Zind Humbrecht wines have always ranked high in the favourites list of JN staff, so a day with Olivier Humbrecht has been an eagerly anticipated event. The winery is based in the outskirts of Turckheim. It’s a modern building with lots of glass and class – it’s soon clear that we are in the presence of a scrupulous winemaker – all the fixtures and fittings are bright, shining and spotless and everything is tidy and well ordered.
Olivier and his Glaswegian wife Margaret are charming and attentive. Olivier gives us a brief introduction to the terroirs of Alsace with their myriad soil profiles. The Zind Humbrecht estate comprises 40 hectares in 5 villages in the Haut-Rhin region of Alsace, including vines in 4 Grand Crus. Riesling accounts for 40% of plantings with Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris next in prominence. Conversion to organic/biodynamic began in 1998 and the winery gained Ecocert certification in 2000 and Biodyvin in 2002. Olivier explains that biodynamic culture creates more life activity in the soil allowing it to develop a much better structure through a better humus/mineral mix. This increases erosion resistance, helps to retain the minerals in the soil and improve drainage. The higher metabolism of the soil guarantees better and more regular nutrition of the vines. Biodynamic practices also provide all the energy and influences the vines need to stay “in tune” with its environment, making it more resistant to the major parasites. Olivier believes that his wines must reflect Nature with minimal interference from man. It’s a deeply philosophical and ethical approach to winemaking whose practical expression – as we are soon to discover – is wines with startling complexity and a vivid procession of flavours that seem to exude life and energy.
After a tour of the winery, we arrive in the tasting room and it’s as if all our Christmases have arrived at once. Between 25 and 30 wines await our attention – mostly 2009s with some older vintages for comparative purposes. Olivier explains that 2009 was a bumper vintage, in contrast to 2010 which was severely reduced by adverse weather conditions, some growers losing 70% of their grapes. Consequently, in 2009 a proportion of his superfluous fruit from Grand Cru and single-vineyard sites have been diverted into so-called lesser wines (although to apply that term to any Z-H wine is sacrilegious). We make our way through wines bearing familiar, revered names – Clos Hauserer, Clos Windsbuhl, Brand, Rangen, Clos St Urbain, Winzenheim, Clos Jebsal,Rotenberg. Smiles bedeck the faces of the tasters as we realise we are in the presence of a masterful winemaker – the wines are, without exception, superb. After the tasting, Margaret Zind Humbrecht provides a toothsome lunch accompanied by a 1975 Pinot d’Alsace (still drinkable) and a heaven-sent 1983 Brand Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive.
After lunch, we head out to the vineyards beginning with Brand Grand Cru on the outskirts of Turckheim. We immediately see an example of biodynamics in action when we spot a stoical horse drawing a plough between the rows of Z-H Riesling vines. Olivier explains that ploughing in the traditional manner avoids soil compaction. Aesthetically, it is so much more appealing than the mechanical plough in use by a neighbouring grower – and the horse is much less temperamental.
After another brush with roadworks – potholes don’t survive long in Alsace – we arrive at Olivier’s favourite vineyard and Zind Humbrecht’s latest acquisition, Clos Windsbuhl, a 5.5-hectare vineyard with a cool microclimate, located at 250-300m above sea level with a south/south-easterly exposure. The soil is composed of ancient seashells with thin topsoil and a deep clayey subsoil. Vines are mainly Pinot Gris, followed by Gewurztraminer and Riesling, with a small parcel of Chardonnay which goes into Z-H’s Pinot d’Alsace. It’s easy to see why Olivier loves the vineyard – it is serenely peaceful and enjoys a sheltered position surrounded by trees, shrubs and other greenery. Sheep and goats graze nearby (they will later help clear any weeds between the vines). The Clos Windsbuhl is located at the top of the village of Hunawihr, on the scenic bicycle track that links the villages of Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé. Olivier explains that the higher altitude, poor rocky calcareous soil and proximity of the forest make it a very slow ripening area, despite the steep slope and its south to east facing orientation. Windsbuhl is always one of the last vineyards to be harvested, and in 2007, its Riesling was the last to be picked on the estate, in early October. Thoughts momentarily return to the Crossgar home of JN, if only because those of us who have been lucky enough to taste it connect the bucolic scene in front of us with the delightful Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos Windsbuhl 2007 on the shop shelves and promise ourselves a little treat on our return home.
Goodbyes uttered and thanks rendered, we prepare for return to Zurich airport and, later, maybe a drop of Clos Windsbuhl Riesling 2007.
View a complete list of wines from Domaine Zind Humbrecht available at JN Wine