Justin Boxler of Niedermorschwihr: the Majesty of the Sommerberg

Justin Boxler of Niedermorschwihr: the Majesty of the Sommerberg

Bonjour des pentes follement raides de Niedermorschwihr,
Today’s quixotic intro is the result of pure kismet, an unintentional collision of passion meets unlikely overlapping threads of circumstance. I have visited regularly with Jean Boxler of Domaine Albert Boxler over the past few years, as his Rieslings from the high elevation, decomposed granite soils of the Sommerberg are some of the most profound white wines that I have ever encountered, from any corner of the globe. The very first time that I laid eyes on its INSANELY STEEP slopes, I was beside myself with awe, incredulous that such a place was even possible and that people had chosen to farm a hill so steep, up to 45 degrees in pitch, for nearly a millennium. There is no hesitation, no question: this is an incredibly special place.
Thus begins our curious encounter, as I check into the Hotel de l’Ange in tiny and adorable Niedermorschwihr. The hotel looked cute on Booking.com, one of only two or three in this wee storybook village. As I am unpacking our luggage in the street, my car is parked directly in front of a seemingly ancient doorway, a sign on its flank reading, “Domaine Justin Boxler”. There is a very old man sitting in the shade of its stone archway. I roll our goodies inside and am greeted by a frenetic and jovial woman who promptly checks us in. You can just tell that she is the queen bee. As Amber settles into the room, I return to the front desk, now with the same old man sitting beside it, sipping a cup of coffee. I inquire, “Pardon me, sir. I couldn’t help but notice that you were sitting by the entrance to the Justin Boxler cellars.”
“That’s because we are Boxlers,” chirped the woman at the front desk with a playful smile.
“Are you related to Albert Boxler?,” I ask, almost redundantly (I mean, come on, the town has like 100 inhabitants….how could they not be?).
“Indeed. My name is Anne, and my grandfather was Justin, brother of Albert. The two brothers split the family holdings equally some four generations ago.”
“I see! Tiny Niedermorschwihr! I am an American importer, here to visit with Jean tomorrow.”
“Oh yes, he exports A LOT of wine to America,” Anne adds. “If you would like, you can taste some of our wines.”
“That would be wonderful, please.” I had no idea what to expect, sort of rolling with it, seeing where things led…..
Anne scooped up the portable telephone from the front desk (i’m beginning to sense that she is on multitasking overdrive 24/7, which is continually affirmed in my brief time there), and quickly we shuffle across the street into the winery. Rapid fire like, Anne gets me up to speed, jumping from point to point as I begin to taste through the 2012 and 2013 iterations of the 20 some cuvees that they make, including 4 distinct Grand cru sites. She tells me that their labels were designed by the same artistic relative that designed the Albert Boxler lables, a fellow named Arthur Boxler. Today, it is her brother Pierre who is in charge of the vineyards and vinification, with her 23 year old son Florent freshly reinstalled in the family domaine after working for three years with the Barthelme brothers of Domaine Albert Mann, another one of the top 5 estates in all of Alsace (imho). They have historically sold 100% of their production through the cellar door to a fiercely loyal base of private clients, with a LOT of heavy trunkloads rolling their way back to northern Europe. As Anne rummages through a fridge full of bottles, she dials the phone, getting Pierre and Florent on the line; they’re working in the Sommerberg at that moment, removing grasses and weeds with a pick axe. It is too steep for any kind of mechanization, and they stopped using chemical desherbants almost a decade ago. As I get to the Grand cru tier of wines, my eyes get big as flavor explodes on my palate. BOOM. Powerful, palate coating dry Riesling, of high acidity and mineral dry extract. This is the real deal, i’m thinking to myself…..
As I furiously scribble notes about the dizzying array of wines (now onto the 2013 Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer wines), in walks Pierre and Florent, soaked with sweat. Ah, the glamour of wine growing!! ;0 We shoot the proverbial sh!t for a bit, and then descend into the cellars to taste some of the ’14s out of cask. The aura of these old cellars is just awesome, large old foudres with hand carved figures at the spigot. The ’14 wines, destined to be bottled around harvest time in September, are rounding into form quite well. There is a richness, poise, and brightness to the Gewurz and Pinot Gris wines that renders them exceptionally elegant, always the key for residual sugar varieties for which opulence is a pitfall. The ’14 Rieslings are a tougher read, some still digesting sugars and not yet morphed into a more “finished” state. Nonetheless, I am more than impressed with what I taste, not to mention that I am still starstruck that this is happening at all!! An hour ago, I didn’t know that these people existed……
Following a birthday dinner interlude at the adorable “Au Raisin d’Or” in Zimmerbach, I’m up early to take some photos of the vineyards. Anne is already buzzing about making breakfast preparations, Florent is gathering some tools to resume his weeding in their Riesling portion of the Sommerberg. After a coffee or two, I track down the gents in the vineyard, in the lieu dit Mittelberg section of the vineyard. You can see it in the image above at the top of the hill, towards the middle (imagine that, Mittelberg…) where there are some trees. Here is a video I took from the foot of the hill:www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Rh_2m48JKM
While the image above doesn’t quite do it justice, it is so steep in parts that I need to lean forward and grab hold of staked vines to prevent falling backwards. The gents seeing my approach yell down, “We have an extra pickaxe, Robert!” By the time I reach them, I am panting heavily and sweating. “I see why people chose to farm here, sooooo easy. Convenient.” We all enjoy a good chuckle. The image below is of Pierre on the left, Florent in the middle. You can begin to get an idea of how steep it is here…..

