Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Circle Tasting with Trimbach

December 2002

 

On the 19th June 2002, as a member of the Circle of Wine Writers, I initiated a tasting of top wines from F.E. Trimbach, leading Alsace producers. The following was first published in “Circle Update” in October 2002.

 

 

A top-level tasting of Trimbach wines was hosted by the Circle at the Groucho Club in late June, in the presence of Jean Trimbach and his uncle Hubert. It featured fourteen Rieslings, all but three of them dry or nearly so, including six vintages of Cuvée Frédéric Emile back to 1979 and five of Clos Sainte Hune back to 1976. There were also a number of V.T.s and two S.G.N.s.

 

The Trimbachs have been making wine since 1626. Their wider fame, though, dates from 1898, when the redoubtable Frédéric Emile Trimbach showed what must have been sensational wines at the great international fair in Brussels, netting the most coveted prizes. Today, the family own 27 hectares of vines, including the whole of the 1.3 hectare Clos Sainte Hune and the much larger Frédéric Emile vineyard. All their top wines are domaine-bottled and from Grand Cru vineyards, though that designation never appears on their labels. Clos Sainte Hune is located in the Grand Cru Rosacker, while Cuvée Frédéric Emile is from grapes in the contiguous Geisberg and Osterberg sites in Ribeauvillé (just above their winery, to be exact).

 

While Alsace can boast several of France’s finest wine-makers the region is source of a great deal of mediocre wine. To make matters worse, less dedicated producers play shamelessly to the gallery, leaving very high levels of residual sugar in wines so dilute and undistinguished that they disply very little varietal character. Ordering a bottle at random from an unknown house in an Alsace restaurant can be hazardous: it may well be watery, characterless, and sickly sweet.

 

If any house sets its face utterly against this trend it is Trimbach. While making outstanding late harvest and S.G.N. wines from Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewuürztraminer in suitable years, they put their chief emphasis on bone-dry Rieslings that have all the terroir traits, finesse, and varietal character one could wish for. They are not just ideal partners for local specialities, but also for the subtle, refined cuisine that the French have made so much their own. Riesling specialists par excellence the Trimbachs may be; but their estate-bottled Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminers are also among the region’s very choicest.

 

The approach could not be more puristic. The wines are vinified in stainless steel and the only contact with wood (extremely old and wholly inert foudres) is very brief indeed. It is impossible to detect even the faintest hint of oak. The malolactic fermentation is not allowed to occur, and the strong malic acid thereby trapped inside the wines gives tremendous backbone and longevity.

 

The first wine in the tasting tuned the palate: a 1998 Riesling Réserve, which displayed copybook Riesling character, with hints of greengage and grapefruit on the nose and palate and giving an impression, on the palate, of crumbly stony soil. It needs about two years to round out into a maturity that seems sure to persist for quite a few more years (the “plain” `73 Riesling was still in great form only two years ago).

 

1998 RIESLING CUVEE FREDERIC EMILE (CFE hereafter)

More intense in colour than the Réserve – a nuanced green-yellow-gold -with a more focused nose showing more depth and finesse: grapefruit, honey, sweet almond, a touch of pineapple. Also the hint of lime-peel that is so characteristic. Lusciously fruity in the mouth, with acidity giving restraint, and an additional nuance of yellow plum, physalis, and rhubarb on the finish. The fossil-flecked limestone (muschelkalk) where the CFE vines grow gives a fine stoniness. Trim and very elegant, this wine is so harmonious that it can be enjoyed already – especially if decanted – but it really needs 5-6 years to round out and will go on improving for a further 8-10 more at the very least.

 

1997 CFE

A fuller and fatter wine, this example smells of lime sorbet, whitecurrants, grapefruit, and bayleaf. Smooth and viscous on the palate, the wine has a zingy lemony acidity that gives precision and thrust to the Riesling fruit. The typical stony terroir shows on the long smooth finish. Accessible already (I’ve already polished off a few bottles!) it will nonetheless show more complexity in about 5 years and will be a joy to drink around 2008-15. (`97 was a rich vintage in Alsace, tending to heaviness; the Trimbachs largely avoided this defect).

 

1995 CFE

Ripe white peach dominates a full honeyed aroma of great vitality, with lots of minerality in the background. Despite the power, there is a promise of great delicacy in an array of subtle subsidary scents. Firm and steely on the palate, still fairly closed up (it’s more austere than both the younger wines), it tastes of grapefruit, greengage, and rhubarb. The usual, very distinct CFE earthiness shows strongly on the firm mineral finish. Ideally, this wine should be locked away for a half-decade, after which it should reach a maturity that will persist towards 2020.

 

1990 CFE

The green-gold colour shows some age but retains the luminosity of youth. The noble Riesling nose, about halfway mature, is weighty and complex and has a lot of thrust. It conjures up all manner of aromas – apricot, orange blossom, grapefruit, marzipan. Compact and incisive in the mouth, with masses of Riesling fruit, it gives a little flick of pineapple on the long finish. As always, the aftertaste grows stony. A wait of 5-6 years would be amply rewarded by a splendid maturity that will persist for another decade or so. My favourite CFE.

