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Bill’s Best Bets – June

Glory be to gris, but sometimes you just gotta wait
By Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

On a recent trip to Alsace, I made sure one of my stops was with Pierre Gassmann. While he is one of the most interesting and knowledgeable winemakers I have ever met, and tasting with Pierre is the wine equivalent of an Ironman race – this time we tasted 48 wines – I was there to pick up a specific bottle. I wanted, no, I needed, another bottle of his 1996 Vendanges Tardives Pinot Gris Rotleibel de Rorschwihr.

I bought a bottle the last time I was there in 2011. When I drank it a few months later, it was a game changer. The wine smelled like fresh white truffle laced with mandarin rind. The texture was satin. The finish was spicy, rich but not heavy, and just went on and on. Each sip was better than the previous. Perfect wine? As close as I’ve had. I knew when I tasted it that first time that I wanted to pair it with a grilled veal cutlet with fresh truffle. I did that and it was deadly.

The wine apparently had over 50 grams of residual sugar but remarkably, it “tasted” dry. I have experienced this phenomena on a number occasions whereby wines seemingly ingest what sugar is left after fermentation, resulting in richly textured wines that have very little sweetness on the palate. Gassmann couldn’t explain the process aside from saying that the wine had achieved its “balance” after years in a bottle. He was happy because he said “now I can start selling them.”

What?

Pierre Gassmann preparing for our tasting

Pierre Gassmann preparing for our tasting

You see Gassmann’s family has been making wine in the village of Rorschwihr since 1611 and have a history of holding wines back until they are “ready to drink.” He presently has over a million bottles in his warehouse. While that sort of practice makes winery accountants coil up spasmodically in a corner, Gassmann isn’t alone in doing this. In Rioja, Barolo, Brunello, holding back wines are part of the appellation rules.

I just wish more wineries around the world would do this with pinot gris.

You see pinot gris is a tough grape, and doesn’t always want to ferment completely dry. Sure you can yield very high, pick it unripe and make pinot grigio. It’s the same grape, just a different style. But to be honest, making grigio out of one of the world’s great white grapes is the equivalent of buying a Ferrari and driving it at maximum 40km/hr. Many other grapes do what pinot grigio does, and arguably better.

Pinot gris is not the easiest grape to grow, and herein lies the difficulty. As it approaches optimal ripeness and at its maximum aromatic expression, it has to be picked. A delay of a day or two, and it’s acidity can go through the floor as the sugars go through the roof.

But even if picked at the exact right moment, there’s usually a relatively high amount of sugar and unless you want a wine with 16% alcohol, the winemaker needs to leave some residual sugar. It’s not always the case, certain terrors and in certain vintages, pinot gris can show great aromatics with under 4gr of residual sugar. But there’s usually  a touch more than that.

And this scares the shit out of most winemakers. So quite often what happens is that they pick just a touch early, sacrificing flavour, to assure that they can make their wine dry and at a reasonable alcohol level. It’s the oenological equivalent of “pulling out” before orgasm.

To bring this full circle, if more wineries did what Gassmann does with his pinot gris, then wine lovers who have the fear of a touch of residual sugar would be more willing to try them. What was slightly sweet would gain texture. It would gain complexity and more people would understand why this is one of the world’s great grapes. I’m not talking about keeping the bottle for 20 years like Gassmann, rather a simple delay of 2-3 years is enough for most gris’ to achieve that balance.

If you have a cellar, and don’t have any pinot gris, put a few bottles away. You won’t be sorry. But even if you don’t, and haven’t dabbled in the world of pinot gris, then it’s time you should. The wines pair well with a wide range of meals, including white meats, richer seafood, spicy foods, risotto and even bbq ribs. Here are a few excellent pinot gris that while great right now, will gain even more if you show a touch of patience.

Domaine Albert Mann Pinot Gris Grand Cru Hengst 2010Domaine Barmes Buecher Pinot Gris Rosenberg 2010Elk Cove Pinot Gris 2012Cloudline Pinot Gris 2012Amisfield Pinot Gris 2011Nyakas Budajenoi Pinot Gris 2012

Let’s start in Alsace and two of my favourite pinot gris. Both are biodynamically grown. The first is the Grand Cru Hengst from Albert Mann. I have numerous vintages in my cellar and the 2010 is a fruit and spice bomb.

The other is the 2010 Rosenberg from Barmes-Beucher. Big, powerful white with peaches and orange rinds, and a driving mineral note. Lots of energy here.

Oregon has been doing some excellent work with the grape. Elk Cove’s 2012 is richly textured and has some fantastic spice on the finish.

If you want a dry pinot gris that works, try the Cloudline 2012. Reminds me of a chenin blanc in many ways, but with a touch more spice.

Another one of my favourite pinot gris is from New Zealand’s Central Otago. Amisfields’ 2011 is one of the more elegant pinot gris on the market that screams for spicy cuisine.

Finally for you bargain hunters, the Hungarian winery Nyakas makes a dry styled gris that walks that line between gris and grigio. And at under $15, hardly a risky investment if you want to try gris for the first time.

Until next time.

Bill

“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

Editors Note: You can find Bill’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names or bottle images above. Premium subscribers to Chacun son vin see all critic reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

The Grand Cru Hengst

The Grand Cru Hengst


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John Szabo’s Free Run – Alsace Part I

Alsace: At the Crossroads Part
By John Szabo MS

Note: news broke on May 13th of the untimely death by suspected heart attack of Laurence Faller, winegrower of Domaine Weinbach, pictured below in November 2013. She was just 47 years old, and a mother of two. I had the privilege of meeting her on several occasions. She was truly an extraordinary person and exceptional winemaker, and will be missed by all in the wine community and beyond. Her outstanding wines, however, live on. My sincere condolences to her family.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The following is a special report on Alsace, written after a week long visit in November of 2013 organized by the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Alsace (CIVA), and their Canadian representative, Sopexa.

Part I looks at the cultural and geological factors that have shaped the region’s wines, including political, philosophical and religious influences. Alsace’s strengths, as well as some of the challenges the region faces today, are also explored.

Part II (posted here) offers a list of recommended producers, top terroirs and their characteristics, and wine recommendations for each. For a full list of top-rated Alsatian wines, set the WineAlign Country/Region search field to “Alsace”, and be sure to check off “show wines with zero inventory”, or put in your favorite store to see what’s available near you. Over 150 new full reviews have been added.

Part I: Calling All Wine Lovers (and Geologists)

Fans of distinctive wines, especially white wines, find happiness in Alsace. The region’s deep repertoire includes world archetypes of riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and muscat, among other varieties – thirteen officially – made in a complete range of styles from fruity to floral to stony, from open and fragrant to tightly wound and mineral, and anywhere from bone dry to lusciously sweet. The finest have an unlikely counterpoint of verve and flesh, acidic tension and substance, as perfectly balanced as a piquant crème fraîche. Receptive drinkers can find a tactile dimension of acids that vibrate now vertically, now horizontally across your palate, depending on the nature of the mother rock underlying the vines – a mesmerizing phenomenon. At the table, Alsace has a match for virtually any dish, and in the cellar, few white wines of the world can match the ageability of the region’s top crus.

