Where Riesling Rules

My first visit to Alsace and the Trimbach family winery was in June 1988.  I was with a group of colleagues from Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines, and on my first tour of the many properties represented by C&E at the time.  It was a month long journey through the Loire, Bordeaux, Catalonia, Jerez, the Douro, Burgundy, and Alsace, led by John Laird, who ensured that we saw not only cellars but cathedrals, abbeys, and historical monuments of note.   After a quick visit to Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame de Ronchamp modern church, we pulled into the small parking lot at Trimbach next to the winery, below the steeply terraced Grand Cru Geisberg.  I remember the warm greeting from the Trimbach family, but what I recall most vividly was gorging myself on fresh dark cherries from the trees at the end of the parking lot.  The cherry trees are now long gone, having made room for an extension of the cellars, but the view of the Geisberg Grand Cru rising steeply behind the tower of the Trimbach winery is much the same as it has been for over 100 years.

In 1988 the cherry trees were fully laden with delicious, juicy fruit, and as we met Bernard, his two sons Pierre & Jean, and his brother Hubert, one could sense the understated pride and forward vision of a family that had been practicing its trade for over 350 years.   The 1988 vintage would go on to herald a trio of magnificent vintages, firmly establishing the reputation of Pierre Trimbach as one of the finest winemakers in the world.

The fresh dark cherries were delicious and addictive, grand cru quality.  I think I ate at least 100 cherries, and I had diarrhea for three days afterwards.  My visit to Trimbach would remain fixed in my memory, not because of the diarrhea, but because of the beginning of my love affair with the great Riesling wines produced there.

The Grands Crus of Alsace had only been officially delimited in 1983, five years earlier, but Trimbach has been vinifying Riesling from its vineyards above the winery as a separate cuvee for decades.  Steep calcareous terraces rising behind the winery (Geisberg)  were combined with the deep marls at the crest of the hill (Osterberg) to produce a single-vineyard riesling of such startling intensity and quality that it was renowned throughout Europe nearly 100 years ago.

In 1967 the wine was first labeled as Cuvee Frederic Emile, in honor of Bernard and Hubert’s grandfather, who brought  the winery from Hunawihr to its current location in Ribeauville, as well as fame from being the top honoree at the world’s fair exposition in Brussels in the late 19th Century.  Cuvee Frederic Emile joined Clos Ste. Hune, the Trimbach family monopole in the heart of the grand cru Rosacker of neighboring Hunawihr, as the two dominant rieslings of Alsace, if not the world.  Tom Stevenson’s classic The Wines of Alsace calls Clos Ste. Hune the finest riesling in the world and ranks Clos Ste. Hune as a Grand Premier Cru, and says that if the same family were not responsible for Cuvee Frederic Emile then there might well be a tie for best riesling in the world between the two wines.

Since Cuvee Frederic Emile Riesling existed as a single vineyard wine prior to the Alsace classification of its 50+ Grands Crus in 1983, the Trimbach’s saw no need to label it with a Grand Cru vineyard designation.  In fact, because the wine is made from a blend of two grands crus, Geisberg and Osterberg, it could not be called grand cru at all.  And separating the historic vineyard site into two grands crus would rob the finished wine of its depth, complexity, and distinctiveness which brought it fame over its one hundred year history.  Even Clos Ste. Hune, with 200 years of history with the Trimbach family as winemakers, is denied the grand cru classification because it is a monopole within the larger Rosacker Grand Cru. Imagine if La Tache or Romanee-Conti had been denied status as grands crus because they were monopoles.  Unthinkable.

Fine wine writers and even Alsace winemakers have been critical of the 1983 Grands Crus designations as a bit generous and perhaps too broadly inclusive.  No doubt the  village politics of the region played a role as well in extending certain sites beyond truly definitive boundaries.  What is indisputable is that Cuvee Frederic Emile is Grand Vin in every sense of the word, a majestic wine of tremendous individuality and precision, a true terroir.  In the past years we have had to content ourselves with thinking of Cuvee Frederic Emile as the best reflection of the classic Trimbach philosophy in their particular grands crus terroir.

But I was recently fortunate enough to try a pure Geisberg Grand Cru, from none other than the masterful talents of Pierre Trimbach himself.  In 2008, the Trimbach family were chosen by the nuns of the Convent of Divine Providence in Ribeauville to take over the lease of 8 hectares of vineyards in Ribeauville, including 2.6 hectares of the Grand Cru Geisberg.  A bit further west on the Geisberg slope from the Frederic Emile portion, in a fairly steep section of limestone dominated rocky calcaire, Pierre Trimbach has been given a chance to shine.  The vines are not quite as densely planted as the Frederic Emile site, only 5000 vines per hectare versus 6500, and the age of the vines only 20 to 25 years old compared to the Frederic Emile’s mature 40 to 50 year old vines, but Pierre and the family have decided to bring Grand Cru Geisberg Cuvee Couvent de Divine Providence to market as a distinct bottling, rather than use it to bolster the limited supply of Cuvee Frederic Emile.

In my opinion, this choice is not merely brave, but revolutionary and entirely warranted.  It will add a new dimension to the stellar portfolio of Trimbach Rieslings.   This is not an abandonment of their existing philosophy with the single-vineyard Gold Label wines, but a new development, and an extension of that philosophy that emphasizes the singularity of site specific wines that define the concept of terroir.

Below are my notes from a tasting Saturday June 21st with brothers Jean and Pierre Trimbach, and Jean’s young son Julien (the thirteenth generation is being groomed as I write).

2009 Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile:  Hot wet stone minerality with ripe hints of quince and Christmas pudding spices.  Somewhat subdued, cool and restrained on the palate, flexing its muscle but not quite fully knit.  Brilliant and racy acidity presents promising length and depth, with grace and fullness.  Will be wonderful while we wait for the 2007 to mature.

2009 Riesling Clos Ste. Hune:  Beautifully balanced, finely tuned stone fruits and minerality.  A bit more forthcoming than most young Clos Ste Hunes.  Open, fresh, lively mirabelle notes complemented by a hint of menthol or mint.  Perfectly proportioned depth and structure, fruit and minerality.  A lovely vintage, graceful rather than piercing.  Persistent.

2009 Riesling Geisberg Cuvee Couvent de Divine Providence (name not yet finalized):  Brilliant nose of bright small stone fruits, pure riesling with an element of verveine or mint tea.  Focused, precise, and wonderfully pure, nearly ethereal.  Dances lightly on the tongue, like winter sunbeams in the glass.  Not quite the old vines concentration of Fred Emile, but something more insistent and petulant.  More prodigy than virtuoso at this stage.

This Geisberg effort is truly an exciting development for Alsace’s dominant Riesling producer, Maison F.E. Trimbach.  And with other recent purchases of Grands Crus vineyards in Mandelberg and Schlossberg, I think we can expect some phenomenal wines to come.

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2 thoughts on “Where Riesling Rules”

  1. Please note a correction to Trimbach holdings in the Alsace Grand Cru Geisberg. The lease of additional vineyards from the Convent of Divine Providence is 8 hectares total, including an additional 2.6 in Geisberg, This brings just under 6 hectares of Geisberg to the control of Maison F.E. Trimbach, out of a total of 8.5 hectares total for this steeply terraced vineyard site.

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