Maybe it’s Time to (Re)Visit Alsace?

I was supposed to be going to Alsace in July, part of a visit taking in Arbois as well. I won’t be able to go now, but I can tell you about what I’d planned. I adore Alsace. I mean, I love the wines, but I adore the region. I’m not sure why it strikes such a chord, but I know there’s something about walking on the lower slopes of the Vosges which ignites a feeling of contentment deep inside me. I think it’s the forests I love, early in the morning when the air is fresh, full of bird song and the theraputic aromas of pine.

Most times I have visited Alsace, which now numbers quite a few, I’ve been staying somewhere around, or south of, Colmar. There are lots of exciting producers down there, in the Haut-Rhin. In the beginning my interests lay with the likes of Boxler, Barmès-Buecher, Dirler-Cadé and even, initially, the classics like Domaine Weinbach, Hügel and Trimbach. Latterly I became more interested in Schueller, Frick, Ginglinger and Bannwarth etc, from the villages between Eguisheim and Pfaffenheim. But way back on my first visit to Alsace we had stayed up in the Bas-Rhin Department, in Itterswiller. It was to this part of the region that we returned to on our last visit, in 2017 and it was here that we planned to return to again, this summer.

The Bas-Rhin has always been considered somewhat inferior to the Haut-Rhin by those who have written about Alsace, not that many do and the region desperately needs a contemporary (I mean truly contemporary) account of the exciting “new” winemaking that is taking place there. It’s not surprising that the southern villages were favoured. The great names among the classical producers are there, as are most of the Grands Crus. The story always went along the lines that the Vosges Mountains are higher in the south so the vineyards are more protected in what is (surprisingly) France’s “sunniest” region.

The converse, usually repeated, was that the wines of the north were lighter, a term seen as pejorative. Well hey-ho, now we have climate change, and guess what, we like lighter wines. In Alsace a weightier wine can easily mean a Pinot Gris with 14% alcohol and rather a lot of residual sweetness. And who ever suggested a more delicate rendition of Riesling was such a bad thing?

I want to talk here primarily about the Mittelbergheim School (as “Back in Alsace” wine blogger David Neilson calls it, in part because of the group of artists a selection of local producers use to create their beautiful labels but also for the group of producers who regularly taste together). I will expand that a little north and south, but Mittelbergheim, a beautiful flower-bedecked village just south of the town of Barr, is the centre of a concentration of natural winemaking seen in few other parts of Alsace.

It should be noted, in light of my previous comments, that Mittelbergheim has had a reputation among aficionados for as long as the wine writers had been largely ignoring it, and Andlau too, a short walk to the south. Maybe not completely ignoring it. Domaine Ostertag, based in nearby Epfig, has always found a certain favour with the classicists, and many would consider André Ostertag as one of the fathers of the Alsace New Wave, but there’s a lot more to explore as well.

Before we move on I should say that if you want to discover the true frontier of Alsace winemaking these days you need to go even further north. On clay and limestone slopes to the west of Strasbourg, between Molsheim in the south and Marlenheim in the north, we may well find wines from hitherto unknown winemakers which will begin to get the coverage they deserve in years to come.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is the natural wine brigade which has revitalised Alsace wine. The region was always cited as the darling of the wine trade, but one whose wines were hard to sell. The flute-shaped bottle was often cited as one reason, the surprise that Riesling was dry, another. In truth the fact that Alsace labelled its wines by grape variety was a positive as New World varietal labelling became popular in the UK market. The fact that as climate change affected sugar and alcohol levels in the region, often seeming to push both inexorably higher, Alsace became a region which for many of us didn’t really know what kind of wines it wanted to produce. Doubtless this wasn’t helped by each producer’s propensity to bottle so many different cuvées.

Natural wine from Alsace is usually zesty, fresh and dry, far better suited to either sipping in the sunshine or drinking with food. What these winemakers were producing was almost a completely different concept to what the big names (with a few exceptions) were doing. This includes innovation, always attractive to me: Skin contact, the Cuvée Perpetuelle and last but not least, grape varieties.

