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Oenoturism

Alsace Grand Cru Rangen de Thann and Riesling with a fiery soul

By 20 iulie 2021octombrie 11th, 2021No Comments

by Bruno Scavo 20 iulie 2021

Introduction

A solar giant, Rangen is the only volcanic Grand Cru in Alsace. Its uniqueness almost makes it inaccessible, and as a proof I only visited it once, in 1997, during a tasting trip in Alsace. It is unique by its sedimentary- volcanic soil, by its southernmost position in the region as well as by its prominent slope of 68%. Its fiery soul is difficult to tame, and its wines only resemble to the Cru itself: stubborn to face the decades and polished like a diamond born out of fire.

Although Pinot Gris represents more than half of its surface, Riesling shines on this volcanic shrine with such a force, that it made me choose it as its flagship grape. The topic of my essay is to depict the osmotic relationship between the king grape of Alsace and one of the rarest volcanic soils in the world able to welcome it. When it comes to Riesling, one naturally thinks of slate, granite, or limestone. There is basically no other organic link between these two titans – the dark and warm volcanic rock and the pure and vivid Riesling.

The Terroir

The Rangen Grand Cru is situated both on Thann[1] and Vieux Thann communes. Its 22,13 ha are fully exposed to the South: a majestic, dark rocky slide with the most impressive slope amongst all the Alsatian Grand Crus. Vines are situated between 320 and 450 m of altitude, some going as high as 470m, which besides being the steepest, also makes it the highest in Alsace.

Rangen means “slope” in the local dialect, a slope under the strange ruins of the Engelsbourg Donjon – “the eye of the witch”. Legend has it that in this castle count Engelhard witnessed the miracle of Saint Thiébaut: a light crossing 3 fir- trees – “Thannen”, hence the name of the village.

Rangen appears in historical documents by the 12th century, however its wines started being famous by 1580 when Michel de Montaigne talked about their quality. So do the monks from the Saint Thiébaut College, and others. Rangen had always impressed by its position, its steep arrogance, its aptitude to give exceptional wines. It is also the “Southern gate” of Alsace, so visitors coming by the South were stunned by this unique landscape.

Nevertheless, its position hasn´t always been an advantage: wars, invitations, the Westphalian peace treaty, and catastrophic end of the 30 years ‘war, conflicts that tore it from one side to the other of the frontier, they all culminated with the threat of youngsters leaving their home by the 20th century to escape the difficult job of working its slope. It is thanks to Zind-Humbrecht who noticed the enormous potential of the Cru in 1977, that Rangen has reborn like a phenix out of its ashes. Rangen acceded Grand Cru status in 1983 and became a single AC in 2011[2].

Who, better than Olivier Zind- Humbrecht MW, can describe its volcanic soul? “Rangen terroir dates to the Devonian and Dinantian ages with Devonian- Carboniferous rocks from the Culm period. This “Cordillera” has been submerged by the sea and eroded by torrents depositing what would become slates and grey wacke of Culm. Volcanic eruptions then covered the slope with magma creating this mix of acid volcanic projections and sediments.” The dark soil is deep, with 40-60 cm layers on the top of the bedrock, with few clays[3] and an important ability to drain the water into the depth.

The most extraordinary feature of the soil is its thermic inertia, while the position of the growth at the end of the valley allows air circulation and ventilation to sweep any trace of humidity, as rainfall on Rangen can be relatively elevated for Alsace (750 mm)[4]. Despite its warm thermic nature, Rangen is a late-ripening micro-climate with cooler and wetter springs and mild, shiny autumns. Riesling enjoys this long maturation cycle with a usual 2–3-week shift compared to other terroirs. Therefore, despite Pinot Gris is widely spread representing 57% of the plantings, Riesling (32%) is transcended by this unique cru. Pinot Gris is preferred on more limestone terroirs to preserve acidity, but here it is all about concentration provided by low yields. It will however remain more varietal- driven, so is Gewürztraminer that only covers some 10% of the area closer to the Thur River and the Valley, while Muscat has a mere 1%.

