We love visiting the small storybook villages along the ROUTE du VIN
in Alsace. The wines are amongst the world's best-kept secrets and this translates
into favorable pricing for those of us who enjoy DRINKING wine (as opposed to those who
are merely "collectors").
One trend which disturbs us, however. We've noticed
many wineries now seem to be making wines with a bit of residual sugar. We can only
imagine this is done in hopes of courting ever-more favorable reviews from some of the
major American wine writers, whom we've noticed are often oblivious to the sweetness in
these wines. As a result, we're finding increasingly higher levels of alcohol and
sugar in many of the wines of Alsace. That's fine for "show pieces", but
we want wines which we can drink (without having to fasten the seatbelt of the dining room
Each little town seems to be littered with wineries...small signs and display
windows beckon tourists to ring the doorbell and come inside for a "degustation"
(wine tasting). The region boasts more than 31,000 acres of vines and makes more
than 100 million bottles annually. As I noted above, this region is the best kept
secret in the vast world of wine. Quality, as in other areas, continues to improve.
Though Americans seem to identify the GewŘrztraminer wine with Alsace, we drink far more
Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris on our visits there. The locals find the
GewŘrztraminer too overwhelming for most foods, save for Munster or Livarot cheeses.
The Pinot Blanc or Sylvaner make for nice aperitifs, while good Muscat (and these
are usually fairly dry, by the way) pairs handsomely with asparagus starters. With the main plate,
we seem to enjoy the Tokay Pinot Gris or crisp, dry Rieslings. Though often more
costly than Sauternes, one can find stunning late-harvest wines which are called
"Vendanges Tardives" or "Selection de grains nobles".
Alsace should be an easier region to understand for Americans as this is one of
the few areas in France which tends to label its wine by the grape variety. You'll
frequently find the name of the village where the grapes were grown to be somewhere on the
wine label. Another feature to add to the confusion...there are some 50 villages
with "Grand Cru" status. This element indicates not only a superior
vineyard site, but regulations mandate smaller maximum yields as well as requiring higher
sugar levels or riper fruit. As production of grand cru status wines totals less
than 4% of the region's production, these are, of course, more costly. Further, only
Riesling, GewŘrztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat had been entitled to this lofty status.
In 2006 the INAO group awarded "Grand Cru" status to the
"lowly" Sylvaner grape in one small corner of northern Alsace.
The region also produces a simple little blended table wine, called
Edelzwicker. This is usually made of odd lots and typically Sylvaner, Chasselas and
Pinot Blanc account for much of the blend. Apparently the name translates to
something like "the cellar garbage can". Happily, we've encountered a
number of these which are not at all trashy! You'll sometimes find these
little blends labeled as "Gentil" (we have one from Meyer-Fonne
presently that's superb!),
though this designation traditionally refers to wine made from a mixed-planting or
One little difficulty with the wines from this lovely region is that consumers
can't tell how sweet the wines are by looking at the label.
When you ask various producers about their wines, they often know the exact
number of grams-per-liter of residual sugar are in their wines, but this
information is rarely communicated on the label. Of course, balance is the
key, so a high acid wine with a modest amount of sweetness tastes drier than a
low acid wine with a small bit of sweetness.
Still, it would be helpful to know which wines are, in fact, dry. A
few estates are aware of this 'problem' and we hope they will work to solve this
Some Alsatian Wines
A small domaine in the
town of Katzenthal, Franšois & Felix Meyer farm something like eleven hectares of
vineyards. While not biodynamic, they are moving in the
direction of organically-farmed vineyards.
They make a full range of wines, including a good, zesty, dry Cremant d'Alsace.
We currently have, in fact, their Cremant d'Alsace. It's a really nice
bottle of bubbly with a mildly appley note on the nose and it's dry and
crisp on the palate...very fine!
There's also a dry Muscat from the 2009 harvest. Very floral and
fruity...you can serve this with asparagus dishes as it's a delight in that
And their 2011 Riesling Reserve is a bright, crisp, dry white which can be
paired with choucroute, sausages, baked ham, shrimp, etc.
Franšois, Nicole and their son, Felix.