View from Top of Rangen de Thann

View from Top of Rangen de Thann

The explanation for such a vast qualitative range of expression lies largely unseen, underground. From the geologist’s perspective, Alsace is an entire textbook sandwiched into a single region, where you can study rock formations from multiple eras without getting in your car to dig new holes. The Vosges Mountains, which run north-south on the western side of the wine growing region, are the mirror image of the hills of Baden on the other side of the Rhine Valley in Germany, once united, now separated by the sinking trough of land where the River Rhine now flows.

In the foothills of the Vosges where vines are planted, volcanic activity and the sedimentary deposits of multiple periods have been subsequently exposed by shearing faults, and modified by mechanical and chemical erosion, creating an immensely complex geological patchwork, like a giant layer cake that’s been upended and sliced on the bias, then further mixed by a pack of hungry school children each trying to grab a piece with their eager fingers. The combinations of soils, elevations and aspects are bewildering, and producers could easily argue that this polyvalent terroir demands a wide variety of grapes and a broad stylistic range to do Alsace justice, even if marketers might disagree.

At The Crossroads of Europe

A recent immersion visit to the region also underscored the reality that the complexity of Alsace hardly stops at soils and grapes. The region’s wines are equally suffused with less tangible and quantifiable influences, and are informed by oscillating ideologies, which contribute yet more layers of distinctiveness.

Alsace is positioned at the crossroads of Europe, a frontier land wedged between the religious, linguistic and philosophical influence of two of continental Europe’s dominant cultures, Latin and Germanic. And there is hardly a tribe that hasn’t passed through the area at one point or another to either trade or make war, which has left Alsatians with both openness and weariness towards outside cultures.

Politically, Alsace has changed hands multiple times, most recently falling again under French control after WWI. But the scars of successive overlords run deep. Alemannic influence is audible in the Alsatian dialect, a language of Germanic roots spoken in the region, closely related to Swiss-German and similar dialects across the Rhine, yet peppered here and there with loan words from French and other languages. Although recognized by the French government in the country’s official list of languages, it very nearly died out and is still in decline.

Government policies have quietly deterred the spread of “non-French” languages, even if Germanic village names and the very non-French custom of labeling wines by grape variety persist. Many growers of the current generation recount how it was strongly discouraged to speak Alsatian at schools right up until the 1980s, a not-so-tacit distancing from Germanic culture. As a consequence, most of the current generation of winegrowers may understand Alsatian, but can’t properly speak it. Several recall how in their childhood their parents would speak in dialect when they didn’t want the children to understand what they were saying.

Reason vs. Romanticism

Then scratch even lightly beneath the surface here and you’ll discover the tension between Cartesian reason, and Voltaire and Diderot’s Enlightenment on the one hand, and on the other, German romanticism and naturalism embodied by Goethe and its movement to foster intuition and emotion over Enlightenment rationalism. Add in the current German preoccupation with precision and a little Latin-French joie de vivre and you have a very complex mélange indeed. Most Alsatians live and breathe this dichotomy, and their wines draw inspiration from both sides.

I Think, Therefore I am Alsatian

André Ostertag

André Ostertag

“I went to a very Cartesian French school”, says the introspective André Ostertag of Domaine Ostertag in the village of Epfig, “but my soul is not at all Cartesian. It’s more Romantic. I feel torn between the two”, revealing his Faustian two-fold nature (“Two souls, alas, dwell in my breast”, from Faust Part One, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

This sentiment is shared by many vignerons in the region, and it explains perhaps why Ostertag is driven to produce wines that are on the one hand dry, precise, and clearly defined as either fruity, floral or stony, while at the same time he struggles with the notion of defining grand cru terroirs and villages, limiting each to a legally narrow range of permitted grapes and wine styles, a process recently initiated by the INAO, the French wine authority. More on this below.

The Lasting Influence of Naturalism and Steiner

Ostertag, like a large and growing number of Alsatian vignerons, follows the scientifically nebulous (non-Cartesian) method of biodynamic farming (even if some would argue its rationality), whose origins stem from the other side of the Rhine. It’s worth noting that Alsace has among the highest percentage of vineyard area in France farmed organically or biodynamically, some 14% of total surface currently, and increasing.

Why, I had always wondered, until I learned that the first institute devoted to biodynamic agriculture is in Colmar, in southern Alsace. It’s a strong manifestation of the lasting influence of naturalism and both the physical and philosophical proximity to Rudolph Steiner, the father of biodynamics, in the area. Steiner was born in Austria, but delivered his famous lectures on biodynamics, based in part on Goethean science, in Silesia, then disputed between Germany and Poland.

According to Demeter International, Germany has more hectares devoted to biodynamic agriculture (all crops) than any other country, over 68,000 among over 1400 farms, or nearly half of the world’s total (some 153,000ha) compared to France’s 8,500ha between 420 farms. It could be said that Alsace, as a porthole to Germany, has been critical in spreading biodynamics throughout France, bridging the worlds of Goethe and Descartes from its position between the two.

A Form of Religious Determinism (of Wine Style)

Religious beliefs, too, have exerted their influenced on Alsatian wine. The ideologies of German Protestants and French Catholics, who have long intermingled in the region, are physically reflected in Alsatian villages, and philosophically expressed in their wines, an essential element of the Christian Eucharist. “Strolling in the villages, you can easily tell which village was Protestant and which was Catholic, if you observe”, declares Pierre Gassmann of Domaine Rolly Gassmann, whose family has been making wine in the village of Rorschwhir since the 1600s.

Pierre Gassmann In His Vines

Pierre Gassmann In His Vines

“Take my village for example”, he continues. “You’ll see fairly plain facades on the houses, not ornately sculpted, making the village appear poorer than others. It’s a catholic village. Why poorer? Because wine sales were obliged to pass through the clergy, who took a hefty “sales commission”, meaning that the growers received less. In protestant villages, vignerons could sell directly to consumers, with fewer intermediaries, so they made more money. That’s why their villages are more richly decorated, with more ostentatious wealth.”

For historical buffs, there are other keys to reading this complex and fascinating region. “The relative [politico-religious] importance of each village can also be seen by the height of the bell tower on the church. The higher the tower, the greater the power and importance of the village”, reveals Gassmann.

And as Gassmann tells me, the wine styles of each village were dictated to a large degree by its religious orientation. Protestants, it seems, preferred the forthrightness of dry wines (a reflection of exiled English puritan Protestants who settled in Germany?). Catholics preferred sweeter, more ostentatious, opulent wines. The confusion between dry and sweet wines remains a communication challenge for Alsace, much more so than religious orientation these days. (See more below.)

The heads of churches, local abbeys and the seigneurs who ruled over each village were early connoisseurs and believers in terroir. They were well aware of where the finest and most ageworthy wines originated, and selected their tithes and taxes accordingly. “The notion of superior “crus” were much better understood by our ancestors than they are today, up until the Revolution”, Gassmann assures me. “Some vineyards were valued higher than the cost of fortifying an entire village, which could take up to a century to pay off”.

Each year, official “gourmands”, trained courtiers, selected the best wines in each village usually as percentage of total production or occasionally by single lot, for further maturation in warehouses owned by merchants or religious entities. It was not uncommon for some lots to be aged for 30 or 40 years or more before being consumed or sold. The wine cellar of Strasbourg City hospital, the Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg, still houses one of the oldest wines in the world, a barrel still filled with wine from 1472, last tasted by the liberators of Strasbourg in 1944.

