Alsace Winegrowers’ Palpable Passion for World Class Pinot Noirs

Alsace Winegrowers’ Palpable Passion for World Class Pinot Noirs

Burgundy may be Pinot Noir’s spiritual home, but Alsace winegrowers’ palpable passion for Pinot Noir these days cannot be ignored. Leading winegrowers such as André Ostertag, Christian Beyer, Jean-Paul and Marie Zusslin, Maxime Barmès and Rémy Gresser embody the renewed dedication to producing high quality, delicious Pinot Noir wines worthy of international attention. Each grower offers an ambitious vision for Alsace red wines.

André Ostertag:

“Studying winegrowig in Burgundy gave me a high sense of grand vin. It is a place with a high sense of terroir,” says André Ostertag who returned home to manage Domaine Ostertag which his father, Adolph, created in 1966.  “The temptation is to try to copy the style of red Burgundies, but this is a beginner’s temptation. After a while you learn that you have to discover your own wine by understanding the essence of what’s going on in your soils and terroir.”

He notes that Alsace has more diverse soils than Burgundy, and the climate has more sunshine and drier conditions. And on a cultural level, Alsace mixes both Germanic and Latin influences.

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Winegrower André Ostertag in his cellar in Epfig, a winegrowing village below Strasbourg in Alsace’s Bas-Rhine département.

“Our best Pinot Noirs have an identity all their own, one with powerful fruit, freshness and ripe tannins,” he says. Achieving this optimal style requires savoir-faire.

“For a long time in Alsace we treated red winemaking similar to white winemaking, but producing serious red wines requires a different approach,” he notes.

He points to reduced yields as a key to enabling proper extraction of color from Pinot Noir grape skins. Providing the notoriously fickle grape with more sun and heat, he notes, also promotes riper tannins which create better balanced wines.

More importantly for Osterag, discovering the true identity and potential of Alsace Pinot Noirs pivoted on the conversion of vineyards to biodyanmie practices. He began in 1997 by abandoning synthetic chemical applications on the vines in favor of biodynamie’s teas and composts. Vineyard soils regained vitality, and he says the vines became more self-sufficient.

“The best grapes come from happy vines that are respected. Biodynamie is the most natural and best way to respect the vines,” he notes. “The vines become better adapted to react to difficult circumstances on their own instead of just depending on humans. The vines then produce better tasting and healthier grapes.”

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Ostertag’s “dancing vines” label.

Ostertag produces two Pinot Noirs. The first, Pinot Noir “E”, he calls vin de fruit or “fruit wine.” The 2014 Domaine Ostertag, Pinot Noir “E” (Imported to the U.S. by Kermit Lynch) comes from 20 year old vines growing in clay and gravel. The wine aged in stainless steel for nine months before bottling. The lovely ruby color offers piping aromas of raspberries and a touch of earthiness. Delicious, crunchy red fruit flavors balance with zesty acidity and marvelous, mouthwatering mineral notes. Elegant, soft tannins frame the fruity finish. A fun, well made red made for gulping pleasure.

Ostertag’s second Pinot Noir comes from forty year old vines in Fronholz vineyard, a very unique site atop a hill in Epfig.

“Fronholz is a very strong place in terms of personality,” he notes. “It faces southwest so the evening sun creates warm afternoons followed by cool mornings. The grapes ripen slowly and develop complex aromatics.”

“The soils are marnes—a type of heavy clay—and clay mixed with chalky limestone, soils perfectly suited for Pinot Noir,” Ostertag adds. “The vineyard gives a Pinot Noir reflecting both sky and earth, lightness and mineral power.”

The 2015 Domaine Ostertag, Fronholz Pinot Noir fermented in stainless steel and then aged in previously used French barrique barrels. It offers red cherry and spicy aromas followed by delicious, ripe sweet fruit, ample concentration, marvelous freshness and smooth tannins. An elegant, understated red giving terrific pleasure.

Looking to the future, Ostertag says his son Arthur, who also trained in Burgundy, has a strong desire to make more Pinot Noir. The warming climate create opportunities, in Ostertag’s view, especially as more growers plant Pinot Noir vines on Alsace’s prominent hillside sites.

“There are many positive conditions for more and better Pinot Noirs in Alsace,” Ostertag says. “But making Pinot Noir is more than a question of just style and what you you want to do.  The question of who you are is just as important. Because you make the wine you are.”