The next winemaking generation.
Currently in stock:
2009 Muscat d'Alsace $19.99
Cremant d'Alsace $21.99
2011 Riesling Reserve $22.99
Boeckel is an old family-run estate in the northern reaches of Alsace.
I remember my dad used to stock wines from this property back in the Dark
Ages when Bay Area wine drinkers only knew Hugel and Trimbach as the
sources for wine from Alsace. The Boeckels made good wine and the
prices were fair. Some things don't change!
The family owns about 20 hectares of vineyards and they buy grapes from an
equal number of hectares. Emile Boeckel is the patriarch of the
estate and his sons Jean-Daniel and Thomas run the
The winery is a curious maze of uneven floors and galleries. If you
know the "Winchester Mystery House" here in the Bay Area, then you
might call this Alsace's "Wine-chester Mystery Winery."
You'll find bins and bins of unlabeled bottles. Back in the late
1950s Boeckel built a track around the entire cellar with these little
"baskets" to carry bottles to the labeling machine. Modern
when it was installed, it's a charming relic of the past.
wines made of the Sylvaner variety are usually pretty close to Evian water
in terms of character and complexity.
Yet the Boeckels manage to make
an amazingly good wine from their Sylvaner vineyards. One secret is
the vines are old. A second part of the equation is that the vineyard
site is in a "Grand Cru" location, except that Sylvaner has not
been viewed as a "noble" variety. It had not been able to be sold as a "Grand
Cru" wine! This changed recently and starting with the 2005
vintage, Boeckel will offer a "Grand Cru Zotzenberg"
Sylvaner. Get your wallet ready, because surely this means an
escalation in price.
When you open a bottle of the "Vieilles Vignes" Sylvaner from
Boeckel, you immediately will inhale a fragrance that can only be from
Alsace. This is what people refer to when speaking about terroir.
This wine has plenty of it! There's a minerality and spice tone that is
magnificent. We currently have the 2008 vintage in stock and it's most
sensibly-priced at $15.99. The wine is predominantly from their
Zotzenberg vineyard, the newly-designated Grand Cru site.
Wait 'til it says "Grand Cru" on the
bottle...then you'll be paying serious money.
Jean Daniel Boeckel explaining the 'secrets' of Sylvaner.
A recent vintage of Gewurztraminer is a nice example of that grape, as it's
mildly fruity and lightly grapefruity. It's not an
"over-the-top" sort of wine...good, though.
Currently in stock: 2008 Sylvaner Sold Out
2009 Gewurztraminer Sold Out
estate is located in the small wine village of Beblenheim. We have
fond memories of a summer evening with some good food in a little restaurant
there and a few bottles of Bott-Geyl wine.
Year later we visited the domaine and met Jean-Christophe Bott who had taken
over the family vineyards and winery. He was embarking on a project
leaning towards organic farming and now the winery cultivates its vineyards
according to biodynamic principles.
Today the estate comprises something close to 13 hectares of vines in 60
parcels spread out along the route du vin in more than a half a dozen
villages. Bott Geyl produces the typical range of Alsatian wines, from
rather dry and light to full-bodied and sweet.
Bott has realized that the character of the wine stems from viticulture and then
having good, simple cellar practices.
His "Elements" Riesling is a good example of a crisp, mildly minerally
Alsace white...the aromas are lightly fruity and floral with a touch of
lime. It tastes rather dry and seems to have a good level of
Currently in stock: 2007 BOTT-GEYL RIESLING "Les
HUGEL et Fils
This family-operation turns out about a million bottles annually. Their
wines, along with their large competitors, the Trimbach family, can be found all around
As with a winery such as Robert Mondavi, the modest-quality wines are, at
least, well-made and periodically rise above that level. They launched a new tier of
wines, designated "Jubilee" and these are of greater interest. The winery
has been making some outstanding Vendange Tardive wines, but have your credit card ready
as these are not cheap.
We have access to many of their wines, so special ordering something is not
Currently we have some half bottles of a nice Gewurztraminer in stock.
