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From Riesling to Rosé – Rhys’ European Wine Adventure

Text and photos by Rhys Pender MW

Rhys Pender_Portrait_2015

Rhys Pender

Learning about the world of wine can be more confusing than enlightening, especially when learning about wine regions. Things are complicated and it is no wonder wine is intimidating. Everything seems clear after diligent studying of textbooks, encyclopedias and sitting through wine classes. But when you start to delve deeper into what makes a wine region tick, and look at the different aspects, altitudes, soils and more, you find that the more you try to generalize about any one place, the less accurate those simplifications become. Not only is it impossible to learn all the nuances that make a region unique but there is also the fact that things are always changing and evolving – wine styles, people and even climate. To understand a region properly, there is no better way than to jump in your car or on a plane and go there and find out for yourself what is really happening. That is really the only way to know what is going on.

Wine writers and educators spend a lot of time travelling, trying to answer those questions that exist only between the lines in our textbooks. We want to give current and accurate information in our articles and lectures, and believe me, keeping up with the world of wine is a full-time job.

A few months ago I took a fascinating journey that I recommend to anyone: a wine adventure from the homelands of riesling in Germany, south through Alsace and Burgundy, into the embrace of Beaujolais’s lovely gamay and to the refreshing jugs of rosé in the south of France. I learned a lot, answered a lot of questions, and created many more.

With daily flights from various parts of Canada to Frankfurt, Germany, this is a wine route that is well suited for Canadians to get a taste of many different styles of European wine. The only difficulty is that at the end you are stuck in the south of France and you need to get back to Frankfurt. Or, maybe, you could just stay there, something I have been tempted by many times before. Here is part 1 of what I found out is happening on my road trip from Riesling to Rosé.


I set off on my trip in March with a visit to ProWein in Germany. ProWein is the annual trade wine show in Düsseldorf where the wine world, literally, comes to Germany. Talking to producers, it seems this show has become number one on the international calendar. I had two and half days to work through 5,800 wineries. As you can imagine, you need to have a plan and having appointments is highly recommended. But if you are in the trade, ProWein is definitely your one stop shop for accessing the world of wine.

I had never been to German wine country before this trip and was completely blown away by the severity of some of the vineyards, particularly in the Mosel and Rheingau. It is inconceivable today that anyone would plant vineyards on sheer, near-vertical cliffs, and even more so that anyone in this modern age would work them. I drove around for hours mesmerized by the staked vines clinging tenuously to the rock. It is not surprising that in some areas these steep vineyards are being abandoned, but the best of them make wine that is too good to ignore. The industrious Germans have found a way to make it work with trolley systems to transport grapes, and equipment strung up between the vines.

Rheingau VineyardRheingau Soil or rocks more like

Germany is one of those countries that seems to always be a step or two ahead of what is written in any textbook. Thankfully, most of us have managed to get over the misconception that Germany is all about cheap, sweet, fruity white wines, and most people now think of good quality, low alcohol, delicate yet intense Riesling that nicely walks the tightrope between residual sugar and vibrant acidity. This is the image of Germany through textbooks, but the reality on the ground is something different again. These sweeter wines are still made but most of it is for the export market. The Germans are drinking dry (trocken), powerful Rieslings that often are closer in style to those of Alsace or Austria than the German stereotype. They have been at it for a long time in Germany and change is inevitable. The kids running around at Peter Jakob Kühn winery were the 13th generation. I wonder how many guises German wine has been through in that time?

The other misconception is that Germany produces almost exclusively white wine. Riesling still, thankfully, has 22.9% of the acreage but Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) is up to 11.5% and Dornfelder up to 7.8%. Red varieties now account for over 35% of production, but we rarely see these in Canada (Canada is Germany’s fifth largest export market by value) because the Germans drink it all themselves. In Germany, you will get to try some pretty tasty Pinot Noir (See David Lawrason’s take on Germany and Pinot Noir here). Thirty years ago, at a time when many north Americans formed their opinions about German wines, red grapes made up only 13%. This is quite a significant change for the world’s tenth largest producer of wine.