Christian Beyer:

Christian Beyer par C. PENNEAU
Winegrower Christian Beyer’s domain in the picturesque, prime winegrowing village of Eguisheim lies below Colmar in the Alsace Haut-Rhine. Credit: C. Penneau

“In Medieval times, Alsace made as much red as white wine, so we have a tradition with Pinot Noir for over 400 years,” says 14th generation winegrower Christian Beyer of Domaine Emile Beyer in Eguisheim. “We have everything Pinot Noir needs—a relatively cool climate, plenty of limestone soils, and more and more older vines.”

But Beyer says today’s Alsace reds differ from those of thirty years ago.

“My generation has many experiences outside Alsace in Burgundy, Bordeaux and elsewhere, and this makes a big difference,” says Beyer who, like André Ostertag, studied winegrowing in Burgundy. “Today more winegrowers have big ambitions to produce great Alsace red wines.”

In pursuing quality, Beyer reduced yields and worked organically without synthetic chemicals since returning to manage the domaine in 1997. In 2016 he went further by beginning conversion to biodynamie work in the vineyards. After harvesting by hand, fermentation occurs naturally in stainless steel tanks in a new cuverie.

Beyer produces three levels of Pinot Noir. His Domaine Emile Beyer “Tradition” Pinot Noir comes from both estate grown fruit and purchased grapes.The vines grow primarily in limestone soils to deliver a fruit forward red wine with medium body and well balanced acidity and tannins.

The Domaine Emile Beyer, “Eguisheim” Pinot Noir uses all estate grown fruit harvested from thirty year old vines growing on slopes south of the village. The soils are mainly marl and limestone. The wine has darker red fruit with a touch of earthiness and spice from partial aging in barrique barrels made from Allier and Vosges oak. Ample concentration of pure red fruit in the glass balances with fine freshness and smooth tannins.

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Beyer’s Pinot Noir vines in the “Sundel” lieu-dit lie within the Pfersigberg Grand Cru, a place where the sunny microclimate features flowering lavender and peach trees as part of the unique terroir.

Beyer has special fondness for the Sundel lieu-dit, a plot of Pinot Noir vines planted in the upper portion of the Pfersigberg Grand Cru. The soils feature Bajocian limestone mixed with with iron. “Sundel” means “little sun,” and the vines lie on a south facing slope with ideal sun exposure.

“It is wonderful place and always a pleasure to work there,” says Beyer who collaborates closely with his wife Valérie in managing the estate. “You always feel good in this place because it is sunny and yet has a cool climate.”

Beyer used Pommard “Clos des Epenots” 1er cru  clones from Burgundy to plant the Pinot Noir vines which are now approaching 20 years old. Respect for the soils and vines is the key to quality, he says.

“It is a cliché, but there are no great wines without grapes,” he says. “I consider myself a viticulturalist first, and a winemaker second.”

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2015 Domaine Emile Beyer, “Sundel” lieu-dit Pinot Noir

The 2015 Domaine Emile Beyer, “Sundel” lieu-dit Pinot Noir has a dark garnet color with a burst of pure, red fruit aromas and earthy notes. Pure, ripe dark red flavors layer in rich concentration balanced by uplifting acidity and elegant, understated tannins. It gives terrific immediate pleasure, but the wine has the fruit and structure to age for 10 to 20 years.

Going forward, Beyer believes that proven, superior Alsace Pinot Noir climats should be considered for Grand Cru status, a designation that the INAO, France’s governing body for appellations, has declined to grant thus far.

“The new generation is open to planting Pinot Noir in the best sites in Alsace,” Beyer notes. “Allowing Grand Cru status for Alsace red wines will encourage the efforts.”

Jean-Paul and Marie Zusslin:

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Sister and brother winegrowing team, Marie and Jean-Paul Zusslin.

Siblings Jean-Paul and Marie Zusslin both returned in 2000 to their family wine estate, Domaine Valentin Zusslin in Orschwihr south of Colmar. Jean-Paul had studied winegrowing in Beaune, Burgundy, while Marie initially studied law before switching to viticulture school in Rouffach, Alsace.

“We grew up in a family winery and our father was a great fan of Pinot Noirs from all over the world,” Marie says. “So my brother and I always shared the same dream and goal—to make our own Alsatian style of Pinot Noir from our beautiful Bollenberg lieu-dit vineyard.”

