Vertical Tasting of Zind-Humbrecht's Riesling Brand and Riesling Rangen

If you were to ask any serious wine expert for his or her list of the top white wine estates in the world today, Alsace's Domaine Zind-Humbrecht would nearly always be among those included.  For an estate with such a lofty reputation, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht is not a particularly old one, founded only in 1959 (but members of the Humbrecht family have been winegrowers since 1620), when Léonard Humbrecht married Généviève Zind.  Leonard Humbrecht was perhaps the first in Alsace to greatly reduce yields, and he created wines of uncommon depth and precision.  He believed that grand cru yields should never exceed 35 hectoliters per hectare--or less than half of what was common to those times.  This philosophy is viewed as normal nowadays but was anything but back in the 1970s and 1980s.  In fact, back then Humbrecht's entry-level wines were often more concentrated than the grand crus of other producers. 

Humbrecht also believed in buying land in the best possible sites.  Today the domain owns roughly 40 hectares of vines, including parcels in some of Alsace's truly greatest grand crus, such as Hengst (1.4 hectares), Brand (2.4 hectares) and Rangen (5.5 hectares).  Zind-Humbrecht makes wines from all the typical Alsace varieties, from sylvaner to gewürztraminer.  Leonard's son Olivier, who took over responsibility for winemaking in the late '80s, has brought yet another dimension to the viticulture and winemaking, turning resolutely towards biodynamic agriculture.  He played a key role in setting up Biodyvin, an association of wine producers that champion biodynamic agriculture, and has an M.W. degree, a rarity amongst the world's winemakers. Listening to him speak about wine (in excellent English, should you not speak French) is an experience no wine lover should miss.

Besides its stellar sweet wines, the estate's most sought after bottlings are arguably its rieslings made from the Brand and Rangen grand crus (the exact name of Zind-Humbrecht's Rangen riesling is Rangen de Thann Clos St. Urbain:  it takes its name from the walled vineyard's small chapel dedicated to the local patron saint of vine-growers).  Ironically, as great as the rieslings are from these two sites, the variety both sites are historically most famous for is pinot gris.  Generally speaking, rieslings from the Brand (at 800 to 1,050 feet above sea level, it's a lower-lying, earlier-ripening site) are more exotic and rich, while those from the Rangen (at roughly 1,100 to 1,500 feet above sea level, it's the highest grand cru in all of Alsace; it's also the southernmost grand cru of the region) tend to be more mineral and saline.  Olivier feels that the best Brand wines come from those areas that have the typical black and white mica soil; the black mica is degraded by bacteria in the soil, making minerals more available to the vines' roots.  "It's the microbiological activity in the soils that makes them interesting," he adds.

The Rangen is perhaps Alsace's most famous grand cru (for many experts, Alsace's single greatest vineyard of all).  Its vineyards were already prized in the 12th century.  It's neck-achingly steep, and terracing is a necessity.  In fact, Rangen is so steep that viticulture had been abandoned there and it was Leonard Humbrecht who began replanting in the 1970s.  The Rangen is a suntrap (much like the original Brand was too); its dark, mineral-rich, stony soils covered in greywacke (fine sandstone with volcanic elements), andesite (fine-grained volcanic rock), volcanic rocks and tufa ash (which captures and retains heat) are unique in Alsace.  The soils speak of Rangen's volcanic origin and explain the great ripeness and power of wines made from grapes grown there.  At Zind-Humbrecht, the viticulture is biodynamic, and the winemaking non-interventionist: wines are kept on their lees for 6 to 12 months or more and are generally bottled much later than at many other Alsace estates.

The following wines were tasted twice: the first time in Merano, Italy, in November of 2012, in the presence of Olivier Humbrecht from bottles that came directly from the estate; and the second time in May of this year in Rome, with bottles from my own cellar that had been purchased by me in Alsace over the years. Amazingly, not a single bottle in either tasting was affected by cork taint or any other flaw.  Overall, the scores are high but readers need to realize that these are two of the greatest dry white wines made anywhere in the world.

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-Ian D'Agata