advocate, “The Barthelmé brothers, Jacky and Maurice, have maintained their position near the forefront of Alsace viticulture by farming a range of relatively far-flung and outstanding vineyards as well as offering excellent value virtually throughout their range.”

The fifty acres for which the Barthelmé are responsible are highly regarded throughout Alsace. Headquartered in the village of Wettolsheim near Colmar, the spirit animal of the operation is Albert Mann, Maurice’s father-in-law. He was the first to hit upon the idea of using modern production tools without neglecting the constraints of the land and his philosophy was to make wine using the elements of the soil, without the help of fertilizers. The Barthelmé brothers have embraced his beliefs and are now at the forefront of organic/biodynamic Alsace producers. The goal of the estate is to produce wine that is in harmony with nature: “Wine is the memory of the grape and is capable of transmitting the taste of the earth.’

The brothers began practicing biodynamic viticulture in 1997 in three of their Grand Cru vineyards, receiving certification from Biodyvin in 2015. This labor-intensive technique is intended to give the wine the purest reflection of its terroir and own identity. Says Maurice, “In ploughing the vineyards, we encourage the roots to descend to a maximum depth to capture the beneficial mineral elements from degraded rock below. Our holdings are divided up into a myriad of distinct plots, thus ensuring that each wine is reflective of their precise origins, while remaining as complex and multi-faceted as possible.”

The domain owns vines in five separate Grand Cru sites.

Domaine Albert Mann, 2020 Alsace Riesling ($30)
An entry-level Albert Mann by name alone: This 100% Riesling is exhuberant with Mandarin orange, Meyer lemon, Angostura bitters and a firm backbone of minerality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


2019 Domaine Albert Mann Alsace Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling ($88)
A substantial, acid-ripped Riesling that, while exuding youth, is built for the ages. The nose is marked by hawthorn and lime blossom, while on the palate, citrus peel is underlined by a minerality that beautifully expresses the granitic terroir.
 

 

 

 


Domaine Meyer-Fonné

Félix Meyer is one of those winemakers whom you sense is a star that will grow ever brighter with every vintage. He is the third generation in his family to be making wine since his grandfather founded Meyer-Fonné in the late 19th century and since taking over 1992, Félix has modernized equipment, developed export sales and is currently driving the family’s holdings deeply into the best vineyards of Alsace.

According to Félix, “Our vineyard covers eighteen hectares and seven communes, where the nature of the soils, the relief of the land and levels of exposure are varied. The soils range from poor quality filtering alluvial deposits (Colmar) to rich, deep clayey sandstone land in Riquewihr, with granite in between in Katzenthal, while the relief ranges from the flats of Colmar to the steeply sloping Katzenthal. The degrees of exposure are also very varied, ranging from the cooler western part which is suitable for the earlier vine types to the south-facing part which is very warm and sunny. This great variety of terroirs constitutes a distinctiveness and a richness in relation to many of the French vineyards.”

A stickler for detail with an overriding sense of responsibility, both his family and the earth, he makes his home in Katzenthal, known for its distinctive granite soils. With this remarkable terroir beneath his feet, Meyer has developed a knack for mixing wine from various of his parcels into complex and balanced cuvées. Among his cellar tricks is leaving wine to age on lees in large, older foudres, as was once the tradition in Alsace. All of Meyer’s bottlings are characterized by their stunning aromatics and signature backbone of minerality and electric acidity.

Domaine Meyer-Fonné ‘Vignoble de Katzenthal’, 2017 Alsace Riesling ($27)
From the granite slopes surrounding the Meyer family’s property in Katzenthal, this wine is a blend of grapes planted in 1985 and 2009 in granitic soil with mica and calcareous marl. It is deep, spicy and resinous, and might easily be confused for a Cru wine from the region.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Grand Cru Wineck-Schlossberg: “Fine with Crystalline Structure. Demarcates Between Minerality and Salinity.”

Located in an amphitheater open exclusively to the south, Wineck-Schlossberg is a smallish Grand Cru (67 acres), wonderfully protected from the wind by three hills. The parcels are delimited so that each one of them benefits most favorably from the microclimate; the steep slope is mostly exposed due south with south-east and south-west variations along the small valleys surrounding the Wineck Castle, the feudal ruins that sits in the middle of the vineyard.

The soil is composed of two-mica granite from Turckheim, very weathered, deep ‘grus’—granite weathered down to individual minerals; subsoil belongs to the crystalline-base foundation of the Vosges mountain range.

