Alsace Day 3 - Riquewihr & Bergheim
A rather damp start to the day apparently due to a strange weather phenomenon known as 'L'effet des Cloches'. Also known to occur on occasion in the only place in France dryer then Alsace, Perpignan in the extreme south!
Our first tasting today was within walking distance of our hotel here in Riquewihr at Dopff au Moulin winery. Our host Ulrika explained that the harvest for the grapes to make their Crémant had begun the day before and that would would be able to view them arriving at their plant today. Interesting for me as hearing about the process and actually seeing it are two completely different things and it's another first experience for me. I know I sound like an amateur but I have been drinking wine for years, I promise! The winery itself can trace it's roots back to 1574 when the Dopff family first settled in Riquewihr and today they own 65 hectares and produce over 2.3 million bottles a year. It was explained that the harvesting of the grapes is strictly controlled by the 'Appellation' in Alsace and that they can only begin to pick the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris for use in their Crémant this week. The rest of their varieties not until September 24th, and their Riesling until three days later.
Dopff are famous for their Crémants, the sparkling wines of Alsace, after Julien Dopff went to Champagne in the early 1900's and brought their method back to Alsace to become a pioneer of the style and even called it 'Champagne' for a short time. The special designation for Crémant d'Alsace wasn't introduced until 1976.
Back at the winery we witnessed large red tubs of Chardonnay grapes arriving and being loaded onto a conveyor to be lifted and dumped into the tanks for pressing. After having sampled the Riesling grapes, the Chardonnay looked similar, but when you pick one off the bunch the skin is so thin that it almost bursts between your fingers. The grapes are then pneumatically pressed for 3 hours (by inflating a giant balloon inside the tank!) to gently squeeze the juice out. The process is then repeated a second time to produce the grape juice for blending and fermentation.
We were fortunate enough to sample five of their Crémants. From two very dry types, Wild Brut 2009 and 'Cuvée Julien Brut' to a Chardonnay Brut 2008, a Brut Rosé made from Pinit Noir grapes and their Blancs de Noirs Brut 2009 before moving on to their Grand Cru wines. We had some delicious Riesling from their Schoenbourg vineyards including the 2009 and the Vielles Vignes 2004 and finally the Gewürztraminer Sporen 2009. I have to admit, I did make a few purchases to bring home from here.
After another big lunch in the Restaurant Dopff Au Moulin right next to our hotel, we were off for the afternoon to Bergheim, and the domaine Marcel Deiss. An impressive tasting room complete with giant tv screen and domaine mapping technology was our first indication that this wouldn't be a standard tasting. Little did we know that it was the it would be the presentation of the wineries methodology which would be the big surprise. The domaine itself only has 27 hectares of vines but it's what they do with them that stands out among Alsatian producers. Much like Monsieur Rietsch yesterday, they produce organic wines. But they've been doing it since 1985! Secondly and more importantly, their main focus is not to make grape varietal wines. Instead, they mix the vines in each parcel of vineyard to create wines that reflect the different 'terroir'. This means that they can have a similar combination of grape varieties in multiple locations which taste completely different due to the soil content and climatic conditions! They cram double the amount of vines in to create stress in the plants which makes them work harder and while producing a much lower yield, give a higher quality of concentrated juices. Some of their Grand Cru vineyards are so old, the roots of their vines stretch 50 metres underground to find nourishment. In this way they only produce approximately 100,000 bottles per year. They have also discovered that planting the different varieties so tight together helps to stave off diseases in the vines. The first wine we tasted was the Langenberg 2009, from the vineyard of that name above the town of Saint-Hypolite. The ground here is mostly granite and produces a floral, fruity wine wine with good balance and low acidity. The second was Engelgarten 2009 from just south of Bergheim on a more limestone based ground. A similar breakdown as Langenberg of 60% Riesling vines, 30% Pinot and 10% Muscat produce a very different wine. Very light bouquet, but drier with more minerality on the palate and even a touch of sweetness from residual sugars. The Rotenberg 2007 is grown on red limestone with a higher percentage of Riesling and no Muscat but gives a nose of exotic fruits and honey again with good acidity and a sweet finish. It was also my favourite. We also tasted Gruenspiel 2007, a wine given more skin contact than the others which gave it a sweetness on the nose, but with good acidity and less fruit in the mouth. It was quite short also and probably not ready to drink just yet. To finish we had the Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim 2007 - one of their top wines. I think almost everyone will agree, that while the wines may not have been to everyone's taste, the tasting itself was intriguing and gave cause for thought that it isn't always necessary to follow the herd in order to be successful in the wine industry. For such a small producer to do things the proper way and put their trust in the grapes (and terrior) themselves with minimal interference and to move away from the simplification of wine labelling by varietal, they can find themselves a niche market in a very crowded environment.