In Pursuit of Alsatian Richne

jessAs producers of the relatively rare grape Roussanne, we’re obsessed with creating rich white wine structured by a mineral-driven backbone. Because we lack crowds of Roussanne peers, we seek outside reference points. Among those we can learn from are the winemakers of Alsace who focus 90% of their vineyards on whites.

The combination of weight and acid is rare, as most whites either slice through the palate linearly; or, they generously fill the mouth with fat textures. American wine drinkers often staunchly stick to one style or the other, stating they either like “light, crisp, refreshing whites” or in the other camp “big, oaky, creamy whites”.
Alsatian Rieslings offer the best of both worlds. The richness and depth of the wine allows for layers of complexity, while the acid lends an addictively savory finish. The region’s premium Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, and Gewurztraminer also offer this appeal in an even thicker, more coating profile.

We rode the TGV from Paris to Strasbourg and then drove south along the German border to our hotel in Colmar. We arrived hungry.

The cuisine in the area runs as rich as the wine. Foie Gras and Pate appear on every menu, and the Sommeliers recommend aged Pinot Gris to pair. Elsewhere around the world, Sommeliers pair Foie Gras with our L’Avion, especially in French-Fusion restaurants in Japan.
Alsatian Gewurztraminer stands up to Venison stew, duck, and other main courses. And a mature Riesling is almost as versatile a food wine as Champagne! We passionately jumped into old vintages that appeared in droves at reasonable prices on every Carte du Vin.

Today, most wine enthusiasts assume that malic acid dominates bright, crisp wines; while lactic acid prevails in any richer wine. Likewise, folks usually assume that rich wines are aged in oak. So how do Alsatian producers make wines both rich and crisp?

At Domaine Ostertag, we learned that Riesling is treated differently than the other Alsatian varietals. Because it is naturally soft and approachable when young, Oxygen exposure would prematurely tire the wine.
Today, all producers house their Riesling in stainless steel tanks, rather than risk any breathing through oak. Stainless steel fermentation gives young Riesling a pure, fresh aromatic profile, which becomes piercingly precise with age. After maturing without air; the approachability quotient shifts to austerity; almost as if the wine has been raised through years of extreme discipline. The severe treatment of the wine helps Riesling to live perhaps longer than any other white varietal on the planet. Behind the pulled-tight curtain of austerity are deep layers of complex flavors that slowly unlock up to hours after opening.
While Ostertag Riesling sees no oak, malic acid is allowed to completely convert to creamy lactic acid in every vintage. The perception of acid has less to do with malolactic conversion percentages and more to do with a wine’s terroir and time of picking.
While not Ostertag’s most prestigious bottle, I thought the Heissenberg vineyard produced a very interesting Riesling as not only is it made in a suffocating method, but the vineyard lies in a foothill canyon of the Vosges Mountains where no wind relieves the vines from the scorching days. Instead of the fresh fruit of the other Ostertag Rieslings, the Heissenberg shows an intriguing orange peel character.

While Andre Ostertag starves his Riesling of air in tanks, he takes the opposite approach with his other varietals. Pinot Gris and Muscat behave more like Roussanne fruit, in that the subtly beautiful aromas must be coaxed out of them through controlled exposure to air. To allow these varietals to breathe, they must be aged in oak barrels.
Ostertag’s Zellberg vineyard lies on almost the exact soil composition as Stolpman Vineyards: Limestone with a bit of clay. The high-toned mineral Pinot Gris is given more structure through 15% new oak. The 2012 vintage smells of fresh nectarines and tastes like dried apricots. It will be interesting to see how those primary fruit flavors flesh out to become a luxurious Foie Gras accoutrement as anticipated.
At their end of harvest celebration, the Ostertag team opened a bottle of 1982 Chapoutier Hermitage Blanc. They observed how the Rhone grapes get richer and riper with age, much like their barrel aged varietals. For those of us who grew up on Italian Pinot Grigio, one really has to taste a wine like the Zellberg to understand the grape’s connection to Alsatian Foie Gras and Northern Rhone white wine.

When we arrived to Barmes Buecher Winery after lunch and a beautiful drive further South along the Alsace wine trail; we told Genevieve Barmes how much we were enjoying trying old vintages with our meals. The old wines flower to opulently stretch through the mouth with beautiful integration of nose, body, and finish.

She was relieved by our raving and explained that the wine world has become warped. “Today, impatient people drink wines too early and too many wine drinkers are afraid to let white wines age. Wine critics are so eager they ask to rate the wines that are still fermenting.”
We toured the winery as fermentation bubbled all around us. Like at Stolpman Vineyards, Genevieve explained that the different varietals allow for a long harvest. Grapes for Cremant are picked first, followed by Muscat, Pinot Gris, and finally Riesling and Gewurztraminer. The gradual harvest allows the winery to handle the wine in small lots with plenty of care. In 2001, Barmes Buecher was the first Alsatian winery to purchase a sorting table to further pursue quality.
Genevieve, the matronly advocate of patience, only opened white wines from 2009 or older to taste. The wines showed young, zesty, and powerful; and across the board, will get better and better with age.
As we tasted a huge line-up of wines, Genevieve explained more about the AOC. All of the Grand Cru Vineyards face south, and the sweeter wines, Vendages Tardives and Selection de Grains Nobles, must be officially measured and certified the morning of harvest. The list of Grand Cru vineyards was expanded for a third time in 2007, and while all of the wines we tasted from these vineyards were great, I’m not fully convinced that these South facing sights are significantly superior then many others.
For instance, one of our favorite Barmes Buecher wine was the Leimenthal Vineyard Riesling. We liked it for its lemon lime and spicy profile which wasn’t as ripe as the Grand Cru Steingrubler.

The Lay of the Land
Alsace lies in the eastside foothills of the Vosges mountains. The overall terroir is pretty easy to understand, the Vosges Mountains provide shelter from storms, and without rain, the grapes get extremely concentrated. Also, because the area lies South of German Riesling vineyards, the wines possess further sun-endowed richness.

After trying so many wines from North to the South of the large region, and still on California time, Jessica and I took a pre-dawn hike up the Vosges to get a panoramic view of the vineyards. Ancient castles sit on almost every peak, where they once guarded the passes across the range. We arrived at one such fortress just as day broke behind us over Germany. We sipped the Leimenthal Riesling and watched as the sun illuminated the valley mist and chased the shadows from of the western vineyards.

Sitting on top of the castle’s tower, I reflected on everything we had learned. The Alsatian wine industry, situated in an area so rich in history, has now gone through a revolution of its own with the widespread implementation of stainless steel tank aging for Riesling. The introduction of sorting tables, beginning only 12 years ago, ushered in another age of higher quality. The Grand Cru designations will very well change again.
Despite the increasing dedication to quality, almost across the board, Alsatian wines remain extremely affordable. One doesn’t need to spring for a Grand Cru, and even if you do, they’re a fraction of a Grand Cru Burgundy. Perhaps Alsace is the appropriate wine region to teach wine drinkers of the world that great whites don’t have to be just crisp or rich; they can be both.