Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Masterclass

Jolene Hunter, the South African born winemaker at renowned Alsace producer Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, was in town recently to present a selection of their wines in a terroir masterclass.

Zind Humbrecht

Although the individual families have been making wine since the 17th century, the modern day story really begins in 1959 when Léonard Humbrecht married Geneviève Zind.  Since this time the Domaine has grown to hold 40 hectares, including some of the very best parcels in Alsace’s top Grand Cru and Lieu Dit sites.

Now run by Léonard’s son Olivier (one of the rare number of winemakers who also holds the MW qualification), the Domaine is well known for its non-interventionist policies and have long practiced organic procedures.  The Domaine was certified fully biodynamic in 2002.

Rather than simply presenting us with a handful of the circa 30 wines in their portfolio, we were specifically comparing three grape varieties (Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer) across two different Alsatian terroirs.

Windsbuhl

Clos Windsbuhl

Clos Windsbuhl is the more northern of the two sites and situated in Hunawihr.  The vines are spread over 5.5 hectares and planted at 350 metres above sea level which, when paired with the moderating effects from the great swathes of forest to the west, keeps the vines nicely cooled throughout the warm growing season.

The soil here is known as muschelkalk which is an extremely old form of limestone, and the resultant wines are full of clean and pure fruit expressions with well-defined acidity.

Zind Humbrecht Riesling 2014, Clos Windsbuhl, Alsace, 12.5%

Medium straw yellow in colour and with a deep citrus nose.  Rich gloopy palate full of creamy lemon, honey and white pepper.  A very precise streak of acidity cuts through the weight keeping this well balanced.

Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris 2012, Clos Windsbuhl, Alsace ,13%

Strict sorting was required in the ripe vintage of 2012 and this ripeness was very evident on the nose.  With a similar youthful colouring to the Riesling, the nose here had touches of peach skin to the green notes of lime and apple.  The palate was slightly sweetened by the 36.5 grams of residual sugar and had a fleshy lemon curd quality.  Very clean and intense fruits played the lead here against a mellow acidity.

Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer 2013, Clos Windsbuhl, Alsace ,13%

Golden in colour, the nose of this wine was full of sweet honey and lemon and extremely powerful.  A nice and firm weight in the mouth, the lemon citrus took the lead here backed up by green flesh on the end palate.  Like the Pinot Gris before it, a mellow acid took the rear and allowed the ripe fruit to sing on its own.  Very refreshing.

Thann

Rangen

We move south now to Rangen, and more specifically to the Clos Saint Urbain, which is the only site in the whole of Alsace that is fully classified as Grand Cru.  Sites are on very steep slopes here and are all fully worked by hand as mechanisation is impossible.

The soil is mainly composed of volcanic black rocks and fragments known as Grauwacke which brings out stronger, denser fruits and darker smoky notes.  The darker direction of the wine is also immediately visible in the more golden colouring.  The rocky fragments heat up quickly in the day warming the grapes and concentrating the sugars.  Once again the cooling effect of the high altitude, and the cool night temperatures allow sufficient acidity to remain.

Zind Humbrecht Riesling 2014, Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Urbain, Alsace, 12.5%

2014 was a good vintage here and this resulting wine possesses a gold colour and lighter body.  The palate is lean, with a pin-point acidity matching up to the strong green lime and smoky notes.

Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris 2012, Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Urbain, Alsace, 14.5%

Golden green in colour, the nose of this wine was full of creamy citrus lemon and lime.  On the palate this is joined by fleshy apple flesh, cream, white pepper spice, and hints of peach.  Rich and smooth with a mellow, but defined, acid.  Fleshy palate, rich and smooth.

Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer 2013, Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Urbain, Alsace, 13.5%

Deep golden yellow in colour, the nose was full of sweet honey and lime nose, and a blossom fragrance.  Made from 34 year old vines, and with 42 grams of residual sugar, this was intense and sweet but not at all cloying.  Lots of deep honey and textured lemon.

Selection Grains Nobles (SGN)

One final comparison came in the form of the sweeter SGN style.  Made from strictly selected berries that have been affected by noble rot, these partially raisined grapes lose their water content leaving the rich and concentrated sugars.  SGN is the highest rating of late harvest wine in Alsace.

Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl SGN 2008, 10.8%

2008 was a good year for producing SGN wine as the weather was wet in the summer and then dry before harvest allowing the rot to stop and the rasining to commence.

Bronze in colour with very pronounced toffee and sweet honey on the nose, the dense weight was at no point cloying, and the high acid well balanced the ripe fruits of lemon citrus and green apple.  More matured fruit notes from dried pineapple and lemon curd.  Very long finish.

Pinot Gris Rangen de Thann Clos Saint Urbain SGN 2009, 11.8%

This wine was more of a deep gold in colour (the effect of the volcanic soil).  On the nose there was toffee, bruised and brown apple and light florality.  The palate was just like drinking liquid toffee and extremely satisfying.  Creamy and sugary, the acid was more towards medium in this wine and the overall sensation was nicely rounded.  Very long finish and extremely pleasant wine to finish on.

