Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Domaine Schoffit

After coffee in Colmar at the "Cafe Leffe" and a quick consultation of a street map, we set off on foot for our 10AM appointment at Domaine Schoffit. It was a 35 minute walk southeast from the center of Colmar through the city streets, but it felt refreshing, having spent most of the preceding day sitting in trains. The weather was warm and sunny, perfect for a quick walk.

We met "Grandma and Grandpa" (Robert Schoffit and his wife?) at their home on the rue des Aubépines, and, grandkids in tow ("the babysitter is on vacation") Mme. Schoffit walked us over to the winery at the nearby intersection of the rue des Nonnenholzweg. Here we were handed off to winemaker Bernard Schoffit's wife, who led us into the newish winery office/tasting room and motioned us to a table where the three of us sat and tasted the wines. Courteous and attractive, Mme. Schoffit appeared to be in her thirties, and the tasting she led us through was intensive.

The tasting was punctuated by the comings and goings of her kids, the ~9-10 year olds Caroline and Alexandre (each of whom has a cuvée named after them) and of her husband Bernard, a young lumberjack in jeans and work shirt who appeared, kids in tow and eating an ice cream cone. After taking care of some business on the office, he sat down and led us through the Gewurztraminers, commenting in the thick, German accented French typical of Alsace.

Many of the wines Schoffit is known for come from the "Hardt du Colmar" or "Harth," a flat valley parcel just north-northwest of Colmar with sand/gravel soil. Some of the vines here are 60 years old. Grapes are hand harvested, and none of the wines are raised in wood. Comparing the 1996 and 1994 vintages in the context of gewurztraminer, Bernard Schoffit told us that the 96's will take longer than the 94's to come around.

Schoffit also owns a sizeable portion of the ultra-steep Rangen ("Rhang-gen") grand cru vineyard far to the south in Thann ("Tahn"). Much of this vineyard has only recently been reclaimed and replanted with vines, having been abandoned for much of this century (never found out why). I asked Bernard which grape varieties he thought do best there. After some thought, he responded that Gewurztraminer is typically the most difficult at Rangen, and Tokay Pinot-Gris is probably the best grape suited for the steep volcanic slope. Tokay, he said, naturally produces small berries there and ripens comparatively early; a good thing if harvest time becomes rainy. "You can make a good Tokay every year" he told us, adding that while Tokay grapes often have low acidity, the volcanic rock soil at Rangen gives the grapes higher acid content and better balance. Riesling also works well there, but because it is slower to ripen the variety can have less successful vintages when it rains close to harvest.

The Schoffits spent over two hours with us, and at the end sold us a bottle of their highly prized 95 Tokay Rangen SGN. "We always have a bottle for sale if you come all this way to visit" said Bernard. He spoke about the 98+ score the wine got, the influence of American critic Robert Parker, and the huge demand the score has created (even though only 10-12% of the wines are exported to the USA). "Next year the wine may be almost as good, but without the big score, they won't want as much." Schoffit says that he tries not to let the critics' scores be the determining factor in deciding how much wine goes where.

Parker's isn't the only publication that can create insatiable demand for a wine. Mme. Schoffit told us that the "Coup de Coeur" awards in the annual French wine publication "Le Guide Hachette des Vins" create a much bigger demand for their wines than a Parker score of 98 does. "It's not the same" she said. "People come in with the Hachette and don't want to look at anything else, not even to taste." Harrumph. Some things never change, do they?

The rest of the day was spent running errands (laundry!), visiting the Unterlinden museum (nice collection of ancient winemaking tools, barrels, presses and so on) and having a picnic supper in the park below the Place Rapp. That evening we came upon a brass band in one of the old town squares that was giving an evening concert of traditional music. A crowded outdoor bar at the back was featuring wines made by a local vintner, and of course I had to try. They weren't great, but drinking the alcoholic, oxidized pinot-gris out of a tumbler along with a hundred and fifty other thirsty locals was memorable for the atmosphere and cultural richness, if not for the wine.

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