Burgundy for Beginners
I guess most oenophiles have gaps in their wine CV – the vast growth of the industry over the past 20 years makes it inevitable.
One of mine though was really quite large. Though familiar with most of France’s wine regions – Bordeaux left and right, beautiful Alsace, Champagne, the Rhone Valley, Provence – I had never managed to make it to Burgundy. I often asked myself whether this was intentional. For one thing, I’m more of a Chateauneuf du Pape/Barossa Valley kind of guy rather than a Pinot one; for another, I’ve always found the sheer complexity of this wine growing region, with its large number of small growers and strong emphasis on terroir and clos overwhelming. And as for tasting at en primeur events…well, I’m usually the guy frowning into my glass and wondering just how this impenetrable and complex liquid will taste once it matures into something drinkable.
So I decided it was time to bite the bullet and pay my first visit to the famed vineyards of Burgundy. I started from the south, from Beaujolais country, travelling up through such famous Cote de Beaune villages such as Mersault – stopping to see its famous chateau and do a small tasting – Puligny-Montrachet, Volnay and Pommard, all of which struck me as impressive and pictureseque, but resolutely untouristy. Restaurants are scarce as are other non-wine attractions - this isn’t Alsace, by any means. Beyond Beaune, Aloxe Corton seemed quiet and restrained, whilst heading north into Cote de Nuit St Georges, the villages – including Nuits St Georges and in particular Gevrey Chambertin – seemed to combine wine with other workaday activities, including apparently small manufacturing – something I really hadn’t expected.
Somehow, although I enjoyed exploring the villages and dropping in for tastings, and felt I was getting a hand on the geography, I felt the real Burgundy was still escaping me.
Luckily, help was at hand.
For the first time visitor, Beaune can seem something of a tourist trap. Relatively small, highly commercial with pricey wine shops and rather similar looking brasseries and restaurants, it is nonetheless a charming place to visit, a sort of Disneyland for wine affectionados. The Hospices de Beaune, established as a hospital in the 15th Century and functioning until 1971, remains one of the big draws here – and it continues to make wine to fund its ongoing charitable activities.
However the big treat is right next door – Marche aux Vins. Located in the 13th century Cordeliers Church – which became a ruin after the 1789 Revolution – this enables visitors a good overview of the wines of Burgundy by means of a walk through the atmospheric underground cellars, tasting as you go and gazing upon prestigious, dusty bottles of historic Grands Crus. You then emerge into what remains of the Church which has become the focal point of the tasting. With wines provided by Chateau de Mersault and other producers and negotiants, you can opt for the basic tasting (of 8 wines) or the Prestige tasting( of 11 wines including two premier crus). On my visit, the taste tour started with a fresh-tasting and highly approachable 2011 Marsannay Rose, moving through a basic but sturdy Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2012, a Marsannay 2007, a delicious Savigny-les-Beaune 2001. The whites included a basic but decent Bourgogne Chardonnay 2011 aqnd a delicious, creamy Mersault premier cru 2007. The prestige wines on offer included a Puligny-Montrachet 2011 from Hospices de Dijon, A Pommard premier cru Clos des Epenots 2007 and a Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru 2011.
Francois, one of the staff at Marche aux Vins, explained:
“The purpose here is to provide visitors with a good overview of the Burgundy wine region, from south to north, with a range of wines that show full expression of the terroir.”
And so they did, although good maps and some further written explanation would have served the otherwise admirable Marche aux Vins well.
Fortunately there was a detailed large map of the leading Cote de Beaune villages on the wall in the well-appointed dining room at Olivier Leflaive’s La Maison in Puligny-Montrachet.
For more than ten years the Leflaive brothers have been seeking to provide visitors with as good an overview as possible of Burgundy’s wine-making capabilities with a daily programme that starts at 10 am with a vineyard tour, followed at 11.30 with tours of the cellars and the vinification process. The highpoint comes with the tasting lunch which with the help of highly well-informed sommeliers takes the guest through the wines of the region, accompanied by local cuisine and cheeses.
