Kuentz Bas: War. Riesling. Alsace.
North America has had a tough summer. Two brutal hurricanes…a devastating earthquake in Mexico City...the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. As I write this blog at 30,000 ft, we are currently descending into San Francisco from Paris in a cloud of smoke. Passengers are taking photos out the plane window of the deadliest wildfires in California history, ravaging Napa and Sonoma. Over 200,000 acres have burned. Lives have been lost.
We will rise to the occasion as we do. And we will lick our wounds and rebuild. But for now, we suffer and mourn and hope...
Alsace from Eichberg | storks on a church roof
I’m made to think of Alsace – a place that conjures the same emotions I feel now. For while this French valley remains virtually unscathed by natural disaster, it is hard to imagine a wine region that has endured more man-made hardship. What must it have taken for the Kuentz family to survive 5 occupations in the last 150 years, and weather the brunt of the most brutal wars in modern memory?
These truths, this haunting place seem to overshadow the purpose of today. But with an undeniable cloud of tragedy still looming beneath the fabric of local culture, there is an equal share of magic and singular charm.
ALSACE, PART 1: MARCH 2014
I found myself at Tavern d’Alsace - a brilliant traditional lunch spot - dining with an importer and a couple representatives of a producer named Josmeyer. I managed to jump into a side conversation with the winery’s G.M., Christophe Ehrhart, after he had quite passionately explained the region’s history. He said he was a military man like his father before him, and that his grandfathers on both sides were sent off to die by the Germans. I asked him “Do you identify more with French or German culture?” He replied “I consider myself Alsacienne. And I teach my children that.”
The identity of Alsace is rooted in fractured identity. Clash is a word that comes to mind. Yet a clash that often transcends incompatibility and finds just enough cracks to meld together.
In Alsace, they speak French and German but they also speak their own Alsatian dialect. The famed local dish we had at lunch – ‘choucroute garnie’: French name, german construction: ham, sausage, and other pork products reduced in a stock pot with sauerkraut, cloves, potatoes, spices and, of course, Riesling. Garnish it all with mustard, and ‘choucroute’ becomes pure winter comfort food and a worthy adversary to a traditional Thanksgiving.
The towns have rows of colorful homes with painted shutters and thatched rooves. Germanic architechure and signage abound on cobblestone streets beautified by flowers. In the vineyards, you have German grapes: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner – side by side with French grapes: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir. Below the ground, vine roots meet a convergence of volcanic and sedimentary strata in Alsace, producing the most diverse soil profile in all of France. What brings a jolt of reality to Shangri-La, are its borders, reminding us what helped forge this unique world...
A view from our perch
PRELUDE TO THE SEQUEL
What struck me about Alsace when I first drove the foothills of the valley, passing quaint little town after quaint little town, is how densely planted everything is. There are not a lot of open pastures in the fruiting zone. Much like the sweet spots of Champagne the land is spoken for: forest, village, vineyard. Except here everything is huddled together – more impacted – which means war would be all too intimate.
Alsace resides in the Northeast corner of France. From atop a vineyard you can see Germany’s Black Forest to the east with the Alps in the distance. To the north, more Germany, as the spine of the Vosges Mountain range becomes the Haardt Mountains in the Pfalz region. What we’re left with, is a narrow corridor of land ideal for two things: viticulture and invasion.
Lunch > vineyard
ALSACE, PART 2: DECEMBER 2016
My second trip to Alsace started in Strasbourg. With wreaths and xmas lights lining every nook and cranny, there could not be a more festive city during the holiday season than here. My warm and thoughtful guide, proprietor Melanie Pfister, gave me the dime tour, which included an unmissable Strassbourg Cathedral, before joining up with winemaker Andre Ostertag for dinner.
Many a cork were popped that night. We discussed each domaine, but as the walls dropped, the conversation turned to war and its lasting effect on the people. Andre, a philosophical man and one of the great outliers in our industry, said “We are very proud, but there is a hesitation…a sense of not always being comfortable in our own skin.” Melanie concurred, as they both elaborated on a sentiment that was felt on my first visit but not spoken. It was a beautifully painful moment in our evening, and as an outsider who has never been near a war, I was taken aback by how deeply my time with them affected me.
There was no such term as PTSD in the post-World War II era. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder wouldn’t be officially recognized by the psychiatric world until the 80’s. As I look over the historical timeline of Alsace occupation, being haunted by one’s past is a matter of DNA – any sense of permanence here is unimaginable:
450–58 BC Celts/Gauls
58 / 44 BC– AD 260 Roman Empire
260–274 Gallic Empire
274–286 Roman Empire
286–378 Roman Empire (divided west and east)
378–395 Visigoth rebellion
395–436 Western Roman Empire
436–486 Germanic invasions
486–511 Franks conquer Lower Alsace
531–614 Franks conquer Upper Alsace
614–795 Totality of Alsace to the Frankish Kingdom
795–814 Charlemagne's reign
814 Carolingian Empire
847–870 Treaty of Verdun divides Alsace
870–889 Treaty of Mersen gives Alsace to East Francia
889–962 Vikings raid Alsace
962–1618 Holy Roman Empire
1618–1674 Louis XIII annexes part of Alsace during the Thirty Years' War
1674–1871 Louis XIV annexes all of Alsace during the Franco-Dutch War,
1871–1918 Franco-Prussian War leads to Germanic rule
1919–1940 Treaty of Versailles leads to French rule
1940–1944 Nazi Germany conquers Alsace
1945–present: French control
WAR MEMORIAL IN Sigolsheim
ON A LIGHTER, CRISPER NOTE…
The next day I was off to devour the landscape of Riesling. The action would lead out at Zind-Humbrecht. Those brave enough to go WAY down the ‘terroir’ rabbit hole need only spend an hour with Olivier.
