Hi folks! For most of you who don't know me, my name is Zach Geballe, and I'm a sommelier, wine writer, podcast host, and wine educator in Seattle...well, usually. At the moment I'm in Strasbourg, a few days into a month-long European trip that includes Alsace, the Mosel Valley, and then participating in the Banfi/SommFoundation enrichment trip to Italy. I wanted to post this forum thread to allow those of you who might have questions about some of the regions and producers I'm visiting to ask them. I will do my best to answer, though I've already been to some of the domaines, but I will do my best to answer whatever questions you might have. Below, I'll list the producers I will be visiting in Alsace and the Mosel, as well as some initial thoughts:
Joseph Cattin (10/5), Emile Beyer (10/5), Domaine Schoffit (10/6), Maison Trimbach (10/8), Hugel & Fils (10/8), Zind-Humbrecht (10/9), Pierre Sparr (10/9), Lucien Albrecht (10/10)
Mosel Producers (confirmed so far):
Dr. Loosen (10/12), S.A. Prum (10/15)
Initial impressions of Alsace:
Several things are striking about the region in a way that might not be conveyed in books or on maps (besides maybe a topographical one). The plain of Alsace is surprisingly wide and flat; I had imagined less space between the Vosges and the Black Forest Mountains, but it's quite broad. That said, the vineyards, in particular the quality ones, really hug the Vosges, with principally some kind of exposure between east and southeast, with of course the famous exception of the Rangen.
Joseph Cattin (well, really the current generation Jacques and Anaïs) have invested heaving in oenotourism as a business model. Despite being located in the small village of Vœgtlinshoffen, they just opened a very modern tasting room and rooftop wine bar that would not look out of place at all in your favorite American wine region. Even in the middle of a weekday during the offseason, they had a number of groups come in to the winery to taste, tour, and buy, so perhaps this move was a wise one. The other domaines we've visited so far have been more modest in their set-up, with either a small public tasting room or being invite-only.
We somms tend to talk more about Riesling in Alsace than the other varietals (at least me and my colleagues), but the revelations on the trip for me have been Gewurztraminer and especially Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris has rarely been a grape that's gripped my imagination much, but several of the expressions we've had have been truly exceptional: musky and just slightly exotic, with hints of sweet citrus and stone fruits. Schoffit's Grand Cru Rangen Pinot Gris might have stolen the show had it not been for the bottle of 1995 Rangen Riesling we tasted as well...but of the 2016s, it was the most dynamic. Gewurztraminer too seems to be far more complex and interesting than the "faceful of flowers" I often encounter, though producers do admit that there's a limited market for it, even locally.
Pinot Noir is also a much-discussed topic, as the Alsatians realize that adding a red wine to their lineup can help open a lot of doors, yet while most producers are making at least some Pinot Noir, only one has actually poured it for us. Interesting though, Emile Beyer has planted Pinot Noir at the top of Clos Lucas Beyer in the Pfersigberg Grand Cru vineyard, with the intention of turning those grapes into a premium Pinot Noir.
On the non-wine front, my wife and I decided to stay in Strasbourg so as to have more non-wine options open to us when we were not at vineyards. This definitely has added some travel time to our days when we do visit wineries, as they're typically a 45-60 minute drive from the city: Colmar would have been much more convenient. That said, we're very happy with our decison, as Strasbourg is a thoroughly modern city that nonetheless has a ton of old charm. We are staying on the Grand Ile, the island in the middle of the Ill River which is the ancient center of the city, and it's a wonderful walking neighborhood with tons of restaurants, shops, and bars. The Cathedral of Strasbourg is remarkable, and quite distinct from the many cathedrals I've seen in other European cities. You can of course find tons of the traditional dishes of Alsace in the restaurants: you'll never want for choucroute, but we have also had some excellent Indian (Goan) food on this trip so far.
Anyhow, please feel free to leave questions below (for me or the producers I'm visiting), and I will do my best to answer promptly, though time zones and a four-month-old (our other travel companion) may conspire against me.
Awesome, Zach! Look forward to reading more.
Freshly-harvested (on October 4) Gewurztraminer by Joseph Cattin from the Grand Cru vineyard of Hatschbourg in the town of Vœgtlinshoffen
Examples of the unique soil type of the Rangen Grand Cru vineyard, located in the town of Thann in the very southern edge of the region. The rock is volcanic ash that was then compressed under water, forming a dense type of sandstone that nonetheless can be fractured and penetrated by the roots of the vines. That, plus the severe slope of the vineyard, explains the depth achieved by the vines, especially the older ones.
If you'd like more pictures, in particular bottle shots, and can tolerate some food pics and the occasional one of my adorable four-month-old son Solomon, you can also follow me on Instagram @zgeballe.
