Bonjour d’une mademoiselle exceptionelle qui suit profondement l’écoute de la Nature,
My ongoing defense and celebration of Alsace, its singular culture/beauty/charms, and remarkable patchwork of geological diversity continues with an introduction that has been some three years in the making. With a special immediacy of mutual likeness and recognition, Westhalten’s native daughter Agathe Bursin and I hit it off from the very first time we spoke on the telephone. Reverential Nature gonzo spirits, we are both (please feel free to say that in a Yoda voice). For the past several years, her work has been steadily rising in buzz and esteem among Alsace insiders, as the organically farmed purity, precision, and finesse that she increasingly renders from her pink sandstone (grès rose) and limestone (calcaire) soiled parcels in the monumental Zinnkoepflé Grand cru, Lieutztal 1er cru (yes, starting next year there are some 15 Alsatian lieu dit sites that will be officially classified as 1er crus!), Strangenberg, Bollenberg, and Dirstelberg vineyards. As is my custom, I prefer to meet, walk the vineyards, and taste with vigneronnes/vignerons before initiating a business relationship, as how can I really get a feel for their work at a distance? This is especially the case with Alsace, whose mind boggling variables of grape varieties, sugar levels, vintage variation, and terroir imprints have proved to be both a consumer and commercial nightmare of méconnaissance (lack of understanding). Comprehending just what to expect in the bottle and then effectively communicating this to the world at large has proven to be one of Alsace’s pitfalls, with this chasm of understanding seemingly only widening as the years roll by. Speak to any quality minded French/German wine grower, and most will openly profess their love for Alsace. Yet both French gastronomic restaurant culture outside of Alsace (which possesses the most Michelin starred restaurants of any region in France, as well as the highest percentage of organic producers in the country) and global wine markets (except the Scandanavians! who, once again, seem to be proving their penchant for having both money and good taste, a combo that doesn’t necessarily go together!) continue to turn a cold shoulder to these challenges. Somehow, some way, this must stop……who will heed the call???? Kudos to David Schildknecht, Ian D’Agata, and the upstart Stephan Reinhardt for their continued efforts to tend the flame, fellow Bacchantic bards singing songs of vinous love……
As the child of a nearly four centuries deep winegrowing/agricultural household, Agathe grew up both physically and emotionally self-soothing on the juicy miam miam (yum yum) of Sylvaner, a grape variety that naturally became a pet favorite for her, and a particular specialty of the house. She is the descendent of the Brun and Bohrer families, the earliest recorded settlers of her hometown village of Westhalten dating back to 1646. Her last name Bursin is the result of the “frenchified” adjustment of Bursinski that her grandfather from the nearby village of Bergholtz (home of the oh-so-dear-to-my-heart Dirler winegrowing family) elected to affect in what must presumably stem from some desire to hide his Polish ancestry. Her grandparents sold their grape production from 1939-1955, until a cooperative was created in Westhalten, after which time they actively contributed there. Agathe always knew that she wanted to become a vigneronne, as wine and winegrowing, in rhythm with Nature’s seasons, was inextricably entwined with her vision of life. She completed her formal oenology studies in Beaune/Dijon/Aix en Provence in the year 2000, and then took over the morcellated three hectares that her family owned, slowly growing the estate to its current size of a wee six hectares that are strewn about in over 35 tiny parcels that she, her father, and her sprightly mother Odile, age 71, farm almost entirely themselves, all organically. They have always unshakably chosen the path of natural quality above all else, even when commercial success was not so evident (as it is overwhelmingly so today)……
To define the character of her vineyard sites, we can summarize with the following précisions (details). Imagine, if you will, a four way crossroads, with the “roads” being the low lying valley floor, hills on all four sides; there are in fact auto roads in real life, not just for our analogous purposes. The majestic and monumental Zinnkoepflé Grand cru is and always has been a revered site, towering like a massive elemental guardian over the valley and village of Westhalten below; it would sit in the looker’s upper left quadrant of our “crossroads” diagram. It is southeast facing, and is comprised of the famed band of grès rose (pink sandstone) that stretches for some distance both north and south of Westhalten at its lower elevations, with stony limestone soils at its middle and upper reaches. The Lieutztal 1er cru is a mostly southwest facing, particularly stony limestone site with some marl (clayey, stony soil mix) in places; it sits to the east of the Zinnkoepflé, just up and over a N to S running ridge, in the upper righthand quadrant of our “crossroads” diagram, with the Lieutztal closer to the W to east E road on the southern tip of this ridge. The Strangenberg is a southwest facing parcel made of deeper, richer marne soils (decomposed rock and clay, calcaire rock in this case) just below and to the north of the Lieutztal, sort of the runoff of the Lieutztals decomposed limestone and erosion. The Dirstelberg is a cooler, east facing grès rose dominant site, found in the upper right hand quadrant, but on the far northerly side of the ridgeline as it wraps around to the east, further from all of our roads. The Bollenberg is a slightly lower elevation, long, and rounded amphitheater of sorts that wraps around the forest above it to the east from exposures ranging from southwest to northeast, with deeper, richer soils of loess (river sediment and decomposed fine rock), sand, with limestone bedrock deeper down; it would sit in the lower right hand quadrant of our “crossroads”. In the lower left hand quadrant is the Pfingster Grand cru, where Agathe has no vineyard holdings.
