Grands Crus d’Alsace
March 3, 2009, 4:21 pm
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Yesterday at the Grand Hôtel Intercontinental near Opéra Garnier, I fell for pinot gris.  I had been tempted in Strasbourg in January, but I had mistrusted my palate.  After tasting more than fifty rieslings the day of the competition, I was easily distracted by its gorgeous fleur d’oranger nose and its beguiling tinge of pink.  Alsace is built on riesling however, and I was there to pass judgement on the new vintage.  

A similar message prevailed at the Grands Crus d’Alsace tasting in Paris.  Legally gewurztraminer, muscat and pinot gris can pour into a grand cru and there were interesting varietal examples of each.  But riesling is king here.  I warmed up on the parcours pédagogique, tasting a trio of blooming, abundant muscats  followed by frankly bizarre grapefruit and bubblegum sylvaner.

I fought my way for a glass at Clos Saint-Landelin and was generously rewarded.  René and Thomas Muré’s pinot gris was so supple, with unimposing acidity and a little sweetness, the 2007 was a real pleasure and the 2005 was even more delicate.  While neither were hugely open on the nose, Thomas told me 2007 would pay the greater reward for ten years cellaring.  Clos Saint-Landelin has been certified organic for twenty years and has recently jumped in to biodynamics in pursuit of deep roots and bright minerality.  The great biodynamic wines of Burgundy were an inspiration for the move, and the Murés have already noticed more upright vines, thicker leaves and increased resistance to botrytis.   

Jean-Michel Deiss

Domaine Marcel Deiss has ten years of experience of biodynamics and made the transition as part of “une démarche vers la qualité” –  a natural progression for winemakers continually improving their craft.  The Deiss rieslings, I am not the first to note, were extraordinary and reminded me why I was there.  The Schoenenbourg vineyard has a sulfur-rich chalk subsoil that fashions the profound structure of its wines; Mathieu Deiss told me that Schoenenbourgs consistently call for six or seven years to open on the nose.  The Altenberg de Bergheim, also 2005, was more inviting, a colleague called it the Sauternes of Alsace.  Very rich without being heavy, “scotché” or sticky (a term derived from Scotch/sellotape I understand) and much more open on the palate, which is attributed to its limestone upbringing.


Riesling du Monde
February 6, 2009, 2:41 pm
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Arriving typically late at the Strasbourg Riesling du Monde competition, I was seated at my judging table with two Mosel oenologues, an Alsatian maître de chai, an instructor from a start-up amateur wine school nearby and la Reine des Vignes, autrement dit Miss Riesling 2008.  While instructions continued from the podium, in german, I gleamed from the packet resembling a standardized test that I would be scoring samples on limpidity, appearance, purity, persistance, intensity and overall harmony, in visual, olfactory and palate categories.  From wandering glances at my neighbors’ papers, I think I just about passed this one.

Tasting was blind and never subsequently revealed.  After certain pours, we looked up and exchanged glances: This is real Riesling; This is a nuanced effort; This is lovely but this winemaker has never set foot on Alsace.  Typicity was a recurrent problem.  This was seemingly a silent tasting, but the fellowship between the German and Alsatian winemakers was evident whenever a riesling of suspected new world provenance surfaced.  The queen of the vine engaged studiously in the ceremony of swirl and sniff.  I tried to forge some camaraderie with the oenologues; I’m sure we felt similarly out of place.  Our panel deliberated thirty wines in total, mostly “correct” in the French context of being boring but unoffensive, with isolated gruff malic examples or cumbersome overripe banana.  

We submitted favorites to the top table jury, and I caught up with our head judge, Mosel-native Bohn Zell, maneuvering the language rift at the every-sample-submitted-is-on-the-table luncheon tasting.  He underscored his admiration for Alsatian riesling, highlighting similarities in the mineral content between the two regions, but reminded me that the geology of Alsace is uncommonly diverse.  I quietly sat in on the head judge deliberations, finding myself at table with a dozen mustached, bushy eyebrowed gents and Julie Andrews.  Numbers were called and recalled in french and german, bottles in black bags were scurried to the table, large noses were implanted in glasses, brows twitched, heads shook, “colle” (which as far as I can tell is glue) was lamented, and all of a sudden with murmurs of consent there were prize winning wines.

Eager to get my heels into some sable and cailloux, I joined the young queen and her dauphines on the bus, where they were sitting out an animated debate about whether or not “dauphine” meant princess.  Olivier Sengler came over to talk to me about gravel as we set off for the freshly minted AOC of Scherwiller.  The tightly packed tour bus was in high spirits after the sedate morning of judgement; we were sommeliers, viticulteurs, cavistes, and “des grands amateurs”, a great category of compatriot I come across often and enthusiastically.  

On the bus I learned that trellissing is very high here, maximizing photosynthesis in this cold region, that the sweeter the riesling the tougher the pairing (I should really have known that) and that every imaginable type of soil could be found in this valley (I knew this more or less from the topographic map on my wall in Paris).  I also discovered that Alsace is a key producer of hops, with a futures market for Strisselspalt, a varietal beloved by American homebrewers.  The village of St. Pierre in the distance was home to four or five microbreweries:  there is a well-hidden microbrewing subculture in France that is stumbled upon because I could not find it; in Paris good French beer is Belgian. We flew by the Kronenbourg brewery (“Hey, check out that nuclear reactor”) and pulled into our picturesque Alsatian host village, being told we were a reasonably important group and would behave like it.  “Discipline et serenité” – jeers – “Mais un peu quand même?”

La reine de la vigne et dauphines drinking riesling soup, Ortenberg in background

The prestige lieux-dits of Scherwiller are Rittersberg and L’Ortenberg, granite and flint-based respectively, surrounded by a lower-lying clay heavy domain.  Rittersberg produces a precise, likable pinot gris, while L’Ortenberg, a picturesque vineyard reaching up to its namesake 13th century castle, nurtures Scherwiller’s vin de garde, a fine, crisp riesling with a lucid expression of fruit.  We toured the sites in harvest wagons and were revived on the hilltop by generous servings of riesling soup, a broth based on veal stock, mushrooms, cream and naturally local riesling.  Invented some ten years ago (surely for groups like us), it is sold in the village next to jars of chocroute, but was probably never as delicious as that inclement January afternoon on the Ortenberg hillside.