Medium-bodied, you'll recognize the perfume immediately as you uncork the
Currently available:2009 Hugel Gewurztraminer $14.99
We have easy access to a number of Hugel wines. With a few days'
notice, we can have these for you.
This lovely domaine is in the northern part of Alsace and we first
visited the estate in the early 1990s. The wines were just becoming
famous, thanks to Roland Schmitt's dedication to making damned good
wine. The area was not viewed as being especially prestigious, but
Schmitt's penchant for perfection brought a level of attention to detail in
the vineyard (and cellar) which was rather unknown in this area.
We enjoyed visiting, as this winery was a bit of a
discovery. Mrs. Schmitt (Anne Marie) was from Italy, so we
could converse with her in Italian, while our German friends spoke their
native language as we tasted through the impressive line-up.
In those days, the wines had been gaining attention in France, as the
quality was high and the prices were imminently fair. In fact, they
were not much interested in sending wine to California! They were
having trouble meeting the demands of French customers and the wines were
finding a nice audience amongst the sommelier crowd in Europe.
In 1993, tragically, Roland and Anne-Marie were in a horrific auto
accident. He died and she was in a coma for close to a month!
We sensed Roland's loss in tasting the wines...there was something
missing. But after a few vintages and getting her sea legs under her,
Anne Marie righted the ship nicely. Today she's assisted by her two
Bruno, I believe, was schooled in history, but eventually decided the family
business was interesting and challenging. He takes care of some of the
business side of the winery.
Julien, though, was smitten early on and he studied enology and
viticulture. In fact, he's been the driving force in pursuing organic
farming as he feels this allows their Bergbieten terroir to show
itself more readily.
Julien Schmitt, who looks after the cellar work.
The wines here are quite dry and, perhaps, a shade minerally. The domaine covers
some 10 hectares, the highlights coming from the grand cru Altenberg de Bergbieten.
Farming is organic and the new cellar allows them to vinify with ease and
We currently have a bright Pinot Gris...the 2010 vintage...it comes from the
Glintzberg vineyard and there's a faintly spicy note to this wine. If
you're preparing a mango-enhanced salad, for example, a few shrimp on top
and a glass of this and you're living large!
Currently available: 2010 PINOT GRIS $21.99
We can order their other wines for you...
The Trimbach name is one you'll find around the world of wine as, along
with the Hugel family, this clan has been a leading ambassador for the wines
They are viewed as a large producer in terms of sheer production numbers,
but beyond that, their wines are reliable and well-made. We like to
support good quality, small, family-operated wineries and so we'd overlooked
the wines from this producer, frankly.
We have had a couple of opportunities to taste through the Trimbach
line-up and each time we've been pleasantly surprised. There's
certainly a house style (dry, in fact!) and the overall quality level is
impressive, perhaps made even more so when you consider the quantity of
wine the Trimbach family produces.
The story begins, we're told, in the 1600s, when the first Trimbach
ventured 20 kilometers from his hometown, a mining village, to what is now
a town along the Route du Vin in Alsace. The family tree shows all
sorts of connections with grapes, barrels and wine. Today the place
is run by Bernard and Hubert Trimbach and now Anne Trimbach (the 13th
generation!) has recently joined the company.
With many vintners bottling "grand cru" wines, Trimbach does
Yes, they do offer a few prestigious bottlings such as their magnificent
Clos St. Hune Riesling. It's a bit of an icon for Alsace and comes from a parcel of
vines in the grand cru site known as Rosacker, though it's not noted on the
label. The wine shows
hints of promise in its youth, but which takes years to unfold and blossom
into the grand wine you expect when paying such serious money.
Clos St. Hune comes from a 1.67 hectare site
and in a good vintage, they'll produce perhaps 8,000 bottles.
Trimbach reflecting on the quality of their wines...
Anne Trimbach in the cellars of the family winery in
Lots of old, traditional cooperage at Trimbach.
Anne Trimbach in the vineyard directly behind the winery.
There's another special bottling called "Frederic Emile" and this
is a more affordable wine, if still a splurge for most people. This is
grown in a patch located between two grand cru sites, those of Osterberg and
Geisberg. It's a wine prized for its austerity, though it does well
with age and they often don't release it until the wine is close to 5 years
old...Trimbach considers this their "signature" Riesling and, in
fact, nearly half the wine they make is Riesling.