A stubborn nature tamed by Sisyphus

Rangen is very difficult to approach from all points of view, one being the annual work in the vineyards. Erosion is one of the issues, so the Cru is trained into terrasses with stone walls that the vintners must repair every single year. The vine planting is high: 6000-10000 vines per hectare, yielding low quantities. Threats can come from powdery and downy mildew and sprayings are not very common due to the steep and high nature of the slope. Botrytis is not a threat as it manly arrives hand in hand with late harvests and provides noble rot on extra-ripe berries. Except for noble sweet wines the presence of Botrytis is not sought- after not to superpose with the typicality of the growth.

In 1993, the Rangen winegrowers adopted a Charter defining the rules of cultivation of the vine and harvesting:

– use of sexual confusion on the whole growth and prohibition of any insecticides;

– minimum density of 6,000 vines per hectare;

– prohibition of any enrichment of the must;

– minimum harvest potential degrees of 11.5° (subsequently increased to 12°) for Riesling and Muscat, and 13.5° (subsequently increased to 14°) for Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris;

– maximum yield of 50 hl/ha without PLC[5].

In 2010, winegrowers added the interdiction of acidification/ deacidification as well as a minimum age of five years for the vines to produce Alsace Grand Cru Rangen de Thann AC.

 

Clos Saint- Urbain

Clos Saint-Urbain is located within the limits of the Cru and is a monopole of the ubiquitous Zind-Humbrecht. The 5,5 hectares- plot are mostly planted with Pinot Gris and Riesling[6] with south- eastern aspect. I still remember my study trip to Alsace during my BP Sommelier Diploma. We unfortunately couldn´t visit Domaine Zind- Humbrecht, but some classmates and I had the idea to steal a bottle of Pinot Gris Clos Saint Urbain 1985 from our teacher and tasted it!

Urbain – Germanic patron saint of the vintners was invocated whenever the peasants started climbing the inaccessible Cru. This invincible and magic slope appears in numerous poems, while the Saint Urbain single vineyard has been the departure point for the courageous Leonard Humbrech, Oliver´s father to construct the empire that reigns on Rangen.

Domaine Zind- Humbrecht

My first visit at Zind- Humbrecht´s sends me back to November 13, 1997. It is that year they started working organically and eventually obtained they ECOCERT Certification for their 40-ha patchwork of plots and Crus[7] in 1998, followed by the biodynamic BIODYVIN in 2002.

Globally, Rangen Riesling is rich and opulent. In its youth it displays blossomy flavours intermingling with lemongrass and melissa or verbena. They always have a volcanic flint, like smoke and tobacco. As they age, they become even smokier and stonier, with salty savouriness. Terpenes invade the nose with thyme, laurel, and other essences. The palate is denser than other Rieslings on other Alsatian terroirs with a ripe acidity, no austerity and fuller approach.

These features are enhanced by Zind- Humbrecht´s vinification with longer and smoother press of 10-24 hours and higher fermenting temperatures, a kind of “hands-off” vinification with very slow fermentations, followed by long lees maturing[8].

Riesling Rangen de Thann Grand Cru Domaine Zind- Humbrecht 1996[9] tasting notes from November 1997. 1996 was a small and concentrated harvest as I was told at the estate.

Clear lemon green colour, superb nose offering a ripe, though very fine feeling with notes of pear and flint. The palate is clean and pure by its supple freshness, its texture and has lots of personality due to its flinty character and long smoky finish.

I later tasted the Riesling Rangen de Thann Grand Cru Domaine Zind- Humbrecht 1999 which was exceptionally complex, showing ripe apricot, kumquat, baked apple, and tobacco. Dry with ripe attack, rich texture and fleshy core, the wine had high acidity of a concentrated and ripe level and dense phenolics, finishing on a deep smoky, stony aftertaste.

Last time I tasted Oliver´s wines was during Vinexpo in 2015. The Riesling Rangen de Thann Grand Cru Domaine Zind- Humbrecht 2013 showed honey notes and blossomy acacia. The palate was pure and satin like, with fresh structure that made it feel firm though perfumes were fleshy, easing the tasting. Long, sapid finish. Rangen only gave 1500 bottles because of the difficult vintage, but still the wine showed a 7-10 year- potential.

Other tasting notes

Other producers include Domaine Schoffit – Colmar, Bruno Hertz – Eguisheim, Valérie Schnebelen – Thann, Chateau d´Orschwihr, the Cooperatives of Eguisheim and Wuenheim.

Domaine Schoffit

Vigorous, dense, their Riesling Rangen de Than has a condensed power endowed with sapid salinity. It can even get as smoky as the Pinot Gris, reminiscent of roasted fruit. It however preserves a bright, throbbing freshness, offering exotic and spicy fruit in the finish.