With thanks to Gonzalez Byass for the tickets to their portfolio tasting and Domaine Zind Humbrecht masterclass.

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Bitesize: Alsace

Bitesize is an occasional series providing regional over-views, learning aids, and key statistics in under 1000 words

Alsace

Tucked away on the eastern border of France sits the wine region of Alsace. Quite distinct from other French wine regions, it’s recognisable for its use of certain grapes not found elsewhere in France, Germanic flute style bottles, and wines labelled by grape variety as opposed to the regional French style (Bordeaux, Burgundy etc.). Alsace owes this cross-pollination of French-German culture down to its position, resting as it does between the natural boundary of the Vosges mountain range, and the political boundary of the River Rhine. Aside from times of occupation, Alsace has always been a part of France, and the residents proudly consider themselves French, but from the names of their towns (e.g. Riquewihr), top producers (e.g. Zind-Humbrecht, Hugel, Trimbach) and timber framed structures of their housing, there is a resolutely Germanic feel to the place.

Whilst the Vosges Mountains may act as a barrier between Alsace and the rest of France, this range is key to its success, acting as a barrier and trapping approaching rain clouds. Outside of Perpignan in the south of France, this makes it the driest area in the country, guaranteeing long warm growing seasons and well ripened grapes. Alsace sits at the northern limit of grape production (the Champagne region only marginally trumps it to being the most northerly of French vineyards), and when you add that cool climatic influence to the rain-free sunshine enjoyed by the area you have a unique micro climate. Whilst the heat in Perpignan traditionally produces robust reds and rustic whites, Alsace can deliver medium bodied, clean fruit-forward white wines with refreshing acidity. Malolactic is avoided by keeping wines cool and sulphured and, although matured in barrel, no oak influence is imparted as the barrels are decades old. Wines are bottled within a year of harvest to maximise the freshness.

Alsace has a few thousand individual/family growers owning small inherited parcels of land, but over 90% of the wines produced come from just 220 companies. The vineyards of Alsace are at 200-400 metres above sea level, and run in a 100 kilometre north-south strip, split in to two regions – Bas Rhin (Lower Rhine) and Haut Rhin (Upper Rhine). Confusingly, as you look at a map, the Bas (Lower) Rhin is in the north of the country and the Haut (Upper) Rhin is in the south. Whilst great wines can be made in the Bas-Rhin, it is the Haut-Rhin that produces the finest wines as this is where the Vosges Mountains come in to their central and highest point. The vineyards nestle up in to the foothills receiving the best protection from the elements, getting good drainage, and excellent eastern exposure to the rising sun.

The soils in Alsace are something of a mosaic (the by-product of geological fault lines below the region), underpinned by the granitic base of the Vosges, and more akin to the nearby German region of Baden, than any French region. Regional body CIVA (Le Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace) lists 13 different soils, including schist, Sandstone, Limestone, Marl, Clay, Loess and Loam to name a few. Each of these soil types will pair better with a particular grape variety and producers continue to investigate the combinations to unlock the full potential of the region. 90% of the production here is for white wines (the remainder being red wine from Pinot Noir) and, in essence, two levels of grapes exist:

Noble Varieties: Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat

Other Varieties: Chasselas, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay

Only the noble varieties are able to produce Grand Cru wines, whilst the other supporting varieties will be used in Gentil (50% of the blend will be Noble varieties) or Edelzwicker (Noble mixture). In reality, noble grapes can be used in Edelzwicker, but in practice this is very rare. It’s interesting to note that Riesling and Gewurtztraminer are not grown elsewhere in France and owe more to the German/Austrian influence, although the style of wine remains French (being fat and plump as opposed to the lean German style).

The classification structure is also of interest, especially for a French region, as these are often rigorously delineated. The whole of Alsace is covered by a regional AC (Appellation Controlée) and this accounts for 75% of production, but there is no level in-between that and Grand Cru wine (a single vineyard, single vintage from one noble grape variety) which accounts for 4% of production. It simply cuts from either being a top wine, to a standard wine. Wine laws for Alsace were put together fairly recently with the regional AC in place from 1962, Grand Cru added in 1975, and Cremant d’Alsace (21% of production) added in 1976. With the region producing wine for as long as any area in France, the late creation of the wine laws may have actually been down to the region itself. The grapes produced in the super sunny conditions were routinely transported to other French regions to round out blends where grapes had failed to ripen.

Thanks to the guaranteed lengthy growing season there are also two types of late harvest wines produced – Vendange Tardive and the even rarer Sélection de Grains Nobles. These wines are produced from extra ripened grapes that are picked something like 3 weeks after standard grapes, giving a noticeably sweeter wine.

Whilst some were initially put off of Alsatian wines due to the legal requirement that they are bottled in flute bottles (which for some linked the wines to the unpopular sweet wines of Germany), times have changed and the wines of Alsace are now fully appreciated as unique and expressive varietal wines. 75% of production slakes the domestic French thirst, whilst the remaining 25% is exported, the main markets being Europe (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark) and the USA/Canada.

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