Andrew Jefford heads to Alsace’s Niedermorschwihr – and discovers a great winemaking talent...
The tasting room lies at the back of the house, at the top of a flight of steps. Jean Boxler’s wife Sylvie welcomed me. I waited: a pretty, light room; wooden furniture; a gingham tablecloth. I could see the steep, vine-covered hills of Niedermorschwihr through the window. There were glasses on the table. Some minutes passed, punctuated by birdsong.
Jean appeared. We shook hands; talked a little. The basics: 14 ha, mostly slopes. Quite high, 300 m to 400 m. Coolish; eight to 10 days later to ripen than Turckheim. He went to fetch some bottles, returned, and poured a wine in complete silence. This was beginning to feel like a Bergman film.
I tasted, quietly, tapping down a few notes, uncertain as to whether I ought to break the still air with a remark or not. Jean seemed to be looking at me, calmly and studiedly, as if I was a giant insect which had just fluttered in and crashed down on the table. I decided that this must be some kind of a test, that I was doomed to fail, so it was better to say nothing, but smile encouragingly instead. “It’s …” he eventually said, in the lowest, quietest tone I have ever heard a winemaker use, as if he were apologizing for the wine’s existence and despairing of its prospects, “… a Riesling.” Then more silence.
Indeed it was a Riesling: a magnificent one.
By the end, I’d tasted 13 of Jean’s wines, sold under the Albert Boxler label (a beautiful design by a cousin of Jean’s grandfather Albert). Half-way through the tasting, I was running out of superlatives, and longing for unencumbered time in which to tease out all of the wine’s nuances. This was my first taste of Jean Boxler’s wines, and I was visiting on recommendation: how had it taken me so long to discover a wine craftsman of this order? For many years, I’ve thought of Olivier Humbrecht as, well, the greatest white winemaker in the world if vineyard differentiation is your criterion. By the end of this tasting, I felt that Jean Boxler was as accomplished as Olivier – but in an utterly different way. That contrast tells us a lot about Alsace itself.
How should we best express these differences? “Catholics use botrytis; protestants fight against it,” Pierre Gassman told me a little later the same afternoon, shortly before treating me to the largest two-hour tasting (66 wines) I have ever done at a single domain. “They don’t even buy the same land.” I’d heard this distinction made before, at the protestant house of Trimbach, as a justification for its insistence on dryness. The debate has echoes in the botrytis battles of the Wachau, Alsace’s Danubian counterpart.
The sixteenth century Wars of Religion and the seventeenth century Thirty Years War cost Alsace so dearly that this dichotomy still springs readily to mind, but I don’t know … is it really good enough, in today’s secular age? Perhaps a better clue was Bergman. Should we not see some great Alsace wines as being made in a northern spirit, and some in a southern spirit? The northern quest, if you like, is for purity and verticality of expression, for pared and pristine refinement, for gothic lift and an almost ascetic ideal of beauty; the southern quest is for amplitude, width and plurality of expression, for articulacy without limits, for Romanesque or Baroque roundness of contour and for a generous ideal of beauty. Alsace can face both north and south, magnificently.
Seen in this light, the greatness of Jean Boxler’s wines is as close to Nordic perfection as you’ll find in the region. Indeed as I tasted his Rieslings, it struck me that these were the kind of wines which many of Germany’s greatest Trocken producers would love to create, supposing they had just a little more light, a little more warmth, a little more flavoury swell and volume from their land. Any of Jean Boxler’s Rieslings would surely excel in blind tasting against the very finest and most sought-after Alsace dry classics. My tasting notes are given below. Believe me, I have tried to rein the scores in as much as I could… but the numbers (which of course don’t matter much) kept running off of their own accord.
There wasn’t time to visit Jean Boxler’s vineyards or cellar, but his vineyards are in general steep and high for Alsace; some account of soils are given in the notes, and results this good cannot but be a product of fastidious and painstaking viticulture. The wines, Jean says, “are all made in exactly the same way” – with long, slow pressing and settling, then a slow three or four months’ fermentation in large wooden casks, after which they stay on their lees until receiving a single racking and filtering before bottling at around 11 months after the harvest. These techniques are only possible if the cellar is kept extremely cool.
And the rest of the encounter? Jean’s youngest son ran into the room after a while, and the words began to flow, and Jean and I had lunch together in the village, and found we had much in common. The Bergmanesque approach isn’t wrong, though. When it’s time to taste wine, silence really does make a good start.
