Posts Filed Under kick-ass wines
When you’re within spitting distance of Kayserberg (quite literally the cutest town in France, an honor it was officially awarded in 2017), amid the picturesque shadows of a castle that dates back to the fourteenth Century (and in which harvests were celebrated), and regularly run into ruins from the early 700s AD, you might justifiably consider yourself in a sort of Western European daydream-like fantasy land. Just add fairies and elves!
Hence the “schloss” part…
While that is, indeed, the present situation of Alsace’s Schlossberg Grand Cru vineyard site and the sixty-some-odd producers who farm it (a spot I visited as part of a media jaunt earlier this year), that present situation belies a more, well, aggressive historical backdrop.
This granitic area of northeastern France has seen a revolving door of historical overlords, including the Romans, Germans, and the French. And yes, Schlossberg has the distinction of being awarded on of Alsace’s first Grand Cru classifications in 1975, but that was almost fifty years later than planned (they attempted it first in 1928, but things got sidetracked due to a World War). Actually, it’s almost 500 years late, considering that the area’s vines have been known as having serious vinous potential since the 1400s, and that the area exported twice as much wine in the Middle Ages as it does now.
Also consider that, from a farming perspective, you’re not getting much more than grapes here. The area sits on steep slopes rising up to almost 400 meters, and (thanks to the Vosges mountains) sees less than 500 millimeters of rainfall per year (which about three times less than Bordeaux). Alsace sits on the largest underground water reserve in the country, but irrigation isn’t permitted, so the vines have to work their roots down deep to get a drink.
The soil in Schlossberg has high pH levels, and so requires calcium to prevent toxicity, and its diversity is a testament to the violence of the ancient Devonian forces that formed it. Also, you need dry stone terraces (the work of Italian immigrants hired by regional monks in the Middle Ages) to keep everything in place, and they are, to put it mildly, a pain in the ass to maintain. Oh, and the climate is semi-continental, which means they get nearly the full extremes in seasonal variation, and the subsequent farming headache potential.
Finally, we should include the political and cultural vagaries that come with producing consumables in a place that has changed country of ownership more than a few times. Alsace’s major market, historically, has been Germany, since the French kind of considered Alsace as French-but-maybe-not-really.
How does all of this impact the Rieslings crafted from Schlossberg’s soils? More than one of the wine producers with whom I met described their Riesling as “thin, delicate, and like a marathon man.” You’ll understand what they mean in a minute or two…
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I know we look serious, but much fun was actually had by all
Earlier this week, I took part in an online masterclass/virtual-round-table of sorts with Wines of Chile and Snooth, tasting through a selection of Chilean Carménère reds (some of which you can purchase via a pretty good deal right now), with a group of capable and affable fellow wine-media-types (including @WineDineWanda, @enobytes, @talkavino, and @KellyMitchell).
If you’re kind of scratching your head on the uncharacteristically quick turnaround time in recapitulating the experience here on 1WD, it’s because the whole online-video-Carménère thing is nostalgic for me, as it was one of the first such tastings that I ever did under the 1WD umbrella (back when the writing here could charitably be described as fledgling…).
While almost unlikely to become a crowd favorite based on availability alone, Carignan is probably the empirically best Chilean red fine wine grape, or at least the one with the most depth, intrigue, and soul.
Having said that, the much more ubiquitous Carménère from Chile is still an incredible bargain, and arguably has never been better (or easier to enjoy even at modest price points). In Carménère, Chile is leveraging its ever-increasing winemaking knowledge levels to the full, combining modern know-how with more hand-crafted approaches; the results in some cases are single vineyard wines from older vines that provide an intellectually captivating experience at prices that still kind of defy credulity. At least, that’s how I’m increasingly seeing that landscape, particularly based on what we tasted during our video meetup…
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Remember when I waxed all smitten-like over a tasting of Rangen Alsace Grand Cru Riesling?
Well, I do.
I was so smitten, in fact, that I did something that I’ve only ever done twice in ten years, which was to reach out to the U.S. PR agency dealing with Alsatian wines and ask them to book me on a media jaunt to the area, so that I could get my feet directly on those Rangen rocks. Which, luckily for me, they did.
In a classic case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for-vuz-you-just-might-get-it, I then had to scale the greater-than-45-degree slopes of Alsace’s southernmost (and by far its steepest) Grand Cru vineyard site, though the view (and the tastes) about 450 meters up were well worth a little breathlessness (PSA: if you consider yourself not exactly physically fit, you might want to skip a visit to Rangen). Think the Mosel, only steeper (yes, the vineyard workes use ropes to secure themselves from falling to their deaths during harvest), or the Douro (only with less terracing and more danger to life and limb). The only marring comes by way of the factories along the nearby Thur river, a holdover from the `50s. Otherwise, this spot between Thann and Vieux-Thann is thoroughly picturesque.
Rangen has a few other characteristics that distinguish it from the rest of Alsace’s (many) GC sites. It might be one of the oldest of the region’s Grand Crus, with the origin of its name being lost to posterity (the first recorded reference goes back all the way to the Thirteenth Century). The rocky soils are about 330 million years old, the result of older mountain ranges and volcanic extrusions all mixed up together. This makes for a harder-than-average vineyard soil, with dark components that help to retain heat, with a more fragile subsoil that allows deep penetration by the vine roots.
You’d think that, with the steepness, naturally low yields, and the fact that it takes new vines closer to seven years to produce fruit here (versus three years in more forgiving environments), that harvest would be a total bitch. But there’s an even bitchier aspect of the Rangen for those that tend it…
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When I visited venerable Alsatian wine icon Hugel on a media jaunt earlier this year (2017), they were nary a year removed from the family tragedy of Etienne Hugel’s untimely death, and their CEO had left the company the week prior to my visit. When I mentioned to 13th-generation family member Marc-André Hugel that many of the faces in their most recent welcome video could no longer be found with the company, he quipped “You remember [the tv show] Dallas? It’s just like that here.”
If anything defines Hugel, it’s probably that combination of reverential, hard working focus and tongue-in-cheek, cavalier acceptance that Marc-André displayed with affable gusto during my visit. Which isn’t surprising, considering that if you took too seriously the things with which Hugel has to deal on a regular basis, you’d probably blow a gasket. As Marc-André put it, “having a company in the middle of a 2,000-year-old city is… not easy…”
Hugel makes about one million bottles of wine annually, exporting them to over 100 countries, and is fond of testing out new tech in the cellar (to wit: they claim to be the first company in the world to employ a robo-palette). But that cellar dates from 1543, and happens to be near the center of the improbably precious town of Riquewihr. The oldest barrel therein dates back to the early 1700s (full disclosure: I might have crawled inside of it… also, they generate some downright impressive tartrate deposits). The combination of relatively large production, modern touches, and ancient surroundings requires the careful use of their restricted (and highly regulated) space.
Life in the vineyards is equally “not easy.” Their most famous is probably Schoenenbourg (which Marc-André described as “my whole fortune!”); not only does it sits within spitting distance of Riquewihr, but it has, at its steepest extent, slopes that are around thirty-five degrees. Add to that farming difficulty the pressure of maintaining a site that has been revered for hundreds of years (Voltaire is said to have once owned holdings there, for example, which might explain where the Hugel clan gets some of their humor)…
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