In Alsace Riesling was always seen as king. After Riesling we have Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. The rest were definitely second class citizens in the 1980s and 1990s, with a good few third class citizens as well (and that’s excluding Chasselas!). Today, so-called second division varieties are also having their say. First of these must be Pinot Noir, which has seen a rise from a tiny base to a reasonable coverage of around 4,000 hectares since 1970. “Pinot d’Alsace”, as it used to be known, was a light red at best, rather like English Pinot of the 2000s. Today it can easily ripen into an exemplary lighter red, often with medium body.

A grape variety which has seen even greater increase in plantings is Pinot Blanc (and Pinot Auxerrois, it’s sibling, to a lesser degree). Much of this is used as a base for Crémant d’Alsace, but still Pinot Blanc is getting better and better. If I order wine with lunch in the region it will often be Pinot Blanc.

Two more varieties deserve comment. The first is well known and the second most certainly isn’t. Sylvaner is actually being grubbed up by many producers, but it finds favour for natural wine. Its general decline has been down to the decline of Edelzwicker, the blend of varieties (often a field blend, like Gemischter Satz) once synonymous with a night in the weinstube. Sylvaner’s revival comes mainly from those who value it as a single varietal, its 2006 elevation onto the list of varieties allowed (with limits, on one site only so far) to be labelled Grand Cru, helping right a few wrongs. It’s revival in Germany, especially in Franken which specialises in the variety (spelt Silvaner there) has also helped its acceptance among wine lovers.

The unknown variety is Klevener. Not to be confused with “Klevner” (aka Clevner, a variety originating in Italian speaking Switzerland), Klevener (with a second e) is a speciality of the village of Heiligenstein, just north of Mittelbergheim. Klevener is a synonym for Savagnin Rose. This is a pink skinned member of the Traminer family, not nearly as aromatic as Gewurztraminer. It is only allowed to be planted in a limited area roughly between Heiligenstein and Obernai, a small town to the north. It’s worth mentioning because it adds another string to the bow of the producers I shall mention below.

So who would I be visiting in this part of Alsace? In Mittelbergheim the most important address in my view is Jean-Pierre Rietsch. There are a couple more important local producers who are part of a group who regularly taste with Rietsch, Lucas Rieffel (who is just down the street from J-P) and Catherine Riss (on rue de la Montagne, south of the village centre). In Mittelbergheim that leaves André Kleinknecht as the other important low intervention producer, whose wines I know far less well.

Andlau is about two kilometres from Mittelbergheim. If walking in the hills it’s quite nice to walk from one to the other, bearing in mind that Andlau has more options for eating than Mittelbergheim, but if you walk by the road it will only take about half an hour or less to cover that short distance. Andlau has an interesting museum too, but we are there to see two producers. Both Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss and Domaine Durrmann are fairly central within this large commercial village. Antoine Kreydenweiss runs the domaine now and he is one of the Mittelbergheim tasting group.

All of the following producers would wish you to make a prior appointment. Kreydenweiss does have an office open on the road and they will sell you some wines without tasting if you wander by and there’s someone there.

Domaine Rietsch

Jean-Pierre Rietsch has a small winery at 7 rue Stein in Mittelbergheim. This 12 hectare  farm has been run for seven generations by the Rietsch family, but it was Jean-Pierre’s parents who concentrated on vines in the 1970s. Their son took over in 1987, overseeing organic certification. This is a very low intervention operation and so zero synthetic chemicals are used in wine production. Sulphur additions, where used, are kept very low.

There’s something about this place that helps you understand that you are going to be in the presence of a man who thinks deeply about what he is doing, just by stepping into the tasting room. Everything is neat and ordered and there’s an almost Japanese atmosphere. It’s very tidy, not the jumble of bottles and boxes you see so often. Jean-Pierre’s own bottles sport some of the loveliest and also most design-conscious, artist designed, labels in the region, but there are also other producers’ empties sitting on shelves. One I recall was from Partida Creus, the well known Catalan natural wine producer. This shows a palate far beyond parochial.