First off was a perfectly serviceable Euro 15 Burgundy, Les Setiles 2012, made from selected fruit from Puligny Montrachet and Mersault, with the minerality and creaminess you would expect from well-made Chardonnay. This is a very decent wine for the price and according to Oliver Leflaive, accounts for some 200,000 bottles of the 700,000 that Leflaive produce in a typical year. The Mersault Vireulis 2010 that followed it was a good step up at more than double the price (Euro 35) – a surprisingly big, almost Californian style wine, that is still relative infancy. A good contrast to this was served with my nicely-presented chicken course, the Puligny Montrachet Enseigneres 2010 – still hefty but with more acidity and attack on the palate. The two reds with which the lunch-tasting concluded – a 2010 Volnay and Pommard Premier Cru Charmots 2010 - were both very approachable and drinking well now, despite their relative youth.
Judging by the response of my fellow diners – some of whom had come from as far afield as China and Australia - the Leflaive approach to opening the mysteries of Burgundy to the uninitiated is proving highly successful. I left the table a good deal wiser about the wines and the region and happy that I could now distinguish, for instance, between a (masculine) Pommard and its (more feminine, silkier) Volnay counterpart. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to gain more insight into these deservedly renowned, impressive but often relatively inaccessible wines.
Sadly, it would appear that the next few en primeur tastings in London, New York and elsewhere will be unable to furnish as full a range of high-end Burgundies as one would hope for. For the third year in succession, many leading vineyards in Pommard, Volnay and also Aloxe Corton have been hit by hail, in storms that swept through in late June, which hit many of the same vineyards for the third year in succession. A drive through the vines revealed just how considerable the damage has been in some vineyards, particularly in Pommard. Though winemakers remain hopeful, odds are that by the time this year's harvest comes to be bottled, there will be lots of Bourgogne ordinaire and rather less premier crus.
Are Brits Bored with Bored-aux?
It's late September and Marc Milhade, owner of Chateau Recougne, a 400 year old estate north of Libourne in the Bordeaux Superieur appellation, is working flat out to pull in the harvest. Armed with a cellphone with four apps that tells him the precise climactic conditions in all parts of the estate, he has already picked his white grapes (Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Semillon) and is now focusing on Merlot before moving onto the Carmenere – unusually the Chateau makes a single varietal wine from this historic grape - Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“It's important to pick carefully and get everything exactly right, but this year things are looking really good,” says Milhade, whose wines are sold in the UK by Majestic Wine.
It's still early days of course, but all the signs are that Bordeaux producers will have a fantastic harvest this year. Initial forecasts by the CIVB suggest the region will produce 5.5m hectoliters, with Bordeaux just about the only major French wine region to escape the climactic disasters that have hit other regions. Indeed, 2016 will mark the third year of improvement since Bordeaux's annus horribilis, the disastrous 2013 vintage, which saw quality plummet and production fall some 37% against 2012, to just 3.84m hl. After such rocky times, Milhade is confident that UK wine drinkers – historically his most important export market – are re-discovering their taste for Bordeaux.
“The 2015 vintage is very important for us but my sense is that consumers are getting tired of New World wines and coming back to us,” he says, pointing to more fruit-driven reds and appealing whites, given greater complexity and roundness by the inclusion of Semillon and Sauvignon Gris.
Milhade's confidence however may represent little more than the triumph of hope over experience. Although producers like Milhade are now consciously making more popular, fruit-forward styles of wine, exports to the UK of mainstream Bordeaux – the non-premier cru stuff, some 97% of total production – has been struggling for years. Bordeaux may be perhaps the world's most famous, and at premier cru level the most expensive wine region, but for most British wine drinkers its more Bored-oh.
The latest CIVB figures show UK imports in the 12 months to June were well down at Euro 161m against Euro 209m in the year to June 2015, which shows the trend shows little sign of abating. Consumers seem put off by complex labelling, reinforced by confusion over the complex appellation system and unimaginative packaging. Other negatives include the absence of grape varieties on the label (a big contrast to often clearly branded New World wines that almost always carry varietal details) and apparent over-promise (even humble wines carry the tag Grand Vin de Bordeaux, so consumers struggle to know quite what they are buying).
With quite literally a whole world of wine choice on shelves and wine-lists, consumers who 10 or 20 years ago would have opted for claret are now trying what they see as more exciting wines or wines to which they feel they can more easily relate. All this is before the deliberate self-harm of Brexit takes effect and starts pushing prices up. Next year will see the impact of sterling's 20% devaluation against the Euro feed into prices here and duty may also rise, possibly quite dramatically, depending on what sort of Brexit eventually happens. CIVB officials remain confident however.
