Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Domaine Ernest Burn, Gueberschwihr

After our usual morning coffee in Riquewihr (at the bar of the "Hotel de la Couronne"), we got in the car and headed south under overcast skies to Gueberschwihr for a tasting at Domaine Ernest Burn. We took the N83 to the D1-V, found the center of town and parked in the square by the church and municipal building. Burn is located on the rue Basse, one of the streets that lead off the square.

After locating the winery, we walked into the courtyard and immediately encountered winemaker Joseph Burn. He was driving a forklift, loaded with a palate of empty wine boxes, and upon seeing us stopped to ask if he could be of assistance. A tasting? Sure, he'd be right along. He drove off and returned a few minutes later to lead us down into the cellar/tasting room. M. Burn didn't speak any English and appeared to be somewhere in his fifties. He was soft spoken, unassuming, round faced man, wore a baseball cap, and seemed pleasantly amused at the attention he's received from the American wine press.

It was a large, well lit room surrounded on three sides by huge oak foudres, with classical music playing in the background, and a table and chairs in the center. We sat down and began our tasting. Joseph, who looked very much the gentle, rural farmer type, seemed happy to patiently answer the questions we had about his "Goldert" vineyard holdings, vinification practices and terroir. And the wines... they were spectacular!

Generally full bodied and unctuous, the wines made here have more in common with the style of Zind-Humbrecht or Schoffit rather than with the leaner, more austere wines of Weinbach or Deiss. All the wines are fermented at cool temperatures in stainless steel before being aged in oak for a year or more. All the wines are filtered before bottling to prevent further fermentation.

M. Burn feels that all the terroir is good here, both the hillside and the flatter valley parcels. Since most of his best plots are on the well ventilated, steep hillsides, his grapes don't get a lot of noble rot infection. That's ok, he says. "I don't really like the taste of botrytis, and don't really worry whether the vines are affected or not." In any case, he feels the grapes don't need botrytis to help keep their acidity high, since wines made from grapes grown on the upper slopes of Goldert always have good acidity and sweetness. Further down the slopes the wines made may have good sweetness or good acidity, but not always both.

He had interesting things to say about how winemakers pick which grape varieties to plant, and which soils favor which grapes. Tokay Pinot Gris, he explained, needs deeper soil to ripen fully, because the grapes are larger and the roots need more water. Conversely, the Gewurztraminer and Riesling varietals have smaller berries, need less water, and because of these factors do well in conditions where the layer of soil is very thin.

With only 9 hectares of vines, Burn is not a large producer. The vines are 30-40 years old, and most of them were planted in the 1960's. Harvest is usually around October 10, but he thinks 1997 may be an earlier harvest. Asked about the increasing fame and excellent quality of his wines, Burn seemed to have a fatalistic streak. "We've been really spoiled the last ten years with the good weather. Twenty years ago we couldn't have made wines like this" he said. "No one was interested in me until Parker wrote me up."

After a leisurely walk around the streets of the ancient, beautiful and blessedly un-touristy Gueberschwihr, we took the scenic route back to Riquewihr, passing through many small wine growing towns: Eguisheim, Wettolsheim, Wintzenheim, Turckheim (and up through the "Brand" vineyard), Ammerschwihr, Kientzheim and finally back home to Riquewihr. Nice drive!

After recovering a bit at the hotel we dressed in warmer clothes and headed out on foot to complete the "sentier viticole" loop around the Riquewihr area vineyards. The day before our walk took us northward. This time we headed southward through the Sporen, Sonnenglanz and Froehn vineyards and walked through the towns of Mittelwihr, Beblenheim and Zellenberg before heading back to Riquewihr along the main road. The overcast weather was just right for a long walk, and much of the way we were accompanied by a black terrier whose nametag read "Edel."

That night we splurged and ate an unforgettable dinner at the three star "Auberge de l'Ill" in Illhaeusern before turning in for the night.

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