Notes on Alsace: Domaine Weinbach

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The epiphany is one of the great moments of human existence. These are the moments that awaken self-discovery and broaden our minds to the world. Any wine geek will have several of these moments as part of their personal history in wine. They are by no means uniform, and I feel as though the occasion of epiphany shapes future preferences and biases.

For me, my first sips of Domaine Weinbach several years ago was an epiphany that reformed my perspective on Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. Now I feel my love of Alsace likely stems from that moment I first opened a Weinbach Pinot Gris and realized that Pinot Gris does not have to suck.

Weinbach, which has surely created similar moments for others, was the basis for my image of Alsace: powerful, hugely expressive and highly concentrated wines. In many ways this is the current perception of Alsace in North America, and it was certainly the style I expected while visiting the region.

Strangely, Weinbach, which was the first winery I visited on my trip, was also the only winery that fit this archetype of the powerful Alsatian white. And, after my visits at Domaine Deiss and Domaine Burn, along with the many other wines I drank, I realized that this old epiphany had run its course. It was time to turn my mind to the other side of Alsace.

Perhaps it was for this reason that my visit was not quite what I expected it to be.

The Personality of Weinbach

Domaine Weinbach is owned by the Faller family, but was originally the purview of the Capocin monks. As such, the Domaine is situated within the walled Clos de Capocin vineyard, which was the original site of the monk’s labour. Unlike most of the best sites in Alsace, this vineyard is on flat land rather than the foothills of the Vosges. Driving up to the Domain is a quick turn off the main road with the walled clos hugging closely to the road until you turn into the Domaine itself.

At the door we were greated by Catherine Faller, the public face of the Domaine (you will find her photo all over the internet). Catherine is an excitable woman who is certainly passionate about her wines, her family and the winery, but who also exudes a form of hyperactivity that I can’t say I have encountered before in the wine world.

Our visit was punctuated by Ms. Faller jumping up suddenly and running to another room of tasters slamming the door behind her. Just as we settled into the flight, out burst Catherine, without warning, from the door on the other side of the room.

It made me wonder: are these frenetic wines? In some ways the fruit is so powerful that it loses elegance and finesse. On the other hand, its presence is immediately noticeable and holds an explosive energy that is rare in white wine. As such, these are great wines, even if they may not be in a style one would appreciate on a regular basis.

Concentration Made Vinous

The Domaine sits just outside the artisan focused town of Keysersberg, which was one of my personal favourites in Alsace with its hand made glass and pottery – not to mention an exceptional farmer’s market. But, outside the clos, its holdings are quite varied, ranging from the granite soils of the Furstentum and Schlossberg vineyards on the hills outside of Keysersberg to the marl and limestone of the Altenbourg vineyard just next to Furstentum (different from the Bergheim Grand Cru), which produces some of Alsace’s greatest Gewurztraminer.

Weinbach’s wines are all consistently good quality, though it is clear that certain sites stand out for particular varieties. These are all heady, intense, concentrated wines that yet retain food pairing potential given their good acidities. The range of wines can be dizzying and hold a silly nomenclature that should be refined, but you can read about that elsewhere. The wines are brilliant, but you have to know what you are getting into. If you can’t handle serious concentration, look elsewhere. Most of the wines range from 30-40 euros.

Riesling Schlossberg 2009: Planted in 1975 on granite soils. This is still tight right now, but it is classic Alsatian Riesling. Dry, clean, bright and expressive with excellent concentration. Very juicy and floral. Excellent.

Cuvee St. Catherine Riesling 2009: 2009 is a very high quality but warmish vintage. This is planted mid-slope (Schlossbourg I believe) and with vines 40-60 years old. Again, ripe orchard fruits. A rich wine but with balance. Excellent.

Pinot Gris Reserve Particulere 2009: Clean, rich, concentrated and balanced. Basically this is the hallmark of all of Weinbach’s 2009 wines. Very Good+.

Pinot Gris Altenbourg 2008: I love the 2008 vintage in Alsace. These are wines with higher acidity than normal and with great finesse. Anyone looking for brighter, more acid structure based wines from Alsace needs to pick up the 2008 vintage. Layered richness of grapefruit and honey on this wine but with great acid. Love it. Excellent.

Cuvee Laurence Gewurztraminer 2009: From the lower part of the Altenbourg Lieu Dit, this is amazingly floral, with honey and a nice balance despite the low acids. Excellent.

Gewurztraminer Altenbourg 2008: This is incredible Gewurztraminer. In fact, it is shocking that Goo can taste like this. It may be the best I’ve ever had. Excellent to Excellent+

Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives Furstentum 2006: Late harvest, equivalent to German Spatlese. Expressive nose, good depth, profoundly delicious. Excellent.

Riesling Schlossberg Selection de Grains Nobles 2007: Now we’re in Berenauslese territory. Citrus, particularly grapefruit, and thick rich dense nearly perfect dessert wine. Excellent+, but very expensive.

Gewurztraminer Furstentum Selection de Grain Nobles 2006: Good, but less exciting than the previous two ‘sweet’ wines. Excellent.

In the end I left Weinbach without a new epiphany. Although all the wines are fantastic, I am not sure they represent Alsace as it truly is. They are, really, all about Weinbach and its unique terroirs. They are certainly wines worth drinking and are exceptional in themselves, but, particularly given their prices, they may not be for everyone.

Posted in: Features, France 2011

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