Francois Jumeau, the CIVB's director of marketing, attributes the decline to the impact of the disastrous 2013 vintage, which led many distributors to de-list Bordeaux, and is confident that the excellent 2015 – and probably also the 2016 – vintages will turn things around.
Just to make sure, CIVB is making efforts to promote consumer knowledge of the Cru Bourgeois and the Cru Artisans du Medoc – associations that stress the quality, traditions and heritage of this region – and is boosting awareness of white bordeaux, mindful of the fact that in some appellations such as Blaye, 90% of production was white (in Blaye's case mainly ugni blanc) before it was pulled up in the 1960s and replaced with mainly merlot grapes.
“Bordeaux is the home of Sauvignon Blanc and is now making some fantastic whites from 13 appellations; we have crisp, fruity whites perfect for aperitif and more complex wines, like Graves, that can age and mature,” he says, adding that the study that has gone into Sauvignon Blanc has led to a better understanding of this grape variety's potential, in both nose and palate.
“Quality here is high and prices are very good, compared even to other regions of the world – its just a matter of getting that across to consumers,” says Jumeau.
Producers seem to be getting the message.
Sitting in front of a groaning table at which pickers are hungrily tucking into lunch, Thibault Despagne of Chateau Tour de Mirambeau says he makes wines contrary to the drab image this un-sexy Bordeaux region – Entre-Deux-Mers – often conveys to British consumers. There's no lack of ambition.
“In this region you get the good, the bad and the ugly: my focus is on making interesting and accessible wines that I like to drink myself,” he says, pointing to his L'Onde 2015, a Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend that sells for under Euro 10 a bottle, his full Biface white blend, and at the high end – though just Euro 45 a bottle – the sumptuous Girolate 2005, a 100% single estate Merlot, which Robert Parker's Wine Advocate awarded with 92 points, calling it an “absolutely amazing over-achiever”.
Despagne is unsurprised at the plaudits, pointing to his property's fine limestone soils – Girolate is grown on slopes overlooking St. Emilion - and careful vineyard management, which includes the expensive planting of high density vines to maximise production and keep per vine yields low.
“We need to dust down our image and also dismiss perceptions that mainstream Bordeaux is too expensive” he says.
Some British merchants do report higher sales.
“Our red Bordeaux sales are up 33% at retail prices ranging from £12.99 to £92.99. This may be due to a desire to return to the classic regions, improving quality (with more bright fruit and smooth tannins), and the ability for Bordeaux wines to age, with a corresponding demand for mature vintages.” says Jennifer Docherty MW, Wine Buyer for Liberty Wines.
Others are more downbeat.
“We've been trying to get more Bordeaux onto wine lists for years but it's very hard, especially for whites. The people who run modern restaurant chains just weren't bought up on Bordeaux and are not attracted by what their father or grandfather might have drunk, when they could have an exciting Cabernet/Merlot from New Zealand,” says Simon Jerrome, head of wine buying at Conviviality Plc.
Jerrome says Bordeaux is suffering from the way the trade sold it for so many years, stressing its exclusivity and that you had to be “in the know” to know what to buy.
“It's a shame because there are some really good wines out there.”
Charles Lea of Lea and Sanderman echoes this, saying the negative hype surrounding en primeur premier cru classe Bordeaux has fed all the way down. He says there are a lot of bargains but also lots of negative perceptions, also not helped by the well-publicised price rises of certain second label wines.
“There's a lot of band-waggoning going on with tiresome wines being sold at high prices: this reinforces the sense that Bordeaux is generally poor value,” he says.
So what is to be done?
The CIVB's Jumeau concedes that the appellation system hasn't exactly helped sell Bordeaux to the average consumer and that consumers need to be more educated – though marketing campaigns and through social media. But even with Brexit beckoning, he is confident that, once memories of the poor 2013 vintage fade, Bordeaux's star will rise once again.
“People are reassured by the grapes and increasingly also surprised by the quality (of mainstream Bordeaux), particularly as this has improved so much in recent years. At the end of the day we are Bordeaux and have a very good story to tell,” he argues.
