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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The Chinese Way – Changyu Noble Dragon

Trying the ever-expanding line-up of weird and wonderful wines available has never been easier, and these days even the budget supermarkets have gotten in on the act with their ‘Discovery’ series (Aldi) and ‘Wine Atlas’ range (Asda).

I was surprised and very interested though to hear that Sainsbury’s had added a Chinese red wine to their range last month, which was then followed shortly after by a white wine from the same producer.  Initially something of a tie-in to Chinese New Year, they were available for a short period by a tempting introductory price which has now reverted back to a standard RRP.  For the time being then it seems that they will form part of their core range.

China can sometimes hit the wine headlines for the wrong reasons (not least the bottle forgery and rife counterfeiting that appears to go on), but very rarely get mentioned for the wines that they actually produce.  Always on the lookout for unique opportunities I decided to give them both a try.

Founded in 1892, Changyu is the oldest and largest winery in China, located in Yantai, a coastal region in the Shandong Province on the eastern side of the country.  The Noble Dragon brand was created in 1931 and so, even though these wines may be relatively new here in the UK (BBR stock a small range), there is still well over 80 years of winemaking experience being brought to the table.

Both of the bottles are smartly presented with sandy labels approximating the look of old parchment paper and the use of a traditional-looking scripted font.  The line drawing of their estate is akin to many an old-fashioned bottle label and perhaps hints at their love of all things Bordeaux.

changyu-red

Changyu ‘Noble Dragon’ Red Blend 2013, Yantai, China, 12%, £10

This red blend is mainly comprised of Cabernet Gernischt (aka Carménére) and complemented with both Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.  Cabernet Gernischt is something of a regional speciality and the sprawling 1400 hectares used by Changyu equates to 70% of the plantings in the whole of China.

On the nose there is pure, ripe juicy dark fruit of blackberry and redcurrant, followed up with a touch of smoke and the florals of both wood and vanilla (the wine is aged for 6 months in small oak barrels).

The palate, whilst full of all the dark fruit suspects you would expect from a triple-Cabernet blend (blackcurrant, black cherry, plums) was just a touch drying to my palate.

The fruit is well ripened and forms the backbone of what this wine is all about in the mouth, but the class and depth comes from the wood ageing and the Cabernet Franc which adds further perfume.

The acidity is prominent, just on the edge of too much, and the net result is that it feels a touch too thin.  This probably isn’t also helped by the modest alcohol level of 12%.

The end palate adds touches of bitter chocolate and coffee, but the fruit drifts and the overall length is quite short.  Whilst this is well made and representative of a soft fruit lighter bodied blend, I did find myself missing the crunchy fruits from a good Cabernet.

I’m very glad to have explored it at the introductory price of £8 which is about the right price to me for the style and character.  At the full price of £10 there would be other bottles ahead of it in the queue, so I’d be interested to see how well this sells to the general wine-buying public at that price-point.

changyu-white

Changyu ‘Noble Dragon’ Riesling, Yantai, China, 12%, £9

Riesling is another grape that thrives in Yantai and, when looking at the deep golden yellow colour of the wine, its surprising to discover there is no wood ageing involved.  There was also a slight spritz in the glass perhaps suggesting it was bottled fairly quickly after ferment.

The nose had a good tropical tone with dried pineapple, lemon citrus, and a touch of green apple flesh evident.  This wine is once again all about the ripe clean fruits, but is raised by a twist of blossom florality giving it some depth and interest.

The palate veered towards a sweeter Riesling style, and the low alcohol level probably helped to give it an off-dry feel.  A medium weight and almost golden gloopy texture brought forward the fruit from the nose and added in honeysuckle, yellow melon, and a little peach.  The fresh acid cut through, balancing the fruit and drew you towards a hint of bitterness (and perhaps slightly under ripe fruit) on end palate.

The wine had a good length with a slightly tangy nature, is priced well at £9, and pipped the red to be the best out of the two bottles.  Worth looking out for!

