The holiday season offers the perfect opportunity to consider notable 2017 wine books as gifts—both for others and for yourself. Several fine choices stand out.
Early on in learning about wine, I made the happy discovery of Kevin Zraly’s “Windows On The World Wine Course.” The book’s elegant organization, clear prose and commonsense tips bolstered my confidence as a new wine enthusiast while providing a solid foundation of wine knowledge. It propelled me forward on a journey of pleasure and learning that happily continues. Decades later, his book remains in print after selling millions of copies.
Now Zraly has teamed with popular wine journalists Mike DeSimone (no direct relation except in loving wine) and Jeff Jenssen to write “Red Wine: The Comprehensive Guide To The 50 Essential Varieties & Styles” (Sterling Epicure; $27.95). The book’s superb format deftly presents what otherwise might be an overwhelming cache of useful and intriguing information. In fact, the authors recommend dipping into and out of the volume over time while actually drinking examples of each of the red wines covered. Can’t argue with that sound advice!
Besides most notable varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir, the book introduces more obscure grapes such as Mavrud and Plavac Mali, natives in Bulgaria and Croatia. In each short chapter, Zraly, DeSimone and Jenssen offer tips on their favorite producers of each variety. Quotations from winemakers add useful context for appreciating the grapes. Each chapter also delivers excellent commonsense recommendations on food pairings.
“Red Wine” features plenty of gorgeous photographs throughout to entertain the eye. Kudos to the authors in concisely presenting useful information wrapped in an attractive format that will fit comfortably on any coffee table.
In her memorable 2008 book “The Battle for Wine and Love, or how I saved the world from Parkerization” (Harcourt; 2008), author and newsletter publisher Alice Feiring led the charge for enjoying and extolling naturally made wines. Her heartfelt profiles of artisan French winegrowers toiling with organic farming and “hands-off” winemaking heightened American readers’ awareness of the stakes involved in a wine world awash in industrially produced wines and trophy hunting wine collectors. She continued and elaborated on similar themes in “Naked Wine” (Perseus Books; 2011) and “For the Love of Wine” (Potomac Books–U of Nebraska; 2016).
All the books affirm that the aromas and flavors in truly delicious, naturally made wines should reflect the distinct sense of place that produced the grapes used for the wines. In short, the wines should be products of natural “terroir” rather than industrial process. In her latest offering, “The Dirty Guide To Wine: Following Flavors From Ground to Glass” (The Countryman Press; $24.95), Ms. Feiring teams with long time collaborator, French-born sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, MS, to dig in and tackle the wide variety of soils underlying the world’s greatest terroirs.
The book divides logically into the earth’s three primary categories of rock: igneous (deriving from solidified ancient molten rocks), sedimentary (coming from dried up seas that once covered the earth) and metamorphic (arising from rocks transformed by millions of years of pressure and heat). In each section, Fiering and Lepeltier delve into the specifics and variations within each category to show the origins of the world’s prominent grape growing landscapes. Along the way, they include entertaining profiles of many natural wine world characters working hard to produce authentic, terroir-focused wines. For example, they describe a terrific visit to the steep, terraced vineyards of slate and granite in Spain’s obscure Ribeira Sacra appellation before offering insights to the emerging trend of “Atlantic Wines.”
Like “Red Wine,” readers can return time and again to “The Dirty Guide to Wine” and learn new nuggets. It is a great book to have at the ready when pondering the fresh aromas, striking flavors and mouthwatering textures of a glass of naturally made wine.
And speaking of natural wines, Isabelle Legeron, MW, has released an updated and revised edition of “Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally” (Cico Books; $24.95). It remains the best introduction to the steadily growing, but still relatively miniscule segment of naturally made wines. Legeron’s first addresses the occasionally perplexing, but fundamental question of “What is natural wine?” She argues convincingly that it embodies “living wines from living soil,” and she then celebrates growers producing wines with “nothing added, nothing removed.” In-depth insights from the likes of winegrower Didier Barrel from the Languedoc in southern France, Jacques Néauport in Burgundy, and Tony Coturri in Northern California are particularly informative.
The book’s terrific photography vividly transports readers to the ruggedly beautiful vineyards, wineries and rural villages where natural wines originate. Legeron also delivers useful information on discovering natural wine fairs (including her own RAW Wine Fests). Her section on “The Natural Wine Cellar” gives a road map to leading natural wine producers around the world with Legeron’s buying recommendations on the best wines to drink. Anybody interested in discovering and enjoying the pure pleasures of naturally made wines should read Legeron’s well-written, passionate book.
Other notable 2017 wine books:
“Around the World in Eighty Wines: Exploring Wine One Country at a Time” (Rowman Littlefield; $24.95): Noted wine economist Mike Veseth (who previously wrote the highly acclaimed “Wine Wars” covering wine globalization) takes readers on a fast paced journey discovering wines in both familiar and not so familiar places. Syria, Bali, Thailand, and Tasmania are just a few of Veseth’s seemingly unlikely stops around the world. Along the way, Veseth’s engaging, conversational approach delivers wisdom useful for all passionate, open-minded wine drinkers.
“Wine Revolution: The World’s Best Organic, Biodynamic, and Craft Wines” (Jacqui Small; $35); Talented Decanter Magazine journalist Jane Anson profiles 250 leading producers of hand-crafted, terroir-driven wines. Anson combines her well-reasoned, clearly expressed opinions with charming personal memories of visiting the vineyards of many of the growers that she profiles. She offers particularly good coverage of leading Spanish and Italian growers such as Giuseppe Maria Sesti in Tuscany, Arianna Occhipinti in Sicily, and Eliisabetta Foradori in the Dolomite Mountains in the north. Anson also includes a useful section on terrific off-dry wines such as Oliver Humbrecht’s 2008 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Brand Grand Cru Riesling, Selection des Grains Nobles from Alsace. Conversations with with world’s leading sommeliers offering their food paring recommendations add an appetizing, useful touch.
Each year with France’s Northern Rhône red wines, critics and consumers alike heap accolades on the marvelous selections from Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. Reds from the nearby appellation of Crozes-Hermitage which also rely on Syrah grapes go largely unheralded. So the wines often languish on retail shelves even with prices a third or less of their prestigious Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage cousins.
The situation creates great opportunities for astute consumers to snare terrific values. More and more Crozes-Hermitage winegrowers defy stereotypes by dedicating themselves to producing terroir-focused reds with outstanding quality and plenty of personality. The key lies in purchasing red Crozes-Hermitage wines from growers who work hard in the vineyards and then let fermentations unfold naturally in the cellar.
During a visit to the appellation in May, 2017, I had the pleasure of tasting a solid handful of intriguing wines from Domaine Stéphane Rousset, David Reynaud from Domaine les Bruyères, Domaine Dard & Ribo, Domaine Yann Chave, and Domaine du Colombier.
