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Part 10 of a 2006 Alsace/Paris travelogue

by Thor Iverson

[trimbach winery]

The Tower of Rieslingard
31 March 2006 – Ribeauvillé, France

Trimbach – “France, but efficient,” is a commonly-heard phrase on the subject of Alsace. I’ve never been criticized for a few minutes’ lateness in any other part of France, but here…well, it’s a mistake I made once, and won’t make again. In Alsace, punctuality is actually considered a virtue. Imagine that.

And so, we’re in the Trimbach courtyard at the exact time specified. But we’re alone. Because our winemaker is late.

Granted, he has an excuse. He’s sick. Very sick. Were marketing guru Jean Trimbach, (who usually receives us on our semi-regular visits) not traipsing across Scotland with Olivier Humbrecht…and there is a buddy film to explosively depressurize the heads of Alsatian wine fans…winemaker Pierre Trimbach would probably be benefiting from a much-needed convalescence. Instead, he has to take a pair of overeager Americans through a tasting for which it is not consistently clear he has the energy. Or, it must be noted, the nose, given the frequency with which he sniffles and snorts. As the tasting proceeds, his energy flags, but then…as we head into the heart of the better rieslings…rebounds with passionate intensity. Certainly, winemakers often seem to live (and die) for their work, and Pierre is no exception. We only hope he’ll stay vertical to the end of the tasting. Because to be honest, second wind or not, he doesn’t look that great.

There aren’t many preliminaries today, which is probably another artifact of his condition. We briefly renew our acquaintance, chat for a few moments about our vacation thus far, and then dive fairly abruptly into nosing and spitting. As usual, Pierre’s lineup of bottles diverges from what Jean – who rarely pours a wine not available in the taster’s home country – might approve, but we’re hardly going to complain.

Trimbach 2004 Pinot Blanc (Alsace) – Sharp grapefruit with vivid spice. More crisp than usual. This might have a limited upside, as some of the better pinot blanc vintages do chez Trimbach, and it’s a pretty good effort overall.

Trimbach 2004 Riesling (Alsace) – This ubiquitous négociant riesling is sourced from vineyards stretched…and it’s quite a stretch…between Thann and St-Hippolyte; if an umbrella Haut-Rhin appellation existed, this would qualify. Raw steel (as always), but unusually full-fruited, with nice length. It’s pretty primary.

Pierre is honest about recent vintages that aren’t entirely up to par, mentioning 2003, 2000, and 1999 along the way, though he does stress the particular (albeit from my perspective limited) qualities of the first and last. 2000, as we’ll soon see, is a different and more complicated story.

Trimbach 2003 Riesling “Réserve” (Alsace) – From vineyards of marl and calcaire, all estate-owned. Slightly sweet, aromatically-speaking, with softened edges around an extremely solid core. All rock all the time, just now, and reasonably lengthy. Overall, it has to be one of the most successful 2003s I’ve tasted from this region. But that still doesn’t make me love it. There’s enough of interest to make me wonder what might happen in a decade, but I doubt it has sufficient acid to last that long, nor do I know that it has the raw materials to develop useful complexity. I guess we’ll see.

Trimbach 2003 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” (Alsace) – When Pierre opens with “this has five grams per liter of residual sugar,” I’m even less enthused than I would normally be about a 2003. This is the (other) flagship riesling from a domaine that stresses how Alsatian riesling must be “dry, dry, dry”? In any case, the wine’s not bad at all. It shows huge grapefruit and lemon-lime acidity, with multicolored apples, celery, and iron flakes…nothing out of the ordinary for riesling…amidst a forceful attack that softens and dries on the finish. This is surprisingly nice, and seems to be much better than the goofily-appealing but earlier-drinking 1997. To be sure, it will never be one of the great CFEs, but it does have a strong “while-you-wait” appeal.

Queried about the somewhat unfamiliar form of the previous wine, Pierre insists that it’s a one-off forced by the extreme vintage conditions. “Nothing changes. Trimbach is Protestant.”

Trimbach 2001 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” (Alsace) – Exotic, mineral-driven nose. Pure and piercing on the midpalate. Lemon rind and apple skin are about all there are to draw from the crystalline liquid, which is firm, long, and intense, albeit overwhelmingly primary. I think this is a stunner in the making, but it’s not yet knit, so it’s difficult to tell. (Post-facto addendum: based on subsequent tastings, it is indeed a proto-legendary monster, and possibly one of the very best CFEs of recent memory.)

[clos ste-hune bottles]

Vieille Hune
Trimbach 2001 Riesling Clos Ste-Hune (Alsace) – Harvested on October 4th. Sea salt and profoundly aromatic white mountain flowers. Incredibly dry, massively fully-bodied (for a riesling), and seesawing between tart, apple-dominated fruit and a lush texture. The acidity is terrific, the balance is flawless, and the finish is stunning. Virtually perfect wine.

Trimbach 2000 Riesling Clos Ste-Hune (Alsace) – Harvested on September 3rd. Lusher than the 2001, primarily in terms of its floral aspect, with a neon-tinged minerality in the guise of a fluorescent granite table. Dry, big, and even a little bit fat (though obviously this is a contextual assessment), with a slightly shorter finish than I’d like. Very good, and while it should stay that way for a decade – at least – I don’t think it will be one of the greats.

