Fifty-three bottles of wine on the wall
Part 5 of a 2006 Alsace/Paris travelogue
by Thor Iverson
29 March 2006 – Rorschwihr, France
Rolly Gassmann (1, rue de l’Eglise) – Tasting rooms have a purpose, and that purpose is often the unloading of branded trinkets and oenodoodads on unsuspecting tourists. Wine – poured by the $15 taste in logo-etched glasses – often becomes little more than a lubricant for commerce. Not all tasting rooms are like this, but far too many are, especially in the New World.
In Europe, and especially at the more traditional producers, this paradigm often veers precipitously to its opposite. Wine is the focus (and indeed, the selling of “My Parents Went to Alsace & All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt”-type paraphernalia would be scandalous), but the breadth and depth of the options can be more than a little overwhelming for the tentative novice. Old World winemaking families, especially those that helm their own tasting rooms, may appear reserved at first blush, but are often willing to open a lot of wine. And so there’s a sort of vetting process that goes on in such encounters; casual drop-in visitors interested only in a few bottles for the week or a souvenir for the suitcase will limit themselves (and be limited by the winery) to what they know, bottom-feeding their way through basic varietal or appellation-wide bottlings, while more informed or enthusiastic visitors will hone in on the higher-end, terroir-delimited and/or aspirational wines, for which they will usually be rewarded by a greater willingness to uncork the good stuff.
But for the serious student of wine, this potential bounty can lead to problems. Nowhere is this made more painfully obvious than in Alsace, where there are four major and a half-dozen auxiliary varieties made at virtually every property, in bottlings ranging from varietal to village to lieu-dit to grand cru, plus blends of every composition, sparkling wines, late-harvest and ultra-late-harvest wines, and occasionally even ephemera like vins de paille. Bigger négociants and cooperatives sometimes do all these things under multiple labels at multiple price points. Thus, only the timid or the pressed-for-time will spend much less than an hour at even the most humble establishment. And there’s a good reason that few delve into the dark and chilly world of barrel tasting in this region: at some wineries, this could take a week of tongue-numbing work.
To us, this all sounds like a perverse sort of fun. As long as the wines are good, we figure, let’s keep ’em coming. At Rolly Gassmann, however, we may have finally met our match.
The cellar is easy to find…tucked right behind Rorschwihr’s small church...and the proprietors – elderly mother and son, this morning – are as diminutive as the legend that precedes them (some have compared them to hobbits, though we see no sign of hairy feet). The winemaking son is currently leading a large group of culinary & sommelier-school students (all of whom look like they’d be too young to drink in the United States) though an informative tasting, and so we spend our first half-hour with his mother. To her expected question – “what would you like to taste?” – we give the answer that seals our fate: “oh, whatever you have open.” As she starts pulling bottles from cases, tables, racks and closets, we realize that it’s going to be a long morning. A long morning.
Rolly Gassmann 2004 Sylvaner Weingarten de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Ripe and concentrated tangerine, with tomato hovering around the perimeter. Fresh-tasting at first, it begins to edge towards synthetic on the finish.
Rolly Gassmann 1999 Sylvaner Weingarten de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Creamed corn and botrytis-like peach infusion, with a lovely but dangerous balance tilted towards thickness. Impressive.
Here are two completely different takes on this oft-maligned grape…or, perhaps, one take and a bonus object lesson on the underrated ageability of Alsatian sylvaner. The ’99 is interesting enough that it comes home with us, the better to fool all and sundry in blind tasting after blind tasting.
Rolly Gassmann 2004 Terroir de Châteaux Forts (Alsace) – A blend…mostly gewürztraminer and auxerrois. Sweet corn and cream with a ripe, starchy spice coating that provides a sort of structure, plus a quartz-like minerality. I think this needs a year to two to integrate more completely, but it’s nice enough now.
Rolly Gassmann 2004 Pinot Blanc (Alsace) – Spiced soda water, grassy and crisp. This feels almost zingy or frothy (though not actually perlant), though as it builds and expands on the finish, thing smooth. Ultimately, it’s not all that interesting.
For a blended wine, the Châteaux Forts isn’t bad. It relies on two grapes that have fairly similar and compatible structures, rather than on a misguided attempt to brighten otherwise heavy gewürztraminer with underripe riesling; a tactic that’s employed at many other houses, and rarely to good effect. As for the pinot blanc…truthfully, Rolly Gassmann does better with its traditional blending partner auxerrois, as the following wines will demonstrate.
Rolly Gassmann 2002 Auxerrois (Alsace) – Dried pear with a thick, soft finish.
