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05.07.2008

1990 Trimbach "Cuvee Frederic Emile" Riesling, Alsace

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I can remember a time when the word "Alsace" only brought to mind dim memories of my 5th grade class discussion on some valley that people were fighting about in one of those big wars. In those days I definitely couldn't spell Gewurztraminer, and I had only tried one or two of them.

Perhaps you'd call me a late bloomer when it came to Alsatian wine, but bloom I eventually did, and now I'm a quiet, but fierce devotee of what I believe to be some of the most individualistic wines on the planet. Alsace has always been an odd duck of a winegrowing region. It is the only region in France that not only allows, but mandates that the name of the grape variety appear on the label (though there are exceptions). It happens to grow grapes more associated with Germany and Northern Italy than with the rest of France (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris), and perhaps by virtue of its occasionally Germanic past, produces more beer than any other winegrowing region in the country.

Characterized by steep hillside vineyards whose sun exposure, coupled with the region's cooler climate make for long slow grape maturation, Alsace has been worked by small village winemakers for centuries (major regional wars notwithstanding). There are thousands of producers in the region, though according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, about 175 of those producers make up nearly 80 percent of the regions production. Many of those 175 are still relatively small by French standards, but some, due to their tenure as well as success have grown to be significant producers that make enough wine for export all over the globe.

Trimbach (or more properly, Maison Trimbach) is perhaps one of the best known of these larger producers, and for good reason. The Trimbach family has been making wine under their name since progenitor Jean Trimbach founded the house label in 1636. Twelve generations later, the estate is still run by the family, and is synonymous with the region, producing what some consider to be the finest wines around.

For the first two hundred or so years, Trimbach wines were made, like many in the region, in relative obscurity. Produced and consumed all within a 25 mile radius, the wines were part of the fabric of village life. Around the turn of the 20th Century, however, the then proprietor Frederic Emile Trimbach submitted the family's wines to be shown at the 1897 Brussels Exposition, where they were apparently greeted with significant acclaim.

Now, nearly 120 years after that initial success, Trimbach is known for producing two of the region's finest wines -- both Rieslings. One is bottled under the name Clos St. Hune, and comes from the Grand Cru Rosacker vineyard, and is widely regarded as the region's best Riesling. The other is this wine, named after the enterprising Frederic Emile, whose marketing skills launched more than a century of prominence for his family winery. In addition to these top wines, Trimbach makes 13 other wines, in quantities ranging from a couple thousand cases to the tens of thousands.

Cuvee Frederic Emile is made mostly from grapes grown on a south-southeast facing hillside vineyard named Osterberg above the winery. The limestone rich soil of this Grand Cru vineyard drains quickly and deep, and the grapevines are, on average, 30 years old. The grapes are picked with painstaking deliberation into small shoulder baskets over a series of days, with the goal of selecting only fully ripe clusters of grapes. These clusters are destemmed and assiduously sorted, again to ensure only the choicest grapes are crushed and fermented, ever so slowly, with native yeasts.

I'm not sure about the total production of this wine. The Clos St. Hune is less than 600 cases, but I suspect Cuvee Frederic Emile is made in slightly larger quantities. Were it more plentiful, however, it might be more common to find beautiful aged bottles like this one that some good friends shared with me last month. Trimbach's wines, especially their top cuvees, seem to age forever, and as they do, their personalities begin to truly shine.

Every time I enjoy Rieslings from the Old World like this one, I realize that I don't drink enough Riesling. Every time I enjoy such a beautiful Alsatian wine, I am reminded that I definitely don't drink enough of Alsace.


Tasting Notes:
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has a shockingly bright nose of quince and honey that begs to be inhaled slowly, as if that were physically possible. On the tongue it is halogen bright, with gorgeous acidity that brings to life a swath of flavors ranging from fresh lemon juice and honey to paraffin and nut skin. The wine lasts forever in the mouth, lingering through its drawn out finish on vapors of pomelo and orange zest. A fantastic, distinctive wine.

Food Pairing:
Whatever you eat with this wine, make sure it's damn good. I drank this on my birthday last month and enjoyed it with many things, but especially with a light cooked shellfish salad of crab, squid, octopus, and clams in an "ocean vinaigrette" with seasoned sesame.

Overall Score: between 9.5 and 10

How Much?: roughly $110 - $190 these days. Current releases (2003) go for $35.

This vintage of the wine can occasionally be found on the internet. Current releases can be purchased here.