Troubled Times

Despite the region’s unquestionable strengths and delicious complexity, not to mention the longest period of peace in generations, these are troubled times for winegrowers in Alsace. The region is truly at a crossroads, at which many critical decisions will need to be made on how to present its wines to the world. But there appears to be little solidarity or agreement among growers and officials on exactly how to do so.

At the root of the problem is a general lack of profitably. Although average wine quality is arguably higher than ever before, prices at the bottom end of the market remain unsustainably low. Stop into any local supermarché and you’ll see grand crus for $10 or $12 dollars, something that quality-oriented producers lament, and which evidently downgrades both the image of what are supposed to be the region’s best wines, as well as Alsatian wine overall. Imagine finding grand cru Burgundy or classified Bordeaux at comparable prices. Such downward pressure on prices reduces profitability and creates a sliding spiral of quality as corners are necessarily cut to stay afloat.

Jean-Michel Deiss

Jean-Michel Deiss

And for growers, times are even harder. I’ve was told of many growers who have been unable to sell their grapes for much more than the hard costs to grow them, not including their own labour, a situation that has been exacerbated by lower than average crops in three out of the last four years. Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss in Bergheim related to me the story of a local grower who was forced to sell his crop this year at 1,22 euros/kilo. His accountant calculated the cost of growing at 1,11 euros/kilo, earning a thin margin of just 11 cents per kilo. Considering his modest yields, he was left with a paltry 600 euros (c. $900) per month for him and his family to live on – not exactly a princely sum.

Many growers are on the brink of bankruptcy, and it’s expected that a large number of vineyards and small domaines will disappear or be swallowed up by larger companies in the next few years if the situation doesn’t ameliorate.

Why is Alsace struggling? The answer is naturally multi-faceted. The current generation’s preference for red wine and the consequent difficulty of selling premium white wine from anywhere in the world at sustainable prices, is partly to blame. But there’s already evidence that the market for quality white wine is firming up, and prospects are improving.

Yet in order to capitalize on the rising tide, the region must be properly positioned. As it stands, Alsace faces multiple challenges in the international market place, mainly surrounding their communication strategy. How to increase profitability and communicate such a complex region to consumers?

Following are a few of the main issues that are being confronted. None on its own is unique to Alsace, but in combination, they make the situation particularly tough for Alsatian winegrowers and the entities that communicate their message.

Dry or Sweet?

As already mentioned above, there is confusion over what style of wine one can expect when purchasing a bottle of Alsatian wine. The style palate is broad and deep, and the label alone rarely tells the whole story. Will the wine be dry or sweet? Partially botrytis affected and dry, or partially affected and sweet? Or somewhere in between?

Several ideas have been proposed to inform consumers, ranging from pictograms visually depicting the wine on a sweetness scale, to numbered indexes ranging from one to five (or six) according to perceived sweetness (not measurable sugar), or according to a more complex equation relating residual sugar to total acidity. Most estates are operating independently with their own version; as yet there is no region-wide consensus on how best to communicate this important piece of information to consumers. It’s a bit of a mess.

Terroir Chaos

There’s also the more subtle reality that the range of terroirs in the region –granites, limestones, sandstones, and volcanic sediments, all with varying mixes of clay and sand – yield wines of widely varying personality even with the same grape variety, to say nothing of individual growers’ personal influence.

Deiss Schofweg next to limestone from the vineyard

Deiss Schofweg next to limestone from the vineyard

How best to express these differences? It’s not reasonable to expect the average consumer to recall the soil types in each of the 51 grand crus and the wine style they result in, translated over four authorized grape varieties, not to mention the hundreds of other unclassified vineyard sites. And, are the wines aged in large old oak foudre, or barrels or stainless steel, or something else, each of which will add a different dimension? All techniques are employed in the region.

Given all of the potential variations, it’s rare to encounter a producer who doesn’t make at least a dozen different wines every year, some up to 40 or even more by separately bottling different grapes, terroirs and sub-parcels, vine ages, ageing regimes and degrees of sweetness. They’re often labeled under a mixture of grape, terroir and frequently a proprietary cuvee name (usually the name of family members), the latter of which means nothing to outsiders and does nothing to express what’s inside the bottle. Add to that significant vintage variation in this variable northern climate, and you’ve got an unruly portfolio of wines to try to grasp, understand, and remember when standing before one of them on a retail shelf or restaurant list.

And that’s just one of hundreds of portfolios. It’s virtually impossible to remember the character and nature of so many cuvees even within the range of a single producer unless you live and breathe Alsace, and the label rarely serves to clarify the matter. Is cuvee “X” the dry or the off-dry one? From the old vines or the young vines? The top of the hill or the bottom of the hill? So much, I’d suggest, could be solved by more informative back labels.

Brand vs. Cru?

Then there’s the conflict between producers marketing their wines based on a brand name as opposed to the name of one of the officially recognized grand crus or lieux-dits. An extreme example is Trimbach’s celebrated Riesling Clos Sainte Hune, Alsace’s most expensive dry wine. The clos has been a monopole of the Trimbach family for over 200 years, which is entirely within the Rosacker grand cru in the village of Hunawhir. But you’ll have to read the small print to learn that Clos Ste. Hune comes from the Rosacker, and even then there’s no mention of it being a “grand cru”– Trimbach doesn’t advertise this fact – a willful distancing from the appellation system. For them, the name of the clos, a Trimbach brand for all intents and purposes, has more value than the name of the cru, and much more even than the classification grand cru.

Grand Cru Kirchberg de Barr

Grand Cru Kirchberg de Barr

Clos Sainte Hune is unquestionably Rosacker’s greatest riesling, and indeed one the world’s finest, which must make both other producers of Rosacker even more regretful that there’s no mention of the official cru name on Trimbach’s label, and appellation authorities frustrated that there’s no mention of the classification. The name and classification on such a prestigious wine would serve to validate and raise the cru’s image, and by extension, that of the entire classification, thereby helping to establish an international reputation for the best sites in Alsace, in the fashion of Le Chambertin or Le Musigny in Burgundy.

But even this staunchly traditional house has begun to re-consider its disillusioned views towards officialdom. As Jean Trimbach explains, “when the grand crus were created, there was no control, so we didn’t play. But now the situation is completely different, so maybe we will start to include the name of the cru”. So there is hope. Should a regional leader like Trimbach choose to embrace the appellation system, others are sure to follow.

But for the time being Alsace remains full of examples of proprietary brand names or monopoles used to identify the wine, rather than the shared appellation or cru name, serving the producer over the region.

Varietal or Terroir Wines?

Related to the cru vs. brand discussion is the contentious proposition to entirely eliminate varietal labeling, which has a long history in Alsace, and identify wines only by the name of the general appellation, village, lieu-dit or cru, as is practiced in most other regions in France. Which approach adds more value to a wine?

The idea is espoused most vociferously by Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss, a deeply thoughtful but controversial figure in the Region. “Why compete with the rieslings or gewurztraminers from the rest of the world? We have great, and unique terroirs, but we lose this advantage by putting forward the names of grapes instead of places”, Deiss argues.