Rolly Gassmann 2002 Auxerrois Rotleibel de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Lightly sweet spiced pear with an intense, drying finish; virtually the reverse of the previous wine’s organoleptic arc. Aspirational and very likely ageable.
Rolly Gassmann 2001 Auxerrois Moenchreben (Alsace) – Vividly spiced baked apple. This wine has incredible presence, but unfortunately, the finish is disappointingly short. The ’02 Rotleibel is on the way up; this is on the way down.
Rolly Gassmann 1997 Auxerrois Moenchreben (Alsace) – Completely given over to spice at this stage, with an incredibly creamy texture but still-present acidity lurking in the background. Wonderful, and fully mature.
Auxerrois always brings the spice – less-fruity pinot gris is a typical characterization – but it can easily decline into sugar and flab, which is one reason it’s so often paired with the thinner, less flavorful, but crisper pinot blanc. When encouraged towards balanced ripening, with an unblinking eye on the preservation of acidity, it’s capable of standalone quality…though perhaps not extended ageability.
Rolly Gassmann 2004 Riesling (Alsace) – Wet river stones with a very, very dry finish. Thirst-ravaging. Very impressive for a basic varietal bottling.
Rolly Gassmann 2001 Riesling “Réserve Millésime” (Alsace) – Light petrol skips across a thin palate, akin to Bas-Rhin riesling from a too-cold site. There’s good persistence, but I’m not sure what’s inside will be worth the wait.
Rolly Gassmann 2004 Riesling Silberberg (Alsace) – Chewy and leafy, with a sharp, piercing, almost needle-like malic acidity.
Rolly Gassmann 2003 Riesling Silberberg (Alsace) – Thinner than the above-notated ’04, with more leafiness, a keening mint aroma, and a short finish.
Rolly Gassmann 2000 Riesling Silberberg de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Wet, ripe, balanced and juicy. Is this simply a result of the vintage, or do wines from this terroir always flesh out this much as they age? Some of the best rieslings of the region do exactly that, but they almost always have more identifiable intensity in their youth.
Rolly Gassmann 2001 Riesling Pflaenzerreben (Alsace) – Tonic water, limestone and slate, with mixed apples bouncing around. Stemmy to the point of bitterness of the finish, but intriguingly so. This is edgy and potentially controversial, but I think the quality’s there.
Rolly Gassmann 1999 Riesling Pflaenzerreben (Alsace) – Softer than the ’01, mostly due to elevated sugar. Short and weird, which wouldn’t be an uncommon showing for a ’99…but the minerality is also completely absent, which is a little surprising.
Rolly Gassmann 1996 Riesling Pflaenzerreben (Alsace) – Sulfurous, with acid lashing at a banana residue. Ungenerous, and showing signs of further thinning and drying in the future.
Rolly Gassmann 1997 Riesling Kappelweg “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Crushed flowers and almonds with a heavy, seemingly botrytis-influenced finish that flattens and then disappears. It’s decent enough now, but there’s not much of a future.
Rolly Gassmann 1997 Riesling Pflaenzerreben “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Crushed chalk and limestone with lemon rind and grapefruit. Balanced and smooth, with a long finish redolent of botrytis. Give this one another two, three years, then drink up.
The winery is so close to the hallowed riesling grounds of Ribeauvillé and Bergheim that one expects proportional quality, but in fact the rieslings here are the weakest of all the varietal subcategories. The problems could be site-related, or they could be that here – virtually alone among all the wines – are found the only real explorations of a drier, more austere, higher-acid style that’s prevalent elsewhere in this pocket of the northern Haut-Rhin. Normally, that would be a blessing for my palate, but I’m not sure Rolly Gassmann’s strength lies in dry wines. Certainly almost everything else (on the white side of things, at least) carries identifiable residual sugar, and usually to the wines’ benefit. Minor anecdotal evidence for this theory can be found in the late-harvest rieslings, which – though still not up to the quality of the rest of the portfolio – show more of the generosity and intensity required to carry riesling through its often screechily acidic youth.
Rolly Gassmann 2002 Pinot Noir Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Light and rough, with raspberry seeds and discarded apple cores soaking in a dried-out old wood stew. Definitely on the wan side.
Rolly Gassmann 2000 Pinot Noir Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Ripe red cherry and bark soda poured over earth, with graphite-textured tannin. The finish is sharp and thin, showing mostly the acidic side of highly-underripe strawberries. A nice wine, though it ends a little clipped, and while I think it might cohere with a little more time, it may just as easily turn shrill.
Rolly Gassmann 2001 Pinot Noir Rodern (Alsace) – Bigger than the two previous wines, with strawberry, apple blossom and elevated tannin. This would seem to be the first pinot with any aging potential, though one wouldn’t want to wait too long.
