Monday 29 December 2014

Revving up the Parker Engine

In the world of wine, there is no one more famous, or more controversial, than Robert Parker Jr. The 67-yr old wine critic from Baltimore, Maryland, is regularly in the top 10 of the Decanter Power List, a biennial ranking of the wine industry’s most influential people. His first event in Singapore, a walk-about tasting and book-signing organised by Hermitage Wines, took place in 2010 at the apogee of his career. When he walked into the packed tasting room at The Fullerton Hotel, the crowd temporarily forgot about the wines for a chance to have a few words with the Million-Dollar Nose. It was like witnessing the arrival of a Hollywood celebrity, or a K-Pop star, minus the screaming.

Thursday 11 December 2014

Talking Biodynamics with Olivier Humbrecht

If a viticultural map of Alsace were to be drawn, a large X would be placed over Domaine Zind-Humbrecht with the words, “Here be Giants”. Well, one giant - Olivier Humbrecht, who in real life looms as large as his reputation. Being the first Frenchman to attain the coveted MW initials and renowned as a savant of biodynamics, Olivier is already assured a place in the history books. Yet there is no brash swagger as he speaks – his words, while full of conviction are carefully chosen and his brow constantly furrowed as though grappling with the deeper mysteries of wine. The quality of his wines is such that Olivier is highly sought after for his opinions on winemaking, Alsatian wine and biodynamics.

Like a tug-of-war, the region of Alsace has at various times formed the eastern border of France or the western border of Germany. This duality has left its mark on the wine industry, seen in the mishmash of French and German grape varieties which include Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Noir, Muscat, Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. Alsace’s inland location gives it a subcontinental climate with harsh, cold winters and hot summers. Sheltered by the Vosges mountain range, Alsace also has very low rainfall making it the driest region in France. At 16,000 ha, Alsace is slightly over half the size of Champagne, and a fraction of Bordeaux, but geologically it is complicated region. Olivier states that broadly speaking there are three types of soil here. On the Vosges itself the soil is acidic, well-drained and poor in nutrients, ideal conditions for making quality wine. The second type of soil is on the foothills of the mountain which has a calcareous base, and the third type of soil can be found on the valley floor, comprising alluvial sediments and pebbles. “When you combine these different soils and aspect which can be north or south facing, you then understand why there are so many different grape varieties,” says Olivier. 

Olivier has been following biodynamic principles since 1997 at Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, a viticultural approach that harnesses cosmic energy and utilises herbal preparations. It is a topic he is clearly passionate about, going far more into detail than any winemaker I’ve met. Olivier reminisced how in the early days of conversion to biodynamics he had difficulty finding the right compost because even the organic material he purchased from nearby suppliers were full of antibiotics and did not provide a supportive environment for microbial life in the soil. “When you remove life from the soil, the compost goes through anaerobic fermentation, transforming the earth around the wood and making it hard, like desertification,” explains Olivier. Now with his own biodynamically prepared compost, Olivier says that he can see life coming back into the vineyards. Meanwhile preparations made out of herbs and other plants help anchor the vine to the ground and connect it to the cosmos. “Plants have memories of cosmic influences,” says Olivier. “By bringing these memories to the vine we help the vine to function better. For example if I want the vine to flower better I use a plant with a strong Venus influence. I take the plant and make it into an herbal tea and spray it onto the vine. This takes the energy of the plant and puts it in contact with the vine through the element of water – it is like trying to teach the vine the lesson of the plant.”

Olivier throws out many of the axioms of winemaking. Fermentation for white wines at most wineries take two to four weeks, at Zind-Humbrecht it can last for up to a year. Does he ever have problems with stuck fermentations, where the yeast dies off before it can complete the process? “I never stop the fermentation because if I do everything right then the fermentation naturally stops when the wine has reached proper balance,” explains Olivier. “Wine being alive understands where to go better than I do. If you kill the wine with additives then it doesn’t know what to do.” The must is handled with the utmost care, from a gentle pressing to gravity flow systems for the tanks. Eschewing the use of stainless steel, Olivier prefers to use old oak foudres for the majority of his wines. “Only Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois can take new oak – Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Muscat cannot. Like jam and caviar, they don’t go well.” Olivier also finds that the clarification process is easier with oak, and that the fermentations start faster due to the microorganisms present in the wood.

Never one to let convention dictate his methods, Olivier also extends his pragmatism to the way his wines are marketed. For example, when Olivier realised that consumers had difficulty telling whether his wines were dry or sweet, he introduced a sweetness index on the label ranging from 1 (driest) to 5 (sweetest).  “My wife found a Riesling in the cellar and didn’t know whether it was dry, medium or sweet. I thought that if my wife doesn’t know what this wine tastes like then my customers won’t either,” said Olivier. 

Tasting notes:

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Terroir d’Alsace 2011 – From young vines planted mostly on granitic soils. Sweetness index 1. Slightly spritzy with notes of lime, white grape and honey. Medium bodied and very fresh. Sharp and precise flavours with penetrating intensity. Long lime-filled finish. Superb.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Brand Grand Cru Riesling 2011 – Legends tell of a dragon hiding under the vineyard that spits fire resulting in a warm microclimate (the word brand means fiery). The vines here are very old – Olivier explains that the soil is composed of pink granite with decomposed black mica which requires very deep roots to extract minerals. A high-acid, full bodied style with cracked white pepper and lime notes. Extraordinary length with a hint of tropical fruit on the finish. Long lived potential, barely out of its infant stages.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Calcaire 2012 – Off-dry (sweetness index 2), with intense pear, red apple, guava and nutty flavours. Gorgeously balanced with fresh acidity and ripe fruit extract.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Rangen de Thann Clos St. Urbain Grand Cru 2012 – If you’ve ever wondered what heights Pinot Gris can reach given the right combination of outstanding terroir and careful winemaking, this is it. Steep slopes, volcanic soils and old vines have imbued this wine with a concentrated palate of sweet pear, honey and bitter lemon, extending to a finish that seems to go on forever. Sweetness index 4.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl Gewurtztraminer 2011 – Sweetness index 5. Gewurtztraminer can be a difficult grape because its acidity drops alarmingly even as sugars rapidly accumulate. In this wine the variety has been precisely handled to yield perfectly ripe fruit with refreshing acidity. Notes of exotic spice, lychee syrup an
d Asian pear dominate the palate, with a long, fruit-filled finish.

Domaine Zind-Humbrect is distributed in Singapore by Wein & Vin.