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Whenever I begin speaking about Alsace, I never fail to mention that the region sees over 300 days of sunshine a year. This helps to explain why Alsatians are so friendly and also why the area is so well-suited for making natural wines. Organic and Biodynamic farming is relatively easy in this unique valley, protected by the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Black Forest and Rhine River to the east. There are challenges with retaining water, since it can be so hot and dry, but there are great benefits to the climate in Alsace, which permit farmers to use far less sprays in the vineyard. With a long history of organic farming in Alsace, and with persistent acidity provided by all of the varied terroirs, conditions are great for making wines with little or no SO2 added.
Today we introduce two estates that are relatively new to the US market: Florian & Mathilde Beck-Hartweg, and Hubert & Heidi Hausherr. Both domaines have been practicing organic and biodynamic farming for many years, historically producing varietal (single variety) wines, as is extremely common in the region. Both have been inspired by the dynamic natural wine scene in France and beyond, and have changed their approach in the cellar in the last decade, not just in terms of sulfur use, but also stepping away from the tradition of varietal wines and focusing on terroir expression and parcel-specific blending. For example, instead of separately bottling a Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from a specific granitic parcel in Dambach-la-Ville, Florian and Mathilde Beck-Hartweg now make a single wine that is a blend of all the grapes from said parcel, and the resulting wine expresses the intense granitic structure and spice of that site. As the Hausherrs say on their website: "Alsace has been a region of varietal wines since the 1940s. However, our choice to make natural wines has brought us to an age-old [pre 1940s] tradition: the grape varieties from the same locality are harvested, pressed and then vinified together to go beyond the fruit and obtain real local wines." Although this may seem like a simple and inconsequential choice, it is practically unheard of in Alsace, and is for the most part NOT good for sales. When Amanda and I visited the Hausherrs in the summer of 2019, Hubert told us that when they stopped making 'mono-cépage' (varietal) wines in 2007, they immediately lost half of their customers! A similar fate befell the Beck-Hartwegs, though they do maintain some stock of varietal wines in the style of their parents for visitors and tourists who have never heard of a "vin naturel."
Florian and Mathilde Beck-Hartweg
These two are some of the nicest and gentlest winemakers we've met. Their little one, Lily, welcomes tourist babies to their little garden as they describe the nature of their granitic soils and their philosophy in the vineyard and cellar to more literate adults. Farming is organic, and they have stopped plowing in recent years, preferring instead to use the "rollofaquer," a farming tool that pushes over plants to create organic cover and protect the humidity and biodiversity in the soil. All wines age in large old barrels of 1000-1500L capacity. Their locality in Dambach-La-Ville is centered around a concentration of granite terroir that lends a fascinating and scintillating minerality and salinity to their wines. I could go on about their interesting experiments with allowing vines to climb trees in their vineyard, but I'd rather get to the wines, so don't hesitate to ask me if you're curious (phone calls or emails are welcome)!
Hubert and Heidi Hausherr
Hubert and Heidi Hausherr have just under 4 hectares (~10 acres) in Eguisheim, a village close to Colmar, with varied terroirs of mostly marl, sandstone, and limestone. They do not use any tractors in the vineyard, relying instead on their trusty horse Skippy for any hauling or plowing they do.
As previously mentioned, they stopped making varietal wines in 2007. After several years of experimenting with lower levels of SO2 use, they started to solely produce wines without any added sulfites in 2011, and received (Biodynamic) Demeter certification in 2012. Their wines are all blends, with the exception of the 2008 Riesling on offer today from their past life, and they are all balanced, aromatically complex, and uplifting. We're excited to have their wines on the shelf!
Aussitôt Bue is a blend of Pinot Auxerrois* and Sylvaner, with a small amount of Tokai Pinot Gris, from an east-facing parcel on sandstone terroir. Notes of white melon, lemon curd, and lychee, with a touch of fleshiness on the palate. A friendly wine, and a great aperitif sipper. -EL*I ask every Alsace producer what the difference is between Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois, and Hubert had some insight on the matter! As he explained, Auxerrois typically has lower acidity than its close cousin Pinot Blanc, but is known for lovely aromatics, while Pinot Blanc is greener and less beautiful aromatically.
