Domaine Schoech’s Harmonie “R” Rangen de Thann: “The Ultimate Terroir Wine”

Posted on Posted in Articles, Domaine Maurice Schoech, RWM Contributor

Certain viticultural areas possess a serene, understated sort of visual beauty: the subtle undulations of the Côte d’Or, for instance; or the Médoc’s stately expanse of gravel. Much of the action happens below the earth’s surface, of course, and the accompanying topographies are more soothing than arresting to behold. However, there are other vineyards where visual drama imposes itself upon the observer with force: think of Côte-Rôtie’s vertiginous hillsides, or the treacherous slopes of the Mosel Valley—places where the earth surges violently upward, aiming itself sunward and all but daring its inhabitants to cultivate it.

In this latter category, there is perhaps no more dramatic vineyard in all of France than Rangen de Thann, Alsace’s southernmost Grand Cru (and the southern limit of the entire viticultural region). Renowned in historical records since the 13th century, the Rangen looms over the neighboring town of Thann in almost domineering fashion, rising to an elevation of 480 meters—making it the highest-altitude vineyard in Alsace by a significant margin. (The Grand Cru Kaefferkopf, by comparison, reaches 250 meters at its summit.) A veritable solar panel, Rangen points due south and is pitched at a shocking 95% gradient—a severity of slope that renders mechanical work impossible.

In fact, tending to this site requires such a prodigious amount of treacherous labor that—by the early 1970s, after the ravages of phylloxera and the two world wars (the vineyard itself was bombed and mined during WWI)—only four hectares near the bottom of the hill were still being cultivated. It was only through the determination of the Humbrecht and Schoffit families that the slope began to be reclaimed in the 1980s, and even today Rangen (now fully planted) comprises just shy of twenty hectares, spread among only five owners. Given the amount of toil required to grow grapes here, as well as the meager yields typical of these unforgiving soils, making wine from Rangen de Thann requires a dedication that borders on the heroic.

The Rangen distinguishes itself from the other grand crus of Alsace not only through its elevation and its steepness, but through its soils. The only vineyard in Alsace of volcanic origin, Rangen’s soil is dark in color, strewn with a mixture of sedimentary sandstone and various volcanic rocks (andesite, tufa). Due to its proximity to the Vosges Mountains, this southern edge of Alsace receives higher-than-average annual rainfall, which the stony, clay-impoverished soil of Rangen drains off easily. The terroir here is uniquely influenced by opposing forces: the warming influences of its sun-harnessing dark soils and the due-south-facing extremity of the slope are offset by cool valley winds and the tempering effects of high altitude. The uniqueness and complexity of Rangen’s terroir culminate in a wine of forceful personality—rich, concentrated, full of tension, and underpinned by an intense smokiness that evokes its volcanic origins. No less an authority than Andrew Jefford writes: “If I was asked to nominate any vineyard anywhere in the world as producing ‘the ultimate terroir wine’, Rangen de Thann would be it.”

Though the majority of Rangen is owned by the Humbrecht and Schoffit families who reclaimed it decades ago, our beloved Schoech clan owns a 0.15-hectare sliver at the very top of the slope, which they acquired and planted in 2001. A full hour’s drive south of their home in Ammerschwihr, this scant handful of rows requires a tremendous amount of labor and commuting—all to produce a mere 80 to 100 cases per vintage. But the hard-won result is unfailingly the most singular and compelling wine in their cellar, and we are extremely fortunate to be able to import a handful of bottles each year.

Schoech’s parcel is planted to 70% Pinot Gris, 28% Riesling, and 2% Gewürztraminer, and their wine from here is a true field blend; the varieties are interplanted, and the grapes are harvested, fermented, and aged altogether. Ironically, the words “Rangen de Thann” are not permitted on the label, due to Alsace’s controversial varietally-oriented appellation laws which forbid field blends from being classified as grand crus in all but a few instances—hence the name Harmonie “R” As the only field blend made here, however, Schoech’s arguably offers the purest expression of Rangen’s distinctive terroir insofar as its personality is not driven by the overriding characteristics of a single grape variety.

