Newcomer Wines and Vine Trail came together on 15 April at Fare, on Old Street, London, to show five Alsace producers and five German producers from their respective ranges. I’m not sure that the common ground extended only to geography and grape varieties (to a degree). All of the producers here, without exception, show a commitment to excellence which comes through in the wines, which is common enough ground for me. With this tasting being jointly put on by two of my favourite merchants I was walking down Old Street in the unusually summery temperatures we had back before Easter with a particular spring in my step. The tasting lived up to expectations, despite the heat.
Of course, there are differences between these producers too. We have the philosophical demeanour of Rudolf Trossen, the big personality of Marc Tempé, the vibrant enthusiasm of young Hannes and Olympia at Weingut Roterfaden, and of course the extreme viticulture of Bruno Schloegel at Domaine Lissner. But at the end of the day, even tasting in a crowded room lit by a wall of sun-heated glass, the sheer joy and quality of all these wines came through loud and clear.
For your ease of reading I plan to split this into two parts. This first part covers the Alsace producers and the second will cover the German crew. There’s no real reason for splitting it up this way aside from it being the order of the tasting booklet. In any case, if I’d confined this to one article you’d be getting towards 7,000 words, which is even over my acceptable limit.
I think trying to make too many comparisons between Alsace and the German regions covered would be pushing it a bit too far down the road of generalising. But I hope you enjoy reading about these wines as much as my enthusiasm will show that I enjoyed tasting them.
DOMAINE LISSNER, WOLXHEIM
Bruno Schloegel makes wine in that up-and-coming Alsace sub-region north of Mutzig and Molsheim, just west of Strasbourg. I say “makes wine”, but maybe he’d prefer to suggest he gently encourages it to make itself. This Domaine is “Bio” in every sense, being focused on both biodynamics, and “biodiversity”, and minimal intervention here includes no added sulphur at the ten hectare domaine, and nothing is pumped, nor otherwise mechanically manipulated. Bruno possibly practises the most extreme form of “leave alone” viticulture I know, the closest being in the methods of Jason Ligas (following the principles of Masanobu Fukuoka) on the slopes of Mount Piako in Northern Greece.
The vines at Domaine (they say “Maison”) Lissner are allowed to grow “wild and free”, meaning that there is no vineyard management in the way that most vine farmers would use the term. There is no cutting back of vegetation in the summer, and this includes no pruning (maybe a little shoot-repositioning). There is a “winter cut”, but vine branches are left where they fall. An equilibrium has been established (it took about eleven years) which also produces an environment full of biodiversity, both of flora and fauna. Bruno says there are plentiful rabbits, deer, birds, lizards, and more than two hundred species of insects.
Dionysiuskapelle Sylvaner 2017 – Like all the Lissner wines, this undergoes a gentle pneumatic press. It’s a very good value opener in a fresh style, with characteristic acidity which doesn’t, however, go too far as it can with less expensive Sylvaners. It also has a nice mineral mouthfeel, which adds considerable interest.
Pinot Gris 2017 – There’s a CO2 freshness to this Pinot Gris. Initially you are surprised by how beautifully lively it is, but its initial simplicity is countered by a smoky note which slowly creeps in. It comes off quite light soils. The finish is a hint of textured pear. Very nice.
Macération Pinot Gris 2017 – this goes a step beyond the classic ramato, or perhaps I should say oeil de perdrix, colour from the grape’s pinkish hue (some might call it “onion skin”), but to me it’s far more red than that (though the photo below does accentuate the colour). The texture here is ramped up, which initially obscures the variety a little, but it becomes more obvious as you swirl and sip. A lovely wine, the label (as with the Pinot Gris above) is from a manuscript at the Abbey of Mont Saint-Odile, up in the hills to the southwest. The abbey had vines in Wolxheim in the twelfth century.
Wolxheim Riesling 2017 – This Riesling was bottled early and kept in a cold cellar to preserve its natural CO2, which Bruno said was a key component in this village cuvée. The overall effect is perhaps to enhance the unusual degree of florality here, a floral beauty which reflects the uncut vineyard of vines and wild flowers on white chalk. It’s a Riesling to drink at perhaps three to five years old.
Altenberg de Wolxheim Riesling Grand Cru 2017 is a very different kind of wine. It needs a minimum of a decade to mature. The bouquet is far more muted than the wine which follows, but on the palate it tastes so alive in its youth.
