Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Hugel et Fils, Domaine Weinbach

Sunny and warm weather all day. We began the day in Colmar early, with coffee at Café Leffe. Then, a multitude of errands: get the clean laundry, pick up rental car, purchase Laguiole corkscrew we spotted at a knife shop, reserve train tickets back to Paris.

The final errand before the day's tasting could begin was to move our home base from Colmar to Riquewihr, a quaint, walled medieval town some 10 miles to the northwest. After getting comfortably installed in Riquewihr and having some lunch at a café, we walked down the main street to the Hugel & Fils tasting room to see what was available to taste. The answer: lots.

But before we found that out, we had a funny, chance encounter with Johnny Hugel, Hugel's feisty, sarcastic proprietor. First, we looked through the dark tasting room window. No one inside. The tasting room door was closed, and no hours of operation were posted. Deserted. We thought that maybe we were just in the wrong place, and started walking toward another winery office door marked "reception."

"Can I help you with something?" came a loud French voice from behind us. We turned around, and it was M. Hugel, looking at us with curiosity. I recognized him later in the Hugel family portrait that's in their literature. Melissa answered that we were looking for the tasting room. "The tasting room is over here, where it says 'tasting room.' " he said in a sarcastic voice. "Are you English?" No, Melissa explained, we're Americans from New York City. "Ahhhhhhhhh..." said M. Hugel, as if that explained everything, and then he walked away, mumbling. It was pretty funny. We went back to the tasting room door and it was, indeed, open. We foolish Americans! .

Inside, the place was tidy and the employees quite cordial. Empty bottles line the walls, bottles from the 1960's back to the 1920's and possibly before. The helpful, English speaking winery representative brought us two beautiful, oversized Reidel glasses to taste from, and each wine poured was sealed by one of those nitrogen gas systems that preserves the freshness of opened bottles. All in all a very classy, impeccably run tasting room, and well organized.

Although there is a grand cru system in place in Alsace, and some 50 vineyards have been designated "grand cru" status, some vintners refuse to participate. Hugel is among the highest profiled of the anti-cru rebels, and though many of the wines come from classified vineyard sites, Hugel sticks with proprietary, tiered label designations that distinguish the various price points of each years releases. "Hugel" and "Tradition" are the lower two labels, using grapes purchased from 310 growers ("Hugel" made from 100% purchased grapes, "Tradition" from 20%). "Jubilee" label wines are higher quality and made from 100% estate grown, often grand cru grapes, and "Vendange Tardive" labelled bottles designate late harvest wines, including SGNs.

It is ironic that Hugel does not label any of the wines "grand cru" even if entitled to do so. They not only helped bring about the system, but the "Jubilee" label grapes come from cru vineyards. It seems that the ultimate political and, some would say ethical, compromises that took place in hammering out the system have left the standards lower than some wine producers would like. Rather than participate in a system they feel is flawed, they continue to label wines with proprietary rather than vineyard designated names. And Hugel is not alone. Other wineries have decided to stick to the more familiar name a wine has historically been known by, as in Trimbach's continued release of their top riesling by the name "Clos St. Hune" rather than "Grand cru Rosacker."

Enough politics. After a very good tasting at Hugel, we rested for a while and then hit the road for Kayserberg and our appointment with winemaker Laurence Faller of Domaine Weinbach. We had to think fast while traveling the D28 between Kientzheim and Kayserberg; the left turn into the winery is marked as "Domaine Faller" and after seeing so many wineries with similar names, one is tempted to drive right past this one, attributing the similarity to another Faller. Don't pass it by. This IS the turn for Domaine Weinbach.

The Weinbach estate is surrounded on all sides by the "Clos des Capucins" vineyard. To reach the large, mansionlike home/winery of the Fallers you must drive through the vineyard. We pulled into the shadow of the imposing building, and because there seemed to be several possible entrances (and wanting to avoid another Johnny Hugel type of incident ), we approached the people sitting at a table outside to ask directions to the tasting room. One of them was Madame Faller, and after introducing ourselves, she showed us into one of the rooms, and went off in search of her daughter Laurence.

The tasting area looked like an old smoking room or library. Its wood panelled walls, antique family photos and ornate, well used furniture evoked a formal, "old money" lifestyle, deeply rooted in the region. When winemaker Laurence Faller appeared and introduced herself, it was no surprise. She was a beautiful, elegant blond with a restrained, cordially formal demeanor. "Now then" she began, "would you like to taste the 96's we have so far? Are you journalists?" The 96's? Of course, sounds great, but we're just amateurs. Not a problem, she replied, have a seat. As the tasting went on, the formality of the dialog loosened up a bit. The wines we tasted were by and large austere and focused, with concentrated flavors that demand some cellaring and patience by their future owners. They were done in a style quite different from the easygoing fruitiness of Schoffit or the middle-of-the-road versatility of Hugel.

Like most winemakers we've met, Laurence Faller had statistics for the wines (potential alcohol, residual sugar) on instant mental recall. I asked her which grapes she liked working with most, and she replied that she's been especially proud of her work with riesling. It's her favorite grape, but she also liked the contrast of working with gewurztraminer. Her least favorite varietal is tokay pinot gris; to her it has "less individuality."

Her opinion on the 1996 versus the 1995 vintage: "The last two weeks of October [1996] were sunny and warm. 1995 has similar acidity, but the wines were fatter. 1996 is more elegant, powerful and well structured."

After tasting a couple of great late harvest SGN's, we went outside and she pointed out the Schlossberg and Furstentum vineyards which could be seen sloping upward in the distance across the main road. Then she took us through the chai and bottling line, which would be active the next day, and graciously posed for a photo next to one of the large oak barrels inside the winery. All Weinbach wines are fermented and aged in these huge 3400 and 5000 liter foudres. They've experimented with steel and occasionally use it in a pinch, but she prefers, most especially with riesling, to stick with wood. Using wood, she says, alleviates some of the reductive tendencies riesling can acquire in an oxygen free environment.

For all the formality, the Fallers revealed a humorous, less guarded side of themselves in the way the mother and daughter interacted as the tasting went on. Laurence brought in each bottle from a refrigerator in another room, one at a time. Her mother was holding a tasting in the room adjacent, and we'd often here snippets of conversation between the two women as wine bottles were exchanged. Once or twice the phone rang, and while Mme. Faller talked to the caller, Laurence would eagerly listen to hear what was being said, sometimes to distraction. Obviously, some personal business was being decided while both women handled their respective tastings. Doors opened and closed, people came and went; a family baby stroller was carried past our table, and at one point the activity was so confusing that Laurence left the room three times to fetch another wine, only to return with the same bottle in hand each time!!!

She apologized profusely for this, and Melissa and I both smiled at each other. For all the restraint and formality, this is still, after all, just a family business. The Faller family bio in Tom Stevenson's book "The Wines of Alsace" lovingly compares the family dynamic at Weinbach to that of a theatrical "French farce" and judging from our experience there, we would have to agree!

Afterwards we took the slow road home using the country roads that are part of Alsace's "sentier viticole" network, and stopped in Bergheim for a dinner of excellently prepared regional cuisine at the "Winstub du Somellier" ("Vihn-Shtub"). We finally made it back to Riquwihr at 10PM and after a quick walk of the city streets, decided to call it a night.

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