A Riesling Experience – Part 1 – Keynote Speaker: Pierre Trimbach

Hugh Johnson calls it “the world’s finest white wine grape”.  Sommeliers are in love with it.  Wine experts the world over swoon over it.  The general public?  Well, most of the general public think it’s too sweet and many associate it with the sugary, dull, mass-produced German wines that were so popular a few decades ago. The grape in question? – Riesling – probably one of the most misunderstood noble grapes in the world.  (However, statistics show that sales are on the rise.)

On June 9, 2011 I was happy to attend Day 1 of The Riesling Experience 2011 held at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in St. Catharines, Ontario (Niagara Peninsula).  Day 1 focused on Riesling from Alsace, specifically the historic Alsatian producer Maison Trimbach, with Pierre Trimbach as the keynote speaker, as well as a panel of speakers giving overviews on Riesling from the “Great Lakes” areas of Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Ontario.  (Of course, all the speakers of the day were presenting to a roomful of Riesling lovers, so there wasn’t a lot of converting to be done.)  Day 2 was a tour of some prominent Niagara Peninsula Riesling vineyards, which I unfortunately didn’t get to attend as it was sold out by the time I got around to registering (I’ll make a note of that for next time and register early).  The first Riesling Experience at Brock University was held in 2008.

Pierre Trimbach is the twelfth generation of the family to produce wines in Alsace.  The first was Jean Trimbach who began winemaking in Riquewihr in 1626, but it was Frederic Emile, born in 1839 (the 8th generation), who developed the business into what it is today. The initials F.E. in the name of the company, Maison F.E. Trimbach, are his.  Pierre joined the company as winemaker in 1979, and Anne, Pierre’s eldest daughter and the first member of the 13th generation, has just joined the family business.

Maison Trimbach produces wines from many grape varieties – although Riesling does make up 48% of production.  Muscat, Silvaner, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay (for Cremant) are other grapes used.  Forty hectares are owned by the company and they buy 95 hectares of grapes.  Trimbach is organic and likes to keep yields relatively low – about 50 to 60 hl/ha.

Fermentation is started quickly and temperatures are kept at 15 to 18 °C.  Racking is done after fermentation to remove the gross lees, and then the wine is left on its fine lees for as long as possible with no battonage.  No new wood is used in the production of their wines, not even for the Pinot Noir, and malolactic fermentation is allowed only for Pinot Noir, not for the whites in order to preserve freshness.  Bottling usually occurs by the end of April or early May and the wines are aged for a time in bottle before being released.  Currently the family has about 3 million bottles in storage, proving their practice of bottle aging wines. They produce about 1.2 million bottles a year.  Ninety percent of their production is exported.  Their most impressive wine is undoubtedly the Clos Sainte Hune Riesling made from a parcel of old vines located in the heart of the Grand Cru vineyard, Rosacker.

M. Trimbach addressed a couple of questions that I had been wondering about Alsatian wines and Riesling in general.  The first was the topic of increasing sweetness levels in Alsatian Rieslings.  M. Trimbach blamed global warming for the increasing sugar levels.  The grapes are generally picked about 100 to 105 days after flowering, but nowadays they naturally have a higher sugar content than they did just a couple of decades ago.  In the 1970s when M. Trimbach began to make wine, the potential alcohol in the Riesling when harvested was generally around 10 to 11%.  Now 11.5% is the minimum and 12.5% or higher is not unusual.  Obviously at these levels Chaptalization is not required.  The higher sugar levels make it more difficult to make dry wines.  Some producers may try to pick sooner to avoid the sugar rush, but M. Trimbach advises against this as the wines may turn out to be too astringent.  He went on to state that if the acidity is enough to balance the wine then the higher sweetness levels should not be a problem.  When describing what is needed to make great wines, M. Trimbach stated, “First, is balance. Second, is balance.  Third, is balance.  The rest is blah, blah, blah. The key is not too much of this and not too much of that.”

The other issue I had been thinking about, and which has recently created a stir in the wine world, is the cause of ‘petrol’ aromas in Riesling.  Last month, renowned Rhone Valley producer Michel Chapoutier, who is now making Riesling in Alsace, told Decanter magazine that “Riesling should never smell of petrol.  That is the result of a mistake during winemaking.” (“Petrol smell in Riesling a mistake: Chapoutier.” Decanter.com).  M. Trimbach believes that petrol aromas are the “natural evolution of Riesling after 10 to 15 years, but when it happens early it could be a wine suffering from dryness.”  In a mature Riesling, he prefers the term ‘minerality’ instead of ‘petrol’, a term that has recently acquired negative connotations. In mature Rieslings, he disagrees with Chapoutier that it is a ‘mistake’ in the winemaking.  In a young wine that has prematurely developed petrol notes, he calls it ‘reduction’ caused by water stress in the vines during periods of drought or from Riesling grown on inappropriate sites.  Again, not resulting from poor winemaking techniques in the winery, but issues in the vineyard.

Trimbach Riesling Tasting Notes from the Riesling Experience:

Trimbach 2009 Riesling: made from 80% purchased grapes and 20% grapes from the estate.  The challenge in the 2009 vintage was to produce balanced wines due to high sugar levels in the grapes.  Clean and crisp with aromas and flavours of lime citrus, wet stone, and green apple.

Trimbach 2009 Riesling Reserve: made from 80% estate grown fruit and 20% purchased grapes.  This wine shows more concentrated fruit flavours than the wine mentioned above.  Aromas and flavours of lemon, grapefruit, green apple, and a slight peachy note.  Zippy and refreshing with mouthwatering acidity.

Trimbach Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile 2005:  a blend of 2 Grand Crus – Geisberg and Osterberg – from 45 year old vines.  2005 was an excellent vintage with a long growing season.  Peach, lime, mineral (petrol), and floral aromas emanate from the glass.  The palate shows concentrated flavours of fresh green apple, lime, petrol, and citrus, with a long finish.  Destined to be very ageworthy!

Trimbach Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile 2001: An excellent vintage.  Harvest went on well into November.  Pronounced and complex aromas of peach, green apple, grapefruit, white flowers, yellow stone fruit, and smoky mineral (petrol).  Intense and steely on the palate with yellow stone fruit, lemon/lime/grapefruit, green apple, mineral, and slight petrol on the long finish.  Beautiful!   Will continue to develop complexity after several more years in bottle.

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