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The Niedermorschwihr code (Alsace/Paris, pt. 4)

[boxler bottles](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

28 March 2006 – Hunawihr, France

After a little too much wine the night before, we’re profoundly unsuccessful in getting up early. It’s a grey day, and not just aloft; the vineyards are mostly bare, the mountains are dark with needles and the occasional glimpse of spring snow, and the Rhine plain below us is hazy and murky. It is, in other words, a fine day for a hike.

We attempt to pick up a sentier viticole in Hunawihr, but after some frustration in our attempts to locate the actual route, we end up just strolling along muddy paths through vineyards south of the village. These skeletal slopes rise against the lower shoulders of the Vosges, occasionally ducking into a small grove of trees or split by an ancient rock fence, until they crest atop the precipitous decline of the Schoenenbourg, with descends directly into the fortifications of Riquewihr. The beautifully-preserved town below it is quieter than normal. I guess it’s not tourist season.

But Riquewihr holds few surprises for us anymore, and so we take a left turn towards Zellenberg, which perches on its hill in wind-buffeted isolation. It’s a town that often gets missed in the parade of tourists shuttling from Eguisheim and Kaysersberg, through Riquewihr, to Ribeauvillé, and the evidence of this is clear from its peaceful, restrained feel. There’s nothing showy about this village, but there is a bit of a show going on.

High above, atop a church steeple, is one of those wide-bottomed baskets one sees all over Alsace. And standing – plump, tall and preening in the midst of it – is a stork, here better-known as “l’oiseau d’Alsace.” It’s nesting season, and this unmistakable regional mascot is everywhere…craning over rooftops, prancing through vineyards, or gently soaring in circles. This is our first sighting, and we spend some time staring, leading a few passing locals to look up, shrug, and continue on their way.

On the outskirts of Zellenberg we manage to pick up a remnant of the marked sentier, which of course leads us right past a bustling cooperative cellar. The French may not always embrace marketing to the extent they should, but Alsace is…different. We end up back at our gîte for a lunch of leftovers and stinky cheese, plus a wine that’s not exactly our typical midday fare.

Faiveley 1995 Nuits St-Georges “1er Cru” Clos de la Maréchale (Burgundy) – Five-spice powder, black cherry and dark, tar-like earth. This is still fairly tannic, but there’s gorgeous fruit underneath. While further complexity is undoubtedly around the corner, I do wonder about it’s fruit/tannin balance. Still, it’s very appealing right now, albeit in a fairly primary way.

Niedermorschwihr, France

Boxler (78, rue des Trois-Epis) – Visits here are always exceedingly pleasant. The family is friendly and generous, the setting is peaceful, and the wines are almost distressingly extraordinary (especially the rieslings, which are among the very best in the world). And for currency-disadvantaged Americans, there’s yet another bonus: the wines are very inexpensive compared to their Stateside counterparts.

Boxler’s wines are, in the majority, rarely completely dry…though in some vintages the rieslings can present as very close to sugar-free. But unlike some of their regional brethren, who pursue overripeness and its resultant residual sugar at almost any cost, Boxler preserves both acidity and essential nervosity. There’s a poise to their wines that is simply not duplicated by many of the critically-hyped producers that infest the region, and there’s also great transparency to terroir.

Oh…the domaine has updated its labels. In the essentials they’re similar to the old labels, but with a cleaner, more modern look. I’m not entirely sure I like them, but they’re definitely clearer. The one thing that remains unclear to the average drinker, unfortunately, are the cuvée codes, which remain part of the “secret” Boxler lore. For those uninterested in heavy memorization, there are a few quick rules that can sort out most of the confusion:

* L is always present and irrelevant

* “JV” refers to young vines

* among the four “noble” grapes (riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, muscat), other letter codes are sub-site designations within whatever grand cru is indicated on the label

* for other grapes, the letter codes still indicate site, but may also indicate that the grapes are from a grand cru vineyard (e.g. “B” on a pinot blanc)…a designation not allowed (by Alsace wine law) to be explicitly presented on labels

* the numbers indicate a specific cépage/site combination, except when they don’t, but aren’t otherwise relevant to the consumer as the grape varieties are (when applicable) indicated and the sites are elsewhere in the codes

There are a few niggling exceptions to this, of course. Thankfully, there has been a move to put some of the more important codes in a prominent label position. They’re still not truly helpful, since they’re not explained anywhere, but at least one doesn’t have to squint at the borders anymore.

