Comparing Ruinart Champagne in Bottle and Magnum Produces Unexpected Results

A tasting this week at Roberson in London of the current releases from Champagne Ruinart together with a short vertical of the vintage Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs included a fascinating comparison of the 2004 from bottle and magnum.

The style of the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is quite deep. Indeed, when the tasting started with the “R” de Ruinart Brut and the nonvintage Blanc de Blancs, it seemed to me that the “R” had more of that crisp brightness I expect from Blanc de Blancs, whereas the actual Blanc de Blancs was deeper and nuttier. The vintage Blanc de Blancs follows the same profile as the nonvintage, but with greater intensity.

The 2004 from bottle shows lovely aromatics leading into deep white flower and citrus fruits on the palate. Nutty overtones give a mature impression that extends into slight suggestions of brioche. Overall it is deep but lively. The magnum offers less obvious aromatics and the most immediate difference in impression is a distinct touch of bitterness on the finish. The difference narrows with time in the glass, but the magnum continues to offer more obvious sense of texture and structure. (This did not produce any evident preference among tasters, some of whom preferred the bottle, others the magnum.)

Conventional wisdom holds that magnum is the ideal format to age wine; because the neck of the bottle and magnum are essentially similar, the greater volume of wine in a magnum has less exposure to oxygen (both initially in terms of the airspace in the bottle, and with time as oxygen enters through the cork). So if anything you would expect a magnum to age more slowly, and in the case of Champagne to appear fresher than a bottle, but this was not the case.

The house style at Ruinart is extremely concerned with oxidation. “Freshness is the golden thread of the house,” says Amelie Chatin of Ruinart, who came from Reims for the tasting. “To achieve our signature freshness we have a reductive winemaking process. For crushing we use a pneumatic press, not the traditional basket press. And there is no wood, everything is fermented and matured in stainless steel. Fermentation is at low temperature to maintain aromatics. Every stage is important, including our special shaped bottle, which has a narrow neck to admit less oxygen.”

I could attribute the effect of the magnum versus bottle more easily in terms of oxidation if we were dealing with red wine. In that case, I would assume that exposure to oxygen had softened the tannins in the bottle, but not yet in the magnum. That’s a more difficult explanation for Champagne, where every effort is made to limit skin contact (where the tannins originate) in winemaking. My companion, the Anima Figure, thought the magnum showed tea-like aromas, which would certainly be consistent with some effect relating to tannins.

At this point in time, I preferred the liveliness of the bottle to the bitter structure of the magnum, but I’m certainly curious as to whether the effect is actually due to a difference in rate of aging, in which case in due course the bottle may appear tired when the magnum is fresh. (The difference was not due to time of disgorgement. Magnums are often disgorged later because they age more slowly, but in this case both bottle and magnum were disgorged more or less together, about 16 months ago.) I hope to be invited back in, say, five years to reassess the situation.

Given the impression that the bottle is just on the point of developing toast and brioche, I would normally assess potential longevity at around another five years, but the next wine was the 1998, from bottle disgorged after 9 years in 2007, which is only a little tertiary. Blanc de Blancs here shows not with crisp freshness but in the creaminess of the palate, which is moving in the direction of toffee and caramel. The point about difference between bottle and magnum was perhaps made sideways on by the next wine, a 1993 magnum, disgorged after 10 years in 2003: this was more developed, certainly, with faint mushrooms and other tertiary notes, but it seemed more to have greater intensity of  butter and caramel on the palate than to be as much as five years older than the 1998. Another light on changes in Champagne, incidentally, comes from dosage, which has effectively halved over a decade: 10 g for 1993, 7 g for 1998, 5.5 g for 2004. (Amelie says it may go back up a bit in future). There is a really clear lineage of development from 2004 to 1998 to 1993 which identifies Ruinart’s style for Blanc de Blancs as complex creaminess. Anyway, the 2004 may go longer than I thought at first, but more tastings are needed to assess whether to go with bottle or magnum. I am always available.

