If you walk through the aisles of Sweden’s Systembolaget you won’t see any Pinot Noir from Alsace. If you look for wine on the monopoly’s website under France and Pinot Noir, you can only refine your search to the regions of Burgundy, Champagne and Languedoc-Roussillon. Alsace is not an option. The latter, of course might be attributable to the lack of subtlety of the website: after all Pinot Noir is produced in other regions of France, such as Sancerre.
Be that as it may Alsace is not generally known for its red wines and this is not surprising. Of the 15’500 ha of vines under appellation, 1.15 mio hl of wine is produced of which 90% is white. In 1969 only 2.1 % of the total vineyard surface was allocated to Pinot Noir but over the years the percentage has crept up to just over 10% in 2014. Some of the Pinot Noir finds its way into Crémant d’Alsace, the region’s sparkling wine, and into rosé.
The grape variety originated in Burgundy and was brought to Alsace by monks during the Middle Ages. At that time more red wine was drunk than white. No doubt red was a better match for the diet which included foods such as salted meats, salted fish and cabbage.
Alsace Pinot Noir has historically been a light wine both in colour and body. Today, however, some of the region’s winemakers are producing reds that have more depth of colour, more flavour and more texture. One of the first to pave the way in the production of such wines was the Domaine Paul Blanck, in the Kaysersberg Valley, a twenty minute drive from Colmar. Not far away, in Bergheim, just north-east of Ribeauvillé, Marcel Deiss is another winery which advocates more concentrated red wines.
The only permitted red grape variety under the Alsace Appellation (AOC), Pinot Noir is a tricky variety to work with. It has compact bunches of small, thin-skinned berries. It is sensitive to rot and its yields are irregular. Nevertheless, Alsace presents some very favourable growing conditions: it has a low rainfall and a long growing season. This translates as a reduced risk of rot and an increased possibility for berries to reach perfect maturation.
The latter two points are indeed key for producing quality red wines. In fact, there are four conditions that need to be met for making more concentrated Pinot Noir wines. Firstly, grapes have to be ripe – and this includes pips which must no longer be green but brown. Secondly, the berries need to be in perfect health and free of rot. As well as giving juice a musty taste, grey rot destroys its colour. Thirdly, yields need to be kept low. In the past, yields have simply been too high. Optimal yields are around 30-35 hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare). There is a big drop in concentration in wine when yields increase to 50-60 hl/ha. Interestingly, for a red wine to qualify for either the Alsace AOC, the Alsace Communal AOC or the Alsace Lieu-dit AOC, the upper limit for yields 60 hl/ha. Thus, 30 to 35 hl/ha is well below the legal maximum. Finally, the fourth determining factor impacting the character of the wine is the soil type. Alsace has a complex geology and thirteen main soil types. The best soils for Pinot Noir wines are clay or marl with an iron content for depth of colour and complexity, and limestone for freshness.
Most winemakers in Alsace share an ecological approach to viticulture and are either sustainable, organic or biodynamic. As far as the vinification and maturation of Pinot Noir is concerned, there does not appear to be a general consensus. Some winemakers use whole clusters, some destem or part destem. Regarding maturation vessels, many different materials and sizes are used: stainless steel, new and old oak barriques, demi-muid and foudres. The length of maturation is also variable (between eight months and two years). The tradition in Alsace is to use bigger wooden oval-shaped containers known in French as “foudres” to maintain silky tannins and to avoid imparting too much wood flavour to the delicate Pinot Noir.
The “Wines of Alsace” trade event that took place last week in Stockholm kicked off with a seminar showcasing Pinot Noir. The seminar included a presentation and tasting of six Pinots Noirs from different producers. These wines beautifully displayed the essence of Alsatian Pinot Noir: wonderfully light in body yet focused, perfumed, fresh, earthy, mineral, dry, with silky tannins and aromas of red berries, cherries. And shining in the glass like a red ruby dropped in water. They are best served fairly cool, at around 12° Celsius and can accompany beef, duck and game.
Charles Wantz, Pinot Noir 2012, Rouge d’Ottrott, AOC Alsace Ottrott
Tasting note: Medium intensity, burnt red colour. Leather, earth, dried herbs, dried strawberries on the nose followed by red fruit, delicate acidity and a light body on the palate. A wine to be enjoyed now.
Ottrott is an area that has been famous for its red wines since the 11th century. It is here that the monks first arrived from Burgundy. Located close to Obernai, in the north of Alsace, Ottrott is a communal appellation with mainly sandy and sandstone soils. This type of soil tends to create wines with lower levels of acidity.
