Alsace, it’s that sliver of a region in Northeast France that borders Germany. There was a time it was Germany. In fact, the French/German border has moved several times. The region has a tumultuous history, changing hands with empires and dynasties.
First planted to grapes by the Romans when they conquered in 58 BC, the wines quickly grew in acclaim. Today the region is known for its aromatic white wines which are, unlike most of France, labeled by variety.
Four of these varieties are considered Noble: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat. Other varieties that are grown and do well here include Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Chasselas, and Pinot Noir. You will also find Auxerrois and Chardonnay planted, much of that for the sparkling Crémant d’Alsace.
The region is a tapestry of soils, with over 20 major types. In addition, the Vosges Mountains catch the clouds coming from the West creating a rain shadow making this one of the driest areas of France. The mountains also create multiple microclimates within the region with valleys and a variety of aspects.
Overall the climate is sunny and warm, with the slopes creating the best wines and the flat areas closer to the Rhine suited to grapes to pick early for the sparkling Crémants.
In June we had the opportunity to do a virtual tasting with 4 different wineries in the Alsace region, which I thought would be perfect to share with the French #Winophiles deep dive into the region this month.
You can join the #winophiles to discuss the region on Twitter on Saturday, July 17th (8 am Pacific or 11 am Eastern). Just use and follow the hashtag #Winophiles to join the conversation.
At the bottom of this post you will find links to all of my Colleagues’ pieces on the subject, so prepare for a bit of Alsace immersion!
Millésimes Alsace 2021 Digitasting
Vins d’Alsace organized a beautiful Digitasting. The site provided information on each of the 100 wineries participating in the show. I received tasting boxes with 2 ounce pours from 4 different wineries, then had the opportunity to schedule an online video meeting with them to taste through the wines and ask questions.
We met with 4 Domaines:
- Domaine Sohler Philippe
- Sipp Mack Vins D’Alsace
- Domaine Saint Remy Ehrhart
- Agathe Bursin.
All have women who if they not running the winery, they very close to the helm.
These estates sit North and south of Colmar. If you drove from Domaine Sohler Philippe in the north to Agathe Bursin in the south, passing through the villages where Sipp Mack and Domaine Saint-Remy Ehrhart are located, it would take you just over an hour.
The wines we received as media samples. All opinions remain our own.
Lydie Demangeat Sohler
Lydie is the 3rd generation on this estate, started by her grandfather. Her father began the winery Domaine in 1995, which is why it bears his name. She is now the winemaker having taken over from her Father Philippe and runs the winery with her sister Marine.
Located in Nothalten, Alsace, their vineyards cover 60 parcels in 5 towns with very diverse soils. “We are at the service of our terroirs, we reveal it,” they say on their site.
They are careful with their soils, allowing the living creatures in the soil to work the ground, the earthworms, and micro-organisms. They take pride in their soils and work to allow them to speak through the wines.
They have 7 different soil types. Lydie shows me the hard grey rock from the Heissenberg plot and the volcanic subsoil on the Meunchberg Grand Cru that you can see in the photos here.
From top right to bottom left: Famille Domaine Sohler Philippe, Grand Cru Muenchberg au pied de l’Ungersberg, Lydie & Marine récolte la reine des prés, Lydie en cave, Marine & Lydie, roche volcanique Muenchenberg, sous-sol Heissenberg, and Lydie vendages (harvest).
Gaia 2017 Assemblage
The first wine we taste is their Gaia 2017 Assemblage. First known as the Cuvée de la Reine de Vins, it was the wine created in 2014 when she was elected the Queen of Alsace at the Colmar Wine Fair.
They liked the blend and so they continue it, now under the name Gaia, a more philosophical name, graceful and referring to the energy of the sun, the moon, the rocks…all these things that are a part of their story.
Gaia is a blend of 60% Riesling from The Grand Cru Muenchberg on volcanic rock and Heissenberg on sandstone rock, then 20% Muscat from very old sandstone that is a light pink when dry, and 20% Pinot Gris from Zellberg on a plot of marl sandstone.
Lovely white florals waft out of the glass at you with this wine.
We also tasted the Riesling Heissenberg 2018 which has grassy notes and lemon with complex mineral notes, from the Hessenberg Vineyard.
The Grand Cru Meunchberg Riesling 2017 grows on volcanic subsoil which is an amazing purple and green color. The nose is smokey with saffron and brioche. It is large and round in the mouth with a wonderful texture, an interesting comparison to the linear Heissenberg.
Lastly, we tasted the 2017 Mateo Pinot Noir. There is a tradition in Alsace to make a wine and name it after the children in the family. This wine is named after Lydie’s son Mateo.
Sipp Mack sits in the village of Hunawihr. Carolyn Sipp and her father Jacque met with me. Carolyn will be the 10th generation, and she has the 11th generation on the way.