The day was chalk full of great Riesling. The soft-spoken master, Felix Meyer of Meyer Fonné, backed up a vertical of Clos Ste. Hune at Trimbach, all the way to 1976 (birth year wine). My last stop would be Kuentz Bas, where I was greeted by winemaker Samuel Totti. Not only did he roll out some homemade choucrote garnie but he opened a set of 2014 Rieslings that I had never seen before. It was called the ‘trois chateaux’ line, a biodynamically-farmed stable of estate vineyards, all Grand Cru: Geisberg, Eichberg, and Pfersigberg.
The names Geisberg, Eichberg, and Pfersigberg don’t exactly roll of the tongue but in liquid form they did exactly that. This was dry, chiseled Riesling – wholly Alsatian but exhibiting a tense texture that echoed my favorite Austrian producers. For the finale, Samuel blind tasted me on an ’83 Grand Cru Riesling (predominantly Eichberg). It was stunningly fresh. I asked Samuel if any Trois Chateaux came to the U.S. To my surprise, he said “No.”
Cue text exchange with importer Kermit Lynch...
DROPPING THE LABEL...
PRELUDE TO THE TRILOGY: JULY 2017
There’s this thing that happens with wine. It’s somewhere in the realm of power of suggestion or the rosé that tastes better than it should because you’re on a beach in Nice. Anyone who has imported wine knows this feeling all too well. Is the wine really as good as I remember it to be? It had been nearly eight months since I had been floored at Kuentz Bas. Over dinner at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Anthony Lynch and I would retaste the lineup and breathe a sigh of relief. The wines were fantastic and every bit as delicious as my memory…which made me happy…which made me want to drink more things…which made me do just that...
ALSACE, PART 3: SEPTEMBER 2017
After tasting the Kuentz Bas trio, I just had to walk these vineyards myself – something that escaped me on my last visit. We pulled up to the winery late morning. Our kind host and Jura transplant, Lucile Jeandel suffered admirably through her fate, touring us about the grand cru sites: Eichberg, Geisberg, and Pfersigberg. It was a simple, lovely day filled with nature and pork products, but again the tone would shift.
We passed by a war memorial directly atop a hill surrounded by vines. There were Christian, Muslim, and Jewish tombs cohabitating – where American, French, and African soldiers fought and died shoulder to shoulder. And again, that lingering sadness was palpable and sobering.
There’s not much that can temper deep seeded manifestations of racism and religious persecution. Wars have been fought over it and continue to rage. And yet in war, self-preservation is perhaps enough of a reason to find any willing brother in arms. The engine of survival does not care about the color of your skin or who you pray to. What must be said is soldiers of many backgrounds stood together and fell together on that hill, against a regime fueled by hatred and intolerance. And they deserve to be remembered.
TGV in Strasbourg to God knows where...
THE FUTURE OF ALSACE
While wine has been made here and made well since antiquity, Alsace is a relatively new commercial region by French standards. It was the last major AOC (controlled appellation of origin), formed in 1962. The Grand Cru vineyards weren’t laid out until the mid 80’s. Currently efforts are underway to explore premier cru vineyard sites.
As I watch Alsace take shape, I am encouraged and inspired by the resilience of their people. I am convinced that their finest hours are yet to come. And as I look at what other cultures are enduring, including my people in Syria, I am hopeful that at least this lovely valley will be granted enough peace to, if not purge the past, live unburdened in its remembrance. No one is more due.
A special thanks to Lauren Hamilton for taking all these lovely photos...
- Brian McClintic
Tasting Notes: Pfersigberg is purity personified: lean, chiseled, crisp and mineral. While the nose is pure Alsace, the palate texture reminds me more of Austrian examples
Seasonal Pairing: As the weather starts to cool, why not get your Alsace on and cook some choucroute garnie. Otherwise enjoy some Thai or Ramen with either Riesling.
When to Drink: Best from 2018 - 2035+
Geeky Things: Pfersigberg comes from 60 year-old vines that were replanted after the 2014 vintage. Less than 3 grams residual sugar, which by Riesling standards is ultra bone dry
Area Eats: Restaurant La Gare (killer wine list)
Vintage Report: 2014 was a high acid, low botrytis vintage, perfect for the terroirists who value Riesling in its most transparent form.
Bigger Than Wine: As you know Sonoma and Napa are in the rebuilding process from the fires that have devastated Northern California. As is customary each month, Viticole donates $5 per case on everything we sell. This month's featured charity is the North Bay Fire Relief Fund. You can check them out online.