1994 Zind-Humbrecht “Brand” Riesling, Alsace, France

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 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.