Comments (5)

Wink Lorch wrote:
05.08.08 at 1:52 PM

By chance just saw Tyler's latest post today (www.drvino.com) on the 2001 vintage, and I tasted the 2002 yesterday in London at the press tasting for supermarket Waitrose. Great that you both highlight this stunning wine - it's always been one of the reliably exciting Rieslings from Alsace. They have obviously got a reasonably high production level and offer it at a fair price for the quality (though having said that, it is available at a pretty steep £27 GB pounds at just 6 branches of Waitrose). I've seen it over the years listed in restaurants in various parts of France, often with a mature vintage at a fair price.

Eric wrote:
05.10.08 at 1:55 AM

Alder, I'd love to see more wines of this style profiled. I've discovered that the white wine growers I like the most here in Burgundy are those who appreciate Riesling. They bring a sense of pure expression of terroir to their Burgundian wines. Anyone who has spent anytime in Burgundy or Bordeaux with growers knows that in these regions, there is often little depth of knowledge of other regions. I was recently in Alsace with a group of Burgundians visiting Hugel among others. The Hugel Jubilée riesling is the same style of wine as Frédéric Emile, long, lean, concentrated...with verve. But frankly, few of my Burgundian colleauges got it. They are so used to rich, oaked, malo'd wines that a young Riesling of quality almost seems like a quaffing wine. Ironically, only a young up and coming vignéron from Cairanne could recognize the underlying quality of the wine but he had done a sommelier formation previously.

There is no doubt these are food wines. And if you can wait 15-20 years like you did, they can really come into their own, opening up potential for all to see. Still they are food wines though. Placing them next to a big, oaked Chardonnay would be like playing Débussey next to a rock concert. They will never be a Newton Chardonnay which has not fear of being left all by itself under any conditions.

Trimbach does make a lot of wine, and frankly the domain wines should be branded differently from the négoce wines. The domain wines are: Clos St Hûne, Frédéric Emile and the Ribeaupierre Gewurtz. The Gewurtz is fantastic. These are quite distinct from the négoce wines and what most collectors should be looking for.

Blended wines are tolerated in Alsace now but not until recently in the Grand Cru. Marcel Deiss has ignored the rules and bottle his blended Grand Cru wines. But they are not blended in Bordeaux sense. They are field blends co-fermented. I understand recently he has gotten official approval, not like he needed it, to use a blend in the Altenberg vineyard. I ran into a wine at the Cave Pfaffenheim labeled with two varieties-Riesling/Pinot Gris which is illegal. They had used a New World technique-the front label was the back label...on the back label (legal front label) was all the legal information and simply noted AOC Alsace.

The Trimbach/Hugel style is classic. Zind-Humbrecht represent the new style, rich, concentrated, alcohol and sweet. For me, both complement eachother. Zind-Humbrecht wines are basically late harvest wines. Almost all the single vineyard wines qualify as Vendange Tardive, he just chooses not to label them that way.

I will leave with the words of Hubert Trimbach: "We are Protestants. Our wines have the Protestant style -- vigour, firmness, a beautiful acidity, lovely freshness. Purity and cleanness, that's Trimbach. No wood: I hate wood! Purity and cleanness, always. Parker has taken us in the wrong direction. He has a sweet tooth. The Americans have corrupted the taste of wine drinkers. These wines are long in cask, they do malolactic, they sit on their sediments, they get so fat that only Americans can drink them. Zind-Humbrecht is made by Parker. Everything I say you take with a little grain of salt, n'est-ce pas?" Hubert Trimbach, The New France, 2002, pgs 70-71

05.12.08 at 5:48 PM

Wow, it sounds like you had as much fun with your Riesling as I did on this Wine Blogging Wednesday!

Ray Barnes wrote:
11.21.09 at 1:21 PM

I wholeheartedly agree with Alder about the individuality of the Alsace region - I would say this area makes the best Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, and arguably, dry Riesling in the world. Best news is, many of these superb wines are still very affordable.

As for M Trimbach's criticism of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, I find it smacks of professional jealousy, and is without substance or merit. Perhaps he should pick up a bottle of the 2006 Zind, a cuvee of Chardonnay and Pinot Auxerrois from Clos Windsbuhl, which has only 3 g/l r.s. It's pretty much bone dry, and very nice to drink.

john p kaiser wrote:
07.23.10 at 5:44 AM

looking for comments from actual growers, opinions etc

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