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08.09.2009

1994 Zind-Humbrecht "Brand" Riesling, Alsace, France

zind_humbrecht_94_brand.jpgFor anyone who drinks Alsatian wines on a regular basis, let alone someone who considers themselves a fan or an aficionado of the unique wines from this narrow slice of northeastern France, it's pretty much impossible to have a discussion about the area without the name Zind-Humbrecht coming up. While everyone is reticent to pronounce any one winery "the best" no matter which region you're talking about, many people would be hard pressed to find a reason why you couldn't say that Zind-Humbrecht has the position fairly well covered for Alsace.

The Humbrecht family has a long history in winemaking, stretching back to 1620 or thereabouts, but in terms of the current domaine, this father and son operation has been in existence since 1959 when the marriage of the Zind and Humbrecht families brought together a passion for winemaking and some of the best land in Alsace under one roof. Leonard Humbrecht and his son Olivier (notable for being France's first Master of Wine and ) painstakingly create a staggering number and variety of wines of exceptional quality from their various Grand Cru and name designated vineyards.

The family has about 70 acres under cultivation, split among dozens of small vineyards which they have acquired over the years, and from this land they produce somewhere between 13,000 and 16,000 cases of wine each year. Zind Humbrecht keeps yields in these vineyards extremely low, sometimes half as much as the legally permissible tonnage for the appellation. This is helped by the fact that many of their vineyards are very difficult to work except by hand, having steep rocky slopes that permit only humans and horses to pass. The domaine employs more than twenty workers to manage the harvest, as well as to manage their growing operation which is fully biodynamic. Olivier Humbrecht was for a time (not sure if he still is) the president of the S.I.V.C.B.D (sparing you the acronym, a prominent organization of biodynamic producers in France).

This wine is a single vineyard designate from the Brand vineyard, one of the few vineyards of the region that holds the Grand Cru designation, and one of the most famous sites for growing Riesling that is not in Germany or Austria. Brand, and its neighbor Clos Jebsal (a stellar Pinot Gris vineyard also owned by Zind-Humbrecht), occupy one of the warmest sites in Alsace, a protected amphitheater that faces south-southeast and soaks up the sun. The Brand vineyard is planted to both Pinot Gris and Riesling and spreads upwards to the crest of the hill on fractured granite.

The fact that this vineyard collects the heat and sun most likely assisted greatly with ensuring the quality of this wine in the 1994 vintage, which was, as winemakers like to say "mixed" in Alsace. This is code for: not so great. Many producers had a hard time getting their Riesling ripe. The hallmark of a truly great winemaker seems to be the ability to produce a stellar wine in even the most difficult of conditions, and Olivier Humbrecht most certainly seems to have done so here.

The grapes for this wine were picked carefully by hand, totally destemmed, and lightly crushed in small amounts. Fermentation took place in large oak barrels (foudres) using native yeasts, with extended contact to the lees (the sediments left after crushing), and was allowed to ferment until it stopped naturally, somewhere after about 3 or 4 months. It was bottled without filtering or fining of any kind.

On occasion, Zind-Humbrecht also makes a late harvest version of this wine, which is quite extraordinary.

Tasting Notes:
A light amber color in the glass, this wine has a miraculous nose that vibrates like a plucked violin string between the pungency of paraffin and diesel fuel on the one hand and orange zest and candied papaya on the other. In the mouth the wine is beautifully satin in texture, quite sensuous on the tongue, with incredible balance and poise. The paraffin continues in the flavor profile though more like a side note to the explosive lemon zest, kumquat, and crystalline mineral qualities that make up the core of this delightful wine. The endless finish is spectacular.

Food Pairing:
I often find myself thinking that truly great Rieslings like this one should be drunk on their own, accompanied by little more than silent contemplation. However, I wouldn't mind nibbling on some pate? on toasted brioche with this wine in hand.

Overall Score: between 9.5 and 10

How Much?: Current vintages are around $80, but the 1994 now sells for anywhere between $90 and $110 if you can find it.


It can be difficult to find the 1994 vintage online, but other vintages can be purchased on the Internet.

Comments (17)

Larry Stein wrote:
08.10.09 at 10:20 AM

The Brand Rieslings (regular bottling, not VT or SGN) are pretty much the only wines I've had from Z-H that are dry enough for what I like in Alsatian Riesling. Personally, I find the Z-H style too sweet and over-the-top. I wish Olivier would make his wines like his father did (Leonard's last vintage was '88).

As we all know, "Best" is arguable. I'll take Trimbach, thank you very much.

Alder wrote:
08.10.09 at 10:24 AM

Larry,

Thanks for the comments. Trimbach is definitely a top choice for me as well.

Ed Lehrman wrote:
08.10.09 at 12:40 PM

I agree and somewhat agree with Larry. Agree that Z-H is often too sweet due to Olivier's philosophy of letting the wine do what it does and RS be damned. Somewhat agree that Trimbach is sometimes the better choice, but only with Clos St Hune and only with age (like Z-H drys). I just had 94 Z-H Rangen Riesling (not VT) and it was probably one of the best wines, red or white, of my long-drinking life. Had it twice in the last 2 years and mind-blowing both times--all out now :-( . Alder's notes were pretty close to this wine's.

Larry Stein wrote:
08.10.09 at 2:14 PM

Ed, I believe you have to include Cuvee Fredrich Emile in the equation. Yes, both it and CSH required substantial aging, but CFE, at a fraction of CSH's price, is affordable for us mere mortals. Heck, Trimbach's yellow label Riesling, in a good vintage, will age quite nicely for 5+ years.

