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Wine Legend: Zind-Humbrecht, Clos St-Urbain Pinot Gris SGN 1989

What makes it a wine legend?

Zind-Humbrecht, Clos St-Urbain Pinot Gris SGN 1989

Bottles produced 1,140

Blend 100% Pinot Gris

Yield N/A

Alcohol 11.6%

Release price N/A

Bottle price today £189

A legend because…

The Clos St-Urbain has always been one of Zind-Humbrecht’s most prized sites, excelling with Pinot Gris. Even the more basic Pinot Gris bottlings are rich and spicy, while the Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) wines from here are off the charts in terms of richness and opulence.

Léonard Humbrecht was a campaigner for low yields, and this conviction, as well as the quality of the estate vineyards, accounts for the superb quality of his top wines. His son Olivier always seeks maximum ripeness in the vineyards, and prefers not to intervene in the fermentation process. If the yeasts stumble to a halt and leave residual sugar in a wine, he is untroubled so long as the wine is balanced. With an SGN, residual sugar (in this case 172 grams per litre) is of course sought after, but the wine must be harmonious if it is to avoid being clumsy. He has no interest in producing ultra-ripe SGNs for the sake of richness alone, and in 1994 created a further category called Trie Spéciale to denote wines made from grapes with a potential alcohol of about 30%.

Looking back

The Humbrechts have been wine growers in Alsace since the 17th century. Léonard Humbrecht, who was born in 1935, put the estate on the map, but it was his son Olivier who won its wines international recognition. By the end of the 1980s he was in charge of the winemaking, and yet managed to scoop up a Master of Wine qualification in his spare time, becoming the first French MW in 1989.

The vintage

Other than localised hail in mid-July, the summer was sensational, and yields were generous. Sugar levels were very high and a potential alcohol level of 15% was far from unusual; in some cases the grapes were as high as 26% in potential alcohol. This caused problems for estates focusing on dry wines, but it was a glorious vintage for the production of sweet wines. Zind-Humbrecht produced a number of SGNs from different varieties, of which the Clos St-Urbain Pinot Gris is the most spectacular.

The terroir

Rangen is the most southerly Alsatian grand cru, and unquestionably one of its greatest, as well as one of the steepest. The elevation ranges from 320m to 470m. The soil is volcanic and easily retains heat, and the south-facing aspect usually gives grapes of exceptional ripeness. It comprises 19ha of vines, including two monopole sites: the 4.5ha Clos St-Théobald, belonging to Schoffit, and the 5.5ha Clos St-Urbain, which was planted (half with Pinot Gris) by Léonard Humbrecht in the 1970s. The site lies not far from the river Thur, and this proximity to water accounts for the ease with which the bunches can attract noble rot.

The wine

Winemaking at Zind-Humbrecht has generally been non-interventionist. After a pressing of whole clusters, vinification takes places with indigenous yeasts in large casks. This wine was fermented in a new, carved, 900-litre barrel given to Olivier as a wedding present by his parents. ‘I was so worried that it might leak,’ recalls Olivier, ‘that I slept next to it for the first night.’ The wine stays on its fine lees until bottling after a light filtration.

The reaction

In 1993 Robert Parker described this as ‘celestial’, adding: ‘The bouquet almost fills the room with its smoky, paraffin-scented, rich fruit. In the mouth, there is mind- boggling richness, extraordinary balance, and a finish that must last several minutes.’

Thierry Meyer in 2007 wrote, of the mature wine: ‘If the wine has the complexity of its 18 years of age, the long dried apricot aftertaste is still very fresh. A monumental wine that will keep another half century.’

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