Friday, 22 June 2012

Léon Beyer: A Tasting with Marc Beyer at Taberna, Singapore

Marc Beyer, 13th generation winemaker and current proprietor of the Maison Léon Beyer in Eguisheim, Alsace, visited Singapore last week and conducted a tutored tasting at Taberna Wine Bar, Binjai Park.  Taberna is one of my favourite wine bars, with an excellent wine selection, wine library and homely comfortable décor; a huge bonus is you get to order food in from the neighbouring pizzeria, cze char and Peranakan restaurants.  Its only con, and the sole reason I don’t go there as often as I would like, is that it’s located in the furthest reaches of Bukit Timah Road, a long, long way (by Singapore standards, at least) from my usual habitat.

Marc Beyer explaining the geography and geology of Alsace (All photos
courtesy of Grace Tan at Taberna)
The Beyer family have been making wine in Eguisheim since 1580, although the house was established only in 1867.  As Alsace winemakers are fond of telling us, Alsace is the driest winemaking region in France.  Marc was no exception, but he added that the surrounds of Eguisheim, including the grand cru vineyards of Eichberg and Pfersigberg, are in turn the driest in Alsace with only some 400mm of annual rainfall.

Like their friends and rivals Hugel et Fils in Riquewihr, Léon Beyer is renowned for its classic dry style of winemaking, which makes its wines more suitable for pairing with food.  Indeed, some 70% of its production goes to restaurants, including a host of France’s three-starred restaurants, quite a remarkable statistic.  Marc emphasises that traditionally, Alsace wines are to be paired with food, and it is this philosophy, being a partner in gastronomy to the world's great cuisines, that informs Léon Beyer's approach and positioning.

Its quality scale for dry wines is simple, starting with “Classic”, then “Reserve” and finally the grandes cuvées, including Riesling “R de Beyer” (from the Eichberg vineyard) and the Comtes d’Eguisheim range, made with estate-owned grand cru fruit.  Léon Beyer also produces excellent late-harvest vendange tardive and sélection de grains nobles, but from my (admittedly limited) experience of Léon Beyer’s wines, its dry wines rightfully take pride of place.

The range of wines tasted on the evening, in order of presentation

 Again like Hugel, Léon Beyer is a staunch opponent of the Alsace grand cru system, choosing to sell its grandes cuvées as simple Vin d’Alsace.  This is a position necessarily borne out of its experience.  As Marc explains, Léon Beyer owns part of the Pfersigberg vineyard which is rich in chalky soil, and also other parts which contain no chalk at all.  What is the point of the grand cru designation, Marc asks, if a single classified vineyard is so different from parcel to parcel, and the system cannot reflect such differences?  Léon Beyer takes it upon itself to draw the distinction, so the chalky Pfersigberg soils produce the Riesling “Les Ecalliers”, while the non-chalky soils yield Riesling “Comtes d’Eguisheim”.

Marc (only half) jokingly describes this latter wine as “our Dom Pérignon”, produced only in exceptional vintages.  In lesser years, Léon Beyer declassifies its grand cru fruit into its Reserve range, which tells me all I need to know about its commitment to quality.  Léon Beyer also makes a point to age its wines before release.  This achieves two important goals – firstly, saving its customers the trouble of having to age the wines themselves, and secondly, in line with the Alsace tradition of ageing their grands crus, allowing the wines to show at their developed and complex best.

All of this talk is making me thirsty!  Here are the tasting notes from the evening:

(a)         2009 Pinot Blanc (Classic) – Very pale in colour, with a surprisingly toasty nose.  Grapefruit and citrus on the palate, with a dry finish, albeit a little short.  Not bad for a basic wine, and I think it would be a great match for steamed or poached seafood.

(b)        2009 Riesling (Classic) – Mineral on the nose with light hints of honey.  More crushed rocks, minerals on the attack – very subtle wine with a nice drying finish.

(c)         2004 Riesling Comtes d’Eguisheim (Grand Cru Pfersigberg) – Intense petrol bouquet, and I’m getting little hints of mushroom and smoke also.  Masculine, broad and mouth-filling wine with layers and layers of complexity.  Still a rigid spine of acidity after all these years, and should keep without trouble for at least another decade.  For me, this is in the top tier of dry Alsace Rieslings, although because of its depth and nuance, I personally find it more suitable as a wine of contemplation.

(d)        2010 Gewurztraminer – A broad open nose, with prominent notes of wax, mango and tropical fruit, turps.  Surprising tannic grip, again quite light.  Vinified dry as is all of Beyer’s range, but smells of more than it tastes.

(e)        2007 Gewurztraminer Comtes d’Eguisheim (Grand Cru Eichberg) – More spice and stone fruit than the basic négoce bottling, less exuberant but with far more depth and texture.  Not commercially released yet.

(f)          1998 Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles (blend of fruit from Eichberg and Pfersigberg) – A rich, bronze colour.  My friend suspected the wine was slightly corked.  Honey and herbs, with hints of guava on the back palate.  Unfortunately, the wine fell away on the mid-palate.  I am wary of judging on the evidence of this one bottle due to possible flaws, but a decent drop nonetheless.

Marc Beyer checking that we are enjoying the wines...
Downsides?  I was disappointed that we did not get the chance to taste any of Beyer’s pinot gris or vendanges tardives, nor any of the wines from different terroirs to compare the virtues of each site, for example, Riesling from Eichberg against the Pfersigberg.  Alsace wines are all about terroir, and I think the organisers missed a great opportunity to educate the Singapore market.  On a personal level, while I am an Alsace fan, I am not very familiar with the terroirs of Eguisheim and would have been grateful for the experience.

As the tasting was organised by the local distributors Cellarmaster, they (not unnaturally) wanted to feature only the wines that they imported into the Singapore market, although the 2007 Gewurz Comtes d’Eguisheim somehow made it in.  I suspect the local demand for Alsace wine is not great enough to warrant bringing any more wines in, which is a chicken-and-egg problem for lovers of the pure whites.

Regardless, it was a great showcase of excellent wine from a remarkable house, and thanks to Marc Beyer, Cellarmaster and Taberna for taking the trouble to organise it.

8 Place Château St. Léon
68420 Eguisheim France
Tel : +33 (0) 3 89 231 616

17 Binjai Park
Singapore 589825
Tel: +65 6762 5570

Léon Beyer wines are distributed in Singapore through Cellarmaster Wines

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