"Alsace is not complicated, it's just complex"
"Alsace France is so...................fascinating"
"Alsace is the corridor of cultures, an area where cultures meet."
“I love these places in the world for food and wine where cultures clash…. it’s where a lot of the best wine and food is made.”
DATE OF DOMAIN REVIEW – August 2017
Update required but Laurent’s approach, attitude and finesse are still pretty much aligned with this article.
Laurent Barth’s winery is in the small town of Bennwihr, which lies 7 km north of Colmar. The surrounding Grand Cru vineyards are part of a cluster of ten. The only real cluster in Alsace, as the 51 Grand Cru vineyards mostly cling to the foothills of the Vosges Mountains like a long string of pearls.
Laurent’s vineyards are made up of 27 scattered plots and add up to 4.5 hectares. They include parcelles of Riesling and Muscat on the Schlossberg Grand Cru and parcelles of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir on the Marckrain Grand Cru.
The Schlossberg, Alsace’s first Grand Cru vineyard designated back in 1975, sits between the nearby town of Kaysersberg and the village of Kientzheim. The Marckrain, which is adjacent to Bennwihr, hugs the hillside as you drive south out of the town.
Before Laurent Barth’s started making his own wine, the family vineyards produced grapes for the local wine cooperative. Quite a common set up in Alsace for small-scale producers, where the first cooperative was established in nearby Ribeauvillé way back in 1895.
Laurent took charge of the family vineyards in 1999 when he returned home after studying winemaking and viticulture in Beaune and then working through a series of international internships. These were at wineries in the Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, India, South Africa, and Australia and at Porter Creek, up in California’s Russian River district in Sonoma County. No surprise then, with such an eclectic experience, that the labels on his bottles read “L’esprit du vin” (the spirit of the wine) in French, Persian, Hindu, Georgian and Arabic.
The Russian River experience gave Laurent a further taste for terroir driven Pinot Noir. Also at that time, Alex Davis the winemaker at Porter Creek had just returned from working in Burgundy and was busy converting his vineyards to organic methods. So, a rich internship experience in California.
During the five years following his return to Bennwihr, Laurent followed through on the commitment to see out the family contract in selling grapes to the local co-operative. During this period several Alsace producers were converting to organic or biodynamic farming and Laurent was influenced by the experiences of nearby winemakers Marc Tempé in Zellenberg and Felix Meyer, from Meyer-Fonné in Katzenthal. Laurent was convinced that this was the direction to move in and he progressively converted his plots over to organic viticulture.
All good timing, as this approach provided a solid foundation of vineyard management and grape quality, which was in place when he started to make his own wine in 2004.
The Vineyards and the Wines
Annual production is currently around 25,000 bottles, which is made up of 10 to 14 different cuveés depending on the year. 70% of the production is exported, mostly to Japan, the USA, BeNeLux, the U.K. and the Scandinavian countries.
In a recent conversation with David Lillie, a founding partner at New York’s iconic Chambers Street Wines and the “neo bistro” Racines: David described Laurent Barth as follows, “His farming is great, founded on organics and biodynamics. His vinifications are super careful, making wines that are very delicate.” Here’s another angle, from Sonia Lopez-Calleja writing last year in LeRouge&LeBlanc, the independent, French quarterly wine review: “When he speaks of his wines, he seems never to be fully satisfied, always on the search of some improvement.” This combination of attention to detail and an attitude for continual improvement helps define the house wine style. That style is carefully made meticulous wines, that vary and change based on learning experience. An evolving style that we picked up on and enjoyed during several visits.
The approach in the vineyard is organic with the introduction of more biodynamic practices. Laurent’s father planted the oldest vines in the 1960’s and 70’s and they provide an important legacy for the domain. Planting density in these older parcelles is between 5,500 and 6,500 vines per hectare. Parcelles planted since 2000 are at higher densities, ranging from 8,500 to 10,500 vines per hectare. Yields are managed on the low side to provide fruit concentration and encourage association with the different soil types. In Alsace, grass and local flora between the rows is fairly standard and here it’s left between every second row and managed by ploughing and disking. On some steep parcelles the work is completely done manually.
The approach in the cellar is careful and patient. Fermentation is from indigenous yeasts and is allowed to run to take the white wines through to a dry finish. The degree of filtration, or filtration at all, depends on individual cuveés and the use of sulphur is parsimonious.
The “entry” range of wines comes under the category of precise, delicate and nicely balanced between weight, acidity and aromatic fruit. That range includes Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Riesling Village and Pinot d’Alsace and would serve as a great panel of wines as part of an Alsace educational foundation. Following on there are six specialist cuveés – yes, this is Alsace and there are just six.
