By Kat Hounsell
“In his beak the stork brought a baby vine,” is , I feel, an appropriate twist on the Alsatian fable. The Alsace region of France, bordering on Germany, is home to a bountiful supply of fruitful vines and within the region can be found the village of Ribeauville. And in Ribeauville, one can find the oldest wine cooperative in France, Cave de Ribeauville.
Founded in 1895 the cooperative continues to nurture ancient vineyards, some of which were first planted with vines back to the Middle Ages. Before a tour of the Cave, myself and mother Hounsell took a light lunch at Café de la Place where two legendary storks were nesting on the rooftop under a cloudless sky. If you ever find yourself in this fairy tale village, and I hope you do, then try the café’s tarte de l’oignon, with a sweet caramelised onion topping and crumbly crust. The best I have ever had.
On entering the winery Thierry Bougit, our host for the afternoon, bounded forwards and greeted us with a beaming smile. It is evident from first entering the building that this winery is passionate about producing elegant and playful wines that are infused with the spirit of the moment, changes in terroir, and represent transition through time.
Thierry took us through the museum set up for visitors that included machinery used through the ages, huge oak barrels and a fascinating ‘ground’ wall that is a montage of soils from all their vineyards across Alsace. Seasonally Ribeauville also welcomes an artist to take over a large studio space, the Salle Emile Traber, to enrich the experience of visitors coming to taste the wines. Since 1995 each year a new expression of wine growers’ dedication to, and beauty in their work, is resonated throughout the studio by paintings and sculptures.
Next we went backstage and saw the huge steel vats where annually a generous harvest, of all hand-picked grapes, is brought in by the cooperative’s wine growers. They are meticulously crushed, pressed, fermented and clarified before being bottled as a desirable new vintage. The vats were pretty impressive and I don’t envy those who get inside and scrub them down!
Being whisked away to the countryside Thierry took us up to Clos du Zahnacker for a walk through this vineyard of three noble grapes. This complantation of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer is found in the heart of Grand Cru Ostenberg, in a south easterly position, and bears the name of the Clos’ first known owner, a knight and monk, Martin Zahn. The luscious vines come with royal approval as in the 8th Century it was written that Louis XIV savoured every last drop. Appropriately the Clos is guarded by 21 mysterious silhouettes, made in charred wood by sculptor Christian Lapie. 7 groups of warriors encourage the imagination to contemplate what these old vines have seen and the stories they could tell.
After working up a thirst it was time for some tasting!
Evelyne Dondelinger, oenologist at Cave de Ribeauville, pays great care and attention to every aspect of the wine making process to ensure all wines are ‘a la carte’ – unique and well balanced. Thierry took me and my mum through 6 courses:
Aperitif: Giersberger Cremant Rosé, 100% Pinot Noir. Perfectly refreshing and the salmon pink colour will look extra special in a flute. This wine would be a great beverage on a spa day.
Also suitable as an aperitif, Muscat Vendages Manuelles 2010 is medium dry, clean and crisp with a long finish. Characteristic floral aromas are apparent in this collection wine.
Next came the ‘Chef’s Concoction’ 2010 and I am keeping the name of this secret rosé under wraps for now. Soon I’ll be challenging Bibendumites to guess the grape from which the rosé is created. A cheeky wine, at incredible value, and competition for more traditional Alsatian Pinot Noir Rosés.
Moving on to a Bibendum favourite, the Andante Gewurztraminer/Muscat blend, the two grapes deliver a stylish wine with agile spice and tropical fruit flavours that bounce around your mouth. A good level of lemon acidity brings about a balanced finish.
Expressing it’s terroir with enthusiasm, the blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer in Clos de Zahnacker 2007, has a mineral foundation with complex layers of spice and zingy citrus. This is a wine that can certainly hold its fort; it is bold, strong and brings food alive. I brought a bottle home and it has already been savoured with friends over a dinner of scallop and prawn risotto.
Dessert: To finish the jewel that is Gewurztraminer Selection de Grain Nobles 2005, a sweet little treasure that completes a meal. There is an intensity of dried exotic fruit that develops with age and is silky and sensual on the palate.
The tasting was enhanced with Thierry’s passion and extensive knowledge of the wines at Cave de Ribeauville and I cannot thank the winery enough for such a pleasurable afternoon. Stepping out in to the summer sun, with a yellow toblerone shaped gift box in hand, me and mum were both disappointed the journey home was waiting for us the next day.