Domaine Stéphane Rousset:
One look at the engaging Stéphane Rousset (pictured above) reveals a vigneron who clearly spends plenty of time in the vineyards soaking up sun. He works on the steep, wine-swept rocky slopes around the communes of Erôme and Gervans in the northern portion of the Crozes-Hermtage appellation. Like the neighboring Hermitage hillside just to the south, hard granite subsoils predominate in Rousset’s dramatic, picturesque vineyards such as “Les Picaudières.”
The rocky, terraced vineyard features vines up to eighty years old which Rousset works by hand. His sustainable lutte raisonnée methods minimize chemical treatments. After hand harvesting, he removes most of the stems and ferments the juice naturally in stainless steel with gentle rémontage. Aging occurs in large, old foudres and smaller Burgundy style barrels.
The 2014 Stéphane Rousset, Crozes-Hermitage “Les Picaudières” delivers dark red fruit and black pepper aromas opening to ripe, polished black fruit flavors with perfectly balanced concentration and silky tannins. A marvelous, pure wine ready to enjoy! In the U/S. Chambers Street Wines offers the wine for $22.99.
Beginning in 2000, winegrower David Reynaud converted his family’s Domaine les Bruyères to organic and biodynamic production certified, respectively, by ECOCERT andBiodyvin. The changes served his goals of enhancing the purity of fruit and freshness in the wines.
Today Reynaud uses grapes from 20 to 30 year old Syrah vines growing in clay and limestone soils on the plain south of Hermitage Hill. The vines lie in the commune of Beaumont-Monteaux near the Isère River. Round “galet” rocks cover the ground and help retain heat to ripen the grapes. Reynaud and his team work the vines manually without synthetic chemical treatments. Performing ébourgeonnages—removal of excess buds in late Spring—and vendanges en vert–removal of excess green grape bunches—keeps yields at a relatively low 40 hectoliters per hectare.
Manual harvest precedes careful selection on a sorting table followed by natural fermentation in concrete, egg-shaped vats. Aging occurred in 50% older barrique barrels and 50% in concrete. All the works shines in the delicious 2012 Domaine les Bruyères, Crozes-Hermitage “Cuvée Georges.” The wine is an homage to Reynaud’s grandfather, who passed in 2000, the year of David’s first vintage.
Ripe dark fruit aromas open to fresh, fruity flavors with zesty acidity. Mouthwatering freshness balances the long, fruity finish. Owner/Sommelier Nicolas Kalbache–Vernerey features the wine at his terrific restaurant Aux Gourmands at 8, Place du Marché in Montélimar, Fance. In the U.S., Wine Works Online in New Jersey offers the wine for $29.95.
Dard & Ribo:
For over thirty years, winegrowing partners René-Jean Dard and François Ribo have produced “natural” wines long before the current fashion. Today their wines are cult classics with natural wine enthusiasts, yet Dard and Ribo still go quietly about their business ignoring the limelight while producing wines with terrific personality and distinction.
Their main vineyards lie in the hilly, northerly side of the appellation in the communes of Larnage and Crozes-Hermitage, itself. The soils offer a mix of clay and granite covered with gravel and sands. The area’s altitude and relatively cooler climate creates the potential for chiselled, structured wines with refinement. But the partners also favor an easy drinking, delicious style emphasizing transparent, ripe fruit and minimal oaky notes.
The 2015 Dard & Ribo, Crozes-Hermitage offers a lovely dark purple color with piping aromas of black fruits and black pepper. Rich, ripe flavors of raspberries and blackberries mingle with meaty notes. Fresh acidity, smooth tannins and mouthwatering minerality. Delicious, superb pleasure! Close your eyes and you’ll swear your drinking delicious Fresh acidity, smooth tannins and mouthwatering minerality. Delicious, superb pleasure! Tastes more like a Côte Rôtie! Available in the U.S. from Vanderbilt Wine Merchants for $35 and from Flatiron Wines & Spirits for $35.99.
Since officially joining his father Bernard at the family domaine in Mercurol in 1998, the affable Yann Chave has become a champion of improving the quality and reputation of Crozes-Hermitage wines. At his own domaine, he has taken the lead by converting to organic cultivation under the European rules for Agriculture Biologique.
The wines have improved steadily as shown in the 2014 Yann Chave, Crozes-Hermitage “Le Rouvre.” The Syrah grapes come from a special selection of 50-year old vines toiling in rocky soils in the southern plain near Pont de l’Isère,
Chave implements green harvesting to limit yields and harvests manually. For this wine, he ferments only free-run juice in large 600 litre oak barrels, only some of which are new.
One of France’s leading sommeliers, Baptiste Cavagna, serves the wine at La Pyramide, Chef Patrick Henriroux’s gastronomic Michelin two-star stop in Vienne. Cavagna paired the wine with a Fricassée d’escargots du Rozay—sautéed and braised Rozay snails served with crisp, tiny new potatoes and peas over a savory base of finely minced and caramelized meat from pig’s feet and ears. It paired nicely with the wine’s deep purple color and tantalizing aromas of ripe dark fruit and black pepper. Concentrated, ripe fruit balanced with terrific freshness and prominent, yet smooth tannins. It all made for a deliciously memorable pairing!
Brothers Florentand David Viale run this highy reliable domaine whose vineyards lie in Mercurol and Tain l’Hermitage.The tall, affable Florent oversees winemaking, and he favors a soft and approachable, yet always fresh and well balanced style. After harvest, he destems the fruit which ferments in large, mostly older 600-liter casks.
For the domaine’s top Crozes-Hermitage red, the “Cuvée Gaby,” Viale makes a selection from the top casks made from “old vines.” The wine pays homage to the family patriarch, Gabriel, who was born in 1939 and who remains vital and active. The Viale family has long grown cherries and apricots as well as grapes, and on a visit in May, we found the jovial Gaby picking cherries in the warm afternoon sun. In a memorable, beautiful moment, he graciously shared his juicy, sweet harvest still warm from the sun.
The 2015 Domaine du Colombier, Crozes-Hermitage “Cuvée Gaby” tasted from cask at the domaine offered dark fruit aromas with smoky, meaty notes and hints of wild herbs. Ripe, rich fruit with good concentration and ample fresh mixed with soft tannins. This will be a a wine to drink either now with decanting or up to 5 years or more of aging.
I recently enjoyed a 2009 Domaine du Colombier, Crozes-Hermitage “Cuvée Gaby,” a wine with eight years n the bottle, and yet it still offered plenty of ripe dark fruit, black pepper and floral aromas. Ripe, rich dark fruit flavors balancde mouthwatering mineral freshness and soft tannins through a lingering, fresh finish. One of those bottles that practically drinks itself!
