Exploring Alsace’s terroir: Clos Windsbuhl versus Clos-Saint-Urbain

By Gavin Smith

Oct 21st, 2020

As Domaine Zind Hubrecht’s 2018s are released, we explore Alsace’s terroir – comparing and contrasting two of its finest vineyards, Clos Windsbuhl and Clos-Saint-Urbain with Olivier Humbrecht MW

The Grand Cru wines of Alsace and in particular the wines of Zind-Humbrecht are some of the most transparent and detailed aromatic whites out there. The wines from the single-vineyard sites in particular have all the breeding to be some the most complex white wines in the world. The wines are barrel-fermented in the old traditional oak foudres using only natural yeasts, typically taking a staggering 12 to 15 months to ferment. As a comparison, most white wine takes just two to three weeks to ferment. The reason for the long ferments is to do with the high acidity levels in the wines, pushing them right through malolactic fermentation, and Olivier’s insistence on only using natural yeasts during fermentation. He wants to ferment his wines to dryness and with grapes such as Riesling and Pinot Gris from Alsace, this means a long wait. The wines are then aged on their lees and bottled, unfined and filtered, directly from the original cask 18 months after harvest.

Olivier Humbrecht in the vines

Tasting the single-vineyard sites from Zind-Humbrecht provides a fascinating exploration of site, variety and vintage that is rarely laid so bare. The wines have as much intensity and intrigue as Grand Cru Burgundy, yet they are distinctly Alsatian in style, with their power, warmth and spicy mineral complexity defining its sense of place. Another distinct element to the Alsace region is that within the same vineyard each of the four permitted Grand Cru varieties - whether it be Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer or Muscat – are free to flaunt their individuality within the same site, providing different interpretations of the dominant terroir through the characteristics of each variety.   Two of the most complementary and contrasting single-vineyard sites within Zind-Humbrecht’s portfolio are the limestone-rich Clos Windsbuhl vineyard in the Hunawihr region in Central Alsace and the volcanic Clos-Saint-Urbain vineyard located in the most southerly part of Alsace, within the Grand Cru of Rangen de Thann – the most iconic and historic vineyard of the region.

Clos Windsbuhl: limestone

Clos Windsbuhl overlooks the church of Sainte Hune. A monopole site (owned entirely by Zind-Humbrecht), it isn’t actually a Grand Cru, although many believe it should be. It sits directly above the Grand Cru of Rosacker – the source of Alsace’s most cult wine Clos Sainte Hune. It has a distinct soil type, rich in limestone with clay and chalk on the lower part. It is one of the last vineyards to ripen in Alsace due to its high altitude (350 metres above sea-level). It is this cooling influence and slow ripening that creates the aromatic complexity typical of this vineyard. Nestled close to the Vosges mountains, it is protected from the winds but as one of the coolest sites in Alsace, Clos Windsbuhl performs best in a warm vintage such as 2018.

Tasting the latest wines from 2018, the pulsing drive in all three wines – Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer – is obvious, no doubt the limestone soils providing this distinct tension and focus. Despite the pulsing drive, the wines remained controlled and very elegant. Olivier believes it is this finesse and elegance that is the defining characteristic of Clos Windsbuhl. 

2018 Riesling Clos Windsbuhl

The Riesling has a strong limestone presence, taut structure and pulse. It’s so linear, but with contained fruit – honeyed pink apple and white peach. In some ways it shares strong similarities with white Burgundy.

2018 Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl

The Pinot Gris has a slightly oilier texture, and an additional lushness. Despite this, the limestone still plays a very strong role in this wine – poised, taut acidity pulses through the wine. It does not have the aromatic camouflage of Riesling, the chalky minerality is even more. Very powerful and elegant – forward drive seems very characterful of Clos Windsbuhl.

2018 Gewürztraminer Clos Windsbuhl

The Gewürztraminer has a beautifully focused rather than flamboyant nose of lychee and white flowers. Noticeable residual sugar gives the wine a lovely creamy textural quality, yet the energy and poise so typical of the vineyard is still very present, giving the wine lovely balancing mineral freshness. Olivier states that this Gewürztraminer has the same tannin levels as a red Burgundy!

Clos-Saint-Urbain: volcanic sandstone

Clos-Saint-Urbain sits within the Grand Cru of Rangen de Thann and is Alsace’s most southerly vineyard with a unique composition of highly mineralised volcanic soil (unlike any other site in Alsace). With its south-facing steep vineyards, the vines get incredible sun exposure, and the dark reddish-brown soil heats up like a furnace. All these elements help the grapes reach high levels of phenolic ripeness, while the altitude of 350 to 450 metres means the vines are some of the most late-ripening, with the harvest often taking place two to three weeks after the start of the harvesting period in Alsace. The altitude and poor soils also protect the acidity in the wine, together producing some of the longest-lived white wines ever made. Decanter’s Andrew Jefford describes the Rangen vineyard as producing "the ultimate terroir wine", and it has even been nicknamed by many as "the Montrachet of Alsace".

Like Clos Windsbuhl, Clos-Saint-Urbain has similar intensity and strong mineral presence, though the mineral profile is really very different. It is much flintier and smokier, almost a touch of peat-smoke. All the three varieties are much more savoury on the palate. Whereas the fruit is more present and pristine in the Clos Windsbuhl, in the Clos-Saint-Urbain, the fruit is more caramelised and plays second fiddle to the volcanic minerality.

Riesling 2018 Clos-Saint-Urbain

This is expressive on the nose, dominated by flint, chalk stone and caramelised lemon. The tension is remarkable. With the high mineral content comes real intensity and power too. Quince, lemon sherbet and a strong salinity creates an expansive mouth-watering finish. This is epic.

2018 Pinot Gris Clos-Saint-Urbain

This rich, full-bodied, opulent Pinot Gris has heat-fuelled flint and smoke characters. The wine has a very creamy mid-palate, a silky and supple texture with gorgeous apricot and nectarine flavours interspersed with the saline-tinged smoky minerality. Tension builds on the back palate, this is bold, rich Pinot Gris, but with plenty of focus and a mouthwatering finish.

2018 Gewürztraminer Clos-Saint-Urbain

The Gewürztraminer has a wonderful smoky, peat-like nose with plenty of ginger spice, classic lychee aromas and flinty minerality. Again, there is a silky texture to the wine and a light, herby, saline bitterness to the finish. It’s very long, with a fiery, spicy finish.

For availability on all the latest 2018 Zind Humbrecht wines click here.

Burgundy 2019: the whites

BY Gavin Smith,

Oct 21st, 2020

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