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Yalumba ‘Butcher, Baker & Winemaker’ dinner

Yalumba Dinner 1

Australian wine producer Yalumba were in London this week for their ‘Butcher, Baker and Winemaker’ dinner, and I was one of those lucky enough to have tickets. Bringing a touch of Barossa magic (and sunshine, as it happens) to Maida Vale gastropub The Truscott Arms, was Yalumba winemaker Louisa Rose, who has worked for the company for 22 years and has been chief winemaker since 2006.

The evening was scheduled to begin with canapés in the private garden terrace but, due to the waiters focusing on serving the Yalumba Y Series 2014 Riesling (no problems for me here!) and the growing number of people arriving (there were circa 40 in total) the goats cheese nibbles had only just arrived by the time we were all to be seated in their first floor private dining area.

Following greetings from Andrew Fishwick (owner of the Truscott Arms), Head Chef Aidan McGee (who regaled us with a strangely bizarre lecture on creating authentic bread), Louisa welcomed us to the evening, gave us an overview of Yalumba, and also provided an on-going rundown of the wines that were being poured for us. As an aside, I’ve written about Yalumba wines recently following a tasting panel, which you can find here.

The dinner itself consisted of 4 courses and 6 further wines to try. First up was a charcuterie plate (image, below left) consisting of pressed pork, potted duck, smoked pork, cured beef, celeriac, gherkins, capers and crispy sourdough. With this we were served a white wine and a red wine – respectively Eden Valley Viognier 2013 and Old Bush Vine Grenache 2013. Due to the sheer amount of different foods to be matched either with the white or the red wine, and trying to remain in the conversation with other guests, I must admit my tasting notes rather escaped me at this early point. Louisa was also still giving us an on-going dialogue, but what I do recall is her commenting on how Viognier is a great food wine, and that there isn’t really a bad pairing for it. Judging by the myriad of food that was quickly cleared from my plate, I’d have to agree.

Yalumba Dinner 2

It was then quickly on to the fish course (image above right, sorry – I started before I remembered to take a photo), and we were served Halibut in a Yalumba Roussanne reduction, with grapes, spinach and salsify. Naturally the wine served here was the Eden Valley Roussanne 2013. Like the Riesling and Viognier before it, the colour of the Roussanne was a vibrant green and yellow, almost luminous. The palate here was creamy fleshy green fruit, with a spice that really perked up the fish, and a great length. It’s lucky that I enjoyed the pairing, as my +1 sprang on me that they didn’t eat fish and so I ended up with two portions.

Yalumba Dinner 3

Next up was the main course (image, above left) of Beef cheek, carrots, spring greens and smoked mash. Paired with this we had two red wines; the Patchwork Barossa Shiraz 2013 and the Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2010. There were two standout food and wine pairings in the evening for me, and the Beef cheek, smoked mash and Cabernet Sauvignon was the first of these. The cheek was cooked to perfection and the creamy mash melded with both to create a rich and textured whole. On its own, this was the best wine of the evening (and probably not coincidentally, the most expensive at £30 a bottle)

The final course of the evening (image, above right) was English strawberries, lemon verbena curd, strawberry jam and ice cream. Paired with this we had the FSW8b Botrytis Viognier 2014 (FSW stands for Fine Sweet Wine). This was the second excellent food-wine match of the night for me, and the strawberries worked amazingly well with the luscious tropical sweetness. I was slightly miffed to see that our table mat (if you like) was a fill-in-form to be able to order any of the wines featured in the evening, which for me commercialises what is meant to be a social gathering, but it was extremely hard not to fill it in and buy some of this luscious sticky.

Although there were too many people in attendance to make this an intimate affair, the sheer unknown of your dinner companions was actually a great element, and I spent the evening happily chatting away with two chaps who worked behind the scenes at Majestic wine, learning a few things, and passing other knowledge back. Louisa did ask the gathered crowd on several occasions if they had any questions, but as is typical, very few put themselves out there to ask anything in front of that many people, and I did come away missing the one-on-one winemaker aspect that I felt this dinner had promised. That said, once dinner was over our hosts invited everyone downstairs to the main bar area to continue the drinking, but alas, my carriage awaited and I had to leave.

All in all a memorable night with great food, great wine and great company.

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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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