Domaine Pfister, Pinot Noir 2012, Rahn, AOC Alsace
Tasting note: Medium intensity, ruby red with a tinge of raspberry. Milky, smoky, wild strawberries and fresh on the nose. Red fruit, savouriness, fresh acidity, elegance, silky tannins and light juicy body. Dry finish with wafts of sweet dark fruit.
Domaine Pfister is located in the north of Alsace, in the village of Dahlenheim, twenty kilometres from Strasbourg. The Pinot Noir vines are rooted in loess and limestone soils, which accounts for the good acidity of the wine. The winemaker, Mélanie Pfister, has a special affinity with Pinot Noir. She completed her studies with work experience in the Côte d’Or in Burgundy. For her Rahn Pinot, Mélanie chose whole cluster fermentation, 10%-20% new French oak barrels and no filtration.
Domaine Boeckel, Pinot Noir 2013, Les Terres Rouges, AOC Alsace
Tasting note: Medium intensity of colour, purple ruby. Herby, minty, strawberry sweets and violets, good balance between acidity and silky tannins.
Here is an organic Pinot Noir made by a Domaine from Mittelbergheim, a village which has been classified as one of the most beautiful of France. Marl, clay and limestone soil, yields of 45 hl/ha and a maturation of 18 months in 10% new oak barrels. The marl/clay is responsible for the good tannin structure and good colour, whereas the limestone is responsible for the fresh acidity.
Domaine Albert Mann, Pinot Noir 2013, Les Saintes Claires, AOC Alsace
Tasting note: Medium intensity of colour, purply red. Red and dark fruit on the nose, some leather and spice, fresh, nicely concentrated. On the palate red and blue fruit come to the fore. Elegant blend of fruit, acidity and tannins.
The domaine is situated in Wettolsheim, just south of Colmar, but Les Saintes Claires is made from a vineyard attached to an old monastery in Sigolsheim where the soil is pure limestone. Yields are kept low at 20 hl/ha. The wine spends seventeen months in barrels.
Domaine Paul Blanck, Pinot Noir 2010, “F”, AOC Alsace
Tasting note: Medium intensity of colour, ruby. Elegant nose, fresh juicy blue and red fruit with a touch of sweetness. On the palate attractive acidity and concentration, fresh strawberries, cherries, a light velvety body, silky tannins, a dry finish with a touch of sweet fruit on the length.
The Domaine Paul Blanck was one of the first to think about the potential of certain “crus” for Pinot Noir. As a matter of fact, their Pinot Noir “F” is made from grapes grown on one of Alsace’s 51 Grand Cru sites. “F” stands for Furstentum. In Alsace, however, the Grand Cru designation can only be used for the four noble white varieties, i.e. Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. Hence the “F” on the bottle and the AOC Alsace classification. 2010 was a great vintage for Alsace.
Marcel Deiss, Pinot Noir 2011, Burlenberg, AOC Alsace
Tasting note: Medium intensity of colour, crushed mulberries. Elegant restrained fruit on the nose. Good acidity, noticeable tannins, white pepper, meatiness, red fruit, cherries, a little rough, but light in body. Needs some bottle ageing.
The Domaine Marcel Deiss, in Bergheim 3 km from Ribeauvillé, is well-known for its biodynamic wines. Mathieu Deiss, who is now working alongside his father Jean-Michel, explains during the seminar that Burlenberg is a “Lieu-dit” up a hill, on rocky limestone soil. The natural acidity in the wine is due to the elevation of the vineyard. Maturity is pushed to get a lot of tannins out of the grapes but as a result the wine needs time to evolve and to smooth out. The wine has not been filtered and use of sulphur dioxide is kept to a minimum. They work with low yields – at Burlenberg yields are 15-20 hl/ha – and in order to do so they plant vines at a high density. They believe that competition, and not green harvest, is the optimal way to reduce yields. According to Mathieu, Alsace on the whole is thinking along the same line. Burlenberg, in a bid to express terroir, is made from a field blend of Pinot Noir and a small proportion of a few other Pinot varieties including Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.
Having been seduced by the Pinots Noirs selected for the seminar, I went to meet some of their producers at the “Wines of Alsace” event to discover more of their range.
Mélanie Pfister is the winemaker at the family domaine, where she took over from her father eight years ago. Domaine Pfister in Dahlenheim in the north of Alsace has ten hectares of vines surrounding the family home. The commune is famous for its Grand Cru Engelberg, literally meaning the mountain of the angels. Wines from Engelberg have had a reputation of excellence for over a thousand years. Like many Alsatian winemakers, Domaine Pfister is committed to playing a caring and respectful role within its environment. It has been certified sustainable by Fair’n Green – a German association of which Georg Breuer and Leitz Weingut are also members. They cultivate all the main Alsatian grape varieties. Riesling is their most important one and occupies 25% of the vineyard area.