Her production is quite limited, and she has steadily grown a loyal base of private clients and small export partners. A handful of cuvées sell out prior to bottling, such as the Strangenberg Pinot Noir, with others not making it too far beyond bottling before selling out. This proved to be part of the challenge with starting our relationship, as I hadn’t had the time to visit and taste before everything sells out. Thus, when she wrote me in May ‘17 detailing the virtues of the bottled 2016 vintage, one of crystal clean, botrytis free fruit, balanced moderation, and relatively high acidity, my mouth watered in anticipation, as that sounded like my cup of tea and then some. I had planned on meeting her to taste together as part of my spring Euro jaunt, but pulled a colossal boob when I overlooked the amount of validity left on my passport, turned away at the gate, boarding pass in hand. D’oh! (Palm to forehead!). However, I was finally able to meet with her this past Saturday Nov 4th, and after a brief vineyard walk, we got down to business.
I had anticipated that I would like the wines. I was not prepared for just how very very much I like the wines…..Precision, purity, and elegance are keynotes in my tasting notes, echoed time and again, which you will see in the Menu portion of the program. Agathe describes both herself and her particularly adorable five year old daughter Clotilde as a “nerveuse”, or anxious person (incidentally, Chambolle Musigny’s Ghislaine Barthod also regularly refers to herself in this fashion). But I would never have guessed that from our few hours spent together, nor from the zen nature of so many of her 2016 wines. She may be an oiseau bavarde (talkative bird), but possesses a sense of graciousness and calm that is quite charming. Indeed, my intuition was spot on in that her wines and person are very much in line with what I appreciate and value, with these very pure and energetic 2016s being a somewhat ideal jumping off point for what will certainly be a long and enduring friendship. I am so very glad that FINALLY, we have made the connection…….and so……
2015 Lieutztal Pinot Noir – This is the inaugural bottling for this wine, from low yielding, SW facing massale selection vines in the stony calcaire soils of the Lieutztal that she planted a dozen years ago. She patiently waited until the vines reached their early adolescence, with a greater sense of their terroir driven origins, before choosing to bottle it on its own. And HOLY MOLY, is it good! The only reason that this wine isn’t sold out yet is because not many people know she makes it, yet….! Fermented with 60% whole clusters and eight days of cold maceration, then aged in used barrels that she buys from Chassagne Montrachet’s Jean-Claude Ramonet, and then never sulfured until just a wee smidgey poo is added immediately prior to bottling (yup that’s right, no sulfur during vinification nor élévage; purity is as purity does!!). In its gorgeously pure and classy aromatics of red fruits, spice, and light calcaire minerality, I was plain shocked to attention; I could have smelled this all day. Then, in the mouth, its sense of red fruited purity, spices, and even more present mouth watering, signature calcaire minerality had me utterly besides myself. In purity, precision, and self evident class, this is a knockout, undoubtedly one of the finest Alsatian Pinot Noirs that I have ever tasted, seriously. I can very much see from this example alone why the Lieutztal will officially be granted 1er cru status next year. You can and should slip this into any red Burgundy tasting and see just how many people are astounded when you tell them this is from Alsace!! Great googly moogly, Batman!!! TOP (French people say that to mean outstanding)!!! A little * star awarded here, quite the welcome to Agathe’s garden!!! Get what you can justify, and thank me later. Incidentally, I could and would not believe her when she told me that the wine had 14.3% alcohol, as its harmoniousness and precision betrayed zero heat whatsoever. Just goes to show you how the numbers don’t really tell the whole story……
Bollenberg Riesling – From 72 year old vines in the SW facing portion of the Bollenberg, in soils that are predominantly calcaire with some sand. Aromatically, it shyly presents very pure and high toned aromatics of ripe citrus (lime) and mineral salts; I could tell from the aroma alone that this was going to be a rockhead dry wine. Then in the mouth, it is a tightly coiled, implosive, austere style Riesling in a style that is for lovers of high acid, linear calcaire minerality, weightless austerity, white florals, and citrus. Pretty damn good, if the style sounds like your cup of tea. This may prove to be too austere for many people, but I am sure that with food in a naked preparation, like white fish with only olive oil or very light cream sauce, this will prove most dynamic and refreshing. Like Dolly Parton said : “Figure out who you are, and do it on purpose.” You know who you are, if this is for you……
