Tasty test - A tour of the Alsace region and sampling its wines prove to be an education

December 17 2012 by Bernice Chan

Frederic Raynaud was getting nervous. He looked out over the porch of the restaurant at Chateau d’Isenbourg, where the skies were overcast, the clouds threatening to gather.

“The weather in Alsace isn’t usually like this,” the managing director of Chateaux & Terroirs says. “Usually it’s clear and 10 degrees warmer.”

The year 2012 will be remembered for having strange summer weather for a few days in the winemaking region, when temperatures plunged 10 degrees to 14 degrees Celsius in early July.

In addition, the overcast weather and light rain made conditions unfavourable for a planned helicopter tour of the wine-making area.

“Let us pray to the gods,” he jokes.

Two days later, however, the weather miraculously cleared, with blue skies and even some sunshine poking through the clouds.

Our group had already been organised into several groups of three to tour the Alsace region in a four-seat helicopter.

To ensure our safety, we had to disclose our weight to balance the tiny aircraft properly.

The helicopter looked like a big toy, but managed to lift us up from the vineyards of Chateau d’Isenbourg and give us a 15-minute tour of the region.

From above we viewed rectangular green patches of vineyards, some horizontally across, others perpendicular – as far as the eye could see.

Periodically there were small towns with houses in the traditional Alsace style, clustered in a circular shape around churches at their centres.

Soon, our time was up and we returned to Chateau d’Isenbourg, located in the town of Rouffach, 28km north of Mulhouse.

According to some artefacts, Isenbourg was already a vine-growing area during the time of the Roman Empire.

In the 15th century, it was owned by the bishop of Strasbourg, who was knowledgeable about vine growing and winemaking.

Today, owned by Chateau & Terroirs, the vineyard continues to grow in the same area and also benefits from the surrounding walls that help to regulate the temperature. The chateau stretches five hectares, a rarity in Alsace and the terroir is made of clay-laden loess. Grape varieties are pinot gris, riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot blanc and pinot noir.

A tasting of the wines from Clos du Chateaux Isenbourg are mostly easy drinking, some of which have won medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards this year, such as Les Tommeries Riesling 2009 (bronze) and Les Tourelles 2010 (silver). The latter is a combination of pinot blanc, gewurztraminer, riesling and pinot gris and this young wine shows much promise, while the former shows more maturity.

And, of course, the French know how to enjoy wine with food. In Alsace, the cuisine is rustic and rich, with lots of foie gras – seared, in a terrine or pate, while sauerkraut is a nod to the region’s Germanic roots. Munster is the well-known cheese here, usually eaten with honey and fennel seeds. 

Meanwhile, Cave de Pfaffenheim is actually a modern winemaking facility replacing wooden oak barrels with towering steel tanks. Here, the winemakers use the latest technology and research, which means not crushing, but gently pressing the grapes to ensure quality, and temperature control for maximum fruit expression.

The wines are more rounded and are recognised in various French wine competitions, particularly the grand crus. One of the oldest we tasted, the Pfaffenheim Steinert Grand Cru Riesling 1981 has an orangey-yellow colour, with a strong fermented aroma on the nose. It has a round and soft taste that makes it easy drinking, while the Goldert Grand Cru Gewurztraminer 2001 has a brilliant gold colour with sweet, fruity notes that have a slightly sharp finish.

Finally, we visit the vineyards of Dopff & Irion, which was established in 1945. The two families were already in the wine trade in the 16th century, but came together when Rene Dopff joined forces with the widow Madame Irion after her husband was killed in 1944, during the second world war.

We met Dopff’s son Guy who had worked for the company from 1958 to 1985.

He is fluent in French and English, flawlessly switching back and forth and has a light-hearted personality. Now in his 80s, Dopff didn’t seem to have any concerns for his health, tucking into a large slab of foie gras, then some sausages, ham, sauerkraut and potatoes, followed by cheese and blueberry pie, all washed down with several glasses of wine from his family vineyard.

His secret to long life? “A zest for life,” he replies with a smile.

And the Dopff & Irion wines are lively characters too with interesting names including Les Sorcieres, meaning “witches”. We were driven to a hillside vineyard facing southeast and were told about a legend where witches were burned at the stake.

The resulting terroir consists of marl and clay that gives aromatic richness to the gewurztraminer with spicy rather than floral notes. The 1997 vintage has honey and pineapple notes, tangy aroma and a dry finish.

We also headed to the vineyards in Schoenenbourg, terraced on the hillsides. Vineyard manager Denis Eblin explains the slope is well-drained with clay, marl and chalk allowing the soil to retain its humidity.

When asked why some vines are lined vertically and others horizontally, Eblin says it is up to the winemaker, as some believe they get more sun, one way or another.

He prefers the vines to be placed vertically to allow for more density because of the steepness of the slope.

Chateau de Riquewihr Dopff & Irion Schoenenbourg Grand Cru Riesling 2008 was a reflection of the terroir, a refreshing wine, pale yellow in colour, with citrus notes of grapefruit and lemon that had slightly more residual sugar.

By the end of our visit to Alsace, Reynaud put on his sunglasses and smiled broadly at the sun. The gods had heard his prayers.