Their hallmark is wines that are fresh, pure, ripe and attractive.
- Crémant d’Alsace, Brut, Blanc de Blanc – Made from a blend of white skinned grapes only, i.e. Chardonnay (50%) and Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois (50%), this Crémant awakens the senses with its lovely ripeness of fruit. Red fruit, stone fruit, tropical and toasty notes are carried on the palate by elegant bubbles and fine acidity. It has spent 29 months “sur lattes” (i.e. in contact with lees before disgorgement) which has given it nice yeasty notes and more complexity.
- Pinot Blanc 2013 – Nice fullness on the palate, fresh, ripe stone fruit with a long length.
- Riesling 2014, Tradition – Light body, juicy acidity, warm peach, tasty finish.
- Pinot Gris 2014, Tradition – Made in the same style as her grandfather, the Pinot Gris Tradition is dry, elegant, pure, with fruity flavours of apples, ripe lemons, and a nice long finish.
- Grand Cru Engelberg, Riesling 2012 – This wine is released later than those mentioned above. Wines made from Grands Crus take longer to develop. Concentrated nose, some kerosene, ripe limes, banana, mango. On the palate dry, fine acidity. A long length with lingering ripe fruit.
Practically opposite Mélanie Pfister’s table was Domaine Paul Blanck’s, and towering behind it the genial Philippe Blanck. I was all set to try out his wines made from the typical Alsatian grape varieties: his Pinot Gris Patergarten, his Gewürztraminer Altenbourg, his Auxerrois Vieilles Vignes, not forgetting his Grands Crus, Vendanges Tardives and Sélections de Grains Nobles.
Philippe, however, had an entirely different idea in store for me. He started by pouring me a glass of his Riesling de Terroir, i.e. made from the lieu-dit Rosenbourg, a plot with soils of marls over granit. The vintage was 2014, which produced wines characterized by their fruitiness. The Blanck Riesling 2014 Rosenbourg was very fine, with digestible acidity, citrus fruit and a mouthfeel with presence.
Next we tasted a Wineck-Schlossberg Riesling 2012. Parameters are here different: lower yields in the vineyard (20 hl/ha), a Grand Cru with granitic soils, and the 2012 vintage which produced wines with quite a lot of acidity, as the year was cold and rainy, but nevertheless fruity. This wine was complex, elegant with fine acidity, ripe fruit, pears and almond.
Finally he served the Domaine Paul Blanck, Riesling 2011, Grand Cru Schlossberg. Schlossberg is the most famous Grand Cru appellation in Alsace. It was established in November 1975 and was the very first. It is located on the commune of Kientzheim, in the Haut-Rhin, not far from Colmar. Its soils are composed of granit. The 2011 vintage in Alsace was a warm one but this didn’t prevent wines from showing beautiful acidity. On the palate, this Riesling certainly displayed greater acidity than the previous wines tasted. Its texture was dense and taut, with a full body, citrus and limes, and a long finish tailing off with flavours of warm ripe peach.
Riesling and Riesling only. No other grape variety tasted.
Philippe’s idea was for me to experience the manifold expression of Riesling through different vintages, soils, and many other parameters; to tune into the fine details that can be picked up in a wine, if one takes the time to search for them, to fully experience the emotion of tasting wine. I suppose the grape variety, in this case Riesling, can be compared to an instrument or a musician. Ultimately, they are the channel through which music goes. They bring music to life, making the musical experience possible. The music, as it is written, remains the same. Its expression will vary depending on who interprets it, on how the interpreter is feeling, on what his vision is, on the ambient temperature, on how the listener himself is feeling, etc… The same sort of experience and emotions take place with wine.
The tasting could have ended there but Philippe took all three Rieslings and decanted them. I can’t say I have ever decanted white wine before. He then got me to taste side by side the Riesling poured straight from the bottle and the same one decanted. Sure enough, the tasting experience was not identical. Decanting brings other elements to the fore. Would I even recognise the wines as being the same? The young 2014 Riesling displayed a slight metallic edge and citrus, yet when decanted it came across as riper, sweeter and with a plumper and more textured body.
Philippe went on to explain that the way you breathe when you sniff a wine also impacts what you get out of it. A short sniff – which is what one usually does – will not capture the same fragrances as if you take a long sniff filling out your ribs with air. I didn’t try that out on the spot but can see that he probably has a point. I think I will experiment quietly at home, hoping that I don’t hyperventilate before having had a sip of wine…
(All photos by Sarah Jefford)