Hunawihr is picturesque and small, with just around 600 people Carolyn tells me. They have one shop (a bakery), a few restaurants, and a fortified church, that was previously a castle. Centuries ago when the castle became vacant, the people of the town turned it into a church. Catholics and Protestants have shared this church since 1680.
The family has 25 hectares of vineyards in Hunawihr, Ribeauvillé, and Bergheim, including plots in the Grand Crus Rosacker and Osterberg. Their vineyards sit in limestone, you will find no granite here.
We begin our tasting with the 2019 Tradition Pinot Blanc. Meant for everyday drinking, this wine comes from younger vines and is released faster, but still retains complexity. The blend, Jacque tells me, is 70% Pinot Blanc Auxerrois for fatness and 20% Pinot Blanc for straightness. To me, it tastes like springtime in a glass.
We move on to the Riesling 2018 Vielle Vignes, 50-year-old vines, from 4 lieu dits that could become Premier cru in the next 10 years. Different vineyards, same elevations which Carolyn says brings a balance, one plot gives the richness, one the structure, another acidity, giving consistency and complexity to the wine.
We move on to the Grand Cru Rosacker Riesling 2016, which spends one year in tank and then 3 to 4 in bottle before release. The nose on this wine is reminiscent of beeswax. They find there is a precision of minerality that gets smoother and stronger as this wine ages.
Their plots sit at the top of the Rosacker Grand Cru sees and cold winds from the forest above at night that keep the acidity in this wine.
We finish with the 2018 Gewurztraminer Vielle Vignes, which is sweet at 42 g/L of residual sugar balanced by acid and with tremendous aromatics. It comes from heavy clay soils. You get all that you expect from a Gewurztraminer, lychee, and roses with other tropical fruit notes.
We speak a little about the weather and Jacque mentions that last year’s harvest began on the 25th of August. This year they expect to be back to a more normal 20th of September, but nothing is routine. Climate change has been great for the quality of Pinot Noir, but Riesling needs the cold for acidity.
On the property, they have 5 guest rooms. Carolyn’s grandfather was ahead of his time, creating the guest rooms to attract people to the small village, creating vineyard experiences in the 70ss and 80s.
When I ask if there is anything else I should know, Jacque tells me “That you should for the rest of your life, don’t forget to enjoy a Sipp of Mack.”
The domain has been in the family since 1725! Margo is part of the 8th generation in this family working these grapes. Her father and her brother take care of most of the vinification, but she sometimes helps. With a family winery, they all must do a bit of everything.
When her father took over, they became organic and purchased 7 additional hectares of vineyard from a cousin. Based in the village of Wettolsheim just 5 km west of Colmar, they are now much bigger with 24 total hectares over 12 villages, but they still focus on quality.
They are also Demeter certified and her grandfather has taken charge of making the biodynamic preparations.
Primarily, they make Cremant d’Alsace, those bubbles that are in such high demand, but also quite a bit of still wine with 28 different wines in their portfolio.
They are quite lucky to have parcels in 4 different Grand Crus, Hengst, Brand, Goldert, and Schlossberg.
We began our tasting with the Riesling JADE 2019, a cuvée named for her brother’s daughter. Grown in alluvial soils on the La Fecht River, a tributary of the Turckheim river, this sandy alluvial soil with clay allows for nice minerality and acidity in the wine. Margo suggests pairing it with seafood or oysters. It is made in Stainless Steel and sits for 8-9 months on the fine lees.
We moved on to the Riesling 2019 Grand Cru Hengst made from their 5 hectares on this Grand Cru. The soil is rich with limestone and marl and sits at 300 meters on a mostly south-facing slope.
This wine, while vinified in the same way as the JADE, is so different, heavier and rounder in the mouth. They make all the wines, in the same way, so the difference is from the soil and the land that the grapes are grown on. Margo loves to eat this with sushi and I can see where the umami of the soy would be brilliant with this.
Next up was the Pinot Noir “H” 2017 also grown in the Hengst vineyard. It is called “H” for the first letter in “Hengst”. The Grand Cru vineyard name cannot be on the label, as Pinot Noir is not a noble grape. They are hoping that a Pinot Noir Grand Cru will be approved, but for now, they wait.
The “H” is linear with great fruit and spice.
We finish with the Gewurztraminer Rosenberg Reserve 2019 from the Rosenberg Lieu-dit. This vineyard sits just below the Grand Cru Hengst and has a bit of sweetness with 7 g/L of rs, that is balanced by acidity. It is elegant and Margot suggests pairing it with spicy foods or spicy cheese.
Domaine Saint Remy/Ehrhart is located close to Colmar and they have a beautiful cellar that they built just 8 years ago, that is open daily for guests. Their annual production is 150,000 bottles.
