Notes on Alsace: Domaine Ernest Burn
Great wine need not be expensive and great wine need not be big and rich. These are the precepts of most experienced wine lovers. Unfortunately, finding such wines, particularly from regions with already strong reputations or that produce vast quantities of wine, can be a significant challenge.
In North America Alsace tends to be known either for cheap uninspired quaffing wine or expensive, rich and intense wines with considerable alcohol.
In Alsace, the majority of wine is made on the valley floor by co-ops and most is sold and poured with little respect for the condition of what is in the bottle. Most Alsatians and tourists seem to simply drink whatever the local co-op or small family producer has available at the moment. Most of these wines are terrible, as can be experienced in many of the region’s tasting Caveaus.
Above the co-ops and tiny family producers are the grand wines of Alsace: Trimbach, Schoffit, Deiss, Zind-Humbrecht, Weinbach. These are impressive wines with considerable pedigree and which sell for commensurate prices.
Hidden in between these layers of flab and cream are the true gems of Alsace – those wineries which are making aromatic, balanced, food focused, and terroir driven wines for reasonable prices. Domaine Ernest Burn exemplifies this part of Alsace and was one of the most down to earth wine experiences I had on my trip.
The Burns are one of France’s true wine making families, with roots in the industry for almost 400 years. Ernest Burn was one of the pioneers of post-World War I Alsace and began his winery by re-purposing historic vineyards that had either fallen into disuse or had been reduced to making jug wine. Parcel by parcel, Ernest replanted all the vines and rebuilt the original walls that surrounded the various plots, creating what is now known as the Goldert vineyard, which is now a Grand Cru from which a few wineries make wine. The crown jewel in the Goldert vineyard is the iconic Clos St. Imer.
Domaine Burn’s top wines are made with fruit grown in the unique Clos St. Imer vineyard near Gueberschwihr (St. Imer is the town’s patron saint). The soils here are calcareous sandstone and clayey soil. This vineyard is unique in Alsace in that the grapes ripen more slowly and evenly, making harvest fully 1 month later than almost everywhere else in the region. When I was visiting, while every other domaine was busy with the early September harvest, Burn was sitting tightly waiting for perfect ripeness in October.
Amazingly, despite the lateness of harvest these wines retain a freshness that is uncommon in Alsace even as they also exude power and elegance.
I met and tasted through the wines with Francis Burn’s 20-something year old son, who was both modest but also clearly very involved in the winemaking. We both struggled through our modest French and English and managed to have quite an interesting tasting.
All of the wines had a freshness and clarity that can be missed in many more expensive Alsatian bottles. These are also impressively aromatic, contain tremendous length and ageability, and generally sit between 13-14% ABV. And they sell for ½ the price of the famous Domaines, even as most of the wines are better (if imported, these wines would likely sell for about $40 CDN in BC). The specialty at this domaine is Muscat, and these wines were truly exceptional, but I was impressed across the spectrum and would have bought several cases if my luggage limits allowed it.
Riesling Goldert Clos St. Imer 2005: Expressive, good body and nice minerality. Very Good+ 17 Euro.
Muscat Goldert Clos St. Imer 2006: Classic aromas of peach, flowers and honey. There is also great minerality on the palate that buoys the richness. Excellent. 17 Euro.
Muscat Goldert Clos St. Imer 2007: Spicy with botrytis character coming through. However, the palate remains refreshing with clarity. Long and balanced. 13% ABV – yep, that’s uncommon. Very Good+. 17 Euro.
Le Dauphin Muscat Clos St. Imer 2005: Peachy goodness and very impressive. This is more austere Muscat and pretty much everyone would be shocked at the depth and complexity the Burns achieve with this much maligned grape. A geeky wine. Excellent.
Pinot Gris Goldert Clos St. Imer 2004: Pear and spice, bringing the grape into its stronger spice-loving territory. Perfect balance and much more restraint than is common with this grape in Alsace. Very Good+.
Gewurztraminer Goldert Clos St. Imer 2007: This has beautiful typicity and is very well made but does not quite hold the interest as much as the Muscats. Very Good+. 17 Euro.
Riesling Vendanges Tardives Clos St. Imer 1997: Exciting wine and showing the profound ageability of these wines. There is no lack of freshness and this would astound most if tasted blind: it is far more youthful than its age. Grapefruit and citrus on the nose, but amazing petrol and mineral secondary flavours on the palate. 13% ABV. Excellent. 25 Euros (that’s about $35 for a 14 year old wine).
Muscat Goldert Vendanges Tardives Clos St. Imer 2005: Grapey, fresh and clean. This wine has an absolutely stunning flavour of intense jasmine flowers. Excellent.
Pinot Gris Goldert Vendanges Tardives Clos St. Imer 2002: This could still evolve for 5 more years, but right now it is rich, spicy and with a clean long finish. Wonderful. Very Good+ to Excellent.
Gewurztraminer Goldert Vendanges Tardives Clos St. Imer 2006: Heavily Botrytized: raisin, honey, spice – very similar to the amazing Alsatian gingerbread found throughout the region. Excellent. 50 Euros.
Domaine Burn makes the kind of wines that I wish we saw more of in North America. Minerally, clean, lower alcohols but still expressive and intense. These yet go amazingly with food and have the drinkability to be house whites. It is rare to encounter such fundamentally impressive wines at such reasonable prices and in some ways this may have been the best winery I visited in France.