Rolly Gassmann 1997 Pinot Noir “Réserve Millésime” (Alsace) – Souring, with stinky, baked fruit predominating. This is, unfortunately, the fashion in which so many Alsatian pinots live out their final days…unless they’ve been overwooded, in which case the result is even more unpleasant.
Rolly Gassmann 1997 Pinot Noir Rodern (Alsace) – Spicy, quince-dominated mincemeat. Concentrated. Quite nice, and showing a deeper and broader “pinosity” than is normal for the region. Blame the vintage if you wish, but this is nicely done.
Rolly Gassmann 2003 Pinot Noir “Réserve Rolly Gassmann” (Alsace) – Dense vanilla and black cherry cola notes, with a thick, almost impenetrable finish. This is very nearly fashioned in the modern style – dare one muse that an Alsatian pinot can be internationalized? – but not in an offensive, over-the-top way. I don’t know how authentic it is, but there are (rare) times when artifice can qualitatively trump authenticity, and the 2003 vintage is as good a time as any to explore that notion…especially when the recalcitrant subject is pinot noir from Alsace.
It’s not often that one gets to try a serious lineup of reds in this region, and much less a largely terroir-designated one…but then again, in most cases that’s something for which to be profoundly thankful. Here’s a procession that, predictably, supports my theory that Alsatian pinot tends to be at its best in the very vintages that louse up other varieties…’97 and especially ’03, for example. Producers still have to avoid the temptation to polish and char the wine with barriques, but the raw materials from ultra-ripe vintages can provide the best opportunity to make something that is more than a regionally-favored curiosity. All that said, the best pinots from the region are almost always sparkling, and the second best tend to be pink.
Rolly Gassmann 2004 Muscat d’Alsace (Alsace) – Lime flowers and apple blossoms. Light and fun. I bet this would expand with food.
Rolly Gassmann 2004 Muscat Moenchreben (Alsace) – Mineral-driven and strongly akin to riesling, which Alsatian muscat can sometimes be from the right terroir. There’s structure and intensity here. In other words, it’s more ageable and “serious” than the previous wine, but also much less fun. That’s a tradeoff sometimes worth making for the sake of variety, but preferences will differ.
Rolly Gassmann 2003 Muscat “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Luscious, sweet pear and apricot with zingy spice accents. It’s thick, but with good, enlivening acidity. Lovely. VT muscat is a rare beast, mostly because it’s tough to get the grapes to hang that long without auxiliary damage, but when successful it’s completely grin-inducing. Laughter may even result, under certain circumstances.
Rolly Gassmann 1997 Muscat Moenchreben “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – A funky nose followed by incredible waves of spice. Long and complex, with even more aging potential and more of everything than the 2003. The aroma is the only thing that gives pause; when a muscat goes funky, it’s usually a sign that it’s passing its drink-by date.
Rolly Gassmann 2003 Muscat Moenchreben “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – The rarest of all Alsatian wine types, capable of being produced no more than a handful of times per decade by some fanatic winemaker. And, usually, priced accordingly…but when it’s this good, it’s all worth it. Lusciously sweet apple of stunning intensity, with a finish of incredible length. And yet, for all this concentration and almost physical effort, the wine retains a beautiful precision. Heartbreakingly pretty and almost painfully lovely.
The “freak” vintages of 1997 and – even more so – 2003 have to be good for something, other than an improvement in the quality of the local pinot noir, and here are a few anecdotes in support of an alternative beneficiary. SGN muscat is one of those semi-legendary wines that people here talk about, but that almost no one has ever tasted. This may seem counter-intuitive because sweet muscat is so prevalent elsewhere, but a large majority of that is fortified and/or stopped fermentation product, not true ultra-late-harvest wine. And certainly, botrytized muscat remains the ultimate rarity, at least here; apparently, the necessary rot almost never sets in before the grapes shrivel and die, and when it does it’s almost never the good kind. But ultimately, what really sets these wines apart is the minerality and structure that comes with the terroir.
Rolly Gassmann 2004 Pinot Gris (Alsace) – Spiced pear, with nice acidity and a good overall balance. Textbook. In fact, this wine might be the illustration.
Rolly Gassmann 2004 Pinot Gris Rotleibel (Alsace) – Drying pear skin with a surplus of granitic minerality. Crisp. Nicely done, and mid-term ageable.
Rolly Gassmann 2002 Pinot Gris Brandhurst de Bergheim (Alsace) – Tight pear and apple wrapped with minerality and skin tannin. Though it’s an odd thing to say about Alsatian pinot gris, which tends towards flab even in the best of hands, this may be a touch over-structured. Time could help.
