The Wines of Alsace
While Alsace has seen its share of tumult–as it was passed between Germany and France, and as Grand Cru designations came and went–the quality of the wines coming from its top producers has remained unchallenged.
On Wednesday, November 7th, we are proud to introduce the wines of Pierre Frick, who recently joined our book after a twelve-year absence from the NY market. Poured alongside the wines of Dirler-Cadé, this is not a snapshot but an intricately woven tapestry of what Alsace has to offer.
After a multitude of horrors and mishaps caused by the First and Second World Wars, Alsace was finally granted AOC status in 1962, 37 years after they first began to align their efforts with the French AOC system in 1925.
Separated from the rest of France by the Vosges mountain range, which is 70 miles in length, Alsace has a variety of micro-climates that are influenced by the ranges’ height. Measuring approximately 500 meters in height in the north and 1,200 meters in the south, the Vosges receive a bulk of the rainfall that comes in from the Atlantic, as the range breaks up the rainclouds as they travel east.
With vineyards that reside at 170 to 420 meters, Alsace sees its best plots planted at 220 to 350 meters. With the Haut-Rhin located in the south, and the Bas-Rhin in the north, Alsace possesses three broad soil categories, which are divided according to position on the Vosges range. On the mountain slopes, where approximately 25% of the vineyards reside, the vines are planted to “granitic, schistous, volcanic and sandstone” soils. Mid-range on the foothill slopes, which is home to half of Alsace’s plantings, one finds “calcareous, calcareous-sandstone, calcareous-marl and marly-clay” soils. And on the plains, which support the remaining vineyards, the soils are alluvium and calcareous loam. Within these broad categories resides a complex patchwork of soils, layered much like the soils of Burgundy.
When the idea of Grand Cru in Alsace first appeared in 1962, it was as a descriptor of superior wines made from the four current allowable varietals (Riesling, Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris) and Pinot Noir, and not as an appellation in itself (nor was it site specific). In addition to these four, Sylvaner was added to the list of permitted varietals in 2005, for Grand Cru Zotzenberg.
With the growers pushing for classification, in 1975, 94 lieux-dits were offered for Grand Cru consideration, but only 25 made the cut in 1983. By 1990, after much debate, 25 additional leux-dits were granted Grand Cru status, though they were not delimited until December 17, 1992. Kaefferkopf, one of Alsace’s most famous vineyards, was not granted Grand Cru status until 2007, when it joined the ranks of the 4% that makes up Alsace’s Grand Cru production.
All producers seeking Grand Cru classification must adhere to a strict set of rules in addition to submitting their wines to be tasted by the panel, before they can receive the official Grand Cru designation. If a wine happens to fail three times, it is declassified.
As the most recent addition to our book, Pierre Frick has been farming organically since 1970, and biodynamically since 1981. An impassioned man of great exuberance, Frick makes wines that are explosive ideas meant to move one’s spirit. “We’re bringing them into the book because Frick is so endearing,” says Patrick Burke, our French Portfolio Director. “He’s not trying to convert people. He’s passionate to the extreme, buthe’s not put-off by people who don’t grasp his style of winemaking.”
Located between Colmar and Guebwiller, Frick farms 12ha of vineyards that are spread out across 15 kilometers. With holdings in the Bergweingarten, Bihl, Rot Murlé and Strangenberg lieux-dits, each with distinctive soils, Frick also has holdings in the Eichberg (0.4ha), Steinert (1.3ha) and Vorbourg Grand Crus.
Facing east at 240-310 meters, Steinert has been supporting vines since 1150. With “dry, stony, colluvium over limestone base,” Steinert, at 38ha, resides in Pfaffenheim, Haut-Rhin.
Located in Rouffach and Westhalten, Vorbourg totals 72ha and is south-southeast facing at 220-300 meters. An established vineyard since 762, Vorbourg has soils of “calcareous-marl over sandstone and limestone, with loess on the higher ground.”
Employing only native yeasts, Frick will allow for his ‘dying’ yeasts to re-awaken in the spring, with the ambient change in temperature to restart a fermentation that stopped at around 11-12% abv with residual sugar of 60 to 120 grams. When Patrick and John Coyle visited Frick last month, they drank a 2005 Riesling that fermented and refermented in a vat for five years, before it was bottled in 2011.
As of 1988, none of Frick’s wines have been chaptalized.
Clearly not one to follow a formula of any kind, Frick, who believes that “sulfur free wines have more surface tension”, will determine if a wine needs sulfur by seeing how it evolves in the glass over the course of a few days.
“What I like about these wines,” continues Patrick, “is that these wines are unique and off the beaten path, but they’re very sound wines that don’t smell neglected or like a science experiment.”
