Trimbach 1989 Riesling Clos Ste-Hune “Vendanges Tardives” “Hors Choix” (Alsace)
I don’t normally include tasting notes in the the blog’s main feed (they’re exiled here), because I feel that they’re one of the least interesting ways to talk about wine. (The worst are point or ranking systems, of course.) But this bottle overflows with personal meaning…both its past and its present…and to relegate it to a word-salad of descriptors was to do it, and me, a disservice.
I can only find four instances of Trimbach doling out the incredibly rare “Hors Choix” designation, though there may be more about which I don’t know. Two were for sélection des grains nobles bottlings that were/are so overwhelmingly sweet that finding a sensible occasion to open them is virtually impossible. (Not that they’re in any danger of fading; they may well be essentially deathless.) I own one of those — a gewurztraminer so dark brown with botrytis that I think even the richest possible pâté de foie gras might fade into nothingness — and while it’s unquestionably an extraordinary experience, it’s more or less the Sagrada Familia of wine: impressive to admire, to be sure, but what does one do with it?
Not so with this wine, only the second Clos Ste-Hune — the first was the legendary 1959 — to carry the designation. 1989 was a year in which a house ruthlessly focused on dry riesling had to accept defeat. There was a “dry” Cuvée Frédéric Émile that tasted anything but, but mostly there was a flood of late-harvest CFE, labeled as such. On the lower, flatter, more sheltered Rosacker (within which the Clos Ste-Hune resides), it soon became clear that dry wine was the wrong compromise to make. So there was only late-harvest wine from a vineyard that rarely produces any, and then there was this: a true unicorn wine, defying the modern sommelier-driven fetishization of the word to describe whatever’s hot and highly-allocated in their particular market.
I don’t remember on which of my many visits to Trimbach this was purchased. The house late-releases wines, and also holds significant stocks of what most wineries call “library releases” in order to drive home a point about ageability to guests. I doubt it was any earlier than the late 90s, and it may have been after that.
What I do remember, quite clearly, was that this was (at the time) the most money I had ever spent on a bottle at “retail,” and thus certainly ex-cellars. But I’d just tasted it, and couldn’t get it out of my head…and so, though it represented a fair financial hit, I knew I’d forever regret not taking the leap.
That bottle traveled back to the States, journeying from apartment, to house, to another house, to cold storage, and finally to another state. It sat in each cellar less as an object of fetishization than an object of reverence. “What’s your most treasured bottle?” people would ask. Inevitably, I’d lay hands on the ’89 Hors Choix, explaining (usually to blank stares, save from a few fellow wine nerds) what it was, and what it represented.
There was little question that it would be “ready” whenever I decided to open it. “Thor,” Jean Trimbach admonished me years ago, a hint of exasperation in his tone, “it’s two decades old. Drink it!”
“And how many are you still holding onto, unopened?” I retorted. He just smiled, for he knew as well as I did that this was a “do as I say, not as I do” recommendation. Still, he’d probably gone through several cases already…
It was also an object of trepidation, for its singularity came accompanied by the usual worries. Would it be oxidized, especially after so much transport, due to physical cork failure? Would it be — one hesitates to even type the word — corked? Would the desperate plea to the Trimbachs that would result from the latter tragedy manage to unearth one more savior bottle, or would this be my only shot? Or would it ultimately be disappointing; one of those overhyped-in-the-mind wines that simply doesn’t perform up to weighty yet unfulfillable expectations?
Mostly, though, it slept — fitfully, thanks to all the laying-on-of-hands and turbulent geographic displacement — in search of a moment of sufficient import. Such moments are not easily discovered or created, which is why “just open the damned bottle!” impulse is such a healthy mindset among people with wine cellars.
And then, finally, there was surety. It wasn’t at all the occasion for which I might have hoped — it was laden with overwhelming sorrow rather than joy — but there was no question that it was Time.
Most worries were dispelled the moment the nearly-flawless cork exited the neck, for the wine was manifestly, majestically intact. However, what one desires from one’s unicorns is significantly more than an absence of flaws.
It did not disappoint.
This is a wine of texture. Sweetness, yes — Trimbach has, in the past, made vendanges tardives rieslings that function as exceptionally powerful dry wines despite their residual sugar, though this is decidedly not one of those — but it’s far more than sucrosity. The minerality of Clos Ste-Hune is never as ferric or dominant as that of their Cuvée Frédéric Émile, but expresses itself more subtly and with less linearity. And while CFE from a balanced year slowly ages into exposed, even raw steel or iron, Clos Ste-Hune’s expression is almost always more liquid, arriving in slow waves of salinity lapping (incongruously) against a forest of ancient evergreens. Not so here; the wine’s minerality has disintegrated into a blizzard of fine particles strongly reminiscent of the graphite-like textural signature of old Bordeaux, and that swirling dustiness imbues the wine’s sweet density with a structural counterbalance that’s virtually unique, at last in my experience with the site.
I think that this is not Trimbach’s Platonic ideal of Clos Ste-Hune — surely they’d have wanted to retain a little more acidity, though in modern terms the wine’s structure is well within the norm for overheated Alsace — but the wine is such a complex wonderland that the minor insufficiency is scarcely felt. The wine doesn’t seem imbalanced, it feels like an expression of indomitable will.
What remains is woodsmoke. Coniferous memory, drifting on cold air slithering down the mountain as sunset gives way to twilight.
For me, the wine is gone; its meaning another memory, its history written, its portent and promise now bottled emptiness.
And yes. It was worth it.