Friday, July 17, 2009

Stage 13 to Colmar and Some Unresolved Questions About Alsace

[Editor’s note: I’d hoped to finish and post this piece this morning but speed blogging, it seems, is simply not my forte. I can’t bring myself to adjust the verb tense below so, as I’ve yet to watch today’s stage or check out the results, I’m just going to pretend that the race into Colmar didn’t actually finish several hours ago….]

The thirteenth stage of this year's Tour de France finishes today in Colmar, where the natural barrier of hills that is likely to make it a tough day in the saddle for most of the peloton is the same barrier that greatly influences the terroir of Alsace. The Vosges.

The mountains here are not as high and mighty as the Alps or Pyrenees but they're more than steep enough to put a hurting on the legs of the climbers and a serious crimp in the style of the flatlanders. From a terroirist perspective, the north-south running ridgeline of the Vosges serves as a natural storm break, stopping much of the rain that comes across France from the west. The mountains also act as reflectors, radiating sunlight and heat onto the vineyards immediately to their east. These factors combine to make Alsace a surprisingly warm, dry region, a somewhat counterintuitive condition given the region’s position near the northern periphery of wine growing possibility.

Today’s post, though, is not so much about the intricacies of Alsace terroir as it is about addressing a couple of questions I (and others, I’m guessing) have about the region and its wines. Today’s wine – the 2002 Alsace Rosenberg de Wettolsheim Pinot Blanc from Domaine Barmès-Buecher ($16/20, 13.5% alcohol, cork, Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ) – seems as good a vehicle as any for addressing those questions.

First, can Pinot Blanc-based wines be age worthy?

I frankly don’t have a shoe box kind of answer for this one. I think that common wisdom dictates no. But like any rule, if indeed that is one, there are always exceptions. At about 6 ½ years of age, Barmès’ Pinot Blanc is hardly old by wine world standards; I think it’s fair to say it is old, though, by Pinot Blanc standards.

When first opened, I wondered whether it had weathered its slumber in my Vinotheque. The color was fine – medium-golden and bright – but the aromas were suggestive of decay and the beginning, at least, of decline. Its flavors weren’t entirely off-putting – corn, wet hay, dried honey and composting leaves came to mind – but weren’t exactly enthralling, either. Air came to the rescue though, and the wine actually picked up freshness and complexity with some time in the glass. Less decay, more dried honeycomb and minerals. My “delayed” posting schedule has allowed me to revisit the wine on its second day (I’m sipping it as I write), and I must say it’s more than held its own, maybe even improved. That minerality is still there, along with an aroma that I can only describe as corn meal pound cake, slathered with butter and maple syrup. So yes, I guess, Pinot Blanc can age relatively well, at least when grown and produced by François Barmès in a good year. In spite of all the sweet descriptors above, what really strikes me is that this seems much drier than I remember it feeling in its youth. And that brings things around to…

The second question: Is Alsace’s naturally warm, dry climate combining with global warming to push many Alsace wines over the top in terms of balance and concentration?

When asking this question a while back, I fear it may seem as if I too easily jumped on the bandwagon of answering “yes.” The real question I was asking in that posting, about a Riesling from biodynamic producer Marc Tempé, was about the role of biodynamics as a potentially contributing factor in delivering a more and more common over-the-top style in Alsace. Allow me to quote myself….

“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.”

Thor Iverson called me out on that assertion, leaving a comment to which, I’m embarrassed to say, I never managed to respond or rebut. I still don’t have an answer for you, Thor. But I can say that I meant my original thought to be as much a question as an assertion. I agree that the evidence doesn’t prove that biodynamic farming contributes to the fattening of Alsace wines. But there’s no real evidence to disprove the possibility either. Oddly enough, I’ve increasingly found the wines of Barmès-Buecher, a biodynamic producer that Thor cited among the non-obese camp (and who I’ve visited), to display just such tendencies toward richer texture and more honeyed fruit. Today’s wine started there six years ago but has since morphed into something more graceful.

I guess what I’m really trying to say, in my typically long winded way, is that all of these questions remain, as far as I’m concerned, unanswered. But I’d sure love to hear your thoughts, honorable readers, if you’d care to share.

Now to go answer the real first question: who won today’s stage of the Tour? Just don’t tell me, at least not until tomorrow. I want it to be a surprise.

1 comment:

thor iverson said...

Well, regarding the fattening of Barmès-Buecher, I agree that they're getting plumper, but so are nearly everyone else's wines. Even, at times, Trimbach (though perhaps not Beyer). I'd call that climate change, which is causing something I don't much like in Alsace, but that's a different discussion.

I was really only addressing the biodynamie --> ripeness assertion. Sometimes, the wines get riper as the domaine transitions to biodynamie. Sometimes, they don't. More often, they're variable. I would find it difficult to separate general vintage characteristics in Alsace from the potential effects of's been a long, hot stretch of late, with the hot years very hot and the normal years what would previously have been called hot.

All I'm really noting is that there are some producers in biodynamie that have shown (comparatively) less ripe wines under the regime. I think that claiming biodynamics caused accelerated ripening is a way for a producer to say that they either wanted, or were happy to accept, riper wines (and obviously, the reverse would be true as well). No more than that.

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