Rolly Gassmann 2001 Pinot Gris Rotleibel de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Sweet, botrytis-like fruit with spice and soda, plus unmistakable chile de arbol on the finish…a character I’ve never even conceived, much less tasted, in pinot gris. Fascinating.
Rolly Gassmann 2002 Pinot Gris “Réserve Rolly Gassmann” (Alsace) – Intensely ripe, with Anjou pear joined by concentrated red cherry, red apple, and a forceful iron core. On the other hand, all this energy comes somewhat at the expense of the wine’s balance, with is tilted towards power and away from precision. This may age, but it’ll need careful watching. It’s certainly impressive.
Rolly Gassmann 2001 Pinot Gris “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Rubber on the nose, and then a semi-tropical fruit fiesta elsewhere: pear, banana, apricot, mango and papaya. Very smooth. A little more acidity would be welcome, but there’s a lot that’s good about this, especially for near-term drinking.
Rolly Gassmann 1997 Pinot Gris Rotleibel “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Gorgeous, sweet and spicy, with a long finish. A huge wine, full and generous but at a lovely intersection between its upfront, youthful fruit and the emergent structure underneath. It will certainly hold longer, gaining dried fruit and spice at the expense of generosity; in other words, further aging must be judged on the basis on personal preference.
Rolly Gassmann 2000 Pinot Gris Rorschwihr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Sweet apple and iron, with hints of botrytis and a really seductive texture. Very ageable. This is an infant, but it’s going to be outstanding some day.
Rolly Gassmann 2003 Pinot Gris Brandhurst “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – Luscious. Ripe peach and strawberry/pear syrup dusted with five-spice powder form the incredibly sticky core of this lower-acid, somewhat slutty wine. It’s just stunning right now, and while I can’t help but think it will age a little while despite the problematic acidity (sugar and dry extract can carry these things a long way, based on past experience), there’s also a very slightly attenuated finish to deal with. So here’s the final call: near perfection now, but a dicey prospect for the future.
It stands to reason that an Alsatian domaine dealing in structured but off-dry wines would excel with pinot gris, and that’s borne out here. The core of its regionally varietal character – spiced pear, always – is intact, and there’s (usually) supporting acidity, but what’s most exciting about these wines is the range of terroir expressions. Some might argue – not without justification – that not all these terroirs are ideally left unblended. This is something that would be applicable to the whole Rolly Gassmann range, in fact. And maybe that would be a helpful criticism if the winery’s primary goal was merely an increase in its success percentage. But here’s why that won’t happen: they clearly enjoy making all these different wines. Some years will benefit certain terroirs and grapes, and others will direct their benefits elsewhere, and I think that uncertainty and difference are a great part of the appeal for the Gassmann family. But more on this point later.
Rolly Gassmann 2004 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Wet and thick, with peach skin and tepid cashew. Disappointing; even a basic gewurztraminer should have more oomph than this.
Rolly Gassmann 2001 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Sweet lychee and other spiced fruit. Simple and direct. As a basic varietal bottling, this is more successful than the 2004.
Rolly Gassmann 2002 Gewurztraminer Oberer Weingarten de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Gewurztraminer isn’t usually a grape that allows its varietal characteristics to be subsumed, and yet here we have gravel, quartz, and rolling river rocks absolutely pummeling juicy-but-sweet lemon fruit. This is a gewurztraminer? It’s very, very tasty for those of us who like to drink our planet’s foundations in convenient bottled form, but it’s definitely out of the ordinary.
Rolly Gassmann 1999 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Quite sweet, showing peach, pear and lychee juice. Pretty and fun, though clearly for immediate drinking.
Rolly Gassmann 2001 Gewurztraminer Stegreben de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Intense lychees with their skins (and skin tannins) intact. Complex, structured and long. Very good, with enough power to enjoy now, and the balance and integrity to age.
Rolly Gassmann 1999 Gewurztraminer Haguenau de Bergheim (Alsace) – Wet and a bit hollow, with sweet banana skin wrapped around nothingness. This is a fairly typical performance for gewurztraminer of this vintage, unfortunately.
Rolly Gassmann 1998 Gewurztraminer Keppelweg de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Spiced pear, peach and lychee dressed with nut oils. The finish brings out an anise note. Intriguing, and absolutely delicious right now.
Rolly Gassmann 1999 Gewurztraminer de Rorschwihr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Very crisp for a VT, but peachy-fruity as well. It’s a bit simple-minded, and I don’t really see it getting much better with age.