As a segue to the offering portion of the program, I feel compelled to speak briefly about the perilous nature of great Alsatian wine in the American (and global) marketplace. There is perhaps no region in France with a greater disconnect between the irrefutable singular and profound beauty of its wines and a stark void of consumer perception and familiarity with those wines than Alsace. Among importers, it is viewed as commercial suicide to take on the yolk of such an uphill battle. This seems to engender a massive gap between the high yield/high volume commercial lower tier of wines that make it to the US (read >$5 winery cost turned $20 on the shelf for uninspiring mediocrity) and then the top 5 estates or so whose wines fetch high prices (read $50+ on the US retail shelf). Lost in this curious dynamic are the many faces of outstanding and affordable! diversity that exist among the 51 Grand cru vineyards stretched over 50 miles of hillside north to south. For anyone who loves fine wine in its majestic diversity, this méconnaissance is downright tragic.
If you know me one bit, i’m sure that it comes as no surprise that a sense of reverence and inspiration often finds me tilting at Quixote’s windmills, foolishly and idealistically holding fast to battles that simply cannot be won. But after an encounter such as this with the Boxlers, whose wines possess a substance and diversity so compelling, how can I not take on such a challenge? It feels a bit as though destiny is forcing my hand, laying out the bread crumbs for me to follow the yellow brick road. I must heed the call……What follows is a comprehensive offering of their cellar’s best from the 2013 and 2012 vintages, with accompanying descriptions of the vineyard sites and bottlings, with food pairings to match!!! To be able to offer four different Grand cru sites, two of which being universally revered among Alsace’s finest vineyards, at this kind of tariff has my wine geek heart leaping with satisfaction and pride. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to go deep, to explore and enjoy what great DRY Alsatian Riesling has to offer in mouthwatering acidity and minerality, texturally buffered with fruit flesh and subtle balancing degrees of residual sugar. In Pinot Gris, there is an awesome gourmandise at the entry level, getting downright profound at the Grand cru level. And in Gewurztraminer, this is why Alsace is viewed as the mothership, the epitome of the varietal’s nobility, with intense yet elegant spice and perfume driven examples that avoid the excesses that can render it almost pornographically opulent. And without further ado…..