Although Pinot Gris typically thrives on limestone, the late-ripening character of Rangen de Thann (harvest routinely begins two to three weeks later here than further north), as well as the concentration engendered by such low-vigor, densely planted vines, makes for highly concentrated, hugely expressive versions of the variety—wines of assertive earthiness and an almost tannic edge. Riesling here naturally relishes such a long maturation cycle, and it delivers the site’s inherent smokiness with focused intensity. The splash of Gewürztraminer adds a touch of spice, to be sure, but it is said among locals that such is the forcefulness of Rangen’s terroir that it’s the only place in Alsace that can outmuscle Gewürztraminer’s varietal character. Certainly, the overriding impression of Schoech’s Harmonie “R” is not one of Pinot Gris nor of Riesling, but of smoke, earth, and power. And despite being built on the back of the often-sweet Pinot Gris, Harmonie “R” is typically nearly or entirely dry despite its ample richness.

The Schoech brothers work their parcel in Rangen de Thann without chemical pesticides or herbicides (the domaine is certified organic), and fermentation begins spontaneously, in stainless steel tanks. The wine is bottled after one year on its fine lees, and held for an additional stint before being put up for sale. We are excited to be able to offer five different vintages of Schoech’s Rangen de Thann (albeit in scant quantities)—one of the most unique wines, not only in our portfolio, but in all of Alsace. For those of you who wisely explored the Schoech’s Rieslings we spotlighted earlier in the year, Harmonie “R” will take your breath away.

2015 Harmonie “R” Rangen de Thann
2015—a very warm, dry vintage—offers an illustrative glimpse into Schoech’s Rangen in gleamingly primary form. Amazingly, the defining smoky soul of the vineyard pushes its way through a wall of rich, honeyed fruit and into the spotlight even at this youthful stage. The concentration here is almost overwhelming, with the Pinot Gris lending an undeniably tannic edge, and this wine feels like it will evolve positively for decades.

2013 Harmonie “R” Rangen de Thann
Hailing from a comparatively cool growing season, the 2013 reveals a more exuberant, less intensely earthy side of the Rangen. An explosive and dizzying nose of peach confiture, fried squash blossoms, and flambéed bananas leans slightly more toward primary fruit than the older versions below, but there is minerality in spades—a salt-smoke interplay that distantly suggests fine mezcal. The palate is juicy but dry, with a controlled unctuousness that belies the wine’s scant 3 g/L of residual sugar.

2012 Harmonie “R” Rangen de Thann
The 2012 really showcases the flinty, smoky depths this wine can plumb in its more profound vintages. Though it is not emphatically acid-driven, the balance is terrific, and a gently bitter note on the finish tightens things up nicely. Broad, rich, and very long, it possesses a sort of rigorous sternness—a stone-faced refusal to overtly charm despite its deeply delicious nature. Notes of chicken bouillon, golden raisin, sweet corn, and grilled pineapple frame a core of brooding volcanic power. 12 g/L of residual sugar.

2009 Harmonie “R” Rangen de Thann
The 2009 is in a beautiful place right now—perhaps the most complete, harmonious (no pun intended) wine of the vertical in its current state. The generous, healthy nature of the 2009 growing season is evident in this wine’s glowing sense of concentration, and the overt viscosity of the 2013 and 2012 has morphed into something more straightforwardly earthy. Fruit, spice, and smoke weave together seamlessly, and the wine offers a wide embrace of minerality not too far off from that of a great Montrachet. When one considers the labor involved in this wine, as well as the bottle age it has seen, its price is almost shockingly modest. 4 g/L of residual sugar.

2008 Harmonie “R” Rangen de Thann
From a slightly racier, leaner vintage than the 2009 above, this 2008 offers enchanting aromas of white truffles, poached pears, grapefruit zest, and baking spices. There’s a push-and-pull here of cool, fresh attributes (ginger, flint, citrus) and warm, evolved notes (brown sugar, woodsmoke, cream), which speak to the opposing forces in play in the Rangen itself. Although there is no shortage of low-yield-derived density and opulence here, the wine reads as bone-dry at 5 g/L residual sugar.

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