There are legendary estates that get profiled in books with titles like Great Wine Estates of the World or something similarly aggrandizing, and there can be no doubt that an estate like Zind-Humbrecht would be counted among these. There are a handful of producers in Alsace that are legitimately in the same top peer group, and I find that wines from such estates tend to occupy their own stylistic realm. Perhaps it would be better to say that, while there may be similarities among two dozen first-rate producers, the top echelon of this group makes wines that are at once so familiar and so compellingly idiosyncratic that one cannot help but think of these estates first when thinking about the region. These idiosyncrasies naturally cause a given taster to prefer one over another, but it is difficult to imagine anyone finding a way to dispute their greatness, especially that of Zind-Humbrecht.
Zind-Humbrecht is situated just outside Turckheim in a beautiful, modern-styled winery. The upstairs tasting room looks out over the Herrenweg (which surrounds the winery) to the hillside where the Heimbourg and Clos Jebsal vineyards are situated just to the east of the Grand Cru Brand. If you turn around, you can see the hillside that is home to the Grand Cru Hengst, along with the Clos Häuserer and Rotenberg vineyards. The only vineyards not visible, at least in part, from the winery are the Grands Crus Goldert and Rangen to the south (in Gueberschwihr and Thann respectively), and the Clos Windsbuhl to the north (in Hunawihr).
If there is a fault with Zind-Humbrecht, perhaps it is that they do not produce a "classic" or "generic" range of wines to act as an introduction to the estate. That said, they do make wines that sell for less than $30, including the Zind (classified as a Vin de Table because it contains Chardonnay! And no joke--go buy this wine!), the Riesling Herrenweg de Turckheim and the Pinot Gris Calcaire. I would love to see a $20 Muscat at some point, but perhaps market forces aren't compelling enough. The pedigree of the wines IS compelling though, for those concerned with this sort of thing: the Zind and Pinot Gris Calcaire both contain declassified fruit from young vines in the Clos Windsbuhl. Zind-Humbrecht has been fully biodynamic for many years now, and Olivier Humbrecht, who took over from his father Léonard in the late 1980s is a master of biodynamic farming and the result of his gifts in the vineyards is a great gift to our wine glasses.
The wines from Zind-Humbrecht have, in the aggregate, intense varietal character expressed through sublime aromas, concentrated and unadulterated flavors that are colored by their individual terroirs. The wines from Zind-Humbrecht have in the past--as often as not--had a significant amount of residual sugar. I imagine that sugar levels have always been dictated largely by the nature of the wine in any given vintage, but I have never found these wines out of balance--sugar or no--and many have absorbed the sugar as they age (meaning that the wines come in to focus in the cellar--acids and sugars acting in an ethereal harmony), so the sugar's contribution is less to sweetness and more to texture and overall profile. However, when I visited recently, the impression I got from tasting through the portfolio was that the wines seemed uniformly drier, and this is intentional, as it turns out.
This estate is a bastion of experimentation, and was in the vanguard of working with Chardonnay as a single variety wine. The Clos Windsbuhl Chardonnay is one of the most amazing expressions of this ubiquitous grape I've ever encountered, and is clearly a wine built for long-term aging (in the vein of the great White Burgundies of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s) with many subtle layers of flavor and complexity. The Humbrechts are also working with the Clos Jebsal with the goal of releasing late-harvest wines from its slopes every vintage, though occasionally the vintage doesn't cooperate, and they release a regular Pinot Gris (albeit rather extreme in its crafty, nuanced display of intensity).
The Humbrechts have resuscitated some of the great vineyards of Alsace, including a large portion of the Grand Cru Rangen. One of the greatest vineyards in the world, especially for Riesling, Rangen was under-served by its tenants until Leonard Humbrecht bought a plot and started making great wine on this steeply sloping vineyard that dominates the skyline of the small town of Thann. An expensive parcel of land to farm (it has to be worked entirely by hand and mule), it nonetheless pays dividends to those who work with its fruit. Zind-Humbrecht remains the greatest producer of wine from this vineyard.
And as I said before, the wines from Zind-Humbrecht are all grown while adhering to biodynamic principles. I don't imagine this will be an issue over the longer term, despite the ever more extreme terms that some of biodynamics' most prickly adherents try to dictate to others who use the same practices but are less fanatical (an ongoing issue, as I discovered in conversations with several biodynamic producers in France recently). Olivier Humbrecht talks most intelligently about the more mystical elements of biodynamics, and if he's a fanatic, he's got a great poker face. He sounds like someone who has embraced biodynamics after a liberal (in the good old fashioned, non-political sense of the word) investigation of it, rather than someone who is enchanted by what appears, on the surface, to be hocus-pocus, and there are enough of those people in the world already.
The spirit of intelligent inquisitiveness that clearly powers this estate to greatness should be an inspiration to all who make wine. It's hard for most retailers and consumers to remember Alsace, but I've found that wine producers from around the world keep tabs on what's happening there, and I don't doubt that these producers follow Zind-Humbrecht's activities closely...as should you!
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