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Alsace: Home to a Great Riesling Producer
By Ed McCarthy
Feb 2, 2016
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Alsace, located in northeastern France adjacent to the Rhine River and Germany, has spent the last several hundred years as part of either France or Germany--depending upon which country was on the winning side of the previous war.  In 1871, for example, after the Franco-Prussian War, Alsace became a part of Germany.  After World War I, Alsace again became a part of France, and has stayed that way ever since (although the Germans occupied it from 1940 to 1944, during World War II).

French, of course, is the official language, although many residents of Alsace speak Alsatian, a German dialect.  Alsace actually is quite independent, although I have found the people to be fiercely loyal to France.  It is one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions, dotted with picturesque towns and villages.  The Vosges Mountains to the west protect this northerly region from the harsh climate you might expect; Alsace, in fact, enjoys fairly mild, temperate weather with little rainfall.

Its Germanic background explains the reason so many Alsace wineries have German surnames.  It also contributes to its cuisine, and the fact that Alsace’s two main varieties are Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  In fact, Alsace is the only region in France where it is legal to grow Riesling, Germany’s star variety.

I have made several trips to Alsace over the years, and have visited most of its principal wineries, many of which are top-notch.  Some Alsace wineries make wines in a rich style, some make them medium-rich in style, and just a few make its wines in a distinctly dry style.  One of the leaders in the dry-style Alsace wineries has always been Trimbach.  Trimbach is one of my very favorite white-wine wineries in the world (like most Alsace wineries, Trimbach does make some Pinot Noir, but white wine—especially Riesling, is its forté).

The Trimbach family has owned a winery in Alsace since 1626, for 13 generations. After World War II, the winery moved to Ribeauvillé, just north of Riquewihr, the picturesque center of the Alsace region, where the winery was first established.  Brothers Bernard and Hubert Trimbach are still actively involved in Maison Trimbach, but day to day operations are now in the hands of Bernard’s two sons, Pierre, the winemaker, and Jean, who runs the business end.

Besides Pinot Noir, Trimbach produces six types of white wine: Riesling (four different ones); Gewurztraminer (three); Pinot Gris (four); Pinot Blanc, Muscat, and Sylvaner.  Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris are its three most important wines.  But it is Trimbach’s Riesling that has earned the winery its world-wide recognition.

Trimbach owns about 100 acres of vineyards in Alsace, including some of the region’s very best vineyards.  It is a medium-sized winery for Alsace, producing about 80,000 cases of wine annually.  Trimbach has been particularly successful in the U.S., however, which imports over one-third of its production.  In fact, 35 percent of all Alsace wines sold in this country are from Trimbach; its Riesling and Pinot Gris are the best-selling Alsace varietal wines in their category.

Most of Trimbach’s vineyards are located around Ribeauvillé, where the mineral-rich soil is mainly chalk and limestone.  When in 1983, Alsace decided to designate its finest vineyards as Grand Cru. Trimbach became one of the few Alsace wineries that chose to ignore these designations and not use the term on their bottles--even though many of its best wines come from Grand Cru vineyards. Trimbach is the only Alsace wine sold in all of the 26 Michelin-3 star restaurants in France.

Trimbach produces four Rieslings; its top two are among the world’s best white wines.  All four Trimbach Rieslings are dry; Trimbach 2010 Riesling, currently available, is a real value (especially in better Alsace vintages, such as 2008 or 2007), selling for $13 to $15.  The more concentrated Trimbach Reserve sells for $24 to $26; the 2009 is now available.

Trimbach’s two finest Rieslings are on another level.  Fortunately for us, Trimbach’s Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling (with a Gold Label Reserve designation) can be found in most of the better wine shops and restaurants.  The wine is named after arguably Trimbach’s most important ancestor, Frédéric Emile Trimbach, who made Trimbach the great winery it is today by his efforts--including bottling Trimbach wines instead of selling them in bulk, as was the custom then, at the end of the 19th century.  In fact, the winery, Maison F.E. Trimbach, is named after him.

Trimbach’s Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling is made from grapes from two Grand Cru vineyards, Geisberg and Osterberg.  The vines are old, 45 years on average.  The wine is intense and concentrated, with a complex, minerally aroma and a long finish on the palate. It has great aging capacity, lasting 20 years easily, even in an average vintage.  I recently tasted the 2001 Cuvée Frédéric Emile, and it was stunning, still quite young. 

Both the Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling and Trimbach’s greatest Riesling, Clos Ste. Hune, are made in similar fashion.  They are produced with a cool, slow fermentation, with no malolactic fermentation taking place.  They are aged for about six months in large old oak barrels only, and then aged in the bottle at the winery for five to six years.  Now, at the end of 2013, the most recent vintage available for both Cuvée Frédéric Emile and Clos Ste. Hune is the 2006.  The Trimbach 2006 Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling retails in the $48 to $50 range, which I think is a tremendous value for a wine of this quality.

The Trimbach family began making Clos Ste. Hune in 1919.  The grapes grow in a three-acre walled vineyard that is within the larger Rosacker Grand Cru vineyard in the village of Hunawihr.  Its vines, on a gentle hillside, are planted in calcerous clay soiI, and average 40 years in age.

Clos Ste. Hune’s reputation has grown with the years.  Many critics now regard it as one of the world’s greatest dry white wines.  And I concur.  A friend of mine, of Alsace ancestry, has the largest collection of Clos Ste. Hune that I know of.  Mind you, Clos Ste. Hune is rather difficult to find; only 8,000 bottles a year are made, on average (The retail price of the current 2006 Clos Ste. Hune is $175).  I invited this friend to choose any four bottles he wants out of my cellar for four bottles of his Clos Ste. Hune.  He chose some First Growth Bordeaux wines from good vintages and a very good Burgundy in exchange for his Clos Ste. Hune wines.  I considered myself lucky with the exchange that was made.

Clos Ste. Hune has intense minerality, great, balanced structure, and loads of finesse.  It can age for 25 years and more, and, like all great wines, improves with age.  I recently tasted the 2006 Clos Ste. Hune in New York, which Jean Trimbach poured for me.  I was in awe of the wine, still so young but showing signs of greatness, with its long finish.  Jean told me that the 2006 Clos Ste. Hune was somewhat forward (for Clos Ste. Hune) and a bit riper than usual.  Jean said that the 2005 was firmer and will be more long-lived, and that the 2007 Clos Ste. Hune will be sensational.  I asked Jean about the 1990 Clos Ste. Hune (which I am fortunate enough to own), and he said that it is drinking well now, but still has a long future!

A few words about two other fine Trimbach Gold Label Resrve wines:  The 2005 Gewurztraminer Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre is a beautifully balanced, very dry Gewurztraminer; it retails for a very reasonable $42 or so.  Trimbach’s 2004 Pinot Gris Reserve Personnelle, which I recently tasted, is very rich and ripe, almost in a late-harvest style, and has a long finish.  It is made from grapes growing in the Grand Cru Osterberg vineyard.  The 2004 Pinot Gris Reserve Personnelle retails in the $35 to $40 range.  Both of these wines will age for well over ten years, but not so long as the Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling.

Trimbach’s Alsace wines, especially the Gold Label Reserves and of course the single-vineyard Clos Ste.Hune Riesling, are truly of outstanding quality, and are exceptional values.  If Alsace wines were as sought after as Burgundy is today, I cannot imagine what their prices would be!