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Alsatian Wines: Personality Driven
By Robert Whitley
Oct 25, 2005
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GUEBWILLER, France.

Strong women run in the Schlumberger family.  Anne, now 93, fought in the French resistance.  Legend has it she took out a German soldier before she was captured and spent four years in a Nazi concentration camp.
 
"They say she weighed less than 20 kilos when she returned after the war," said Severine Beydon Schlumberger, who took over daily management of Domaines Schlumberger from her father, Alain Beydon Schlumberger, in 2001.  Anne's name graces the exceptional Gewurztraminer Cuvee Anne, which has been produced but 10 times since 1945.

Two of Schlumberger's other prestigious cuvees--Christine, a Gewurztraminer, and Clarisse, a Pinot Gris--have been named after the women of Schlumberger.  Christine, the family matriarch who died in 1971, was the mother of both Anne and Clarisse.

So it should come as no surprise that today a woman, Severine Beydon Schlumberger, plays such a prominent role at one of Alsace's most important wine domains.  It is obvious the young, dynamic Severine has been cut from the same cloth as her predecessors.
 
She has made a number of bold decisions since taking the reins, aiming for a greater share of the U.S. market by instructing her winemaker to produce a drier style of wine and cutting prices to overcome the strength of the euro against the dollar.

"I would rather sell ten times the wine at a reasonable price than less wine at a very high price," said she.  "That's because I buy wine for myself."

"We have been very successful in the U.S. market with our Pinot Blanc.  I would like to see that same success repeated with ourPinot Gris, so we are striving to make it less sweet.  We have done that already, but I think we should go even further."

Though it would appear Severine was destined to occupy a position at the winery from birth, that was far from the case.  She studied law in Strasbourg and practiced for a year, an experience she looks upon as a terrible growing pain.

"Lawyers are liars," she says.  "After a year I was so disgusted I said 'that's not for me.'  I packed two suitcases and left for England.  I didn't speak a word of English, but I went to work as a receptionist at a large brasserie.  The first week they told me, 'Dont answer the phone.' That was funny.  But in four months I was fluent.  Then I ran a restaurant for two years."

"I was always passionate about the winery.  I have the farm spirit, but I told my dad, 'I can't work for you.  We're too much alike.' But one day he called me and said, 'I'm going to retire.  Would you consider coming back?'"

"I said, 'Are you sure you're going to retire?'  You can't have two such strong personalities.  There would always be a clash.  So I came back and 2001 was my first vintage.  He gave me a little trouble during the harvest.  I said, 'Dad, write it down.'"

The rest is history.  The difficult 2003 vintage notwithstanding, the Schlumberger wines are as good if not better than ever before, and sales in the U.S. have climbed to sixth overall among Alsatian producers.

"I love the enthusiasm of the U.S. market," says Severine.  "The French think that because they are from a wine producing country that they know everything and there is nothing else to learn.  In the U.S. they started learning about wine 20, 25 years ago and now they know more than the French.

"When we started with our American importer (Maison Marques & Domains) in 1995, our sales were very low.  But now the USA is our No. 2 export market.  New York is a better market for us than Paris.  This year I am pushing for Schlumberger to move up to No. 5 in the USA."

Though her father would likely approve, Severine is not holding her breath waiting for a pat on the back.
 
"I'm sure he's very proud of me," she said.  "He'll never tell me.  He'll tell everyone else, but not me."

COLMAR, France.

It is hardly unusual here in the center of Alsace to encounter a vigneron whose family set up shop in the wine business in the 16th or 17th century.  Stability and continuity are prized in this stunningly beautiful region that over the centuries has taken turns between pledging allegiance to both Germany and France.

Alsace is wedged between the Rhine and Germany to the east and the Vosges Mountains and the rest of France to the west.  From its northernmost vineyards near Strasbourg to its southern extremes around the city of Mulhouse, Alsace is a cigar-shaped wine region that runs about 70 miles from one tip to the other.

Many of its vineyards are steeply sloped--among the steepest in all of France--and the warm, dry climate is perfect for the rich, beautifully structured style of wine that has evolved since the area recovered from the devastation of World War II.  The Vosges mountain range blocks the marine influence from the Atlantic and protects Alsace from storms and rain at harvest, allowing the grapes to fully mature before picking in most vintages.

"We have two kinds of vintages in Alsace," said vigneron Jean-Claude Riefle of Domaine Riefle.  "Outstanding and very good."

Because Alsace is too far north to produce serious red wine, the vast majority of Alsatian wine is white.  Very small amounts of Pinot Noir are made to serve with the specialty of the region--choucroute--but in most vintages (the very hot year of 2003 being the exception) the Pinot is relatively light and uninteresting and little of it is shipped to the United States.

Alsatian wines have found new popularity in the U.S. in recent years as the ABC crowd (Anything but Chardonnay) has grown and gained market clout.  Chardonnay is cultivated in Alsace, but it is permitted to be used only for sparkling wine--the light and refreshing Cramant d'Alsace.

American interest in Alsatian wines has been nothing like the raging love affair with Italian Pinot Grigio, but the Alsatians are ever hopeful.

"Our bone dry Pinot Blanc is doing very well in the U.S., particularly in restaurants," noted Severine Schlumberger of Domaines Schlumberger.  "Now I am working with the winemaker to make our Pinot Gris in more of a dry style, too.  We aren't quite where I would like to be, but we're getting closer."

