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 ‘Lost’ wine region

For some time now I’ve been intrigued by the ‘Kimmeridgian Chain’ – numerous vineyards set within a belt of distinct soil (AKA Terres Blanches), that diagonally cuts its’ way across northern France (see picture below). The belt itself is a by-product of a geological feature known as the Paris basin – plates of land staggering progressively inwards. As part of this sagging process, a defined strata of land became exposed between two layers; an older Jurassic era ridge of crushed marine deposits, comprising a hard limestone top on a chalky marl base (marl is composed of lime-rich clay and silt). The name Kimmeridgian is said to originate from the village of Kimmeridge in Dorset,England where there is a well exposed coastline of similar age and soil composition.

map b

The distinct soil mix brings differing attributes to resulting wines, even those produced in the same wine regions, but not within the belt. In some cases, different grape varieties are used to compliment the soil variation. This being the case, why were these unique vineyards simply swallowed up in to other wine regions? Regions that are many miles away, across land not used for viticulture. Given that the French invented the concept of terroir – that the place is so important to the wines it produces – and that the French have the most delineated wine/land appellation system in the world, why were these areas not grouped together by themselves to form a new region?

Within this belt we find:

– The Aube – The southern vineyards of the Champagne region

– Central Vineyards (AKA Sancerre, Pouilly, and several other village sites) – The eastern end of the Loire

– Chablis – The extreme northern part of Burgundy

Parent region has had little effect on the reputations of world famous places such as Sancerre, Pouilly (as in Fumé) and Chablis. This fame though, is largely down to the unique expressions of the crisp white wines produced, and this stems from the unique soil. Chablis sits 75 vine-free miles north of the Cóte de Nuits in Burgundy, and the towns of Sancerre/Pouilly are about the same distance away from the next vines in the Loire. With the Loire valley being over 170 miles in length you will naturally find numerous grape varieties, soil types, and even climatic influences, but Sancerre/Pouilly find themselves planted over to Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Noir as opposed to the main Loire white/red varieties of Chenin Blanc/Cabernet Franc. As the soils along the banks of the river have a greater composition of rock/schist compared to the chain, different varieties thrive. Co-incidentally, Decanter recently ran a feature on the red wines of Sancerre, suggesting they were more Burgundian in style, and unlike any red you would associate with the Loire.

In Chablis, they may use the Burgundian variety of Chardonnay, but they produce a very different style of wine. Chablis is widely respected for its crisp mineral whites full of refreshing acidity, and linear precision. This is streets away from the archetypal Burgundian Chardonnay; a deep brooding body with creamy/buttery textures from subtle oak barrel influence. Again this comes from differing production methods (favouring Stainless steel as opposed to barrel), and the unique terroir – the Chardonnay grape working magnificently on the cold limestone and clay.

It’s a different story when we look at the Aube in southern Champagne, as they haven’t yet managed to find real fame on their own merit. Just over 100 years ago, The Champenois – notorious for protecting their brand – drew up their permitted production zones, and excluded the Aube on the basis that their grapes were of a second standard (they had no Premier or Grand Cru sites). The Government even went as far as passing a bill to that effect but, unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with Aube vignerons, and the rioting that followed in 1911 saw a worried government hastily annul the original bill. The Aube were finally officially admitted in to the region in 1927, but their role has simply been to provide the grapes to round out Champagne blends. If the Aube vignerons hadn’t persisted in the uphill battle to be part of a region that was so dismissive of it, could they have pushed harder with their wines, achieving better than just producing grapes suitable to only form part of a blend? Being mainly planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both key components of Champagne, but having the clay based soil of the Kimmeridgian chain instead of the deep chalk found elsewhere in Champagne, they’re capable of producing a Pinot more Burgundian in style. A feature late last year by US publication Wine Spectator suggests that wines from the Aube are on the up, but time will tell.

Should these villages have historically clubbed together and formed a mini-region of their own to produce world class Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot and Chardonnay to rival their Burgundian neighbour? Perhaps, due to the fact that quality will always shine through, maybe it hasn’t mattered in which region they sit. It’s interesting to ponder.

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