The Trimbach family is not one which follows the current fashion of making
wines with residual sugar. In fact, they look to make the wines as
stone, bone dry.
CuvÚe Fredric Emile from the 2004 vintage is quite dry and
minerally. Think of a streak of lime and stones amidst a floral
bouquet. The wine is starting to blossom and will probably remain on a
plateau for another 5-8+ years. Maybe longer.
With many Pinot Gris wines from Alsace being a bit sweet, it's great to
find one which is reliably dry. Trimbach's carries the
"Reserve" designation and it comes from estate grown and
purchased fruit. "We've always made it in the dry, Trimbach
style," explains Anne, "and the wine can be a bit austere in its
youth and we know it. That's why we give it some bottle age before
releasing the wine."
There's a Reserve Personelle Pinot Gris, too, though this is not offered
each and every vintage and it's actually from the Osterberg (grand cru)
site. It's a small production bottling and does have a touch of
Their basic Gewurztraminer was a real surprise...the nose was classic and
hugely fruity with lots of rose petal fragrances. It's not bone dry
but the residual sugar is just above most people's threshold for
sweetness... The special bottling called Cuvee des Seigneurs de
Ribeaupierre is even more impressive with spicy, peppery, grapefruity
And of course they periodically produce some late harvest wines which are
sweet show-pieces. Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, typically.
Currently available: 2010 Riesling $22.99
2003 Clos St Hune Riesling $149.99 (750ml)
2004 CuvÚe Frederic Emile SALE $29.99 (last bottles)
We also have several Trimbach-labeled eaux-de-vie, so if you'd like a
bottle of Prunelle Sauvage, Framboise or Poire Williams,
we typically have 'em.
Jean Boxler and his wife Sylvie run the show at the family estate these days
in Niedermorschwihr, a bit off the beaten path on Alsace's Route du Vin.
The domaine now encompasses some 13 hectares and averages about 60,000
bottles annually. The wines at this estate always are a wonderful
reflection of the vineyard and the vintage. When we've asked about the
style of their wines, the response is usually "that's what the vintage
produced." The wines are left to ferment at their own pace...Jean
doesn't work to craft the wines to a particular level of sweetness, for
example. "When it stops fermenting, it's finished." he
explains. As a result, a hot vintage such as 2003 tended to yield
wines with more sugar in them than cooler years like 2002.
The Boxler wines have not been easy to find in the US. Well, they're a
bit of a hot commodity in Alsace, for one thing. But for years they
retained an American importer who preferred to prevent the sale of their
wines! We had to guess what wines they might have, since the
fellow running the west coast office said he was "too busy to print a
list of offerings."
((The fellow was angry when we called a producer of Barolo which was in his
portfolio. He told us he had a particular vintage and would not offer
it for sale for six months. We called the winery and they became a bit
concerned as, imagine this: they had not bottled that vintage, but
sold it off in bulk as it did not meet their standards. When the
winery owners called the New York office, the west coast manager was in a
bit of a pickle and thoroughly embarrassed. He called to tell us he'd
never, ever, never, ever sell us another bottle of wine.
But a few years later, he was asked to sell us some Champagne and he
did. And we paid him in not the usual 30 days, but in 25. Never
heard from the fellow after that. Meanwhile, his boss retired and many
of the star wineries in that roster of nice wines have found other
Well, we now have access to Boxler's wines again.
Jean Boxler with the Sommerberg vineyard in the background.
We currently have a beautiful 2010 Sommerberg Riesling in the
shop. This is a stellar bottle of wine. And it comes with a price
tag as high as its quality.
Lots of green apple and mildly floral notes on the nose and palate...and the
wine is really tangy and crisp. If it has some sweetness, you won't
sense this thanks to the crisp acidity. It's a young wine, but
developing nicely. I hope to save a bottle or two for enjoyment well
down the road. Tops!
Currently in stock:
2010 Riesling "Grand Cru Sommerberg" (SALE) $54.99