Riesling does extremely well on these slopes and ripens early here. And why not? It adores granite and likes pebbly and light soils; its rooting system easily ventures deeply into the grus, and can be found from the summit to the mid-slope of the hills.

Domaine Meyer-Fonné, 2016 Alsace Grand Cru Wineck-Schlossberg Riesling ($45)
The crumbly binary mica granite known as ‘de Turckheim’ in the Wineck-Schlossberg Grand Cru gives this wine a pure and delicate with (as suits the winemaker’s name) Meyer lemon and fresh tarragon lacing white peach, grated ginger, lemon curd and stone notes.

 

 

 

 

 

 



Grand Cru Schoenenberg: “Intense Sensation, Which Precedes a Minerality Evoking Warm Pebbles.”

Voltaire owned several acres. The great Swiss mapmaker Merian, mentions it in 1663: “Schoenenbourg is where the most noble wine of this country is produced …”

The locality, with a surface area of 130 acres, sits on terrains of Keuper marl, dolomite rock and gypsum, rich in fertilizing elements which have good water retention. They are covered with fine Quaternary-period layers of Vosges and Muschelkalk sandstone silt-pebbles, resulting in structured, full-bodied wines backed by robust exuberance, with gypsum expressed in smoky, match-stick and flint notes.

Schoenenbourg Grand Cru wines age wonderfully, developing intense and rich aromas. The terroir microclimate is particularly suited for the prestigious Vendanges Tardives and Sélections de Grains Nobles. Schoenenbourg requires patience, and it’s really only after aging for five to seven years that it fully expresses its potential, although it is easily able to preserve it’s mature splendor for years afterward.

Domaine Meyer-Fonné, 2017 Alsace Grand Cru Schoenenberg Riesling ($45)
Only ten cases of Meyer-Fonné Schoenenbourg are imported into the United States every year, so consider the availability a remarkable opportunity. Much like the clay and ‘marne verte de keuper’ marl terroir itself, this wine is weighty stuff. Grapes were gently pressed in a pneumatic press for 4-10 hours, then the must was left for 24-36 hours to allow the heavy lees to settle. It was fermented over three months in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks (with limited use of oak barrels), racked two weeks after fermentation has completed and kept on the fine lees until a September bottling. It is a precise, dry, mineral-focused Riesling combining ripe apple flavors with bright citrus and shows subtle chalk on the finish.

 

 


Domaine Albert Boxler

The list of storybook names in Alsace does not always include Domaine Albert Boxler (who produces a scant 5200 cases of wine per year) but it should; there are few serious critics who would take exception to the statement that Jean Boxler, Albert Boxler’s grandson, is responsible for producing some of the most complex and terroir-driven white wines not only in Alsace, but in the world. In an equal blend of nature and nurture, Boxler’s portfolio contains a remarkable roster of racy, intensely structured and very long-lived wines.

The Boxler family’s 32-acre holding is centered around the ancient village of Niedermorschwihr in the Haut-Rhin, dominated by the imposing granite hillside Grand Cru, Sommerberg. “At the conclusion of World War II, my grandfather Albert returned to Niedermorschwihr from Montana, where he had been busy enjoying the natural gifts of Big Sky country.” Jean says. “He was in time to harvest the 1946 crop. He became the first generation to bottle the family’s production himself and commercialize it under a family label—in fact, the wine still wears a label drawn by our cousin. My father Jean-Marc continued the tradition for several decades until passing the baton to me in 1996.”

Jean vinifies micro-parcels separately, de-classifying some into his Réserve wines and producing multiple bottlings of Sommerberg from the different lieux-dits depending on the vintage. Sommerberg Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are the specialties of the domain, while Boxler also produces one of Alsace’s best Crémants (and Edelzwicker), an incredible Gewürztraminer grown in limestone, and some of the most hauntingly pure Vendanges Tardives and SGNs in all of Alsace. If that weren’t enough, the Boxlers also own land in the powerful Grand Cru Brand, the ultimate counterpart to their holdings in Sommerberg.

“The Sommerberg hillside terminates in my driveway,” Jean laughs, “making it easy to basically live in the vineyards and ensure exceptionally healthy fruit year after year. After harvest, our wines are vinified and aged in old foudres in a small cellar underneath the family home until bottling. Not much has changed over the centuries because not much has needed to.”

