Travels in Wine / Alsace

Travels in Alsace: 2017s – Quality not Quantity


Thom Buzzard Thom Buzzard / 28 October 2019

I joined Jo Locke MW, our buyer for Alsace, on a trip to the region in June 2019. Our principal aim was checking out how the wines from the 2017 vintage were developing, and to pick out the cream of the crop for this year's offer. 'Small yields' was the overriding message we came away with, but the quality of what was available more than made up for any lack of quantity.

Alsace's famed fluted bottles
Alsace's famed 'flute' bottles

Temperatures into the 40°Cs, terrible for people but what about vines?

Despite being one of France's most northerly wine regions, Alsace has more sunshine hours than any other part of France except the Roussillon. This is something we were all too aware of in the fierce heat back in June, with the car's temperature gauge regularly tipping the 40°c level. And while we struggled in such unrelenting heat, the vines were doing ok. Thanks to the rain over the previous weeks, according to those in the know, soils were prevented from drying out and it was too early for the fruit to be put at risk of getting burnt. As long as it was only a short spike, there wasn't anything to worry about, we were reassured, and for us humans, the cellar was the best place to hide out!

We were delighted to take refuge from the heat in Zind-Humbrecht's cool cellars
We were delighted to take refuge from the heat in Zind-Humbrecht's cool cellars

Into the cool at Zind-Humbrecht

So, diving into that first cellar at Zind-Humbrecht, was more than just a welcome relief. Olivier Humbrecht, who has been at the helm since 1990, took us through the winery and cellars.

The amount of time spent and patience given to the production of the wines was evident from the dedication to the biodynamic growing methods in the vineyards; gentle and slow pressing of the fruit once in the winery, through to non-interventionalist winemaking – a hands-off approach doesn't mean you do nothing but requires instead extra vigilance and constant monitoring and nurturing. The end goal of all this intensive work is to allow the terroir of each grand cru and individual vineyard site to shine.

A helpful sweetness scale

One of the criticisms Alsace receives is the lack of information about the sweetness of the wines, but Zind-Humbrecht have developed their own sweetness scale which they use on their labels, based on taste rather than technical analysis, which makes selection off the shelf that bit easier. Olivier was noting how the wines were developing as we tasted through some of the wines still in barrel, and the years of experience were evident in his predictions of where the wines' styles will end up once bottled.

Epicurean inspiration at Maison Léon Beyer

Next along the road was a meeting at Maison Léon Beyer, an Alsace house renowned as a food lovers' heaven. All the wines are fermented to dry, and the clean purity is instantly recognisable against the range of styles sampled throughout the week. Their bottles are regulars on some of the world's top restaurants' lists, and as food matches were rattled off whilst we tasted, I struggled not to be transported back to London, and the dining tables of Sketch, Craft, or Le Gavroche (if only in theory!) to name but a few from the long list of high-end establishments where the Beyer wines are a regular feature on the menu.

I was suddenly jolted back to reality by the taste of what turned out to be my wine of the trip moment. Yes, there were amazing wines at every producer we saw, but the Pinot Gris Comtes d'Eguisheim Grand Cru Eichberg Léon Beyer 2011 was unbelievable. It had everything I want from a white wine, with flavours, aromas, texture at their absolute peak, but perfectly balanced. The 2017 was slightly softer and more subdued, primed to blossom into another great, I would imagine.

With flavours still lingering tantalisingly on our tongues, we headed off to the next appointment of the day, but an early lunch was called for en route. Well it is important to keep your strength up on these trips!

A welcome sight! The sun going down over this beautiful wine region
A welcome sight! The sun going down over this beautiful wine region

Where to go next?

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