VDP_Faehnchen_braun_RGBKünstler Hochheimer Hölle Riesling Kabinett Trocken 2013 Künstler Hochheimer Stielweg Old Vines Riesling Trocken 2013There is also a move away from the traditional Prädikat labelling (terms like Kabinett, Spätlese, etc.) to more of a single vineyard focus. The VDP (Verband Deutscher Qualitäts- und Prädikatsweingüter), known by its black eagle logo that appears on member’s bottles, is an association that has always focused on the combination of producer, site and quality. It uses a Burgundian model based on vineyard site, with the top wines known as Erste Lage or Grosse Lage, the Grand Crus of the movement. The dry wines from a Grosse Lage vineyard will be labelled Grosses Gewächs and be labelled Qualitätswein Trocken. Sweeter versions use the Prädikat terms.

A lot of the best wines I tasted are not available in Canada but a few of the producers I visited that do appear from time to time are Auguste Kesseler, Baron Knyphausen, Kloster Eberbach and Künstler. There were also delicious sparkling wines from Schloss Vaux but I haven’t seen these in Canada yet.

After Germany it is a just a few hours drive across a deserted border into France and Alsace.

France – Alsace

Being in Alsace is like being in a fairy tale, at least in some villages. It is a cross between Germany and France, therefore becoming its own unique world. The food is brown, hearty and German. But for wine, Alsace is like no other place on earth. It is not just the stunning terroir of near vertical vineyards but also the attitude of the people. Alsace is a bit of a hub for the natural, the biodynamic, for those who want their wines to express the terroir without the winemaker sticking his bag of tricks in the way. Certainly not all Alsatian wine is of this low-manipulation style but there are enough producers to make it a movement rather than just a novel rarity.

The best quality wines of Alsace, in my opinion, come in two different styles. There are those like Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Weinbach, Bott-Geyl and Barmès-Buecher who make incredibly interesting wines that vary from vintage to vintage and are never boring. The other style of top Alsatian wine is a little more predictable and is based on purity of flavours and intensity. I would put the wines of Domaine Zinck and Trimbach in this category.

There is a lot of character in the different terroirs of Alsace and these will often show through in the wines. Acidity, power, complexity, body and minerality all vary considerably from site to site and many producers make an impressive number of different wines.

Riesling is king, and to me, makes the best wines, but the Gewurztraminer is also something that can be very special in Alsace. Gewurz better suits the sweetness that the warm, dry, sunny Alsatian climate gives, handling it better than Pinot Gris, which can be overblown in alcohol levels. The Alsatians like to drink their Gewurz with a bit of age, something we don’t really do much in Canada, but a bit of time in the bottle serves to give a nice savoury edge and the wine drinks a little drier than the overt floral, fruity sweetness it often shows in its youth.

It can be hard work tasting in Alsace, not because the wines aren’t delicious, but because the curiosity of the producers means that many of them make dozens of different wines. At Zind-Humbrecht I tasted through 14 wines and it was amazing how different each wine was, showing how much terroir can differ within a region and how much it can influence the wines. Winemaking at Zind-Humbrecht is pretty hands off. It isn’t religiously “natural” winemaking in the extreme sense but the farming is biodynamic and basically the wines are left to do their own thing in big old vats, sometimes taking a year or more to finish fermenting in the cool cellar (the ambient temperature is about 8°C in winter) and often stopping with a smidge of residual sugar. The wines are always intensely flavoured, interesting and most of all have a wonderful texture that is hard to match in Riesling from other parts of the world.

Domaine Weinbach Furstentum Grand Cru Gewurztraminer 2011 Domaine Weinbach Gewürztraminer Cuvée Laurence 2012I learned some interesting things about using horses in the vineyard too. Zind-Humbrecht uses two horses as part of their viticulture program, but to do the entire vineyard they would need 10-12 horses. The animals need feeding three hours before working and then can only work for three hours. It is slow going too, taking about one week to plow one hectare of vines. Basically it takes a horse five days to do what a tractor could in half a day. They now match the soil conditions to the choice of tractor or horse. In some cases the tractor can be too powerful and do more damage than good. I found this pretty fascinating stuff. For viticulture geeks there was plenty of ground breaking (no pun intended) stuff at Zind-Humbrecht; the most important thing about organic or biodynamic viticulture is how close the grower observes what is happening in the vineyard and can adapt unique management to the unique situations.