Domaine Albert Boxler ‘Réserve’, 2020 Alsace Riesling ($73)
Sourced from the Dudenstein lieu-dit within Sommerberg (because the other two parcels normally added to the Réserve were too low in acidity), the 2020 Riesling Réserve is bright and aromatic with ripe peach and mango intertwined with soft smoke. Slightly piquant in the style of the best Alsace Rieslings, the finish is structured and dense, yet maintains its signature cleanliness on the palate.

 

 

 

 


Grand Cru Sommerberg: “Delicate Freshness, Which Evolves Toward Roasted and Exotic Notes.”

Sommerberg stretches over the foot of the Trois-Épis mountain to the south of Katzenthal and to the north of Niedermorschwihr. Located on a 45° angle hill oriented directly to the south, Sommerberg covers 69 acres overlooking Niedermorschwihr. The slopes rise steadily to 1310 ft. and so are amongst the steepest in Alsace, rivaling even the severity of the volcanic hillside of the Rangen Grand Cru.

The Sommerberg hillside is composed of mica-rich granite with the upper layers in an advanced state of decomposition. As a result, the topsoils contain a high proportion of granitic sand, rich in minerals not found in most other Alsace vineyards. It also receives only about 21 inches of rain a year, making it among the driest sites in the northern half of Frane.

Domaine Albert Boxler, 2020 Alsace Grand Cru Sommerberg Riesling ($99)
The granitic soils of Sommerberg are further shaped within the wine by allowing the élevage time to develop in well-seasoned foudres. The wine, with the potential to become even better over the years, shows perfectly ripe fruit rife with the beautifully flinty and herbal terroir notes of the super-steep vineyard.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Domaine Albert Boxler, 2020 Alsace Grand Cru Sommerberg ‘Eckberg’ Riesling ($117)
From 45-year-old vines in a steep mid-slope lieu-dit in the geographic center of the Sommerberg, the Eckberg parcel is vinified separately by Boxler only in exceptional years; 2020 certainly qualifies. The wine boasts vivacious acidity combined with saline undertones that set off apricot, citrus, wet rock, honeycomb and freshly-cut jasmine.

 

 

 

 

 


Domaine Mann

After stints in Côte-Rôtie and Champagne, where he learned the value of biodynamics from Bertrand Gautherot, Sébastien Mann has been making wine at the family estate since 2009, taking over from his father. He says, “I think that thanks to biodynamics, we have succeeded in bringing an additional element to our vines. My father made wines essentially linked to the earth; I have a much more holistic style, linked to the stars.”

Domaine Mann’s 32 acres were founded upon the theory that in order to produce terroir-driven wines with aging potential, legally allowable yields have to be cut in half. From the outset, the estate produced 35 cuvées, one for each parcel.

“The style of the wines changed very quickly when I came on board,” Sébastien maintains. “95% of the wines we produce now are dry. It was not an easy task, since Alsace is one of the warmest and driest regions in France. Grapes can easily ripen with a high sugar level. I don’t think my father could imagine that with biodynamics we would be able to achieve such a great evolution, achieving phenolic maturity while making dry wines.”

Grand Cru Pfersigberg: “Sensation of Density Without Loosing Minerality .”

Straddling the communes of Eguisheim and Wettolsheim, Pfersigberg is one of four Grand Crus which run in a line just to the south-west of Colmar. The third-largest Alsace Grand Cru, at 184 acres, it also is a land of gentle slopes, unlike the nearly unmanageable vineyards of Zinnkoepfle and Rangen.

Pfersigberg soils are predominantly composed of limestone and marlstone, with a higher quantity of clay than is usual this far away from the river basin. This clay reduces the drainage efficiency of the local soils. The Cru is noted for the concentration of Gewürztraminer, although Pfersigberg wines may also be produced from Riesling, Pinot Gris or Muscat.

Domaine Mann, 2018 Alsace Riesling Grand Cru Pfersigberg ($69)
A near perfect representation of Alsace Grand Cru Riesling with a number of years under its belt showing the evolution of tertiary flavors (honey, beeswax and petroleum) while retaining gentle reminders of the freshness of youth—pear, plum, white peach, infused with gentle notes of chamomile.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Domaine Schoffit

To call a man a ‘pioneer’ who cultivates wine country that has been famous for eight hundred years (vintage 1228 was described as ‘extremely good; so hot you could fry an egg in the sand’) may seem a stretch, but the spirit that impelled Bernard Schoffit to purchase 16 acres around Clos St. Théobold belongs to a frontiersman. Previously abandoned because the slopes were deemed too steep to work, the vines in question (in Rangen de Thann AOP) grew on a plot of soil that has been likened to Montrachet and Chambertin. And from this forbidding site, relying on extremely low yields, he is making extraordinary wine with each cépage.