In the U.S., Astor Wines offers the 2014 Domaine du Colombier, Crozes-Hermitage “Cuvée Gaby” for $39.96.
Eighteenth century French philosopher Voltaire suggested “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”—“We must cultivate our garden”—even in the face of life’s complications and chaos. Burgundy winegrower Jean-Claude Rateau takes Voltaire’s advice to heart. Since graduating from Beaune’s Lycée Viticole in the late 1970’s, he has carefully cultivated his vineyards very much like a garden using organic and biodynamic methods requiring dedicated manual labor.
Today his vital soils and sturdy vines render superb grapes which Rateau uses to produce exhilarating red and white Burgundies with tremendous purity and freshness. Meanwhile as one of the 1995 founders and current President of the Groupement d’Étude et de Suivi des Terroirs (“G.E.S.T.”), he is committed to studying and preserving Burgundy’s unique terroirs. Rateau and other “veterans” readily exchange knowledge with young winegrowing colleagues. The goal is to continue positive changes by training the new generation on the importance of maintaining organic materials in Burgundy’s precious soils.
On a cool, but brilliantly sunny day last May, Rateau provided a close look at his magnificent vineyards coming into bloom. Down the road from his cave, we stop at Beaune “Les Coucherias” 1er cru, a semi-circular vineyard set on a gentle slope where a quarry formerly operated. Rateau has special sentiment for this vineyard that faces directly south.
“It has the best exposure in Beaune with early morning sun and the last rays of sunshine each evening,” says Rateau who planted the vineyard after noted French agronomist Claude Bourguignon analyzed the soils.
“Claude found the red clay soils rich in iron and limestone very similar to Le Montrachet Grand Cru,” Rateau recalls. “So I planted Chardonnay on double cordon trellis which creates good air flow in the vines.”
Instead of applying synthetic chemicals, Rateau relies on natural organic composts and biodynamic teas to activate the soils while also nurturing and strengthening the vines. Vital vines sink deep roots, Rateau notes, to pick up nutrients and critical minerality.
“Les Coucherias gives a rich, deep wine with lots ripeness and freshness,” he adds. “C’est beau, n’est-ce pas?”
It is indeed beautiful.
Next, we drive into the hills to the west of Beaune to visit the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune vineyards. Deer and wild boar roam the scenic wooded hillsides where black truffles grow in abundance. In recent years increasing numbers of vignerons in the appellation have followed Rateau’s lead by embracing organic viticulture methods. The brown loamy soils of their vineyards teem with green grasses and colorful flowers standing in stark contrast to the dried out, eroded hard surfaces of neighboring vineyards treated with synthetic chemicals.
“It is possible to make really good wines from the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, but it takes a lot of careful work,” Rateau notes.
He uses the “U” shaped lyre trellis system developed by Dr. Alain Corbonneau in Bordeaux. The vines stand about one meter tall and then branch onto two cordons.
“In my opinion the lyre is the best method for viticulture,” Rateau says. “The vines have plenty of foliage which is all active.”
Active foliage delivers better photosynthesis to ripen fruit consistently which traditionally has been a big challenge in the Hautes-Côtes. And since the grape bunches hang below the leaves, Rateau says the foliage helps protect the fruit from sunburn. In addition, the lyre system exposes the bunches to more wind which helps combat mildew and fungus.
“It is a very intelligent way to grow grapes, and I like it very much,” Rateau adds. “It optimizes the health of the grapes. But it a demanding mode, requiring a lot of care, especially to control the yield. And it is difficult to work manually since the vine leans outwards. But it is the most beautiful method.”
The lyre system has detractors. Grape yields can be high if left unchecked. Plus the vine density is lower than permitted under bureaucratic rules. But with Rateau’s attentive biodynamic approach, his high quality Hautes-Côtes de Beaune white and red wines offer terrific, easy drinking pleasure that speaks for itself.
Meanwhile as President of “G.E.S.T.”, Rateau collaborates with other winegrowers in exploring new methods for training vines.
“We are working towards a high-vine, high-density system with spacing at two meters similar to Alsace,” Rateau says. “For the regional Bourgogne appellation and Hautes-Côtes appellations, this could eventually replace restrictive low vines and very wide vines on lyres. The goal is to have a more ergonomic system with better quality, lower yields, lower cost, and more ecological balance.”
On the way to see Rateau’s premier cru vineyards, we pass another important “G.E.S.T.” project, the Mont Battois Vine Conservatory northwest of Beaune. In collaboration with the Association Technique Viticole de Bourgogne which owns the parcel, Rateau and his colleagues envision planting fifty-two ancient vine varieties including the well known Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Aligoté and Gamey plus more obscure vines such as César, Tressot Blanc, Tressot Panaché, and Troyen. The first twenty-two plantings occurred in April 2016.
“These vines are our heritage and history,” Rateau says. “They are rustic varieties more resistant to diseases. The plantings provide a genetic reservoir if anybody wants to recreate grape varieties close to those of today. These varieties produce less alcohol and have more acidity which today has potential importance in relation to global warming.”
Next we stop at the beautiful Beaune “Les Bressandes” 1er cru. Here Rateau’s vigorous Pinot Noir vines toil in clay and limestone soils interspersed with distinctive grèzes litées, a scree of limestone pebbles formed by the erosion of an ancient rocky cliff. The steeply sloping vineyard faces directly to the East and covers about 88 acres with 40 different owners.
“This is a very warm vineyard. When it snows, it melts first here,” Rateau notes.”The vine roots decent very deeply here, and the terroir creates red wines with lots of depth.”
Rateau holds a scoop of the rich soil to his nose. The sweet, earthy aromas and texture brings a bright smile to his face as he exhales.
“Ah, c’est du vrai sol!l,” he notes. It’s “true soil” resulting from over thirty years of working by hand without synthetic chemicals. ECOCERT certifies all of his vineyards as organically cultivated, and Rateau is seeking Biodyvin’s certification of his biodynamic vineyard practices.
“When I started I was virtually alone in pursuing organic farming,” he recalls. “Today over fifteen percent of Burgundy growers in the Côte-d’Or are biologique and that’s a great change and progress.”
To encourage more growers to focus on preserving vital, lively soils, each October, Rateau and other experienced winegrowers taste wines from younger growers under forty years old.
‘We taste the wines “blind” without knowing who made each bottle, and then we give our comments,’ he notes. “It’s the best way to discover and encourage promising new growers. If you search, you can still good wines and good value in Burgundy because of the positive changes happening these days in our vineyard soils.”
In the cellar, Rateau minimizes interventions during fermentation and élevage. He relies only on wild yeasts, and, depending on the vintage and terroir, he ferments his red wines with whole grape bunches including stems. Then the wines–both whites and reds–age in used barrels ranging from three to ten years old. Bottling occurs with minimal additions of sulfites.