The siblings started with great advantages. The Bollenberg vineyard had been planted with Pinot Noir for three generations, and conversion to biodynamie already took place in 1997 with approval by Biodyvin in 2000.  Using biodynamic teas and MT compost instead of synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides is crucial to quality, according to Zusslin.

“The vineyard is a living organism. The cultivated soil is not just a support for the vine, but a living environment, the source of energy for the plant as well as its aerial environment,” Zusslin says.

They religiously apply dynamized biodynamic treatments such as the 500 preparation of “cow horn dung” and the preparation 501 “horn silica” along with other preparations made from yarrow, camomile and other natural materials. The process helps the vines stay in healthy balance and maintains vital soils. Better tasting, fresher grapes result from the magnificent Bollenberg terroir.

Coulisses des Vendanges 2014. Pinot Noir. Domaine Valentin Zusslin. Credit Photo : Domaine Valentin Zusslin/Gregory Pigot
Careful sorting of Pinot Noir after harvest ensures only fully ripened, undamaged fruit goes into fermentation at Domaine Valentin Zusslin. Credit Photo : Domaine Valentin Zusslin/Gregory Pigot

As part of a protected nature reserve, the “Landes Seches,” the vineyard actually lies within a dry moor. The Pinot Noir vines grow amid a tremendous diversity of flowers and plants populated by numerous birds, snails, and lizards—not to mention a feral cat or two. It is a windswept, peaceful place of moving beauty with wide open skies in all directions.

The soils include clay and limestone as well as iron minerals. The latter account for the vineyard’s reddish-brown soil color. Bollenberg’s sunny, warm, and dry climate makes leaf canopy management a priority, according to Zusslin.

“We want to avoid overcooked and compote berries,” she says

The Zusslin’s harvest by hand with yields at a very modest 35 hectoliters per hectare. Sorting unripe and damaged fruit occurs first in the vineyard and then again on an air-powered sorting table at the winery.

“It all makes a real difference in the final juice, purer and more delicate,” Zusslin says. All stems are also removed. Fermentation follows with indigenous yeasts in large foudres with extended maceration. Manual punch downs occur three times daily.

“Fermentation is kind of birth. We have to be precise in the process,” she adds.

Aging occurs in a French oak barrels with 1/3 being new each year and a 1/3 of the barrels coming from the nearby Vosges Mountains. Bottling occurs with minute additions of sulfites. In 2010 and 2012 bottling occurred without sulfites added.

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All the meticulous attention to detail results in enthralling, delicious Pinot Noirs. The 2013 Domaine Valentin Zusslin, Pinot Noir Bollenberg offers pure red fruit aromas opening to blackberry and ripe red fruit flavors. Fine acidity and a touch of oak carry the fruity, clean, crisp finish. The 2011 Domaine Valentin Zusslin, Pinot Noir Bollenberg “Harmonie” comes from older vines. Pure red fruit and brown spice aromas lead to concentrated red fruit flavors of tremendous purity and freshness. Elegant, firm tannins add balance to the fruity, smooth finish. Delicious! The 2009  Domaine Valentin Zusslin, Pinot Noir Bollenberg “Harmonie” delivers pure, ripe red fruit aromas with fine complexity and a touch of pleasant earthiness. Ripe, and round fruit balances with terrific freshness and fine, polished tannins. Outstanding!

“When sommeliers blind taste our Bollenberg Pinot Noirs, they typically try to guess the Burgundy location for the wine. When they discover the wine is from Alsace they are astonished,” Zusslin says. “We are proud and a bit amused. It will take a lot more work to convince more people that great Pinot Noir is possible in Alsace. But some good vignerons opened the way years ago in Alsace, and the new generations will continue with the same passion for Pinot Noir.”

Maxime Barmès:

Domaine viticole Barmes-Buecher Wettolsheim (68920)
Winegrower Maxime Barmès of Domaine Barmès-Buecher in Wettolsheim.

At the tender age of thirteen, Maxime Barmès began working in the vineyards with his late father, François, during school holidays and weekends. Maxime and his sister Sophine also tasted plenty of wine with their parents at family meals and restaurants.

