Olivier Humbrecht - "A Genius of Wine"

By Gavin Smith

Meeting 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.

Olivier was 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.

We caught 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 the world.

The Changing fortunes of Pinot Gris

Olivier 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.

Styles vary 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.

The Pinot 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.

In 1990 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 Alsace.

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.

The 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.

The recent 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.

Olivier’s 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.

The 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.

Biodynamic 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 ripening.

Under 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.

 

A Pioneer of modern day viticulture

Speaking 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.

The problem 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.

Preventing 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.

The secret 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.

 

The Single Vineyards

Rotenburg

The 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.

Tasting 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.

 

Clos Windsbuhl

The first 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.

Tasting through 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.

 

Rangen de Thann

Unlike 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.

 

The volcanic 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.

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