Spring seems to be the time of year for white wines from Germany, Austria and France. Recently, I read Eric Asimov’s article in The Times entitled “The Wines of Spring”, attended the Wine Media Guild’s Austrian Riesling tasting, and enjoyed dinner with the Alsatian producer Frederic Helfrich. The name of his winery is Helfrichmetz and it is located in the village of Marlenheim in Alsace. The day to day winemaking is in the hands of Benoit Pattin.
Frederic Helfrich, a sixth generation descendent of the winemaking family, invited us to taste his wines over dinner at Corton Restaurant. He was here to introduce both the Steinklotz Grand Cru and Noble Varieties wines for the first time in the US. Frederic explained that his family’s winemaking philosophy is to have minimal influence in the cellar, to preserve the natural terroir and bring out the true flavors of the grape. In Alsace the grape and the place where it is grown is of the highest importance. The flavor of the grape and the terroir must come through. Because of this there is almost no blending of grapes. Natural yeast is used and the wines are aged in stainless steel or cement tanks, or old casks know as founders. When I asked Frederic if their wines underwent malolatic fermentation his answer was “never” I asked about “chaptalization” (the addition of sugar) in Alsace where it is legal. He did not say that it was never done but hinted that in a very poor vintage…. There is no way to tell when a producer does this.
Before we tasted the wines, Frederic said that with the release of these wines they are keeping one foot in the past and stepping one foot toward the future. By the future, Fredric was referring to the “Noble Varieties” line of wines. These wines are light in style, easy to drink, and consumer friendly because of the screw cap and the price. They were all 100% varietal from the 2007 vintage and retail for $15 a bottle.
The first wine we tasted was the Pinot Gris. The grapes for this wine, like all of those in their Noble Varieties line, come from the Couronne d’Or (Golden Crown), an association of local vineyards and winemakers that run through the middle of Alsace. The vines are dry farmed and trained upwards for maximum exposure to the sun. Frederic added that the wines are bottled in Stelvin screw caps to preserve the aromatic potential. The wine was full and round,
with nice fruit flavors and a long finish.
Next was the Riesling. He said that this noble variety loves the long, cool and dry season afforded by the Vosges Mountains that hold out the marine influence. The wine was crisp and well structured, slightly off dry with aromas of apples and peaches and hints of minerals in the mouth with good acidity.
Frederic feels that the Gewürztraminer is the quintessential Alsatian variety. It thrives in this region with the long, cool dry seasons and depth of minerality from the soil. This wine was very fragrant and fruity with hint of spice and aromas of pear. It is full bodied with a long finish and pleasant aftertaste.
Then we tasted the Grand Crus, the Riesling A.O.C. Alsace Grand Cru “Steinkotz” 2005, 2006 and 2007. Steinkoltz is one of only fifty vineyards in Alsace that has the Grand Cru designation. Fredric said that this is one of the oldest vineyards recorded in Alsace and records indicate that in 589 it belonged to the Merovingian King Childebert II. It is located at the Northern end of the Alsatian wine trail. The wine was well structured clean with aromas of peach, apples and a hint of minerality. I asked Federic about these three vintages. He said that they were all very good vintages but very different. The 2007 he described as being bright and clean with a mineral character.
In 2006 the weather was very hot and humid so that it was a bigger, richer vintage. 2005 was the most balanced — a high quality vintage since the weather being almost perfect.
The 2006 Reisling had the same aromas as the 2005 only fatter, riper and richer, with a hint of pineapple and a darker color. The 2007 was fresher with good acidity and a high quality vintage. Frederic also added that they only want Botrytis in their sweet wines.
We also tried the Gewurztraminer A.O.C. Alsace Grand Cru “Steinklotz” 2005 ,2006, 2007. The 2005 had hints of honey, tropical fruit and a touch of spice. 2006 was lush ,honeyed with hints of pineapple and flowers. I drank the 2006 with lobster, which was my main course. It was a great combination. 2007 was fragrant with good acidity and hints of tropical fruit.
The 2005, 2006, 2007 Pinot Gris shared the same flavor and aroma profile being rich and full with a hint of smoke and good fruit flavors and aromas with slight differences according to the vintage.
The suggested retail price for the Grand Crus is $25 and, like the Noble Varieties, I feel that they are a bargain though I prefer the former.