In addition, Schoffit raises grapes in the lieu-dit Harth, an alluvial terroir close to the commercial area of Hussen in northern Colmar, and three acres in the granitic Grand Cru Sommerberg to the south of Katzenthal and to the north of Niedermorschwihr. In Harth, Schoffit tends 80 years old Chasselas vines, of which a few percent are replanted each year as an illustration of Schoffit’s long-term perspective.

Based near Colmar, Bernard took the winery over from his father Robert and his son Alexandre is now a co-owner. Demonstrating the estate’s commitment to sustainable agriculture Alexandre maintains, “All our vineyards are organic, and we also started to work biodynamic a few years ago. In order to show more transparency, I decided in 2016 to launch the official certification process, but for administrative reasons it was stretched over different years. The first wines officially labeled fully organic will be some cuvées of the 2019 vintage (Harth Riesling and Harth Pinot Gris for example), and the rest of the classic range will follow in the 2020 vintage. For the Grand Crus, it will be from the 2022 vintage. The official certification for biodynamic is in progress and we are still waiting to know from when we will be able to use it on the labels. But for now, Domaine Schoffit gives the assurance that we are both bio and biodynamic!”

Grand Cru Rangen: “Mineralized Volcanic Soils Produce Aromas Marked by Smokiness.”

Volcanic upheaval is the name of the game at inconspicuous hillside adjacent to the town of Thann, making it a geological anomaly in the Vosges Mountains. But there even more bang for that buck—while ploughing Rangen acres that had been abandoned for multiple generations, Olivier Humbrecht (Domaine Zind-Humbrecht) uncovered three unexploded bombs from World War II. Dotting the eastern slopes of the Vosges Mountains and is notable for more than just its terroir: Rangen is the only site in Alsace to be classified as Grand Cru in its entirety, and is home to the highly respected Clos Saint Urbain and Clos Saint Théobald vineyards.

In Rangen, the altitude climbs higher (1100 to 1525 feet) and the slopes have an average gradient of 60%. It is predominantly planted to Pinot Gris, the variety that accounts for 57% of vines; Riesling represents about a third of the site while Gewürztraminer is 10%. Despite its southerly aspect, Rangen is late-ripening, mainly due to its higher rainfall and cool winds which also make the site more prone to botrytis and its attendant Sélection de Grains Nobles and/or Vendanges Tardives sweet wines.

The late-ripening terroir also increases power (and often alcohol) in the wines. Wines from Rangen are often described as having a ‘smoky’ taste.

Domaine Schoffit, 2019 Alsace Grand Cru Rangen ‘Clos Saint-Théobald’ Riesling ($60)
Clos Saint-Théobald sits to the east of Clos Saint Urbain and is, like Urbain, a monopole owned entirely by Domaine Schoffit. One wine pro described it this way: “The vineyards of Clos Saint-Théobald are aggressively steep and the footing is treacherous with loose rocks and dry, sandy soils slide constantly, threatening to send you tumbling down the hillside. The Schoffits will warn you: If you fall, don’t damage the grapes.”

The wine shows the bite of fresh pineapple with smoke and floral notes. But it is the minerality that stands out and gives the wine an intensely salty finale.

 

 


Domaine Valentin Zusslin

Aligned with the same winemaking traditions it first established in 1691, Zusslin is located in the southern part of Alsace in Orschwir on the Bollenberg, Clos Liebenberg (a Zusslin monopole) and the hillsides of Pfingstberg Grand Cru.

Early to the Crémant game, the domain was also an early practitioner of biodynamics, having introduced this philosophy to viticulture in 1997. Says Valentin (whose name, perhaps, makes this an iconic sparkling wine for February 14): “We plant cover crops to encourage good insects and microbial life for the soil, encourage bees to pollinate the beneficial plants and we grow trees to attract the birds that eat the harmful bugs. This way of thinking carries through everything we do in the fields and in the winery.”

