In Alsace the gingerbread vibes are strong.
Around every corner is a location scout's wet dream for a live-action Disney remake, just waiting to burst into song.
In my post about The Perfect Wine Weekend In Alsace, I've noted the top producers to look out for on wine lists and to buy. If you're making appointments, I urge you to also read the section on 'What to know before visiting wineries', where I explain the difference between wine tourism in a region like this, rather than places like Napa and Barossa.
On our first day in Alsace, we went to visit the world famous Zind-Humbrecht.
Many wine critics consider this to be perhaps the greatest Alsace estate. The Humbrecht family can trace their viticultural roots back to 1620, which, to put that in context, is about a decade before Gallileo was put under house-arrest for the heretical suggestion that the earth might, in fact, revolve around the sun.
Olivier Humbrecht, current honcho, is a highly respected wine maker, and Master of Wine, and has been one of the industry's biggest proponents of Biodynamics. (In fact, talking of revolutionary ideas, did you know Biodynamics, as proposed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920's, was banned by the Third Reich for being too weird?)
The estate began with biodynamic practices in 1997, including pruning and harvesting according to the moon calendar (governing 'fruit days', 'root days' and 'leaf days'), no chemicals etc, and full certifying in 2002. From 2006 they have deployed horses to plough, so as to not compact the soil (and rather better than tractors on narrow, steep slopes). There is definitely a sense of tried and tested, time honoured techniques and traditions, and why the sun-spinning earth not?!
As at most French domaines, there was a lot of talk about soils. In fact, there is 65km between their most northerly and most southerly vineyards, and in Alsace the soils are such a patchwork (thanks to its tumultuous tectonic legacy) that this does represent some real diversity.
We enjoyed a fantastic tasting down in a purpose built space overlooking part of the winery cellar. Huge old foudres were packed inside, many still visibly bubbling away with this year's ferment. (Our host told us they have a wine from 2017 which is still fermenting....? I'm not sure how that is chemically possible, and neither was our host!).
We had the opportunity to taste 8 wines, starting with a classic Alsace Riesling - Herrenweg de Turckheim 2017 (i.e. a dry, 'mineral' style) which made me reconsider my sensory reference point for 'minerality'. At what point does petrol blend into minerality? It seemed to have tonnes of both. Petrol is a note you find with developing Riesling - probably more than just 2 years old, as was the case here.
The sense of minerality was unmistakable, but it was certainly a different kind of 'mineral' to my other benchmarks of 'minerality': almost salinity from Santorini Assyrtiko and very coastal Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, and a kind of gravelly/granitic impression from Northern Rhone Shiraz.
The sensational Riesling Grand Cru 'Brand' Veille Vignes 2010 was sweet, with 33.5g residual sugar, but the overall impression was well-balanced with (GEEK ALERT) 5.8 grams of acidity and a very low PH of 3.1. How fascinating to see these geeky winemaking numerical on the tasting sheet as part of the tasting exercise!
The 2007 Pinot Gris 'Rangen de Thann' Clos-Sainte Urbain (one of their superstar wines from slightly more unusual volcanic rock) was full of beeswax, peaches and spice.
Their Gewürztraminers gave me a wonderful new sensory reference point in the form of 'spicy bread'. We nodded along to our host's narrative, as you do, and then wait, hang on: "Spicy bread, come again..?" ..."Oh, you know... Pain d'epices? Spicy bread?" I think in linguistic terms this is what's known as a false friend. Pain D'Epice is a traditional French loaf cake, roughly translating as gingerbread (but NB we're not talking here about that mouth-clagging Tate & Lyle Gingerbread cake). It's a delicately spiced, much lighter textured loaf, (in Alsace often with hints of cinnamon), and it's the perfect description of the softly honeyed, spicy character of their Gewurztraminers. In their Grand Cru Goldert 2007, with a whopping 47g residual sugar, the warming alcohol (15%) only added to that spicy Pain d'Epice effect. Divine.
Lady of the Vines
At Domaine Weinbach we were lucky enough to be greeted by Catherine Faller herself. She, her sister Laurence, and her son Theo, now run the estate, after their grandparents acquired the property in 1898. An elegant lady opened the door of the grand house which sits proudly amidst a walled vineyard, framed by terraced hills and vineyards as far as the eye can see. (A walled vineyard is known in France as a 'clos', this one is the Clos du Capuchin since the property was originally built as a monestary).
Not knowing what to expect - would she take us to her cellar, where some producers conduct their tastings? Or some kind of purpose-built tasting room? No, she invited us to sit at what seemed to be one of their plush front rooms, surrounded by family photographs and the type of furniture that speaks of a prosperous family, handed down through generations.
Domain Weinbach (wine brook, after the little stream that flows through the property) is one of many in Alsace that is certified Biodynamic. 'Minimal interference yet constant attention’ seems a pretty accurate summary of the quasi-religious reverence required by disciples of biodynamics.
Their winemaking is characterised by whole cluster pressing and use of native yeasts in large old oak casks, known here as ‘Foudres’. The fermentation is very slow, apparently sometimes continuing into June or July of the following year.
We were so impressed by all of her wines. A bit like Catherine herself, each one had a certain poise and elegance as well as being full of character.
The Cuvee Theo 2018 is a classic Alsatian dry Riesling; dry, ‘mineral’, precise. The Grand Cru Schlossberg 2018, from granite soils, went one further with even more beautiful, powerful acidity and minerality, while the Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvee Ste Catherine 2018 is the richest of the dry Riesling, but still full of wonderful lemony acidity and an endless finish. Needless to say we bought rather a few of each.
The Pinot Gris Cuvee Sainte Catherine was full of lovely pear, melon, spice and beautifully balanced acidity.
The Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Furtstentum 2018, from clay & limestone soils had lovely hints of spice, fresh lychee and tropical fruits, and was, in Catherine's words; "voluptuous but not too exuberant - restrained like an expensive perfume" which was really the perfect description.
You know how they say dog owners start to resemble their dogs? Maybe there is something similar happening with winery owners and their wines?! The whole experience; wines, setting and narrative was just perfectly cohesive. Of the last Gewurztraminer we were surprised to discover it was packing as much as 43g residual sugar. But as Catherine said: "But don't you know? Hasn't she told you?" she said, looking at me: "When you love, you don't count."