At Domaine Weinbach (a tasting of 13 wines) the wines are of a similar style to Zind-Humbrecht. They make wine from 120 different plots, and all the wines show intensity of flavour, rich textures and complexity. The Riesling and the Gewurztraminer again stood out for me as well as the delicious 2014 Sylvaner Reserve. Two of the Gewurztraminer are now available in BC, the delicious Cuvée Laurence 2012, and the crazy Furstentum Grand Cru 2011.

My next stop was at Bott-Geyl where I notched up a tasting of 19 wines. The single vineyard and Grand Cru Rieslings showed amazing minerality and great richness of texture. These wines are also wild ferments and spend up to a year in old wood before bottling.

Domaine Barmès Buecher Crémant 2012 Domaine Barmes Buecher Riesling Alsace Grand Cru Steingrübler 2011At Barmès-Buecher, the dynamic family team of Geneviève Barmès and her children Sophie and Max are creating some eclectic and often delicious naturally inspired wines from some of the old vineyards that came together when Geneviève Buecher and her late husband François Barmès started the winery in 1985, incorporating vineyards that had been in the families since the 17th century. The family was hit with tragedy in 2011 when François passed away, but his children Max and Sophie came to the rescue to help their mother and I don’t think I have ever met a nicer, more generous and more energetic family in the wine business. I tasted through another 19 wines with the three of them and found more rich, delicious, textured and layered Riesling showing off a number of different terroirs (nine different vineyards including three Grand Cru sites). Quebecers get the best selection including the tasty 2011 Riesling Steingrubler GC. The 2012 Crémant d’Alsace Brut is also a good value bubbly.

My final Alsace visit was at Domaine Zinck, in Eguisheim. I thought that storks’ nests on top of fairy tale-like buildings hundreds of years old was something only of movies and imagination, but in Eguisheim it is alive and well. So is the young family of Phillippe & Pascale Zinck of Domaine Zinck. The winery was started by Phillippe’s father Paul, and now runs 20 hectares of grapes spread over 50 plots ranging in size from the largest at 1.7 ha down to just 0.06 ha. It sounds like a logistical nightmare, but 15 ha is located around the town of Eguisheim. Phillippe was born in Eguisheim and is a strong believer that 80% of the flavour in the wine comes from the grapes. They mostly work with stainless steel but are slowly incorporating larger oak casks into the mix. Phillippe talks of the difficulty in making Pinot Gris, saying there is only a small window to harvest when you get the right balance. They must be pretty good at finding this because their Pinot Gris Portrait 2012 won the International Trophy Best Off-Dry at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards.

Paul Zinck Cremant d’Alsace Domaine Zinck Portrait Series RieslingThe Portrait Series Riesling 2013 is a good value choice and is available in BC through private stores. There is also a little bit of the Grand Cru Riesling around and both the Pfersigberg 2012, a chalky, mineral, laser wine, and the Eichberg 2012, plusher, richer and more exotic, were delicious. It is worth putting these away for a few years. As Phillippe puts it, “when the Grand Cru wines are young you can’t smell the terroir, it takes about 5 years and then you have both the fruit and the aged complexities.” There is also the delicious Zinck Cremant d’Alsace which is excellent value at just over $20 in BC.

I feel like in Western Canada we are missing a lot of the best of Alsace. The top wines are definitely the Rieslings but the market seems keener on the Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer here. It would be nice to see more people try these intense, mostly dry, mineral driven Rieslings and see what they are missing out on. 

Part 2 will see the adventure continue south into Beaujolais…


Rhys Pender, MW


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Bill’s Best Bets – April 2016

The beautiful complexity that is Alsace
by Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

As I write this, I’m looking out my hotel window at the Strasbourg train station. It’s an interesting building – all glass, reminds me of a massive doughnut seen from its side. Figures they would make something so complicated yet strangely beautiful here. After all, this is Alsace.

Of all the world’s wine regions I have travelled, few stories are harder to tell than Alsace. What makes it any more complicated than any other region? Well, that’s a lot easier to answer.

The soils

The great wine regions have a variation in soil types, though they tend to be variations on a central theme. Germany’s Mosel has its slate. Chablis owes its distinctiveness to oyster laden Kimmeridgean soils. The Northern Rhône is primarily granite, and Burgundy is Burgundy because of its stratified limestone and clay.

