Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Schoenheitz Winery: A Taste Of Beauty

A taste of beauty. A war torn wine region. High taxes. A wine culture imploding. Sexism and wine study. A salmon head. Japanese vinegar flies. Munster cheese.

What a fascinating evening of food, wine and conversation with Dominique and her son Adrien Schoenheitz (pictured above) of the Schoenheitz Winery. I was invited, as a media guest, to dine with them and Andrew Bishop of the Oz Wine Company at Bergamot in Somerville.

The Schoenheitz Winery is located in the Alsace region of France, and as I've said time and time again, Alsatian wines are generally not on the radar of the average consumer but they should be. They often offer excellent value, along with high quality and great taste. Back in 2013, the NV Schoenheitz Cremant d' Alsace made my list of the Top Ten Wines Under $15 so I was excited to taste more of their wines.

The word "Schoenheitz" roughly translates as "a taste of beauty," and may even be of Austrian origin. Their winery is located in the middle of the village of Wihr-au-Val, near the Vosges Mountains, in the Munster Valley (the home of Munster cheese). Wihr-au-Val, with a population of about 1300, is actually the largest village in the valley. Schoenheitz is the only winery in the village and there are maybe only two other wineries in the whole valley. There are some other vine growers, but they generally work for cooperatives.

Munster Valley was originally known as the Val de Saint Gregorie, a name given to it by Irish monks who settled in the area and wished to honor Pope Gregory I. Before the village of Wihr-au-Val existed, Duke Bonifacius constructed a hunting lodge on the land in the later part of the 7th century. In time, a village built up around the lodge, initially being known as Bonifacii Villare but eventually becoming Wihr-au-Val. Around 1100, the land became the property of the Ribeaupierre families. During the Middle Ages, the vineyards in this region belonged to the Ribeaupierre as well as the Habsbourg families, and the region had a reputation for producing quality wines.

Alsace has been a hotly contested region throughout the centuries, the center of various wars, and the territory has changed hands between Germany and France numerous times. Maybe the most devastating conflict in the Munster Valley was the Thirty Years War, a series of wars in Central Europe spanning much of the first half of the 17th century. The conflicts were so intense that approximately 90% of the population of Wihr-au-Val died or moved on, and it took three generations before the population returned to its pre-conflict amount.

During the first half of the 20th century, the region was wracked by both World Wars. The first World War destroyed many vineyards in the region but the second World War annihilated the village, leaving it as rubble and ash. Prior to World War II, nearly all of the families in the village grew grapes, though there were only about five wineries. After the war, everything needed to be rebuilt and wine growing was not as important for most people, many who had moved to work at factories in the cities.

During the 1970's, Henri Schoenheitz Sr. chose to try to bring back a vineyard, which entailed lots of labor and effort. And in 1980, Henri Jr. and Dominique, after having graduated from oenology and viticulture school, helped out with the harvest.and the start of the winery. Dominique, who is from Beaujolais, had an agricultural upbringing and always wanted to work with nature. She planned to go to agricultural school and her first choice of study was foresty, however sexism reared its ugly head when she learned that women were not permitted into the foresty program. She decided to enter viticulture instead.

Though she had a little work experience with vineyards in Beaujolais, she still knew little about wine. She quickly became fascinated with all aspects of wine, realizing that it was something she could continue to learn her whole life. She loves discovering something new and stated that she is a very curious person. Her passion for wine was more than evident during dinner, and that passion has infected her son, Adrien, too,

At present, their vineyards constitute about 16 hectares, and are located on steep slopes with a southern exposure. Most of their soils are granitic, some with more clay than others. Everything is hand harvested and yields average about 50 hectoliters. They practice sustainable agriculture and want to do as little manipulation as possible during the winemaking process.

About 31% of their vineyards are planted with Riesling, 21% with Gewurztraminer and 15% with Pinot Noir. Other grapes include Pinot Gris, Pnot Blanc, Muscat and Sylvaner. They produce about 7,000 cases annually, making just over 20 wines, most only 100-200 cases each year. Their best selling wine is their Riesling. About 50% of their wines are sold at the winery and they export only about 20%, with half of that going to the U.S., and the rest to places like Belgium, Ireland, and Australia. They currently do not export to Asia.

Many of their white wines are available in Massachusetts through Oz Wine Company but their Pinot Noir is not yet available. Though 15% of their vines are Pinot Noir, it constitutes only 10% of their production because of the vines' low yields. They currently produce three single vineyard Pinot Noirs, and they are available on the West Coast and New York, so hopefully they will soon make it to Massachusetts.

It might surprise you to know that the average cost of a vineyard in Alsace, 100K-200K Euros per hectare, is the second highest in France, lower only than Champagne. Alsace vineyards, on average, are even more expensive than those in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Though it would seem that the Schoenheitz vineyards would be a valuable gift for Adrien, the next generation, once Henri and Dominique retire, it won't be that easy. Due to the high rates of the tax system in France, such property transfers can be cripplingly expensive and is contributing to the decline in small, family estates. Domonique noted that they might have to sell off some of their land to pay for the taxes to transfer the others to Adrien. That is a sad situation.

Wine in France has taken another major hit as well. Despite wine being an integral aspect of French culture, it has now been labeled as a drug, making it much tougher to advertise, promote and educate. This is seriously hurting French wineries, which has also contributed to the decrease in French wine consumption. One of the enemies of the French wine industry is the National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism & Addiction (NAPAA), which has tried to limit wine advertising and raise taxes on alcohol. I could sense Dominique's frustration with these problems, and it's puzzling to a degree how a country such as France could fall so far from its vinous roots.

