Article By: Sandy Block, MW
It’s amazing how unknown the wines of Alsace remain throughout the United States. Of all of France’s classic districts, these cool climate northern wines are among the most consistent in quality, especially in the context of their compatibility with seafood. They’re also remarkably easy to understand because, unlike most French wines, Alsatian labels rely primarily on varietal identification rather than geographical place names. The region’s stellar reputation, built on dry white wines, relates directly to its unusual climate. Protected by the Vosges Mountains, there is minimal rainfall during the growing season – particularly in the early autumn – permitting extended flavor development in the grapes during most vintages.
Alsace has had a tragic history as a battleground for centuries, but its winemaking traditions have remained intact despite the dislocations of war, disease and colonization. Today the region is primarily farmed by small holders rather than large estates, with 2OOO commercial growers sharing over 35,OOO acres. There are many good quality cooperatives in the region, and some fine negociants, but the highest quality here usually comes from the small estate bottlers.
Of all Alsace’s wine estates, the one that is most often recognized internationally for its superb production is Domaine Zind-Humbrecht. Master of Wine Olivier Humbrecht, a 12th generation grower who oversees all aspects of viticulture and production, produces on average no more than 15,OOO cases of wine in total, usually divided among over 3O different wines. The estate is committed to faithful terroir expression from its approximately 1OO acres. As no less an authority than the esteemed Robert M. Parker, Jr. wrote not long ago in the wine advocate, “I don’t know what is more mind-boggling, the quality of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht’s wines or Olivier Humbrecht’s complete dedication to quality. This tall, powerful and intellectual man may well be the finest winemaker in the world.”
At the heart of Zind-Humbrecht’s viticultural practices is implementation of a strict biodynamic grape growing discipline since 1997. His belief is that wine quality relates directly to the rich variety of micro-organic life in the soil of his vineyards. To encourage an optimum environment for his vines to thrive, Olivier applies only minimal natural treatments that are created from vegetal, animal and mineral origins during specific intervals during annual cycle when the vine is most receptive. All of the work is done by horses ploughing the vineyard, as opposed to tractors which tend to compact the soil and discourage deep root penetration.
The Domaine encourages the vines to yield very meager tonnage per acre. In the winery the grapes are not destemmed, but instead are whole cluster pressed at low pressure over a very long 12 to 24 hour cycle, to extract only the finest quality, most aromatic juice. The juice is clarified minimally and then is allowed to ferment naturally, without yeast or sugar additions. Fermentation is never artificially arrested – according to Olivier, the yeasts know when to stop. If they want to keep going until the wine is dry, he allows it; if they want to leave some sugar in the wines he doesn’t interfere. Sometimes fermentation extends for weeks if not months – among the richest, sweetest wines, it has sometimes taken over a year for the process to complete. Afterwards, each wine experiences extended “sur lie” aging in neutral casks for, in some cases, up to 18 months. Zind-Humbrecht includes an “indice” ranging from 1 (for totally dry wines) to 5 (for very sweet wines) on the label of each bottling, so that consumers understand the level of residual sugar and can plan their menus accordingly.
I recently conducted a dinner as part of a course at Boston University, matching some of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht’s wines to a carefully selected menu, at the Legal Harborside restaurant on Boston Harbor. It’s my feeling that, as outstanding as Zind-Humbrecht wines are on their own, their mineral nuances and firmly structured acids show their best with food.
Nantucket Bay Scallop Ceviche and Wild Mushroom Arancini
Pinot Blanc, 2OO9
Supple and creamy with scents of apple and orange, light delicate spice and mineral on the finish, this Pinot Blanc is composed of 7O% Auxerrois and 3O% Pinot Blanc Vrai originating from both the gravelly soils of the Herrenweg Vineyard in Turckheim (which contributes freshness and acidity) and the red cooler limestone and red iron soils of the Rotenberg vineyard in Wintzenheim (which contribute ripeness, spice and fruity flavor) in equal proportions. The vines average almost 35 years of age, which contributes a soft, rich texture that harmonized beautifully with the flavorful hors d’oeuvres, especially the sweetness of the scallops. Pinot Blanc is a great starter: mild, easy drinking and with a cheese-like lees quality finishing with hints of spice and delicate fruit essences.