Rolly Gassmann 1996 Gewurztraminer Oberer Weingarten de Rorschwihr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Heady, thick and frankly edging towards lurid, with lychee skins and an otherwise satiny texture. The finish is long and flawlessly balanced. Impressive.
Rolly Gassmann 1998 Gewurztraminer Stegreben de Rorschwihr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Pure and balanced, with a blend of lychee, apple and peach buoyed by fantastic acidity. One to watch in the future, of which it should have great experience.
Rolly Gassmann 2001 Gewurztraminer Brandhurst “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Very structured, but while the apple-skin acidity and fruit are nicely balanced, the wine is massively, perhaps almost painfully, sweet. This could be epic perfection someday, or it could be a short-lived clunker. At this stage, it’s too hard to tell for sure, though I think I’d bet on the former.
Rolly Gassmann 1997 Gewurztraminer Brandhurst de Bergheim “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – Ungenerous, with a moldy character dominating. I wonder if it might be mildly corked, but no one else agrees with me. So it’s just bad, then, with rot having overtaken all else. Avoid.
Rolly Gassmann 1997 Gewurztraminer Oberer Weingarten de Rorschwihr “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – Incredibly intense, showing spiced lychee and apple-dominated acidity. Surprisingly balanced. Wow. This is, especially for a ’97, a masterwork.
Rolly Gassmann 1994 Gewurztraminer Stegreben de Rorschwihr “Sélection des Grains Nobles” “Cuvée Anne Marie” (Alsace) – Very, very, very sweet, showing those overdriven red fruit characteristics than can be coaxed from extremely ripe white grapes: red and Rainier cherries, mostly, though there’s also the expected lychees and thick botrytis influence. It’s extremely long, but there’s a very slightly worrisome rubber tang to the finish. In a young wine, I’d excuse it, but after a decade of age, I’d strongly consider drinking up.
Rolly Gassmann 1989 Gewurztraminer “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – Molten iron and steel. Fully-realized, integrating all the typically lush varietal characteristics into a metal-driven, complex whole. The finish is shortening, so I’d drink this one soon.
This is a fascinating collection of gewürztraminers. Some are just a little sweet, others are diabetic nightmares. Some show simple varietal purity, others bring in all sorts of complexing elements from terroir and/or age. Some are flawed, others are brilliant. But what stands out most is that over half of them are labeled as late-harvest wines. It could be successfully argued that this reflects the sugar-dominated disposition of the domaine, but I prefer an alternative explanation: these are wines that, at many other houses, would simply be the regular, non-VT releases…massive walls of unexpected and unwelcome sugar when opened at table. Labeling these wines vendanges tardives is – whether intended or not – a consumer-friendly gesture, one that helps clarify the morass of variably sweet wines that currently infect Alsace, to its commercial detriment. Such clarity from other producers would be most welcome.
So…53 wines. 53! Four hours (four hours!) after our arrival, my tongue, my palate, my nose and my mind are almost numb. It’s not the sheer number – I semi-regularly taste two or three times this many at big walk-around tastings – but the intensity, the sugar, and the concentration necessary to pick out subtle differences in a long procession of varietally-identical wines. The sugar and acid, especially, work together to bring a throbbing ache to my teeth. But the question is: did we learn anything? Well, with this many wines, it’s almost impossible not to.
In the face of all these site-labeled wines, an interesting fact can slip by even relatively experienced tasters: there are no grand crus here. This is partially explained by the fact that Rorschwihr possesses no such designated vineyards of its own (the nearest candidates are the Gloeckelberg in Rodern and the Altenberg de Bergheim and Kanzlerberg near Bergheim), but certainly this house has had the opportunity to purchase a few plots were they so inclined. That they haven’t speaks to a relentless regionalism…perhaps even a vinous xenophobia…and a stubborn determination to make the best from sites of which they have a deep, almost ancestral understanding.
With so many wines, there’s bound to be inconsistency…and there is. The only constants are residual sugar (except for the rieslings, in which is it either absent or not overt, and of course the pinot noirs) and the very difference that defines terroir-revelatory winemaking. Varietal integrity is usually respected, with the occasional outlier, but the qualities of these wines do indeed come from their sites. Nothing is happening in the cellar…or in the vineyard…to deform in an effort to achieve some sort of stylistic grail, a practice that is on display at more than a few famous wineries in the region. These are pure, honest expressions of grape and place. And if you don’t like a particular wine? They’ve got just a few more from which to choose…
As we purchase a half-dozen bottles and prepare to leave for a long-delayed lunch, I note the craziest thing of all in a morning filled with craziness of a most satisfactory nature: according to the price list, there are wines we missed. Well, save them for next time. If we start early enough, we should be able finish before midnight.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.