Pinot Noir From Alsace An Eye-opener

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Alsace is not one of the first places on the face of the Earth that one readily associates with great pinot noir red wines. Indeed, Alsace’s efforts with pinot are often the butt of jokes.

But this attitude is way out of date.

Jacky Barthelmé (pictured above) is the winemaker and part-owner of the Albert Mann domaine in Wettolsheim (tastings). He is about seven feet tall, built like Usain Bolt and used to be a basketballer of note. And he is a great winemaker. Being a pinot-nut, he has lots of friends in Burgundy whom he visits regularly. Being winemakers, they get together and share bottles, but they weren’t that interested in a pinot from Alsace.

On one visit he said he wanted to contribute a bottle under one condition: that all wines would be served blind. This duly proceeded, and Jacky’s wine was unanimously chosen not only as the best wine of the tasting, but identified as a Burgundy. It was one of his own Albert Mann pinots from Alsace. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall when it was unmasked.

Seriously, I sympathise with those Burgundy winemakers because I would probably have been just as misled. But having tasted Jacky’s four 2012 pinot noirs I am a believer. We began with his Clos de la Faille (tasting), which is from a plot next to the famous grand cru vineyard Hengst. 15 year-old vines, 40% whole bunches, 10% new oak, 35 hectolitres per hectare yield: a real eye-opener. Lovely.

Like all Jacky’s pinots, it is a refined style, with delicacy favoured over bigness. A cynic might retort that they can’t actually get much body in Alsace pinot noir. Wrong.

The second wine was called Grand H (tasting). It’s from the Hengst vineyard but is not permitted the appellation because it’s pinot noir, a non-approved variety for that vineyard. 50 year-old vines, 70% whole bunches, 20% new oak. Deeper, fuller bodied, richer and more powerful, but still with finesse and soft tannins. A very impressive pinot, whatever region or country of origin.

Then came Grand P (tasting) – from the grand cru Pfersigberg vineyard: 35 year-old vines, 60% whole bunches, and a bigger, darker wine that had the guts to spark comparisons with northern Rhone syrah – but still fine and soft and delicious, not overwrought.

And finally, Les Saintes Claires (tasting), from a hilltop vineyard of shallow calcareous soil, 90% whole bunches, painfully low yields, and all second-fill barrels. It’s an amazing wine, a pinot that could stand tall beside the best of Burgundy. Great structure, gorgeous fleshy texture and tremendous length.

Global warming? Dumb luck?

I don’t think so. Yes, Alsace is experiencing warmer seasons like everywhere, but it’s the attitude that is the winning ingredient. The Barthelmé brothers (Maurice and Jacky) at Albert Mann are dedicated to quality, with very low yields and a compelling commitment to their métier. Their domaine (biodynamic, incidentally) consists of 30% grand cru vineyards (the region as a whole is 2% grand cru) and Jacky claims not to have chaptalized a wine for 15 years.

Jacky believes in the hand of man to tend the vines. People who sit on tractors listening to music in air-conditioned cabs have no contact with the vines. Drive around the vineyards with Jacky and you’ll see grand cru vines right beside his which have double the foliage and double the crop, and you don’t need to taste the wine to know it will only be a fraction as good.

The same philosophy the Albert Mann domaine applies to its riesling (tastings), gewürztraminer (tasting) and pinot gris (tasting) is also applied to its pinot noir, and you need to taste the result. 

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