Inspiration / Travels In Wine

3. Dirler-Cadé and Domaine Muré

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Joanna Goodman Joanna Goodman
Pretty little Bergholtz, just 3km south of Guebwiller
Pretty little Bergholtz, just 3km south of Guebwiller

It was a short trip down the road to the village of Bergholtz just outside Guebwiller and another family firm, Dirler-Cadé. Like the Schlumbergers, the family business has a long history dating back to 1871. They too have a high proportion of vines in the four grands crus of this area (Kitterlé, Kessler, Saering and Spiegel) but are altogether much smaller with 18 hectares in total.

It is the father Jean-Pierre who greets us, his son Jean and daughter-in-law Ludivine are away skiing (in Switzerland where, apparently it is much cheaper than in France!)

The family have been farming biodynamically for 20 years, so have lots of experience of this method of vineyard management, so I was interested to hear what Jean-Pierre felt it brought to the wines. He doesn't exactly give much away, so takes some prompting to reveal that biodynamics gives a freshness to the wines, 'I noticed that our wines became more fine and elegant; more linear than powerful.' Jo confirmed that she had noticed how the younger wines were now less rich than in the past.

Joanna Locke MW with Jean-Pierre Dirler
Joanna Locke MW with Jean-Pierre Dirler

I wondered what Jean-Pierre's views on natural wines were. He doesn't rule this out but says that they are not ready for this yet, 'there lots of courses and programmes on natural wine at the moment but my big worry is that the wines produced this way won't keep well, particularly if they're not looked after properly. It could ruin your reputation. One thing we are committed to, though, is reducing the amount of sulphur that we put in the wines as much as possible.'

They have also carried out trials with closures with their neighbours over a ten-year period, moving to screwcaps for all but their richer-style wines, 'we found that the wines retained their freshness better.' He tells us.

Jean-Pierre was also interesting on the subject of wine styles and the tendency for consumers to want drier wines. 'We have to keep the wines a little longer to let the sugar levels go down. It isn't an option to pick earlier as the grapes wouldn't be ripe. But with grapes like gewurztraminer it is really difficult to get a dry wine because you lose the aroma. You have to get the picking time just right,' he revealed, 'it can be just a matter of a day in it; if you leave the grapes over a weekend, say, they quickly gain alcohol. Not many people do a dry gewurztraminer for this reason.'

Wooden carving in the tasting room at Dirler-Cadé

On the subject of the grand cru system and the potential introduction of premiers crus, Jean-Pierre explained that when the grands crus were first brought in (in 1983), the problem was that yields were just too high in places. These have gradually been reduced by changing training methods and pruning techniques. They have several 'lieux-dits' on their estate (named sites) and Jean-Pierre explained that some lieux-dits have applied to become premiers crus, 'they have to have several growers from the same vineyard and must have a longish history of producing the wine under the name of the lieu-dit.' Inherently an issue for any growers who have a monopole (sole ownership of a lieu-dit), but Jean-Pierre believes this next step in creating a further quality scale in Alsace will come and that it should mean improvements in quality across the board. He thinks that some of these lieux-dits are actually better than some of the lesser grands crus.

I fear it will just make everything more complicated but if it keeps producers on their toes I guess it has to be a good thing!

We tasted through the whole range of 2016 wines plus a couple of 2015s including the new vintage of Sylvaner Vieilles Vignes which comes from vines planted in the 1950s with a large proportion coming from the grands crus Kessler and Saering. Bone-dry, refreshing, lively and easy-to-drink, it represents an excellent introduction to the house style of this impressive, if understated domaine.

Domaine Muré

Véronique Muré with Jo Locke MW
Véronique Muré with Jo Locke MW

A short drive north to Rouffach in fast fading light took us to our final appointment of the day with the delightful Véronique Muré, 12th generation (along with brother Thomas) at the helm of this family domaine. The estate's 25 hectares have both organic and biodynamic certification.

As well as being members of ACT (Alsace Cru et Terroirs), Véronique is also a member, (along with Séverine Schlumberger, the Meyer sisters of Josmeyer and Catherine Faller of Weinbach), of Les diVINes d'Alsace – an association of women in wine of Alsace. 'We wanted to set up a network to help each other – it isn't just winemakers, but women working in all aspects – sales, marketing, production, sommeliers… we will carry out tastings together and organise events to promote our wines and share knowledge. I am the first woman to be directly involved in the wine and winemaking in my family – it used to be unusual, but it is now becoming much more common.'

It does seem incredible that still in this day and age women have to band together in this industry, but I am sure it will be to the benefit of all in the long run.

View of the Clos St Landelin from the Muré tasting room
View of the Clos St Landelin from the Muré tasting room

Before we get down to tasting, Véronique takes us to the window to look at their famous monopole (solely-owned) vineyard the Clos St Landelin, which even in this wintry light you can appreciate is a special spot, the steep south-facing terraced vineyard sticking out proudly from the surrounding slopes.