A couple of notes from today's tastings at Maison Trimbach and Hugel et Fils:
- Both producers emphasized how essential it is to be able to offer their wines, in particular the cuvee and Grand Cru wines, with sufficient bottle age. The current release for Clos Ste. Hune for example is 2013, while Hugel is currently transitioning from 2011 to 2013 with their Grossi Laue Riesling...and 2012 will come out sometime after that, since the opinion is that the wine is more closed off still in that vintage than in the showier 2013.
- To facilitate that, both wineries are holding a tremendous number of bottles in their cellars: well over a million each. I know where I'm going if the apocalypse comes!
- Both also talked quite a bit about the need to avoid oxidation before fermentation, and their disinterest in having any real lees contact during winemaking. They handle things a bit differently though: Hugel allows the wines to settle in tanks after pressing, while Trimbach uses something like a centrifuge to expedite the process: as they explained to me, they simply process too many grapes to let things settle out on their own, as they need to turn tanks (especially the ones under the presses) around very rapidly.
- I know, I know, we're supposed to be dubious about "minerality" as a perceptible thing in a wine...but when you taste Grand Cru Riesling from limestone/marl, granite, and volcanic soil, and they're totally different, you have to at least think twice about your skepticism.
Does Trimbach utilize the centrifuge on all cuvees? Curious if CFE and CST see a lighter touch. Also, do they take a consistent approach to the winemaking process across all cuvees, or are there some differences between the Grand Cru and your more standard cuvees?
Excited to follow along, thanks!
My understanding in talking to Julien (you might remember him as the teenager from Somm 2) is that all the wines are made exactly the same way, with the terroir being the only determinant. I didn't ask specifically about Frederic Emile and Ste Hune, but they really don't have tanks of any real size under their presses, and given that they're processing a lot of fruit during harvest, I'm inclined to believe that everything gets separated out in that way.
In addition, he mentioned that they view stainless steel, foudre, and concrete as functionally interchangeable as fermentation/aging vessels, and that the choice of what to put a given lot in is based on logistics, not winemaking decisions.
Further thoughts after today's tasting:
- I was interested to learn that Zind-Humbrecht allows for a fair bit of skin contact on their wines (12-16 hours) before pressing. It definitely showed in the Pinot Gris, which was quite coppery even when young, and to some extent in the Gewurztraminer.
- Humorously, right as I was being told about the native ferments that Zind-Humbrecht uses, a large foudre started overflowing thanks to an extra vigorous fermentation!
- I was also surprised to learn that most of the wines (95% apparently) go through full malolactic fermentation. Not something I'd have expected, but it's explained by...
- The most fascinating thing I learned at Zind-Humbrecht was about their canopy management. They're fanatically about getting as much tartaric acid (and as little malic) in the grapes by harvest time, and the technique that they've come up with involves avoiding hedging of the vines, instead letting the apex of each shoot fall back down when gravity does its thing. They believe that this keeps the plant from focusing on vegetal growth (which can lead to more malic acid production) and instead directs more energy towards fruit development. They apparently do this with all their vineyards, which is extremely labor (and cash) intensive. Guess that helps explain some of those prices...
Hey Zach! Any more chatter in Alsace about the 1er cru classification efforts or the potential grand cru status for Pinot Noir?
I didn't hear anything specific about a premier cru designation, though several producers made it very clear that they have vineyard sites that they think should be considered for Grand Cru status.
As for Pinot Noir, this is only a hunch, but I have to imagine that some producers at least think that GC status will be coming eventually, because again several of them pointed out that they have planted Pinot Noir in their Grand Cru holdings. Hard to believe they'd do that just to make Vin d'Alsace...
Some final thoughts on Alsace, now that I've moved on to the Mosel Valley (though if you have questions about Alsace, please feel free to ask them):
- We largely focus on the noble grapes, but Pinot Blanc (usually a blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois) is a huge money-maker for most Alsatian wineries, especially in the export market. I can't say that I had any that were truly exceptional, but they were mostly quite tasty.
- A few producers that I visited (Joseph Cattin, Pierre Sparr, Lucien Albrecht), as well as some that I didn't, are starting to play around with longer lees aging on their Cremant. Not all of those bottlings currently reach the US (unsure about other markets), but several were quite interesting: Lucien Albrecht is aging their Chardonnay in oak for a year before secondary fermentation, which is definitely something atypical for the region.
- There's still a bit of an issue with (to my mind at least) too much sweetness in some of the wines. This particularly seemed to manifest itself in Grand Cru Pinot Gris and to a lesser extent Gewurztraminer, which actually in many cases was made fairly dry. A fair number of GC PG clocked in at 30-35 g/L RS, which to my taste is just a bit much for a wine without a whole lot of acidity.
- I probably don't REALLY have to advocate for you all to take them seriously, but some of the Grand Cru wines from Alsace are as spectacular and engaging as the best white Burgundies that I've tried (though obviously somewhat different). The fact that you can actually buy these wines and put them on your list for a not-insane price makes them extremely compelling if you have any kind of audience for higher-end white wines. Granted, not all Grand Cru wines are made the same...but that's 100% true in Burgundy as well.
