Alsace can be perplexing, but if you get to grips with the region, it can be hugely rewarding as is the case with this outstanding 2016 Riesling, Grand Cru Hengst from Josmeyer.
Why is it perplexing? Well, Alsace is home to an extensive patchwork of different terroirs, exposures and soils that permit a broad array of different grape varieties to be grown, from Pinot Blanc to Pinot Auxerrois to Pinot Gris to Pinot Noir to Sylvaner, Muscat (in various guises), Gewürztraminer and, of course, Riesling. If that is not complicated enough, there are 51 different Grand Cru vineyards, not all of which, it might be argued, are deserving of that title. And then there is the biggest curveball of all for the unsuspecting drinker; wine styles can vary hugely, not just between estates, but between vintages within one estate and that variation is normally to do with sweetness – ranging from bone dry to off dry to reasonably sweet. Understanding vintage conditions and the approach employed by the specific estate is key. I personally would never offer a client an Alsace wine unless I had tasted it myself as often critics do not quite clarify the level of sweetness present.
All of that aside, there are a number of superb producers in Alsace with the capacity to produce breathtaking wines; Domaine Josmeyer, in Wintzenheim close to Colmar, is one such estate. Riesling is only just the dominant variety across their 28 hectares of vineyard with near equal proportions of Pinot Blanc. Gewürztraminer, Auxerrois and Pinot Gris make up the greater part of their holdings. The Josmeyers converted to biodynamic viticulture in the late 1990s, meaning no chemical fertilisers and pesticides are employed and demanding a more attentive approach in the vineyard as they seek to work in harmony with nature. I actually visited them in the early 2000s when I was carrying out research for my Masters of Wine dissertation on biodynamic viticulture – Alsace is home to many biodynamic estates, partly due to the fact that the smaller size of vineyard holdings lends itself to the biodynamic approach, and partly on account of Alsace’s climate posing fewer problems to those not reliant on chemicals (Alsace has one of the lowest annual rainfall levels in all of France protected as it is by the Vosges mountains).
Hengst is a large Grand Cru, amassing some 53 hectares in size. This sloping vineyard has a mixture of limestone and chalky marl over a base of thick sedimentary rock, which dates back to the Jurassic period. Such soils lead to rich and powerful styles of wine, which have been praised over the years for their ageing potential, hence the meaning of its name ‘stallion’ is used to convey the wildness of the wines in their youth. While this may be an interesting comment on the history of the name, I found the 2016 Riesling Hengst to be showing incredibly well at its current maturity when I tasted last week, even though I am convinced it could age for a decade or more.
I am really pleased to have had access to this parcel of Hengst – see my full note below as well as a brilliant note from Ian D’Agata – to my mind one of the go-to critics.