Pinot Blanc, Albert Boxler 2014
This cuvée is half-Pinot Blanc, half-Auxerrois, from a variety of mainly granite-soiled vineyards around the village. A substantial percentage of Auxerrois can sometimes leave Pinot Blanc rather soggy in the middle, but this is a wine of pristine focus: spring-garden scents and limpid, translucent, glittering flavours. Bracing, fresh, complete. 91
Pinot Blanc B, Albert Boxler 2014
Jean Boxler uses initials to key vineyard sources on labels where the full name is not, for one reason or another, permitted. This is a pure Pinot Blanc from fifty-year-old vines in the Grand Cru of Brand: a scent of apples, pears and talc, and more apple-pear flavours on the palate. Sappy, driving, concentrated and seamless, with a perfect synthesis between poised acidity and the impression of ground stone. Mouthwatering, subtle, refined: I’ve never tasted a better Pinot Blanc. 93
Riesling, Albert Boxler 2014
This is the wine Jean Boxler makes from assorted Riesling parcels, often in cooler sites or altitudes and with very stony soils. For all that, it’s a wine of astonishing purity, drive and depth. It’s actually rather quiet in its fruit presence (the scents suggest marzipan, ground rock powder and crushed stonefruit kernels; some apple and pomelo emerges on the palate), but this only serves to underscore the wine’s dramatic density and length. 92
Sommerberg Grand Cru Riesling JV, Albert Boxler 2014
The amphitheatre-like, granite-soiled, super-steep Sommerberg (a slope of 45°) is Boxler’s flag-carrying vineyard, and he produces three separate lieux-dits wines from within it, as well as a generic and this Jeunes Vignes (young vine) version. This wine, with its scent of peach juice and explosion of stony fruits, sums the site up memorably well. 93
Sommerberg Grand Cru Riesling, Albert Boxler 2014
The generic version of this Grand Cru in 2014 (from two sites, says Boxler) is more reflective of site than varietal: hay, white pepper and high-pasture summer flowers set the nose quivering, while there is lime, vanilla and pounded almond on the palate: it’s a little warmer and more ample than the JV and the E versions, with a beautifully lacquered yet fresh mouthfeel. 94
Sommerberg Grand Cru Riesling E, Albert Boxler 2014
Is there an Alsace wine more perfectly reflective of granite soils than this one? The E stands for Eckberg, the highest, coolest and stoniest part of Sommerberg; it’s always late ripening, but the very long 2014 season (120 days on average for Boxler from flowering to harvest) drew the season out still further. The scents of this wine summarise the orchard and broadleaf-forest charm of the region, without any element obtruding: cereals, limes, nuts, with plenty of fresh, lifted grace. After that, the palate comes as a shock, since all of the springtime charm of the scents fades into the background, and the stonier side of its personality comes forward. It’s long and dense, and by the time the wine has faded almost a minute later, the two sides of its personality are in spellbinding harmony. 97
Sommerberg Grand Cru Riesling D, Albert Boxler 2014
The D is for Dudenstein: a mid-slope zone of the Grand Cru (280-300 m) where the granite soils overlie those based on shell limestone, with more presence of clay. You’d expect the wine to be richer, and it is … yet richer in a very Jean-Boxler-kind-of-way. The Nordic inspiration holds: this is summer after the springtime, but the carnival of fruit and flowers keeps all its energy and its tingle, and it remains firmly ballasted by those milled stone notes. A touch more cream? Maybe. 96
Brand Grand Cru Riesling, Albert Boxler 2014
And still the Rieslings come. The Brand, you think, can’t possibly be as good as the Sommerbergs – and then it is, albeit in different guise. The fruits pull back, and this time it’s flower and plant notes which step forward: fresh hay, Chartreuse herbs, gentian root. On the palate, it’s yet another ‘stone wine’, though the stone itself seems somehow richer and fatter than for the Sommerberg wines; the paste it forms with the wine’s masterful yet ripe acidity is a wonder. 97
Brand Grand Cru Riesling K, Albert Boxler 2014
This is from the Kirchberg section of Brand, from east-facing 70-year-old vines at about 350 m, and at present is aromatically more restrained that the previous wine: tree sap and spring breezes. On the palate, though, it’s a stone lance – much less broad in the beam than the generic version, but penetrating, long and glittering. There is much in this brilliant wine, but it will need time to emerge. 97
Brand Grand Cru Pinot Gris, Albert Boxler 2014
2014 was the Drosophila suzukii vintage in Alsace, and the pink/lilac-coloured berries of Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer made these varieties particularly susceptible. Nonetheless, by dint of forensic sorting (in some cases discarding up to half the crop), Jean Boxler has still contrived to make wondrous wines from these varieties. The Brand Pinot Gris is a tapestry of faintly decadent richness, yet Boxler’s hallmark green threads of freshness and silver threads of elegance are still there in the weave. (“Riesling is spiritual,” he says, “but Pinot Gris is pure pleasure. It’s much easier at table than Riesling. Riesling can break things, but Pinot Gris is easy, it’s friendly, it’s cooperative.”) 92
Sommerberg Grand Cru Pinot Gris W, Albert Boxler 2014
The W stands for Wiptal – a lieu-dit lower down on the Sommerberg which Jean Boxler reserves for Pinot varieties. The scent of this wine takes us from summer into autumn, with its burnished fruits; it’s autumn at dawn all the same, with cool freshness pointing up the ripe, ripe fruit. There’s a waterfall of flavour on the palate, backed by extra extract: spice, salt, stone. Grand Gris. 94
Brand Grand Cru Gewurztraminer, Albert Boxler 2014
‘Doesn’t he make any mistakes at all?’ I thought to myself when I sniffed this Gewurztraminer, since from a difficult year for the variety Jean Boxler has managed to produce a wine whose scent of cream, rose and jasmine is realized with virtuoso precision and delicacy. It’s even better, if anything, on the palate, since the wine has far more length and depth than you expected, yet the drift of perfume covers all and does so for another 20 or 30 seconds into the finish. A Gewurztraminer of rare breed and finesse. 95