Peter Ranscombe digs into the soils of Alsace, a wine producing region where the interplay between grapes and the land creates a fascinating variety of wines.
SCURRYING up the slope behind Eric Kientzler, it’s easy to see why “steep” is a word that crops up so frequently in guidebooks about Alsace. As the winemaker at Domaine Andre Kientzler leads the way higher between his vines, it’s obvious why so many of the vineyards in Alsace are worked by hand, with the gradients simply too sharp for tractors.
Yet there’s no better way of gaining an understanding of the link between soils and wines in Alsace than climbing through the fields. Few wine-producing regions have such a wide variety of soil types lying cheek and jowl next to each other, from limestone and sandstone to clay and volcanic rocks.
Kientzler was keen to lead a tour through the vineyards so he could point out his three grand cru sites, which sit just yards apart but which have dramatically different soils, in turn bringing out different characteristics in the wines. The grand crus are the top 50-or-so sites in Alsace, vineyards that have won a reputation for quality over centuries.
Kientzler’s part of the Osterberg grand cru faces east and lies on a mixture of clay, limestone and sandstone, while Kerchberg is a higher and cooler site facing south with sandstone and marl soils, and Geisberg is a steep, south-facing site lying on limestone and sandstone. All three sit on the hill above the village of Ribeauville.
The results in the glass are fascinating. The 2016 Domaine Andre Kientzler Osterberg Grand Cru Riesling (€23, vinskientzler.com) has ripe pear and green apple aromas on the nose, which are joined on the palate by fresh acidity. Kientzler pointed to the minerality of the wine and contrasted it with the fuller flavour and rounder texture of the 2016 Domaine Andre Kientzler Kirchberg Grand Cru Riesling (€28), which he credited to the marl in the soil; for me, the Kirchberg’s fruit flavours also contrasted, with more peach, apricot and lemon notes.
Stepping back a vintage, the 2015 Domaine Andre Kientzler Geisberg Grand Cru Riesling (€32) struck a better balance in my view between the lemon zest and apricot fruit and the slightly softer acidity. Kientzler hailed the Geisberg as having the longest ageing potential of any of his sites.
Parcels within grand crus
You need your wits about you when you’re looking at vineyards in Alsace though – it’s not enough just to know the names and locations of the grand cru vineyards because different winemakers own different parcels within those delimited areas. Jean-Pierre Dirler at Domaine Dirler-Cade in the village of Bergholtz explained how volcanic soils in his parcels produced linear, smoky wines, with sandstone delivering more citrus flavours and clay soils leading to more body and ageing potential.
His son, Jean, began following biodynamic principles in the vineyard in 1998, the same year in which he married Ludivine. The pair now makes around 25 wines, including bottles from four grand cru sites.
The couple’s 2014 Domaine Dirler-Cade Kitterle Grand Cru Riesling (€21, dirler-cade.com) is produced on a mix of volcanic, sandstone and sandy soils, giving lemon and a touch of smoke on the nose, with intense lemon flavours on the palate, along with a squeeze of lime. In contrast, their 2013 Domaine Dirler-Cade Kessler Grand Cru Riesling (€23) gave riper lemon, pear and a bit of peach with tinglingly-fresh acidity from a soil with a mix of clay, limestone and sandstone.
It’s not just Riesling that expresses a sense of place or “terrior” – Domaine Dirler-Cade’s bottles of Muscat also show-off the diversity of soils. The 2014 Domaine Dirler-Cade Saering Grand Cru Muscat (€16) was full of grape and pear fruit aromas, along with sweeter lemon and rose Turkish delight notes, with enough fruit to balance the steely acidity from the mix of marl, limestone and sandstone soils, while the 2014 Domaine Dirler-Cade Spieling Grand Cru Muscat (€16) from a marl-sandstone mixture produced for me subtler flavours of apple and pear, with Ludivine pointing to a fuller body from the higher proportion of clay in the soil.
A sense of place
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Turckheim takes the concept of displaying terrior to possibly its ultimate level. The winery uses around 100 parcels of grapes to produce between 30 and 40 wines each year, and uses the same winemaking techniques for each bottle – any differences between two wines made from the same grape variety come down to the soils in the vineyard rather than any tricks in the winery.
This dedication to soils was on display during a vertical tasting, comparing eight bottles of Muscat made using grapes grown in the Goldert grand cru vineyard between 1981 and 2014. The wines were presented by Jolene Hunter, a South African who is Domaine Zind-Humbrecht’s export manager and its former assistant winemaker.
Starting with the 2015 demonstrated the dryness and high acidity found in Muscat from Goldert, with a spectrum of orange, peach, pear and lemon flavours providing balance. Hunter reeled off a list of ingredients including crab, scallops, ginger, coriander and beurre-blanc sauce that would work well with the wine.
Stepping back to the 2002 revealed the way in which Muscat can age, with the citrus fruit developing into lemon and lime curd and a clear fennel flavour emerging; yet the wine still maintained its refreshing acidity, although softened slightly with time. The highlight was a 1981, with rosemary, pear, apricot jam and a whiff of damp fir trees, a fascinating lesson in how well white wines can age.
It’s not just small producers that are celebrating the connections between the area’s soils and its wines. Cave de Turckheim, one of the largest co-operatives in the region, goes so far as to label one of its ranges with the names of the soils on which the grapes were grown.
The 2015 Pinot Blanc Granit de la Vallée delivered warm and ripe peach, green apple and lemon aromas on the nose and fruiter peaches and cream flavours on the palate, with the rounded mouthfeel balanced by fresh acidity. The acidity in the 2013 Pinot Blanc Marnes et Calcaires was mouth-wateringly higher, but was balanced by a more savoury apricot and lemon rind edge and a touch of white-pepper spice on the finish.
Fellow co-op Cave de Beblenheim also bottles soil selection wines under its Pierre Sparr label. The 2015 Riesling Selection de Sol Gres (€11.35, vins-sparr.com) is made on sandstone soils, with lemon, lime and light petrol notes on the nose and bright acidity on the palate, balanced by very rich peach and lemon fruit flavours.
*I’ve included winery prices in euros, but UK prices would of course be subject to duty and shipping costs. I’ll update with UK prices as and when stockists become available.