2013 Riesling lieu dit Pfoeller $20 – At the foot of the village of Niedermorschwihr at about 900 feet elevation, the slope flattens out with the soil changing over from decomposed granite to strongly contrasting limestone. This lieu dit used to be included in the Grand cru Florimont, as it is contiguous with the Boxler portion of the cru. My notes: “Tasty, citric, and scintillatingly bright, with good lingering minerality.” To give you some idea of how low their yields are, even for this “village” level wine: 38hl/ha. 9.7 g/liter acidity, 6 grams residual sugar, 12.5% alcohol. Zippy zip! Recommended food pairings: shellfish or fish in an onion/wine sauce, veal ragout, coq au Riesling, and Baeckehoffe (traditional Alsatian marinated meat stew, delicious stuff…)

2013 Riesling Grand cru Florimont $29 – The Florimont Grand cru stands as a wonderful contrast to the Sommerberg and Brandt vineyards, with its pure limestone soil. The Boxler portion of the this Grand cru sits just below the massive limestone butte that juts out of the hillside, a not-so-subtle indication of what the soils look like below…..this is a marked step up in mineral power, palate breadth, and length; racy and elegant. This is terrific. Technical stats: 50hl/ha, 6.07 g/liter acidity, 3.3 g/liter residual sugar, 13% alcohol. Food pairings: Salmon tartare with ginger, salmon en croute, almond crusted trout.

2013 Riesling Grand cru Brand $29 !!- From the fabled Brand vineyard, one of the most prestigious in all of Alsace since the middle ages, sitting just above the village of Turckheim between 750-1100 feet in elevation. A vineyard of decomposed granite with two particular types of crystallized mica, black and white. The vineyard’s full on S/SE exposure has always yielded powerfully ripe wines but with remarkable finesse. It was fabled to be the place where the sun had battled a dragon, such has always been the solar nature of this vineyard. The Boxler parcel is 2/3s the way up the hill. Truly Grand cru class here, in palate breadth, depth of flavor impact, minerality, and harmony; a regal and complete wine. Technical stats: 38hl/ha yields, 6.46 g/liter acidity, 2.3 g/liter residual sugar, 13.04% alcohol. Food pairings: Pike fish, Perch, Fish choucroute, fatted chicken (poularde).

2012 Riesling Grand cru Sommerberg $29!! – The steep slopes of the Sommerberg are comprised of decomposed granite a deux micas, black and white, from 800-1200 feet in elevation, one of the highest in Alsace. The riesling is principally from the Mittelberg portion of the vineyard, top center in the image above. This is at once powerful and airy, in a stonier, more floral way than the Brandt. I’ve managed to secure a small amount of this classic ’12, the last of the vintage. Technical stats: 30hl/ha yields, 6.55 g/liter acidity, 2.2 g/liter residual sugar, 13.3% alcohol. Food pairings: Frog legs, escargots, and game meat Baeckehoffe.

2013 Riesling Grand cru Sommerberg $29!! – The ’13 iteration of the Sommerberg is a bit richer in profile, but still has a good driving sense of mineral tension. I drank a bottle of this over two or three days once returned to the states, and it was pretty good on each day. Technical stats: 30hl/ha yields, 5.96 g/liter acidity, 10 g/liter residual sugar, 14% alcohol. The wine betrays zero alcoholic heat, surprisingly; high acid and buffering minerality will do that. Food pairings: Scallops on the half shell in a vanilla cream sauce, shrimp curry.

Pinot Gris:

2014 Pinot Gris $16! – I tasted some of the very freshly bottled entry level Pinot Gris, and it was an absolute delight. In plump, clean, bright ripe orchard fruit flavors, this is a gourmand pleasure that will be ideal for easy sippin’ aperitif or everyday house wine purposes. Finishes fresh and perfumey. Technical stats: 48hl/ha yields, 4.87 g/liter acidity, 9.6 g/liter residual sugar, 13% alcohol. Food pairings: aperatif or cocktail, quiches or mushroom croutes, various asian foods, Comt√© cheese.

2013 Pinot Gris Cuvee de l’Ange $20 – From the foot of the Sommerberg (the bottom right hand corner of the panorama image above) where the soils are a more compact marne of decomposed stone and clay, this little sweetspot doesn’t enjoy the right to be called Sommerberg, but indeed it is…..This is more up front, more crystallized fruit (fruit confit) driven, but still has great cut and balance. Technical stats: 35hl/ha yields, 7.13 g/liter acidity, 17 g/liter residual sugar, 13.3% alcohol. Food pairings: Foie gras, tajines (meat stews), bird gizzards.