Altenberg de Wolxheim Riesling Grand Cru 2011 gives an idea what is coming. This is only seven or so years old, but its indescribably beautiful bouquet is quite astonishing. The palate is beginning to round out and it is softer than the 2017, now. Hoping not to sound pretentious, and certainly making this comment outside the boundaries of a bland qualitative assessment, the wine is unquestionably profound. Yep, give that 2017 time!
Bruno Schloegel is undoubtedly a deep thinker. For example, he can be critical of some natural winemaking. He sees the failings of the AOP system, yet he sees their boundaries as a positive, not a straightjacket. That makes him gently at odds with others pursuing a similar path. Yet to my mind, these wines (which I had never come across before) were some of the most truly interesting in the tasting. I would dearly love to visit Bruno and to see his vineyard. Bruno was happy to explain his methods at length, but as he rightly said, you need to stand in the vines to understand what he’s trying to achieve.
A little Lissner fauna for you…
BERNARD & ARTHUR BOHN, REICHSFELD
Alsace is full of its well known villages and its Grand Crus, isn’t it. Few people know Reichsfeld, but its steep slopes, up in the hills to the southwest of Andlau, were famous for their wines in the Middle Ages, when the vineyards here were owned by the Counts of Andlau. The Bohn family vines are all between 330-to-400 metres altitude, and you can tell. The wines that result have a genuine freshness, but then at the same time no sulphur is added at this domaine (since 2010), so none of the wines are dulled by SO2. I tasted four wines.
L’Indigène Sylvaner 2017 – is a maceration wine which sees three weeks on skins. There’s a full texture and body not always associated with the variety, very much contrasting with the Lissner version. The firmness of the wine probably reflects the terroir, a mix of volcanic “redstones” and schist. The vines are seventy years old. Elevage is simple, in stainless steel with a little remontage. One to try with food.
Schieferberg Zéro Riesling/Pinot Gris 2016 – obviously off schist, skin maceration of the Pinot Gris gives the wine a pleasant pinkish tone. The aromatics are very interesting, with something like red fruits creeping in. It has great mouthfeel and mineral bite, more of the terroir than varietal flavours. The Schieferberg is arguably a unique (for Alsace) terroir of Pre-Cambrian shale/schist, with significant heat retention aiding ripeness. The name derives from the fact that this was Bernard’s first zero sulphur cuvée. It is just beginning to show well, still needing time, but I hope the briskness of the acids remains.
Muenchberg Riesling Grand Cru 2017 – this Grand Cru lies between Nothalten and Itterswiller, the latter being the first place I stayed in Alsace very many years ago. The soils here are pink-red sandy volcanic, which are said to warm up quickly in the morning. The site is pretty well known because quite a few prominent producers have vines there, including two personal favourites, Ostertag and Julien Meyer. The Bohn wine has a nice structure, elegant and fine. The minerality isn’t overplayed. The elegant bouquet of white flowers contrasts with a more exotic fruit palate.
Par Arthur Pinot Noir 2017 – Arthur looks very young, but he’s a fully trained oenologist, and presumably (I didn’t ask) this wine is his doing. I don’t think many reading this will have failed to notice how Alsace Pinot Noir has catapulted from (mostly) mediocrity to majestic in little over a decade. Climate change has seen dramatic changes in Alsace. I think Alsace reds are most successful when they attempt to emphasise the grape variety’s simpler side. It’s possibly pointless trying to reproduce Burgundy when you can make something like this: pale, bright, and lovely, with red fruits and cherry ripely filling the mouth.
If anyone finds themselves driving through the hills above the main wine route and comes to Reichsfeld, the Bohm residence is not easy to miss, the big pale blue chalet. A great tasting will surely await.
Bernard in grey, Arthur behind, in blue
FLORIAN & MATHILDE BECK-HARTWEG, DAMBACH-LA-VILLE
This is another zero-sulphur producer, based at Dambach, around the middle of the Alsace vignoble, just north of Sélestat. Florian has been working full time at the estate since 2009 and took over from his father, Michel, when he retired in 2010. The domaine is small, just six hectares, including holdings within the town’s Grand Cru, Frankstein.
We began here with a wine so lovely that I heard several people describe it as their wine of the day, and it certainly burnt a hole on Instagram, so many times did its photo appear that evening. Tout Naturellement Pétillant 2018 is an unusual blend of Pinot Noir and Muscat. It’s cloudy (unfiltered, as with wines made from the méthode ancestrale), and is packed with exuberant red fruits, a tiny floral touch and a gentle fizz. It comes in at 12% abv, but tastes more like 8-10 degrees. Drink cool (and almost certainly swiftly).