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Jean-Pierre’s range is large and eclectic. I won’t go through them all, one never can when recalling a tasting in Alsace. Let’s begin with his Crémant, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Auxerrois and Pinot Gris, which is my personal favourite Crémant in the whole of Alsace. Auxerrois stars on his lieux-dit Stierkopf, Muscat stars in an unusually fresh Murmure, and Riesling is at its most classic from the Andlau Grand Cru, Wiebelsberg.

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Moving gently off-piste, Jean-Pierre makes a singular Gewurztraminer, Demoiselle. The grapes are picked right at the start of harvest and the wine travels on its lees for six months following a partial whole berry fermentation. It ends up in the orange citrus flavour spectrum, but it also has a quality you rarely, if ever, find with this variety: minerality, a fresh mouthfeel and texture. It doesn’t lack alcohol, though.

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I have to give a very big and bold shout out for Sylvaner here. It performs remarkably well in these more northerly locations, and with a number of natural wine growers up here. Rietsch makes a couple. One is the Sylvaner Vielle Vigne (sic), unusually an assemblage of two vintages. It’s fresh and fruity but for me its greatest attribute is salinity. One of the most multi-dimensional Sylvaners you will taste.

I mentioned that Sylvaner belatedly achieved the chance of Grand Cru status, thus far on one site in the region, and few Grand Cru sites will ever give you a Sylvaner as stunning as on this one, Zotzenberg. It’s a 36.5 hectare hillside vineyard ranging between 215 and 315 metres, facing southwest, right above Mittelbergheim. Much of the soils around here are clay-limestone but Zotzenberg is iron-rich sandstone with limestone. The wine’s singularity is enhanced by 36 months on lees (the first year in demi-muid, thereafter in stainless steel).

We finish with that Savagnin Rose. Jean-Pierre makes a wine labelled under the appellation Klevener de Heiligenstein, but only in “even” years (the reason will become apparent below). It’s a golden wine with flecks of pink and bronze. It smells strangely like pears and has a bitter finish, but if you allow yourself to concentrate and think hard about what you are tasting it shows itself as something more than mere juice, something more interesting than the varietals you know so well.

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What happens in the odd vintages? Pas à Pas is what happens. This Cuvée Perpetuelle (similar to but decidedly not a solera) is one of Jean-Pierre’s loveliest wines for the true lover of Alsatian adventuring. My tasting note when I drank a bottle last month was as follows:

The wine is darkish in hue, almost cherry wood. The bouquet is extraordinary. Burnt orange, autumnal orchard fruits and a touch of hazelnut, with just a hint of Sherry-like oxidation, but not much. The wine is dry, fresh and slightly textured…and pretty amazing. This really was a sensational bottle.

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I’d almost forgotten Jean-Pierre’s Pinot Noir, but I’ll leave that for your own discovery, if indeed you can find some. I’ve been trying any Pinot Noir from the region I can get hold of for as many decades as I’ve been visiting. Some have been pretty poor and others (Muré’s “V” from the Vorbourg Grand Cru) have been at the other end of the quality scale. Natural wine has somehow created a boost for the variety (Frick, Binner, Schueller and Ginglinger make especially good ones), but as with Jean-Pierre’s Crémant, there’s no Alsace Pinot Noir I’d rather have a few bottles of.

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Domaine Rieffel

Lucas Rieffel feels a bond with Jean-Pierre Rietsch I think, not just because of their proximity to one another. This is another domaine run by the same family for several generations and Lucas has been working here since 1996. Like Jean-Pierre Rietsch, Lucas boasts an experienced palate, and as many of his wine heroes are from outside Alsace as are within the region.

There are several specialities amongst the fourteen or fifteen cuvées Lucas fashions every vintage. Crémant would certainly be considered a speciality. The terroir here, cooler for a start, gives great base wines. Lucas uses the same blend as Jean-Pierre, though in different proportions (around 70 to 75% Auxerrois). Next we must mention the Pinot Noir. Site specific Pinots from named lieux dits illustrate very well how this domaine majors on terroir wines, each one showing a different facet of its site.

