1997 Zind-Humbrecht “Clos Jebsal” Pinot Gris VT, Alsace

For 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 Clos Jebsal vineyard, a steep three-acre Pinot Gris vineyard which has a soil rich in gypsum and schist, and one of the three stone-walled vineyards that the domaine owns entirely. This vineyard sits next to Brand, one of the few Grand Cru vineyards in the region. One of the warmest spots in all of Alsace, this south-facing vineyard in particular tends to very easily go through passerillage, or the slight shriveling of grapes on the vine as they move past fully ripe into super ripeness, and also to easily develop botrytis, or “Noble rot,” if the grapes are left long enough on the vine. As the grapes shrivel because of the rot, they shed water and their sugars concentrate, allowing Zind-Humbrecht to produce this wine which is designated Vendange Tardive, or “late harvest,” a wine known as Sélection de Grains Passerillage, as well as a more concentrated dessert wine known as Sélection de Grains Nobles, which is much sweeter.

This wine was picked late, totally destemmed, and lightly crushed in small amounts. It was fermented in large oak barrels (foudres) using native yeasts, with extended contact to the lees (the sediments left after crushing), and I believe was prevented from undergoing a secondary, malolactic fermentation. It was bottled without filtering or fining.

Tasting Notes:
A bright, light gold color in the glass, this wine has a gorgeously perfumed nose of honey, fresh shelled almonds, and dried mango. In the mouth it is gorgeously supple with a thick, silky, sensuous mouthfeel and explosive flavors of jackfruit, honey, light melon, and juicy pears that roil together in a slow rumbling turbulence of flavor for minutes in the back of the throat. While I tend to prefer dry wines in general, this wine is a blockbuster, and one of the best Pinot Gris I have ever had. The friend who shared this bottle with me has drunk through about half of his case of this wine over the last couple of years, and he seemed to think that this was an especially good bottle (of a generally fantastic wine).

Food Pairing:
This would, of course, be an excellent choice to replace a Sauternes in the classic pairing with foie gras, and in fact I had it with a torchon of foie and it was excellent, but I’d almost prefer to have this wine with an interesting preparation of fish, perhaps with some Asian spices, like this Thai fish with red curry sauce.

Overall Score: 10

How Much?: Current vintages are around $45, but the 1997 now sells for anywhere between $35 and $80.

It can be difficult to find online.