In Praise of Alsace Riesling

Posted on Posted in Articles, Domaine Bechtold, Domaine Maurice Schoech, Producer Spotlight, RWM Contributor

For those enraptured by terroir, perhaps no region in France holds a greater capacity for wonderment than Alsace. Not even Burgundy, with its immensely intricate patchwork of subtly varying Jurassic limestone, can approach Alsace’s geological complexity. We consumers often think of Alsace first and foremost in terms of grape variety; after all, nearly all of its most notable wines are made from a single variety, and Alsace’s most prestigious varieties—Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat—themselves bring adamantly distinctive personalities to the table. But the underlying soils for which these varieties serve as vessels of expression are dizzyingly complex, echoing a long history of dramatic geological upheaval.

Like Burgundy, Alsace lies on the western side of a graben—a trough formed by two parallel faults that gave way in the distant past. The Vosges mountain range, in whose foothills Alsace’s vineyards are planted, shields the region from the intense prevailing westward-blowing winds, engendering a warmth that allows for impressive ripening despite Alsace’s extreme northern latitude. And the variety and severity of the manifold geological faults which comprise Alsace’s terroir create a striking array of soil types: limestone, granite, sandstone, clay, loess, gypsum, and even volcanic schist. Furthermore, it is not uncommon—as with the storied Kaefferkopf vineyard (see below)—for numerous soil types to exist within the same cru. Thus, with multiple grape varieties in play among such a wide range of underlying soils, the possibilities for close-range terroir expression in Alsace are downright kaleidoscopic, and utterly thrilling for those who—like us—live for wines that viscerally express a sense of place.

We at Rosenthal Wine Merchant are proud to work with two vignerons who, despite fascinating differences of terroir, personality, and perspective, embody for us the best of what Alsace has to offer. For the purposes of today’s deep dive, we will restrict our focus to these growers’ Rieslings. In its ability to combine ethereal beauty with eerily precise terroir articulation, Riesling is perhaps peerless—and thus the perfect lens through which to explore Alsace’s staggering breadth.

Domaine Schoech
Jean-Leon Schoech is a tall, lean, nimble man whose vibrant, smile-lined eyes convey an inner warmth and project both curiosity and self-assuredness. His father Maurice began the domaine in its current incarnation in 1971, but the family traces its viticultural heritage in their home village of Ammerschwihr back to 1650, and a profound awareness of—and respect for—that deep tradition suffuses the entire operation. Ammerschwihr lies close to Colmar in the heart of the Haut-Rhin (“Upper-Rhine”) zone of Alsace, surrounded by some of the greatest crus of the entire region, and the wines of its immediate environs combine sun-kissed richness with racy mineral potency in a manner that is quintessentially and beautifully Alsace. Jean-Leon and his brother Sebastien work eighteen hectares, eleven of which are family-owned and seven of which are rented, and they offer a wide range of wines from all of the region’s main grape varieties—even producing a co-fermented field blend (harkening back to an ancient custom) from the fabled volcanic grand cru of Rangen de Thann in the extreme south of the Haut-Rhin.

As intellectually stimulating as it is to delve into the differences of terroir in Burgundy’s dense procession of vineyards, Alsace provides an even more dizzying arena of exploration: instead of just one grape variety, there are four designated as grand-cru-worthy (for a given vineyard); and instead of a single predominant soil type, Alsace’s crus comprise limestone, granite, sandstone, volcanic elements, and beyond. The Schoech brothers work organically (certified by Ecocert) and incorporate numerous biodynamic treatments in their vineyard practices. Harvest is solely manual; fermentations are strictly spontaneous; and the Rieslings in particular are encouraged toward dryness (but without intrusive strong-arming)—they de-leaf conservatively to prevent the grapes from reaching undue potential alcohol levels. Their Rieslings are simultaneously vibrant and generous, both charming and profound, and always displaying extraordinary balance and longevity.

2015 Riesling “Sonnenberg”
Sonnenberg is a south-facing lieu-dit of well-draining granite soils near the Schoech’s home in Ammerschwihr. With a completely invisible two grams per liter of residual sugar, the 2015 is an expansive, multilayered wine that deftly balances exoticism and precision in its complex profile. Glimmering, juicy notes of peach, nectarine, and papaya vie with a blatantly salty mineral core, held together by acidity that is assertive yet not dominant. The fleshy palate resolves to a firm, gently bitter, insistent finish of striking dryness.

2014 Riesling “Sonnenberg”
Hailing as it does from a far less sunny vintage than the 2015 above, the 2014 Sonnenberg is the very epitome of classic Alsace Riesling: autumnal, wistful, laced with gorgeous orchard fruits, shot through with tangy acidity, and with an emerging glimmer of petrol. Beguiling notes of orange blossom, candied tangerine, and white pepper frame a breathtakingly brisk palate whose clean mineral tension prompts immediate salivation. Its 2g/ltr of residual sugar are perhaps even less palpable than in the 2015.

2013 Riesling “Sonnenberg”
The product of another cool vintage, the 2013 Sonnenberg is even racier than the 2014 above, an extra year of bottle age having burned off whatever scant layer of baby fat it once possessed. This lacks the warm-hearted nostalgic gentleness of the 2014, but is thrilling in its single-minded electric character. Again, a mere two grams of sugar are totally subsumed within the wine’s livewire personality.