 

1979 CFE

Not surprisingly, this has the darkest and most evolved colour of the series. The nose, too, is very developed – at last, a completely mature CFE! Round and blossomy, it suggests dried orange peel and apricot, with a hint of something petrolly. There is a sense of chunkiness, of separate gobbets of bouquet and flavour. The wine is fully mature on the palate as well, tasting of brazil nut, apricot and melted butter. The aftertaste turns stony, as usual. Now at full stretch, the wine can be enjoyed over the coming 3-5 years though one should not be shocked if the odd bottle slips over into senescence. (“1979 was one of the coldest vintages,” Jean Trimbach said, “with some rain and some noble rot. We did several pickings that year.”)

 

 

1998 CLOS SAINTE HUNE (CSH hereafter)

The colour of CSR is subtly different, being yellower, paler, and more delicate. The nose is also noticeably more closed than that of the younger CFEs and of a different style: crystallised grapefruit peel, whitecurrant, acacia honey. It is reticent on the palate as well, with a terroir character that is harder to pin down. The powerful Riesling flavour, tight as a watch- spring, has plenty of greengage fruit though it turns more towards marzipan and dried orange peel on the weighty finish. Excellent acidity gives vitality but the wine is very closed up. Leave aside for 8 years.

 

 

1995 CSH

Also yellowish but with a slight green nuance. The aristocratic aroma, while steely and uncompromising, conjures up grapefruit, baked apple, rhubarb. Behind these are other, more delicate scents that promise future finesse. Fruit there is in abundance, but further contact with the air brings out more than an touch of austerity on the long sweeping aftertaste, which turns faintly stony (in a less overt way than CFE). A masterful wine, to forget for 6-7 years, after which it should open up in leaps and bounds for a dozen or so more. A great CSH.

 

1990 CSH

The typical CSH look: a lustrous green-gold colour, pale yet not wan, that looks both homogeneous and full of nuances. I can’t avoid the word “gorgeous” about the soaring, complex scent of apricot, honey, physalis, and orange blossom. An extra swirl brings out the opulent scent of noble rot. But despite the exotic aspect one finds the typical CSH rigour and purity. The approach is dry but Riesling is Riesling: there is a distinct affinity, in terms of depth and finesse, with a top German Riesling such as a J.J. Prüm Auslese. All this is confirmed by a thrilling flavour of phenomenal intensity and length. As usual, the crisp CSH type of stoniness shows on the finish. Drinkable now – a stunning fish dish is called for – it will be even more spectacular in another decade or so. My favourite wine in the entire tasting.

 

1985 CSH

By no means fully mature at 17 years, the ‘85 has a young green-gold colour and a lushly ripe yet incisive bouquet of apricot, acacia honey, brazil nut. Faintly petrolly too. The superb, intricate flavour conjures white truffle, sweet. almond, apricot. Very tight, long and full of nuances, it turns faintly bitter, in an agreeable way, on the finish of bay leaf and marzipan. Just short of full maturity, it will expand for at least 3 more years and stay on a plateau for many more thereafter. Going back for another sniff, one finds it nuttier and even more truffly (I think the latter effect is produced by the interaction of grape, terroir, and marine fossils). Anybody lucky enough to own a bottle of this wine ought to lash out on a turbot or John Dory, preferably in a refined sauce containing truffles. Or just pour melted butter over the fish and sprinkle it with chopped parsley!

 

1976 CSH

A brief glance at the lustrous green-gold colour is enough to tell you that this wine has some real age, yet there is no suspicion of the ochre or brown tinge of maderisation. The full, dynamic bouquet is round and rich, conjuring up honeycomb, apricot, tropical fruits. There is clearly some residual sugar (unavoidable in so rich a vintage) but a quarter-century in bottle gives a wine that smells almost dry. On the palate, full, smooth, and fat, with a long orangey finish that is slightly burned. Almost dry, absolutely at its peak, this could vie with a Bâtard-Montrachet as a partner to grilled lobster with Sauce Cardinale.

 

In his book on Alsace, Tom Stevenson describes Clos Sainte Hune as “not just the best Riesling in Alsace, it is the region’s greatest wine per se“. Of Cuvée Frédéric Emile: “it might even be the second greatest Riesling in Alsace.”

 

How to pin down the subtle but unmistakeable differences between the two? The answer surely lies in the terroir. CFE grows on fossil-flecked limestone on a bed of compact sandstone. I like to think that that supporting bed of hard rock accounts for the ever-present undertow of refined earthiness on the wine’s finish. The terroir of CSH is described as “pure limestone with fewer fossils than in CFE”. As we know, limestone brings forth the finest traits of noble white varieties, not least their innate purity and incisiveness.

 

Lack of space rules out descriptions of the Riesling CFE V.T.s and the ‘89 CFE S.G.N. Suffice to say that they were well and truly great. The ‘95 Pinot Gris Réserve Personnelle and the ‘98 Gewürztraminer “Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre” (also a Réserve Personnelle) were delicious and worked well with the toothsome dishes from the Groucho’s kitchens.

 

The ‘67 Gewürztraminer S.G.N. that accompanied the dessert had a glowing amber colour, a bouquet of saffron, apricot jam, and melted butter, and had a long, tonic aftertaste. Sweet as honeycomb a decade or so ago, it has now evolved into a semi-dry, tangy wine that brought a great tasting to a memorable close.

 

© Frank Ward 2002

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s