Dambach-la-Ville Riesling 2016 is fairly simple stuff, but very good. It’s off granite, and in its freshness there’s real salinity, and energy too.
Granit 2017 blends Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from the same terroir. It’s a juicy wine where none of the grape varieties seem to dominate the blend. Its another wine where you get pure terroir coming through, rather than varietal character. It’s very textured, mineral and direct, with lime-fresh acidity. Certainly ageable.
Pinot Gris Gand Cru Frankstein 2016 – this is Dambach’s special Grand Cru site, an arena of decomposed granite with high mica content with a south-to-southeast exposure, on the way to the Château de Bernstein. Pinot Gris here is quite plump and rich, with amplitude, but dry…it has good acids for a bigger style of Pinot Gris. There’s a bit of florality, and even more smokiness, and it’s surprisingly pure. But certainly a wine for food, quite rich food perhaps. As with almost all the Alsace Grand Cru wines, they are intended to age, so don’t treat them like Nouveau.
Riesling Grand Cru Frankstein 2016 – if Frankstein is the heart of the Beck-Hartweg vineyard, this wine may be the core of the range. With the Pinot Gris from this site you do get a tiny bit of salinity. Here, with the Riesling, you notice it a lot. It gives the wine a nice edge. It’s a Riesling of presence, a serious wine (not to suggest others are not serious). Again, you get the terroir…it has a granitic structure and a mouthfeel inescapably reminiscent of rocky texture. The bouquet of acacia flower and, unusually, fresh mint, rides above all this, for a wine of elegance and finesse, but which nevertheless requires cellaring.
DOMAINE MARC TEMPÉ, ZELLENBERG
Marc has a big personality and a strong following. He was surrounded several deep by young admirers and despite his wife, Anne-Marie, doing her level best to pour me samples at a long stretch, I was only able to taste three of his wines on this occasion. A shame.
Marc started his domaine at Zellenberg (between Riquewihr and Hunawihr) in 1993 after working for the INAO, first in the Lab, and then as part of the team delineating the Alsace Grand Cru sites. He immediately converted to biodynamics, and his attention to detail includes seeking out second hand oak from other biodynamic producers (such as Leflaive). Focus is 100% on quality at every stage. There’s just something a little different about Marc Tempé’s wines (I mean that very much as a compliment), and I think that despite the man’s laissez-faire and laid back demeanour, it’s that attention to the tiny details which help the wines stand out.
Zellenberg Pinot Blanc 2016 is in fact a blend of Pinot Blanc and its Pinot Auxerrois variant. It comes from the slopes around the village, a large handful of different plots with different exposures, perhaps a little over two hectares in total. The wine is made in large old oak. It has a lovely lift and hints of tropical fruit (maybe mango and honey to my palate), but it is grounded by a dry, mineral touch. I’ve said before how when in Alsace I’m gravitating more and more to drinking PB with lunch, and I’d snap this up if I saw it on a Weinstube‘s wine list.
Zellenberg Riesling 2016 is rich, with just the faintest hint of sweetness via the ripe Riesling fruit. This, again, is a result of the terroir. Marc’s description of the terrain here is worth repeating (from his web site): “The vines that cluster around the calcareous sandstone nipple are planted on a clay-marl soil of lias, consisting of dark gray (sic) schistose marls with fine white limestone beds, as well as carbonate and ferruginous elements” (excuse my translation). Complex! Winemaking is by pneumatic press followed by 24 hours juice settling. Ageing is 24 months in foudre. A tiny bit of sulphur is added at bottling.
Grafenreben Riesling 2013 comes from a site in the direction of Ribeauvillé. There’s a base of clay and sandy marl here, with sandy limestone up to a metre down, the soils being hard to work according to Marc. He has two Riesling plots here totalling just under three hectares, one plot planted in 1977 and the other in the 1950s. There’s real depth here, a nice rounded wine with apricot and mango fruit flavours, but as with all of these Rieslings, that is set off against texture and zippy acidity (even at over five years old). Vinification differs to the Zellenberg Riesling cuvée in that this one sees a 36-hour débourbage, whilst élevage is in used barrique, on lees, for three years. Depending on vintage, a wine to peak in ten years minimum from release.