Is Bordeaux 2012 the Restaurant Vintage of the Century?

“Lovely restaurant wine” is the phrase that appears most often in my tasting notes from today’s UGCB tasting in London of the 2012 vintage. Although there were no wines that seem to have the longevity I would require to buy for my cellar, there are many wines that I expect to enjoy drinking three to ten years from now. There are clearly significant differences between the appellations, but I do not entirely agree with the view of the vintage that was expressed at the en primeur tastings. Now that the wines are out of barrique and into bottle, it’s evident that it is too simple just to characterize this as a year when Merlot was more successful than Cabernet, although clearly the vintage has been shaped by the fact that there were heavy rains in the Médoc in late September, and October was generally wet. This made it much easier to get ripe Merlot than Cabernet.

Notwithstanding the difficulty with Cabernet, the only appellation in which I get any sense of the overt herbaceousness that used to characterize Bordeaux is Moulis-Listrac, where the wines are light but the best have enough potential flavor interest to suggest an elegant future. However, I have to admit that I do not mind a faint herbaceous edge, although not everyone will like it. Chasse-Spleen stands out for me as the best wine, elegant and taut.

Not surprisingly considering its size, Margaux is the most heterogeneous appellation. Wines range from showing noticeable tannins to having relatively soft palates, but all are distinctly light weight. The key for the short term is the character of the tannins, and the question for the mid term is how the fruits will show as the tannins resolve. In the best cases, the wines will be light and elegant in the feminine tradition of Margaux. I especially like Rauzan-Gassies for its appealing liveliness, with nicely ripe tannins. Just to the south, the glossy sheen of La Lagune gives an elegant impression that is more Margaux-like than usual. At the Cru Bourgeois level, I liked Labegorce, as much St. Julien in its precision as Margaux in its elegant femininity. Some wines may simply not have enough stuffing to withstand the loss of the initial burst of primary fruit, although in the immediate future the soft, furry palates may be quite appealing. The potential problem is that a sense of dilution may turn hollow on the mid palate.

With its compact size, St. Julien is much more homogenous and many wines make a fragrant, almost perfumed, first impression, with a classical sense of precision to the following fruits. Tannins seem riper and in better balance with the fruits than in Margaux. These will be perfect restaurant wines (if the price is right). Gruaud Larose stands out for its fragrant elegance, with tannins already integrating into an elegant palate. Beychevelle makes an impression of classic precision.

Pauillac seems less uniformly successful to me. There’s a more solid impression to the fruits and tannins. I would never use the word rustic in conjunction with Pauillac, but at this stage there is a certain robust impression, which will translate into solid fruits, but without the fragrant uplift that characterizes St Julien. Pichon Baron stands out for showing its usual power with ripe tannins and a fragrance that is unusual for the year. I also very much like Grand Puy Lacoste, which shows as a something of a half way house between Pauillac and St Julien, taut, smooth, and elegant.

It is difficult to assess St. Estèphe from this tasting as the top wines were absent, but the wines generally show a tight character with hints of the hardness you sometimes see in this appellation. As the tannins resolve, the wines should be light but relatively elegant. It is quite successful at the Cru Bourgeois level, and I especially like the light elegance of Phélan Ségur.

You would expect Pessac-Léognan to do better than the Médoc given its higher content of Merlot, and the best wines have smooth black fruit palates (smoothness is the mark of the appellation in this vintage) with nicely tamed tannins, sometimes showing a touch of the classic cigar box, but too many just seem soft without sufficient supporting structure. Smith Haut Lafitte stands out for the depth of its fruits, and Domaine de Chevalier for its sense of elegant liveliness, with a tension that is unusual in this vintage.

Over to the right back, where St. Emilion is a bit of a conundrum, Canon just edges out Canon La Gaffelière as the wine that best exhibits a classic sense of smooth opulence. Other wines seem to be moving in a more savory direction, almost pointing towards the Médoc, such as La Gaffelière and Clos Fourtet, but Troplong Mondot is the standout in the savory direction. Many seem round and soft but without much stuffing.

