The yellow star is where I live and (mostly) work. This domaine has vineyard parcels as far north as Hunawihr and as far south as Thann, all in the Haut-Rhin.

I started sending postcards to my wee nephew the summer I walked the camino, ostensibly in an effort to augment his 5 year old view on culture and geography, but in reality because I was going to miss our bi-weekly skype sessions, and was terrified he would forget who I was. The postcards have now expanded to include my nearly-4-year-old niece, while I wrack my brain to write a) neatly and b) topically, or at least simply enough that they have an idea of what’s going on, on this side of the ocean. I am under strict instructions to send postcards with maps, by all parties involved, as it seems to be a fun pastime to try and identify where-in-the-world-is-Aunt Cat. With that in mind, I’m going to do the same thing for you, as I haven’t really written about the region of Alsace since the introduction to my stage search, and my February visit.

Frankly, it’s a little intimidating to write about this wine region as there are so many different terroirs (13, officially), a big range of grape varietals (4 white grapes – and a 5th exceptionally – and 1 red are considered Grand Cru worthy, although other white grapes are permitted), 51 Grand Crus (!), and many lieux-dit (‘named’ places that are recognized but not considered as high quality as Grand Cru).

I’m currently located in the Haut-Rhin, the high-Rhine, or the south of Alsace. The higher slopes of the Vosges confer better sun exposure and water drainage for the grapes, thus the best wines tend to come from the Haut-Rhin rather than the Bas-Rhin, or northern Rhine. The domaine where I work has vineyard parcels in 5 of the Grand Crus, and 6 of the 7 ‘official’ Alsace grape varieties; in white: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Muscat (no Sylvaner), and in red: Pinot Noir, in very small quantities.

It's clear that harvest is around the corner: vines need to be trimmed, berries are ripening - blackberries offer nice snacks among the vines, while the netting goes up to try and prevent birds from eating the slowly ripening grapes. The team takes a break while checking out the view at Thann and the last of the deleafing goes on under the watchful eye of this 'mum.

It’s clear that harvest is around the corner: vines need to be trimmed; fruit is ripening – blackberries offer nice snacks among the vines, while the netting goes up to try and prevent birds from eating the slowly ripening grapes. The team takes a break while checking out the view at Thann and the last of the deleafing goes on behind this surprisingly patriotic ‘mum.

Three significant events are taking place for me right now: I’ve reached the halfway point of my stage here in Alsace (I know! It’s moving so quickly!); in the vineyard the grapes are experiencing veraison, or the beginning of the ripening stage, and our stage-work moves into the cellar. It’s a good time for me to reflect for a few moments on how this summer is going, and what I’m even doing here.

Gewurztraminer, gewurztraminer, pinot noir. No, it's not the alsacian version of Duck Duck Goose, but grapes at different stages of veraison, or the ripening stage when the skins turn translucent and redden (even in the white grapes!)

Gewurztraminer, gewurztraminer, pinot noir. No, it’s not the Alsatian version of Duck Duck Goose, rather grapes at different stages of veraison, or the ripening stage when the skins turn translucent and redden (even on some of the white grapes!)

Muscat from Grand Cru Goldert 1967 and 1985. These wines can still age for much longer - the typical Muscat aroma of mint helps to identify which grape we're drinking, but there are many more - grapefruit and flowers, to name a few.

One of these wines is older than I am. Muscat from Grand Cru Goldert 1967 and 1985. These wines can still age for much longer.

I’m here primarily for the Riesling – the first wine I fell in love with, albeit my-then appreciation for sweeter Ontario Rieslings has broadened quite a bit to include much drier and complex styles of Riesling wines, which is what is found a little more in Alsace. Thankfully Ontario Rieslings are also following a similar evolution, a journey I plan to be a part of! I’m also here for the Gewurztraminer, another grape I learned to appreciate early on, likely seduced by its spicy and exotic fruit aromas (like lychee….ohhh I see, I get it from the Asian side).

One grape I’ve been completely surprised by is Muscat. I’ve never paid much attention to this grape before, associating it with the sweet Italian version more than with the dry Alsatian style. I’d certainly never tried an aged Muscat before. A surprise tasting after the work one day introduces me to two aged Muscats from the Goldert Grand Cru. The typical aroma of mint (learned that for the first time) helps to identify which grape we’re drinking, but there are many more aromas – grapefruit and roses, to name a few. These wines are incredible – lively and complex, seemingly showing no signs of their age. Actually, it’s the opposite – the complexity is a sign of their evolution over time, I’ve just tasted so few aged white wines that I never expected this. Clearly I have a lot more to discover here.

1. Granite and gneiss. 2. Schist. 3. Volcanic sediment. 4. Sandstone. 5. Limestone. 6. Limestone-marl. 7. Sandstone-marl. 8. Limestone-marl-sandstone. 9. Calcareous sandstone. 10. Clay-ey marl. 11. Colluvial plains and foothills. 12. Alluvial soils. 13. Loess and loam.