Despite being only 50 km wide and around 100 km in length, Alsace has a dizzying array of soil types. A dominance of one type of rock in a soil will alter the growing conditions of the vine and ultimately, the final wine. In Alsace, there are six distinct families of soils and within those, dozens of subtle variants.

Maurice Barthelmé from Albert Mann revealing the _dirt_ about The Granc Cru Hengst

Maurice Barthelmé from Albert Mann revealing the dirt about The Granc Cru Hengst

So you get everything from granite to limestone, volcanic to shale, sand to marl. In practical terms the result is that the same grape can show very different personalities. Grown in granite, expect floral and fruity aromas and a delicate acidity. A slate soil will be very austere, and more dominated by acid. Limestone brings citrus notes and depending on the amount of clay will bring more or less body.

The grapes

When you travel through Chablis, with its one grape variety and one soil type, you are tasting how chardonnay changes its expression depending on subtle variations in exposition and climate.

In Alsace, there are five main grapes: riesling, muscat, pinot blanc, pinot gris and gewurztraminer. There is also excellent pinot noir and auxerrois which is often blended in with pinot blanc and sylvaner. That’s eight different varieties for only 15,000 hectares of vines. Burgundy, excluding Beaujolais, has roughly twice as much vineyard but grows predominately two grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir.

Riesling growing in the Steinart Grand Cru

Riesling growing in the Steinart Grand Cru

There are also different perspectives on what is “ripe.” Some winemakers are looking for botryitis, or noble rot, in their wines so they tend to have some sweetness. Others are pushing for as dry as possible, which is definitely more a tendency, especially amongst the younger winemakers. Both are great, but again, very different wines.

So herein lies the dilemma. A riesling, for example, can be grown in a wide variety of soils, harvested at different levels of ripeness, and made in a wide variety of ways. How can you possibly say it is “one thing.” You simply can’t.

The people

In my many travels, I have never witnessed a place with such an interesting and deeply rooted culture. They have so much in common with each other, such pride, yet can have such different visions.

It is a region of intense religiosity and spirituality. Both Catholic and Protestant influences can be seen everywhere. It is the meeting ground of the Latin and Germanic cultures. The region has bounced back and forth between German and French control to the point that even their traditional dialect is a blend of German and French.

How complex are Alsatian soils_ Pierre Gassmann showing me 20 different rock types collected around his village

Pierre Gassmann showing me 20 different rock types collected around his village

One of the results of this mix of French rationalism and love for terroir, and the more Germanic love for nature, is that Alsace is one of the most environmentally conscious regions I have ever visited. It is the spiritual home for bio-dynamic grape growing. Organic viticulture is more the rule here than the exception.

So in the spirit of embracing the plurality of expressions and the complexity, suffice to say that centuries of wine making history, combined with the world’s greatest soils and noble grapes which are perfectly adapted to the terroir, no matter what you find in your glass, there’s a good chance it will be very worthy of your interest.

For those of you new to Alsace, a great place to start is with a blend. While each winery does it differently, what is often labelled “Gentil” must be composed of a minimum of 50% riesling, muscat, pinot gris and/or gewurztraminer. Try the 2012 Trilogie from Barmes-Buecher for its minerality and reserved fruit, or the more expressive, fruitier and slightly sweet 2014 Black Tie from Pfaffenheim.

Domaine Barmès Buecher Trilogie 2012Pfaffenheim Black Tie Pinot Gris Riesling 2014 Josmeyer Mise Du Printemps Pinot Blanc 2014 Trimbach Pinot Blanc 2014 Domaine Albert Mann Pinot Gris Grand Cru Hengst 2012

With snow crab being in season, time to go pinot blanc. Delicate and nuanced, it will support the sweet and subtle flesh of the crab to perfection. If you can find a bottle, try the 2014 Mise de Printemps from Josmeyer. Simply put, an extraordinary wine. A classic which once again does the job well, the 2014 Pinot Banc from Trimbach won’t let you down.

Pinot gris is the most mysterious of the Alsatian grapes. The Grand Cru wines can lived for decades, and properly should be drunk after a decade in bottle as time allows for them to “eat up” their sweetness and develop amazing complexity. If you are into cellaring wines, then pick up a few bottles of the 2012 Grand Cru Hengst from Albert Mann. This is a beast with its apricot and lemon notes and is so richly textured. A touch more accessible, the 2013 Loberger Weingarten is a touch leaner yet shows great finesse. If you want it completely dry, then pick up the great gris from Leon Beyer.