In addition, his wife Marie insists that their lifestyle goes far beyond a philosophy, and as evidence, she indicates the wall on the property that bears names of 13 generations of Zusslin winegrowers: “We represent not only history, but the circle of life.”

‘Lieu-dit’ Identity: Geographical Detail

As in Burgundy and the Rhône Valley, an Alsatian lieu-dit is a specific part of a vineyard or region recognized for a unique topographic or historical specificity. They are often a smaller part of a named Climat, and are generally used as a microscope that accentuates a particular quality. When you see a lieu-dit mentioned on a wine label (and can distinguish it from a proprietary winemaker name for the bottling), it has genuine meaning.

However, unlike Burgundy and the Rhône Valley, in Alsace Grand Cru AOPs, the listing of the lieu-dit is mandatory and the Grand Cru designation may be used only if a lieu-dit is also indicated. (Lieux-dits may also be indicated on regular Alsace AOP wines, but is not mandatory.)

Domaine Valentin Zusslin, 2018 Alsace ‘Bollenberg Neuberg’ Riesling ($51)
Bollenberg is one such lieu-dit. Located on a hill near Rouffach and the Domaine Valentin Zusslin’s home village of Orschwir, it’s one of the driest places in France with only about 15 inches of annual rainfall. The vineyard sits on 23 million year old limestone, lending a salty base to the wines produced here. 2018 Riesling is a complex and evolving example of the Zusslin’s imperative of terroir-reflection. It shows star-anise, lemongrass, and emerging notes of butter and honey.

 

 


Domaine Valentin Zusslin, 2016 Alsace ‘Clos Liebenberg’ Monopole Riesling ($51)
Clos Liebenberg represents a group of plots of almost ten acres atop the Pfingstberg hill. A Zusslin monopole, Clos Liebenberg is a southeast-facing vineyard surrounded by wild hedges, stone walls and forest, the highest property owned by the winery. Surrounding forest helps to retain moisture and keeps temperatures lower than nearby terroirs. Clos Liebenberg wines display a tension and a elegance typical of cool sandstone terroirs; the 2016 is, at this point, wonderfully mature with intense iodine and chalk, a slightly reductive nose that expresses Mirabelle peach and quince, with a long saline finish.

 

 


Domaine Christophe Lindenlaub

It’s no surprise that Christophe Lindenlaub has gone the winemaking route: His family has been growing grapes in the northern Alsace town of Dorlisheim for over 200 years. But he brings a slightly new approach to the sorting table: Over the past decade, he has worked diligently to convert the family’s 30 acres into organic viticulture and the cellar to the production of zero-additive wines.

“Our vineyards consist mainly of clay and limestone soil, some with a sandstone sub-layer, with vines mostly aged between 30 and 60 years,” Christophe explains. “My focus has been to harness the true potential of our sites by moving away from chemical intervention in the vineyard and cellar, and I use primarily stainless steel for élevage as a means to further define the freshness and precision in the wines.”

Christophe Lindenlaub ‘En Équilibre’, 2021 Alsace Riesling ($35)
100% Riesling from vines grown at 700 feet in a south/southeast-facing vineyard. The grapes are hand-harvested, cold soaked and direct-pressed into stainless steel tanks, then aged sur-lie for eight months in stainless steel. It is bottled without sulfur, and without fining or filtration, giving it a smoky richness.

The wine shows a clean spine of acidity highlighted by flavors of green apple, Anjou pears, lemon peel and green tea, brightened by a hint of petrol.

 

 

 


Clime and Riesling: Mountainous Northern Catalunya Makes The Grape Its Own

At first pass, Spain and Riesling may seem like unlikely bedfellows; under the tyranny of a warming planet, Spain has undergone a series of recent, record-breaking heat waves, with temperatures into triple digits by May—green kryptonite to a variety that thrives best in the cool summers of northern Europe.

Elevation is proving to be the saving grace, and the most delicious irony in changing weather patterns is that regions once considered too cold for vines are warming to the point that they can produce quality wines. In Catalunya, vineyards at the foothills of the Pyrenees are being planted at altitudes up to 4,000 feet. Twenty-five years ago, this would have been impossible, but formerly inhospitable areas are beginning to slip into vineyard Goldilocks Zones.

Castell d’Encus, Talarn, Lleida

At higher elevations, peak temperatures are not necessarily much cooler, but intense heat lasts for shorter periods and nighttime temperatures are colder than at lower altitudes. This increased diurnal shift (the temperature swing over the course of a day) helps grapes to ripen at a more even pace, over a longer period of time, than where temperatures remain relatively stable.

