Olivier Humbrecht is one of the most knowledgeable and talented vintners in Alsace, but he admitted that the wines from the 2003 vintage surprised him.
"I always thought warm years would mean less structure and less aromatics. I expected the wines to be 'New World' in style, but I don't think that anymore. The wines are opening up more and more and actually becoming very aromatic," said Humbrecht, 42, owner and winegrower at Domaine Zind-Humbrecht.
2003 was an unusual vintage in most of Europe. Few vintners, if any, had previous vintages as reference points. In Alsace, no rain fell between February and October. Intense heat pounded the vineyards, exceeding 86° F consistently during the day for 3 months. When Olivier Humbrecht extended an offer to taste through his range of 2003s in New York last February, I was curious to see how he handled the extreme weather conditions.
I normally find Zind-Humbrecht wines very aromatic and forward at this youthful stage, but the 2003s were more muted. Extended lees contact, without racking, emphasized the reduced character of the wines and, along with the heat and less hang time than usual for the grapes, suppressed the varietal aromas and flavors of the individual cuvées. But on the palate, the volume and richness of the vintage showed clearly. The wines displayed a distinct peppery character, and many showed ample tannins.
The 22 wines were tasted last February, non-blind, at Morrell Wine Bar & Café. Qualitatively, they fall almost evenly into three categories: very good (85 to 89 points), outstanding (90-94 points) and those that were borderline outstanding. These are estimates based on the non-blind conditions; look for my reviews of the wines from blind tastings in an upcoming issue of Wine Spectator.
Zind-Humbrecht's wines from Clos Windsbuhl, a wholly-owned vineyard, impressed me the most. Though not a grand cru, the fruit from Clos Windsbuhl yields some of the domaine's best wines. A cool site with limestone soils, it sits in a wooded area between Riquewihr and Hunawhir. The Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer all revealed outstanding potential. The Riesling tasted fresh and elegant, with a "cool" limestone element. The Pinot Gris showed a musky, animal-like aroma, with plenty of fat and exotic flavors. The Gewürztraminer was reduced, offering smoke and grapefruit notes. All three evoked vibrancy.
"Windsbuhl is a perfect location in 2003," mused Humbrecht. "It's cooler and usually ripens late.
The Riesling from the grand cru Brand outside the village of Turckheim evoked apricot and quince notes, along with the complex aromatic and flavor expression typical of its granite soils. The Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer from the adjacent Clos Jebsal displayed more dried fruit flavors—caramel and quince paste in the former, apricot and marzipan in the latter. Clos Jebsal, a steep, gypsum-rich site, almost always encourages botrytized grapes from which Humbrecht crafts an SGN. In 2003, the concentration came from passerillage, or shriveling.
Paradoxically, the intense heat of the growing season didn't automatically produce high sugar levels in the grapes. Instead, it caused many vines to shut down; leaves yellowed, so photosynthesis and therefore maturation stopped. "Ripeness wasn't always a guarantee in 2003," said Humbrecht. "For some growers, it was even necessary to chaptalize. Good growers knew a small crop was necessary [to achieve maturity].
"In 2003, the vines used up their acidity but packed in tannins. The tannins compensated for acidity," declared Humbrecht. Although the INAO issued a special derogation allowing growers in Alsace to acidify (in addition to chaptalizing), he chose not to, fearing the added acidity would emphasize the tannins. Humbrecht has not chaptalized a cask since 1993.
According to Humbrecht, it was important to extract from the skins, but more gently, to avoid bitterness. He fermented the wines as dry as possible and chose not to rack, in order to extend the lees contact. "When the tannins are ripe, they protect the wine, and I think we have this kind of vintage in 2003," he said. "Whether the customer will like it is another question."
For me, the fact that the wines are less evolved shows that they have the potential to develop, at least in the short term. And I would put my money on growers like Olivier Humbrecht, who work hard in the vineyard to get the most from their terroirs every year.
In Alsace, 2003 is a vintage marked by the heat. I suspect it is also a vintage where good growers gained invaluable knowledge and experience. And their work in the vineyards during the past 5 to 10 years allowed them to harness the heat into something special.