I understand that there is a movement afoot to create a second tier of Premier Crus from the many lieux-dits which have gained acceptance over the past decades. It’s a great idea. I have always argued that Alsace should have created its Premier Crus first and then later elevated the best to perhaps a smaller number of Grands Crus than the fifty-one (or is it fifty-two?) it has currently. Pinot Noir is produced on many specific sites well suited to the variety throughout the region.

If I want to mention one more Rieffel grape variety, then it must be Sylvaner. If you visit this part of the Bas-Rhin you must taste what this variety can do here. Like Jean-Pierre Rietsch, Lucas Rieffel has Sylvaner on the Zotzenberg Grand Cru. This is, as I said above, the first site where Grand Cru Sylvaner has been allowed to be so-labelled and it may well be the finest site for this variety in Alsace. If Sylvaner is gaining in popularity whilst at the same time decreasing in area planted (down from more than 2,500 ha in 1970 to around 1,000 ha today) then I think that when David Neilson points out that at least now it is found in the most suitable locations for it, he has a point.

Lucas Rieffel (Domaine Rieffel) is at 11 rue Principale, Mittelbergheim.

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Catherine Riss

Catherine Riss makes wines which combine a lightness of touch and yet a certain flamboyance too. The wines are precise but full of glouglou, this latter quality perhaps more so than any of the other producers mentioned here. I’d never want to be so crass as to describe any wine made by a young woman winemaker as “feminine” yet the Riss cuvées are a little different.

Her terroir is different for a start. She has a tiny holding amounting to not much more than 3.5 hectares around Reichsfeld, a village up a small river valley in the lee of the mountains, several kilometres southwest of Andlau (and west of Epfig), in slightly wild country, and further small plots mostly scattered between Andlau and Barr. Catherine fits in here not only as a member of the tight knit tasting team of Rieffel, Rietsch, Riss and Kreydenweiss, but because her base is at 43 rue de Montagne in Mittelbergheim.

Why Reichsfeld, you may ask? Catherine doesn’t come from a wine background. Her move into wine took her away from the region, principally to Burgundy where, after college in Beaune, she worked for Trapet. Her return to Alsace was to work for the Chapoutier family, managing vineyards in guess where? (Reichsfeld)

Catherine is another local producer who loves Pinot Noir, and it forms a major part of her output. Empriente comes from Reichsfeld and sees older oak. The T’as Pas du Schiste cuvée comes from rare blue schist, and receives a longer maceration. Finally (for Pinot) a blend with Gewurztraminer of all things, is made by a method where the Pinot Noir is direct pressed, creating something which you might mistake visually for an orange wine.

The small range is completed (at least the wines I know of) with two different Rieslings and another blend, of Auxerrois and Sylvaner called Dessous de Table (below). Stone fruit, melon and rich lemon meringue notes fill the mouth. Frustratingly I couldn’t locate more (and better) pictures of Catherine’s wines among the thousands of wine bottles clogging up my media files.

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Domaine André Kleinknecht

The Kleinknecht domaine consists nine hectares covering several good lieux-dits as well as parcels on the Grand Crus of Zotzenberg and Kirchberg de Barr. This is a fully biodynamic domaine with, in this case, Demeter certification arriving in 2014. I know André’s wines less well than the others in this article, and I’ve not visited him, although I could not fail to highlight this domaine. What I will say is that naturally André also has Sylvaner on Zotzenberg.

Other wines I’d recommend trying are certainly the firm Riesling off granite, but even more interesting is his range of petnat wines. In a region well known for high quality sparkling wines made by the traditional method, it isn’t always common to find a pétillant naturel made by the méthode ancestrale. André makes two that I know of and one is called Orange is the New White. 