Indeed, it is the perception of sweetness that slows Alsatian wines in the United States.  The shape of the Alsatian bottle--tall and narrow--mirrors the shape of sweet wines from Germany.  But most Alsatian wines are dry or slightly off-dry.  An abundance of acidity, however, balances the off-dry wines from the better producers, and consequently they don't display apparent sweetness on the palate.

The primary grape varieties in Alsace are Riesling, Gew├╝rztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.  Other white varieties exists, but are difficult to find in the U.S. 

Alsace also produces some of the finest dessert wines in the world, remarkably complex Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles wines that rival the great wines of Sauternes and Barsac from the western part of France.



Two historic families of Alsace--Trimbach and Hugel--have dominated the Alsatian wine market in the United States over the past 30 years.  Both produce impeccably made wines at good prices and deserve the huge following they enjoy.
 
Other top producers are beginning to make inroads, albeit sometimes small inroads given the small, family owned profile of most producers in the region.

KAYSERBERG, France.

Domaine Weinbach, purchased by the brothers Faller before the turn of the 20th century, is another small estate in Alsace that owes its current success to the women of the family.

Colette and her daughters Catherine and Laurence manage the 27 hectares of primarily grand cru vineyards, but it is the passionate vigneron Laurence who is responsible for the care of the vines and the vinification of the wines.

Laurence Faller is among a growing cadre of French winemakers that have embraced bio-dynamic farming in the vineyards.  The 2005 vintage will be the first 100 percent bio vintage at Weinbach, but Faller has been moving in that direction since becoming enologist at the family estate in 1993.

"We were already organic," said Faller, who holds degrees in chemical engineering and enology and has an MBA.  "But there is such a big difference between organic and bio-dynamic, as big a difference as there is between traditional and organic."

"The more respectful you are to nature and the vines, the better they will reflect the vintage and the personality of the terroir."

Laurence Faller's wines at Weinbach strike a superb balance--they are rich without being sweet (except for the wines that are designed to be sweet) and deliver that almost mystical combination of power and elegance that is the staple of a great wine.

"I look for richness at harvest," said Faller, "so I begin harvest a little later than the rest.  I like to have some 'noble rot' even in the dry wines to give some aromatics, richness and complexity.  This gives an aroma range that is wider.  You introduce a whole new family of aromas, and a little bit of botrytis concentrates the acidity."

Even the searing heat of 2003, which reduced yields to microscopic levels and proved a hill too high too climb for many producers in Alsace, the Weinbach wines managed to retain an elegance and typicity that is the signature of Laurence Faller wines.

"I believe that the vines were able to resist the heat better because of the bio-dynamic practices," she said.

The estate is site of the monopole Clos des Capucins, which was established by the Capuchin monks in the 17th century.  However, the greatest vineyards of Weinbach--Grand Cru Schlossberg, Grand Cru Furstentum and Grand Cru Mambourg--are located on the south facing hillsides across the road from the Clos.

The forte of Domaine Weinbach is rich, dry Riesling, rich, aromatic Gewurztraminer and beautifully balanced Pinot Gris.

"Pinot Gris needs to be picked ripe, otherwise it can be quite simple," noted Faller.  "It's not an easy grape.  It can be boring.  It doesn't have the aromatics of Gewurztraminer nor the incredible elegance of Riesling.  It's somewhere in between."

The wines of Domaine Weinbach are not inexpensive--often topping more than $50 per bottle retail--but they are rich, stylish and loaded with personality.  And the full range of 2004 Domaine Weinbach wines is superb.

WINTZENHEIM, France.

A visit to the cellar of Josmeyer, where the remarkable vigneron Jean Meyer presides, is an emotive exercise in the romance of wine.

In Meyer's case, the romance of wine involves creating a living thing that is stronger than the elements, true to its terroir and pure joy to drink.  His wines are fresh and lively when young, and astoundingly complex with age.

"I like a wine with good acidity," Meyer says.  "Sweetness masks the flaws."

Josmeyer's wines are among the finest produced in Alsace, including superb wines from the challenging 2003 vintage.  Those never made it to the U.S. because his importer, Paterno Imports, declined to accept its allocation in 2003.

"It was OK," he says of the snub.  "The yields were very low, the wines were great and I sold everything I had anyway."

Meyer's vineyards have been organic since 1999 and 100 percent biodynamic since 2003, as he has worked closely on biodynamic farming with such luminaries from Burgundy as Dominique Lafon and Frederic Lafarge.

In a ritual I am sure he has played out many times before, Meyer pours a Pinot Blanc and announces proudly that the bottle has been open for eight days, yet the wine remains fresh and crisp.

He reaches for a Riesling that is lovely on the nose, expressing intense minerality and nary a hint of oxidation.  It was opened nine days ago.  The dance goes on.  It is, Meyer says, because the wine is healthy and alive.

"I have been eating biodynamic vegetables for years," said Meyer.  "They are not always the prettiest vegetables, but they always have the most flavor.  This is what I want from my grapes.  I am a good winemaker, but I am not that good.  I used to make my wines in the cellar.  Now I make them in the vineyard.  I am preserving the life of the vine--just putting it in the bottle."