Dirstelberg Riesling – From old vines in the east facing portion of the high elevation (1200 feet) Dirstelberg whose soils are comprised predominantly of the famed grès rose (pink sandstone), this presents riper white peach fruits on the aromatics in addition to its white florals; very nice indeed. In the mouth, its initial stone fruit palate impact is then given very precise shape and grip with its sense of its moderately high acidity. With vigorous aeration in the mouth (read do a whole lot of beasty slurping sounds to oxygenate), this wine positively exploded with telltale sandstone spherically expansive minerality, that comes at you from the sides of the palate moreso than in a linear fashion (which is limestone’s nature). To my taste, in its sense of being more a more complete, universally satisfying, and dynamic expression of grès rose Riesling, a knockout. A little * awarded here. The last bit of my tasting note: “Fuckin’ great!!!”. Technical stats: .5 g/L RS, 13.04% alc, 8.81 g/L acidity.
Zinnkoepflé Riesling Grand cru – From the SE facing upper portion of the Zinnkoepflé (roughly 1200 feet elevation) where the soils are dominated by limestone/calcaire. WOW. In no brainer, self-evident fashion, this wine screams deep class and complete complexity, its Grand cru status more than obviously justified. There were five long time private customers who were tasting with me, and they all got swoony and palpitated with this one, all of whom bought this. Geeky sophisticated me and my tastes aside, when it is good, it is good, and everybody knows it. Its driving acidity and salty minerality are even more seamless enrobed by its pure stone fruit, with fascinating multi-faceted aromatic complexity, with clearly noble and intense, deep palate presence and length. Quite an awesome intro to the Zinnkoepflé for me!! Bravo Agathe! Another little * awarded here. Get what you can justify, and thank me later. Technical stats: 7.4 g/L RS, 13.23% alc, 8.17 g/L acidity.
Parad’Aux – From the Strangenberg’s deeper marne rich soils of decomposed limestone and clay, this takes its name from the interesting blend of both Auxerrois, a higher acid floral variety, and Pinot blanc, a lusciously juicy plump guy, whose complementary strengths unite to make a more complete and satisfying whole; like a study in contrasts, a paradox, get it? This is a crowd pleaser and then some that is pure, elegant, succulent, easy drinkin’ pleasure, with an admirable sense of delicacy and prettiness. This is your everyday, every purpose wine, both for sippin’ as well as bistro dining mode. I gave this a little * too, as it is impossible not to love, and will prove irresistibly useful and satisfying.
As a point of reference, Ian D’Agata’s review of the 2015: ” Bright straw-green. Lovely freshness thanks to lemony acidity that lifts the nuanced aromas and flavors of white flowers and stone fruit. A touch of spicy honey (it’s the Auxerrois) gives this a creamier texture than anticipated on the nose. Finishes bright and juicy, with good length. A 50/50 blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois. Bursin likes to use quite a bit of Pinot Blanc, as she believes her Auxerrois on its own is a little too rich and round, and I for one am happy she does so, as the wine gains in drinkability.” 90 points Ian D’Agata for the 2015, NOT THE 2016 OFFERED HERE.
Bollenberg Muscat – From an east-northeast facing cooler portion of the Bollenberg further south than her Bollenberg Riesling, with deeper loess (well draining, fine decomposed stone and river sediment) with the calcaire bedrock en profondeur (deeper down). Agathe purchased this parcel in 2001. It is a blend of roughly 20% Muscat d’Alsace (the type of Muscat that yields a juicier, riper, more honeyed/primary style of wine, with this variety found in many parts of France) and 80% Muscat d’Ottonel (the type of Muscat that yields a finer, more floral, “classier” style of wine; the Ottonel seems to be a variety that is unique to Alsace). Man oh man, is this gorgeously floral and classy aromatically! In the mouth, this is toute en finesse et delicatesse (all on finesse and delicacy), with wonderful precision and elegance. Its purity of juicy, more floral-than-honeyed fresh fruit is charming as heck. It has good light minerality to boot, making this as good of an example of the little known virtues of Alsatian Muscat, perhaps the greatest region for the variety in the world, as I could hope to offer. Again, simply Bravo, Agathe! A little star * awarded here.