This is a skin-contact offering from Hubert and Heidi Hausherr. A blend of Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, Auxerrois, and Riesling, with 21 days of maceration. Because the grapes were left intact (whole-cluster), the tannic structure here is very subtle. Hubert says the Riesling provides pretty acidity, and I believe the Pinot Gris lent color and spice. Of all the Hausherr wines, this is the only one I would recommend drinking in one sitting. It seems to lose it's freshness and lift after several hours, and some bacterial notes emerge. Their still whites, however, are well worth trying over several days! -EL
A blend of Riesling and Pinot Gris from marl and sandstone soils. This wine was a treat to taste over several hours and maintained it's freshness and energy into the second day. Notes of lemon verbena, and stone fruit. Pinot Gris gives some heft and power but it's very delicate and round. Riesling provides straight acidity and melon fruit. This is a great example of a natural wine that is first and foremost complex and terroir-driven. The detail of it's lack of filtration or sulfur addition is important and noteworthy of course, but it does not define the wine or predict how complete and well-made it is. -EL
Colline Céleste is a wine made from a coplantation of Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris from the Eischberg Grand Cru, which is a south and east exposed vineyard of marl and limestone. The "berg" in Eischberg is Alsatian for "hill" (colline in French) and Céleste is the name of their grandfather. Hubert explained that the fermentation stopped with 10 grams of sugar remaining, so they waited 5 or 6 months to see if the yeast might finish the job. It didn't change much so they bottled at 9 grams RS. The blend here is dominated by the Gewurztraminer in percentage and aromatics. Lovely floral and white pepper notes, with a long, spicy finish. Though it isn't 100%, if anyone out there likes a good dry Gewurztraminer, this is most definitely worth a try! -EL
This is a memorable Riesling from two parcels in the Grand Cru of Frankstein, which rests above the town of Dambach-la-Ville on a fault of granite. Frauenberg is a parcel that gives small berries that Florian and Mathilde find to have great concentration and intense acidity. This is blended with fruit from the Pflanzer parcel, which has less intensity and provides more delicate character to the blend. There is less intense dryness here than with the 2015 vintage, which translates to a bit more ripeness and body. Quite reductive and 'petroly' on the nose upon opening, but give it time, and something ethereal and quite enjoyable emerges. The first bottle I opened stateside was forgotten in my fridge for about a week, and I was greatly impressed with how lovely it was 7 days after opening! Definitely a young wine, but a very pure and age-worthy wine nonetheless. Guaranteed there's enough acidity and mineral sharpness from the granitic soils for this natural wine to age gracefully without fear of bacterial issues developing. -EL
Tout Naturellement is a fresh and hazy natural white from Florian and Mathilde Beck-Hartweg. A blend of Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Auxerrois, vinified without filtration or addition of SO2. The grapes for this cuvée come from their Laubenhutt vineyard and the lower part of the Plettig vineyard. Laubenhutt is below the Route des Vins and the important hillside vineyards, on a soil that is silty with a bit of granite, and Plettig is a lone hill to the east of the village of Dambach, with silt and clay that provides grapes with more fatness than the granitic sites that are above the town. This is crispy, and fresh, with a bit of salinity blended with ripe orchard fruit. A complex little wine, and though it's cloudy, it's clean and direct, thanks to ample acidity and careful winemaking! EL
This is a field blend that was made to show the character of the soil in Dambach. Florian and Mathilde selected three vineyards that produced what they call the most "salivant" wines (salivant roughly translates to mouth-watering). This quality is common with wines that come from granite terroir, hence the name of this cuvée. The area around Dambach-la-Ville is known for a high percentage of granitic soils, so this is very much a Dambach wine. A blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Riesling, it has a faint pink hue, and a fascinating saline/mineral quality. No SO2 added.
The Blettig vineyard is situated on a hill below the village, and is atypical for Beck-Hartweg in that there is no influence of granitic soils here. Instead there is a richer, loamy soil, lending to riper and less minerally-intense fruit. Classic exotic fruit aromas of figs, dates, and golden raisins, with about 15g RS, but it tastes like 5 or 6 grams due to the level of acidity. Though low in added SO2, I wouldn't consider this as part of their natural wine lineup. Instead, I see it as a textbook, slightly off-dry, Alsace Pinot Gris. -EL
This is a field blend that was made to show the character of the soil in Dambach. Florian and Mathilde selected three vineyards that produced what they call the most "salivant" wines (salivant roughly translates to mouth-watering). This quality is common with wines that come from Granite terroir, hence the name of this cuvée. The area around Dambach-la-Ville is known for a high percentage of Granite soils, so this is very much a Dambach wine. A blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Riesling, it has a faint pink hue, and a fascinating saline/mineral quality. No SO2 added.
Named after Florian and Mathilde's friendly, zany, grape-eating daughter, Cuvée Lily is a blend of the four varieties that the Beck-Hartwegs have planted on the Grand Cru Frankstein. This is a Frankstein wine through and through, so we are meant to focus less on the grape varieties, in fact, and instead take in the signature granitic salinity and spice of the Frankstein terroir. Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir (direct press) are blended here. The wine is elegant, with structure, and a very long finish. Since the parcels are situated high and low on the Frankstein slopes, there is a nice balance between the sharpness and salinity from the higher parcels, and the richer, and more delicate fruit from the lower part of the hill. All in all, it's a lovely wine, and one that should age beautifully over the next 3-10 years. -EL
Though the fruit for this bottling all comes from the Grand Cru Frankstein vineyard, Pinot Noir does not have Grand Cru status in Frankstein (only white varieties are awarded Grand Cru Frankstein status), hence the name "F," for Frankstein. This is elegant, and red fruited, like a classic Burgundian Pinot, but also shows some peppery, darker fruit more reminiscent of a regional Alsace expression. Grapes see about 2 weeks of maceration, with occasional delicate pouring of a few liters on the cap to avoid oxidation, otherwise, very little extraction. The wine, is however very present on the mid-palate, and though approachable now, should be really enjoyable in the next 1-3 years.
Though this Riesling was produced before the Hausherrs converted to Biodynamic farming and started making natural wines, it is proof that I actually do love varietal wines from Alsace and I don't mind a little added SO2! The wine was fermented in stainless steel, and bottled with 20 mg/l of SO2. Soils here are a mix of marl and sandstone with north-west exposition. It's a very classic Alsace Riesling, with notes of petrol and passion fruit. There's lovely ripeness here, balanced by zippy acidity, and subtle oxidative notes. -EL
This is a special bottling that the Hausherrs made from a difficult 2014 harvest. Mildew had created problems with their tiny plot of Pinot Noir, so they made a Blanc de Noirs from their miniscule 0.3 hectares. They then aged the wine for 4 years in a large barrel. The result is a deep golden, slightly oxidative and remarkably expressive wine, with notes of butterscotch and creme brûlée. -EL