Deiss is legendary in Alsace for what some consider to be radical, heretical opinions, at least in the context of modern commercial viticulture. But his thoughts go far beyond mere commercial and communication considerations.  Taking the anti-varietal labeling concept even further, Deiss advocates the approach of co-planting multiple varieties on a single site, intermixed, rather than in mono-varietal blocks, allowing each terroir to reveal itself through multiple varieties rather than one single grape. He has several sites with mixed plantings of all thirteen permitted grape varieties, the names of which do not, of course, appear on the labels, and he makes no varietal wines; all are labeled by place.

Deiss, who farms biodynamically, doesn’t believe that the biodynamic system is compatible with the idea of a single variety. Woe to him who asks for the percentage breakdown of grapes in any of his cuvees; he’s face is liable to darken with a look of you-haven’t-understood-me-or-my-wines if you ask such a question. There’s never talk of grape, only terroir. His current project is to take the approach even further, by replanting some of his sites with no fewer than forty-seven different local varieties, mixed together in random proportions, including nine distinct rieslings that he has been able to find and propagate. The object: more complex wines, with less intervention in the vineyard and cellar.

Deiss draws an analogy with the alphabet: “I want to have more letters in the alphabet. Thirteen symbols [grapes] is too few, it makes for a dying language. I want more symbols to be able to write more complex words and to write more interesting novels.”

Jean Trimbach

Jean Trimbach

Deiss’ ideas have drawn support, but more frequently criticism in the region. More than once I was asked to keep comments about him off the record, indicating a curious mix of respect and disbelief towards him, like an adherent to one religion recognizing and respecting another’s, but not being stirred enough to convert, nor wishing to draw attention to the fact. Although many are happy to have a controversial thinker and practitioner in their midst, one who can draw attention to Alsace, few are prepared to follow. “What Deiss does is good, but don’t think the rest of Alsace can do that”, says Jean Trimbach matter-of-factly.

Laurence Faller of Domaine Weinbach is outright opposed to eliminating grapes and mixing plantations: “we have great cépages, and great terroir. Co-planting is generally done to compensate for a variety’s shortcomings. Each variety can express, can translate terroirs. Grapes and terroirs are equal. I try not to make hierarchies. To completely erase the grape is crazy. Deiss can do what he wants, but I don’t want to be forced to do the same.”

Gassmann, too, believes that not all varieties are capable of revealing the best in a particular terroir: “each variety absorbs different elements, thus for each terroir there is a better vector.”

Faller and others also point out that most wines made from co-planted vineyards are sweet, or at least not fully dry, since the different maturation times of varieties invariably results in varying percentages of ripe and overripe bunches. “It’s a shame that we’re loosing the notion of great dry wine. Technically this is not possible with mixed plantings,” says Faller, even if Deiss tells me that there is a harmonization of the ripening cycles of different varieties planted together. Deiss also claims that there’s a side benefit of higher disease resistance in mixed plantations. But, tellingly, virtually all of Deiss’ wines have some measure of residual sugar.

Ostertag, who also practices biodynamics and strives to separate dry and sweet wines in his range, agrees on the technical disadvantages: “great Riesling and gewurztraminer can’t co exist in the same vineyard. Riesling needs poor soil – just look around the world at where the best are grown. Gewürztraminer and pinot gris need richer soils to express their maximum”.

Any agreement between the schools of thought is likely to remain elusive. There is historical precedence for both approaches – varietal and mixed planting – as well as for labeling by place with no mention of grape. I suspect there will continue to be advocates for both. Ultimately it makes for a more interesting and complex landscape of wines, but the specter of communication challenges rises once again. In a region known for varietal labeling, to see more and more bottles come onto the market with only a place-name to identify them, and no indication of the grape(s), may further confuse consumers without a parallel communication strategy.

Defining the Wine Styles of the Grands Crus and the Villages?

As mentioned above, the INAO has undertaken the ambitious plan to define the wine styles of each grand cru and village. Should it be dry or sweet, red or white? Which grape or grapes to allow? But the very Cartesian plan, designed to simplify and clarify the over-arching message of Alsatian wine, and link grapes with crus and styles, has met with considerable resistance.

“I’m against a fixed idea of terroir”, continues André Ostertag. “The INAO is asking us to define precisely the type of wines we make in each cru. It’s like asking someone to describe what mood he’ll be in tomorrow morning. It’s not possible to define. The current bureaucracy wants to minimize or eliminate all variations and predict everything. It’s the influence of the Anglo-Saxon world. In Latin law, anything that isn’t specified is authorized. In English law, anything that isn’t mentioned is forbidden. I feel much more Latin in this instance. Death is rigid; to fix something is to kill it. Life is fluid and ever-changing.”

How’s that for a Romantic thought with a Latin twist, a good distance from Descartes’ rationalism.

Laurence Faller_Domaine Weinbach

Laurence Faller – Domaine Weinbach

And Ostertag is not alone in his resistance to terroir determination. “We can’t define everything, even though it would simplify the landscape. We have to allow some liberties. We can’t regulate everything,” says Laurence Faller.

Pierre Gassmann recounts how the INAO had proposed to combine twelve different terroirs into two grand crus in his home village of Rorschwihr, but: “we in the village refused the plan. Even the grape growers [who grow and sell grapes, but don’t make wine], refused to allow the assemblage of these terroirs. We have twelve highly reputed terroirs that are each distinct”, he says. Resistance runs deep.

Anyone with even the most basic level of international PR/marketing experience can see the challenge of communicating, for example, twelve single vineyard expressions in one small village in one small wine region, the names of which are unknown even to the majority of Alsatians, never mind wine consumers on the other side of the Rhine Valley, and even less on the other side of the world. But Gassmann, who’s family has been making wine since the 1600s, and his co-villagers, care little for such short sighted simplifications, even if it could mean a boost in prices thanks to the lofty, and widely understood, grand cru designation on a label. “But you’ll never to be able to extract the maximum that the site has to offer” says Gassmann, in a rationally romantic way.

Some growers, however, have been in favour of defining the wine profile (varieties, styles) for specific villages and the top sites within each, including the grand crus. Currently eleven such communal designations have already been created (see the official website for the wines of Alsace), but for the remaining villages, given the tenacity of some vignerons’ beliefs, it’s hard to see the region ever coming to a common accord any time soon.

Looking Ahead

Despite, or perhaps because of, the incredibly complex cultural, philosophical, religious and geological make-up of the region, and its politically volatile past, the future looks strong for Alsace. As Jean Trimbach believes, “Alsace is headed in the right direction”.

Diversity is a strength as well as a weakness, and as consumers continue to learn about wine in greater numbers, and knowledge levels run deeper, Alsace will inevitably attract a new generation of wine lovers.

A coherent and universal marketing message is perhaps not as critical as one would think, after all. A small step, like an informative back label, would be an easy fix for cuvee confusion, as some in the region have already started doing. The dry vs. sweet issue is more critical and needs to be resolved with a more systematic fix, the simpler the better. Perhaps legislating the inclusion of residual sugar in grams per liter on the label (something I believe all wines should do) could be a common baseline onto which producers can layer their own interpretive ideas.

