Some of my greatest pleasures while exploring wine have come in regions that don’t quite make sense. Split between two, three, or even four cultures, they present a kaleidoscopic combination of cuisine, music, language, and custom. More dangerously, they often present an untenable spectrum of allegiance that, during the 20th century, led to almost inevitable conflagrations of sectarian violence.
In Friuli-Venezia Giulia, ordering gnocchi will result in a plate full of enormous, pork-laden Knödl appearing at the table. Local vintners keep grapes, both red and white, on their skins during winemaking, a method much more historical to the Balkans than to the Italian Peninsula. And yet, Trieste, the region’s principal city, is directly on the Mediterranean and has been majority Italian speaking for centuries. In Spain’s Galicia, travelers can wander from village-to-village more easily with Portuguese than Spanish, though locals speaking Gallego seem to always oscillate somewhere between the two. The countryside is verdant, and the landscapes recall County Mayo more than they do Peninsular Spain, especially when the local music, often played with Celtic Harps and bagpipes, emanates from local taverns (the uncanny juxtaposition of Romance lyrics with Celtic melody and harmony is exemplified by Luar na Lubre’s “Memoria da Noite”). In Alsace, which found itself traded between Germany and France four times in seventy-five years, Sauerkraut is known as Choucroute and Flammkuchen (a traditional German flatbread pizza) is Tarte Flambée. Even under the ferociously secular French Republic, Alsace has no official separation of church and state and local Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Jewish organizations receive state funds, as they do in Germany. On the other hand, Alsace is also a cradle of the French Revolution, as Rouget de Lisle composed “La Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem, in Strasbourg, and the region has been within France’s sphere of influence since 1648. These regions, often but not always peripheral to the countries in which they find themselves, harness their historical and cultural tensions to produce some of the greatest, most intriguing wines that we at RWM have the pleasure to include in our portfolio.
I was inspired to write this piece last week after revisiting Domaine Maurice Schoech’s “Harmonie R,” one of the most profound expressions of Alsace’s terroir on the American market today. “Harmonie R” comes from only .15 ha of vines that Schoech planted in 2001, and the domaine produces only a scant amount of wine each year. RWM is fortunate, though, to have stock of the 2012, 2013, and 2017 vintages, allowing our clients to experience the wine through contrasting vintages and at different points of its evolution. I chose to sample a bottle of the 2013 vintage, though RWM has stock of 2012, 2013, and 2017. The wine, a field blend of Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer, comes from a single, steep, high-altitude hillside in southern Alsace. This hill, the Rangen de Thann, is Alsace’s steepest Grand Cru, its southernmost Grand Cru, and its highest altitude Grand Cru. Alsace is a geologically diverse region, but even in its mosaic of limestone, granite, and marl, the Rangen again stands out: rather than Muschelkalk or granite, its soil is a lone hulk of volcanic sandstone overlooking the Rhine. In a 2018 piece, my colleague Clarke Boehling, dives into the Rangen’s recent history, the singularity of this spectacular site, and the exciting cellar practices of the Domaine Maurice Schoech. If you have not yet read Clarke’s piece, you can find it here.
The bottle of 2013 Harmonie R that inspired this piece did not disappoint. With an intense volcanic smokiness that somehow tamed Gewürztraminer’s notorious varietal notes of lychee and rose, the wine’s tannic edge (perhaps from the lightly macerated Pinot Gris) gave the wine a biting intensity. That intensity, partnered with minerality, high acid, and virtually no residual sugar, made it an ideal pairing for rich meats such as duck and goose, along with any of Alsace’s traditional dishes. The wine’s intensity and depth, though, made me think beyond food, and I found myself reflecting on the Rangen’s deeper history.
While other hors-classe sites offer incredible wines, few can match the Rangen de Thann’s historical saga. One of the most historically complex vineyards in the winemaking world, it has been owned by not only the Germans and the French, but by the Habsburgs, Swiss, and Burgundians as well. The Sundgau in Upper Alsace is the nucleus of five centuries of conflict between Paris, Dijon, Vienna, and Berlin. This mosaic of historical ownership is interesting in its own right, but expresses itself clearly in the region’s customs, foods, language, and in its wines. Local inhabitants feel themselves to be neither French nor German, and have adopted a hyper-loyal local allegiance, which expresses itself in wines that defy convention in both France and Germany.
Although there are sporadic mentions of this hillside in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the vineyard gained particular fame in 1469, when Charles the Bold of Burgundy sent to Archduke Sigismund of Austria, “many a swig of the wine from Rangen,” claiming that he found in it “a vigourous tonic of courage.” Only five years later in 1474 Charles began the series of political struggles that would ultimately bring about his downfall. After coming into conflict with Sigismund over the possession of Southern Alsace and the very vineyard that had supplied the wine he had given him five years earlier, Charles also quickly antagonized the Swiss over the free city of Mülhausen/Mulhouse (clearly visible from the Rangen when looking east), the French, and the Duchy of Lorraine. His death in 1477 at the hands of Swiss Mercenaries in Nancy left his Burgundian domains, long wedged between France and the German World, without an heir. Their division between various European powers is the point of origin for five hundred years of Franco-German territorial conflict. While the Rangen has not been ruled from Dijon for centuries, even today, the County of Burgundy is just over the vineyard’s horizon to the southwest.
After Charles’ death, the Rangen remained in the hands of Europe’s most prodigious dynasty, the house of Habsburg, whose eponymous castle lies just over an hour from Thann. The wine reached the apogee of its fame in Vienna during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa, when it was consumed at Court and enjoyed an exceptional reputation. A private tutor to the House of Löwenberg and the Habsburg Court remembered that more Rangen wine was drunk in Vienna than the whole of Thann and its surroundings could produce. Although Alsace has in recent history passed repeatedly between France and Prussian-dominated Germany, the region was ruled from Vienna for longer than its French and Wilhelmine German periods combined. Riesling from the Clos Saint Urbain, even though it is France today, is more authentically Austrian than Riesling from Dürnstein or Mautern, where the grape was completely absent until the 1930’s.
Habsburg rule in Alsace came to an end in 1648, when the Treaty of Münster, signed just downstream from the Rangen, granted the title Lord of Thann to Louis XIV. The vines owned until that point by the Austrian Archduke Franz Karl became the personal property of the French King. The Rangen, to my knowledge, is the only vineyard owned by two kings. In 1648, it joined just three other vineyards possessed directly by the French Crown: the royal monopoles of Beaune and Chenôve and the Clos de Tournon in Mauves. Even before its incorporation into the French realm, the vineyard was known and visited by Michel de Montaigne in 1580, who described it as the first town in Germany and loyal to the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor. Even though Thann was a Germanophone village until the spread of radio and television, it has occupied a singular place in French vinicultural history, coveted both in Dijon and at Versailles.
Ruled over by four distant capitals since its first mention, the Rangen has always been tended by the same population. Many local farmers have changed countries four times without ever leaving Thann. With this historical backdrop, how fitting that this vineyard’s black soils are foreign even to the region’s native inhabitants, who have long been regarded as strange méconnus by their distant rulers, whether French, Burgundian, Austrian, or Prussian. After decades of pressure to be more French than the French, more Swiss than the Swiss, and more German than the Germans, the people, like their wines, remain simply, but firmly, Alsatian.
After centuries of fame and acclaim, the Rangen sat nearly fallow after the Second World War, and it is only due to the foresight of families like Humbrecht, Schoffit, and Schoech that a wine coveted in 1469 is still available to us in excellent form today.