Vertical Tasting of Trimbach's Riesling Clos Ste. Hune

About a dozen years ago, I participated in an extensive vertical tasting of Domaine Trimbach's great Riesling Clos Ste. Hune covering vintages from the early '90s back to the late '60s.  It was unquestionably one of the most exciting white wine tastings I've ever been part of.  There wasn't a single wine over the hill, and most of them had years of positive development to look forward to.  So I jumped at the opportunity to conduct a Clos Ste. Hune vertical last summer for The Wine Workshop in New York City.

Clos Ste. Hune is made from a 3-acre clos within the Rosacker grand cru, which covers just over 26 acres north of the village of Hunawihr, at an altitude of 260 to 330 meters.  It is clearly one of the world's handful of top riesling sites and has the track record to prove it.  The Trimbachs have always labeled their wine simply as Clos Ste. Hune.  In other words, they don't refer either to Rosacker or to grand cru on the label, as they feel that the wine transcends both monikers.  It is hors classe in the same way that Chateau d'Yquem is in Sauternes.

Incidentally, although many of Alsace's grand cru vineyards have been expanded significantly over the years (originally they were the sweet spot on a slope but over time have often been expanded, often for political reasons, to include less-favored parts of the hillside), export manager and family ambassador Jean Trimbach told me that he didn't think Rosacker had been enlarged by more than 10 acres or so over the years, unlike some other large grand crus like Schlossberg (now 80 acres) and Hengst (76 acres).

Many wine insiders believe that Clos Ste. Hune is the single best site for growing riesling in France.  Most of Alsace's other top riesling sites rely on steep slopes and heat-retaining granite, schist or calcareous sandstone soil to bring their fruit to full ripeness.  But Clos Ste. Hune's 40-year-old vines are planted on a gentle slope, on cool, limestone-rich soil.  The soil features a high concentration of magnesium.  The result, almost invariably, is a wine with a rare combination of richness and intense minerality, finesse and serious structure.  Clos Ste. Hune begins with cool, high-pitched notes of flowers, lime, pepper and crushed stone, then deepens steadily over the decades, gaining in texture and picking up lower-toned notes of smoky, soil-driven minerality, honey, coffee, tobacco, truffle and vanilla.

The Trimbach family, which has made wine in Alsace continuously for nearly four centuries, has resisted the trend in Alsace toward making sweeter, more immediately accessible wines.  Winemaking hasn't changed much here in recent decades:  a cool, slow fermentation; a quick racking to remove the wine from its lees; no malolactic fermentation; and a short period of aging in neutral wood foudres followed by an early bottling to retain the fruit.  But the wine is then held back in the Trimbach cellars for a good five years before it's released.  (Actually, long-time winemaker Pierre Trimbach, Jean's brother, told me that in 1993 the malolactic fermentation started naturally, and he let it finish.)

In great warm years, tiny amounts of late-harvest wines (vendanges tardives) are made, but they are different from other Alsace VTs.  They result not from botrytis but from passerillage--a dehydration of the grapes, usually caused by heat and dry wind, which result in the sap returning to the vine's root system.  Although these bottles display huge concentration and great complexity, they're still not particularly high in residual sugar, as Trimbach vinifies them to be as dry as possible.  Like other Clos Ste. Hunes, the VTs are capable of developing in bottle for decades.

Clos Ste. Hune was first produced in 1919, but according to Jean Trimbach not a single bottle of this wine remains in the family's cellars.  In recent decades, there was no Clos Ste. Hune produced in 1961, 1972, 1980 and 1984, and only 250 cases were bottled in 2003.  Typical annual production of Clos Ste. Hune is in the range of 500 to 600 cases. The wines are spread thinly around the world (along with the family's Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile, Clos Ste. Hune is listed in every Michelin three-star restaurant in France) and can be hard to find.  But they also appear quite frequently in the auction market, thanks to their rabid following and outstanding longevity.

The great aging potential of Clos Ste. Hune was once again clear to see in my recent tasting, which involved mostly perfectly stored bottles from my own cellar.  In recent weeks I opened several more vintages chez moi.  One night, I tried the 1996, which was still remarkably young; a few nights later, I uncorked the 1973.  The wine was paler in color than the '96 and still full of life.  In other words, it had slept gently for another 23 years--or three or four times the useful life of a typical California chardonnay--and seemed barely older.

The wines in this article were tasted last summer, with a few additional vintages (1996, 1995 and 1981), sampled in recent weeks and a couple others (1990, 1983) retasted.  Alas, my bottle of the 1986 at the main tasting was oxidized, and the bottle of 1981 I opened recently was marred by a moldy cork.

Show all the wines (sorted by vintage)

--Ian D'Agata