“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”, wrote Aristotle. I had the great philosopher in mind (as you do) when we visited Jean-Claude Buecher in Wettolsheim near Colmar. A week earlier, we’d sampled one of the domaine’s (excellent) Crémants at a wine pairing dinner organised by Alsace specialist Thierry Meyer of Oenoalsace at the trusty Taverne Alsacienne in Ingersheim. Served as an aperitif, it brought murmurs of delight and surprise from the assembled company, a discerning bunch of wine growers/marketers/makers/lovers, including a number of dedicated Champagne drinkers and Crémant d’Alsace sceptics (there are many).
So what’s special about Buecher’s Crémant? To put things in perspective, you need to remember that in Alsace, almost every wine maker makes almost everything that’s permitted: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois, Pinot Noir. Usually they throw in a bit of Crémant too. Chez Buecher it’s just the opposite. From the start in 1979, when the domaine was founded by Jean-Claude and Sylviane, they decided to focus exclusively on sparkling wine. (The AOC Crémant d’Alsace appellation came into being 3 years earlier, in 1976.) They were joined at the domaine in 2005 by their son, Franck, who has taken the bubbly ball and run with it.
They have 10.5 hectares in and around Wettolsheim, Wintzenheim, Eguisheim and Walbach, including holdings in Grand Crus Steingrubler, Pfersigberg and Hengst. They make about 45,000 bottles a year from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Auxerrois plus a little Chardonnay (permitted in Alsace only for Crémant). Focusing exclusively on sparkling wine allows them to concentrate fully and work to the best of their winemaking ability. (“Unfortunately, many growers in Alsace regard Crémant as as a kind of poubelle [dustbin]“, remarks one Crémant maker, who prefers anonymity.) Yields at Domaine Buecher are kept deliberately low (ca. 40hl/ha), mainly through the timing of pruning and the method preferred. The estate is in the process of converting to organic status.
Crémant d’Alsace is a méthode traditionelle sparkler, meaning it follows the same basic procedure as Champagne. At Buecher, accordingly, they first make a base wine, which is fermented in stainless steel tanks (and since 2005, partially in small oak barrels) and then bottled. A judicious dose of sugar and selected yeasts is added to provoke the second fermentation, the bottles are closed with the kind of stoppers used for beer bottles and stacked horizontally in wooden palettes for 24 to 36 months (the officially required minimum for Crémant d’Alsace is 12).
The bottles are then moved painstakingly, two by two, from the palettes to the gyropalette, a special metal crate which over several hours gently rotates the inclined bottles. The objective is to encourage the dead (and by now superfluous) yeasts to collect in a neat little plug in the neck of the bottle, from where it is removed in a step known as disgorging. The last step is to insert the bottle’s proper cork – the one that emerges with a satisfying pop. The wine is ready for market. But here too, Buecher Crémants deviate from the norm. They are matured far longer than is usual in Alsace (most are sold a year after they are made), and disgorged only as the market demands. The disgorgement date is further noted on the back label.
The Buecher Crémant that was so admired at the Oenoalsace dinner was Insomnia (“it never sleeps”), vintage 2004. Still available at the domaine at €20, it’s an excellent product born of repeated and habitual practice. Aristotle would surely have approved.
Crémant Jean-Claude Buecher
31 rue des Vignes
68920 Wettolsheim, FRANCE
+33 (0)3 89 80 14 01