Whenever clients sign up for one of my vineyard tours, or we have a bunch of wine-inclined friends visiting, I automatically home in on the vineyards of the Haut-Rhin in the southern part of Alsace. Two reasons for this: firstly, I live closer to these so they’re my logical first port of call. Secondly, the Haut-Rhin – in wine terms stretching from Thann northwards to St Hippolyte – is where pretty much all the best-known Alsace estates are situated – think Trimbach, Hugel, Zind-Humbrecht, Faller, Muré, Zusslin, Albert Mann just for starters…
If you’re familiar with the sweeping, densely planted slopes of the Haut-Rhin where vines can seem like the only game in town, the Bas-Rhin vineyards, extending roughly from St Hippoltye up to Marlenheim, feel like a different region altogether. The Vosges mountains are more of a distant backdrop up here, the widely scattered vines are interspersed with fruit trees, sprawling rhubarb plants and tight heads of cabbage (this is prime choucroute country). You can easily fall into the error of thinking the Bas-Rhin isn’t quite as single-minded about winegrowing as its southerly sister. Big mistake: there are some serious players up here too and they’re worth exploring. Serge Dubs, a Meilleur Sommelier du Monde and nowadays honorary sommelier at Alsace’s Auberge de l’Ill once claimed that “la finesse est du coté Nord” (“the north wins on finesse”).
One of the first B-R growers I visited was Domaine Frédéric Mochel in Traenheim, situated in that beautiful sweep of vineyards known as the Couronne d’Or out to the west of Strasbourg. I went on a recommendation from Chef Emile Jung after I’d done a short stage (internship) in the kitchens of Le Crocodile, and have been grateful to him ever since for the introduction. The Mochel family has been here since 1669, in one of those traditional timbered houses (pictured on their labels) with a cobbled courtyard, decked out in summer with a riot of geraniums.
When I first started visiting, papa Frédéric was at the helm; in 2001 his son Guillaume took over, though both parents are still very present, gently smiling and welcoming clients in their cool (as in chic, not chilly) tasting room. A visit here is pure delight – the Mochels have that rare gift of making you feel as though you are an old friend of the family – and provides an opportunity to buy a range of elegant wines at very approachable prices.
They have 10 hectares (25 acres) of south- and southeast-facing vineyards in prime sites around the village, half of them in Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergbieten, one of the Bas-Rhin’s most celebrated. Both clay-limestone and gypsum are present, giving (says Guillaume) great vivacité to the wines. A little over thirty percent is down to Riesling, followed by Gewurz (20%), with the remaining 10% shared between Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (for their Crémant).
The wines I usually home in on include the elegant Riesling Cuvée Henriette (named after Guillaume’s grand’mère) from GC Altenberg de Bergbieten, the delightfully floral, entry-level Muscat (100% Ottonel, and one of my fave Alsace Muscats) and Pinot Gris Altenberg de B. I also enjoyed two newish departures, one called Traenheim (a Pinot Blanc-Gris blend made in a joint venture with several of the village’s vignerons and aged in used Coche-Dury barrels) and another called Trovium (the ancient Roman name for Traenheim), this time a 50-50 Pinot Blanc/Gris, aged in one-third new/two-thirds used barrels – both of them unusual/original (oak is seldom used for Alsace whites), lively and fun.
A small parenthesis: if your tasting works up an appetite and you’re looking for a simple place to eat, try Zum Loejelgucker in a beautiful half-timbered house in the centre of the village. And if you come unstuck with its Alsatian pronunciation (or spelling – Madame Mochel, who recommended it warmly, had to write it out for me), just ask for the Auberge de Traenheim, which it also answers to. It’s the place for robust, ribsticking Alsatian classics of the kind you feared lost and gone forever, including boudin noir/black pudding, lewerknepfle/liver quenelles with choucroute, schieffele/smoked pork with navets confits and kugelhopf glacé.
Sharing equal billing on my list of favourite Bas-Rhin growers is Domaine Pfister in Dahlenheim, just the other side of the D442 Molsheim-Marlenheim road from Traenheim. The family has been here since 1780 and today they have 10 hectares (25 acres), scattered around the village in 40 different plots, all limestone. The domaine took a big step forward in 1972 under André Pfister and his wife Marie-Anne, with a fresh focus on quality, big investments in the cellar and a particular emphasis on improving environmental practices in the vineyard.
Some years ago, after studies in Bordeaux and Burgundy (including a spell at Méo-Camuzet), their daughter Mélanie, the 8th generation of the family to make wine here, returned to the family fold and took the reins. Lively, dynamic, with close-cropped hair and what the French call un regard pétillant (a twinkle in her eye), she looks barely old enough to be running a winery. Somehow along the way she found time to co-found Alsace’s formidable women-in-wine group Les DiVINes d’Alsace (though she’s recently taken a back seat from organising events). Her beautifully paced, fairly priced wines regularly win plaudits and prizes around the world.
On the white front, I find her Riesling GC Engelberg pretty irresistible (the vineyard features in the photo in the header), elegant with bright minerality (I steer clear of the word normally, but it feels right here), which I first met when it struck gold at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Her Pinot Gris provides an example of how well this often over-ripened grape can do in the cooler, more northerly parts of Alsace (it’s that finesse Dubs talked about), while Cuvée 8 (in honour of her being the 8th generation), is a lively blend of all 4 Grand Cru varieties (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurz and Muscat) and makes a great aperitif.
Mélanie has devoted considerable care and attention to her Pinot Noir (inspired/influenced by her time at Méo-Camuzet), of which she makes two cuvées. “In recent times we’ve planted much improved Pinot Noir clones and nowadays we also get more ripeness – we can make something really worthwhile,” she observes. The entry-level cuvée, gently infused and raised in stainless steel, is fun, simple and quaffable (serve it lightly chilled); more exciting still – even worth ageing a bit – is Pinot Noir Rahn (used to be called Barrique), grown in a named site with lower yields, careful berry selection and 14 months in (used) barriques.
In October I had some clients whose trip was due to finish up in Strasbourg – the perfect opportunity to lure them away from the usual Haut-Rhin growers and explore these more northerly vineyards. They found it an eye-opener (Mélanie’s Pinot Noir in particular took them by surprise) and shared my excitement.
Overlook the Bas-Rhin at your peril. It has considerable class, and it’s just waiting to be discovered.