Now on to riesling. Sadly, just last week we learned that Etienne Hugel passed away. He was a great ambassador for both his family estate and for the wines of Alsace in general. One of my go-to wines has always come from Hugel. Their basic riesling is dry and mineral, but with texture – classic Alsace riesling. And the 2014 lives up to its reputation. If you want a wine with more texture and just a bare hint of sweetness, the 2014 Vignoble d’E from Ostertag is an excellent wine, and ideal for a spicy stir fry.

Domaine J. Loberger Pinot Gris Weingarten 2013 Léon Beyer Pinot Gris 2013 Hugel Riesling 2014 Vignoble d'E from Ostertag Jean Louis Schoepfer Gewurztraminer 2014 Domaine Weinbach Cuvée Théo Gewurztraminer 2014

And finally, for you fans of powerful wines with no lack of aromatics, two gewurztraminers that are textbook. The 2014 from Jean Louis Schoepfer is quite dry but does not lack in texture but shows nicely restrained aromas. If you want a more classic gewurz, which shows layers of richness, spice and fruit, then look no further than the 2014 Cuvee Theo from Weinbach. In my books, one of the classic expressions of the grape. Bring on the Munster cheese.


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

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Castello di Gabbiano Riserva Chianti Classico 2012

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John Szabo’s Free Run – Digging for Minerality

By John Szabo MSAugust 24, 2015


John Szabo MS

John Szabo MS

There’s ample anecdotal and empirical evidence that soils affects the smell, taste and texture of wine. Scientists, however, still struggle to pinpoint exactly why and how these differences arise – the direct and indirect effects of soil chemistry on wine are challenging to identify and even harder to quantify with scientific certainty. It’s nearly impossible to isolate soil mineral content alone as the difference between the chemical content of wines, as the number of variables is staggering. But knowing empirically that soils play an important role, it seems impossible not to attribute and connect differing characteristics to a wine’s geological origins, sketchy science and all.

Under the umbrella of minerality, myriad geological formations such as slate, shale, schist, granitic, basalt, tuff, limestone, chalk, river bed and countless more have been called into action to explain the unique flavor profile that certain, invariably much admired, wines have. How else to distinguish the very good from the very best in an ever-increasing worldwide offering? Wines with minerality have a sacred link to their place of birth, presumably thanks to the special geology of their origins, and are thus more valuable than other wines. The trouble is, there’s very little evidence to support this. Yet scientists be damned. So far, their efforts to explain wine character have been as effective as the laws of physics have been to explain psychology. Minerality does exist, but perhaps not in the way you thought.

Defining Minerality

The main trouble with the term minerality is that it has no definition. There’s no consensus among either winemakers or wine tasters on what exactly constitutes minerality. Researcher Jordi Ballester at the Centre des Sciences du Goût in Dijon among others has studied the use of the term, and found widespread differences in a large sampling of tasters in when and how it was applied. For some it’s an aroma (flint, wet stones, riverbed, oyster shell, etc.), for others it’s a taste (salty, metallic, or a particularly vibrant type of acidity). Yet others claim to detect minerality in the texture of a wine, offering supporting terms like chalky or granitic, which evoke additional geological mental images.

What it Isn’t

What is abundantly clear is that minerality doesn’t exist in the literal sense. The above-mentioned characteristics don’t arise directly from geological minerals in wine, as nice and neat as that would be. Alex Maltman, Professor of the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences at the University of Wales, is a well-known debunker of the minerality myth, and has written convincingly on the impossibility of actually tasting minerals in wine. “Whatever minerality is, it cannot literally be the taste of minerals derived from the vineyard geology”, he concludes. Minerals themselves have no taste. According to Maltman, the levels of even the most abundant elements in wine like calcium, potassium, sodium and magnesium are present at sub-threshold levels: “Potassium rarely exceeds a few hundred parts per million (ppm) with a few tens of ppm for calcium and magnesium… these are tasteless anyway and their concentration in wine are below sensory thresholds measured in water. In fact, the total inorganic content of wines typically ranges between only 0.15 and 0.4%”, he continues. Categorically, says Maltman, there is no direct link between rocks and wine flavour.

