Ever since I was a “little” kid, I have been tall. If I remember correctly, I was around 14 pounds at birth and I was always the tallest kid in my class. Today, I am “only” 6’4″ which barely fits into the the “normal” category. (For those that don’t know, my Ph.D. is in Educational Policy which required to know quite a bit of statistics. The average American male is 5’10” and the standard deviation is right at 3 inches. Thus, I am 2 standard deviations above the norm, meaning I am as tall or taller than 95% of the population–still “normal” according to statisticians.)
I also have a theory that the majority of people (even the vast majority) would, if given the chance, opt to be either 2 inches taller or 2 inches shorter. I have no evidence to support this contention (other than the anecdotal evidence of acting several people on occasion) but I know I fall into that category. Despite the adverse affect it would have likely had on my basketball career (when telling me that I made the team in college, the coach added: “You know why you made the team?” Before I could respond with “Hard work and a killer jump shot?” he continued “You can’t teach six foot four.”) The prospect of saving my skull numerous run-ins with dining room chandeliers alone would make it worth it.
As I pack up my bike for a trip to Oregon, wishing that the monstrosity that is my new gravel bike were at least a size or two smaller, I also know that smaller editions of other items are not always a good thing. Airplane seats and hotdogs come to mind–both get better as they get bigger.
The same can be said about wine bottles. I have long contested that smaller format bottles just don’t make any sense. The 375ml isn’t a good vessel for wine. I get it, you might live alone or just don’t want to be tempted to drink a whole bottle. To that, I say, either find a drinking partner, learn how to put the cork back in the bottle and into the fridge, or teach yourself some self-restraint.
None of this was on my mind when I registered for last month’s Vins d’Alsace Digitasting, an event with dozens of producers over the course of three days. I signed up to meet with ten producers over the three days (two were no-shows), with each winery slotted to send me four wines which we would talk about, one-on-one over Zoom (or one of the Zoom-like equivalents).
Sounds great. Sure, that would be forty bottles of wine to open in three days, but I had been around that block many, many times already. I had no inkling, however, that they were going to get small. And not just kind of small, but really small. A “regular” bottle of wine is 750ml and therefore a half bottle is 375ml. Those ridiculous “splits” are half again the size at 187ml and are roughly a glass and a quarter worth of wine, if you consider 5 ounces to be a “regular” pour.
Well, what showed up on my doorstep were ten boxes, each containing four mini (and I do mean mini) bottles (vials, really) of wine. 30ml, or just a hair over an ounce, of wine. Initially, I was more than a bit perturbed. As I have stated on countless occasions, I like to taste a wine several times over the course of at least a couple of hours before making any sort of assessment as a wine evolves considerably once it is exposed to air.
That would not be happening here as an ounce is barely more than a sip. It is a standard shot glass.
When that first day of the tastings rolled around, however, there I was at my laptop, with my “bottles” chilled (roughly 80-90% of Alsatian wines are white), ready to go. And I was surprised. Even very surprised. I was shocked that the French could a) agree to such a concept and b) pull off such a feat (although anyone with even a cursory knowledge of European history knows that Alsatians have quite a bit of German in them). I was also amazed how well the wines showed–transferring all that wine into tiny, little bottles had to risk exposure to air, which could have easily affected the wines.
What did not surprise me, however, was the engaging, informative, even jovial discussions I had over those three days. I have long felt that the people of Alsace are the most outgoing and welcoming in all of France. While I did not have the time (or the wine) to make detailed notes on the wines, here are my thoughts on the conversations and wines I tried.
Maison Léon Beyer
First up was Maison Léon Beyer, a family who has been making wines in Eguisheim since 1580. The Leon Beyer wines, which “have always maintained a dry style even as sugar has invaded the wines,” were quite extraordinary, even at 30cl doses. The 2015 Grand Cru Eichberg (92 pts) was laser focused and refreshing, while the 2013 Grand Cru Pfersiberg (93 pts) was a tad richer and fuller-bodied. Both completely dry and really what one would expect (or even beyond) from Grand Cru Riesling. Next was the 2016 Eichberg Pinot Gris (95 pts), which was pretty close to transformative, rich, full-bodied, unctuous, it is amazing that this is the same grape that produces so many rather dull and unexciting wines. Last, we tasted a 2016 Pinot Noir (91 pts), a variety that does not achieve Grand Cru status in Alsace (although when asked, Marc Beyer, the thirteenth generation winemaker responded that perhaps it will in the future) but winemakers in the region seem to be upping their game a bit with the variety. Such is the case here. While it is certainly not in the style of many of the California Pinots that I have grown to love, it is juicy in its own right. But make no mistake, this wine is acid driven from the jump, which makes it ever-so-appealing.
Domaine Paul Blanck
Perhaps one of the more engaging talks was with Philippe Blanck, whose family can trace their winemaking roots back to 1610. We covered a ton of topics in our 30 minutes, and the wines were sublime. The 2017 Schlossberg Grand Cru Riesling is tangy, rich and fantastic, mineral, and full-bodied. Fantastic (93 pts). The Domaine today only produces around 3,000 cases a year, having recently shrunk the vineyards from 38 to 24 hectares. “We have kept the intention but changed the process” claimed Philippe. The 2018 Furstentum Grand Cru Riesling (94 pts) comes from more marl soils, and is less Riesling like and more akin to wines of Burgundy. More body and power than the Schlosssberg, with a rich texture. Wonderful. We then switched to my first Gewurz of the tasting and the 2016 Furstentum Grand Cru Gewurztraminer (92 pts) “We make wine to pair with food, not for numbers” and this wine bears that out, coming from a cold vintage, which really shaped the acidity. Quite floral and lovely, sweet, but balanced. Last, we had the 2015 Cuvée F Pinot Noir. Whoa. This will challenge your concept of Pinot Noir in general, rich but reserved, fruity but clearly acid driven, this might be the best Pinot I’ve had from Alsace. (95 pts).
Domaine Bott-Geyl à Ribeauvillé
The third (and last) tasting on that first day was with Domaine Bott-Geyl, a biodynamic (a step beyond organic, essentially) producer from the lovely town of Ribeauvillé.We started with the 2017 Schlossberg Grand Cru Riesling which was flinty and fresh with an intense richness. Steely and focused on the palate. Lovely (92 pts). The domaine is a bit of a leader when it comes to responsible farming practices as it has been organic and biodynamic since 2000 over six different grands cru vineyards which contain mostly Riesling. The 2017 Mandelberg Grand Cru Riesling comes from a vineyard surrounded by almond trees which helps to keep the land warm and free from frost. “Sec tendre” flinty and fruity with intense acidity and lovely fruit, whoa, lovely. Calcaire soils. (94 pts). The 8g/l of residual sugar, does not come off like that at all as the acidity really is off the charts. The 2016 Pinot Noir is spicy and fruity, they are trying to achieve a more powerful Pinot, closer to Burgundy. Very nice (89 pts). Finally, the 2016 Sonnenglanz Grand Cru Pinot Gris contains a healthy 30g/l of residual sugar and is one of three Pinot Gris wines made by the Domaine. Fresh and fruity, not quite off-dry, but certainly some sugar there. Quite spicy as well. Nice. (93 pts).