David 5 June 2014
Alsace produces some of the great white wines of the world - aromatic and floral, yet textural and crisp. Amazingly, these beautiful wines are often overlooked and underappreciated, a perfect combination for astute wine buyers.
Nestled between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River, Alsace is located in north-eastern France on the border with Germany. It’s been contested territory for centuries. After becoming German in 1871 it went back to France in 1918 at the end of WWI. Nazi victory over the French in 1940 meant it then went back to Germany, but with the end of WWII in 1945, it once again became French. The region has Germanic and French place names and many locals speak both languages as well as Alsatian dialects.
Alsace has around 40,000 acres of vineyards that run in a narrow strip from near Strasbourg in the north to Mulhouse in the south, a distance of about 100km. In the midst of the vines are several picturesque towns, complete with narrow streets and half-timbered houses, known locally as maison à colombages.
The region is a bit of a climatic anomaly. It sits around 48 degrees north, which is the southern hemisphere equivalent of about 550km south of Hobart. Grapes shouldn’t really ripen in Alsace, but it’s the
VosgesMountains, just west of the region, that make it possible. Cool, water-laden westerly winds blow in from the Atlantic and dump their moisture when they hit the Vosges. Just on the other side of the mountains, Alsace enjoys a sunnier, warmer and dryer climate.
Even though it’s now a region of France, it’s no surprise that Alsace is heavily influenced by Germany. Around 90% of wines are white, with riesling being the dominant variety, accounting for over 20% of plantings. The other biggies are gewürztraminer, pinot gris and pinot blanc, but you’ll also find pinot noir, muscat, chasselas, sylvaner, chardonnay and auxxerois. Unlike the other regions in France, Alsace labels its wine varietally (ie by grape variety) and you’ll find both straight varietals and blends. While the region is best known for its dry wines, it’s also known for its luscious sweet white wines. Vendanges Tardives indicates late harvest and Sélection de Grains Nobles indicates botrytis affected grapes. The region also produces sparkling wine labelled as Crémant d’Alsace.
Alsace attained appellation status in 1962 and implemented a Grand Cru system in 1975, which identified the best sites. It's hard to believe that prior to this there was no geographically based hierarchy of vineyards as in the rest of France, there was simply Alsace. The Grand Cru system undergoes regular revision and there are currently 51 grand crus accounting for about 4% of production.
I came across an André Kientzler wine in the cellar of a friend of mine whose knowledge of wine I greatly respect. I did some investigating and then by chance had the opportunity to taste Kintzler’s wines alongside several other Alsatian producers. I now understand why they’re in my friend’s cellar. They’re classic Alsatian wines at a reasonable price.
Domaine André Kientzler
Kientzler is a small, family run estate situated in Ribeauvillé, a storybook village mid-way between Strasbourg and Mulhouse. The Kientzlers have been here for a long time, best indicated by their ownership of the buildings on all four corners of the main square - as well as many others in the town. Andrew Kientzler, fifth generation, is at the helm, assisted by son Eric and they epitomise the quiet reserve and confidence that comes with being established in one place for so long.
The wines of Kientzler reflect the calm and unassuming nature of their maker - they are fine, pure and intense.
How’s this for praise…
“One of the most talented winemakers in Alsace,”Tom Stevenson, The Wines of Alsace.
“One of Alsace’s superstar domaines,”Clive Coates, The Wines & Domaines of France.
“His perfectionist approach mean that every wine here is noteworthy,” Andrew Jefford, The New France.
On the impressive south-facing slopes that border Ribeauvillé sit a few castles, as well as 3 Grand Crus:
Kientzler has a total of just 30 acres, 9 of which are spread across the 3 Grand Crus. They’ve chosen not to expand their business, sticking instead to the same vineyards they’ve worked for generations. The Domaine has plantings of 7 Alsatian varieties, with riesling and gewürtz making up half of total production.
Also in Ribeauvillé is Trimbach and it’s interesting to compare this internationally marketed superstar to Kientzler, who don’t have a website, don’t have a distributor in the significant US market and don’t invite publicity at all. It seems this is the way Kientzler likes it and besides, they don’t need to be well known outside of France. Most of their wine is snapped up by a loyal French cult following, who appreciate such modest prices for a top producer of classic Alsatian wines.
Unfortunately I can’t give you any third party endorsements because, as you might guess, the critics don’t get to see these wines. Kientzler makes several wines and here are a few I hope you’ll enjoy.
1. Kientzler Riesling 2010
2010 was a cooler year in Alsace and this is clear in the vibrant acidity of this wine. It's a classic dry Alsatian riesling (4 g/L residual sugar) that's crisp and zingy, but with luscious purity and intensity.
You'll find clean flavours of lime, green apple and musk, as well as subtle, but distinctly Alsatian honey, lanolin and mineral characters. It's the aromatics, texture and weight of this wine which makes it so different to Australian riesling.
The key to all Kientzler wines is their skillful composition. The texture, the weight, fruit, and acid are beautifully balanced, which is what makes this wine, and the price, so appealing.
Enjoy the freshness.
I can offer it for $35 a bottle. SOLD OUT - Check availability
2. Kientzler Pinot Gris 2010
This wine stood out when I tried it against a few other Alsatian Pinot Gris. I like that it’s totally different to the sugar-laden styles that so many others seem to offer.
It’s more old-world, less fruit driven and is dry (5g/L residual sugar). There are wonderful lifted aromatics and flavours of baked apple, lychee and honeysuckle and once again there are the underlying Euro mineral and lanolin characters giving it an extra dimension.
You’ll find it more exotic, weighty and textured than the Kientzler riesling, but deft handling of the acid gives wonderful balance and structure. Viscous and generous, it’s still a wine of restraint and finesse.
Try something new and delicious.
I can offer it for $35 a bottle. SOLD OUT - Check availability
3. Kientzler ‘Geisberg’ Grand Cru 2010
Kientzler makes two grand Cru rieslings, the Osterberg and the Geisberg, but all the fuss is about the Geisberg. This is the wine in my friend’s cellar and it's a beauty.
Geisberg is one of the great Grand Crus of Alsace. It’s a small, steep, south facing vineyard in which there are only 5 owners; Trimbach, Kientzler, Faller, Baldenbeck and the local monastery. Only Faller and Kientzler make ‘pure’ Riesling grand Cru Geisberg. Trimbach makes a blend and the others sell their fruit.
The Geisberg vineyard produces fruit of the highest quality, which is handpicked, fermented in stainless steel and bottled under screw cap.
This has the same components as the entry level riesling, but as soon as you open it, it's clear everything is a step up. It’s more intense, more concentrated and has an amazing viscosity and density. This wine’s richness is perfectly balanced by a core of pure, tight acidity, which makes the wine a serious cellaring candidate. You’ll find it dry (4 g/L residual sugar) with flavours of lime cordial, citrus and honey as well as a long lanolin and mineral finish. We can only wonder how someone makes such an intense and lively wine.
When you consider the Trimbach Cuvée ‘Frederic Emile’ (blend of Osterberg and Geisberg) sells for around $100, the value of this wine becomes clear. You’ll find it at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney, out of magnum, for $30 a glass.
This is a great example of a classic dry Alsatian riesling, one that will age beautifully and one you should have in your cellar.
I can offer it for $75 a bottle. Order this wine