Losing my Tempé a little – a popular guy inundated with questions
MATTHIEU BOESCH, WESTHALTEN
This producer will be better known from the label as Domaine Léon Boesch. The domaine itself, with its new Cave built in 2010, really sits between Westhalten and Soultzmatt, looking up to the slopes of the steep Grand Cru, Zinnkoepflé. The microclimate here is special as it has the protection of Alsace’s two great “Ballons” (Grand and Petit) which enhance the Vosges’ already significant rain shadow effect. Matthieu farms 14.5 hectares of vines all in this locale.
La Cabane 2017 – is a Pinot Blanc (70% Auxerrois) which produced a fresh, floral scent, with stone fruit (white peach and apricot, plus pear) and stony texture on the palate. Fresh and tasty, this has a lively attack but finishes with a lick of creamy texture which I really like.
This might be a good place to comment on the 2017 vintage, from which many of the wines at this tasting came. Matthieu says it produced very precise wines here in the south of the region, with a good sized crop. Late frosts in early April struck many, but the valley here was well protected. There was little rain, but Marc believes that his biodynamic methods have enabled his vines to cope better with water stress.
Les Grandes Lignes 2016 is Riesling grown on a 1.7 ha chalky plot, mostly planted in the early 1980s, in the valley. It has a fresh simplicity to its bouquet, quite open with apricot and a little cinnamon spice. But I’d hesitate to call it a simple wine just because its so drinkable.
Luss 2017 is also Riesling, and is the Boesch wine I have drunk by far the most times. It comes off limestone terroir which shows in its mineral bite and brightness. In fact this gorgeous 2017 is so bright it’s blinding. It’s a tiny site, under half a hectare planted between 1974 and 1989, and I believe may be the furthest vines from the winery. Like all the wines here, élevage is in old wood. This has mainly citrus aromas now, but time will develop them whilst (in my experience) that freshness of the limestone will take years to tone down (thank goodness).
Breitenberg Riesling 2016 is a lieu-dit on the edge of the Zinnkoepflé Grand Cru, the furthest west in the Ohmbach Valley, with a southerly exposure. The soils are on sandstone, the top of the hill being close to the Vosges themselves, at 470 metres. The wine is totally different to Luss. The nose begins rounder and softer, but the palate is very big in flavour. Yellow fruits, still stony but not as bright as the former wine, and there’s a hint of orange citrus there as well, not your usual lemon or lime. At 12.8% abv, that’s also half a degree more than Luss.
Zinnkoepflé Gewürztraminer Grand Cru 2017 – Matthieu only grows this variety on the Grand Cru. He makes this dry version and the VT we ended with (below). This 2017 version is still ample and weighty, with an exotic floral bouquet, but despite the richness on the nose (stone fruit, citrus and deeper bass notes of caramelised sugar…just a hint…) there’s a lightness and finesse, and the more you sniff, the more subtly complex it becomes. And it only comes in at 12.2% abv, which (I won’t lie) is such a relief these days where Gewürztraminer is concerned.
Pinot Noir “Les Jardins” 2017 has warm, pale cherry fruit. It’s a wine I’d serve a little chilled so it warms in the glass. It does have a bit of texture, but it’s basically a wine that is quite “gluggy”. It’s one of the Alsace reds you can bank on for summer drinking, really nice, not complicated, but with just enough tannin to ground it.
Zinnkoepflé Gewürztraminer Vendanges Tardives Grand Cru 2015 – This hits 14% alcohol on the label (tech sheet says 13.4%), and contains 121.4 g/l of residual sugar, in reality somewhere between VT and SGN. Golden in colour, the nose is explosively rich in all manner of exotic fruits, but with a touch of spice running on top of everything. It’s sweet, for sure, but not at all cloying. In fact, for the variety and for a VT, the freshness approaches “magnificent”. The other point to note is that the alcohol doesn’t really show, which proves it is well balanced. A stunning wine, though I confess to something of a crush on VT Gewürz, despite drinking it fairly rarely.
This is altogether a rather nice note on which to end Part 1 of this tasting. Matthieu Boesch’s wines are fairly easy to find in many retailers (though the labels don’t really stand out, do they), both in London and Paris. I don’t think I’ve had a bottle I’ve failed to enjoy and they have always been a sure bet in restaurants, so it was nice to have a chance to try seven in one go. Part 2, on the five German producers at the tasting, will appear, I hope, during the early part of next week.