This is promising, no? The blend is 80% Gewurztraminer, which I believe I, and most of my friends, think is the most suitable Alsace variety for skin contact (see the beautiful “Artisan” made by Mathieu Deiss and Emmanuelle Milan under their Vignoble du Rêveur label for one of the best still versions). This variety is blended with Pinot Gris and Muscat, these varieties adding to the bouquet as much as anything. This alone is surely enough reason to visit with some space in the boot.

Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss

We have now moved two kilometres down the D62 to Andlau. There are two producers here which I would recommend visiting, both quite different. Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss is the more famous of the two. Today it is run by Marc’s son, Antoine, who is very much one of the Mittelbergheim School, despite his location.

Antoine farms 13.5 hectares of vines, including sites on each of Andlau’s three Grand Crus: Kastelberg (behind the winery, towering over the village), Wiebelsberg and Moenchberg. This means that Antoine has an enormous palette of soils, from unusual pink sandstone, granite, schist (grey, blue and black), and limestone (by no means a comprehensive list). For this reason the domaine’s wines are divided into those that express fruit and those that express terroir. The Grands Crus and the sweet wines form separate categories.

Interestingly, the wines described as “expression of fruit” are often site specific, but they are all easy to drink, perhaps best exemplified by the very aptly named Pinot Boir. The terroir wines include three individual Clos. First, Clos Rebgarten is a high density plot of Gewurztraminer near the centre of Andlau, Clos du Val d’Eleon is planted with Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris on schist, and Clos Rebberg is also schist, some of the region’s oldest rocks, where Riesling planted on southeast facing terraces is steely and mineral with gunflint aromas.

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Often my favourite Kreydenweiss wine is the rather classic, dry, Wiebelsberg Riesling, coming off a steep southeasterly facing slope of pink sandstone at the point of exit of the Andlau Valley. It’s the vineyard slope you see on the left as you leave Andlau and drive up the D62 towards Mittelbergheim. It begins as a floral wine but given the age it deserves, it becomes spicy and complex.

Moenchberg’s sandstone and marl gives a Pinot Gris of some power. It is recorded that the vineyard was first planted by the monks of the Abbey of Altdorf in 1097, hence the name. Kastelberg is a vineyard I have special affection for. I probably know its topography better than any other Alsace Grand Cru. It’s a steep slope of black schist, famous for Riesling, although it is said that the top of the slope, where it slopes gently to the plateau before the forest (not Grand Cru), is one of the best sites locally for Pinot Blanc.

To complete Antoine’s four GC sites, he has a plot on top of the Kirchberg de Barr, to the north. This site, at altitude on marl and limestone, was replanted in 2012 and I’ve not tasted a wine made from it. I believe it is a site which has always been farmed without chemicals, and is being worked with a horse. I had rather been hoping to get myself some of this in July. It’s a Pinot Noir, did I mention that…

Domaine Kreydenweiss has Ecocert certification and can be visited at 12 rue Deharbe, Andlau, just a couple of minutes from the centre of the village, following the tiny river (or is it a stream) known as L’Andlau, as it flows down from its source in the mountains, near the walking resort at Le Hohwald.

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Domaine Durrmann

This second Andlau domaine is now run by Yann Durrmann, but his parents André and Anna are still very much in evidence. The impression here is that although the new generation should take this domaine to another level, it is very much a case of building on the innovations and philosophy of the previous one. When I visited in 2017 it was the first time I had actually seen a flock of sheep in the vineyard, and it was the first time I had been driven to a vineyard in an electric farm vehicle (André owning a very slightly more conformist electric vehicle for his sales trips to Paris).

When I say least well known, I would like to think that I may have been in some degree responsible for the Durrmann wines becoming available in the UK. After that visit, and the articles I subsequently wrote, both the wines of Jean-Pierre Rietsch and Domaine Durrmann were imported by Wines Under the Bonnet. They currently list six Durrmann wines, along with four from Rietsch, and I have had the pleasure of ordering them in a number of the usual suspect natural wine bars in London and the south of England.