It used to be that when you opened that bottle of Cotes de Provence rosé that you bought back from the south of France, the phrase “Caveat Emptor” would run through your head. How could it be, you would ask yourself, that what tasted so good down there could taste so dull and wrong on a cold winter evening in Battersea?
Buyers' regret is pretty rare these days. Vast improvements in vinification, bottling and a much closer focus on terroir – crudely, western Provence is defined by limestone and limestone-clay soil, eastern Provence by schist – have transformed the region. Quality is better at Provence's 40 coops, which still account for some 55% of production. But the real story is the unstoppable advance of the region's impressive family and privately run producers, which now dominate attention in Cotes de Provence, Coteaux d'Aix en Provence and Coteaux Varois en Provence, the three appellations that make up the Vins de Provence region (Bandol and Cassis stand outside the association).
Brits seem increasingly keen on Provence pink – figures released by the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence (CIVP) show exports to the UK have risen 287% over the past ten years and continue to rise. In 2010, the UK was the fifth market for Provence wine; today it is the third, surpassed by only the US and Belgium, with most projections showing we will soon overtake the Belgians.
“Every year we say, OK, now it will slow, but we are proven wrong: in 2015 over 2014, exports to the UK grew 37% by volume and 51% by value and in 2016 so far, volume has grown another 17% and value 29%,” says Caroline Benetti, communication manager for CIVP.
A quick look at what's on offer explains why.
UK consumers can chose from individual Chateau-produced wines such as Chateau de Beaupre – where the family Double have been making wine since 1855 - and Chateau La Gordonne, both of whom are seeking actively to boost exports (not least because the consensus seems to be that local demand for rose has plateaued). The last of these, located in Pierrefeu, and with two million bottles produced one of the largest producers in Cotes de Provence, says they treat their rose like white Burgundy, with a focus on trying to “seek its essence”.
Or they can buy some of the increasingly excellent wines made by negociants. One of the most successful and well-regarded is Mirabeau, run by the Anglo-German couple Stephen and Jeany Cronk. This started only seven years ago but now shifts some 500,000 bottle of two fresh and well-packed cuvees, Mirabeau Classic and Mirabeau Pure, to over 50 markets, with Waitrose the main channel in the UK. Production next year will jump to 750,000 according to Stephen Cronk, with sales being driven by the widespread perception that second rate rosè drunk only by holidaymakers on their summer break is a thing of the past.
Valerie Lelong, head of marketing and export communications for the CIVP, echoes this.
“A lot of our orders for rosé come in the autumn, ahead of Christmas; it is no longer seen as purely a summer drink,” she says.
Provence may be outperforming in crisp, accessible and mineral pink wines but the region has another couple of tricks up its sleeve.
One is oak-aged rosé: scarce just a few years ago, now most quality producers are turning their hand to this, recognising the potential of selling a very different type of pink wine to drinkers who want more complexity and wines that fare better with winter fare. Old hands at oaking rosè say they are not surprised at the trend.
“Provided you oak carefully and pay close attention to what you are doing, you retain the fruit, freshness and specificity of Provence, but gain a little something extra,” says Matthieu Negrel of Mas de Cadenet, just outside Aix en Provence, close to the famous Sainte Victoire mountain, made famous by Cezanne's paintings.
But the main big growth area is red wine, once something of a cheap tannic after-thought here. Typically Provence producers' production breakdown is 85% pink, 10% red and 5% white but that appears to be changing with producers focusing more on white (typically made from rolle, better known in the UK as vermintino) but especially red wines (made from carignan, syrah and, if the vineyard is anywhere near the sea, mourvedre). Alain Baccino, President of the CIVP, is one producer following the trend for making more red: some 65% of his production at Chateau Peirecedes is red, including the acclaimed La Tulipe Noir, made with a hefty dollop of mourvedre.
Local producers say the demand for Provence red is rising fast, including from the UK.
“Consumers are only slowly recognising that reds here have been improving dramatically over the past few years; they are now easy drinking but also very distinctive,” says Gregory Guibergia, wine-maker at the beautiful and remote Saint Andrieu winery near the village of Correns, near Brignoles on the border between Cotes de Provence and Coteaux Varois. He says the winery – best known for its moreish Domaine St Andrieu Rosé and from Varois, L'Orataire Rosé – aims to focus on boosting exports of its red, made from 70% syrah and 30% mourvedre, albeit from a small base of just 50,000 bottles in total.