Because Rateau sells seventy five percent of his wines to French caviste shops and to restaurants in Paris and around France, he is not well known in the United States. But Chambers Street Wines in Manhattan consistently offers a good selection each year. And Rateau’s prices offer terrific value for the quality.
His wines faithfully reflect each terroir and have purity of fruit, freshness and unforced, charming personality. These “old school,” elegant Burgundies favor finesse and juicy, drinking pleasure over extreme concentration and showy power. Every passionate Burgundy should seek them out. The following wines were tasted from bottles in Rateau’s cellar in May, 2017:
2015 Jean-Claude Hautes-Côtes de Beaune Blanc: Made from Chardonnay growing on Lyre trellises in clay and limestone soils on the sunny, east facing hillsides over the hill from Beaune. The wine has fresh citrus and pear aromas and earthy touches.The pure, fruity flavors balance with racy acidity and fresh minerality through the long, dry finish. Delicious!
2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Hautes-Côtes-de-Beaune Pinot Blanc: Made from Pinot Blanc, a variety that Rateau notes is more widely planted in Burgundy than most consumers may realize. It also has fresh, clean aromas of pears, peaches and apples opening in to round, ripe fruity flavors balanced with Rateau’s trademark acidity and minerality..
2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Beaune “Clos des Mariages”: This is made from an unique blend of late harvested Chardonnay (75%), Pinot Blanc (10%) and Beurot (a.k.a., Pinot Gris) (15%) grown near Rateau’s home in Beaune. The wine has fresh aromas of grapefruit with notes of brown spices, and on the palate it has more concentration than the first two white wines. Clean, fresh finish.
2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Beaune “Les Coucherias” 1er Cru: The wine has complex aromas of pears and citrus with floral notes and a decided touch of earthiness. The rich, ripe flavors of citrus, melon and honey layer in pronounced acidity and a mineral laden dry finish. Age for 3 to 5 years before drinking.
Red Wines: 2015 Jean-Claude Hautes-Côtes de BeauneRouge: A juicy, fresh and easy drinking red from from 50 year old vines in clay, limestone and marne soils in the heights above Beaune. Charming light ruby robe, gorgeous red cherry and spice aromas; juicy, fresh red fruit with lovely transparency; light concentration balanced with zesty acidity and mineral notes; delicious fruity finish with terrific freshness. Beautiful. Good value too. Bien qualité/prix.Tasted chez DeSimone as well. 2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Beaune“Les Prévoles”:: Made from Pinot Noir grapes growing in a well placed lieu-dit below Beaune “Chouacheux” 1er Cru. Rateau fermented the wine with 100% whole bunches to achieve terrific finesse and pure, transparent red fruit. Lovely red cherry and griotte flavors unfold with bracing, delicious acidity and elegant tannins.Decanting it for an hour or so at home should develop more fleshy notes and round out the delicious red fruit. 2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Gevrey-Chambertin: Rateau’s only red from the Côte-de-Nuits made from Pinot Noir growing in two lieu-dits near Grand Cru and 1er Crues climats. The wine offers complex, aromatic black fruits and floral notes with pleasant earthy hints. The dark red fruit layer in a rich, concentrated body balanced with fresh acidity and smooth tannins. Pronounced minerallity balances the fruity, elegant finish. 2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Beaune “Les Reversées” 1er Cru: Made from older Pinot Noir growing in cool limestone soils also rich in red iron deposits.The wine offers pure strawberry red fruit aromas with floral hints a touch of pleasant earthiness. Red red fruit layers in rich, fresh acidity and moderate concentration. Smooth, refined tannins add balance to long, fruity finish. Delicious. 2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Beaune“Les Bressandes” 1er Cru: Made from Rateau’s warmest vineyard in a particularly ripe vintage. Fresh, frank raspberry aromas and brown spice hints open to ripe, yet refreshing red fruit flavors with medium body and lovely elegant tannins. A juicy delight with superb balance that will improve in bottle for years to come. Lovely, delicious wine.
At Restaurant La Pyramide in the northern Rhône city of Vienne, Chief Sommelier Baptiste Cavagna cuts a striking figure in a neat black suit, vest and tie. He walks the elegant, modern dining room with a smooth, highly professional air while confidently serving wines and talking affably with guests. But “off stage” outside of Chef Patrick Henriroux’s gastronomic Michelin two-star stop, Cavagna often uses days off to taste directly and casually with dynamic winegrowers such as Matthieu Barret, the biodynamc producer extraordinaire in Cornas.
Cavagna’s gracious ease both in the dining room and in domaine cellars flows from his professionalism and passion to discover new wines. In 2016 his refined communication skills and dedication to métier impressed industry peers who voted Cavagna “Sommelier of the Year” in an evaluation organized by the French trade magazine, Le Chef. And while recognition as an outstanding sommelier in his generation is a great honor, Cavagna’s primary focus remains on creating memorable moments for guests.
“I always try to enhance every guest’s culinary pleasure by pairing each course with beautiful wine discoveries,” Cavagna says. “With a close link between the kitchen and the cellar, at La Pyramide we always work to offer guests not just a meal but an experience.”
On a recent Sunday evening dinner, our party of seven experienced Cavagna’s skills and savoir-faire firsthand. His fun, imaginative wine selections paired perfectly with the kitchen’s deliciously inventive “Menu Pyramide.”
To add a little fun to festivities, Cavagna served the wines “blind” from decanters. We had to rely on our senses and imaginations rather than preconceived notions in trying to identify each wine.
For the first course, Chef Patrick Henriroux’s team served a delectable Suprême de Pintade Fermière-–boneless, skinless breast meat of a farm-raised guinea fowl wrapped with smoked duck breast. It came with a mix of foie gras and seasonal rhubarb served over a sablé shortbread made from torrefied flour. To complement the dish’s juicy, slightly earthy flavors and creamy, sweet accents, Cavagna served an aromatic, dry white wine with just the slightest hint of dusty pink. The wine’s marvelous floral, peach and citrus aromas and rich flavors balanced with a touch of creaminess and mouthwatering minerality.
“A Grand Cru Pinot Gris from Alsace,” I suggested. Not close, actually.
Cavagna revealed the 2015 Domaine Belluard, “Le Feu” Vin de Savoie produced from Gringnet, an obscure grape variety native to the Savoie’s high altitude, Alpine vineyards. Winegrower Dominique Belluard calls it “Terroir de Mont-Blanc” since the vines grow near the famous mountain. “Le Feu” or “the fire” refers to the vineyard’s red clay soils rich in iron oxide.
