Tim had warned us that our first full day in Alsace would involve tasting a lot of wines, and that anyone not usually accustomed to tipping some away or even spitting might like to do so. This was good advice.
I took advantage of the still lovely weather to walk to our first destination, the village of Kientzheim, about 5 miles from Colmar. Enjoying views of the Vosges with my destination and its neighbours Sigolsheim and Kayserberg (where we were on day 1), it was lovely to be walking, at first between fields of maize and as I got closer to the hills among vines. Towards the end I caught a glimpse of the Mambourg Grand Cru.
Our first visit was to Paul Blanck, a very well regarded winery. Our host was Philippe Blanck, who with his cousin Frédérick now run the business their grandfather founded. We had met the Blancks on our tours in 2009, and Tim was expecting a good visit. We got a great one!
Philippe took us straight to the outskirts of the village, where we looked across to the vineyards.
He explained how the soil varies between the vineyards, a result of the volcanic and tectonic activity millions of years ago, when the Rhine rift valley was formed. The Schlossberg GC is granite, its metamorphic rock drains well, the Furstentum GC at the top of the hill has coastal limestone, with pockets of stones and clay, the Altenburg Lieu Dit is limestone formed from ocean floor sediments, while Mambourg GC is clay. I could go on. The point was that these different soil types and the aspects of the slopes favour different grape varieties and express themselves differently in different years according to the weather.
Back in the winery we were treated to a humbling experience – Philippe talking with passion about sensorial tasting and the importance of allowing one’s right brain to lead on what one is experiencing. He practices qigong, a Chinese equivalent to yoga, and encouraged us to breathe from our abdomens, and to properly experience the wine.
The feel of the wine in the mouth is particularly important and I think all of us got some inkling or whether we felt wines were linear or round, horizontal or vertical, centrifugal or centripetal as we tasted a Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois blend, an Auxerrois of much lower yield, four Rieslings from different sites and years, two Pinot Noirs (one from the Furstentum Grand Cru which cannot be classified as such because of ‘the rules’), finishing with a Schlossberg Pinot Gris and a Furstenberg Gewürztraminer.
Philippe encouraged us to say whether a wine was a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, according to our individual experience – sacrilege to anyone studying WSET, but very refreshing as it encouraged a more personal, emotional response.
We could have stayed for hours, but our time was up too quickly.
We walked down the road to the Côte Vigne, a typical Alsacien restaurant, where we savoured a bottle 2004 Vielles Vignes Gewürztraminer from the Furstentum Grand Cru, which Philippe had given us. Then tucked in to a three course menu, accompanied by some Pinot Blanc that was not quite Blanck standard, but was very pleasant. The village of Kientzheim is of course very pretty, and we enjoyed a stroll before returning to the bus.
It was about a half hour drive to Rorschwihr, and the Rolly Gassman winery. In 1967 Marie-Therèse Rolly married Louis Gassmann, bringing together vineyards from Rorschwihr (which her family had owned since 1676) and neighbouring Rodern (which the Gassmans had owned since 1611). Tim had explained to us that when the Grand Cru system was created in 1975, the town of Rorschwihr declined the opportunity to declare one of its vineyards, as it felt that there were 12 separate terroirs of equal merit, and we were lucky enough to taste wines from most of them!
Rolly Gassman focus on making gastronomic wines, which they only release when they are ready to drink. So the amazing modern building we were in houses 2 million bottles of wine, whereas they make only around 300,000 a year.I won’t attempt to detail the 18 wines we tasted in the splendid tasting area, with its displays of rocks from different terroirs, but it was an amazing afternoon.
Highlights for me were a complex, rich 2011 Sylvaner from the Weingarten de Rorschwihr terroir, a 2015 SGN Riesling from Silberberg de Rorschwihr, a 1996 Pinot Gris from Rotliebel de Rorschwihr and a 1994 SGN Gewürztraminer from Oberer Weingarten de Rorschwihr.
It was such a privilege to taste these wines, and experience the quality, and I think we were overcome by how lucky we were.
A short coach journey back to Colmar with a busload of starstruck wine lovers. But Tim did point out that even at 28, this day did not hold the record for the most wines tried in a day – but the still standing record (from 2009, when we tasted even more wines at Paul Blanck) is from Alsace and this day surely established the special focus on terroir in everyone’s mind.