Beet Tartare, Candied Pistachio, Dried Cherry, Goat Cheese and Herb Salad
Riesling “Gueberschwihr”, 2OO9 and Riesling “Clos Windsbuhl”, 2OO6
These Rieslings were quite a contrast: the first crisp, bone dry and classically mineral-like (due to Gueberschwihr’s stony calcareous soils), with hints of almond, apple and peach; the second medium-bodied and richer, with ripe apricot and pear aromas, mature lemony acidity and a spicy peach pit finish. The younger Riesling is a blend of seven vineyards, all on gentle slopes facing east and south that are covered with marl, limestone and thin layers of sand from the Vosges Mountains. Its stony flavors cut through the richness and sweetness of the beets, cherries and creamy goat cheese beautifully, accenting herbal flavors in the dish. The second Riesling comes from a monopole that has a long history of grape growing, dating back to the 14th Century. Purchased by Zind-Humbrecht in 1987, it is the estate’s biggest single parcel of 14 some acres. Located at the top of the village of Hunawihr, the Clos has 2.3 south facing acres planted to Riesling on its terraced limestone and clay soils. At these high altitudes, in close proximity to mountain forests, the vines enjoy very cool weather conditions and substantial humidity. They are traditionally very late to harvest, as was shown by the advanced deep color and lush, more exotic flavors. The Windsbuhl’s intensity stood up well to the richness of the dish’s texture, although I thought the younger Riesling better balanced with the dish.
Lobster Cocktail, Avocado and Coconut Curry Vinaigrette
Gewurztraminer “Herrenweg de Turckheim”, 2OO4
This dish was extremely rich in texture, as was the wine, so there was a natural, almost seamless match on that level. The balanced sweetness of the food provided great counterpoint to the full-bodied spice and exotic lychee, sweet pea and smoky flavors of the mature Gewurztraminer.
This ultra-ripe, highly aromatic wine was unctuous but dry, with a fresh juiciness, hints of ripe grapefruit and lingering anise-like finish. Zind-Humbrecht uses only the fruit of 4O-plus-year-old vines for this bottling, and the old vine intensity definitely shows on the palate. Gewurztraminer is an assertive grape, with a dramatic personality that is tamed on these old weathered soils.
Roasted Cod, Cockles, Spring Vegetables and Sorrel
Riesling Grand Cru “Brand”, 2OO7
Intensely floral and citrusy, this is a rich textured Grand Cru Riesling with dramatically tart apple-like flavors and a brilliant long minerally finish. It matched the texture of the fish and enlivened its subtle flavors. On the palate the wine showed grapefruit, almond and a wide range of herbs. Brand is located in Turckheim, a village named after the Turks during the Middle Ages, because of the power of the soil and the wines they produced. The vineyard is sited on a hill that was once devastated and eroded by fire (Brand means “fire”). Local legend has it that the sun fought a dragon in this vineyard and forced it into an underground cavern, which accounts for the characteristic warmth of this locality’s soil.
A product of the two oldest vineyard parcels (with a surface area of less than 2 acres), the 6O- plus-year-old vines for this wine are growing on old weathered granite and silty, coarse sand soils resting on marl and limestone. This enables the vine roots to penetrate to great depths where they can absorb minerals from deep underground. With great length and mineral subtlety, the wine’s flavors reflect this.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake and Mascarpone Ice Cream
Pinot Gris Grand Cru “Rangen de Thann”, Clos St.-Urbain 2OO8
This Grand Cru is an Indice 5 – sweet and velvety rich, with flinty mint and spice flavors. Influenced by noble rot, with classic honeyed, pineapple notes, it was barely sweet enough to match the concentrated sugar of the fruit. The texture was perfect, but some of the wine’s fruit was suppressed by the food, so that it tasted more tart and a bit astringent. Rangen is located in Alsace’s southernmost fine wine village. Much cooler climate, due to higher altitude and the proximity of the Vosges mountains, Rangen is a south-facing nine acre walled vineyard planted on very steeply sloped sedimentary volcanic rocks at elevations of 11OO to 15OO feet. The Clos surrounds a chapel built in the heart of the vineyard that was destroyed in the French Revolution and rebuilt in 1934. Rangen’s typically powerful earthy, flint and mineral aromas were somewhat covered here by the more dominant exotic botrytis scents.