Belluard’s biodynamic cultivation applies “dynamized” natural composts and teas in lieu of synthetic chemicals on the vines. Despite severe forty percent grades in some points in the vineyard, he performs all work manually. Harvest yields a modest 35 hl/h to concentrate fresh aromas and flavors. Fermentation occurs with indigenous yeasts in neutral concrete vats and results in only 12% A.B.V. Bottling occurs with minimal sulfites added. The meticulous work produces just the kind of fresh, hand-crafted bottle that Cavagna values: a terroir driven wine offering food-friendliness and sheer pleasure.
“I am a person who likes good wines, if this one can be done in an organic way I am for it. But I do not tolerate a wine with defaults especially doubtful aromas,’ he notes. “I always favor beautifully made wines.”
The “mountain” wines of the Jura and Savoie hold a special place with Cavagna who grew up nearby in the Ain département. His hometown, Nantua, has only 3,900 inhabitants and is best known for tannery and shoemaking. Ain’s only vineyards fall in the low profile Bugey appellation, home of the Altesse white grape and increasingly popular sparkling wines. All of which makes Cavagna’s rise to the heights of his profession even more impressive.
He began studying restaurant management in Ain. Then at the Lycée des Métiers Hôtelier de l’Hermitage, he pursued the sommelier métier in the town of Tain Hermitage, an epicenter of northern Rhône winegrowing. After graduation, Cavagna’s big break came working for the Loisseau family’s restaurants in Burgundy and Paris.
At the Relais Bernard Loisseau, a gastronomic Michelin-starred restaurant with a 15,000 bottle cellar, Cavagna learned from Chief Sommelier Eric Goettelmann, a winner of the Le Chef magazine’s :Sommelier of the Year” in 2006.
“Eric was very professional and knowledgeable,” Cavagna recalls. Baptiste Gauthier, another Loisseau colleague and now sommelier at Restaurant Anne-Sophie Pic in Valence, also served as a mentor.
“He was my direct supervisor, and he helped me grow and make progress,” Cavagna recalls.
After stints in the bright lights of Paris at Tante Marguerite and Le Meurice, Cavagna came to La Pyramide as Chief Sommelier in September, 2013. He oversees wine purchases for Chef Henriroux’s retail boutique, the hotel and three restaurants. At the restaurants, seventy five percent of the wines sold come from northern Rhône appellations such as Condrieu and Côte Rôtie. Cavagna and his team also sell significant amounts of white and red Burgundies.
As one of La Pyramide’s leaders, Cavagna also mentors assistant sommeliers and young interns. But his primary role remains providing guests with wine advice and service, always with an eye towards creating fun experiences. Speaking of which, at our group’s recent “Menu Pyramide” Sunday dinner, the second course offered a Fricassée d’escargots du Rozay—sautéed and braised Rozay snails served with crisp, tiny new potatoes and peas over a savory base of finely minced and caramelized meat from pig’s feet and ears. As they say, “Tout est bon dans le cochon!”
Cavagna’s next wine had a deep purple color with ripe dark fruit and tantalizing black peppers aromas. Concentrated, ripe fruit balanced with terrific freshness and prominent, yet smooth tannins. It was really delicious and a perfect paring with the Fricassée d’escargots du Rozay.
I guessed a Saint-Joseph red from a good producer and good vineyard. “Close,” Cavagna replied.
It was the 2014 Yann Chave, Crozes-Hermitage “Le Rouvre” made from select vines on the Rhône River’s “left bank” in the plains across from Saint-Joseph. The Syrah vines average around 50 years old and toil in soils rich in large, round galet stones. To enliven the soils and vines, talented veteran grower Yann Chave farms organically as certified with the green Agriculture Biologique mark on the bottle’s back label. The wine showed just how delicious and well-balanced Crozes-Hermitage can when a dedicated grower lavishes meticulous attention on the vines while working organically.
It was then on to third course which offered Selle d’Agneau Allaiton aux Herbes—a tender piece of lamb loin wrapped around fresh herbs and served with fennel bits, confit lemon pieces, and red beet juice. To complement the inventive dish, Cavagna served a red with glistening, dark ruby color offering intriguing aromas of ripe cherries and blackberries with subtle notes of earthy wild herbs and smokiness. Similar ripe flavors followed with a touch of spiciness balanced beautifully with fresh mineral notes and smooth tannins.
Placing the wine proved challenging. It resembled a well made Right Bank Bordeaux, yet had more exotic aromas and elegance. It lacked the overt ripeness of Grenache, yet it was richer than Pinot Noir. It certainly did not shout Syrah. This delicious wine turned out to be a revelation for me.
It was the 2014 Clos Saint-Vincent, “Cuvee Le Clos,” Vin de Bellet from winegrower G. Sergi and family. The wine uses Folle Noir (90%) and Grenache (10%) grapes from vines growing on the hills above the city of Nice along the Mediterranean Coast.
The vineyard benefits from both maritime breezes and winds blowing down from foothills of the Alpes. The vines are cultivated with biodynamie composts, teas, and plowing rather than synthetic chemicals. The domaine holds ECOCERT’s biodynamic certification and has been a member of Biodyvin since 2007. All the arduous, meticulous vineyard labor enables the vines to sink deep roots to take full advantage of Bellet’s complex soils of sands, clays, limestone and large, embedded galet stones.
Its another illustration of Cavagna’s strong preference for original, high quality vins de terroir providing both great pleasure and memorable moments of discovery. He consistently focuses on the wine and its pairing with food rather than drawing attention to himself. The results are simply dazzling.
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.
“Studying winegrowing 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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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-Buecherin 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 maturation 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.
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.
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.”
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 domainefollows 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:
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.
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.
Each Tuesday our little tasting group in Pittsburgh dreams of our favorite wine region, Burgundy, by sharing wines over a modest lunch at a local bistro. This week’s theme happened to be Pommard, and as usual we tasted the wines “blind” without foreknowledge of the producer, specific climat and vintage. The experience is always instructive and fun, and occasionally delightful with startling surprises. This week was no exception.
The first wine offered a promising start. Its ruddy color showed cellar aging and smelled of ripe red fruits with meaty, earthy notes. In the mouth, pure, ripe dark red fruit with good concentration and fine freshness suggested a good older vintage. A touch of firm tannins remained on the finish, but the wine’s overall balance led to guesses of a premier cru from 1998, 1999 or 2002.
Indeed it was the 1999 Domaine Jean-Marc Bouley, Pommard “Les Rugiens” 1er cru, and what a wonder delight it was to drink. Many of our little group of 7 or 8 Burgundy fans have purchased wines from Jean-Marc Bouley since the early 1990’s. In the past the wines’ firm tannins resolved reluctantly, but this lovely wine from the great 1999 vintage was completely on point. (Now with the son, Thomas Bouley working with meticulous care in the vineyards, this domaine is on the rise, so do not hesitate to buy.) The first wine, as it turned out, was only a prologue to the next miraculous wine.
