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Jefford on Monday: The ultimate terroir wine

Andrew Jefford walks up hallowed slopes in Alsace.

This was a pilgrimage, a treat and a challenge.

Pilgrimage?  Perhaps the word is excessive, but every time I taste great wines from the Rangen de Thann, Alsace’s most southerly Grand Cru, they strike me a culmination of everything that wine lovers revere about terroir, and why they accord it so much importance.  They are, in other words, not only very fine wines, but their scents and flavours are marked by an otherness for which ‘mineral’ seems the inescapable term.  They are also very deeply coloured compared to other wines pressed and made from the same varieties in the same way, but from different sites.

No other single vineyard in Alsace comes close to Rangen for sheer force of personality, and if I was asked to nominate any vineyard anywhere in the world as producing “the ultimate terroir wine”, Rangen de Thann would be it.  This June, finally, I had a chance to visit the vineyard I had revered for so long.  Not only did I get to walk its steep slopes with those who tend them, but I also had a chance to taste around 25 Rangen de Thann wines.  There are few days in a tasting lifetime like that.  And the challenge?   Simply to try to understand it all a little better.

As with most of Europe’s greatest vineyards, Rangen de Thann has long been celebrated: the entire hillside, as well as much of the valley below, was planted by 1272.  Less than 20 years later came a telling tasting note for ‘Rangenwein’, from the records of the Dominican Convent in Basel which had acquired 16 ha of Rangen: “the warmest and most violent wines of the region”.  There’s a touch of dragon’s breath to the wines of Rangen.

After glory days when it was one of the most sought-after wines at the court of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, visited by Montaigne, name-checked by Rabelais and part-owned by the Sun King (Louis XIV), Rangen fell on hard post-phylloxera times and was actually bombed, mined and destroyed during World War One; Vieux Thann at that point formed part of the front line between German and French Alsace.  Less than four hectares at the bottom of the slope were still in vines by the early 1970s.  That was all that remained of a wine-making village which in the C17 occupied 500 ha.

Léonard Humbrecht and the Schoffit family were the reclamation pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s.  Laborious work: Alexandre Schoffit remembers his father and grandfather spending every Saturday there throughout his childhood.  There were tree roots to remove and walls to remake; the steep slope excluded heavy-duty mechanical assistance and increased the danger level exponentially. “It was ten times worse,” he recalls, “than anything else.”  Now, at just over 20 ha, the grand slope is fully planted – but remains a challenge for the owners.

Alexandre Schoffit, Alsace wine

Alexandre Schoffit.

Inter-row ploughing which would take one man half a day in a flat vineyard takes the equivalent of eight weeks to achieve here; the Schoffits say their Rangen holdings account for 33% of their domain, but they spend 60% of their working time there.  “We know every stone.”  Despite the investment in time, the vineyard produces little.  Olivier Humbrecht suspects that Rangen de Thann “has the lowest average yield of any Alsace Grand Cru — by 20 or 30 per cent.”

Zind-Humbrecht (Clos St Urbain) and Schoffit (Clos St Théobald) are the two biggest owners, with 5.5 ha and 5.3 ha respectively; then comes the Wolfberger co-operative with 4.4 ha and Bruno Hertz with 1.9 ha.  Maurice Schoech has under half a hectare, and there are a number of other smaller owners including the town of Thann itself.

The physical setting is striking.  There is, nowadays, a small town (around 8,000 inhabitants) entirely filling its valley, with two contrasting features: the beautiful gothic Collégiale, built between the C14 and C16; and the spectacularly ugly PPC chemical factory, France’s oldest, founded in 1808, with its chaotic sprawl of buildings and billowing steam.  The river Thur gurgles prettily along the valley bottom, and once you’ve crossed that, you’re onto the gigantic ramp of the Rangen, which rises from about 350 m to 477 m (this makes it elevated in the Alsace context, even at the bottom).  The slope glares south.  On the June afternoon when I visited, it was as if I was standing in a pizza oven.

There is no visible soil as such, just rock and stone.  Unusually for Alsace, Rangen is constituted of hard volcanic rocks seasoned with some secondary sedimentary material (some of it of volcanic origin).  It’s well-drained, but prone to erosion, and low-vigour – hence the puny yields; but growers say that the clays which do form here down under the rocks and among the roots are high in quality.  Whether the distinctive profile of wines from Rangen is due to soil and stone alone, I doubt: the slope, the altitude, the relatively closed-in, protected, almost claustrophobia-inducing nature of the site, the fact that a water-course of some prominence marks the foot of the slope, the thick woodlands which clothe the hills surrounding the slope … all this must play a role in the tens of thousands of inputs which constitute the terroir equation.