Like more and more young growers in Alsace, Maxime eventually journeyed to Burgundy to pursue his formal winegrowing studies. There he learned the latest theories on vine planting and the microbiology and chemistry of vinification. He also pursued an internship with Didier Montchovet, a winegrower in Nantoux near Pommard and an early pioneer of the biodynamie philosophy applied to Pinot Noir in Burgundy.

“I observed the Burgundy method with Pinot Noir,” he recalls. He also came to an important realization.

“Honestly my father already understood how to make great Pinot Noirs, and he always believed in Pinot Noir in Alsace. Aside from decreasing the quantity of new casks used for aging, I have not really changed the methods I learned from my father,” says Maxime who manages the domaine with his mother, Geneviève, and sister, Sophie. “But in the future, we are always open to other ways of doing things. The important thing is what is in the glass at the end.”

When Maxime’s parents founded Domaine Barmès-Buecher in 1985, they brought together vineyards from their respective families to create a 15 hectare estate. They rapidly moved towards an organic approach in the vineyards and eventually converted to biodyanmie in 1998. Approval from Biodyvin occurred in 2002. Maxime remains a strong believer in biodyanmie as a critical factor in producing quality wines with marked personalities.

“The biodynamie philosophy of cultivation brings harmony and balance to the vine and increases its intrinsic qualities. It strengthens the vine’s natural defenses and gives dynamism to the life and composition of the soils in which the vine is anchored.” he notes.  “It also encourages maturation of the grapes’ sugars, acids and phenolics in a healthy and balanced way.”

Phenolic ripening of the skins is especially important for Pinot Noir, according to Maxime, who looks for a “natural expression of the grape in its soil.”

“A good phenolic maturatalsace barmes wineion is important for Pinot Noir because the grapes macerate with the skins,” he notes. “It is very important that anthocyanins and tannins are ripe for Pinot Noir. The resulting wine will naturally require fewer exogenous inputs.”

Maxime produces two Pinot Noirs. The Pinot Noir Réserve comes from an assemblage of different plots of Pinot Noir of different ages and sun exposures. The oldest and youngest vines come from sélection massale grafts from Pinot Noir vines with Burgundy origins. The soils consist of either clay and limestone or marl and limestone soil.

The 2014 Domaine Barmès-Buecher, Pinot Noir Réserve offers a ruby color with bewitching red cherry, raspberry and earthy aromas. Fresh, pure red fruit flavors of medium concentration balance with zesty acidity and mouthwatering minerality. Elegant, understated tannins balance the fruity, exuberant finish. A charming, delicious wine all the way around. The 2015 Domaine Barmès-Buecher, Pinot Noir Réserve unfolds dark red fruit with a touch of spicy oak. The rich, juicy red fruit flavors have great purity and fuller concentration while balancing beautifully with clean acidity. An outstanding, delicious wine.
Domaine viticole Barmes-Buecher Wettolsheim (68920)
The second wine, the Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes, comes from 55-year old vines planted in Grand Cru Hengst. The clonal grafts came from Domaine d’Angerville in Volnay, a gift from the Marquis d’Angerville to Maxime’s maternal grandfather. The vines toil with a warm southeastern exposure and marl and limestone soils.

“The micro-climate is very sunny and rather dry, which reinforces the potential maturity of Pinot Noir grapes from this terroir,” Maxime notes.
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Forty percent of the wine for the 2013 Domaine Barmès-Buecher, Pinot Noir “Vieilles Vignes” aged in new French barrique barrels. The wine opens with a ruby color and lovely pure red fruit aromas and a touch of spice. The purity carries through in the delicious red fruit flavors balanced with superb freshness and elegant tannins. This is a vin de garder, a wine that will mellow and improve with 5 to 10 years of cellar aging. Impressive and delicious.

For the future, Maxime is bullish on Alsace Pinot Noirs and sees new confidence in the region.

“Alsace growers have realized that we have the terroirs to produce great Pinot Noirs, he says. “The future is very promising.”

Rémy Gresser:

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Winegrower Rémy Gresser in Andlau.

Vigneron Rémy Gresser is best known for scintillating Rieslings from the Grand Crus Kastelberg, Wiebelsberg and Moenchberg in Andlau in the Alsace’s Bas-Rhine region. But he also takes special care with his Pinot Noirs. The domaine follows a biodynamic philosophy which, according to Gresser, best embodies preceding generations’ respect for the soils and love of authentic winemaking.  For Gresser, Alsace’s cultural history always holds important keys to successful winegrowing.