I can see no clear resolution to the varietal vs. place labeling issue, but since these two factions aren’t truly hostile, they can continue to coexist. Great wines invariably find their markets, while pour quality wines will struggle no matter what’s on the label.

And as for the concern of profitability, here too, there is a strong probability that the situation will improve. As Olivier Humbrecht, of the iconic Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, states with a properly philosophical, long-term view: “don’t forget that only a generation ago in Bordeaux most families could barely afford to heat their châteaux. Now look at them.” He sums up the future prospects for Alsace with characteristic clarity: “In Alsace we have great terroirs, and great wines. Our time will come.”

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Part II: Terroirs, Top Wines & Producers


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John Szabo’s Free Run – Alsace Part II

Alsace: At the Crossroads Part
By John Szabo MS

Note: news broke on May 13th of the untimely death by suspected heart attack of Laurence Faller, winegrower of Domaine Weinbach, pictured here in November 2013. She was just 47 years old, and a mother of two. I had the privilege of meeting her on several occasions. She was truly an extraordinary person and exceptional winemaker, and will be missed by all in the wine community and beyond. Her outstanding wines, however, live on. My sincere condolences to her family.

Laurence Faller_Domaine Weinbach

Laurence Faller – Domaine Weinbach

The following is a special report on Alsace, written after a week-long visit in November of 2013 organized by the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Alsace (CIVA), and their Canadian representative, Sopexa.

Part I (posted here) looks at the cultural and geological factors that have shaped the region’s wines, including political, philosophical and religious influences. Alsace’s strengths, as well as some of the challenges the region faces today, are also explored.

Part II below offers a list of recommended producers, top terroirs and their characteristics, and wine recommendations for each. For a full list of top-rated Alsatian wines, set the WineAlign Country/Region search field to “Alsace”, and be sure to check off “show wines with zero inventory”, or put in your favorite store to see what’s available near you. Over 150 new full reviews have been added.

Part Two:  Terroirs, Top Wines & Producers

Following is a round-up of some of the top producers in Alsace, by no means an exhaustive list, but all are worth a visit, or a taste. All farm organically and/or biodynamically. I’ve also listed the main terroirs/soils found in Alsace (but again, not all), the most representative grand cru vineyards for each type, and a few of the best wines I’ve tasted from each. Click on each wine for tasting notes and availability – all producers are represented in Canada.

For a full list of top-rated Alsatian wines, set the WineAlign Country/Region search field to “Alsace”, and be sure to check off “show wines with zero inventory”, or put in your favorite store to see what’s available near you. Over 150 new full reviews have been added.

Exceptional Producers

Albert Mann
André Ostertag
JosMeyer
Marc Kreydenweiss
Marcel Deiss
Rolly Gassmann
Trimbach
Weinbach
Zind-Humbrecht

Christophe Erhard, JosMeyer 1 Kreydenweiss Labels 1

Very Good Producers

Barmès – Buecher
Bernard Schoffit
Bott-Geyl
J.M. Sohler
Pierre Frick
René Muré
Valentin Zusslin

Geneviève Barmès Buecher 1 Hervé Sohler in his Cellar 1

Main Terroirs & Top Wines

(For more about Alsace Grand Crus and the details of each terroir visit the official Wines of Alsace website)

Granite

Granite soils yield wines that are fresh and floral, generally dry, and immediately open and appealing from the start even if capable of long ageing. Finesse and delicacy are common descriptors. Riesling performs very well in granite soils, as does pinot gris. Top Grand Cru vineyards on granite: Brand, Schlossberg, Sommerberg, Winzenberg.

2012 Domaine Weinbach Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Sainte Catherine

2011 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling Grand Cru Brand

2008 Albert Mann Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg

2009 JosMeyer Riesling Grand Cru Brand

2011 Marcel Deiss Langenberg “La Longue Colline”

2012 Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss Pinot Blanc La Fontaine aux Enfants

 

Volcanic

Perhaps the most distinctive in Alsace, wines born of the rare sedimentary-volcanic soils are invariably deeper in colour, extremely rich in mineral extract and structured for long ageing. The aroma and flavour profiles are marked by a unique stony-sulphurous minerality and notable salinity that’s not necessarily immediately appealing. These are wines for attuned oenophiles seeking something distinct and original. The Rangen de Thann is Alsace’s only truly volcanic terroir, a heart-stoppingly steep, 60%, south-facing site at the very southern tip of the region featuring friable volcanic rocks overlying a thin layer of soil anchored on greywacke beneath. Alsace’s highest elevation makes this a windy, slow ripening site. Rangen wines stand out for their amplitude, weight and salinity, as well as gun flint, stony, smoky, wet stones aromatics. Riesling and pinot gris are the ultimate expressions of Rangen.

The excellent Muenchberg grand cru in Nothalten also contains some volcanic sands that lend its wines a uniqueness saltiness of their own.

2010 Domaine Bernard Schoffit Riesling Clos St. Théobald Grand Cru Rangen De Thann

2010 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos Saint Urbain Grand Cru Rangen De Thann

2010 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Clos Saint Urbain Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Rangen De Thann

2012 Domaine Ostertag A360P Pinot Gris Grand Cru Muenchberg

2010 Domaine Ostertag Riesling Muenchberg Grand Cru

Grand Cru Muenchberg

Grand Cru Muenchberg

Marl-Limestone

Marly-limy soils consist of thick deposits of compacted limestone and clay, called marl, with calcareous pebbles cemented within. This type of terroir is especially rich in assimilable calcium and magnesium, while the amount of clay in the mix determines the amount of other minerals and fertilizing elements – the more clay, the more minerals are available to the vine. Marl-limestone is one of the most frequent soil types and also one of the most sought-after by winegrowers given its suitability to the full range of Alsatian grapes, especially pinot gris, gewurztraminer and riesling. Top marl-limestone grand crus include the Altenberg de Bergheim, Goldert, Hengst, Mambourg, Pfingstberg, and Sonnenglanz.

2010 Marcel Deiss Mambourg Grand Cru

2010 Domaine Weinbach Gewürztraminer Grand Cru Mambourg Vendange Tardives

2010 JosMeyer Riesling Grand Cru Hengst

2011 Bott Geyl Riesling Grand Cru Schœnenbourg

2008 Bott Geyl Pinot Gris Grand Cru Sonnenglanz

2008 Valentin Zusslin Riesling Grand Cru Pfingstberg

2010 Rolly Gassmann Auxerrois Moenchreben de Rorschwihr

Jean-Christophe Bott-Geyl

Jean-Christophe Bott-Geyl

Limestone (with more or less clay, sandstone, marl, muschelkalk)

Limestone comes in many variations in Alsace, including what’s known locally as muschelkalk – a grey limestone with layers of marl, dolomitic limestone, and the whitish oolitic (Jurassic) limestone, each with slight variations in their percentages of soluble (active) limestone, and thus potential for assimilation by the vine and expression in wine. In general, wines born of limestone are slow to open and evolve, but make for structured, highly ageworthy bottles. Some producers such as Pierre Gassmann believe that limestone terroirs are more prone to botrytis and that grapes must be harvested fully ripe (virtually at vendanges tardives levels of ripeness) in order to reach full potential. Gewurztraminer and muscat are usually best suited to limestone, where they achieve their full, expressive aromatics in grand crus like Furstentum and Steinert, while riesling performs magic in the Dolomitic limestone of the Rosacker grand cru.