Clear as mud? Good. On to the wines.

Boxler 2004 “Edelzwicker” L09 (Alsace) – A blend of sylvaner, pinot blanc and riesling (1/3 each)…which would seem to go against the original intent of “edel” as appended to “zwicker,” but whatever. It shows a sweet-smelling nose of ripe apple. Very nice, clean and simple.

Boxler 2004 Sylvaner L10 (Alsace) – Ripe green tomato and spice. Good acidity marks a long finish. This is from a site near Brand.

Boxler 2004 Pinot Blanc L20A (Alsace) – The “A” here refers to auxerrois, a typical blending component in wines labeled pinot blanc, and one that adds richness and weight. The wine is hugely spicy, with ripe pear and a zingy, almost bracing finish.

Boxler 2004 Pinot Blanc L20M (Alsace) – Very sweet, with a metallic core and a short finish. A little strange.

Boxler 2004 Riesling L20M (Alsace) – Very intense, with tons of dry extract and a long, marvelous, drying finish. In the midst of all this worthy structure are lightly sweet green apple skin and sharp, almost piercing acidity. And to think that this is just the “regular” riesling…

Boxler 2004 Riesling Sommerberg “JV” L30JV (Alsace) – From younger vines. The nose is vivid, with dried white flowers that turn to raw iron on the palate. The finish is incredibly long, but a bit edgy and cutting at the same time.

Boxler 2004 Riesling Brand L32 (Alsace) – A touch sulfur-marked right now, but pulsing and brooding underneath. It’s like licking a steel beam, with an endless, dry iron finish. Striking and majestic.

Boxler 2004 Riesling Brand “K” L32 (Alsace) – Sweeter on the nose than the previous wine, with peach around an intense core of minerality. And then, the explosion: molten iron and fire-hose water jets that simply vibrate with power and dry extract. Stunning.

Boxler 2004 Riesling Sommerberg L31 (Alsace) – Floral and silky, with spiced apricot. There’s mass and intensity here, with a juicy core and a lovely balance between fruit and firm structure, but it’s the satiny texture that eventually carries the day.

Boxler 2004 Riesling Sommerberg “E” L31E (Alsace) – Very metallic, but creamy nonetheless, showing very little fruit but almost overwhelming presence. This will be great, but that day is many years away; right now, there’s not much to enjoy.

Boxler 2003 Pinot Gris L50M (Alsace) – Lush but nervy, with intensely spiced pear, tamarind and lychee. Sulfur is in the mix, early. This reminds me a little bit of Bott-Geyl’s Sonnenglanz pinot gris, though this carries more acidity. An early-drinker, I think, but these wines have fooled me in the past.

Boxler 2003 Pinot Gris Brand L52 (Alsace) – Very sweet lychee, pear and peach. This wine is all about its incredibly ripe fruit, but there’s an earthy undertone as well. The finish is a little strange and disappointing, however, with canned pear and strongly tinny aroma developing late in the game. Plus, it’s a bit hot. A rare misstep, though it all makes sense when one notes the vintage. Of all the grapes with which it works, I think Boxler does least well with pinot gris…though in less perverse vintages they do much better than this.

Boxler 2003 Pinot Gris Sommerberg L51 (Alsace) – Shy on the nose, showing bright pear and creamy metallic notes on the midpalate. There’s a long finish, but I think this wine is yet another victim of its vintage…it’s flat and sort of lifeless. Wake up, little pinot gris, wake up!

Boxler 2003 Gewurztraminer Brand L62 (Alsace) – Banana, cashew and exotic roses around a core of dark metal, with a gelatinous texture that resolves to sinuosity on the long finish. It’s sweet, but it’s balanced (in the context of gewurztraminer), and a rare success from the vintage.