The 2013 Domaine Rémy Gresser, Pinot Noir “Clos de l’Ourse” takes its name from the “clos of the bear” which symbolizes Andlau’s two thousand year winegrowing history dating to “pagan” times. The Pinot Noir grapes grow on slate and limestone soils. The wine ferments naturally and slowly before aging in used barrique barrels of varying ages. The deep ruby color offers delightful, pure red fruit and notes of smokiness and brown spices. Fresh, ripe red fruit with pleasant earthiness and medium concentration balances with precise acidity and fine tannins. Delicious, well made wine.

 

Other Alsace Pinot Noir Producers Of Note:

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2014 François Baur, Alsace Pinot Noir “Schlittweg” lieu-dit: The wine comes from grapes grown biodynamically (as approved by Biodyvin) in stony, sandy soils near Turckheim.  It aged in stainless steel for freshness. The dark ruby color offers black cherry and violet aromas leading to ripe, round dark cherry flavors with plenty of zesty acidity. Fresh minerality and smooth tannins balance the wine’s medium concentration. Terrific example of the pleasures of well made Alsace Pinot Noir.

2013 Kuentz-Bas, Pinot Noir “Trois Châteaux”: 
Winemaker Samuel Tottoli used grapes grown biodynamically (certified by Demeter) with a yield of 35hl/h for a rich, fleshy red. Aromas of black cherries, kirsch compote, and smoky notes open in the glass. Juicy black cherry flavors with a touch of earthiness balance with smoky oak notes and rich concentration. Bright acidity and elegant tannins provide good balance.

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Winegrower Olivier Humbrecht in Heimbourg vineyard.

2014 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Pinot Noir “Heimbourg”: Winegrower Olivier Humbrecht’s high profile support for biodynamie cultivation as a Biodyvin member and his well deserved reputation as one of Alsace’s top white wine producers overshadows his considerable talents as a red wine producer. The Pinot Noir grapes for this delicious wine come from the west facing slopes of Heimbourg vineyard, a plot just across the road from Brand Grand Cru. The 22-year old vines toil in marl and limestone soils and render a red wine with aromatic complexity, pure ripe red fruit flavors and rich concentration. Fresh acidity and minerality provide the wine with marvelous lift balanced by firm, yet smooth, well structured tannins. Fermentation occurs with 1/3 whole clusters. Aging occurs in used barrique barrels, A lovely, impressive wine that will soften with five years or so of cellar aging.

Domaine Marcel Deiss, Pinot Noir “Burlenberg” lieu-dit: In their Burlenberg vineyard in Bergheim, winegrowers Jean-Michel Deiss and son Mathieu use a co-plantation of Pinot Noir and Pinot Beurot (a.k.a., Pinot Gris) vines growing in complex, hard limestone soils. They follow an a biodynamic approach, but don’t look for messages about certification from Jean-Michel. He rejects facile labels and easy answers in favor of a more philosophical bent. That said, his Burlenberg Pinot Noirs are known for their originality—a blend of complex blackberry, currant and spice traits with full concentration, firm acidity, marvelous minerality and rich tannins.

Domaine Albert Mann, Pinot Noir “Grand H”: Winegrower Jacky Barthelmé trained in Burgundy and holds a special passion for Alsace reds. The domaine pursues biodynamie cultivation (as approved by Biodyvin), and the grapes for this wine come from primarily heavy clay and limestone soils in the Grand Cru Hengst vineyard. A wine of complex aromatics with raspberry and blackcurrant flavors, full concentration, rich acidity and firm tannins.

Christian Binner, Pinot Noir “Hinterberg”: The wine comes from a small parcel of Burgundy clone vines under biodynamic cultivation within the famed Schlossberg Grand Cru’s granite soils. Yields are a modest 35 hl/h and harvested manually. Fermentation occurs with whole clusters with indigenous yeasts in large foudres. Aging takes place in foudre for eleven months before bottling without added sulfites.

Fritz-Schmidt, Pinot Noir, Rouge d’Ottrott Réserve de l’Ami Fritz: The wines is made from grapes grown with a “sustainable” philosophy under Terra Vits certification in the village of Ottrott, one of Alsace’s best known Pinot Noir terroirs dating to the Middle Ages. Soils are sands, clay and alluvial muds. Aged in both foudres and barriques.

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