2010 Trimbach Riesling Réserve

2007 Trimbach  Cuvée Frédéric Émile

2007 Trimbach Clos Sainte Hune

2011 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos Windsbuhl

2010 René Muré Riesling Clos Saint Landelin

2007 René Muré Pinot Gris Clos Saint Landelin Sélection de Grains Nobles

2010 Valentin Zusslin Pinot Noir Bollenberg ‘Harmonie’

2009 Rolly Gassmann Riesling Sibelberg de Rorschwihr

2000 Rolly Gassmann Riesling Pflanzerreben de Rorschwihr

2010 Rolly Gassmann Riesling de Rorschwihr Selections de Grain Nobles

2008 Rolly Gassmann Pinot Gris Réserve Rolly Gassmann

2009 Marcel Deiss Schoffweg “Le Chemins des Brebis”

Véronique Muré, of Domaine René Muré 1 Pierre Gassmann and His Father 1

Additional Fine Wines from Various Terroirs

2012 Domaine Ostertag Riesling Fronholz

2008 Domaine Mark Kreydenweiss Pinot Gris Clos Rebberg

2010 Domaine Mark Kreydenweiss Riesling Kastelberg Granc Cru

 

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Part I: Calling All Wine Lovers (and Geologists)

Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers see all critic reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages May 12th Release: 90 Point Reds, Rosé, Alsace and French “Natural” Wines

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Last week colleague John Szabo covered off the featured themes in Vintages May 12 release – California, Rosé and Israel. It’s an intriguing release for the variation in its themes, and there are some very notable – if pricey – wines, especially from California. I will touch on some favourites in each theme but I have not tasted the full release this time due to an in-progress trip to France. So I also want to bring some fresh perspective to some items related to my travels. This month I am blessed to be spending one week in Alsace, one week in the southern Rhône and Provence, and a third in Burgundy. The theme of biodynamic and “natural” wines is popping up everywhere, so I have included some recent thoughts. Open a bottle of something you like and read along.

90 Point Cabs, Merlots and Blends
Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon

There are several big California reds coming out Saturday, yet another wave in a season that since Christmas has brought us dozens of heavy hitters. The best and most expensive on this release is Far Niente 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, but when looking for value I would put my money on Sequoia Grove 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley at $54.95. This house has been on the landscape for as long as I can remember, but not one that has attracted much attention. Sitting on the valley floor in Rutherford it just seems to blend in rather than stand out. But this well-structured, quite powerful and complex vintage leapt out of the line-up. 2007 was a great vintage for Napa cabs, the kind of year where you should always be looking for lesser known wines to rise up.

Recanati Reserve Single Vineyard MerlotChâteau FonplégadeSpeaking of California, have a look at the very California-like wines of Israel. The general quality level of the Israeli wines is very good, and Vintages has put together some interesting new names. Overall I was struck by the ripeness, richness and cleanness of the wines. Among the best is Recanati 2007 Reserve Single Vineyard Merlot ($28.95) from a modern winery founded in 2000. It draws grapes from several sites in Upper Galilee. I was struck by how well this wine captures merlot’s rich, soft, evenness. It could have been from Napa.

Château Fonplégade 2008 St-Émilion, Grand Cru Classé ($47.95) is actually a bit of a New World styled Bordeaux, quite ripe for 2008, very brightly made and layered in fruit. Not historically known as one of the best châteaux on the St. Émilion hillside it has fairly recently undergone a makeover and its quality has jumped.

And finally, the release also features one of the more serious Bordeaux style blends made in Ontario in 2008. This was a cool, wet vintage that, at the time, was expected to be a write off for red wines. But at Hidden Bench they practiced patience by letting healthy grapes hang as long as possible, then doing rigorous berry sorting. The result is the excellent 2008 Hidden Bench Terroir Caché Meritage, Beamsville Bench at $35.20.

Hidden Bench Terroir Caché Meritage

In the Pink in Provence

Muga RoséChâteau d'Aquéria Tavel RoséI am writing this from a Canadian-owned Relais & Châteaux Hôtel Crillon le Brave in a medieval hilltop town at the base of Mont Ventoux, on the vinous boundary between Provence and the southern Rhône. I am wine-hosting 60 Canadians from Montreal to Vancouver who bid on a Gold Medal Plates gastro-cycling epic in support of Canadian Olympians. (We have raised almost $6 million in six years). We are in rosé country – the pale, salmon coloured wine that seduces in spirit, and brings a brisk, sometimes heady if subtle ambiance to any summery endeavour. The concept of light, dry pink wine was born in this region, made from a blend that usually includes grenache, carignane and syrah. Rosé seems to be drunk anywhere and anytime in this area, so we decided to put it to the table test, by drinking nothing but rose – some very local to the Ventoux region, some from the Côtes de Provence, and some from Tavel.

We ended our pink Provencal feast with Château d’Aquéria 2011 Tavel Rosé, being released Saturday at $18.95. This wine has come to Vintages every year of late. It’s a bright pristine example of France’s most famous pink, Tavel, a rosé that clocks in at an average of 14% alcohol, and pairs with just about any food you might want to serve on the deck. But I also want to draw your focus to a pristine, very light and crisp pink from northern Spain – which to be fair has a rosé heritage almost as robust as southern France. In terms of climate and terroir southern France and northeastern Spain are cousins – so no surprise about pink prowess. Muga 2011 Rosé from Rioja is a steal at $12.95. It is very light, dry and ultra-fresh – some may find it almost watery – but there is a fine precision at work here. Much classier than $13 suggests.

Electric 2010s of Alsace

Helfrich GewurztraminerI have just spent five days in Alsace, tasting about three hundred wines over 14 wineries. There was also a terrific tasting of over 40 biodynamic wines hosted by the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace (CIVA). I have written more about biodynamic and natural wines below, and I hope to write more in depth soon about this incredibly complex, terroir driven region. There are 13 soil types, 51 grand cru vineyard sites and over 900 producers in one of the oldest wine regions of Europe.

But I want to briefly alert you to an important and easily digestible insight. The 2010 vintage in Alsace is terrific. Growers are grumpy because bad weather at spring flowering reduced crop yields as much as 30%. But that is great for quality because it concentrated flavours in the remaining 70%. And it was a coolish year (especially compared to the ripe 2009s) and it has produced laser beam, poignant whites. I am delighted to be able to recommend Helfrich 2010 Gewürztraminer as a case in point. It is being released Saturday at only $19.95, and gewürz fans shouldn’t miss it. I tasted this wine before leaving for Europe and I was mightily impressed by its intensity and great tension.

The Motley Crus; France’s Natural Wines

I will discuss Alsace more in the weeks ahead, but I want to discuss this move to “natural” wines based on observations at a wine fair called Salons des Vins Libres that I attended in the town of Rouffach on my last day in Alsace. It brought together producers from all over France, plus Serbia. Not on my official itinerary I tagged along at the suggestion of Vincent and Brigitte Fleith who make biodynamic wines at their small family winery in Ingersheim near Colmar.

