Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Domaine Weinbach - The First Ladies of Alsace

An Afternoon Tasting with Catherine Faller

Wine has been made for over 1,100 years on the tranquil plains of what is now Domaine Weinbach.  The estate was founded and run by Capuchin monks from 1612 until the French Revolution, finally coming into the possession of the Faller brothers, tanners from Kaysersberg, in 1898.  After their son and nephew Theo’s untimely death in 1979, the estate has been under the doughty stewardship of Theo’s widow Colette and their two daughters Catherine and Laurence.

The Faller Women (l to r): Colette, Catherine and Laurence

Catherine recounts the early days when Colette had to face the prejudices of a largely sceptical (male) community.  “At this time, my mother was probably the only woman in France single-handedly managing a wine estate.  Everybody thought that she wouldn’t last a year. On the other hand, this also teased her pride and pushed her to succeed.  I think we made it because we strived to produce the best wines, we believed in our products.  And”, she adds with a twinkle in her eye, “we treated our customers with a care and a sense of hospitality that men sometimes tend to lack”.

Weinbach is registered as a grower-owner, meaning its wines are made exclusively from grapes from the domaine’s 30 hectares of biodynamic (certified since 2010) vineyards.  Weinbach has a rather confusing naming system, with terroirs and family members being the preferred subjects (an example is the fine Gewurztraminer Cuvee Theo, produced from the vineyards of the Clos des Capucins where Theo is buried).  Placing its excellent wines in a hierarchy of quality is not easy; my recommended approach would be to visit the domaine and taste the wines with patience and care.  Personally, I have found few better ways to spend an afternoon in Alsace than enjoying the conviviality of the Fallers.

Our tasting at Weinbach gets off to a shaky start.  Slightly late for our appointment, we are led to an elegant parlour, full of antique furniture, knick-knacks and family photographs old and new.  We wait a few minutes for Catherine, yet barely have we exchanged greetings and tasted the 2009 Riesling Schlossberg when the phone starts to ring.  Catherine makes her excuses, mutters a few terse words into the receiver and, with further apologies, sweeps out of the room.  She soon returns with the 2009 Riesling Cuvée Sainte Catherine, although the wine has barely a chance to breathe when the phone calls her away on further business.  An employee pops in with fresh glasses, but these are not for us.  At one point, Colette herself walks in, enquiring politely in French which wines we had tasted.  My worse-than-pidgin French is spared a workout when Catherine returns and shoos her mother off to the next room, presumably telling her that the Francophone guests are next door.

The Grand Cru Schlossberg - Alsace's first official grand cru and the source of
Domaine Weinbach's best Riesling
At this stage, I must confess I was feeling slightly antsy, but I soon realised the great importance the Fallers place on the personal touch.  This is their home and we are their guests.  Of course, they could easily have a staffer conduct your tasting, as is de rigueur in the New World, but I suspect that’s not the kind of welcome the Fallers wish to extend.

Thankfully, the phone goes silent and we are soon all warming up to a truly memorable afternoon.  Catherine senses our enthusiasm to learn about her wines, and relishes the opportunity to guide us through her range, beginning with her rieslings and pinots gris.  Even the “simpler” wines, such as the 2009 Pinot Gris Cuvée Sainte Catherine, have a rare finesse, often containing a portion of grand cru fruit and a touch of botrytis for greater body and complexity.  Like the best burgundies, the Fallers’ wines reflect the personality of its makers – robust yet elegant, sophisticated yet approachable.

Aside from being ridiculously generous with her time and wines, Catherine is a remarkable conversationalist; we are soon talking about food (“I think it’s a real pity that in Asia, so much Bordeaux is drunk with food, when Asian cuisines pair so much more beautifully with our wines”), fashion and of course, Alsace.  We mention we recently enjoyed a dinner at a restaurant in Colmar.  “Ah yes, it is very good”, she smiles in recognition, before jesting “but we never recommend it to our visitors because it doesn’t stock our wines!

Gewurztraminers are next.  I let up that my very first taste of Alsace wine was a Furstentum gewurztraminer, and Catherine responds to this challenge with her sublime 2008 rendition, rich lychee and haunting spice with a structure often lacking in that variety.  “These wines are excellent with cheese and foie gras”, Catherine relates.  “Do you like cheese?  I have some good munster and a Bernard Antony comté...”  I lean forward shamelessly, “How old?”  “Two years”, Catherine smiles, perhaps in part because she has found a fellow Antony-maniac but most probably to hide her horror at my lack of manners.  My wife looks at me in disgust.  “That would be lovely”, I reply, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. 
Antony’s vieux comté, two different ages of munster, slices of crusty country bread and a brilliant grand cru gewurztraminer.  I could die happy at this moment, but Catherine will have none of it.  The jewels in the Weinbach crown are next, luscious vendanges tardives and sélections des grains nobles lush with sweetness and botrytis complexity.  Then its rare signature pinot gris Quintessence de Grains Nobles, a term coined by Weinbach in 1983 and since adopted by others such as Marcel Deiss to denote a particularly concentrated SGN.  This one has a potential alcohol around 23°, with the legislated minimum for pinot gris SGN being 18.2°.  It is a remarkable wine, potent and sugary yet profoundly complex and rich (and at around €240 per 500mL bottle, so is its presumed target audience).

The Clos des Capucins
Three magnificent hours and some twenty wines later, we leave with kisses on both cheeks and a bottle each of an excellent late-harvest pinot gris that Catherine insists we have as a souvenir of our visit.  Very reluctantly, we leave the elegant parlour and begin the walk back to Kaysersberg, just as the sun sets over the Clos des Capucins. 
DOMAINE WEINBACH, Colette Faller et ses Filles
25, Route du Vin, 68240 Kaysersberg, France
Ph: + 33 (0)389 47 13 21
Visits by Appointment Only.
Weinbach is distributed in Singapore through Cellarmaster Wines. 


2009 Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Ste Catherine (€39,40 ex-domaine) – White flowers on the nose, nice citrus on the palate.  It is quite a full, “fat” (in a good way) wine, but with very nice acidity.  The second highest entry on Weinbach’s Riesling hierarchy behind the enigmatic “L’Inédit!”, and to my palate, a more elegant and balanced wine than its big sister.

2008 Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Furstentum – (€45,00) Classic grand cru gewurztraminer with 50 grams residual sugar.  Cloves, ginger, lychee, bolstered by a wonderful acidity that promises a few more years in the bottle.

2008 Pinot Gris Altenbourg Vendanges Tardives Trié Speciale (€62,00) A party in your mouth.  There is so much going on here – layers and layers of baked apples and apricots,  even caramel, but it never gets cloying because of its lively acidity and also because there is so much going on texturally and flavour-wise.  When Catherine insisted on presenting us a bottle of this wine as a souvenir, I could only put up a half-hearted refusal (before of course buying a further three bottles to take back – this wine is not available in Singapore).  Together with the 2005 Hugel Gewurztraminer SGN, currently my favourite Alsace wine of the moment.

2008 Pinot Gris Altenbourg Quintessence de Grains Nobles (around €240,00 per 500mL) – This is a monolithic wine with 197 grams of residual sugar.  Smoke, honey, incredibly sweet but also balanced.  Amazing stuff, but while I do like a young SGN, I would wait this one out a few more years for a little more sugar integration before attempting it again.  Assuming, of course, that I could afford it in the first place!

An edited version of this article appeared in the April 2012 edition of Appetite Magazine

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