Pomerol shows an unusual sense of structure, with some wines displaying faint herbal overtones on opening. The ripe black fruits of Beauregard just edge out Bon Pasteur, which however is more structured than opulent, in contrast to Michel Rolland’s reputation for overt lushness. As always, La Conseillante is nicely balanced, with nothing to excess, and more underlying structure than is immediately apparent. Sometimes Pomerol is too opulent for me, but not this year.

Now that they are bottled, the whites do not seem as impressive as reports from en primeur suggested they would be. The standout for me is Domaine de Chevalier, with a beautiful balance between grassy impressions of Sauvignon on the nose and waxy impressions of fat Sémillon on the palate. This is very fine indeed, with classic elegance. Some of the wines I usually like seem to be showing a crowd-pleasing softness, quite attractive in a Burgundian sort of way, but with insufficient freshness to last.

This is not a year for Sauternes, but two wines stand out. Coutet is classically botrytized, rich and deep, and totally delicious. Climens is much lighter, really elegant and fresh, and with a beautifully balanced flavor spectrum: it may not be so long nived, but it is lovely now.

The range for me runs from wines I would enjoy in a restaurant from, say, a year or so from now, to those that I would hold for three or four years before starting. The best will offer a classic representation of their appellation in a relatively lighter style; few will be really interesting more than a decade from now. I just hope that, after the restaurant markups, they will seem as appealing economically as gustatorially.

Clos Vougeot from Top to Bottom: Is it Really a Grand Cru?

Clos Vougeot is perhaps the most variable of all the grand crus of the Cote de Nuits, and the one whose status is most often questioned (Echézeaux being the other). It’s only the accident of the area being literally enclosed by a surrounding wall that led to the uniform classification, as it extends right from the top of the slope (more or less in line with the premier crus) through the middle (in line with the grand crus) to the bottom (usually mere communal territory). In fact, it’s worse than that, because the fault line that mostly runs along the N74, dividing the great communes from the mere Bourgogne on the other side, actually diverts to run through the bottom edge of Clos Vougeot. (I discuss this in detail in my book In Search of Pinot Noir, from which the figure below is taken). Classified by geology, Clos Vougeot would include everything from ordinary Bourgogne to Grand Cru. Now if you taste your way across, for example, Gevrey Chambertin, from say the N74 to Le Chambertin, the difference between communal appellation, premier cru, and grand cru is usually fairly obvious. An unusual opportunity to see if there are obvious differences with location for Clos Vougeot came from a tasting of the 2011 vintage organized by Fine and Rare Wines in London, with examples from 38 producers. ClosVougeotCross

A cross-section of Clos Vougeot shows the strong variations in terroir.

Clos Vougeot has been divided between many producers since the French Revolution, but its division into climats hasn’t changed much since the sixteenth century. The monks knew all about this, and supposedly used the wine from the bottom for communal use, the wine from the top for visiting bishops, and reserved the wine from the middle for princes and the pope. Most of the wines at the tasting represented one of these three areas, but some were blended from multiple plots. However, the striking feature was a lack of any clear correlation between location and style.

VougeotMapClos Vougeot is divied into many plots with around 80 proprietors.

For me the wines of character fell into two general groups, which roughly might be defined as those I would (mistakenly) have placed in the Cote de Beaune in a blind tasting, because flashy red fruits showed more than structure, and those that I would unhesitatingly have placed in the Cote de Nuits (sometimes farther north than Clos Vougeot). Perhaps there is a tendency for the wines from the bottom to show more overt fruits and those from the very top to show more obvious structure, but I’d be hard put to support that in a blind tasting.