Alder wrote:
08.10.09 at 5:36 PM

Agreed that CFE is an amazing value for the price, and an extraordinary wine. See this review of a recent bottle of 1990 I had.

Jake wrote:
08.10.09 at 6:05 PM

Thanks for the note. One of the greatest producers in the world IMHO, perhaps top 10. They can be a bit sweet. Now ZH now has a sweetness rating on the bottles (1-5?) since about the 2001 vintage...My guess is the Brand is a 2. I love this wine, and while I perhaps wouldn't put my Terre Brune Rose down on a hot summer evening, I fondly remember sipping these (Brand, Rangen, and Hengst Gewurtz) apres ski or after a winter hike.

Erica wrote:
08.11.09 at 8:45 PM

Personally, Alder, I like my riesling with a tarte flambťe and a side of nostalgia. But that's just me. :)

Joseph wrote:
08.16.09 at 11:10 PM

Um, what's the point of "reviewing" a 15 year old wine? I served plenty of this at Charlie Trotter's in . . . 1996-97! By now, it's a relic. That said, it is no doubt great . . . but ZH is extremely controversial regarding that "ripeness" bugaboo, and label indications (lacking) thereof. And the tasting notes are positively purple, flamboyant and absurd. Wine quackery at its finest.

Alder wrote:
08.17.09 at 8:31 AM

Joseph,

I see, so once a wine is more than a couple of years old no one should review it? Give me a break. No one's forcing you to read this blog. If you don't like my stuff go elsewhere.

Alder

Joseph wrote:
08.18.09 at 5:02 PM

So sensitive! Aren't journalists and bloggers a bit thicker-skinned? I have no problem with an evaluation of a mature wine. It's just hard to think of it as a product review. Tasting notes are a notoriously tricky literary form, as are reviews of wine, not to mention scores. My objection in this case is that the rhetorical flourishes are hyperbolic. "Pungency of paraffin" and "crystalline mineral?" Come on. Most previous notes of yours that I have read have been sound and informative, but outlandish non-reality based words like "miraculous" and "endless" are a bit over the top too. And the comic mixed metaphor of a nose with two hands was priceless. See, people do read this stuff! Keep up the great work, just be reasonable.

Alder wrote:
08.18.09 at 9:27 PM

I reject all calls for reasonableness like I reject the lint that accumulates between my toes. What do you think this is, a legitimate journalistic outlet? This is a blog, for Pete's sake. I do whatever the hell I want to do and unfortunately you're stuck reading it! This is not literature, it's opinionated blather from yours truly, and I hold my rhetorical flourishes, hyperbole, and mixed metaphors dearly. If you're looking for someone to conform to your idea of what wine writing is, I've got a magazine subscription to sell you.

Joseph wrote:
08.20.09 at 9:28 AM

Dude, I'm only responding in the context of your own blog, and Eric Asimov's excellent points. It's the ongoing fodder of good-spirited vinous debate.
http://www.vinography.com/archives/2009/02/eric_asimov_and_the_tyranny_of.html

Alder wrote:
08.20.09 at 9:33 AM

Of course! You're entitled to your opinions, and more than welcome to express them on the site.

Ray Barnes wrote:
11.21.09 at 11:17 AM

I like this review for its less analytical and more emotional style. When it's all said and done, wine is meant to give pleasure, and Alder clearly was enjoying it. If some find his writing style effusive or over-enthusastic, well, there are other wine critics out there. In a world where public opinion is predominantly negative, it is a refreshing change of pace for me to see some positivity.

As for the "controversy" of residual sugar - I've had the opportunity to sample Z-H bottlings with anywhere from 3 to 50+ g/l, and found them all very well made. I do not find he has a consistent overall style or even for that matter an absolutely consistent vineyard style (Herrenweg comes to mind). M Olivier Humbrecht likes to make fine almost fully dry wine, as and when fermentation results in that. If that is called "non-interventionist", I support that approach as well.

I would like to see some more reviews of this winemaker.

Ray Barnes wrote:
11.21.09 at 12:49 PM

If I may add a postscript to this, it's worth noting this Riesling in Alder's opinion is showing very well after 15 years - and M Humbrecht has gone on record as saying people often drink his wines too soon, that they get drier with aging.

Tom Esdaile wrote:
12.01.09 at 4:11 AM

This is a nice post. I wold however like to know what other producers -besides ZH and the "negotiants" Hugel and Trimbach- are worthy of our attentions in Alsace.
The Grand Cru Schlossberg was the first to receive this classification: surely there are some top producers there as well?

I have the omnous feling that critics concentrate on the big three names because they can actually source their wines (and hence taste them), rather than because they are in a class of their own.

Cheers

Ray Barnes wrote:
12.01.09 at 8:55 AM

I would say the Big Three is closer to something like the Big Twelve or more. While I can't reel off the rest of them off the top of my head, since you mentioned the GC Schlossberg, I have to mention Domaine Weinbach, managed by the Fallers. They produce 3 Riesling cuvees from and near this GC of which two are typically dry or nearly dry and the other (I believe called the Riesling Schlossberg Cuvee Ste Catherine L'Inedit!, the last word implying the One and Only, and the ! is on the label) typically having about 30 grams of r/s but having a style between dry and vendange tardive. Marcel Deiss, Domaine Schoffit, and Domaines Schlumberger, its top GC cuvees, are well exploring too - and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

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