Pinot Noir from Alsace

When you consider the wines of Alsace, it’s probably fine, fragrant whites that come to mind. That’s understandable. The Alsace wine grower has six white grape varieties — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner – to play with. Most growers make wine from all six, with multiple cuvées of each. But there’s a seventh grape variety permitted in this slender winegrowing region on France’s eastern side, and it’s red: Pinot Noir.

Given Alsace’s white wine proclivities, it’s hardly any wonder that Alsatian Pinot Noir of old – pale, thinnish, often somewhat unripe — felt a bit like a red wine that was actually a white at heart. The fact that it was almost always bottled in the tall, slim, Rhine-style flûte (obligatory for white wine, though not for red) only served to reinforce this impression.

The classic flute shape for Alsace white wine, pictured at Domaine Weinbach

But change is afoot, and the classic red grape of Burgundy, once the Cinderella of the Alsace family, is slowly coming into its own. Though fine, world-class Pinot Noir remains rare here, there are nonetheless a few producers (Albert Mann, Muré,  Zusslin, Hugel et al) who have already taken this famously fickle grape in new and — for Alsace — unaccustomed directions.

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Vins d’Alsace Schoenheitz, Wihr-au-Val

Wihr au ValWihr-au-Val, a small village that lies just off the main road leading from Colmar up to the Munster Valley, feels like an unlikely place to find fine wines. Here the broad, flat-bottomed valley is vividly green, fringed alternately by vineyards — some of which climb to altitudes of 500 metres — and steeply rising forests of mixed broadleaf and coniferous trees. It’s not even on the Route des Vins, for goodness sake… but it’s well worth the detour – for the wines of Henri, Dominique and Adrien Schoenheitz. If you haven’t already tasted them, it’s time. Go.

Henri grew up here in the valley, while his wife Dominique comes originally from Burgundy; they met at wine school in Beaune. In 1980, their studies completed, they came back to the Schoenheitz family fold and resolved to re-establish the estate and restore the village’s reputation. This was a herculean task: at the end of the Second World War when troops swarmed down the valley in the final push towards Colmar, laying waste to everything in their wake, all the vineyards and almost all the fine old Alsatian houses were destroyed — walk around the village today and you’ll see that most of the buildings are of undistinguished post-war construction.

Over the years the few remaining wine growers in the village had more or less abandoned the vines and reverted to polyculture. The few who still owned vines sold the grapes to the local cooperative. Henri and Dominique set about rescuing and restructuring these vineyards of ancient repute and proceeded to prove by the quality of their wines that here was something worth saving. Nowadays, together with their son Adrien, they work 15 hectares. Their vineyards, which rise up steeply from the village at altitudes between 350 and 550 metres, are all south- and southwest-facing: the perfect combination of height for freshness and good exposition for optimal ripeness. Granite predominates in this part of the valley – typical of vineyards in close proximity to the Vosges mountains – giving wines of firm structure and some finesse.

They divide their wine list in three sections: Classiques (i.e. entry-level), Exclusifs (a notch up, from lieux-dits or named vineyards) and Mythiques (special cuvees, late-harvest and Sélection de Grains Nobles wines). There are no Grands Crus here, but the Schoenheitz’s have vines in four lieux-dits (named vineyards) dotted around the village. Linsenberg or ‘lentil hill’, mainly decomposed granite, is planted above all to Riesling with a little Pinot Noir. Holder (‘elder’), a little heavier with granite and clay, is good for Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurz . In the lighter, sandy soils of Herrenreben (the gentlemen’s vineyard) there is more Riesling and Pinot Gris, including — in the best years — some spectacular late-harvest wines. The vineyards in Val Saint-Grégoire (which was the original name of the Munster Valley) have always been a terre de predilection for Pinot Blanc.  The Schoenheitz’s also have some Pinot Noir and Gris planted here.

Every year over the Whit Weekend (some time at the end of May) the family puts on a splendid Pique-Nique chez le Vigneron or ‘picnic at the winery’. A small tent is pitched, precariously, on a narrow shelf high in the Herrenreben vineyard, and furnished with simple trestle tables and benches. You walk up carrying your own picnic (a good icebreaker is to bring something to share with the rest of the table) and the house wine flows in abundance. After lunch there’s a chance to get up close and personal with the grapes and to hear Dominique and Henri explain the development of the vines and grapes so far as they walk you back down to the winery through the vineyards. Check their website for dates and if you can, mark your calendar and sign up for this fun event.

Vins d’Alsace Schoenheitz
1 rue de Walbach, 68230 Wihr-au-Val
Tel. +33 (0)3 89 71 03 96