The second wine showed a dark, youthful ruby color in the glass. Fresh, ripe red fruit and pleasant earthy notes wafted from the glass. The wine’s pure red fruits had marvelous concentration brought into perfect focus and balance with startlingly fresh acidity and minerality wrapped in elegant tannins. Tasters’ guesses ranged across 2013 to 2005 to 2002 for vintage and most assuredly a premier cru.
Wrong and wrong! The 1990 Domaine Leroy, Pommard :”Les Vignots” was 27 years “young” and from a well placed village lieu-dit. It left our experienced group of Burgundy tasters shaking our heads. The vibrant color, the pure fruit, the unbridled freshness, and the wine’s sheer vitality in the glass delivered pleasure second to none.
As for the reasons, certainly the bottle was purchased directly at the time of release and cellar aged properly for decades. The “Vignots” climat is a fine terroir, rich in clay and limestone on a slope with good drainage But in the end, one concludes that only a vigneron with the passion and savoir-faire of Lalou Bize-Leroy could make such the wine.
Her legendary vineyard practices rely on a biodynamic approach and incorporate meticulously detailed work by hand on each vine. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides never touch either the soils or the vines. Only natural teas and herbal mixtures are applied to tap into the vines’ natural energies and capacities to resist diseases on their own.
Early in the season–often during raw weather in April–time consuming ébourgeonnage by hand removes buds selectively from each vine to maintain low yields. As the season progresses the tips of the vines are neither clipped nor trimmed to maximize energy within the vines. Additional removal of buds occurs after flowering.
Selection of only ripe fruit occurs during hand harvesting followed by a meticulous second selection in the cuverie to ensure only the best fruit goes into wooden vats. Fermentation occurs with native yeasts and whole bunches of grapes, stems and all. Gentle punch downs and remontage occur during slow fermentation. After pressing, the new wines go by gravity for aging first into one cellar and then into an even deeper, colder cellar until final bottling.
But all this description of process matters little to the ultimate dazzling reality of the wine in the glass, in this case after twenty seven years in bottle. It was yet another blind tasting demonstrating that Lalou Bize-Leroy can produce spectacular wines of unrivaled pleasure and refinement. So pity the wines that followed.
Yet both wines held their own. The 2010 Domaine de Courcel, Pommard “Grand Clos des Épenots” 1er cru offered pretty red fruit aromas a hint of smokiness leading to fresh, correct red fruit flavors with modest concentration.Plenty of fresh acidity and firm tannins will allow the wine to age gracefully for another 5 to 10 uears.
The 1998 Domaine de Courcel, Pommard “Grand Clos des Épenots” 1er cru had a dusky ruby color with some brown at the rim. Ripe dark plum and red fruit aromas and plenty of earthy notes led to ripe, round red fruit and meaty flavors. Fine acidity and resolved tannins added good balance and structure.
It’s New Year’s again. A time when enjoying wine on the night before and the day of is not only condoned but expected. So start anew with resolve and gratitude while celebrating with the ol’ bubbly.
French Champagnes make a terrific sparkling wine choice. Bien sûr! But well made sparkling Crémants from Alsace and the Loire can match Champagne for quality but with better prices. Success turns on starting with high quality grapes and then relying on the time-tested method of using secondary fermentation in the bottle for nose tingling, taste bud teasing bubbles.
In Eguisheim, Alsace, talented vigneron Philippe Zinck (pictured above) makes the delicious N.V. Domaine Zinck, Crémant d’Alsace Brut, France(around $20 nationally) from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. For added complexity, secondary fermentation occurs in the bottles on the lees over twelve months. The wine offers frothy berry and citrus aromas with light yeastiness. Ripe fruity notes balance the clean, dry finish. Zinck’s meticulous attention to detail and passion shine in this lovely, inspiring wine. Highly Recommended.
In the Loire Valley, vigneron Vincent Girault uses a blend of hand-picked Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc grapes for the terrific N.V. Clos de la Briderie, “Pureté de Silex,” Crémant de Loire Brut, France (around $20 nationally). The vines grow near the Loire River in flinty limestone soils. Girault farms biodynamically without synthetic chemical applications. His living soils and hardy vines naturally highlight the terroir by producing fruit with distinct personality.
“Wine is a four-sided pyramid consisting the terroir of the soil and sub-soils, the climate, the grape varietals and agriculture methods,” Girault notes. “No great wines without great terroir, and no good wines without good agriculture.”
Secondary fermentation and aging of the wine on the lees in bottles takes place over two years. The wine’s complexity and quality shine beginning with the dusky pink color and the persistent bubbly beads. Inviting peach and light smoky aromas open to fresh citrus and peach flavors. Vibrant acidity and clean minerality balance the fresh, dry finish that persists with frothy delight. Délicieux! Highly Recommended.
Cheers and Happy New Year! Bonne Année! Felice Anno Nuovo!
Mention Alsace in France and invariably you’ll hear: “One eats and drinks well in Alsace.”
It’s true. Notable, modestly priced coups de cœur—instant personal favorite restaurants—abound. They reflect an unique mix of French, German and Swiss cultures while relying on the glorious bounty of regional products coming Alsace’s diverse soils and remarkably dry, sunny climate.
In city of Colmar, the beating heart of Alsace’s winegrowing region, locals and visitors flock to Brasserie l’Auberge in the Grand Hôtel Bistrol. With a backdrop of high ceilings, twinkling chandeliers and colorful murals depicting the nearby Vosges Mountains, the engaging, prompt servers create a bustling, warm ambiance. A glass of delicious, dry Alsace sparkling wine sets a relaxed, festive tone while whetting the appetite. Try the Cave de Rbibeauvillé, Giersberger Brut, Crémant d’Alsace, a frothy, beautifully balanced wine made by Alsace’s oldest quality-oriented cooperative from hand-picked Pinot Blanc grapes.
A classic main dish, Poulet à l’alsacienne (succulent local chicken with shallots and mushrooms in white wine and cream sauce) matches well with the dry, mineral laden Domaine Schoffit, Tradition Riesling, Lieu-Dit Harth. Jarret du porc (ham hocks slowly cooked in a broth of herbs and spices) served with sauteed potatoes and sinus-clearing horseradish pairs beautifully with the floral, fruity and refreshing Famille Hugel “Gentil,” a six grape white blend. The listalso features outstanding Alsace reds including the fruity, fresh and superbly balanced Domaine Valentin-Zusslin, Pinot Noir, Bollenberg from biodynamic grapes.
Just outside of Colmar in Ingershem, Charles and Monique Guggenbuhl openedLa Taverne Alsacienne in 1964, the year of current chef Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl’s birth.
“I spent a lot of time growing up with my great aunt in the mountains,” Guggenbuhl says. “I learned about living with and respecting nature’s changing seasons. Now, we use local, seasonal products as much as possible in our menus.”