Pushing altitudes creates a unique set of challenges, of course: Soils, particularly on slopes, are generally poorer, water is scarcer and unexpected weather events like frosts and hailstorms are always a threat. But struggle is Riesling’s trumpet call, and in Catalunya, this unlikely new union is producing wines where the quality is as high as the altitude.

 

Castell d’Encus
Higher Grounds

“Our philosophy is that of an organic vineyard, without herbicides, insecticides or fungicides that are not included in organic practices.” – Raül Bobet

Raül Bobet

Above all, Castell d’Encus is an experiment, and one that has been approached with all the precision and insight of a research scientist. The goal, from the outset, was to discover the methodology behind reflective, subtle, non-explosive and low-alcohol wines with aging potential at an altitude where even the old-time winemakers claimed that grapes could not thrive.

But the grand experiment has a more ecological edge, and according to Bobet, “It was vital to us to pair an excellence in mountain winemaking with environmental protection. We want to channel new actions to increase biodiversity and create awareness as an example that everyone can get involved in taking care of the Earth. From our situation, we carry out actions in order to reduce the human impact on the land, the vineyard and the environment, without using herbicides or fungicides. We take advantage of the force of gravity and geothermal energy for certain tasks in the winery.”

Castell d’Encus ‘Ekam’, 2020 Costers-del-Segre ‘Pallars Jussà’ ($45)
85% Riesling and 15% Albariño sourced from a cool, southwest-facing plot in the Pallars Jussà comarca, located between the Lleida Plain and the Pyrenees. Ekam means ‘divine unity’ in Sanskrit and offers an intense bouquet of kiwi, grapefruit, peach and ripe green apple and light kerosene notes which will develop and mature with age. Fermented in 2500 and 5000-liter tanks at low temperature, it is ‘trocken’, or dry. 2250 cases made.

 

 

 


Notebook …

Sugar: The Word That Cannot Speak Its Name

In Alsace, sugar has bedeviled winemakers and consumers for eons, although new regulations might be a little sugar to help the medicine go down.

According to Marc Hugel (Hugel & Fils): “When I first started in the trade 35 years ago, most of our wines contained three grams of sugar per liter or less. Now, most have more. I think there is correlation between our move toward sweet wines and low prices.”

Although dry wines is the purported goal of winemakers to meet a demand for food wine, warmer weather patterns have pushed ripeness, forcing producers to leave residual sugar to keep alcohol levels in check. Extra sugar can also hide; four grams per liter can seem bone dry with high enough acid levels. Another factor is that as wine ages, it tastes less sweet on the palate, a phenomenon that even Marc Hugel can’t explain. “Sometimes I leave residual sugar to keep alcohol moderate, but upon release six or seven years later, it tastes dry.”

The Grand Crus were defined at a time when getting to ripeness was problematic, so they are generally the sites that achieve greatest ripeness, often south-facing hillsides. An outdated regulation requires potential alcohol to reach 10% at harvest, but today it’s more of a problem to restrain alcohol. Even the most committed producers admit that it’s mostly impossible to get completely dry Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer from Grand Cru sites: “Pinot Gris ripens very rapidly. Sometimes you say you harvest in the morning and it’s dry, you harvest in the afternoon and it’s sweet,” says Étienne Sipp (Louis Sipp). Marc Hugel adds, “Gewürztraminer will reach 13-14% when Riesling gets to 11%. It’s better to have 14% alcohol and 7 g/l sugar than 15% alcohol and bone dry.” Céline Meyer (Domaine Josmeyer) says, “If Gewürztraminer is completely dry it’s not agreeable because it’s too bitter.”

Now, a standardized sweetness guide will be required on all labels of AOP Alsace beginning with wines produced from the 2021 harvest. One option is for labels to contain a visual scale with sweetness levels and an arrow clearly pointing to one specific level. Slightly more information is available in the second option, a designation on each bottle of either Dry (sec): sugar content does not exceed 4 g/l; Medium-Dry (demi-sec): sugar content 4 g/l and 12 g/l; Mellow (moelleux): sugar content of the wine is between 12 g/l and 45 g/l and Sweet (doux): sugar content of the wine exceeds 45 g/l.

 

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Posted on 2024.06.27 in France, Wine-Aid Packages, Alsace, Costers del Segre

 

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