Method Ancestral/Pétilant Naturel/PetNat/Cremant – bottling the still fermenting wine makes the bubbles, and getting the timing right is an art. Laurent Barth started working with the Ancestral Method in 2011. The wine is usually based on 80/20 Auxerrois/PinotNoir and the fermentation can start in an aged barrel or in stainless steel. That primary fermentation vessel is decided by what’s available in a tight, busy cellar. This is micro cuvee production from 300 to 1200 bottles. A privilege and a pleasure to taste, if you can track down a bottle. We had the chance to taste the 2012, 13, 14 and 15. All a bit different, but that’s what is expected with the different vintage and fermentation times, vessels and conditions. Another variable is whether the wine is disgorged or not. All delicious and drinkable, vibrant with good fruit, a touch of red fruit from the Pinot Noir and always a good level of complexity.
Racines Metisses – a loose translation would be “mixed origins”. And this wine has mixed origins all right, with 60/15/15/5/5 approximate proportions from Auxerrois/Muscat/Riesling/Pinot Gris/Gewurztraminer. And on top of that, the variety percentage of the “mixed origins” can change from year to year. Enough is made that you can find it from Tokyo to New York. The wine has consistently great balance of acidity, with citrus and white fruit and a hint of smokiness with a delicate amer finish. We very fittingly had a bottle on a recent visit to Racines restaurant in New York.
Riesling Granite – from the terraced slopes of the Grand Cru Schlossberg, although the Grand Cru title is not used on the label. The soil type is granitic, with sandy clay topsoil that tends to drain super fast and Riesling stands up well to this sort of hydric stress. The high mineral content produces Riesling’s which are tight and structured, with a high purity. Laurent Barth’s delicate and precise vinifications encourage a certain finesse that helps open this Riesling while maintaining a long dry, saline finish.
Pinot Gris from the Marckrain Grand Cru – the Marckrain is composed of marl-limestone soil and faces east, southeast. The topography and strip of woods on the hill summit makes evening shadows come down fast, to give cool refreshing nights. The grapes are picked from several parcelles before any botrytis can appear. Fermentations in the barrel are long and run through to dry, with usually around 1-3 g of residual sugar remaining. Bottling can take place between 16-22 months after harvest. Over several visits we had the opportunity to taste the 2013 and 2015 before and after bottling. Complex, delicate aromatics on the bouquet, with ripe white fruits and cooked peach on the palate. Super long and dry finish. We will be going back to this in 5, 10 and 15 years with high expectations.
Gewurztraminer from the Marckrain Grand Cru – this semi dry Gewürztraminer is nicely kept in balance with subtle, exotic fruits and a spicy, peppery fullness. The wine retains a good level of acidity and hint of minerality, which provides a long delicate finish. Gewurztraminer is a speciality on the Marckrain and we will cover that in detail at a later date.
Pinot Noir from the Marckrain Grand Cru – Here is Laurent Barth on Pinot Noir: “ The variety has great potential, based on better care of the vines and managing to low yields. There is a tendency to over ripeness and fast selection of super healthy grapes is required at harvest. It gives me a lot of pleasure to work with Pinot Noir.” Laurent has two parcelles high up on the Marckrain with planting density at around 7,000 vines per hectare, with 30-40 year old vines. A third parcelle was planted in 2016 at 12,000 vines per hectare. That is the definition of high density. As the Grand Cru cannot be declared for PN, these wines go by the name “M” or “SO5 P164”, the cadastral number of one of the parcelles. Yields vary between 28-35 hectolitres per hectare. In 2016 a parcelle of 40-year-old vines was also on-boarded up in Mittelwihr, on the north side of Bennwihr. This addition adds to a nice mosaic of Pinot Noir locations close to Bennwihr.
The Marckrain fruit is usually 50/50 whole/destemmed bunches, which go into stainless steel tanks where spontaneous fermentation happens. Punch down (pigeage) is twice daily with maceration for two to three weeks. The juice is then transferred into used oak barrels and stays there for 12-15 months, before spending a final 2-3 months back in stainless steel. The wine is not filtered and bottled manually.
We tasted the 2012, 14 and 15. Nice dark ruby colours. The wines had that delicate, crisp, fragile aspect that comes from the red fruit offsetting the tannins. There is also a light pepperiness and good salinity that will go on to develop in the bottle. All delicious and also a work in progress as Laurent seeks to perfect a style that will age well in the cellar.