Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Marcel Deiss, F.E. Trimbach, Jean Becker

An extraordinarily full day. After finding a local watering hole for our daily "café noir" in Riquewihr, we headed north to Bergheim for a 10AM tasting appointment at Marcel Deiss. It was a clean, modern winery building and inside the tasting room there were plexiglass containers containing soil/rock terroir samples from each of Deiss' vineyards.

Our tasting was hosted by a pleasant young woman, a student whose parents sell their grapes to a cooperative, and she spoke some English to help me along. No one else was tasting, so we had her full attention, and really enjoyed the rieslings here. Deiss owns 22 hectares of vineyards, and exports 70% of its wines. Interestingly, Deiss limits each vineyard plot to one cuvée per year. For each vintage and vineyard, a decision is made sometime during the growing season whether to harvest the wines normally for a dry wine, or to wait and make a late harvest wine. Then, in order to maintain the vintage integrity of the particular plot, ALL the grapes are used for that one wine. An interesting philosophy.

Afterwards we walked to the center of town, purchased lunch supplies, and then made the crazy decision to make a lunchtime drive south to Thann, in order to get a look at the well known Rangen vineyard. Well, it turned out to be a longer drive than expected, taking nearly nearly 45 minutes one way. We arrived at 12:30 and walked to the base of the vineyard slope. There are modern apartment buildings that abut the creek that runs below Rangen, so to get an unobstructed view of the vines we had to walk through the complex's courtyard and behind the buildings. We gazed up in awe of the vineyard and chapel that sits half way up the slope. Kid residents of the apartment complex weren't so awed, however; several of them energetically rode their bicycles around us in figure eights as we took in the steeply sloping rows of vines.

Rangen sticks out in Alsace like Coulée de Serrant sticks out in Savennieres; both are incredibly steep, exposed vineyards that catch the afternoon sun. The vines on Rangen are planted in rows that go straight up and down the slope. Looking up from the bottom you can see between the rows, nearly up to the top! In Savennieres, however, the rows on the Coulée go back and forth *across* the slope, staying pretty much at the same elevation. Why? I wish we had found out the answer. Possibly, the low annual rainfall in Alsace means that erosion of planting in steep downhill rows isn't much of a problem.

We made it back north to Ribeauvillé in time for our 2PM appointment at Trimbach. The representative over the phone was not encouraging, and told us that because the winery would be closing the next day for "les vacances" that only a few wines would be available. Fortunately, the wines were still being poured, and we had a good tasting there with an accommodating hostess. The tasting room is beautifully appointed in wood and stone. Be aware though, if you want to purchase at the winery there is a six bottle minimum and credit cards are not accepted. This was the only winery in Alsace that served the tasting wines in the traditional, bowl shaped Alsatian tasting glasses.

After eating lunch in the park at Ribeauvillé we headed to the third tasting of the day at Jean Becker in Zellenberg. Although we'd never tasted or seen wine of his for sale in the USA, we had really enjoyed a riesling from this winery at a dinner in Colmar and were interested in tasting more. The visit at Becker showed us a different aspect of the Alsatian wine business, one that we hadn't thought about before.

First, we parked and walked around the town. Being one of the few towns in Alsace perched on a hilltop, Zellenberg has great views all around, and some of the buildings, which are really quite old, have historical interest. And then there are the storks. They have nests on the top of buildings, and we saw several adults and juveniles atop a tower! I had thought it a myth that storks actually nested on rooftops but to my surprise, there they were.

A sign on the door at Becker instructed us to ring the bell for a tasting, and after a few moments a woman, Martine Becker, poked her head out of a window. She came right down, let us into the tasting room, and started us off with a couple of rieslings, one of which was the wine we'd tasted a few nights earlier. It was still excellent. We wondered, why isn't this producer imported to the United States? We were about to find out.

After we had tasted a little longer, three well dressed Asian men walked into the tasting room. One of the men spoke French, and Mme. Becker clasped her hands, bowed, and spoke to him in a familiar way, like she knew him, and in Japanese. They were interested in tasting everything that was available, and it became apparent that this man had brought two potential clients with him. They didn't spit.

We moved on to the tokays, then the gewurztraminers, while Mme. Becker arranged a tour for two busloads of visitors over the phone. She called in her mother to help at the tasting bar as we went on to the late harvest wines. A busload of tourists arrived for a tour of the caves, and Mme. Becker left to take care of them. The elder Mme. Becker, who had been taking excellent care of the Japanese clients, told us later that she really appreciated their many Asian customers; explaing to us that they only like the most expensive, highly perfumed wines, that they buy in quantity, and that they are a very loyal customers. It sounded like good business sense.

Just before leaving, another couple, a French couple, came purposefully walking into the tasting room holding a copy of the shiny red "Guide Hachette des Vins" opened to a page of Alsace listings. Perhaps they were zeroing in on one of Becker's "coup de couer" bottlings? With this, finally, the absence of J. Beckers wines on the shelves of US stores seemed clearer. Between the Asian and French markets, there is simply no need for Becker to court customers in the USA. They supply all the business the winery needs. These are very good wines that you will probably never hear about.

The weather had become more overcast, but after a quick respite at our hotel, we decided to try one of the vineyard trails described in the "sentier viticole" map we had picked up earlier in Riquewihr. We decided on a walk that would take us through three towns and their connecting vineyards; Riquewihr, Hunawihr, and Zellenberg.

In the light rain we walked north through Riquewihr's grand cru "Schoenenboug" and across the hill to "Clos Windsbuhl", then through Hunawihr to the "Rosacker" vineyard that contains Clos St Hune, and finally over to Zellenberg through unclassified vineyards and then home. Total distance, about 5 miles, tops. It was beautiful time of day to walk under the overcast, late afternoon sky. The limited sunlight seemed to concentrate the saturated green colors of the vineyards, making them appear vividly alive in an almost unreal way. We decided to walk another leg of the trail the next day, and turned in for the night.

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