1. Granite and gneiss. 2. Schist. 3. Volcanic sediment. 4. Sandstone. 5. Limestone also known as calcareous. 6. Limestone-marl. 7. Sandstone-marl. 8. Limestone-marl-sandstone. 9. Calcareous sandstone. 10. Clay-ey marl. 11. Colluvial plains and foothills (soil formed by rainwater deposits). 12. Alluvial soils (soil formed by river deposits). 13. Loess and loam (something, something, sand, silt and calcium carbonate. Did I miss anything?).

Multiply the number of noble grapes in Alsace by the many types of terroir, and suddenly I have a long list of wines with different combinations of aromas, tastes and textures to try. (Good thing I’m here for five months!) I particularly enjoy comparing the Riesling wines from different terroirs – for example the Grand Cru Rangen has a signature smokey aroma, imparted by the volcanic rock of the mountains surrounding Thann. Grand Cru Brand has a much more delicate, fruity nose and structure, coming from its granite soil. The limestone soil of Clos Windsbuhl gives the Riesling a beautiful minerality and acidity. It’s like a treasure hunt in a wine bottle; I’m only hoping I can learn to make wine this good.

Can't see the soil for the vines! I promise the terroirs are very different. Grand Cru Rangen, volcanic soil. Grand Cru Brand, granitic soil. Clos Windsbuhl, limestone-marl.

Can’t see the soil for the vines? I promise the terroirs are very different. Grand Cru Rangen; volcanic rock. Grand Cru Brand; granite. Clos Windsbuhl; limestone-marl.

The cellar work begins, quite literally, in the fûts (or the foudres. Technically the big ones are called foudres, but we generically call all of the barrels in the cellar fûts because we have a wide range in container volumes from 450 to 10,000+ litres – that’s 14,000 bottles from the biggest fût!) The first task is to scrape off residual tartaric acid from last year’s wine which requires us, hatchets in hand, to climb into the barrels through tiny openings. It takes a bit of mental fortitude to climb in through a hole the size of my hips, and a split second of wondering whether I’m claustrophobic or not, but once the novelty wears off, it’s almost cozy inside the fût. (You know, like Harry Potter in his broom closet under the stairs.)

If anyone needs my hip measurements, they're exactly the size of this barrel opening. The first two barrels here have special designs celebrating the Humbrecht family. My roommate/fellow intern and I hard at work posing... I mean scraping out the fût.

If anyone needs my hip measurements, they’re exactly the size of the opening on this 1400 litre barrel. The first two barrels here have special designs celebrating the Humbrecht family. My roommate/fellow intern and I hard at work posing… I mean… scraping out the fût.

It turns out my hands don’t take as well to manual labour as I want them to, so I’ve been put on light duty during the bottling. Instead of working the filling line, my job is to help with the changeovers from one barrel to the next and cleaning the fûts afterward. Here the wine ferments for up to a year, sometimes more than that, unlike the 4-5 weeks in the Bordeaux-style of winemaking. This means that the wines from the 2015 vintage have only just finished their fermentations, and the lees, or spent yeast cells, have recently settled to the bottom of the fût. While we’re pumping the wine up for bottling, we try not to pull up too many lees; instead these go to the distillery to make stronger alcohols.

Barrel is hooked up to the bottling line. View from the top - the hose pulls out the wine and leaves fine lees (if you look closely, the black spot is the bottom of the barrel, and the orangey colour is the lees, below a few cm. of wine). Getting ready to open the barrel door.... what's inside? Sometimes the lees are runny and wet, other times they're thick like pizza dough. Either way, I need to rinse the barrel and toast some marshmallows. (I kid! These are sulfur tablets that need to be burned inside the barrel to prevent contamination.)

This barrel of Pinot Gris is hooked up to the bottling line. View from the top – the hose pulls out the wine and leaves fine lees (if you look closely, the black spot is the bottom of the barrel, and the orangey colour is the lees, below a few cm. of wine). Getting ready to open the barrel door…. what’s inside? Sometimes the lees are runny and wet, other times they’re thick like pizza dough. Either way, I need to rinse the barrel and toast some marshmallows. Just kidding! These are sulfur tablets that get burned inside the barrels to prevent contamination.

Now that the bottling is finished, the next task is to get the cellar ready for the harvest. There are a little over two weeks left (perhaps… Mother Nature doesn’t tend to abide by anyone else’s schedule), so cleaning and preparation shall direct our course until time is ripe. The next post will likely have to wait until after the harvest is over; in the meantime, enjoy a glass of something nice, and wish me luck! .

Harvest prep: water pumps into this barrel until it rehydrates and swells up to seal the leaks.

Harvest prep: water pumps into this barrel until it rehydrates and swells up to seal the leaks.

 

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