Clos Vougeot may offer the most fleshy character of the Cote de Nuits, certainly more opulent than delicate Chambolle Musigny or stern Gevrey Chambertin. I was really surprised by how sweet and ripe many of the wines were, although that’s not the reputation of the 2011 vintage. I was frankly disappointed by about half the wines, which seemed to lack grand cru quality (meaning that fruits were relatively simple and I could not see where future complexity would come from), but these showed no correlation with position, and came from plots all over the Clos. (It’s true that none of my preferred wines came exclusively from the bottom, but I don’t think that’s statistically significant.)

Wines in my category of delicious but rather Beaune-ish, with red fruits dominating, include Chanson, Chateau de la Tour, Louis Max, Denis Mortet, Mugneret-Gibourg, Jacques Prieur, Drouhin, Roche de Bellene, Domaine de la Vougeraie, Chauvenet-Chopin. Nice wines, but shouldn’t we expect more from a grand cru than simply a delicious crowd-pleasing quality?

Wines that melded the fleshiness of Clos Vougeot with a sense of structure of the Cote de Nuits, with black fruits more prominent, include Jean-Jacques Confuron, Louis Latour, Marchand-Tawse, Domaine d’Eugénie, Anne Gros, and the Vieilles Vignes from Chateau de la Tour (quite different from the regular cuvée). This is my concept of Clos Vougeot, anyway.

Some top wines came from old-line producers. Méo-Camuzet, including a large prime plot close to the chateau, really showed as a classic grand cru from Cote de Nuits, Arnoux-Lachaux (from plot in the upper third) a nice mix of fleshiness and structure in the modern style of the house, and Louis Jadot (from a plot extending from bottom through the middle) showed their characteristic sense of balance.

It is a sign of the times that I thought two of the best wines came from micro-negociants who do not even own any land in the Clos. Olivier Bernstein showed his usual opulent style, but with enough underlying structure to support longevity for years. The wine lives up to the reputation of the plot, which has very old vines (more than 80 years) in the middle of Clos Vougeot towards the south. The wine I found the most interesting of all came from Lucien Le Moine, and is not identified with any single plot. “Our Clos Vougeot has a particularity, it’s a blend from all three parts,” winemaker Mounir Saouma told me on a recent visit. The monks would have been very pleased with this: it captures the fleshiness of Clos Vougeot in the context of the structure of the Cote de Nuits and Mounir’s trademark elegance.

The take-home message for me was that producer triumphs over terroir in Clos Vougeot. Should it be a grand cru? I’d say about a third of the wines met my standard for grand cru. I’ll have to do a similar tasting for Chambertin or Musigny to see if the ratio goes up.

A Vertical of Léoville Lascases and Some Insights into Parkerization

There were many surprises in this week’s vertical in New York of Léoville Lascases from 2000 to 1982, with some vintages failing to live up to past promise and others surpassing it.

The 2000 seemed a little closed to start with, but then opened out to show classic elegance and precision, a complete contrast with the lush reputation of the vintage. The 1999 and 1998 tried to emulate its style, but simply do not have enough fruit (and are clearly going nowhere), but the 1997 showed a surprisingly silky attractiveness (but drink it up quickly).

I have not previously been so impressed with 1996 in the Médoc, which has sometimes seemed to have too much acidity, but the Lascases has really come around: a bit reserved at first, it became ripe, sweet, and silky in the glass. As has been true for the past decade, the 1995 is more open and immediately attractive, but without the stuffing for future development, although it hasn’t faded yet.

The 1990 was a conundrum. A few years back, I thought it had it all, with the density and richness of the vintage, but also acidity and tannin to hold. This time it opened with contradictory notes of herbaceousness and over-ripe fruits, and then cleared to show a complex palate with broad, warm flavors.

Going back to the eighties, hernaceousness is still the name of the game. 1989 and 1990 are often regarded as a pair, but the 1989 was completely different: herbaceousness conflicted with over-ripeness, as it did to begin with in 1990, but then it turned clearly in a herbaceous direction; 1988 took this trend further.