As a point of reference, here is Ian D’Agata’s review of the the 2015 version: “Vivid straw-green. Explosive floral nuances on the nose are typical of Muscat Ottonel. Then juicy and austere in the middle but offering pretty lime and saline flavors that linger nicely. Fresh and long, this Muscat really resonates with floral nuances on the bright finish. Lovely wine. An 80 percent Muscat Ottonel and 20 percent Muscat d’Alsace blend.” 93 Ian D’Agata for the 2015, NOT THE 2016 OFFERED HERE.
L’As de Be – A parcel that Agathe purchased that had been co-planted (as was a very common practice in former generations, as Jean-Michel Deiss so proudly pronounces) by its former owner in ? to 20% each of Riesling/Gewürztraminer/Sylvaner/Pinot blanc, with 15% Pinot Gris, and 5% Muscat. It has a nifty multidimensional nose of very interesting aromatic complexity due to all of the different varietals in the blended soup. Agathe marvels at how the grapes somehow ripen all at the same time, in spite of their “usual” habits to ripen at notably different points in the harvest season. I joked that perhaps it is peer pressure….she wonders if the former generations were wiser and more observant than we may give them credit for, carefully choosing root stocks and subtle clonal varieties for just that purpose, to have them ripen at the same time. ‘Tis a mystery….This is a lovely little wine that will make for easy sippin’ charm and refreshment. Technical stats: 19.5 g/L RS, 3.81 g/L acidity, 11.93% alc.
Sylvaner Emminence – Of the two Sylvaners that Agathe makes, this one serves as a flagship of sorts for both her estate and for Alsatian Sylvaner at its most complex. Unfortunately, her Lieutztal Sylvaner is already sold out, as she makes but 75 cases or so annually, and it has a huge fan club. The Emminence comes from truly ancient vines planted in the upper limestone portion of the Zinnkoepflé in 1930. As Sylvaner is not considered a “noble enough” of a variety, it cannot be labelled Grand cru, even though it is planted in a Grand cru site and is considered a benchmark example among aficionados, Ian D’Agata among them. It presents a very classy and pure profile of seamless silkiness that seemed to only beginning to unfurl some of its layers in the few minutes it was in my glass. I would certainly have liked to follow a bottle over a few days to see what these old vines have to say, as I could only appreciate the wine’s sense of purity and textural allure in my brief glimpse. The track record for this wine and Ian D’Agata’s ongoing love affair with this bottling, not to mention that Sylvaner is Agathe’s chou chou (pet favorite), beg for me to give this the benefit of the doubt……Technical stats: 20.7 g/L RS, 12.13% alcohol, 5.43 g/L acidity.
As a point of reference, here is Ian D’Agata’s review of the 2015 iteration: “Bright straw-green. Enticing aromas of apple, pear and jasmine. Then very pure quince, green apple and coriander flavors are complicated by a peppery note of crystallized ginger. Finishes long and clean, with harmonious acidity. The Sylvaner vines used to make this wine were planted in 1930 and are located in the heart of the Zinnkoepflé grand cru on calcaire soil, a site that has a long and distinguished history of giving superlative Sylvaner wines. This is never a particularly dry wine (“It’s an especially lazy yeast that doesn’t always manage to close out the fermentations,” laughed Bursin) and it tastes a little sweeter than the 2014 (24 g/L residual sugar in 2015, and only 18 g/L in 2014; the total acidity was also lower in 2015 at 5.9 g/L, compared to 6.2 g/L in 2014). This is an absolutely gorgeous wine of mind-blowing crystalline purity.” 94+ Ian D’Agata for the 2015, NOT THE 2016 OFFERED HERE.
Zinnkoepflé Pinot Gris Grand cru – From the middle/lower crossover threshold of the Zinnkoepflé where the grès rose and calcaire co-mingle, this once again possesses self-evident Grand cru class and complexity with all things fruit and mineral dancing with delightful interplay and sensory rapture. The lusciousness of fruit has got good energy behind it that keeps things interesting. This should age pretty damn well. For lovers of the charms of Pinot Gris, with a complexity as can only be found in Alsace’s greatest sites, this is for you. The private clients also went goo-goo ga-ga for this one. A little * awarded here. Techincal stats: 19.9 g/L RS, 14.03% alc, 6.61 g/L acidity.