He won't be alone. Many of the wineries I visited whilst in Provence last month are now looking to boost production and exports of red wine, recognising that what make the pink wines in Provence so distinctive – the soil, climate and the mistral winds that blow through the region – make the reds here special too.
“Sales of white but particularly red are rising fast; its hard to keep stock. We've become victims of our own success,” says Christophe Bernard, winemaker at Chateau de Demoiselles in Les Arcs, who says he produced 50% more red in the last three vintages just to keep pace with demand.
For most producers though, the shift towards making more and better reds and making oaked rosé, reinforce the main event, which is vastly improved quality of mainstream Provence rosé, which continues to hold British consumers in its thrall.
“The best thing about all the changes and innovations taking place here, including the move towards more red and more oaked wine, is that people no longer have preconceived ideas about Provence wine. And that can only be good news, for consumers and producers alike,” says Matthieu Negrel of Mas de Cadenet.
Provence Pink - The Marmite of the wine world?
Why is Provence wine – and in particular its pink or gris wines - the marmite of the wine world? I kept asking myself this question as I drove around the almost absurdly pictureseque wine region around Bormes Les Mimosas and Le Lavandou, dodging scantily dressed tourists with surely very different things on their minds.
By any standards, this is a spectacularly pretty if not entirely coherent part of the Cotes de Provence region, with wineries called such names as Domaine de le Sanglier and further afield – with rather more serious wine – Chateau de Rimauresq. Many are boutique producers, making just 50,000 or so bottles a year, mostly rose and some largely for the local market, although some have crossed the 200,000 bottle a year level to become serious players, exporting as much as 40-50% of production. Think Pink is the motto of most of these wineries with producers focusing still increasing amounts of production on rose wines at the expense of white and red.
Until recently, these wineries were part of the tourist trail with visitors happy to shell out over the odds for something to drink with their picnics. Things seem to be changing though. Although wines from Provence have long been popular with the public, they are finally gaining critical traction after years of derision in the wine press. Attributes cited include much improved production techniques, the sheer vibrancy and freshness of many of the pink or more accurately, gris wines, and increasingly and all-importantly, (for this is France) terroir, which is especially making itself felt in the region’s reds. The leading wine publication in the US recently featured a picture of Brad Pitt with a bottle of his well-received rose wine Miraval – made with renowned winemaker Marc Perrin – and in the same issue its list of the Best Roses of Summer features mostly Provence rose.
Yet doubts persist. Drunk in their environment with Mediterranean food, warm sunshine and the remarkable sunlight that permeates a summer day in Le Midi, these are very user friendly wines. Yet in London say, or New York one still tends to feel differently, with the wines’ lightness, their frequent lack of structure and sameness coming to the fore.
And then there is price. Some of these wines are very expensive for what they are: Euro 20 or 25 is not unusual for a vintage estate wine, although one has to bear in mind the high price of land here and the fact many wineries remain boutique operations. And as a visitor, one gets the sense that although the wineries treat their products with an almost comical solemnity, pouring the wines as if they were 1982 Bordeaux, tasting portions can be so small the process almost feels pointless. One gets the uneasy feeling that profit maximisation really is the number one priority here.
But what is the reality? Over a few gloriously warm summer days in early to mid August, I visited several wineries in and near the Bormes Les Mimosas sub-region encountering numerous tourists, a lot of pretty samey, definitely overpriced roses…but also a few surprises.
First off, Chateau de Bragancon, named to associate with the President’s summer residence which lies close by. The smart, swishy tasting rooms here reinforce the feeling of boutique-ness as do the wines – three quite samey 2013 roses rising in price from Escale (euro 8.90), Cuvee Reserve (11.60) and Cuvee Prestige (15.60), all made from blends of Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah. The red Cuvee Prestige 2011 – a blend of Cab Sav, Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah – seemed quite closed from what I could ascertain from the carefully administered drops, and certainly overpriced at Euro 31.60.