Previously 1986 has appeared to have the structure to mature in a classically elegant direction, but this time seemed reserved and dried out. I could not detect any flaw, but still wonder if this might have been an off-bottle. 1985 is back to the warm style, 1983 a surprise in its elegant reminiscence of Margaux in this vintage (and previously I had thought it was reaching the end of its life).

The 1982 is a knockout. Previously it had seemed to develop a bit too rapidly, but this bottle was precise and elegant, with an impression of refinement and even delicacy. Real claret.

The wines fell into three distinct groups. I could see a clear lineage in my preferred group from the 2000 back to 1996 back to 1982. It’s perhaps not surprising that 2000 should show resemblance with 1982, but I did not expect 1996 to fit into this group. These typify St. Julien.

The most traditional flavors came from 1989, 1988, and 1983, with perceptible herbaceousness, but balanced by the greater richness of the palate in a way that was not possible in the prior decade.

By popular acclaim, the preferred wines were 1990 and 1985, both showing broad, warm flavors. To my mind, this shows the Parkerization of taste. These are lovely wines, but they could just as easily come from Pauillac as St. Julien. They are the New Bordeaux, with power prized over elegance. For me, the precision of 1982 could come only from St. Julien, and that’s what it should all be about.

Alsace Diary part 5: Are They Making Another Big Mistake with Classification in Alsace?

The classification system in Alsace is a shambles. With only two official levels to distinguish everything from the plain to the mountain slopes (not to mention the problem with unpredictable sweetness) the label on a bottle of wine from Alsace gives almost no significant information to the consumer, except the name of the producer and the variety. Producers are keenly feeling the lack of any real hierarchy of classification, and the most common theme during a week of visits was that Alsace should follow the Burgundian model. In fact, producers are anticipating the introduction of a hierarchy by labeling single vineyard wines with the names of lieu dits, and some are also introducing village wines. A proposal before INAO would formalize a hierarchy, but will it solve Alsace’s problem of declining sales?

The hierarchy was clearest with Riesling, as everything is in Alsace, when producers present a horizontal tasting of an Alsace AOP, village wine, lieu-dit(s), and grand cru(s), although often somewhat muddied by an increase in sweetness ascending the hierarchy. This was more of a problem with Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, which is perhaps why I’m not so convinced the premier crus will be so effective with these varieties. All the same, the de facto hierarchy does resemble Burgundy in showing increase in quality, although it’s more difficult to get a comparable sense of the different characteristics of each terroir. One reason for this is that with the grand crus, there’s often a single wine from one producer that really marks the grand cru, so impressions are biased by producer style. “It’s important that a lieu dit or premier cru should be represented by multiple producers so it doesn’t just have one style,” says Jean-Christophe Bott of Domaine Bott Geyl.

Of course, the major problem with grand crus is extreme variation in quality. Trimbach, Hugel, and Léon Beyer regard the whole system as do sevalued that they refuse to use it. As they are major holders in some of the most significant grand crus, this is another reason why the typicities are not generally recognized. “It’s not the number of grand crus that’s the issue but the delimitation. Some of the tops and bottoms of hills should perhaps be premier cru,” says Felix Meyer at Meyer-Fonné. This goes back to their original definition, when Johnny Hugel’s original proposal to delineate just the best terroir was transmogrified into giving every village its own grand cru and expanding its area to satisfy local demand. The first grand cru, Schlossberg, was expanded from 25 ha to 80 ha. This is unlikely to be revised. “There is no willingness to open the grand cru box. The system is not perfect but it exists. It’s much more important to organize a classification of the intermediate levels,” says Etienne Sipp at Domaine Louis Sipp.

This raises the prospect, as Céline Meyer of Domaine Josmeyer says, that “some premier cru wines may sell at high prices than some grand cru wines.” The premier crus are likely to be more tightly defined than the grand crus, but the hierarchy will never have any real meaning so long as there are bloated grand crus with some parts that don’t merit the description. So long as yield limits are so relaxed that poor wines can be made in grand crus and sold at rock-bottom prices, creating premier crus with any degree of integrity will simply muddle up the system further. The key to defining the premier crus is to put the grand crus in order. Almost every producer I visited acknowledged that the variable state of the grand crus is a major impediment to establishing a reputation for high quality wine from Alsace, but said ruefully that reform is impossible. If I were in charge of the dossier at INAO, I would make it a condition of classifying premier crus that the grand crus were redefined on the basis of geology and microclimate rather than politics.