Professor Alex Maltman

Professor Alex Maltman excitedly debunking minerality at the i4c conference in Niagara this past July 2015. Photo credit: Steven Elphick (L) @TheWineSisters (R)

As he and others quite rightly point out, the aromas and flavours associated with minerality – seashells or gunflint or wet stones or whatever – are due to organic compounds, not the minerals these things are made of. But unlike, say, descriptions such as “vanilla” or “butter” or “green pepper” for which scientists have identified the main source compounds that cause these sensations in wine (vanillin, diacetyl and methoxypyrazines, respectively), the compounds responsible for “minerally” flavours aren’t as clear. Plenty of suspects have been put forth, such as volatile sulphur compounds derived from reductive winemaking (flinty, matchstick), or the esters formed by the interaction of alcohol and organic acids, or volatile thiols, the precursors for which are naturally present in certain grapes (such as Benzenemethanethiol (BMT) in sauvignon blanc, which apparently smells like gunflint). Of course none of these derive directly from soil. And logically, until everyone agrees on what minerality is, a single cause for it can’t be found.

So really, it’s time to redefine minerality. It doesn’t arise from a collection of measurable inorganic chemicals, sucked from rocks through vine roots and finishing up in a glass of wine to give it a special taste.

Metaphorical Minerality

But scientists have missed the point, missing the forest for all the trees. Minerality needn’t be taken so literally. All wine description is based on metaphor and analogy – there’s no other way to describe a sensory experience. And science is incapable of expressing such things in a helpful way. When a wine is described as floral or peachy, no one thinks for a moment that flowers or peaches were used in its production. Similarly, “minerality” and all its variations are helpful to describe and convey differences, and even suggest the quality associated with a distinctive personality, without implying that geological minerals somehow ended up in the wine.

Minerality is a useful umbrella term to describe wines that don’t fall into basic fruity, floral or spicy categories. There will probably always be multiple definitions. Its derivatives help further express even finer nuances. Used metaphorically, it’s as valid and useful at expressing the essence of a wine as any other descriptive term. Just be clear on how it’s used.

And Besides, Minerals do Affect Flavour!

Although the connection between a sensation of minerality in wine and vineyard geology cannot be literal and direct, we shouldn’t give up on minerals affecting wine flavor just yet. Not even Maltman closes the door on the role of mineral nutrients: “It may turn out with further research that the nutrient minerals of geological origin in vines and wines − minuscule in concentration and virtually flavourless though they may be themselves – are pivotal in determining wine character and flavour.” I know a thousand winemakers who would agree.

Citing just one of the possible ways in which minerals might influence flavour, Dr. Jamie Goode points out that it seems plausible, even likely, that varying concentrations of mineral nutrients could alter gene expressions in the vine, and hence the chemical composition of its grapes and the wines made from them.

I’d argue, contrary to Maltman, that there are cases in which elements like potassium, magnesium and iron do affect wine taste and flavour, and likely texture, too. In my travels and research for my upcoming book on wines from (invariably mineral-rich) volcanic soils, I’ve come across many examples of notably salty wines, my personal signature for minerality, a sensation too temptingly linked to particularly high levels of soil potassium. And I’ve seen the chemical analyses that also show shockingly high levels of potassium in the finished wines. Could the saltiness be potassium in its salt form, even if some would precipitate out during winemaking? It’s worth further investigation. (In some cases, admittedly, the salty sensation comes from run-of-the-mill sodium chloride from high water tables, or comes right out of thin air, deposited directly on grapes in seaside vineyards.) In another interesting twist, high potassium in soils is known to buffer wine acids and raise pH, yet the best of these wines remain fresh, thanks at least in part to their salinity – perhaps it’s that tangy, electric acid sensation that many associate with minerality.

Chemical analysis on Olivier Humbrecht’s masterful Riesling Rangen de Thann Grand Cru from Alsace, a “terroir” wine if there ever was one, also had measurably more mineral ash (sugar-free dry extract) than rieslings from his other sites. Is the wine distinctive? You bet. Does the mineral ash play a role? Unquestionably.