Underwhelmed, I moved a few hundred pretty metres down the road to the Chateau Leoube, whose huge limestone coloured manor house dominates the landscape but which on closer inspection is surrounded by modern production facilities, reflecting the fact this is a large operation producing well over 300,000 bottles a year, and exporting to a range of countries including the UK. This winery is highly rated by locals and I can see why: all the wines are made with estate grown grapes and are by south of France standards, well priced, with the rose, red and white de Leoubes priced at Euro 15 a bottle and the delicious full-bodied and hearty Les Forts de Leoube – made from 30 year old vines and comprising 25% each Syrah, Cab Sav, Grenache and Cinsault. These are generally good wines and bolster Cotes de Provence’s growing claims to be a serious producing region.
Similarly good, but much pricier wines can be found up the road at Domaines Ott purchased by Louis Roderer a few years back. Fittingly, this is a winery that stresses style – the bottle design dates back to the 1930s, is patented and suggests luxury – and amazingly for a winery that only started making pink wine 9 years ago can boast three quite diverse roses from its three vineyards. Clos Mirelle, a light, aperitif style rose made in Bormes; Chateau de Selle, from inland Drauginian, a tougher-edged, food wine and from Bandol, Chateau Romassen, an impressive, opulent and floral wine fully characteristic of that region. The real surprise here though is the white Clos Mirelle, a nicely developed, well rounded and full bodied blend of Semillion and Rolle (vermintino) with myriad lemon and floral flavours that works equally well as a food wine and aperitif. All wines are Euro 21, not cheap but at least you are getting some discernable quality for your cash.
However the biggest surprise came with the last winery I visited. Run for four generations by the Ferrari family, Chateau Malherbe is the archetypical pretty Provencal winery: the drive winds you through beautifully cultivated vines to a small but well-maintained Chateau: even the walk from the car park is through flower and vine decorated trellises and one is greeted at the door as if one were arriving for the weekend. This historic winery makes reds, whites and roses organically from two distinct terroirs: Malherbe, located on the top of shaley hillsides overlooking the sea and Pointe du Diable located on mainly sandy soil so close to the sea that the iodine can be tasted in the wines. All the wines here are pretty decent but it is the reds that impress most: the Pointe du Diable is 40% each Grenache and Syrah and 20% Cab Sav and has wonderful complexity, with black and red fruits flavours on a lingering palate, whilst the even more impressive Malherbe is 35% each Syrah and Grenache and 30% Mourvedre, wonderfully rustic with dark fruits flavours and a wonderful sense of terroir. A bargain at Euro 25 each. The only disappointment about these wines is that so few were made: just 6800 and 7100 bottles respectively.
So what conclusions did I draw from my entirely unscientific exploration of this region? That its roses are improving but remain generally overpriced, and that to find something really good look you must look for the unexpected, and the not so popular.
Many wine regions lay claim to being the world's most attractive but Alsace has a better claim than most. This was my first trip to the region and whilst I had been told that the wine villages nestling near the foothills of Les Vosges were picturesque, little had really prepared me for the beauty of Turckheim, Eguisheim and the more touristy walled city of Riquewhir, rightly a UNESCO protected site. These are well worth a few days of anybody's time, the appeal made stronger by the small distances involved (even if the 170 kilometer long Alsace Wine Route can be bewildering to follow). For those who appreciate the gloriously scented but surprisingly diverse wines of the region, a few days wandering the highways and by-ways is a must. So where to start?
I based myself in Colmar, the old town, Little Venice and the restored Tanner's Quarter amongst the main attractions. The Novotel is recommended; the pool and a good restaurant overlooking the aerodrome (don't worry – just small planes) make for an excellent retreat after a long day of tasting, and the rooms, whilst on the small size, are good value and well-appointed. Plus the hotel provides easy access to the Wine Route...
As regards wineries, Alsace has many, all producing wines from the seven Alsace grape varieties – Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and the often bland Sylvaner. Because you could spend weeks visiting producers, it is important to pick carefully not least because there are no clear defined rules governing just what an Alsace wine should taste like; many old-style producers go for the sweeter, more traditional style whilst upmarket producers – particularly those with any eye on the export market – tend to go with a more food friendly, drier style. With the much-appreciated help of CIVA, the official body that represents Alsace wine, I visited two smaller producers, two high end producers with long histories that have traditionally focused on the (wealthier) export market and two cooperatives.