Véronique explained how it was named after an Irish monk who had come here in the eighth century to convert the locals, and the vineyard belonged to the abbey. After the dissolution of the monasteries the vineyard was owned by lots of different people, then in the first world war the Germans bought up all the separate parcels of vineyard so that they were under one ownership.

'My great grandfather was able to buy it in 1935 selling up little plots of vines from around the village to get the cash together. These were hard times and money was tight. It was a shrewd move on his behalf.'

The clos has all the top grape varieties; riesling is at the bottom of the slope, gewurztraminer and muscat in the centre, with pinot gris in the southwest corner and pinot noir on the flat. Sylavner is planted in the southeast corner.

Muré are renowned in particular for their pinot noir and Véronique explains that she prefers to taste this first as the relative sweetness of the whites makes it harder to taste afterwards.

The clos has all the top grape varieties; riesling is at the bottom of the slope, gewurztraminer and muscat in the centre, with pinot gris in the southwest corner and pinot noir on the flat. Sylavner is planted in the southeast corner.

Muré are renowned in particular for their pinot noir and Véronique explains that she prefers to taste this first as the relative sweetness of the whites makes it harder to taste afterwards.

Clos St Landelin Pinot Noir 2016  more profound just on the nose alone!
Clos St Landelin Pinot Noir 2016 more profound just on the nose alone!

We tasted the Côte de Rouffach Pinot Noir 2016 Véronique explained that in Alsace there are 12 villages (like Rouffach) where you can put the name on the label; there's no allowance yet for reds to be grands crus. Like Burgundy, the soils here are largely clay and limestone. Ideal for pinot noir. Véronique felt that their pinot noirs are benefitting both from the effects of climate change and the fact that Burgundy has had so many small vintages, putting prices up even more there! She also points out that the younger generation have more experience of working with red wines usually having travelled more as part of their education.

'For my grandfather the harvest would always be at the end of September, but now it can be as early as August – a whole month earlier, but with the same sugar levels in the grapes. To be honest, in the 1950s, '60s and '70s the grapes weren't really sufficiently ripe. Now the problem is retaining freshness!'

I felt the wine had lovely structure with hints of crushed raspberry and a smokiness on the nose. Véronique said that everyone rated 2015 over 2016 because it is a 'bigger' year but she prefers the elegance of 2016, which she describes as a 'surprising year'.

The Clos St Landelin Pinot Noir 2016 was already easily more profound just on the nose alone. It has a lovely savoury character with lean tannins, all tightly knit but well integrated and a meaty/Bovril hint to the flavour. It would be great to see it in a few years' time. In the meantime, we may still have stock of a limited-release mixed case of several back vintages of this wine.

A surprise red

So seriously are the family taking global warming that in 2010 they planted six rows of syrah within the walls of the Clos St Landelin. 'We took our influence from looking to our neighbours in the south and decided we should try with either syrah or gamay,' Véronique explained. They had a Swiss student working on the project with them. 'Our first vintage was in 2015, we haven't always got the pruning right and we harvest almost a month after the pinot noir, but in 2017 we are really pleased with the results. The wine has a silkiness of tannins that you wouldn't get further south…it isn't being marketed as yet, and of course it would have to be a Vin de France, but we think it is really exciting…we have some experimental plots of roussanne and marsanne too!'

We taste through the wines and sparkling wines – an impressive line up, then Véronique scurries off to the cellars to get a treat for us to finish – a late harvest muscat from the Clos St Landelin!

Muscat
A rare late-harvest muscat from the Muré’s cellars to finish

Muscat Clos St Andelin Vendange Tardive 1989 – from one of the first years that they did a late-harvest wine and a variety which isn't usually made as a VT or aged for any length of time. It was truly intriguing – smoky with mint leaves on the nose, still fresh with flavours of white chocolate and blood orange.

…and wine isn't the only delicious nectar to come
out of the Clos St Andelin vineyard

And we weren't to go away empty handed either. Véronique presented us each with a jar of Muré honey from hives set up in the Clos St Landelin. You don't actually get honey from vine flowers, though, Véronique explained – the flowers don't have enough pollen and aren't big enough to attract bees, but the bees play an important part in enhancing the biodiversity of the vineyard and have completely put a stop to a problem they were having with a vine moth. 'We forgot the importance of biodiversity but now we understand why it is vital,' Véronique says. She also admits it is a great project for the father-in-law of her brother Thomas…'he needed to have something to do and he has found his metier. He is our beekeeper; he has studied for it and takes it very seriously. It is an important job and he loves it!'

Just as we were about to leave, Véronique's father René pops his head in to say goodnight. He stops to greet Jo who has dealt with him in the past and then tells us how delighted he is to see three women sitting down tasting and discussing wine. 'It makes my old heart glow', he says, or something equally dramatically French! But it makes us happy to hear it and we could spend all night chatting with Véronique who is a fascinating commentator and advocate for the family's and Alsace's wines.

There's a lovely spark between father and daughter and obviously great respect too, even though she tuts after he leaves, 'he's supposed to be retired!' she says. I guess you never really do when you work for a family firm.

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