Inspiration / Travels in Wine

4. Alsace star: Albert Boxler

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Joanna Goodman Joanna Goodman

Alsace star: Albert Boxler

Schoenenbourg vineyard
Waking up to the grand cru Schoenenbourg

Who is making some of the best wine in Alsace at the moment? Often the answer to this question is 'Albert Boxler'…

We base ourselves at the Schoenenbourg hotel in Riquewihr which I thought was just named after this famous grand cru. It was only in the morning when I opened my curtains I realised that the building is actually in the vineyard!

Anyway, it's a practical location and Riquewihr is picture-postcard perfect for the whole 'fairytale in Alsace' vibe. It's late to bed and early to rise to head out on the road to collect samples from a couple of our producers and spot more of Alsace's signature sights…the nesting storks amongst them which are actually more ubiquitous than I had thought.

There's gold in that there village!
Good morning Riquewihr – where’s the pot of gold?

Albert Boxler

Traditional earthenware jugs in the Boxler tasting room
Earthenware jugs in the Boxler tasting room

After a bit of running around in our hire car collecting boxes of samples we head to the cutesy village of Niedermorschmihr not far from Colmar and Domaine Albert Boxler. There's no sign of life when we arrive and we wonder whether we've got the time right. Eventually someone arrives from the cellar which is underneath the family home (and the vineyards stretch up from the back of the property). There's lots going on…a new storage cellar is being built and the car park is being expanded, there are diggers to contend with and the sounds of construction going on.

The chap from the cellars hurries up the stairs in search of Jean Boxler. We are shown into the tasting room next to the family's living rooms. Jean appears and says hello and then just as quickly disappears again. He seems a bit hassled! He comes back with glasses and bottles and a corkscrew; this is looking more promising! While he's gone we have time for a little look around at the lovely earthenware jugs traditional to Alsace and a beautiful oil painting on the wall.

Beautiful labels hand painted by the cousin of Jean's grandfather
Beautiful labels hand painted by the cousin of Jean's
grandfather

To my shame I hadn't really heard of Boxler wines before, but when I see the distinctive hand-painted design of the family's labels I do recognise it. It was a cousin of Jean's grandfather Albert who had painted them, and this same grandfather is the man who founded the estate, though the family had been vine growers here since the 1600s. Jean's great grandfather's family had a hotel and restaurant in the town as well as being vignerons. They made wine for the restaurant. Jean's grandfather had wanted to bottle the wines himself and it was he that bought the property that the family lives in today.

After the rather taciturn start to our meeting, Jean warms up telling us how it was Louis XIV who made great efforts to repopulate the area offering incentives for families to relocate from all over. The Boxlers came from Switzerland, ‘we were pretty lucky with the piece of land we got!’ Jean tells us.

The more wines Jean pours, the more he relaxes and gets almost chatty! He only rushes out of the room one more time (to quieten down his kids who are on school holidays and are climbing the walls next door!)

Amazing skies and slopes at Albert Boxler
Intricate parcels of vines and pretty skies at Albert Boxler

The soils here are quite different; mainly granitic with some limestone and the slopes are really steep. The Boxler way is to vinify different parts of the vineyard separately. They have a way of differentiating the various crus on their labels by using letters to get around the legislation.

So we taste a Pinot Blanc 'B' 2016 – the 'B' stands for the Brand grand cru, pinot blanc not being a valid grape for the cru denomination. It's a great introduction to the Boxler style, very pure with clean, attractive white-blossom aroma and a steely minerally core.

These are incredibly fine wines, there are lots of different cuvées – 15-20 but no more than 4,000 bottles made of any of these. As well as Brand, the other grand cru of significance is Sommersberg and Jean makes lots of different wines from this fantastic site – old vines, young vines, a wine from the hautes côtes and one from the lower parts.

We taste through them all and it's a fascinating education in how important the concept of terroir is. These wines are so pure tasting and ethereal. It's no wonder that during our stay here in Alsace when we ask other winemakers whose wines they admire, Jean Boxler is most often cited!

Perhaps more surprisingly, Jean is also part of Séverine Schlumberger's group ACT. But now that Jean has calmed down and warmed up, I can see that both he and his wines are a great advert for the region.

Painting on the wall

He becomes particularly animated talking about organics and the lovely painting on the wall. He has been working organically since 2003 but is not certified. He says he doesn't want the hassle of getting certification and thinks it should be turned on its head so that those that don't work in this way should be branded 'non bio'. He goes on to say that there are many growers that don't have the money to work organically but that isn't to say that they don't do anything non-organic. He thinks it's a completely different matter for fruit and veg where you don't know the producer or where it comes from, but wine is not the same, 'le vin c'est pour toucher l'homme'. I can sort of see where he's coming from.

Jean tells us about the painting of his vineyard on the wall. It is by a famous Parisian artist called Masse who came to the village to do a painting workshop. Jean's sister was part of the workshop and struck up a rapport with her, showing her good spots to paint around the area. He said she was quite a character, over 70 years old going around the village on her mobilet and painting barefoot in the vineyards. She is famous for her grand tableaux of Paris and apparently had been a favourite of Mitterand. She passed away recently and Jean is so grateful to have the painting of the vineyard to remember her by.

Jean with Jo
Jean Boxler and Jo Locke infront of the beautiful painting of the village of Niedermorschmihr and its vineyards

We too are grateful to have got to taste the Boxler wines which show the heights to which Alsace can aspire. As we leave, Jean explains that his parents retired practically overnight and unlike some, have left him to get on with everything on his own... in at the deep end! It's just him and his wife plus five full-time employees who oversee everything and clearly they have a young family too. 'It's difficult to do everything and be everywhere,' he says. I feel his stress! I hope he realises just how well thought of his wines are though. He's a perfectionist and it shows and we have really warmed to him by the time we leave.

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