Bruno Hertz

A fresh, elegant style, both airy and ripe, with notes of white flowers, candied citrus, and exotic hints. A voluptuous Riesling, with delicate freshness, where one finds the citrus notes perceived on the nose complemented by a peppery touch and the typical, lengthy minerality.

Valérie Schnebelen

Clean and fruity, with gun flint and smoke. Off-dry style usually, balanced with the ripe acidity, the finish is pleasant and sapid, stony.

Château Orschwihr

Stony and slightly smoky aromas stand out first followed by notes of lemon / lime. Supple and fruity with citrus punch, the palate offers salivating acidity and mineral character. The finish is long with saline, rocky notes.

The two cooperatives[10] both produce consistent Riesling de Thann Grand Cru.

When it comes to the Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, these local specialties offer deliciously concentrated, extra- ripe stone fruits, peaches, pear in syrup, a hint of apricot and tropical glints. On the palate, a sweet but airy attack is caught up by the rich and ripe acidity reminiscent of candied citrus, then come quince, peaches. Noble sweet wines also display raisins and marmalade notes and concentrated savouriness on the finish.

 

 

Conclusions

The volcanic influence is always present with all the wines crafted on Rangen, and particularly when it comes to Riesling, with complex aromas of flint, smoke, crushed rocks (gun stone)[11] contrasting with the pristine aromas of ripe stone fruits. On the palate the Rangen commands the varietal, the terroir always transcends the grape. It lines the palate with a pure and complex stony intensity, surpassing almost the acid structure which is pushed into the background. Vibrant, vertical wines, with such latent power and long mineral finish.

Rangen wines need to be awaited, especially the Riesling. Lighter vintages provide fruiter expressions with a potential up to the decade. The most exceptional vintages[12] give stelar wines with a pure and stony expression in its youth, discreet and more reductive fruit, but the potential will be often revealed after a decade, with that specific smoky minerality.

To sum up, although most of the Alsatian vintners try to emphasis on the terroir more than the grape variety, the unexpected couple “Rangen- Riesling” has naturally promoted the enormous footprint of this only volcanic terroir on the most prominent Alsace grape. Its fiery soul transcends the varietal nature of the grape and offers new perspectives to understand Alsace wine as true ACs, not only mono-varietals, especially when it comes to the Grand Crus and moreover, the most original of all – the Rangen de Thann.

Bibliography

BURN B., Schmidt G., (1989). Alsace clos et grands crus. Paris, Jacques Legrand

DUBS S., (2002). Les Grand Crus d´Alsace. Metz, Editions Serpenoise

DUBS S., MOREL C., (1991). Les Vins d´Alsace. Paris, Editions Robert Laffond/ Serpenoise

MASTROJANNI M., (1993). Le grand livre des vins d´Alsace. Editions Solar

Websites

Vins d’Alsace : Site officiel du vignoble d’Alsace (vinsalsace.com)

Zind-Humbrecht | Zind-Humbrecht (zindhumbrecht.fr)

 

 

 


[1] Thann is the only Alsace village with all its vines entirely classified as Grand Cru

[2] Like all the other Alsace Grand Crus, each one has its single AC

[3] However, clay is present, allowing to preserve the mineral content

[4] Compared to the 550 mm Alsatian average

[5] Plafond limite de classement – French rule for the ACs, tolerating a percentage above the base yield under certain conditions

[6]  Pinot Gris 2.7ha, Riesling 2.3ha and Gewurztraminer 0.5ha.

[7] Rangen – Thann, Goldert – Gueberschwihr, Hengst – Wintzenheim, Brand – Turckheim for the Grand Crus; Rotenberg and Clos Häuserer in Wintzenheim; Herrenweg, Clos Jebsal and Heimbourg in Turckheim and Clos Windsbuhl in Hunawihr.

[8] At least 6 months in oak while malolactic fermentation is not blocked if it occurs.

[9] All Zind-Humbrecht wines presented are from the Clos Saint- Urbain single vineyard Clos

[10] The Cooperative of Eguisheim, The Cooperative of Wuenheim

[11] To quote Oliver Zind- Humbrecht MW

[12] Greatest vintages: 1983, 1985,1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. It is still difficult to judge more recent vintages.

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