Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Visit to Domaine Zind Humbrecht – Home of Classic Alsatian Riesling and More

(October 2016) – The sun was starting to break through the clouds when I arrived at Domaine Zind Humbrecht at 2pm in the afternoon. Olivier Humbrecht and his adorable black bulldog came out to greet me in front of the modern style winery, set among the vineyards near the small town of Turckheim.

I had met Olivier on an MW wine trip to Tbilisi Georgia earlier in the year, and so I was prepared for the very tall (6 foot 5 inches) impressive French man who is one of the very few in the country who have passed the MW exam. From a very long line of Alsatian winemakers going back to 1620, Domaine Zind Humbrecht is considered to be one of the best – if not the best – producer of high quality wine from Alsace.  Currently Olivier’s son is preparing to take over the domaine some day in the future.

Zind Humbrecht produces most of the classic Alsatian varietals, with a focus on riesling – a white wine than can age for many years.  They also produce beautiful gewürztraminer, muscat, and pinot gris. All wines are fermented in large neutral oak casks. They employee 25 people.

View of Alsatian Vineyards from Winery

Organic & Biodynamic Viticulture – "Riesling Like Dry Feet"

Olivier invited me inside and we walked to a huge plate glass window to view the grand cru vineyards climbing up a hillside across from the winery. He explained that they own 41 hectares, including part of 5 grand cru vineyards. They have been practicing organic and biodynamic viticulture since 1997 and are certified by Ecocert and Biodyvin. On average they produce around 16,000 cases annually, of which 75 to 85% are exported.

We examined some soil samples, and he explained that riesling prefers well draining soil and cool climates. It needs “dry feet and less heat.”  Therefore the local seashell limestone produces elegant rieslings, the red limestone more richly textured wines, but if planted in clay, then Riesling needs a hotter slope or it cannot ripen well. Gewürztraminer, on the other hand prefers “cold feet and a warm head,” so it does well in clay but needs to be on a hot sunny slope.

Large Fermentation Barrels in Cellar of Zind Humbrecht

Winemaking - "We Let the Wine Do What It Wants"

We headed downstairs to the impressive cellar with its array of huge oak foudres.  Many were still fermenting, with the new wine bubbling happily in the clear fermentation locks. The air smelled of the delicious notes of wine fermenting - with a hint of apples and yeast. We watched as several employees climbed up and down ladders to take wine samples for testing.

“So how long does fermentation for riesling last?” I asked.

“As long as it needs to,” responded Olivier.  “We let the wine do what it wants.” He explained that everything is natural so the wine starts fermenting when the native yeast decide they want to begin, and then finishes when the yeast die.  Sometimes it is complete within a few weeks, but other times it lasts over a year.  He pointed to two large barrels in the corner.  “Those two giant barrels are from 2015, and they are still fermenting.”

“But how do you control the level of sweetness in the wine, if you don’t stop the fermentation?”

“We don’t control it.  The wine decides how sweet it will be or not.”  He then explained that, in general, if you want a dry wine, it is better to leave more lees in the bottom of the tank so the yeast have more nutrients to eat. This way the wine will often go dry before the yeast die. “For sweet wine, we usually keep the wine more clear, and the yeast die sooner.”

This was fascinating to me that the sweetness level isn’t actually controlled, because in many places around the world it is. However, when the fermentation does finish here, they do add a small amount of SO2 to protect the wine and then top it up.  They never rack unless there is a problem. The wine is taken directly from the large oak casks to the bottling machine.  There is usually a light filtration before bottling.

“How do you clean these giant oak barrels?” I asked.

Olivier laughed. “It is a lot of work, but basically water and scrubbing them down.  We also burn sulfur in them every 2 months.  Some of these barrels are over 100 years old,” he said proudly.

A Partial List of the Many Wines We Tasted

A Tasting of Over 20 Alsatian Wines

I was amazed to see that Olivier had pulled around twenty wines for us to taste, but was thrilled with the opportunity to sample so many delicious specimens.  All of the wines were beautifully made with good concentration, length and different personalities. No boring light-bodied white wines here.  However, I did have some favorites, as described below:

2014 Zind Humbrecht Muscat – jumped out of the glass with a lovely nose of flowers, apricots and gravel. Juicy with a bone dry finish.  Absolutely delicious!

2013 Zind Humbrecht Muscat Goldert Grand Cru – sophisticated nose of orange blossom and minerality.  Great texture on the palate and very long finish.

2014 Zind Humbrecht Riesling Herrenweg de Turckheim – Very aromatic with apricot blossom on nose, and racy green apple and lime on palate. Elegant, streamlined, with some interesting tannins.

2014 Zind Humbrecht Riesling Heimbourg – I called this riesling “my little margarita,” because it had so much lemon and lime with a hint of salt. Very refreshing.

2014 Zind Humbrecht Riesling Brand Grand Cru – If I had to pick a favorite, it would be this wine. It was so complex with a whiff of granite and smoke on the front, then a field of wild flowers.  On the palate it was textured with some light tannins and a delicious sugared grapefruit note. Very long and well balanced.  It will just get better with time. The term “Brand” means “hot and fiery” in reference to the vineyard for which it is named. (A little confusing at first!)

2014 Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos Saint Urbain Grand Cru – From volcanic soil, this riesling was “big.” The nose had a hint of peet and floral.  On the palate it was grippy with firm tannins, mineral notes and a hint of salt. Very complex! Almost like an old whiskey….

2013 Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Clos Windsbuhl – From a new estate that Olivier just purchased, this uniquely labeled wine was exotic with mandarin and cheese notes. Very complex and inviting at the same time – a little bit orgasmic.

An Eye Opening Visit

Though I have tasted many Alsatian wines over the years, this was my first time to really experience and see how white wine is crafted here. I was very impressed, and thankful to Olivier for making my visit so enchanting.

The Delicious SGN Dessert Wine to Complete the Tasting

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