Alsace Diary part 4: Sweetness – the Big Mistake with Grand Crus

Sweetness is the issue that absolutely bedevils Alsace. Should wine be dry or be sweet? And should it be the same every year or should it be allowed to vary with the vintage? There are two schools of thought. Sometimes epitomized by other producers as “the Trimbach way,” one school holds that wine – especially Riesling – should be dry. “Our wine is bone dry and therefore suitable to accompany food,” says Hubert Trimbach. Other notable houses in this camp are Hugel and Josmeyer. The majority of producers, however, follow a mixed model, mostly trying to make dry wine, but admitting defeat and allowing some residual sugar when they feel this produces a better balance. Let me explain why I think this is usually a mistake and why it is destroying the grand cru system.

The issue of sweetness is all tied up with the grand cru system. In a marginal climate, the best sites are those that most reliably achieve ripeness. These became the grand crus in Alsace. In a typical vintage, the difference between vineyards might be that an appellation vineyard needed chaptalization, whereas a grand cru reached an acceptable level of alcohol quite naturally. So the wines would have the same (dry) style, but the grand cru would display the extra character that goes with greater ripeness. In the present era of warmer vintages, however, the appellation vineyard may reach an acceptable level of potential alcohol, and the grand cru may go above it. This explains why at many producers the entry level wine is always fermented to dryness, but the grand crus show some residual sugar.

So is residual sugar part of the terroir? “The idea with the Vins de Terroir (wines from single vineyards or grand crus) is to represent the vineyard, so the wines are not necessarily fermented dry. They are intended to be coups do coeur, where people care about the character not the technical specs,” says Philippe Blanck at Domaine Paul Blanck. Jean-Christophe Bott takes a similar view at Domaine Bott-Geyl ” I don’t believe the wine has to be absolutely dry – we are vignerons not chemists – it has to be balanced. In one vintage the balance may be 5 g sugar, in another it may be 12 g.”

The argument is basically that something has to give: either alcohol will be too high or there will be residual sugar. This might not be so much of a problem if the style was consistent for any given producer and between vintages (and if the consumer can tell from the label). Vintage variation is a killer in the sense that you cannot buy a wine sight unseen if it is dry in one vintage and sweet in another. And it’s equally confusing when a producer changes style from appellation Alsace to grand cru. “The problem is not with the entry level, it’s more with the grand crus, where the Riesling may be picked at 14% potential alcohol. It’s more difficult to achieve dry Riesling and we can find grand crus with 7-8 g sugar or more; it’s totally stupid for the grand crus to have residual sugar,” says Pierre Trimbach. In my view, this is spot on as a criticism, because how am I to understand the difference between, say, an appellation Riesling and a grand cru Riesling if the first is dry and the second is sweet? Marc Hugel puts the issues in even more direct terms: “When I started 35 years ago, almost all wines had less than 3 g residual sugar. Now most wines have more, grand cru Rieslings often have 7-8 g or more, and Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer have 20-30g: this is a dessert wine.”

And even to compare two grand crus, they need to be in the same style. It’s all very well to say that Schlossberg has granite, Rosacker is calcareous, and Rangen is volcanic, but whatever effects the terroir has on the style of wine are (at least for me) muddied by residual sugar. Whenever I have been able to compare terroirs from producers who have multiple grand crus all in completely dry style, the results have been enlightening, every bit as interesting as a comparison between Crus in Burgundy. It’s a great lost opportunity if the comparison is muddied by variable sweetness. In fact, I would go further and say it’s a great disappointment to spoil what should be the ultimate expression of terroir by confusing the palate with sugar.