Anyhow, on to the Mosel Valley. All I can say with confidence for now is that it's even more stunningly beautiful than you see from the pictures: we arrived right at sunset, which was incredible!
This foudre at Hugel & Fils is certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest continually-operational wine vessel (since 1715).
I was just in Germany (Mosel,Rheingau, Nahe, Pfalz) and would highly recommend checking out Gut Hermannstein in Nahe. Mind blowingly amazing.
Hopefully you'll get to the try the GGR at Dr. Loosen... you're in for a treat :)
Very interesting - thanks Zach!
Very cool: won't be able to get to other wine regions, since I'm traveling with my wife and four-month-old, so moving around a bunch is no fun.
I did indeed get to try the GGR Urziger Wurzgarten from Dr. Loosen. It was definitely super interesting, but at least in my opinion that much lees contact (24 months) produces a wine with more autolytic character than I necessarily love in Riesling. There were some cool flavors for sure, and I can totally understand why Dr. Loosen would be excited about it, since it's something different, but I found the regular GG wines to be more in line with what I want when I look to that style.
Some additional thoughts about the Mosel Valley and some of the wines within, after five days here:
- I said it above, but the Mosel is an incredibly beautiful wine region, especially at this time of year. The valley itself is striking, the vineyards are stunning, and the towns are all one shade or another of quaint and adorable. The river cruises vary in length and cost, but are definitely worth investigating, and the bike routes throughout the region seem to be quite developed. That said, besides wine, biking/hiking, and a bit of site-seeing in Bernkastel-Kues, there's not a ton else to do.
- We talk tons about the steepness of the slopes in the Mosel, but it really can't be fully understood with pictures. Even the vineyards that are not on the steepest slopes are still extreme for the rest of the world. I'm staying in the nowhere town of Minheim, and tried to climb up the slope in one of the vineyards in town, and nearly fell. It's a wonder anyone works some of the vineyards you can see.
- I happened to be at Castle Landshut (above Bernkastel-Kues) late in the day, which is a perfect illustration of why it is the Grosse Lage vineyards are where they are. You can readily see how the slopes that face anything but just about due south fall into shadow well before those that face south, and it's quite cool to watch. Also, the restaurant in the castle is a must if you're in the area. The food is fine, but the views are basically unparalleled, at least if you can score one of the window tables, which we were fortunate to do!
- The VDP is kind of a mess, and most of the producers that belong to it agree at least in part. Even being here, talking to producers, has not really helped to clarify if the system actually works the way it should. Part of the problem is that, as with the Burgundy system it's modeled on, not all Grosse Lage vineyards are created equal: some are quite large (by Mosel standards, anyhow), while others are tiny and/or as comically subdivided as those in Burgundy, as Napoleonic laws of inheritance took their toll in other places. I guess the takeaway for us is that knowing your producer and vintage is super crucial, at least if those wines are relevant to your work life.
- Ernst Loosen is definitely pushing boundaries with the VDP. I got to try his GG-R (not a real category!) from Urziger Wurzgarten, which spends 24 months on full lees (in 1000 liter used barrels)...definitely a different expression of Riesling than I'm used to. We'll see if the VDP allows him to get away with this in the long run (as he already makes a GG from that vineyard), and if any other producers follow suit.
CLIMATE CHANGE THOUGHTS (mine and those of the winemakers)
- We got basically nothing but sunny days in the mid 70s, which was great for us, and the grapes still on the vine. A fair bit of fog in the mornings, though this has so far been a very low botrytis year.
- Harvest is most definitely happening earlier and earlier each year. Granted, individual vintages might still revert to close to the old norms, but the reality is that harvest now begins in September, not October or even November as in the past.
- Along with that change, some winemakers are struggling to control ripeness (what a crazy thought in the Mosel!), especially in drier styled wines. Acidity does not seem to be lacking, but alcohol percentages in the high 12s/low 13s are becoming more and more common.
- Vineyards that were once marginal are getting a new look from some producers: either at the top of the hills on the iconic slopes (often not included in the Grosse Lage/Erste Lage classification), or on the slopes with less-than-ideal exposure (at least previously). Already, you see lots of reliance on these sites for the more classic Mosel-styled Rieslings that producers make in large quantities, but I wonder if we will see some agitation for Erste Lage/Grosse Lage classification for some of these sites, and if producers will start to produce some site-specific bottlings from outside of those classic vineyards.
I'll post a few more pictures in response, and as always, please let me know if you have any questions or comments!
- Increased flooding from more storms/rainfall would devastate the region, more in a general sense than in a wine sense. While some of the best vineyards extend very close to the Mosel, the bigger threat would be to the towns situated along the banks of the river. There hasn't been serious flooding in over two decades, but I have to imagine it's a concern to many.
- Despite the heat, most producers I spoke to are at least going to attempt to make eiswein, though that's always a gamble. That said, the healthy and good-sized crop means that most can spare a few parcels to at least have a go at it.