Alsace Diary part 1: Valentin Zusslin – Master of Subtlety from Riesling to Pinot Noir

Spending this week in Alsace, I am finalizing the producers to be included in my book, The Wines of Modem France: a Guide to 500 Leading Producers. While a producer should be judged on the range as a whole, I’m inclined to look at Riesling as the defining variety: top Rieslings should show minerality, piercing purity, freshness, and increasing breadth of flavor with age. I look for Pinot Gris to balance expression of stone fruits with more savory notes including a characteristic note of mushrooms (yes, I know that’s considered pejorative in some quarters, but it’s part of the character when subtle). Gewurztraminer is not my favorite variety, I find it simply too perfumed, but when the perfume is delicately balanced with lychees I can appreciate its qualities. I usually find Muscat a bit too obvious, and have lower expectations of Pinot Blanc (and Auxerrois), Chasselas, and Sylvaner, but I’m on the lookout for unusually fine examples that I could recommend. I hesitate to include Pinot Noir as a criterion in a region whose reputation is established for white wine, but full marks go to producers who have taken advantage of global warming to make fine Pinot Noir in Alsace.

Long vertical tastings of Pinot Noir and Riesling with Jean-Paul Zusslin at Domaine Valentin Zusslin fly into the top ten list for both varieties. We tasted Pinot Noir from the lieu-dit Bollenberg (near Rouffach, which is one of the candidates for promotion to premier cru, and where the clay-calcareous soils are suitable for red varieties). I hadn’t encountered these Pinots previously, but they seem to me to capture the essence of Alsace in the context of red wine. They are destemmed, vinified in wooden cuves with pigeage to begin with, switching to pump-over half way through fermentation, and matured much along the lines of top flight Burgundy, in barriques with 50% new oak. Color is deep, fruits are round, the palate is exceptionally smooth, silky tannins support the fruits, the overall impression is quite soft, and some wood spices show when the wines are young. I was puzzling over how I would relate them to Burgundy, and I think the main difference is in the aromatic spectrum: if it isn’t too fanciful, they have a more aromatic impression that seems to relate to the general character of Alsace in growing aromatic white varieties. A barrel sample of 2013 shows as very ripe, 2012 is a touch livelier in its acidity, 2011 conveys a sense of a more earthy structure, 2010 has closed up a bit and is more upright (the counterpart of the often crisp character of the white wines in this vintage), 2009 (my favorite) shows the first signs of evolution with an elegant nutty palate that is reminiscent of the Côte de Beaune, and the 2008 has lightened up and is moving in a savory direction. These are serious wines by any measure, and anyone who is serious about Pinot Noir should try them.

Our Riesling tasting started by comparing three Grand Crus from 2012, which seemed to increase in their savory impression as we went through the line. Bollenberg is precise without being tight, a very pure expression of Riesling. Clos Liebenberg brings more intensity and adds herbal elements to complement the citrus and stone fruits of the palate. Pfingstberg isn’t exactly drier than the other two but is more savory, showing herbal notes including tarragon before the citric purity of Riesling returns. Then we went back in time with Pfingstberg. In the 2010 vintage the savory notes of 2012 are joined by the first notes of petrol. (The first bottle we tried was very slightly corked, and the petrol was quite evident, perhaps because the fruits were a fraction suppressed. A second bottle brought the fruits out more clearly, and the petrol was less evident.) There’s a tense, savory edge to the palate, with an impression of salinity at the end. Back to 2008 where petrol is just beginning to replace savory elements as the first impression, and the palate follows with a classic blend of citrus and stone fruits. The defining word about age came from the 2001, a lovely golden color with some honey, tertiary aromas, and touch of petrol. The flavor spectrum here is moving in the direction of late harvest, but the wine is bone dry: that’s a wonderful combination that I’ve only really experienced in Alsace. Then with 2000 we had a Vendange Tardive, as that was the only Riesling made from Pfingstberg in this vintage. This is a very subtle wine for late harvest, with the sweetness of the apricot fruits cut by tertiary aromas and herbal impressions. In fact, if you want one word to sum up the style of this house, it would be subtlety.

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2 thoughts on “Alsace Diary part 1: Valentin Zusslin – Master of Subtlety from Riesling to Pinot Noir

  1. Thanks for this. We were in Alsace this summer. The wines were brilliant; unfortunately we were cycling and there was only a limited amount we could carry over the hills. I look forward to the rest of the posts.

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