2013 Pinot Gris Brand Grand cru $26! – This is a fantastic example of the sheer class of the Brand in Pinot Gris. The palate coating breadth of flavor, of ripe orchard fruits, has great shape and texture due to its buffering acidity and mineral mass. The real deal in Grand cru class!! Technical stats: 37hl/ha yields, 6.73 g/liter acidity, 18 g/liter residual sugar, 13.3% alcohol. Food pairings: Guinea hen, turkey with chestnuts, pan fried foie gras, pear tart.

2012 Pinot Gris Sommerberg Grand cru $29 – The Boxler parcel of Sommerberg Pinot Gris is mid slope, lookers right hand side of the image above where you see the little trees. The two Pinot Gris wines from the Sommerberg in ’12 and ’13 are exactly the opposite of the Rieslings. The ’12 is the more opulent of the two, with the telltale mineral drive of the Sommerberg coated in an even richer texture and palate weight of luscious orchard fruit tones. The comparison between the two will be a delight to follow over the medium term, say 5-10 years, with the ’13 perhaps being the longer distance runner. Technical stats: 37hl/ha yields, 5.84 g/liter acidity, 25g/liter residual sugar, 13.8% alcohol. Food pairings: Pan fried foie gras, cream based gratins, Gorgonzola or Fourme d’Ambert blue cheeses.

2013 Pinot Gris Sommerberg Grand cru $29 – Higher driving acidity and lower residual sugar animate this stonier, more floral, riveting example of Sommerberg Pinot Gris. Being a rockehead who favors mineral austerity and high high acidity, I prefer this one. I imagine it will be singin’ from ages 5-15 and perhaps beyond….if you can keep your hands off that long. Technical stats: 28hl/ha yields, 7.07 g/liter acidity, 10g/liter residual sugar, 13.4% alcohol.


2013 Gewurztraminer Florimont Grand cru $29 – Gewurz on the calcaire aka limestone of the Florimont. Their two Grand cru Gewurz wines are pure class, a reminder of just why Alsace is the best place on the planet for it. You get the concentration and intensity of spice, tropical fruits, and floral aromas/flavors but with an elegance that is rarely encountered elsewhere. I don’t really know how to describe the differences between the two, as they are both quite elegant for their intensity/density. Try some of each and you tell me…! Technical stats: 40hl/ha yields, 5.09 g/liter acidity, 31 g/liter residual sugar, 13.3% alcohol. Food pairings: smoked eel, duck breast with honey, potato cake au Roquefort blue cheese, macerated cooked fruits.

2013 Gewurztraminer Wineck-Schlossberg Grand cru $29 – From the Wineck-Schlossberg, the only Grand cru in all of Alsace that completely surrounds a castle (dating to the 12th century). Its renown stretches into the 1700s, as its Riesling and Gewurztraminer has always proven remarkable in intensity allied to freshness. The narrow valley that it inhabits benefits both from ideal S-SE exposure and cooling afternoon/evening breezes from the natural combe; it too is fairly high in elevation from 850 to 1200 feet. has same soil type as the Brand and Sommerberg, granite a deux micas. I drank a sample bottle of this after our visit with the Boxlers, and it was all that I could hope for in intense yet elegant Grand cru Alsatian Gewurz. Technical stats: 38hl/ha yields, 5.26 g/liter acidity, 25g/liter residual sugar, 13.65% alcohol. Food pairings: duck a l’orange, lamb Colombo stew, honeyed porc, bitter/sweet sauces, exotic fruit tarts.

What can I say? When the pieces fall into place like this, how can one not heed the call? That these “other” Boxler wines have never been known to American consumers is a pity, whose time has come. Fwiw, Kermit Lynch, who imports the Albert Boxler wines, approached Justin Boxler as well, but backed off for fear of confusing consumers with two different Boxlers. The Albert Boxler Sommerberg wines are literally more than 2-3X the cost of these (by the time they’ve been Lynched).
The substance and value here cannot be touched with a thousand foot pole.
If you love the class and power of great Alsatian wine, this is the time to load up. 6-pack to solid cases of Sommerberg and Brand are in order……
As always, with any questions or interests: rob@downtoearthwines.net


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