My meeting with Agathe Bursin was enchanting. I was enamored by her expressiveness and while I did not understand all of the words, the energy she spoke with carried much of the meaning. We recorded the conversation and translated it afterward, as she had answered questions that I emailed her earlier.
Agathe was born to a family of vintners. Her mother passed her plots to Agathe and in 2000 she settled down on these 3 hectares of vineyard in Westhalten about 15 kilometers south of Colmar.
Her land is divided into 40 plots around the village, which sits at the intersection of two faults. The village is surrounded by the famous hills Zinnkoepflé, Strangenberg, and Bollenberg and is famous for its Mediterranean-like climate.
Agathe tells me the two-fold story of why she got into wine. First, she remembers her grandparents making wine. At just 3 years old she was drawn to the clack, clack of the press and would press her fingers between the slats to taste the sweet juice. Later her grandfather gave her a taste of the fermented wine to her grandmother’s dismay. But the die was cast, this was the beginning.
The second reason might have been peer pressure, she was one girl with 4 boys in kindergarten, drawing pictures of tractors and grapes with them, all of them planning to become grape growers.
I savored the wines as I tasted through them. Agathe does not have a website and she notoriously sells out of her wines quickly, so this was a rare tasting.
The wines we tasted through include: the Riesling 2019 Bollenberg from 72-year-old vines on the SW facing slope of the Bollenberg, the Grand Cru Zinnkoepfle Riesling 2019, which comes from a 1200 foot elevation plot, and the Pinot Noir 2018 Stangenberg which does a brief 8 days of maceration then spends 18 months in barrel.
Finally, we finish with the Grand Cru Zinnkoepfle Gewurztraminer 2018 Vendage Tardives They leaf-pull by hand, creating airflow without exposing the berries to too much sun, allowing them to keep their acidity. Humid mornings with fog are followed by sun to dry out the grapes creating beautiful noble rot, giving those beautiful aromas and sweetness.
She is a huge proponent of this Sylvaner and I was sad not to have the opportunity to taste hers. Sylvaner has been pulled out in Alsace in favor of the noble varieties and relegated mostly to the flatter lesser vineyards. If it is planted in beautiful soils, she says, it will surpass all other grape varieties. Her grandfather told her if she one day became a winemaker in another country to not forget to put Sylvaner in her suitcase, he is the one who will tell you if it’s a vineyard or potato terroir.
Truly, the conversation with Agathe was wonderful, she is so passionate and as I go back through the translation I find gems. She spoke of global warming, here is my approximate translation.
“This winter we had a beautiful cool winter and the spring was not that hot. So I say to myself, we are still talking of global warming? We must not hide our face, you must not have blinders. If everyone was making efforts, maybe nature would have the strength and so we could reverse the trend. It’s true I believe in man and the ability to change their habits and then to ensure that nature is more and more beautiful. I am always hopeful.”
These women are all continuing family legacies of grape growing and winemaking in Alsace. Holding to traditions, while innovating for the future. It seems the vineyards of Alsace, at least with these four women, are in good hands.
The French #Winophiles
Here are those promised links to all of my Colleagues’ pieces on this wonderful region of Alsace! Don’t forget to join us on Twitter Saturday July 17th at 8 am Pacific time (3 pm GMT). Just use and follow the hashtag #Winophiles!
- 3 Riesling from Alsace by Gwendolyn at Wine Predator
- All About the Wines of Alsace by Jennifer at Vino Travels
- Alsace Wine and Cold Poached Salmon with Sauce Verte (Green Mayonnaise) by Terri at Our Good Life
- Alsace Wines’ Heart and Soul – Land Sustainability, Family Tradition and Food Compatibility by Pinny at Chinese Food and Wine Pairings
- Alsace Wines Shine with Summer’s Bounty Risotto by Jeff at Food Wine Click!
- Blending Innovation and Tradition with Wines of Alsace by Jill at L’Occasion
- Butternut Squash Chickpea Curry with Wine from Alsace by David at Cooking Chat
- Domaines Schlumberger 2018 Pinot Blanc: A Delectable Grape Mutation + Criques de Pommes de Terre by Culinary Adventures with Camilla
- Five Winemaking women of Alsace by Linda at My Full Wine Glass
- Once Upon a Wine in Alsace – a Riesling rekindling by Wining With Mel
- Shrimp Louis Sandwiches paired with an Alsace Pinot Blanc by Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm
- Summer Food Pairings with Alsace Wines by Jane at Always Ravenous
- Wines of Alsace Bring the Wow Every Time by Liz with What’s in that Bottle?
- Zind Humbrecht Pinot Blanc with a Leek & Bacon Tart by Nicole of Somm’s Table
- Our Host Rupal of Syrah Queen shares Alsace Rocks with Paul Blanc Rosenbourg Riesling and Summer Shrimp.
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.