Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Olivier Humbrecht, The Grape Whisperer

Natural.  That is the word that echoes in your mind as you speak to Olivier Humbrecht and taste the exquisite wines of his Domaine Zind-Humbrecht.

Humbrecht is that rarest and most unusual of creatures – a French Scotsphile.  With a Gallo-Scottish accent (thanks in no small part to his Glaswegian wife Margaret and years working in the UK) and an imposing 6’4” frame that wouldn’t look out of place on a rugby paddock, he is an ardent whisky-lover and France’s first Master of Wine.  And despite the numerous accolades heaped upon him, the man has no affectations; he meets us in simple work gear - a weathered brown Bruichladdich polo shirt and jeans, having just emerged from a busy morning in the cellars.

Olivier Humbrecht, MW, in the grand cru Goldert

Humbrecht apologises, saying he’s in the midst of harvesting and may only be able to spend an hour with us.  But he is also a perfectionist and a scientist, so our visit ends up lasting almost two-and-a-half, including a fascinating lecture in the art of winemaking and of course a tasting of his latest vintages.

Humbrecht is justifiably proud of his modern cuverie, which was rebuilt in 1992.  His underground cellars house a striking number of barrels, reflecting the number of distinct terroirs within his domaine’s portfolio.   The expansive tasting room is similarly resplendent and uncluttered, with a floor-to-ceiling vista of the Herrenweg vineyard as far as the eye can see.  On this September afternoon, the Herrenweg is drenched in brilliant sunshine, row upon row of gewurztraminer vines basking in the glorious warmth of the Indian summer.

The Zind-Humbrecht cellars, amidst the vines of the Herrenweg

Humbrecht is an exponent of terroirist winemaking, focusing on pure expression of vineyard and vintage“The grape varietal is the tool I use to express the place”, he explains.  “And like any artisan, I will choose the best tool possible!”  Then again, he would say that, with his domaine’s 40 hectares incorporating a myriad of Alsace’s greatest monopoles (such as the limestone-dominated Clos Jebsal and the Clos Windsbuhl) and prime tracts in eminent grands crus such as Goldert, Hengst and Brand.

To that end, Humbrecht presents various vintages of rieslings, gewurztraminers and pinots grises from the coveted grand cru Rangen de Thann, each bearing that vineyard’s trademark smoke and mineral character.  The 2008s display that cooler vintage’s acidity and structure, while the wines from the warmer 2009 show far more ripeness and immediate approachability.  Varietal character, especially for the chameleonic Riesling, plays second fiddle.  But all show the house’s trademark ripeness and power, almost majestic in its masculinity – no shrinking violets these!

Riesling from the Clos St Urbain, Rangen de Thann

Humbrecht earnestly believes that Alsace combines the best of French flair and initiative and Germanic technicality.  In many ways, the Rangen is typical of this.  Situated on a south-facing volcanic slope too steep to be cultivated even by horses (a team of which Zind-Humbrecht maintains for use in other vineyards), it was previously regarded as being too labour-intensive and low-yielding (compared to the richer valley floor vineyards) to be commercially viable, despite the fact that it had been recognised for the quality of its wines since the 13th Century AD.  However, thanks to the foresight of Humbrecht’s father Leonard, the domaine started acquiring parcels in the Rangen in the ‘70s and ‘80s, patiently cultivating the land by winch.  As Humbrecht notes, “After World War II, things were difficult in Alsace.  Producers could not charge more (for their premium wines) and the valley floor vineyards were also cheaper to cultivate because tractors could be used there.  Automatically, wine producers would pay more for these vineyards and would refuse to buy steep hillsides.  But today, the Rangen is probably one of the most sought-after vineyards, if it was available to buy!  Luckily, we were able to purchase the rest of the vineyard in the 80s just before prices went up crazy.  We paid more for the last little 0.2ha piece in 1998 than my father paid for the initial 3.5ha he bought in 1977”!

Zind-Humbrecht's monopole Clos St-Urbain, part of the
grand cru Rangen of Thann 

We cannot do justice to Zind-Humbrecht without mentioning that the domaine has practised biodynamic viticulture since 1997 (and certified by Ecocert since 2002).  Humbrecht has a remarkably holistic view of grape-growing, with an emphasis on maintaining the vines’ natural health but also manipulating their reproductive cycle to produce the best fruit.  “If the vine is prosperous and relaxed, it will throw shoots all over the place and won’t give any grapes.  I need to send it stress messages so it thinks it is in trouble and has to reproduce”, he says, before joking, “They don’t make grapes for you and me, but I steal their children anyway; I’m a pervert like that”!  He pauses, before adding seriously “You know, grapes are a lot like people.  They only need a doctor if they are unhealthy.  The winemaker is the grape doctor; he only needs to do a lot of work in the cellar if his grapes are no good”.

With the bulk of the work done in the vineyards, his winemaking philosophy is non-interventionist - uninterrupted wild yeast fermentation, minimal filtration, and no fining or chaptalisation.  “We noticed that wines made from long fermentation (induced only by wild yeasts) are often more complex and present better resistance because more fed by the total lees. I never, ever stop a fermentation. This would mean that a natural process is artificially blocked and it may cause stability problems later on.  It also means that the wine didn’t reach the best balance possible. So I let the fermentation finish alone. and the wine becomes naturally clear and stable. Easy!”  And while chaptalisation is allowed for Alsace dry wines (and elsewhere, including across the crus classés of Burgundy and Bordeaux), Humbrecht rejects the practice.  “You can correct the lack of alcohol, but you disrupt the balance of the wine because the tannins and flavours are unripe”.

The trusty Nikita helps with grass control

This very natural approach means that wines of the same terroir and variety can take on a very different aspect from year to year.  I tasted his 2008 Riesling Brand in April 2011, dry with that classic varietal core of minerals and citrus, yet the 2009 vintage is decidedly sweet.  To help navigate this variability, Zind-Humbrecht’s dry wines carry an indicator from 1-5, in order of increasing sweetness (the 2009 carries an Indice 5, meaning that its sweetness on the palate is approaching that of a vendange tardive, or late-harvest wine).  This “warning system” solves one of Alsace’s perennial consumer bugbears: producers bottling ostensibly dry wines but which contain wildly varying levels of residual sugar.

Humbrecht also makes a small parcel of pinot noir every year.  He claims he does it for a bit of fun, but is clearly discomforted by its growing popularity in Alsace.  “10% of Alsace’s vineyards are planted with pinot noir.  This has increased 5-6 times over the last ten years.  It’s all about fashion, people like it because of certain films and are willing to pay more for it.  So some winemakers ask why they should bother making white wine when they can earn more money selling pinot noir.  But it is clearly not the best grape for our terroir”.

His wines are not cheap, with his Rangen grands crus tipping the scales at around €65 ex-domaine.  But for me, drinking a Zind-Humbrecht wine is always a rewarding experience, very often an exciting one.  There is that little “edge of your seat” thrill, just like when you watch an expert tightrope walker - admiration of sheer balance and precision is spiced with the ever-present risk that he will take a tumble to his doom (or eternal embarrassment in front of the audience).  Yet he never does, and neither does Olivier Humbrecht.

DOMAINE ZIND-HUMBRECHT, 4 route de Colmar, Turckheim
Ph: +33 (0) 389 27 02 05
Visits by Appointment only.

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

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