Here is the case for accepting a natural balance, as put by Marc Tempé: “My aim is to make a dry wine because it goes best with food. But with our climate and cépages it’s difficult to make a dry wine from mature berries. There are years that are completely dry like 2010, there are wines that have 5 g left, but they are naturally in balance. Wines with 5 or 7 g may taste dry if they have the right structure. Wines with a little residual sugar may be perfectly suited to many foods, although many people express horror at the idea of wines that aren’t bone dry.”

Even the most committed producers admit that it’s mostly impossible (and maybe undesirable) to get completely dry Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer from grand crus. “Pinot Gris ripens very rapidly. Sometimes you say you harvest in the morning and it’s dry, you harvest in the afternoon and it’s sweet,” says Etienne Sipp. “Gewurztraminer will reach 13-14% when Riesling gets to 11%,” Marc Hugel says, concluding,” It’s better to have 14% alcohol and 7 g sugar than 15% alcohol and bone dry.” And Celine Meyer at Domaine Josmeyer points out that “If Gewurztraminer is completely dry it’s not agreeable because it’s too bitter”. So the consensus is clear that, faute de mieux, Gewürztraminer (and Pinot Gris) are going to have some sugar. “I prefer to make dry wines and for Riesling it’s easy to be dry, but with the grand crus for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer we cannot produce dry wines. To follow what the terroir has to give you, the wine would not be balanced if you picked early enough to make dry wine,” says Jean-Christophe Bott. But he adds ruefully, “Of course the market is looking for dry wine.”

Here is a heretical thought. If it is impossible to make a dry wine with under 14% alcohol from the grapes planted in a particular vineyard, are you sure you have the right variety? Instead of relying on historical precedent, should the criterion in choosing the variety be that it will achieve ripeness (but not over ripeness) at a level that allows dry wine to be made at reasonable alcohol levels in most years? In Alsace, if Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer give you the choice between 16% alcohol or residual sugar, perhaps you should switch to Riesling. In Bordeaux. if Merlot gives you 15% sugar, perhaps you should switch to Cabernet Franc or even Carmenère. Or maybe – quelle horreur – you should think about Syrah.

And for that matter, perhaps the whole concept of grand crus should be rethought. The climate was cooler when they were being defined.(It’s a sign of just how outdated the grand cru definitions are that the regulations specify the need to reach 10% alcohol!) Should spots that used to give reliable ripeness but that now give over-ripeness still be grand crus? As Alsace is even now proposing to classify a large number of lieu dits as premier crus, perhaps the level of desired ripeness should be an issue. And if the trend goes any further, maybe they will need to reconsider the hierarchy of premier and grand crus in Burgundy. In the era of global warming, should we start by asking which sites best give the desired style of wine, rather than simply looking by reflex reaction for the places that give the most ripeness?

Alsace Diary part 3: A Visit to Trimbach and Vertical Tasting of Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune Riesling

From my hotel just above Ribeauvillé, I could look down at vineyards all the way to the town, including the sweep across two adjacent grand crus, Geisberg and Osterberg. One of the greatest Rieslings of Alsace, Trimbach’s Frédéric Emile, comes from plots in 6 ha spread out across both grand crus (which is one reason why it has the lowly Alsace appellation). An even greater Riesling, perhaps the greatest in all Alsace, is Trimbach’s Clos St. Hune, which comes from 1.67 ha in the Rosacker grand cru, although because Trimbach does not (or did not, of which more later) believe in the grand cru system, it is also labeled only as Alsace. While I have tasted both cuvées on many occasions, I’ve never before had a systematic vertical to compare them directly, which is how we spent a morning with Pierre Trimbach.

TrimbachTW2

Vineyards rise up immediately behind Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé

Although Trimbach is one of the ten largest producers in Alsace, it is still very much a family owned firm. Pierre Trimbach is very hands-on: “I can still drive a fork lift, when needed,” he says. The firm is well known for taking a strong position on the meaning of Alsace: wines are dry; and they have rejected the grand cru system. Other producers sometimes refer to “the Trimbach style” as a shorthand for complete commitment to dryness. On my previous visit, Hubert Trimbach told me. “All wines are fermented close to dryness, they should be suitable to accompany food.”

