May 15, 2013

Appel on wine: Pfister family helping to put Alsace's Bas-Rhin on the map


Alsace is France's most distinct wine region. Its wines -- imposingly full-bodied whites from Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, oily textured and extravagantly perfumed -- stand worlds apart from the precise, salt-and-chalk profile established by the Loire Valley, or the lush, sumptuous portrait of Burgundy.

Situated on the country's eastern border, Alsace has changed political hands several times over the centuries, from France to Germany and back again. It retains significant German influence culturally, culinarily and enologically.

Germany has historically been better known for expressions of these grapes that are off-dry, since its colder, northerly climes prevented full fermentation in the days before temperature-controlled tanks. Alsace was known for its dry expressions of the same grapes, although more recently there's been a good amount of convergence. German producers have made more fully dry wines, while Alsatians have become more open to leaving in a little sweetness.

All of this is the dominant Story of Alsatian Wine. Its narrator is the Haut-Rhin, which, despite its name, refers to the southern section of Alsatian wine country. (Because the Rhine River flows north, ending at the North Sea, the "high Rhine" is farther south than the "low Rhine".)

The Bas-Rhin, to the north, has not been producing wine for quite as long as its southern cousin (only since the 12th century, as opposed to roughly the 10th for Haut-Rhin), and it is not home to the most prestigious names such as Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Weinbach and Hugel & Fils. What it lacks in marquee value, though, it more than makes up for in vibrancy, elegance and precision.

"The style of wine is different further south," said Melanie Pfister, the eighth-generation representative of her family's grape-growing and winemaking history. "When tourists come to Alsace, they go to the Haut-Rhin because they want a riper, sweeter, richer style. We keep the drier, more focused style, more finesse."

Although her family's winery in Dahlenheim is only 60 kilometers north of the Haut-Rhin and temperatures are barely cooler, the overall effects of terrain, climate and soil are pronounced. The Vosges mountains offer less protection to the vineyards of the north, resulting in cooler breezes that maintain higher acidity levels in the grapes.

"This is often true of northern wine," she said. "Think of Cote de Nuits in Burgundy, with more finesse than Cote de Beaune; or even the mineral expression of syrah in Cote Rotie as opposed to Chateauneuf-du-Pape ... I am trying to promote our northern wine as a distinct style, our particularity."

Melanie's father, Andre, and mother, Marie-Anne, brought a new focus on quality and ecological sustainability to the family venture in the mid-1970s, but Melanie brings a uniquely worldly perspective. Before returning to Dahlenheim, she trained at some of the best wineries in the world: Zind-Humbrecht, but also Meo-Camuzet (Burgundy), Chateau Cheval Blanc (Saint Emilion in Bordeaux), Chateau d'Yquem (Sauternes) and Craggy Range (New Zealand).

"Through all of my training," she said, "I was seeking to find the attention in each region to tradition and particularity, but only so I could return to Bas-Rhin and do the right thing for this area."

Pfister credits her father with "anticipating the future." Ahead of his time, Andre stopped using herbicides and grew cover crops that interact with soil and roots to "bring a kind of fertilizer, humus, life and diversity to the soil. Now, almost everyone has grass between their rows, and more and more people are using cover crops."

Interestingly, Pfister sees environmental benefits to a relative view on organics. "If you are certified organic, then if you spray, it must be with copper (sulfate). Copper is a heavy metal, and will remain in the soil, kill worms and other fauna. This is against the primary feeling of my father, which is to promote life in the soil.

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