He maintains traditional favorites, such as La Cassolette d’escargots à la crème de Riesling (snails in riesling cream sauce) and Choucroute traditionnelle à l’Alsacienne(sauerkraut made with goose fat and diverse pork cuts). In the photo, Robert and Pat Thompson enjoy the Choucroute with the ripe, exotic, yet refreshing flavors of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Clos Windsbuhl Gewurztraminer. The masterful Olivier Humbrecht, M.W. makes the wine from grapes grown biodynamically on Muschelkalk limestone.
Guggenbuhl procures fresh fish “right off the trawler” from Rungis market in Paris. The Lotte à l’Armoricaine—monkfish slowly cooked with tomatoes, shallots, cognac and saffron, a spice produced by Alsace artisans since medieval times—has tender, juicy texture and exotic flavors. It pairs marvelously with the Domaine Rolly Gassmann Pflaenzerreben Riesling de Rohrschwih, a biodynamic, exhilarating wine with racy minerality and transparent fruit.
North of Colmar in the village of Bergheim, Chef Patrick and Antje Schneider meld culinary and wine passions at Wistub du Sommelier. As pictured at beginning of this post, the dining room’s wood paneling and charming, comfortable ambiance recalls a traditional winegrower’s home, but with modern touches.
Chef Schneider’s tempting terroir-driven menus inventively incorporate regional favorites such as foie gras, tête de veau and boudin noir sausages. The wine list — selected by Antje — features accomplished terroir-focused Alsace producers. They include Bergheim’s own Domaine Gustave Lorentz and local organic/biodynamic growers Domaine Sylvie Spielmann and Domaine Marcel Deiss.
“We like to use local, seasonal products such as freshwater fish, sauerkraut, potatoes, onions, asparagus and strawberries for the quality and flavors,” says Alsace-born Chef Schneider. His wife comes from Baden-Württemberg, Germany.
For Wistub du Sommelier’s delicious, trademark Presskopf made in the fashion of grand-mère, Chef Schneider seasons and slowly cooks pork head meat in stock to create a pressed aspic. Slices of this tender delicacy pair perfectly with the Domaine Emile Beyer, Grand Cru Eichberg Riesling, a delicious dry white crafted by 14th generation winegrower Christian Beyer with marvelous acidity balancing ripe, transparent citrus fruit.
La Nouvelle Aubergein Wihr-au-Val, occupies a former postal hotel along the old route between Colmer and Munster. On the top floor, Chef Bernard Leray’s main restaurant maintains a well-earned Michelin Guide star. On the ground floor, the snug and convivial “Le Bistrot” offers a casual lunch just around the corner from the chef’s kitchen.
North of Colmar about halfway to Strasbourg, Restaurant Château d’Andlau near the medieval village of Andlau offers a serene, sylvan setting along with delicious food and an expansive wine list. Wine highlights include Domaine Rémy Gresser’s scintillating, steely selections from nearby vineyards such as Grand Cru Kastelberg with distinct slate soils and Kritt Lieu-Dit with gravelly soils. Restaurant Château d’Andlau’s sommeliers provide expert advice in navigating the intriguing, well-priced wine list.
By most measures, the F.E. Trimbach’s riesling Clos Sainte Hune remains the flagship of Alsace’s dry white wines. Made from grapes grown in Rosacker vineyard’s distinctive Dolomitic limestone, the wine’s consistent elegance, complexity and fidelity to terroir certainly merit accolades.
But Alsace’s glorious dry rieslings do not stop there. The sheltering Vosges Mountain to the west create a marvelously sunny, dry climate over a stunningly diverse mosaic of soils in 51 grand cru vineyards. This provides scores of outstanding Alsace winegrowers with singular opportunities at every turn to make world-class dry rieslings worthy of serious consideration and enjoyment.
Just southwest of Strasbourg in northern Alsace, for instance, the village of Andlau nestles in a snug valley surrounded on slopes by three distinct grand cru vineyards: Wiebelsberg with sandy soils over sandstone, Moenchberg with marl soils and limestone and the magnificent Kastelberg with brittle blue slate soils. With laborious pruning, manual harvesting and organic treatments of the vines, the well-drained slopes yield outstanding quality grapes and thrilling riesling wines.
A visit with winegrower Rémy Gresser, a wily veteran of 40 vintages, proves the point. In the town center, Gresser points out a statue of a bear eating grapes, a symbol of Andlau’s winegrowing dating to ancient Gallo-Roman “pagan” times. More systematic cultivation began in the ninth century with the founding of the Abbey of Andlau.
Gresser, a former president of the growers’ Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace, focuses on his keen appreciation of history, Alsace’s larger purposes and terroir in his 2013 Domaine Rémy Gresser Riesling Grand Cru Kastelberg, Alsace, France. Its lovely, complex, floral and citrus aromas mingle with smoky hints. Ripe citrus flavors balance exquisitely with fresh acidity and smoky mineral touches. The wine finishes completely dry with a clean, lingering finish.
At 33 years old, the 1983 Domaine Rémy Gresser Riesling Grand Cru Kastelberg, Alsace, also reveals vibrant, persistent freshness, delicious ripeness and remarkable flair and personality. Its longevity comes from Kastelberg’s distinct slate terroir which, with dedicated hard work and savoir-faire, accords an abiding backbone of acidity and fruity purity.
Also in Andlau, bio-dynamic winegrower Antoine Kreydenweiss offers the terrific 2014 Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss Riesling Grand Cru Kastelberg, Alsace. Marvelous, pure citrus flavors unwind with fresh acidity and flinty minerality on a long, dry finish.
South of Andlau in Nothalten, hardworking winegrower André Ostertag, a biodynamic pioneer in Alsace, cultivates riesling in grand cru Muenchberg. Stony volcanic soils and pink sandstone prevail for a richer dry riesling as shown in the 2010 Domaine Ostertag Riesling Grand Cru Muenchberg, Alsace (PLCB Luxury Code: 48250; $57.99).
The golden color and ripe nose of apple and peach open to delicious ripe fruit with firm acidity. Fresh, pure fruit and resounding minerality frame the long, dry finish. It expresses eloquently distinctive Alsace terroir and the winegrower’s style and vibrant personality. Recommended.
Further south in Katzenthal, Felix and Aura Meyer tend riesling on the superb southeastern exposure of Wineck-Schlossberg grand cru’s sunny slopes. Ancient granite geology covered by thin topsoil yields full flavored, yet dry, wines with crystalline purity.
The 2011 Domaine Meyer-Fonné Riesling Grand Cru Wineck-Schlossberg, Alsace, France (PLCB Luxury Code: 46979; $41.99; Waterworks store only) delivers marvelous floral and citrus aromas along with taut citrus flavors of notable depth. Chiseled acidity creates beautiful, elegant tension balanced with delicious saline minerality carrying through the lingering, bone-dry finish. Highly recommended.