Trimbach 1999 Riesling Clos Ste-Hune (Alsace) – Pierre calls this a “solar eclipse” vintage, though it’s not completely clear what he intends to suggest with that datum. The ’99 was also the victim of unfortunate timing, with a green harvest immediately followed by a damaging hailstorm…nature’s own, non-selective, version of crop-thinning. There’s salt from a shaker, plus smoke and dried apple seeds, and then the wine seems to accelerate as it picks up a crystalline wind, broadening on the midpalate and showing the barest hints of an early, minor, and pleasant oxidation. The finish is a little shorter than it should be, and comes across as a little leafy. Quite good, but probably one of the weaker efforts in recent years, though when the subject is Ste-Hune that’s praising with faint damn.

Trimbach 1997 Riesling Clos Ste-Hune (Alsace) – Dried flowers bathed in humidity, which somewhat mutes the nose. The palate is bigger, showing juicy and ripe apple over stones, with good acidity. The finish is flat; this and other signs suggest that the wine is somewhat closed, though not as thoroughly as is the norm for CSH.

Trimbach 2000 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Only 4000 bottles were produced. This wine carries 25 grams/liter residual sugar, but like many of Trimbach’s VT rieslings, it shows less as obvious sweetness and more as a rich fullness. It’s very tight, and even slightly muddy at first opening. The minerality is ultra-concentrated, with the creamy texture one normally finds in mature riesling. There’s a hesitant expansion throughout the midpalate, but the wine really blows open on the finish, which is generous and passionate. Very, very good, but it will take time to reach its potential.

Trimbach 2001 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Picked in three passes. Piercing minerality viewed through gauze, with rich peach and apple rendered in crystal, raw iron, and steel plates. The complexity comes in layers, each more exciting than the last. This wine is incredible. Absolutely incredible. I could drink this forever, and in fact the wine will probably last that long, getting better all the while. I express my enthusiasm to Pierre, who nods. “It’s probably my best vendange tardive.” I can only agree.

Trimbach 2000 Pinot Gris “Réserve Personnelle” (Alsace) – 10 grams/liter of residual sugar. Sulfur and quartz, with a profoundly drying minerality and strong acidity that takes care of any lingering sweetness, all of which is experienced in the initial moments of the wine. Full-bodied pear marks the palate, which is long, crisp, and flecked with little bits of something that feels like either paper or linen. I can’t quite decide which. Maybe both.

Trimbach 2000 Pinot Gris “Hommage à Jeanne” (Alsace) – From plots around Hunawihr, Riquewihr, and Mittelwihr, with 19 grams/liter residual sugar. Not as smoky as the previous Hommage bottling from 1996, but there are still highly-appealing charred crystals in the mix, with sweet red cherry and candied strawberry that cohere into a long, juicy palate. Still tight, with plenty of minerality at the core, and the finish firms and binds the wine with more structure than is initially apparent. This is definitely less immediately appealing than the ‘96 Hommage, but I think it will eventually surpass that wine.

At this point, we detour into an animated discussion of which vendange tardive wines go better with duck foie gras vs. goose foie gras. We all agree that the more refined goose is better-served by riesling than the more forward and sultry duck, which reacts more pleasantly to pinot gris. And in reference to an argument I once had with a sommelier, we also are in accord on the general unsuitability of gewürztraminer, which dominates and overwhelms most foie gras. Speaking of which…

Trimbach 2000 Gewurztraminer “Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre” (Alsace) – 10 grams/liter residual sugar. Rock- and mineral-driven, with smoky pork jerky spiced with cloves, plus lychee, pear, and rose petals. The finish adds bitter cashew oil, but is primarily sharp, structured edges holding themselves distant from the intense core. This is a really good SdR, with much aging potential.

Trimbach 2000 Gewurztraminer “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – 55 grams/liter residual sugar. Still firm and tight in its youth…Trimbach’s gewürztraminer VTs rarely have the easy, early charm of other producers’ bottlings…but it is thick with roses and lychee syrup with dark, smoky streaks and fogs. The acidity is terrific, the finish is long, and the wine is excellent; stylistically, it’s more akin to the brilliant 1998 than the powerful 1997.

Pierre chooses this moment to wax arcane yet philosophical, proclaiming that “all the excesses that are in excess are bad.” While we’re trying to puzzle that out, he pours what is unquestionably one of the most excessive wines Trimbach has ever produced.

Trimbach 2000 Gewurztraminer “Sélection des Grains Nobles” “Hors Choix” (Alsace) – Made from the first botrytis-seeking pass through the vineyard. The resulting grapes were picked 23.5% potential alcohol, but the finished wine is 13%, leaving 170 grams/liter of residual sugar. The wine is dark, dark bronze, and absolutely lush with botrytis, showing a huge brown-sugar-encrusted, baked lychee palate with iron flakes and as endless a finish as I’ve ever experienced. Truly unbelievable.

As usual, this is a phenomenal tasting, reaching an early climax with the rieslings and building to a second, entirely different peak amongst the late-harvest gewürztraminers. I will say, though, that the residual sugar in many of the wines is a little surprising to me. Some of it is forced by the string of overheated vintages Alsace has experienced recently, to be sure, and the alternatives – searing alcohol, as was occasionally allowed in 1997, or dealcoholization – are less appealing. But still, Trimbach’s well-known claim as a standard-bearer for dryness in Alsace is, of late, resting on a weakening foundation. I don’t know if it’s a deliberate choice or simple acceptance of the changes wrought by a warming climate, but it’s something to watch in the future.

And as for Pierre? Ill though he may be, he does us an enormous kindness, slipping a bottle of the very pricey Hors Choix into our order at no charge. Not very Protestant of him. But awfully nice, nonetheless.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson.