Last week we were fortunate to have the man himself, Olivier Humbrecht, from legendary Domaine Zind Humbrecht in our London office presenting a fascinating tasting through the different top vineyard sites of Alsace. Through the tasting we sampled the different varietals grown on the same vineyards, as opposed to tasting in varietal order. It was an intriguing insight into terroir over and above varietal looking for similarities from the soil despite the very different aromatic and flavor profiles of Riesling, Gewüztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris.
It’s in the skins!
Although the importance, and often the dominating feature, of fine wine comes from its terroir, Olivier was keen to point out that with the white aromatic varietals there is plenty of winemaking too that is essential to bringing out the best qualities of these wines. For Olivier it is vital for the grapes to be picked as whole clusters and pressed off their skins incredibly slowly. The pressing of each batch of wines takes a staggering 18 – 24 hours. For Olivier the quality and flavour is in the skins making this long skin contact during the fermentation process essential, while at the same time handling the skins incredibly gently to stop any phenolic bitterness coming through and to maintain the purity of the primary fruit. Even the salty minerality comes from the skins rather than the juice and to get the most complex mineral flavours, this skin contact is important.
Another key to the magic for Olivier is very little filtration of the must prior to fermentation producing a dense cloudy must, full of extracts feeding the wild indigenous yeast bringing out the most complex fermentation flavours and textures through the long fermentation process. This combination of high density must, plenty of extract and tannins from skins combined with a naturally low pH from very low yielding sites creates a very slow fermentation. To this day, Olivier still has two wines fermenting from the 2017 vintage – almost two years after it started!
2017 in Alsace
2017 throughout Europe struggled with frosts and Alsace was one of the worst hit. Olivier lost a staggering two thirds of his crop. He and his father had never seen such devastating frosts in 84 years, with his Gewüztraminer the most susceptible to the frosts as it buds early and is grown on the lower slopes where the frost settles. The Zind Humbrecht domaine is based in the village of Turkheim, but his vineyards spread a total of 50 miles from the north to the south of Alsace. Despite this huge spread of vineyards, they together only amount to 40 hectares with normal production rates up at around 18,000 cases. In 2017 this was down to just 10,000 cases. Olivier has been instrumental in turning Alsace into a centre of biodynamic organic farming. With a drier climate than most other major French wine growing regions, Alsace is well suited avoiding much of the mildew pressure present in more humid regions. Biodynamic vineyards however require a huge amount of preventative action and for Olivier that amounts to having 24 full time staff who work just in the vineyard and just one full time worker in the winery as a contrast.
Goldert Grand Cru
This Grand Cru is unique in Alsace as the only site made up of marine oolithic limestone which is a make-up of oyster shells, limestone and sandstone. It spends the afternoon in shade making it one of the later ripening vineyards producing incredibly complex Muscat. The wine has a lovely smoky spice to it complimenting the lychee, ginger and apricot fruits. Wines from this site are incredibly long lived with Olivier stating that every vintage back to 1959 of this wine to this day is still drinking beautifully!
Brand Grand Cru
A 2.5 hectare site made up of granite soil and black mica, Brand is seen as one of the top three Grand Cru vineyards of Alsace (alongside Rangen de Thanne and Wanne in Kitterle). Despite the spectacular terroir Olivier believes the wines from this site only become exceptional once the vines reach about 30 years of age. This is when the roots have reached deep enough to tap into the trace elements and fresh water supply deep down into the mountain. Wines from the Brand vineyard have an incredible intensity and expression and mouth-watering salinity. Zind Humbrechts’s vines date back to the 1920s and only Riesling is grown on Brand.
Made from old limestone this is a soft hilled vineyard, something which Olivier outlines is a sign of very old soils. The older the soils the softer the hill, with naturally low pH soils giving the wines an incredibly racy framework. The Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewüztraminer are all stunning expressions of this site with an incredible steely taught structure running right through the palate. The Pinot Gris has a slightly oilier texture, more terpenic perfume and an additional lushness (with 5/6 g/litre residual sugar). The Gewüztraminer is incredible, with a lovely textural quality. Olivier states that this Gewüztraminer has the same tannin levels as a red Burgundy! All three wines are stunning from this beautiful site.
This 100% limestone soil site produces a very terroir driven palate where the fruit and floral notes take second place to more savoury notes dominated by smoke and ferrous iron. The Riesling is incredibly powerful and one of the more earthy examples from the collection. The wine has an incredible length.
The Rotenberg is the summit of the hill whose south facing slopes make up the Grand Cru Hengst. You would be hard pushed to recognize this as a Pinot Gris with a fabulous umami nose a touch of marmite and more iron ferrous notes. It is an incredibly lean style of Pinot Gris yet there is still the honeysuckle and subtle perfumed notes. Incredibly powerful and full bodied!
The Gewürztraminer from the Hengst vineyard is excellent. Incredible purity of perfume on the nose, highly aromatic but great tannin structure too, a multilayered textural richness and an additional saline minerality. It is about as good as Gewürztraminer gets. Whilst the varietal can be a bit of a marmite wine, the quality here requires even the biggest Gewürztraminer cynic to try it, it is outstanding!
Clos Saint Urbain Grand Cru (part of Rangen de Thanne)
The reputation for fine wine production from the slopes of Rangen de Thann date back to the 12th Century – 1228 was according to records a fantastic vintage! This is one of the true jewels in the crown for the Zind Humbrecht estate with 5.5 hectares in total of this top Grand Cru in Alsace. All the wines under the Clos St Urbain label comes from the estate’s oldest vines dating back to 1963. All three varietals planted here – Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer - share the same incredible intensity, mineral smoky earthy aromas from red hot limestone. The Riesling is incredibly taught and linear with an astounding energy on the palate and a schist-like minerality. The Pinot Gris is more lush and less lean than the Riesling but has very little primary fruit aromas again much more dominated by minerally smokiness. There is a wonderful brightness and tautness complimenting the more creamy oily texture you would expect from Pinot Gris. The gewürztraminer is again the cream of the crop with a beautiful ginger spice complimenting mineral salinity, the purity of fruit is outstanding and textural beautiful – silky, supple, oily but with a fabulous vibrant acidity too.
Clos Jebsal Selection de Grains Noble
Finally, we are fortunate enough to taste the Selection de Grains Nobles – late picked sun dried botrytised Pinot Gris. A sublime and incredibly rare wine in which just 800 half bottles were made in in total. The flavor intensity is off the scale with an incredibly unctuous oily texture that at the same time is incredibly refreshing. With 188 g/litre of residual sugar, it is amazing how the acidity cuts through. A really stunning wine!
Watch out for Olivier’s latest release of 2017s coming out in the next few weeks.