This is a traditional Andlau family. André’s grandfather was a part-time shoemaker to supplement his income from a mixed farm. Vineyards that had lain abandoned by his father’s generation were renewed by André in the 1970s. He was one of the first in Alsace to convert to organics in the 1980s. Yann took full charge very shortly after my visit, and he is going even further, building on the increasingly natural approach his father had begun with part of the range.

The everyday cuvées here were cheap but less interesting than anything that was labelled “Cuvée Nature”. As with all producers, there’s a big range and so it pays to taste as much as you can. Pinot Noir is juicy, also quite herbal, and very good as a “Nature”, as also is the rosé from the same variety. One for a sunny lunch, though still 13% abv despite its fruity qualities.

There are good wines from the Kastelberg Grand Cru, both labelled “Nature” and straight Kastelberg. My guess is that the merely organic wines will be phased out. The Riesling Nature from this site is all quince and spice off schist and has no added sulphur.

One wine which really impressed me back in 2017 is called Zegwur. This is a natural wine made from Gewurztraminer. Gewurz is not always my favourite Alsace variety, yet when people do something a little different with it (skin contact, cuvée perpetuelle etc) my opinions usually change. This isn’t manipulated in any way but it seems to combine a fairly tropical fruit profile (pineapple definitely, maybe a little mango) with a real zip and zest. On the 2016 the acidity stops (when I tasted it) any cloying sweetness and it shows just 12.5% abv (13% for the 2018, I note). I’ve been meaning to open my remaining bottle of that 2016 vintage (well, of two) and I will try to do so tonight for a Zoom chat with friends. Watch for a future “Recent Wines” appearance.

Domaine Durrmann is at 11 rue des Forgerons, Andlau. If you can blag a trip to see the sheep, whichever vineyard they are grazing, it is well worthwhile. Back in 2017 I got the impression that the Durrmanns didn’t get vast numbers of visitors, always the bane of the better known and better publicised producer. Maybe that has changed a little over the past three years, but I received a very warm welcome here, although don’t expect a smart tasting room as at Rietsch. Just a different sort of experience.

I have to return, before departing Mittelbergheim and Andlau, to something I was talking about at the beginning of this article, when I told you about my love of the region, and especially walking in the hills. Above Andlau there are a number of castle ruins, the kind you see on almost every hilltop in the region. From within them local lords looked down towards the Rhine, feeling protected above the dense forests. Walking up here, between the Château de Spesbourg and the Château du Haut Andlau, its easy to become lost in another world and perhaps even another time. If you do visit the region, do try to leave plenty of time for walking up here. If you like to use a map to enhance your experience, the IGN Carte Randonnée 3717ET will do the job (1cm = 250m).

Scenes from Andlau, top from the Kastelberg, bottom right chez Durrmann

I’d like to acknowledge David Neilson and his blog and web site, Back in Alsace. If you love Alsace from a natural wine perspective, then this is an essential place to look. I hope David doesn’t mind that a good half dozen facts in this article, particularly in relation to Riss, Rieffel and Kleinknecht, are the result of his writing. David, who I talk to frequently online, was also instrumental in reminding me to big up Sylvaner. He didn’t need to twist my arm on that one. David has put his money where his mouth is and planted his own vineyard, which he hopes one day to be able to tend full time (he has help on the ground). He’s currently stuck in LA for the duration. Back in Alsace is one of a handful of blogs I read regularly, and David does more than most to shout about the new wines from this neglected part of France.

For a look at Back in Alsace, see here.

 

 

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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3 Responses to Maybe it’s Time to (Re)Visit Alsace?

  1. Super and thirst-inducing report, David! You’ve covered tremendous ground here and given due credit to the natural producers for the pivot in the region’s profile abroad. I learned a great deal while being carried along alone the lively current of your prose.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dccrossley says:

      Thank you V. It’s a lovely part of France and I won’t deny that I’m feeling a little down after writing this, not being able to go (had same feeling in April re Austria). But I don’t lack for the wines to, in a tiny way, compensate.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Recent Wines May 2020 (Part 2) | David Crossley's Wide World of Wine

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