with Olivier Humbrecht is always an insightful experience. Not only is he incredibly
erudite in his approach to viticulture and winemaking but he has the rare talent
of being able to communicate fairly complex ideas around the subject in a very
clear and digestible manner.
in London last week giving a masterclass on single vineyard Pinot Gris from
Alsace. His motivation and his love for dry Pinot Gris evolves around the
varietal being the greatest transmitter of terroir, much more so than its more famous
sibling Riesling whose natural aromatics can conceal its terroir blueprint. Of
course that was just the starting point of the masterclass and it quickly
evolved into a much more in depth conversation on the virtues of singular plots
and the underpinning concepts of fine wine.
up with him afterwards to get further insight into his pioneering approach in
viticulture that is being adopted by some of the finest wine producers in
Changing fortunes of Pinot Gris
Humbrecht is a strong believer in the potential of Pinot Gris, a varietal that
has ebbed and flowed in popularity through the last century. It is a varietal
that due to its rather neutral primary attributes means it is perhaps more than
any other grape, at the throes of its maker.
greatly from the high yielding neutral, phenolic, early picked and refreshing
Pinot Grigio synonymous with northern Italy. At its worst the variety produces
a wine of almost no character and no sense of place. At its best the dry, vibrant
Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige can be fantastically intense, mineral and
refreshing, whilst remaining fairly neutral on the palate. Pinot Grigio Romato
styles in Friuli (a skin contact rose style) offer more flavor definition and
richness whilst at the same time being distinctly phenolic with vibrant acidity and a
bitter bite keeping the wine refreshing and uniquely Italian in character.
Gris of Alsace is typically later picked and completely different to the
Italian style in its flavor profile, taking on a distinct honeysuckle, musk,
smoky, toasty quality. Even within Alsace this varietal has many faces. In the
1960s Olivier reminds us that Pinot Gris from Alsace was the most popular and
most expensive wine in the region, but also the rarest and typically very
sweet, as it is prone to noble rot resulting in intensely rich, opulent wines.
just 2% of the vineyards in Alsace were planted with Pinot Gris, today it is up
to 15%. But Pinot Gris is not an easy grape to get right and whilst the early
picked, neutral style of Northern Italy can crop at high levels with little
issue, to make Pinot Gris with more aromatic character is much more difficult to get right and therefore becomes a much less reliable crop and accounts for the small amounts grown in
It is a
varietal very prone to rot due to its thin skin. In the ideal conditions this
makes it ideal for noble rot but in less than perfect conditions grey rot is
more common making the grapes not suitable for fine wine. The rot will often result in aborted fermentation.
varietal is also very quick to ripen. If not picked in a very small picking
window, the alcohols could shoot up too high making a healthy fermentation very
difficult, more often than not, leading to high levels of residual sugar in the
wine, whether you want it or not. Olivier outlines that just taking a weekend
off during harvest could amount to a potential 1.5% abv increase when returning to the
vines on the Monday morning. In under a week, the potential alcohol could have
gone up by 3% abv! Picking the wines too early also has its problems. All the
flavor and aromas in the varietal develop at the final stages of ripening, picking
early will produce wines with little complexity and character. This tricky little
grape is no doubt the reason why so little was planted in the region despite the
popularity of the top Pinot Gris sweet wines.
increase in plantings in Alsace however has not been brilliantly successful.
For Olivier too much Pinot Gris has been planted in inadequate sites and using
higher yielding commercial clones. For Olivier, top Pinot Gris from Alsace must
come from the traditional petit grains clone that is naturally low yielding.
Olivier likes each vine to produce just 2 clusters producing just 25 – 30
hectolitres per hectare. These cropping levels are necessary to produce fine
wine examples from the grape.
interest in Pinot Gris is down to its relatively neutral character making it a
great transmitter of terroir, more so than Riesling whose natural aromatic
presence can conceal terroir characters. Fairly neutral flavour characters also
means it remains very much a winemaker’s wine, as the vigneron can determine the
style of the wine with lees work, oak maturation, and the retention of malolactic
fermentation, providing the grapes come in clean, free of rot. Olivier believes
élevage on full lees makes a very important difference to the flavor of
the wine. The lees nourishes the wine through ageing, producing a much more complex
flavour profile. It brings a smokiness and toasty character to the wine as well
as a more reductive “mineral” character.
Benefits of Biodynamics and Global Warming
It is rare
to hear a vigneron say that global warming has improved the quality of their
wines, but Olivier honestly states that, for the moment, global warming has
benefited his wines. What it has done is bring flowering forward, possibly up
to 3 weeks earlier which shunts all the growing season forward, this means the
all-important veraison period (sugar concentration in the grapes) is beginning
to happen 3 weeks earlier. Rather than waiting for grapes to ripen in September
as the days are getting shorter and the weather much less reliable, veraison is
now happening at the height of the summer enabling the wines to reach optimum
ripeness quicker preventing the onset of rot – which in poorer weather becomes
a lot more common.
since 1998, Olivier has seen a really positive effect in the vineyard. The
grapes are able to ripen faster, reaching physiological ripeness quicker, which
enables Olivier to make dry Pinot Gris packed with flavor. This, he believes, is
because chemical applications shock the vines, causing them to
shut down for a number of days following the application. If you continue to spray chemical applications throughout the growing season,
each time this happens the vine shuts down and you lose valuable days of
biodynamic principles the vines don’t go through these shock / shutting down
phases. This allows Olivier to pick earlier and he is the first to harvest the Pinot Gris compared to his
neighbours. This he believes is largely due to his grapes ripening faster, due to his
viticultural techniques. It means he can get his wines to reach aromatic
complexity whilst still being able to bring them in early enough free of rot and
therefore enabling a fermentation to dryness. The reason for Olivier's interest
in producing dry styles of Pinot Gris is so he can show off the terroir
characteristics of each of his sites without being concealed by sweetness.