Boxler 2004 Gewurztraminer Brand L62 (Alsace) – More metallic than the ’03, with a powdery texture that turns stingingly particulate on the finish. Leafy and very floral, perhaps almost florid. Right now I prefer the 2003 for its open lusciousness, but I think this one will age into something a little more socially acceptable.

Boxler 2004 Riesling Sommerberg “Vendanges Tardives” LRVT00D (Alsace) – Aromatically quite dry, which fails to prepare one for the stunning intensity of the palate. Dried apples dominate. As poised as it is forceful, this is a hammer-blow to the palate, but one delivered with precision and balance. Amazing.

Boxler 2004 Riesling Sommerberg “Vendanges Tardives” “Cuvée Zacharie” LRVT00D (Alsace) – Flawless. Balanced sweetness and acidity take a backseat to a blend of metals and minerals that devolve to stones and gravel on the finish. Almost breathtaking in its restrained power.

Boxler 1999 Pinot Gris Brand “Vendanges Tardives” LVTB9911 (Alsace) – Very sweet, with a gorgeous pear-dominated nose and palate. Extremely vivid. There’s surprising balance for such a late-harvest wine, and the long finish coupled with the other indicators suggests that it’s nowhere near the end of its life, but rather is much closer to its beginning. I’d give it another decade, at least.

Ribeauvillé, France

Au Relais des Ménétriers (10, avenue Général de Gaulle) – A quiet, confident, comforting restaurant on the main southern route into Ribeauvillé. The menu is simple, with modern updates on the themes of the Alsatian classics and a few specials. The wine list is short and locally-dominated.

One can hardly eat in Alsace and avoid foie gras (or if one can, one shouldn’t), and so I start with a nicely-seared slice of lobe accompanied by grapes, then follow with a pleasant and well-seasoned monkfish filet served with spinach, morels and croutons. It’s a light dish, with all of the elements suggesting “no, you go first,” but it works in an elegant, understated fashion (with the caveat that I’m not sure monkfish can ever really be “elegant”). There’s also a terrific homemade bread with a floury exterior, something that’s being pushed out by dry, tasteless industrial loafs at too many restaurants. For dessert, I spoon into a very nice “römertopf” of strawberries, rhubarb and butter with strawberry ice cream. No, really. Butter. It works, but then I’ve been accused of liking dairy a little more than is perhaps good for me.

F. Schwach Crémant d’Alsace (Alsace) – Simple, dry and inoffensive.

F. Schwach 2003 Muscat “Cuvée Réservée” (Alsace) – Ripe and floral, showing white apricot and succulent sweetness on the finish. A little clumsy, but that’s the year.

Mallo 2001 Riesling Rosacker “Vieilles Vignes” (Alsace) – Soft and a touch hollow, with a light sweetness covering a wine that is all stones, gravel and salt. There’s some hints of early oxidation as well, including a very advanced color. I wonder if it might not be a victim of cork failure, but a second bottle procured by the concerned proprietress produces the same results. Surprising. Mallo’s not a top producer, but they’re usually better than this. And the wine’s not bad, it’s just tired.

Windholtz Eau-de-Vie Baie de Houx (Alsace) – Holly-berry distillate. It’s like drinking a Christmas tree, with pine sap and sharp needles in abundance. It’s different, to be sure.

TN: Old tomato

Ostertag 2004 Sylvaner “Vieilles Vignes” (Alsace) – Very intense, moving past the usual dilute tomato flavors into something approximated steel-infused celery with hints of fennel. There are some tart citrus rind elements as well. In truth, the mineral component of this wine dominates all else, to its benefit, but those in search of simplistic “fruit” will be sorely disappointed. Unlike many of Ostertag’s wines, this is nicely delineated, but also like many of Ostertag’s wines it’s a bit monotonous; its early appeal is just about all there ever is. Then again, it’s not wise to expect too much from Alsatian sylvaner…and this is definitely one of the better ones. (2/07)

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