2015 Riesling Grand Cru “Kaefferkopf”
The most recently elevated grand cru in the region (designated as such in 2007), Kaefferkopf is a highly geologically diverse, relatively sizable (70 hectares) vineyard in Ammerschwihr. The Schoech family owns two parcels of 40-year-old Riesling vines here—one in granite and one in sandstone—and the resulting wine combines heft and grace in true grand cru fashion. This 2015 is arresting in its sheer stoniness, an imposing thwack of solid granite with a backdrop of tangerine oil and an almost amaro-like spice element. It expresses the inner succulence of ripe citrus fruits without the impression of overt sweetness, carrying its fifteen grams per liter of residual sugar effortlessly.

2015 Riesling Grand Cru “Furstentum”
A highly regarded cru in the neighboring village of Kientzheim, Furstentum comprises 30 hectares of steep limestone slopes, producing Rieslings of striking intensity and focus. Compared with the Kaefferkopf above, this 2015 Furstentum is both more filigree and more penetrating, its citrus fruits pitched more toward lemon (lemon verbena, candied lemon) than orange. On the palate, its sheer cling and sense of dry extract is almost overwhelming, promising many years of positive development and all but fully masking its twelve grams of residual sugar per liter. It’s rare to find a wine so simultaneously electrifying and powerful.

Domaine Bechtold
Whereas Jean-Leon Schoech is unwaveringly warm and direct, Jean-Marie Bechtold comes across as friendly yet slightly mischievous, always with a glimmer in his eye and a vaguely enigmatic mien. A fourth-generation vigneron in Kirchheim, in the far-northern part of the region (the Bas-Rhin, or “Lower-Rhine”) near Strasbourg, Jean-Marie owns twelve hectares of vineyards, with important holdings in the limestone-dominated grand cru of Engelberg. Kirchheim is located in the “Couronne d’Or” (“Golden Circle”), a grouping of villages off of the official Route des Vins d’Alsace and within just a few kilometers of Strasbourg. Given the Bas-Rhin’s more northerly situation along the northward-flowing Rhine, the climate in which Bechtold plies his craft is notably cooler than that of the Haut-Rhin, resulting in generally leaner wines of livelier acidity and less opulence. Whereas many years back, when wine-growing was less finely honed and average European temperatures were significantly lower, this relative coolness perhaps constituted a disadvantage for the Bas-Rhin. But in today’s ever-warming climate, wines from Bechtold’s neck of the woods can strike a scintillating balance that their counterparts to the south may struggle to achieve, especially in riper vintages.

A fiercely independent man who follows his own muse (he recently transported his entire centuries-old home from one location to another, rebuilding it stone-by-stone, and he was midway through a month-long hike to Camino de Santiago in northwest Spain during our last visit), Jean-Marie converted to biodynamic viticulture despite fierce protestation and scorn from his deeply conventional-minded father, thereby jeopardizing his very inheritance. Jean-Marie has a matter-of-fact, deadpan-humorous attitude about his craft (“I really hate Pinot Gris,” he once told us with brazen directness), but his wines possess an utterly serious rigor and an uncompromising purity perfectly suited to the Bas-Rhin’s potential for stricter, leaner iterations of Alsace’s terroir. Indeed, Jean-Marie’s Rieslings—all spontaneously fermented, all aged in stainless steel, and all nearly or totally bone-dry in terms of measurements—are zero-body-fat rapiers of mineral intensity that still manage to evoke Alsace’s orchard-fruit loveliness in a glancing, almost hallucinatory manner. They occupy a theoretical midpoint on a spectrum flanked by the seductive opulence of the Haut-Rhin and the Germanic sternness of the Rheingau, yet they are quite unlike any other Rieslings we know of—and they are endlessly compelling.

2014 Riesling “Sussenberg”
Sussenberg is a limestone-heavy lieu-dit in Dahlenheim, the nearby village that the previous Bechtold generation called home. With a single gram per liter of residual sugar, this 2014 reveals its cool-vintage origins in a direct, penetrating, almost flinty nose, and a taut, linear carriage driven by assertive acidity. This wine defies every lazy stereotype of Alsace Riesling as rich, sweet, and unctuous, and rivals even its most scintillating of German cousins in its weightless precision.

2015 Riesling Grand Cru “Engelberg”
Bechtold owns a significant portion of the fifteen-hectare limestone-and-marl grand cru of Engelberg, from which they produce profoundly chiseled Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer. This 2015 Riesling is almost brash on the nose, a bold gesture of mineral brinksmanship that dares one to flinch. In addition to this calcareous firepower, the nose offers crisp white cherries and a vivid green streak that evokes chlorophyll rather than underripeness. The palate is palpably dense, with cold-water-to-the-face acidity and a powerful impression of dry extract on the unrelenting finish.

2014 Riesling Grand Cru “Engelberg”
The 2015 is a taut, tightly coiled masterpiece, whereas the 2014—while less intense—is open-knit and luscious in comparison right now. With a fresh, zesty palate of quinine-tinged lemon and lime, it is beginning to reveal an attractive halo of petrol. Bottle age has also slightly fleshed out its mid-palate, with a subtly creamy sensation offering an appealing bridge between its pert acidity and its imposing core of limestone. It carries a mere two grams of residual sugar, and it reads as bone-dry.

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