To avoid cork taint, Frick uses bottle caps in lieu of corks, arguing that all Champagne is kept under cap prior to disgorgement.
Coyle & Gewürztraminer at Dirler-Cadé
Dirler-Cadé, who joined our book in June, is located south of Frick, in Bergholtz, 25km south of Colmar in the lower hills of the Vosges. Run by Jean Dirler and his wife Ludivine, the couple began converting their holdings to biodynamic viticulture in 1998. With a total of 18ha, Dirler-Cadé earned biodynamic certification with their 2007 vintage.
Here, nearly half of the family’s vineyards (42%) are in the Grand Crus of Saering (1ha), Spiegel (1.4ha), Kessler (0.4ha) and Kitterlé. In addition, the Domaine also has plantings in the five lieux-dits of Belzbrunnen, Schwarzberg, Bux, Schimberg and Bollenberg.
Located in Guebwiller, between Kessler and Kitterlé, Saering totals 26.75ha. Here, the slopes face east and southeast at 260-300 meters, with deep and “stony sandstone soil, with sandy-marl deposits over calcareous-marl subsoil”. First documented in 1250, Saering is best known for its Rieslings.
In between Bergholtz and Guebwiller, Spiegel totals 18.26ha. With east facing slopes at 260-315 meters, the soil here is “heavy scree of sandy-clay colluvium over sandstone and marl”. Known for only 50 years, writes Tom Stevenson in The Wines of Alsace, Speigel provides Dirler with “a fine, racy Riesling”
Also in Guebwiller, Kessler’s 28.5ha face west on steep upper slopes at 390 meters and gentle lower slopes at 300 meters. The soil at Kessler is “red sandy-clay over sandstone and limestone bedrock”. Stevenson writes, “…if Jean-Pierre Dirler’s consistently superb wine is anything to go by, Riesling might well be the optimum variety for Kessler.”
Kitterlé is the famed site of Guebwiller, at 25.79ha. First documented in 1699, Kitterlé has steep, southeast through southwest facing slopes at 270-360 meters. With “sandy topsoil derived from quartz-rich sandstone bedrock”, according to Stevenson, Kitterlé yields “crisp, petrolly Riesling that shows great finesse.”
Aiming to gain the best product from his vineyards, Dirler is a cerebral winemaker who’s introverted and soft spoken. “He does nothing but think about his winery and his wines,” says Patrick. “His wines are intent in their expression of terroir,” because his wines are made in the vineyard.
Since 1987, each parcel or group of parcels within a single vineyard has been whole cluster pressed with a pneumatic press into either large oak foudres or stainless steel tanks. The juice is then left to ferment anywhere from three weeks to three months, depending upon the cuvée. The wine is aged on its fine lees for 9-12 months before a light filteration and bottling takes place.
Located north of Frick, just ten miles south of Colmar in Voegtlinshoffen, the family behind Domaine Joseph Cattin arrived in Alsace from Switzerland in 1720, when they immediately planted vines. Established in 1850, the estate consists of 50ha under vine, and with Jacque Cattin Sr. as the mayor of Voegtlinshoffen, the family here is one of the oldest in the village.
With vines that are located on the southeast slopes of the Vosges at 200-400 meters, the soils compositions here consist of gravel, granite, marl to clay, limestone and sandstone. Most of the vineyards are over 60 years old, and we purchase 100% of their harvest. And though their modern winery produced wines with both estate and sourced fruit, we carry only the former.
When Cattin first joined our book in April 2010, Patrick says, “I was looking for purity of fruit and capturing the varietal…Cattin is very in tune with gastronomy,” says Patrick Burke, “all winemaking decisions are made based on anticipated pairings.”
Altenberg de Bergheim Grand Cru
As our only Alsatian producer from the Bas-Rhin, Domaine Frederic Mochel is located in the village of Traenheim, 20km west of Strausbourg where the family has been making wine since 1669.
As our youngest producer in Alsace, Guillaume, at the age of 26, works with his father Frederic to sustainably farm 10ha, five of which are of the Altenberg de Bergbieten Grand Cru.
Located in Bergheim, the Altenberg de Bergbieten Grand Cru totals 35.06ha and has been “a true Grand Cru since the twelfth century”. Here the steep, south facing slopes reside at 220-320 meters, with a “thin topsoil of very stony, red-colored, fossil-rich calcareous-marl over limestone bedrock,” writes Tom Stevenson. “Frederic Mochel has always produced the finest Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergbieten.”
In the cellar, all of Mochel’s whites are fermented in large foudres with naturally occurring yeasts. And though their familial roots dig deep and their practices are traditional, it’s Guillaume who “has focused on modernizing the winery,” says Patrick, “on working traditionally within a modern facility.”
(Thanks to Tom Stevenson’s The Wines of Alsace for the specifics on soil types.)