The influence of soil chemistry is surely complex and circuitous and much research is needed, but in the end “minerality” makes its contribution. There’s simply too much evidence to ignore. All those winemakers and wine tasters claiming that the geology influences flavour may one day be scientifically vindicated after all. But in the end, who cares. Let’s just go and have a glass of singular, minerally wine.

Szabo’s Guide to Minerally Wines:

Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett 2012

Benjamin Bridge Nova Scotia Brut 2009

Benjamin Bridge Nova Scotia Brut 2009, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia, Canada – Yes, Nova Scotia does minerality, especially in the careful hands of Benjamin Bridge, one of Canada’s most serious bubbly producers. Each year the vineyard team turns in grapes with the sort of analytical numbers that are dreamed of in champagne. Even this, their non-reserve brut, has surprising weight and even a touch of fat – call it vinosity – to soften the stony impact.

Maximin Grünhäuser 2012 Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany – A dazzling Mosel Kabinett from arch-traditionalist Maximin Grünhäuser, barely off-dry but balanced by crackling acids, driven more by honey-slathered wet slate than mere fruit. Best 2015-2027.

Argyros 2014 Santorini Assyrtiko, Greece – A superb Santorini, bone dry with electric acids, and a finish that shows the future salinity that will dominate this wine in time, in another 1-3 years, along with the ash taste that marks so many volcanic wines.

Domaine Laroche 2013 Chablis Saint Martin, Burgundy, France – Regionally accurate and representative wine here from Domaine Laroche, on the broader side of the Chablis spectrum, fullish and ripe, but still sufficiently tight and minerally to satisfy purists.

Domaine Drouhin 2012 Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Oregon, USA – A fleshy and fullish, well-balanced and generously proportioned pinot noir from the iron rich, red volcanic soils of the Dundee Hills, with distinctive sanguine tang and salinity.

Argyros Santorini Assyrtiko 2014 Domaine Laroche Chablis Saint Martin 2013Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir 2012Aglianico del Vulture Elena Fucci Titolo 2011Fontanafredda Barolo 2010

Elena Fucci 2011 Aglianico Del Vulture Titolo, Basilicata, Italy – Titolo, the sole wine made from Fucci’s 6 hectares – among of the highest and oldest vines on Mount Vulture, an extinct volcano – is an extraordinarily dense and complete wine, with a staggering streak of iron-graphite like minerality and palpable saltiness. Don’t touch for several years. (The equally excellent 2012 is available in consignment in Ontario through Le Sommelier).

Fontanafredda 2010 Barolo, Piedmont, Italy – A terrific buy for Barolo fans, and indeed for fans of all savoury, firmly structured, minerally, complex and succulent reds. This is the best yet from Fontanafredda.

Bonus Round

I asked several Oregonian winemakers for their thoughts on minerality. Here are a few of the more interesting answers:

“I use the term minerality to describe aromas and tastes that remind me of rock (flint, chalk, crumbled stone). Unlike “earthiness,” which is deeper in tone, minerality is a high note that is often accentuated by a resonant “electricity” in the wine, often (but not always) related to the acid backbone.” – Anthony King, (formerly of Lemelson Vineyards)

“It smells like minerals/stone. Sometimes it is almost dusty and sometimes it smells like the first rain on dry rocks. Elusive. Am aware of a growing number of voices declaring that there is no such thing. I think that there is-I can smell it and I know what minerals and rocks smell like, but like so many words, it has been overused ad nauseam. There is no way words can accurately describe this quality.” – Kelley Fox, Kelley Fox Wines

“One aspect of complexity is certainly minerality, though I admit that the word is probably used to describe many different things.  Some sites are generally fruit-driven, but many of our vineyards show earthy aromas and flavors that range from dark, loamy earth to wet stones.  We tend to use the word minerality to describe the more ‘wet stone’ style of earth.  We see it in many varieties, usually from volcanic sites. It seems to be more than just an aroma or flavor.  At its best, it seems to also be part of the structure and texture of the wine, a quality that you can feel as well as taste.” – Dave Paige, Adelsheim

Keep digging.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

NOVA 7 - The Toast of Nova Scotia

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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.”


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.


“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
Marc Kreydenweiss
Marcel Deiss
Rolly Gassmann

Christophe Erhard, JosMeyer 1 Kreydenweiss Labels 1

Very Good Producers

Barmès – Buecher
Bernard Schoffit
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 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



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


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


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

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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