The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wine is dynamic. It changes. There are thousands of small-scale grape growers making interesting wine, people who produce only enough wine to supply a handful of restaurants and retailers. This poses a problem. If, like our protagonist Clément Klur, only three stores in the U.S. carry your wine, you have no "brand" for consumers to latch onto. Your product is essentially anonymous. Clément may have little desire to get bigger, but if, for the sake of my premise he were willing to grow the operation, quality might decline. There is only so much Clément Klur time in the week and only so many rows of vines available for sale in his hometown's Wineck Schlossberg Grand Cru, and those rows tend to change hands about every lifetime or so, give or take a generation. So to grow, people would need to be added to the winery staff, as would vines. Maybe he'd strike gold, improbably acquiring affordable and excellent parcels, adding to his quality domaine. But likely expansion would push Clément farther down the slope in search of available land.

Or, even worse, onto the flat plain. One of the real eye-openers from my trip to Alsace was how much acreage is planted along the highway, between outcroppings of suburban Colmar, next to vegetable gardens far from the Vosges mountains that form Alsace’s spine. Along the real route des vins, steep, sunny, sometimes almost inaccessible vineyard parcels ripen fruit that has made the reputation of Alsace over the course of centuries. These grapes have nothing in common with the fruit of the valley floor. Since Roman times, vignerons of Alsace have known this, but in the 20th century (damn you, previous century! How much viticultural carnage can 100 years create?) the lure of easy money, available due to the global popularity of Alsatian wines, and facilitated by the region’s embarrassingly high permissible yields per acre (highest in France, barring the highway-robbery yields of Champagne,) sent growers scurrying down from the hills and onto the plain. On a positive note, some winemakers who stuck to their principles were able to expand holdings in the hills, as these hard-to-farm sites were ignored in favor of machine-harvestable flat fields. An ugly story, but so it goes.

So growth can lead to changes in an estate's wine. Character fades. Not always, but sometimes. Klur is in the pretty village of Katzenthal, a town mostly destroyed by American bombs in 1944, but rebuilt in the region's traditional style. 500 people, 30 wine-growers, four restaurants. Tourism helps every grower here: we were joined for a portion of our tasting at Klur by a couple of Danes, who happily left with a carload of wine. Clément is an amiable, almost jolly host (not plump enough to be jolly), happy to discuss all aspects of his craft. The cellar encapsulates the philosophy here: built on an old, moisture retaining stone floor, the room is a circle, in keeping with the principles of biodynamics (and as a labor savings, as wine can be moved more easily from the periphery to center of a circle than it can be in more conventionally-shaped caves) One half of the cellar is lined with old wood foudres (all his "Klur" series of wines spend time in these) the other side of the circle is filled with stainless steel tanks. Clément showed us two parcels of vines. Kicking around the vineyard is an obligatory part of most winery visits, particularly when the proprietor is farming organically. Klur plows several times a year, and has a nifty machine to apply Rodolph Steiner-approved vine treatments. We looked at the machine, and the old vines (40+-year old Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer) and took pictures of the century-old foudres. It was a lovely day to be in Alsace, a sunny, warm Friday at the beginning of May. New growth had begun three days earlier on the vines, but with the perfect weather, greenness abounded. Another winemaker (Mikael Moltes) told us later in the day that under these conditions growth would continue at a rate of 2cm/day! A blistering, almost watchable pace. At least as watchable as golf.

I’m pretty lazy, sadly, and was more than happy to ride in Clément's Volvo Cross-country from vineyard to vineyard. Wineck Schlossberg has a 1:10 grade, high above Katzenthal. It felt really freeing, invigorating to stand in the vineyard and look down on miles and miles of France, all the way to Colmar, and beyond. Not much later, when attempting to polish off a delicious but mountainous marc-flavored Kugelhopf at the end of a three-course lunch, I wished we'd walked. L'Agneau in Katzenthal does haute cuisine plus Alsatian fare, but apparently always in farmer-sized portions. For instance, a plateful of salmon carpaccio and paper-thin fresh asparagus. A healthy half-pound of beef cooked in Pinot Noir, garnished with spätzle and spring vegetables. This course brought out the best in an already enjoyable bottle of 2006 Klur Pinot Noir. The wine contains at least a bowlful of cherries. The feast ensured significant lateness to our next appointment, but halfway through lunch I ceased worrying about time. Food this good eases the way through life’s daily troubles.

So it may take a psychic leap on the customer’s part to buy "new" wines from little growers like the Klurs (they've been making wine for 400 years, but are still fresh and shiny in our marketplace). But the idea of brands is silly in the context of ephemeral wine. Constantly changing weather and new people in the cellar make wine closer in homogeneity to apples than automobiles, so while it requires faith and the occasional let-down, shopping from organic small-growers is far better than sticking to the well-known big brands. This approach offers a chance to taste real character (and true ripeness) instead of technically-correct industrial-size blandness. Small farmer wines bring joy to the whole thing for me, a commodity worth the extra detective work.



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