Dirstelberg Gewürztraminer – The Dirstelberg Gewürz is a wine that is all about delicacy, expressing the quintessential juicy spiciness and tropical/magno portion of the Gewürz spectrum in very very fine (read finesse) fashion. In a word: lovely. Technical stats: 20 g/L RS, 13.11% alc, 4.19 g/L acidity.
As a point of reference, here is D’Agata’s review of the 2015: “Bright yellow. Penetrating, fresh aromas and flavors of apple, smoked bacon and mango. Lovely, slightly off-dry and viscous with peppery cinnamon nuances on the long finish. This is everything a Gewürz lover looks for in a wine made with the variety. Very well done.” 92 points Ian D’Agata for the 2015, NOT THE 2016 OFFERED HERE.
Zinnnkoepflé Gewürztraminer Grand cru – From the upper limestone portion of the vineyard, this presents arrestingly gorgeous and sigh enducing aromatics of floral/rose delicacy, as is a penchant of Gewürztraminer on limestone at its best. In the mouth, this positively dances toute en delicatesse et charme juteuse (all on delicacy and juicy charm), with the echoes of intense rose florals and harmonious sweetness continuing to induce sighs. Man oh man, there is no argument that Alsace is the greatest place on planet Earth for Gewürztraminer, as this example so charmingly illustrates. Bravo Agathe! A little * awarded here. Technical stats: 30 g/L RS, 12.66% alc, 4.59 g/L acidity.
2015 Zinnkoepflé Riesling Vendanges Tardives Grand cru – Of the four 2015 Vendanges Tardives that I tasted, this one clearly took the cake for me. It is the result of botrytis free fruit that concentrated moreso from passerillage (shriveling of the berries), harvested in early November. The weather was so dry for so long that no botrytis set in, resulting in an uncommonly pure style of Riesling Vendanges Tardives allied to the incomparable Grand cru calcaire character of the Zinnkoepflé. Aromatically, this awesome purity is quite evident, with an intense sense of calcaire minerality at its core to compliment its ripe tropical fruit tones. In the mouth, its intensity of pure fruit is nectar-of-the-gods charming, with a positively weightless sense of lift from both its high acidity and high levels of limestone dry extract, its finish sailing on, salty/mineral and resoundingly luscious. Plain smokin’ good Vendanges Tardives that will be a delight to enjoy at all ages, likely outliving most of us…..again, Bravo Agathe!!! A little * awarded here. That Riesling wines as singularly and inimitably beautiful as this can be had for such a fair tariff is yet another testament to the commercial underappreciation of such Alsatian nectars, as they can seemingly only be rendered in such compelling fashion here, even if producers often struggle to find a market for them. Thank goodness that Agathe and her fellow quality minded producers still do, as this truly is some nectar of the gods!! Technical stats: 65.7 g/L RS, 12.03% alc, 8.09 g/L acidity.
2015 Esprit Calcaire – From a single, second use barrel also purchased from Jean Claude Ramonet (à la the Lieutztal Pinot Noir), this promises to be an interesting, nearly bone dry wine that is meant to express the pure limestone nature of the upper Zinnkoepflé, in cofermented sytle, à l’ancienne. It is a blend of one-third each Sylvaner, Pinot Gris, and Riesling, and is chock full of telltale salty, tranchant (cutting) limestone mineral attack. In principle, she wanted to make a wine that allies the strengths of each variety, combining the Sylvaner’s textural allure and depth with Riesling’s cut, and the fruit and charm of Pinot Gris. We didn’t taste this together, as she makes so little of it (25cs). But she tells me that it is both wonderfully rich AND energetic, and should prove to be a fascinating bottle. Technical stats: .5 g/L RS, 6.66 g/L acidity, 14.26% alcohol.
I am so glad that things finally worked themselves out, and in just this fashion. Not only have Agathe and I finally had a chance to meet and taste, but to be able to start our partnership with her 2016s is all the more sweet. We have a vintage of gorgeous purity and precision that simply blew me away, well beyond the good vibes expectations that I had going in. The proof is in the pudding, as always, and she made a knockout collection that you will delight in discovering for yourself. My push to defend and celebrate Alsace and its diversity is definitely taking a tremendous step forward with her addition to my team.
CHEERS TO AGATHE AND THE REMARKABLE AND SELF-EVIDENT CLASS, POISE, AND PURITY OF HER ALSATIAN NECATRS!! TO THE GLORY OF ALSACE, AND THE ZINNKOEPFLÉ!!