The two smaller winemakers – Kuentz Bas and Aime Stentz (the smallest) are sound producers – both make a wide range of decent wines demonstrating the diversity and quality of this region and are worth seeking out. Kuentz Bas's wines are sold in the UK by the Wine Society.
The two high end producers, Hugel and Trimbach, are two of the oldest and best known names in Alsace. Following the death a few years ago of Johnny Hugel, Hugel & Fils today is run by the 13th generation of the family and is 100% family owned and financed; the firm can trace its pedigree back to 1639 and still occupies rather cramped but attractive and splendidly located historic premises in the centre of Riquewihr. Today production is just 110,000 cases – less in a tricky year – and it typically produces around 20 different wines a year, although it makes its best known wines – Jubilee, Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles – in only the very good years. Some 90% of production is exported, to no fewer than 100 countries.
Of the wines I tasted, the Hugo Gentil 2010 (Euro 10) – an entry level blend of five varieties – was a good introduction; dry but with lots of scented fruit character, it is easy to see how this has reached Parker's Top 100 list of good value wines. Now accounting for 40% of Hugel's production. The Pinot Noir Jubilee 2006 (Euro 20.50) was excellent, a great example – and there are not many – of how Alsace can do true justice to this tricky grape. Quite small production and made from 45 year old vines, with six months in barrique, this is quite intense and will improve further. The Riesling Jubilee 2005 is a beautiful rich and fragrant example of the grape with ripe petrol notes on the nose and plenty of fruit on the palate. For me, perhaps the biggest surprise was the Pinot Gris Jubilee (around Euro 25): very soft and amiable, this has lovely honey aromas and rich, vanilla fruit on the palate, yet unlike sweeter PGs works well with food. My guide David Ling – who has been with the company since he first turned up for work experience almost 40 years ago – was, of course, saving the best for last: the Gewurztraminer Selection de Grains Nobles 1988 is a wonderfully expressive, fully ripe yet still fresh wine that really shows what this fascinating grape can achieve. David says this wine will continue to evolve for 100 years, and I believe him.
Trimbach have a similar pedigree to Hugel – making quite lean and very elegant wines – and I was lucky to have as my guide Anna Trimbach, in her middish 20s but already helping drive forward this family firm. Again, Trimbach make a wide range of wines but particularly impressive were the Pinot Gris 2007 Reserve (Euro 13.20) and two Gewurztraminers, the 2008 and 2005 Reserve (Euro 12.70 and Euro 17.50): the former has some residual sugar but lots of smokiness and fresh fruit on the nose and palate, with pear and peach flavours much in evidence. The Gewurzt 08 had delicious spicy fruit and fine balance but coming from one of the best recent vintages in Alsace, is still quite young. Even more interesting for me is the Pinot Gris Reserve 2007 with lots of spice too but a better food match.
The two cooperatives I visited are both, in their own ways, remarkable.
Cave de Ribeaville is the oldest co-op in France and now makes an enormous range of wines at almost all price and quality levels, most of which are available in its huge tasting room. Evelyne, my guide and the chief winemaker here, showed an impressive range. Amongst the most outstanding wines was the Gloeckelberg Gewurztratiminer 2007, a beautifully rounded, fruit driven and evocative wine and the Clos de Zahnacker 2007, a blend of Riseling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer which manages to demonstrate all three varietals to great effect, in defiance of Alsace's classic reputation as being the only French wine region to focus purely on single vareties. Both priced at around Euro 20, they are drinking well now but will improve.
The other coop– Cave de Turckheim – was created in 1955 and after much investment has emerged as a dynamic and innovative force in Alsace winemaking, although volume is also its thing: some 8 million bottles a year with a huge range. The cave makes some great Rieslings particularly in the reserve range but there are also great value wines in their cheaper Tradition range and some decent grand crus. For me the most interesting were their terroirs d'Alsace range, where you can taste the diversity arising from the same variety grown in granite, sables et galets (sand, gravel and pebble) and marnes et calcaire (chalk and clay): the Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer made in these three different terroirs made for some fascinating comparisons, but all drank well with great fruit and balance. At around Euro 10-15 a bottle these wines are excellent value. But perhaps the best news for visitors to this winery is that Turckheim is one of the most beautiful but least touristed Alsace towns – further evidence of this region's ability to deliver great combined sightseeing and winetasting opportunities.