Friday, February 13, 2009

Tempering Alsace

Alsace Riesling “Saint-Hippolyte,” Domaine Marc Tempé 2005
$28. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Vintage ’59 Imports, Washington, DC.

For a few reasons, simple and not so simple, I don’t drink wines from Alsace all that often. Simply, there are only so many wines one person can drink and I don’t like to write about wines I’ve only sipped and spit, though I’ll occasionally make an exception in the context of a formal trade tasting. Also, my love for German (and Austrian) Riesling tends to push Alsace wines – Rieslings and all the other specialties of the region – into the back seat. Less simply, more and more of the wines from the region, including those from top producers, have been getting bigger and bigger, richer and richer, over the last several years. Eric Asimov focused on this very trend a few months back at The Pour. While I have no problem with sweetness if it’s balanced by the wine’s other traits, I do have a problem with wines that are over-the-top, and that’s where an awful lot of Alsace juice seems to have headed.

Along with global warming and the global trend toward pushing the boundaries of physiological ripeness, one of the culprits Asimov and others have mentioned is a farming practice that many lovers of natural wine have enthusiastically embraced: biodynamics. The nurturing of the soil and harnessing of energy achieved through biodynamie can actually accelerate vines' growth and production cycles and result, especially in already warm climates like Alsace, in ultra-ripe, concentrated grapes.

Marc Tempé’s Riesling “Saint-Hippolyte” 2005, which is the end product of biodynamic farming, doesn’t buck the trend toward richness but it does take its scale in stride. And it does so with aplomb. On the nose, it’s ripe with scents of spiced pear and melons, with an underlying layer of the kind of dark mineral scents that develop only with the onset of bottle development. It’s on the palate that the wine finds its lift, bursting with lemon and lime fruit driven by a combination of physical extract and acidity that form an extremely invigorating mouthfeel, like a swirl of fine-grained prickles across the palate. That may not sound pleasant, I know, but it was. Though the wine possessed an undeniably honeyed aspect – one that came more strongly to the fore on days two and three – it was kept in check by superb balance and structure. A happy meeting of traditional style and new-found scale.

2 comments:

thor iverson said...

The nurturing of the soil and harnessing of energy achieved through biodynamie can actually accelerate vines' growth and production cycles and result, especially in already warm climates like Alsace, in ultra-ripe, concentrated grapes

Respectfully, David, I don't think the evidence supports this thesis. Yes, on one side there's Zind-Humbrecht, Deiss, Tempé...but on the other, there's Ostertag, Kreydenweiss, Frick, Barmès-Buecher, and so forth. Domaines where ultra-ripeness is not the norm, and yet which practice biodynamics all the same.

One can blame warming, or the critical acclaim for wines of ponderous weight and overt residual sugar, but ultimately the "fault" -- as everywhere else in the world where such wines are also a growing issue, usually unrelated to the practice of biodynamie -- lies with the growers/producers who have the opportunity to produce wines in a different style, but don't. Because they don't want to.

Joe Roberts, CSW said...

I am with you on wine from Alsace getting HUGE these days.

Fortunately, I will be there in March to set them straight! Or get hammered and write about their ever-"embiggening" wines. Not sure which yet. Cheers!

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