In Alsace’s southern tip, Grand Cru Rangen de Thann’s spectacularly steep slopes feature hard, purely volcanic grauwacke — metamorphic rocks with little or no top soil. Vine roots plunge deep into the mineral-laden subsurface to render wines with distinctive personality and exquisite beauty.
Father and son winegrowers Bernard and Alexandre Schoffit offer the captivating 2013 Domaine Schoffit Clos Saint-Théobald, Riesling Grand Cru Rangen de Thann, Alsace. Tasted in the vineyard on a brilliantly sunny autumn morning, the wine’s intense peach, citrus and smoky aromas lead to round, ripe-fruit flavors. Fresh acidity, smoky mineral flavors and a touch of creaminess frame a precise dry finish of marvelous length.
As Bernard Schoffit noted, “When you taste a wine like this, you’re happy you worked so hard to make it.” Enough said.
Domaine Bott-Geyl’s talented winegrower Jean-Christophe Bott clearly enjoys putting boots in vineyard soils. For our 9:30 AM appointment he arrives on a small tractor direct from early morning vineyard work.
“Everything in the vineyard is done in the light,” he says leading the way out of Beblenheim’s picture post card streets. We head to the warm and dry and Sonnenglanz Grand Cru, a name that translates to “sunshine.” It provides an ideal site for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.
The vineyard sits on a windy hilltop. The brilliantly sunny Spring day with chirping birds and softly tolling church bells provides an enchanting moment to soak in panoramic views of Alsace’s surrounding vineyards. To the East across the Rhine River, the hills of Germany’s Black Forest appear in the distance.
Bott and his team tend the vines with labor intensive organic and biodynamic methods that provide ample opportunity to enjoy his vineyards’ bright sunny exposures and breezes. Regular plowing between rows forces vines to compete vigorously, while systemic application of biodynamic composts and teas create vitality and natural resistance to molds and diseases. Bott applies the “500” cow manure spray to revive soils in early Spring and the “501” silica spray on early Summer to energize the flowering vines.”
“Vine roots must go deep to reflect the personality of the place,” he says.
Winegrower Jean-Christophe Bott explains the organic and biodynamic methods used in the chalky Sonnenglanz Grand Cru vineyard in Beblenheim, Alsace, France.The domaine is certified by “Biodyvin,” a leading biodynamic organization.
Bott plants about at 7,800 vines per hectare, a high density that reduce yields naturally. The vines deliver grapes with fruity concentration balanced by mineral complexity resulting from Sonnenglanz’s marl soils of limestone mixed with clay and mud. To ensure diversity when replacing vines, he grafts sélection massale clippings from best existing vines within the vineyard itself.
After harvesting by hand, Bott’s lets patience and minimal intervention guide his work in the cool cellar’s shadows. Whole grape bunches go into gentle pneumatic presses that feed juice by gravity to vats for slow fermentation. In May of 2016, wines from 2015 still slowly bubbled away in large oval foudre barrels. Aging the wines on the lees, i.e., spent yeast, adds creamy notes. Bottling occurs with minimal sulfites. Distinct personality and terroir shine through.
“Each wine should not be something that everybody likes,” Bott notes. Vive la différence!
Jean-Christophe Bott in the domaine’s tasting room in Beblenheim, Alsace, France.
The following notes come from a tasting in May 2016 at Domaine Bott-Geyl which is a member of the “Alsace Crus et Terroir” association:
2012 Domaine Bott-Geyl Riesling “Les Éléments,” Alsace: Made from a blend of grapes grown in the leading village of Riquewihr, Zellenberg and Ribeauvillé, the wine delivers a classis, delicious Alsace Riesling ready for immediate enjoyment. Delicate citrus and floral aromas unfold before ripe, refreshing citrus and quince flavors. The wine finishes dry with delicate fruitiness.
2011 Domaine Bott-Geyl, Riesling “Grafenreben,” Alsace: Clay and limestone soils create classic aromas of grapefruit and quince followed by ripe, spicy citrus flavors. Fresh acidity balances the dry, fruity finish. 2011 Domaine Bott-Geyl, Riesling, Schlossberg Grand Cru, Alsace: This site rests on a layers of ancient granite topped with sandstone and shale from early periods. The resulting wine delivers pure citrus fruit aromas and complex, layered floral notes. The rich, ripe fruity flavors balance with austere, yet pure acidity that will mellow and round out with cellar aging. An enthralling dry Riesling. 2012 Domaine Bott-Geyl, Riesling, Schonenbourg Grand Cru, Alsace: This large vineyard in the neighboring village of Riquewihr offers complex soils combining marl with gypsum rocks and Vosges sandstone laced with plenty of Muschelkalk limestone. The resulting wine delivers a light golden color with subtle, austere citrus and apple aromas with earthy notes. The fleshy, fruity flavors deliver plenty of concentration balanced by racy acidity and mineral notes. The wine finished dry, yet fruity. This is one to cellar for at least five years to allow the wine to pull together completely. 2012 Domaine Bott-Geyl, Riesling, Mandelberg Grand Cru, Alsace: The site’s chalky, stony soils and tendency to ripen early results in a wine with golden color and plenty of classic aromas of citrus and white flowers. Ripe, fruity flavors balance beautifully with elegant acidity and pleasant creamy notes.
2012 Domaine Bott-Geyl, Riesling, Sporen Grand Cru, Alsace: Bott’s site features venerable 80-year old vines on a slope above chalky marl and clay. The resulting wine offers intense fruity aromas with ripe fruit balanced by zesty acidity. The dry, fruity finish lingers pleasantly.
2009 Domaine Bott-Geyl, Pinot Gris, Sonnenglanz Grand Cru, Alsace: The grand cru terroir of chalk and marl delivers a golden wine with fresh grapefruit and pineapple aromas with hints of floral honey. Similar ripe flavors in the glass balance with crisp acidity through a ripe, round finish with plenty of lingering freshness.
2013 Domaine Bott-Geyl, “Clos des Trois Chemins,” Gewurztraminer, Alsace: The site features marl and chalk soils over mother rocks of sandstone and quartz. Combined with the southeastern sun exposure, the site creates terrific terroir for producing remarkable well balanced Gewurztraminer. Subtle grapefruit and spice aromas precede fruity, delicious citrus and spice flavors. Layers of fresh acidity balance the fruity, dry finish with a light, refined touch.
2010 Domaine Bott-Geyl, Pinot Gris Vendanges Tardive, Sonnenglanz Grand Cru,
Alsace: Made from hand picked bunches of very ripe grapes partially dried by the Botrytis cinerea “noble rot,” this golden, super sweet wine balances richness with refreshing acidity and mineral notes. The fruity finish lingers deliciously.