Rangen de Thann, finally, is a site almost exclusively planted to Riesling and Pinot Gris.  There is a little Muscat and Gewurztraminer, but that smoky-stone note doesn’t work as well with the latter varieties as the former.  “It’s the only terroir in Alsace,” says Olivier Humbrecht, “which can completely dominate the character of Gewurztraminer.”

The locals affectionately recount the story of local grower Modeste Zussy who, aged 93, uprooted his Sylvaner and planted Pinot Gris, to general astonishment.  Why? they asked him.  Because, he said, he wanted to have something good to drink “in his old age”.  He eventually took his last sip aged 106.  Tough slopes – but they help you stay fit.

Tasting Rangen de Thann

Rangen has, in the past, been called ‘the Montrachet of Alsace’.  The varieties and flavours are different, of course, but in other respects the analogy is exact: these great, complete wines are in many ways the apogee of their region, and should be represented in every fine-wine collection.  The more modestly priced wines of Wolfberger and Schoech are a good introduction to the glories of this site, and fine value; the wine lovers of the world are lucky, though, that the majority of the holdings of this astonishing site are in hands as skilled as those of Olivier Humbrecht MW and the Schoffit family.

Riesling, Rangen de Thann Grand Cru, Wolfberger 2012

Full gold in colour.  Softly braided scents of autumn fruits, dry leaves and smoky stone.  Concentrated, pure and long flavours; polished acidity; tongue-coating concentration and length.   92

Riesling, Rangen de Thann Grand Cru, Schoech 2014

Golden wine, with warm, high-summer scents of apricots and apple.  You find the same fruits on the palate, but suddenly there is a dramatic stiffening, a crackle of stone, behind the fruit.  Magnificent, fruit-saturated acidity conceals the 14 g/l of residual sugar.   94

Riesling, Clos St Théobald, Schistes, Rangen de Thann Grand Cru, Schoffit 2013

Rather confusingly, the name of this cuvée is not meant literally, but is used for the Schoffit Rieslings of the year which show the ‘mineral’ side of the Rangen character most clearly … which this unquestionably does, both in scent and on the palate: dense, sheer, dry, close-textured, saline and drivingly long, the fruit scents and flavours entirely subsumed in the almost Expressionist, elemental style.   95

Riesling, Clos St Urbain, Rangen de Thann Grand Cru, Zind-Humbrecht 2012

A wine where the Montrachet analogy sings out: the Riesling is rich and unctuous to smell, with bread and cream notes as well as the soft fruits and the hum of stone behind. The palate seems astonishingly dense, analogous to a weighty mineral paste, but alive and dancing not only with vivid fruit acids but also with the speckle of strange stone flavour.  Not only magnificent in its own right, but the perfect wine to share, and perhaps to analyse, whenever debates surface about what ‘minerality’ might be in wine.  97

Pinot Gris, Clos St Théobald, Rangen de Thann Grand Cru, Schoffit 2012

A full gold in colour (of course), with elegant, truffley aromas which define the savoury side of Pinot Gris.  On the palate, too, that same gastronomic completeness is evident with ample meaty, mushroomy, truffley notes sewn into and bonded with peach and white-chocolate richness.  There’s 47 g/l of residual sugar here, but the wine’s flavour-saturated acidity and quiet stone presence helps keep it alert and lively.   95

Pinot Gris, Clos St Urbain, Rangen de Thann Grand Cru, Zind-Humbrecht 2010

Aromatically very young still, this golden wine has beguiling whipped-cream, crème-anglaise scents which leave you relaxed and charmed – so that the enormous thump of flavour you feel when the wine hits the tongue takes you aback.  Lush, fat, round, rich, dense and drivingly long, yet at the same time sparkling and glittering with the brilliant light of fruit-saturated acidity; pounded stone and white truffle complete the nuanced richness.  It’s hard to imagine a better Pinot Gris than this.   97

Pinot Gris, Vendange Tardive, Clos St Urbain, Rangen de Thann Grand Cru, Zind-Humbrecht 1988

Olivier Humbrecht generously opened this cellar treasure to underline the ability of wines from this site to endure in time.  The 1988 vintage was long, cool and drawn-out, with a fine crop of healthy grapes which only began to develop botrytis in October and which were eventually picked in November.  It’s now a deep gold in colour, with a cream-of-apricot scent with astonishing lift to it.  On the palate, the tension between sweetness and acidity in this vintage seems to approach ice wine levels – but the genetic patrimony of this site and Pinot Gris itself gives it a succulent, almost pork-belly richness and unction which ice wine rarely has.  Butterscotch, mushroom, summer fruits and crushed stone melt together to overwhelming effect.   98

Updated 31/10/2016: A reference to 90° slopes has been removed. In addition, the final wine in this list was actually the 1988 vintage, and not the 1998 vintage as originally stated.  

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