Foire Ecobio d’AlsaceWhen we arrived at the Salon I felt like I had stepped back into a farmers market in 1935. It was a completely agrarian event, and a community event, and a family event – as far removed from posh hotel ballrooms and Michelin restaurants as you could get. Although a Michelin starred sommelier from Strasbourg was there with an entourage, on a buying trip. Yes, one could buy wines! People arrived in jeans and sweaters with dollies to take wines to their Citroëns. Children played hide and seek among the stands; fromageries sold cheese; boulangers sold pastries; a chip truck sold frites in the courtyard.

And the wines were indeed an odd and motley collection of crus. I had more flawed wines in two hours than I have experienced so far this year in the Vintages tasting room. Oxidation, brettanomyces, acetic acid, bacterials and wines that smelled of stinky cheese. But – and this is a huge but – the wines had amazing structure, energy, textural perfection built of great balance, and incredible length of finish. And when I did taste examples that were also clean, the wines were thrilling.

This tasting posed serious questions about the “natural wine” movement – which is by definition organic and biodynamic. But more than that it is a philosophical, anti-establishment/anti-big movement. It is a revolt against clinical, squeaky clean wines. In a larger scope it is an agrarian revolt against urbanization, convenience and artifice.

So when do such funky wines become acceptable? I guess when one accepts them. That could take awhile in arenas like Ontario. Many of these wines would never pass LCBO tasting panel scrutiny. One producer I talked to actually had 30 cases of wines smashed by the LCBO because they contained too much of some substance that she didn’t know the name for in English, nor I in French.

For two generations now, ever since technology came to the world’s vineyards and cellars, we have become culturally attuned to cleaner and cleaner wines. And most who have invested in making these wines will not soon change their minds or abandon the world’s gleaming wine factories.

Regardless, tastes can change, and it is conceivable that this “natural” movement is the leading edge of a huge shift in wine taste. It is certainly embraced by sommeliers and writers who ferret out the latest trends, both in France and in Canada. And I will add my voice to those who are getting just a bit fatigued by the homogeny of modern wine and I will admit there is a certain appeal to the ideals of these idealists.

But how far can I go as a critic, who values purity as a cornerstone of quality? Well I certainly appreciate and enjoy the sense of energy and life in most biodynamic and “natural” wines. And I do like some degree of funk in my wines as well. But to me the fruit is sacrosanct. It too is natural, and flavours – intended or accidental – that divert my attention too far from that central pleasure, are negatives. Natural wines can’t be an excuse for bad wines, whether made out of ideological or slovenly practices.

And a Correction

In the last issue I discussed the LCBO’s new method for indicating sweetness levels in the wines, as it moves away from the numerical sugar scale. The new system measures not only sugar in the wines, but acidity as well, which gives us a much more accurate indication of how the wine actually tastes. But I made an error in saying that the acidity level reading was achieved by a taste panel. It, like the sugar, is actually measured in the lab. Watch for the new system – that indicates Extra Dry, Dry, Medium, Medium Sweet and Sweet wines to be rolled out in stores in the weeks ahead.

That’s it for this time. Onward towards Burgundy.

From the May 12th, 2012 Vintages release:


David’s Featured Wines

All Reviews

Cheers!

David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlign


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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Alsatian Riesling and Gewurztraminer – not to be forgotten ~ May 28th, 2011

The best source in France for two mesmerizing grapes:

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Taking out a scrap piece of paper from my recycling bin, now and then I enjoy spending a few minutes creating lists about my favourite types of wine. These lists I sometimes format according to grape, other times by region or country, and/or on occasion by their ranking as ‘established growths.’ Of the former, my list usually ends up being something like this: for reds, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Syrah; for whites, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, the very latter of which I most take pleasure in when it is blended with Sémillon and, excepting Hunter Valley, aged judiciously in French oak barriques.

Of the middle category, my often-wandering mind invariably settles on France, my most beloved winegrowing nation on Earth. From then on, it becomes a simple matter of picking my three favourite regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône. Such an effort to leave out Champagne! As for my favourite ‘classed growths,’ suffice it to say that I have rather luxurious tastes, and we shall leave it at that.

Yet, regarding my regional/country list, notice how I omitted the ‘subject region’ shown, quite clearly, in the title of this column? No, this was not done in error, but in a rather humourous literary fashion; for Alsace is, without a shred of doubt, one of those winegrowing areas that oftentimes seems forgotten when compared to all its other, more famous counterparts in France. A sad thing, really, for my very favourite type of white wine, alongside white Burgundy and Bordeaux, hails from none other than this marvellously understated, yet undeniably beautiful, part of the country. This grape, of course, is Riesling, the darling varietal of sommeliers and wine commentators, worldwide.

Aside from Germany, there truly is no other place in the Old World where Riesling is crafted to such a remarkable level of dexterity, fullness, originality, and refinement. Accounting for roughly 21.9% of all vines grown in Alsace, or about 3,350 hectares, Alsatian Riesling has historically been fermented to full dryness and crafted in such a style that best accentuates the overall minerality, vibrancy, and unique intensity of flavour(s) of the varietal. In Alsace, the best Riesling vineyards, typically cultivated with greater restrictions (ex. lower yields) on Grand Cru sites, are most often found on soils comprising sandy clay and loam. Common aromatics in youth? Think of fresh lemon, citrus peel, green apples, white peaches, melon, minerals, and spice (just to name a few). Just as important, the finest Alsatian Rieslings can easily age for a good deal more than just a couple of years, with some wines even requiring at least a decade to reach their full potential. As for dessert versions, such as Vendange Tardive (late harvest, often with a touch of botrytis) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (fully botrytized), let’s just say that I’ve enjoyed several extraordinary examples over thirty years of age. How I adore Alsatian Riesling!

This said, I couldn’t bring this column to a close without mentioning another Alsatian-based grape of absolutely marvellous character: Gewurztraminer. Quite possibly the spiciest, most ‘exotic’ varietal on the planet; in Alsace, Gewurztraminer (spelled without the umlaut) is sometimes even claimed to rival Riesling in terms of overall prestige. Comprising around 18.6% of all planted vineyards, of which, like Riesling, the Grand Cru sites will often yield the best results, Gewurztraminer is one of those grapes adaptable to all sorts of differing soil conditions, though clay and mineral-heavy deposits will often play a role in the best examples. Common aromatics? In Gewurztraminer, they are so identifiable, even the most amateurish of wine lovers should get these right: fresh rose (and tea) pedals, abundant lychees, honeysuckle, bergamot, lemon, jasmine, melon, and Asian spice. Also not to be overlooked is the fact that the best bottlings can easily age for well over a decade, with the more ‘entry range’ versions even able to withstand a few years’ worth of cellaring. Almost makes me wish I’d added Alsace to my list … so where did I put that scrap of paper?

Click here for a few gems for collectors from the May 28th, 2011 Vintages release .