Trimbach’s heart is in Riesling, which accounts for more than half of all production, and this goes hand in hand with the commitment to dry style. The hierarchy can be quite deceptive. The basic Riesling is a third to half of production, the Riesling Reserve comes almost entirely from Trimbach’s own vineyards, and the Selection de Vieilles Vignes is a selection within the Reserve category, made for the first time in 2009. Tasting the 2011s, as you go up the line you get more refinement, but less overt fruits, more reserve and minerality, and more time is needed to open. Going to Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune, flavor is less apparent on release, it needs time to come out. So in a horizontal tasting of a young vintage, you don’t see the increase in quality in an overt expression of fruits, you have to look beyond that to get an impression of future potential. And we may be talking about many years here.

The vines for Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune have similar age, and yields are similar, so differences really should be due directly to terroir. Our comparison between them covered many vintages back to 2001, and the balance shifted with time. The restrained style really pays off here in the rich vintages, such as 2009, when they don’t suffer from over-ripeness. Clos St. Hune is really not very expressive yet, but evidently has greater density than Frédéric Emile. Neither is at all ready, but if you want to experience Trimbach at Grand Cru level without waiting, there is a new choice available. This is a fascinating contrast with Frédéric Emile, where Pierre says that “Osterberg is always more upright, Geisberg is always richer.”

Trimbach recently purchased the vineyards of the nuns of the Couvent de Ribeauvillé, which included 2.6 ha in Geisberg. The nuns made it a condition that the grand cru should be stated on the label, so Trimbach will shortly release its first wine labeled under a grand cru, the Geisberg 2009. This is much more approachable, with overt stone fruits cutting the usual Trimbach austerity, and will be delightful to drink while waiting for Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune to come around. Trimbach already owned some other plots so now has become the biggest owner in Geisberg, and in my opinion, their cuvée will become the definitive expression of Geisberg.

Going back through the vertical, the first vintage of Frédéric Emile that seems ready to drink is 2005, but the Clos St. Hune remains pretty restrained and still needs more time. The first vintage of Clos St. Hune that I’d be inclined to drink now would be 2001, which has a perfect balance between minerality and fat. The Frédéric Emile is all minerality and salinity, moving in a distinctly savory direction. In every pairwise comparison back to then, Clos St. Hune shows more density but Fréderic Emile shows more obvious fruit flavors. It takes at least a decade for the fruit flavors in Clos St. Hune to become more obvious. (Of course, it does depend on teh vintage, which can make a big difference: Trimbach are releasing the 2009 Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune before the 2008, because the 2008 vintage simply needs more time.) As a working plan, drink Geisberg from five years after the vintage, drink Frédéric Emile from eight years, and drink Clos St Hune from twelve years!

Trimbach’s position on dryness isn’t quite as adamant as it might seem when you move out of Riesling. “Dry doesn’t mean anything, well maybe for Riesling, but for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer it’s balance,” says Pierre. The style for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer isn’t totally dry but is as close to it as you can get while maintaining balance. “8-10g sugar isn’t a problem if it’s Pinot Gris not Riesling.” Tasting the Pinot Gris Réserve Personelle and the Gewürztraminer Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre (the equivalent for these varieties to Frédéric Emile in Riesling), there’s only a suspicion of sweetness on the palate, although technical levels are around 8 g and 15 g, so you can see varietal typicity.

The range of Trimbach’s Rieslings is impressive, starting from insight into typicity at the appellation level, then increase in character with greater selection and older vines, and finally the quality and steely longevity of a range of grand crus, not to mention the occasional Vendange Tardive, last made for Frédéric Emile in 2001, and of which I have a bottle as a souvenir of the visit to try on a future occasion.