Tasting the different vineyards shows just how different each of the sites are
and only further promotes Pinot Gris as the ultimate transmitter of terroir.
Pioneer of modern day viticulture
with top viticulturalists all over the world, you realise a huge amount of
their knowledge stems from Olivier Humbrecht, whose understanding of managing
vine growth originated from a university lecture he attended in the 1980s,
given not by a viticuturalist, but a plant physiologist. From this lecture
Olivier understood that modern-day hedging techniques in the vineyard was
really detrimental to fruit production. Olivier explains, the domesticated vine
goes through two very different stages in its growth period. Stage one is the
phase of cellular multiplication i.e. the growth of the vine – flowering,
budding, leaf production etc. Stage two is the nourishment phase in which the
vine stops growing and instead starts to nourish the pips in the grapes, to
promote future cellular growth when the seeds are dispersed.
with modern hedging techniques is that it disturbs stage one when the vine is
on the verge of moving to stage two, therefore encouraging the vine to carry
out stage one and two at the same time, meaning the grape isn’t getting full
nourishment at the period of veraison as some of the vine’s energy is going
into vine growth. The key for Olivier is to get stage two to follow on from
stage one rather than the vines trying to do both at the same time.
canopy growth however requires a lot more manual work. Olivier states it
requires 20 men to tie up the vines manually compared to one tractor hedging the vines. One possible solution could be to hedge the vines earlier in the
growth phase so as not to disrupt the vine later in the season switching from
stage 1 to stage 2 but Olivier explains this is not a good approach. Tartaric
acid is key to any white wine, and it is the necessary back bone to any wine.
Tartaric acid is produced by the leaves. Olivier emphasizes that many people wrongly
think leaves only create sugar through photosynthesis, but they are necessary
for producing a whole array of essential nutrients, hormones and the all
important production of tartaric acid.
lies in extended canopy growth. I said to Olivier this sounds exactly what Lalou
Bize Leroy does in Burgundy and he admits that he visited her years ago and
told her his ideas on canopy management and she clearly took his advice.
Whilst it is incredibly high maintenance and an expensive operation, two of the
world’s leading winemakers Humbrecht and Leroy are advocates of the system and that
should be enough for any vigneron to at least consider the technique, despite the
additional costs it entails.
Rotenburg vineyard is a cooler north facing slope facing the Vogues mountains.
Made up of red marl on a limestone bedrock with very shallow brick colour soil
(containing high iron content). All this amounts to slower ripening, naturally
lower vigour and tiny yields. Olivier typically crops at 25 hectolitres per
hectare. Olivier states what is great about this vineyard when made in the dry
style, the effect of the limestone really comes through on the palate.
through the ’17, ’16 and ’13 the wines share a wonderful aromatic complexity.
Easily the most floral and perfumed of the 3 vineyards. There is a wonderful chalky minerality to the wine, almost
top quality Chablis but with a softer texture and more perfumed. With age the
aromas and flavours only further develop whilst retaining a wonderful intensity.
The wine remains very clean despite its age, showing very little tertiary
development just lovely orange rind and honeysuckle notes. The chalky limestone
minerality brings sharp focus and intensity on the finish.
vintage for Zind Humbrecht on this site was the 1988 vintage. Another limestone/
clay site overlooking the church of
Sainte Hune (famous from the Trimbach’s Clos Sainte Hune cuvee). Facing south,
south-east with a steep slope between 15 – 40% this is a high altitude site at
350 metres. A 6.5 hectares site planted mostly to Pinot Gris. Due to the
altitude and soil the grapes ripens very slowly, often on the precipice of
reaching ripeness before the wine gets affected by noble rot.
the ’17, ’16 and ’13 what is immediate in the comparison is how the wine
develops with age. At just a three years of age the wine remains compact, at seven
years of age it is incredibly complex on the palate. The primary notes have
retained their zesty vivacity but the flavours become broad from russet apple,
manuka honey and sultanas and a wonderful salinity and stony minerality on the
finish. The wine becomes more and more focused on the finish. Clearly the wine
is affected by vintage too. The ’16 is a more difficult vintage making the
wine a lot less intense that the ’17 and the ’13 but throughout the lineup the
salinity and stony minerality comes through on the palate – a distinct characteristic
of the limestone soil.
Rotenburg and Clos Windsbuhl, Rangen de Thann is made up of volcanic soil, very
dark basalt rock, rich in magnesium and potassium and low in calcium so lower
acidity, higher pH. The slope is the steepest in Alsace with a 41 degree slope.
The vineyard has an incredibly high vine density at 10,000 vines per hectare.
It is in fact one of the warmer regions of Alsace therefore you would expect it
to be one of the first to ripen, but the cold wind that flows through the
valley slows the ripening making it the last vineyard Oliver harvests. This is typically
the lowest yielding site at Zind Humbrecht at 20 – 30 hectolitres per hectare.
soil offers a completely different blueprint to the wine. Texturally the wine
is much more oily and rich. The flavours are more pumice stone, peppery, matcha
tea and then this distinct brazil nut flavor. There is no tropical notes at all
in its youth and very much more savoury in style. With age the ’13 vintage
shows more tropical notes, the texture becomes unctuous in its oiliness, it
feels like there is sweetness despite being a dry wine. These wines lack the
vibrancy from the limestone but offer more richness, texture and darker fruit
and savoury flavour profile.