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Alsace grands crus such as this extremely fine, intense, pure dry Riesling made by Julien and Sophie Schaal are frequently very keenly priced. While they are not cheap – how could they be given the work that goes into making them and the volumes produced? – they offer great value for money, better than many a grand cru or its equivalent in wine regions such as Burgundy.
As we explain in the online Oxford Companion to Wine Alsace entry, Alsace grands crus have, like most vineyard classifications, been the subject of some controversy since they were first established in 1975, originally as a single appellation with many named vineyards and since 2011 as 51 individual appellations, as listed in the Companion and on the very good, multilingual Vins d'Alsace website.
However, this one has a long pedigree, and is the source of Trimbach's Clos Ste Hune, the most famous Alsace Riesling of all. Wine has been made from the Rosacker vineyard, pictured below and named after the wild rose bushes that grow around the edges of the vineyard, since the late 15th century. It's in the village of Hunawihr, north west of Colmar, and the official grand cru classification covers just over 26 hectares (64 acres) on predominantly limestone soils at between 260 and 330 metres above sea level, facing east and south east. As with many Alsace grands crus, several varieties are permitted: Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer as well as Riesling, which is in the majority (65%).
Julien Schaal has been making wine in Alsace since 1999. He and his wife Sophie, a Burgundian and a graduate from Dijon university, are unusual in making wine in two hemispheres: both in Alsace and, since 2003, also in Elgin, a cool-climate region on the southern coast of South Africa's Cape, though in Elgin they produce Chardonnay, renting cellar space from Paul Cluver, another accomplished Riesling producer.
After waiting patiently to get the investment they needed, in 2010 they took the unusual step of setting up a cellar in Alsace that was dedicated to grands crus only.
Their organically farmed Riesling vines in Rosacker are 40 years old and the wine ferments without the addition of yeast, and no SO2 is added until bottling. To keep the purity and freshness of the wine, they avoid malolactic conversion, keeping the wine on full lees until March or April and then on fine lees until June or July, just prior to bottling. The wine is mostly aged in stainless-steel tanks though for this vintage they experimented with one 10-year-old 500-litre barrel.
As well as the Rosacker they make Kastelberg and Sommerberg grand cru Rieslings. All three are excellent but I found the Rosacker outstanding in its combination of fruit intensity and dry taste, even at the very moderate alcohol level of 12.7%. The very small amount of residual sugar (less than 4 g/l) lifts the beautifully ripe and lightly spiced citrus fragrance out of the glass and balances the crisp acidity (7.7 g/l).
The Rosacker 2016 is still very youthful with a delicate smokiness that I think comes from the winemaking style, for example the spontaneous ferment, as well as from the specific vineyard site. There's also a hint of honey on the finish even though it tastes so dry and fresh. While it can be enjoyed now, cellared in the right conditions I am quite sure this will still be drinking well into at least its tenth year, probably longer. The Schaals suggest an ageing potential of 20–25 years and matching the wine with grilled fish, Comté cheese and aged goat's cheeses – but it's also glorious on its own as it opens up in the glass.
Although their organic vines in Rosacker gave them such low yields in 2016 that the wine is sold out at the winerey, I have managed to track it down in both the UK and the US, and it also available in some restaurants in Sweden and Finland.
The Schaals’ UK importer is Awin Barratt Segal Wine Agencies, and the Rosacker 2016 is currently available from Handford Wines (West London), Gorey Wine Cellar (Jersey), Alexander Wines (Glasgow), Davis Bell McCraith Wines (Bristol) and ExCellar even if some of these don’t appear in the wine-searcher results. Most of them also sell online.
Schaal grand cru Rieslings are imported into the US by Distinctive Domaines in North Carolina, who assure me that you can buy this underpriced and delicious Riesling from Westgate Wine, who ship nationwide.
Note that the image above shows their new label. The Schaals are in partnership with Olivier Biechler but their wines are now produced and sold under separate labels. So you may still find older vintages labelled Biechler & Schaal.