There is still much positivity in Adrien, and there was clear passion in his voice as he described some of the winemaking experiments he has been engaged in at the winery. One of his primary projects has been with the aging of Pinot Gris, using both Acacia and oak barrels. It seems that he has many ideas for the future, and the winery seems to have a positive outlook, despite the problems posed by the bureaucracy of France. I wish Adrien much luck.

Dominique discussed some of their recent vintages, noting also that there have been more climatic anomalies in recent years, which is likely due to climate change. In general, this has led to lower yields which have led to greater concentration and a higher alcohol content. 2010, which was very cold, led to wines which will age very well while 2011 was maybe too warm so that the wines won't age as well. Both 2012 and 2013 vintages will age well, and 2012 wines will also drink very well now.

This past vintage, 2014, was especially rough due to an invasion at the end of August by Japanese vinegar flies. Usually, vinegar flies cannot break through the skin of the grape but this new species is able to do so, planting their eggs in the grapes. Birds then become a serious problem as they want to eat those grapes. This led to the loss of about 2/3 of their harvest, especially the red grapes, and it will be their most expensive harvest for a small yield. The quality of the remaining grapes is still good and will lead to excellent wines. Pesticides aren't effective as even if you kill 90% of them, the other 10% will each still lay about 400 eggs, and they will become adults within a week of hatching. The main defense against them is a cold winter.

We began our wine tasting with one of the two Cremants d' Alsace they produce. The NV Cremant:d'Alsace ($20) is made from 100% Auxerrois which is aged on the lees for about two years. It doesn't undergo malolactic fermentation and has a low dosage, only 3 grams of sugar. This is an impressive sparkling wine, with a silky creaminess, lots of bright fruit flavors, good acidity and a touch of minerality. This is an excellent, less expensive alternative to Champagne which is also more dry than some inexpensive and sweeter Proseccos. Drink one glass of this Cremant and you'll crave another, and another.

The NV Edelzwicker ($15), which means "noble blend," is an interesting blend of Chasselas, Sylvaner, Auxerrois, Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris & Gewurztraminer (with proportions that change every year). This white wine, with an alcohol content of 12%, comes in a 1 liter bottle as Alsatian law prohibits them from selling wine in a box. The liter bottle is less expensive and a good choice for restaurants, especially as this wine is designed to be something casual for food. This aromatic wine is light, dry and easy drinking with pleasant citrus and mineral notes. A very good wine at this price point, it has more character than many similarly priced wines from other regions. As an aside, all of the Schoenheitz wines are made to accompany food.

Dinner began with a shared Salmon Head appetizer, a special of the evening, and it was quite compelling with tender meat, crispy skin and a delicious blend of flavors. It worked well with the wines. It also made for a cool presentation.

We also had a Charcuterie plate, an assortment of their homemade items, which are always a treat. I've had their charcuterie dishes before, and they showcase their skills in creating balanced and flavorful meats and spreads.

The 2013 Pinot Blanc Val Saint Gregoire ($16-$17) is made from 100% Auxerrois, and is a wine that brings to mind spring and summer. Despite the mounds of snow visible outside the windows of Bergamot, if you closed your eyes and sipped some of this wine, you could momentarily transport yourself a few months ahead, to warmer temperatures. With a rounder and slightly creamy texture, this wine presents tasty flavors of melon and pear, with a balanced acidity and a pleasing finish. An excellent food wine.

My main entree was a Sea Bream a la Plancha, another excellent piece of fish, tender and flavorful with a nice, crunchy skin. There is a nice depth of flavor to the sauce, and all of the ingredients meshed very well.

We moved onto two vintages of their Riesling. The 2012 Riesling Herrenreben ("vines of noble means") are made from their oldest vines, which are about 45 years old. Their granite soil is at a very high elevation and the soil is also rich in minerals. I should also note that Dominique said that their rieslings do not acquire a petrol note as they age. I was thoroughly impressed with this Riesling, finding it to be clean, fresh and dry, with a rich minerality, excellent acidity and light citrus notes. This is supposed to be a vintage more for wine lovers while the 2013 Riesling Herrenreben should be more acceptable to the average consumer. The 2013 has a fuller body, brighter fruit flavors and less mineral notes. It still has good acidity but is not as lean as the 2012. My personal preference is for the 2012, as I loved its intense minerality.

The final wine of the evening was the 2012 Pinot Gris Holder ($28) , a lightly sweet wine meant to accompany our dessert. With plenty of acidity, this was a well balanced wine with an aromatic and floral nose. On the palate, it is more lush with tropical fruit flavors and a few herbal notes. Dominique said that this wine is "still a baby"and will age well.

For dessert, I chose the “Hot” Chocolate, which has Spiced Chocolate Ganache, Maple-Almond Butter, Salt-n-Pepper Popcorn, Cocoa Nib Marshmallows, and Popcorn Ice Cream. It probably wasn't the best choice to pair with the Pinot Gris, but it was an amazing dish, a great blend of sweet and salty, with a nice mix of textures as well. Highly recommended.

You must appreciate the sustained efforts of this small winery which has been beset with numerous, significant problems, from the bureaucracy of France to the harvest damage from flies. Despite these obstacles, their passion remains strong, and they still look forward to the future. We need to support such small wineries, especially when they produce quality wines. The Schoenheitz are excellent values, taste great and are readily available in Massachusetts. I highly recommend you check them out and give your support to such a worthy winery. In addition, check out other Alsatian wines, some of the best wines you aren't drinking yet.

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