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for May 28th 2011: Chenin Blanc steals the spotlight; not so premium local rosés; avoiding Alsace, and top notch and top dollar California

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In this article: Chenin Blanc Steals the Smart Buy Spotlight; Top Ten Smart Buys; Features Report: Where’s the Real Pink? Avoiding Alsace and Cali Confidential + Top Ten Wines from the California Feature (90+ points)

The May 28th Vintages release has a great collection of smart buys, but not one of the wines from the featured regions came close to making the list. The unlikely hero stealing the spotlight this week instead is Chenin Blanc from South Africa: 3 wines in three different styles, all valid and all superb, and though we’re all growing sick of the word, yes, they’re good value, too.

Not long ago, Chenin Blanc was maligned by South African winemakers as the ubiquitous local grape, best reserved for brandy production. It has so often been the case that natives don’t recognize the potential beauty or worldwide importance of what comes out of their own backyard precisely because it has always been there. A sort of inferiority complex sets in, and the belief that the old, the familiar and local must necessarily be inferior to something new, exciting and above all foreign. Canada, after all, certainly has no monopoly on inferiority, imagined or actual, (though I’m still quite sure that no one, inside or out of Ontario, will ever recognize Baco Noir as a world beater).

Like so many winemakers from Portugal to Italy to Greece to Hungary and elsewhere, South African winemakers disdained local grapes in favor of foreign, purportedly superior (mostly French) varieties, and chenin was all but forgotten (chenin too, is foreign, but it’s been in South Africa for so long – it was likely one of the first grapes introduced in the Cape by Jan Van Riebeeck in 1655 – and is so widely planted – still #1 with 18% of SA’s vineyard area – that I’m taking the liberty of considering it a local specialty). It certainly didn’t help that South Africans lived in relative commercial isolation until just a couple of decades ago, being effectively cut off from the exploration that would have eventually led them back home. Pretty much anything other than chenin blanc would sell on domestic markets for much higher prices, and since exports were, well, illegal, there was obviously no incentive to attempt to show the world the potential brilliance of South African chenin blanc.

Fortunately, times have changed. Today there’s a self-help group devoted to the grape with 69 members: The Chenin Blanc Association . The intro on their home page states: “It’s a little known fact, but a fact all the same, that South African Chenin Blanc wines are among the world’s finest”  Well, we are listening now. With a treasure trove of gnarly old vines, planted on some of the oldest viticultural soils in the world that impart a unique stony-minerality, and a world that is eagerly searching for some unique, distinctive regional specialties, times are indeed exciting for both chenin producers and wine drinkers.

A tremendous value not to be missed is the 2009 THE WINERY OF GOOD HOPE BUSH VINE CHENIN BLANC WO Stellenbosch $11.95. Remember: these are not intended to be loud, in-your-face wines. This one is all about grace and integration, and remarkable texture and depth. And hey, it’s 12 bucks! Can you really go wrong?

If you want a more amped-up version with power and punch, pull out an extra Sir Wilfred Laurier from your pocketbook and pick up the 2009 GRAHAM BECK BOWED HEAD CHENIN BLANC WO Paarl $17.95. This has plenty of ripe but fresh tropical fruit flavours with a stunning whack of chalky-minerality. Not a wine for your mother-in-law, in other words.

Midway in style between the intensity of the Graham Beck and the refinement of the Winery of Good Hope is perhaps the most outstanding of the three: 2009 KEN FORRESTER CHENIN BLANC WO Stellenbosch $17.95. After a start in the hotel industry, Forrester and his wife and young family purchased an old farm in Stellenbosch with a derelict Cape Dutch homestead and nearly abandoned vineyards. Most of the farm was planted to old chenin blanc vines, and rather than replant, Forrester set out instead on a quest to produce a chenin that could compete with any white wine in the world. As a founding member of the Chenin Blanc Association and a tireless international advocate for the grape, Forrester is in a sense, Mr. Chenin Blanc.
The Winery Of Good Hope Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2009 Graham Beck Bowed Head Chenin Blanc 2009  Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc 2009
Click here for the rest of the Top Ten Smart Buys, including a lovely Douro red from the excellent 2007 vintage. A brilliant traditional method bubbly for under $16, and a fantastically (and dangerously) drinkable German riesling for under $14

Features Report
As for the features this week, Cali Confidential, Alsace Alliance and Premium Ontario Rosés, here’s what you need to know:

Emiliana Adobe Reserva Rosé Syrah 2010Where’s the Real Pink?
Premium Ontario rosés? Forget it, they’re not in this release, unless a mini parade of sugary pink drinks is the new premium standard. It seems most Ontario producers are clearly focused on everything but rosé, bottling it as an afterthought, or at least engineering a medium-dry style to service the bus loads of blue haired tourists who travel annually to Ontario wine country. There’s nothing inherently wrong with selling wine, of course, though I do find it problematic to list this motley collection of white zin look-alikes under such a lofty banner. It could give folks the wrong idea. For the record, the best of the rosés in this release was in my view a wine from Chile: 2010 EMILIANA ADOBE RESERVA ROSÉ SYRAH Rapel Valley $11.95. Note that it’s also the cheapest.

Avoiding Alsace
“One of the world’s most distinctive wine regions, Alsace has a unique identity….” Says the LCBO catalogue. Agreed to be sure, it’s just that Alsace’s most unique wines will emphatically not be release on May 28th. I suppose the uncommonly challenging task of triangulating producer willingness, availability, price, agent competence and timing has eliminated all but a handful of rather mediocre Alsatian wines, the best of which is easily the 2008 TRIMBACH RÉSERVE RIESLING AC Alsace $25.95, even if it is not likely to set the world on fire. Nobody said it was easy to buy for 10 million people, and there’s no question consumers are suffering because of it.
Trimbach Réserve Riesling 2008

Cali Confidential
California, and especially the hyper-inflated luxury regions led by Napa Valley, is rarely accused of over-delivering on the quality/value scale. There’s no question that the quality is high, in fact in my books no fewer than ten wines in this release are outstanding (90+ points), from Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties. But then again, the average price in the Top Ten Wines from the California Feature is almost $46, so value remains in the eye of the beholder. Among the wines that I would consider buying is the2006 VILLA MT. EDEN GRAND RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $24.95. It’s an understated, balanced and refined version of Napa cabernet, in the style that anyone who has compared notes with me will recognize as the kind of wine that I’m drawn too. And at $25, it’s also more than fairly priced.

A little higher up the price ladder, but also a step or two up in concentration and complexity without sacrificing elegance, is the 2007 STAGS’ LEAP WINE CELLARS ARTEMIS CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $49.95. I like the stylistic direction in which Stags’ Leap is heading, and now under the restrained hand of French winemaker Christophe Paubert, the wines look set to get even better. The ’07 Artemis is a cabernet of considerable refinement, not short on Napa richness to be sure, but balancing the power with a nice dose of juiciness and succulence, firm but honest and balanced tannins, and terrific length.

Devotees of syrah will want to consider the 2007 FESS PARKER RODNEY’S VINEYARD SYRAH Santa Barbara County $39.95. This is the wine’s VINTAGES debut, and it struck me with its floral, spicy, smoky and savoury character, complete with black pepper and fresh road tar in the way syrah fans love. It’s certainly rich and full but not heavy, with firm, grippy tannins, adequate acidity, and great length.
Villa Mt. Eden Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006  Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon 2007  Fess Parker Rodney's Vineyard Syrah 2007

From the May 28th Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Picks from California
All Reviews
Cheers,

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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