A PLOT TO REMEMBER
Severine Schlumberger of Alsace-based Domaines Schlumberger shows that terroir can be easy to understand
According to Severine Schlumberger, if you were to take her Alsace-based estate’s 130 hectares of vineyards and arrange all the vine rows in a single, westwards line, you’d cover 900km, going past Brittany and landing in the Channel. It is quite mind-boggling, and certainly an interesting perspective on vineyard acreage. It also sums up the scale and scope of her family’s wine business, Domaines Schlumberger, which was established in 1810, and is known for its quality Rieslings.
“The average size of an estate in Alsace is about 20 hectares. With more than 100 hectares, we are the largest privately-owned estate in the region. We don’t buy any grapes,” says Severine, 44, the seventh-generation member of the Schlumberger winemaking family. “We make 650, 000 bottles, which is a rather small amount considering the size of our vineyards.”
You’d need some bravado to tackle the estate’s vineyards. Located on the south-facing slopes of Guebwiller in southern Alsace, the plots sit on altitudes between 250m and
400m, with inclines hitting a vertiginous 50°. This is where Man loses his place at the top of the animal kingdom, handing the mantle to the sure-footedness of his four-legged peers. The estates’ three Franc Comtois horses help plough the vineyards, and their manure is used in the production of compost. “The horses don’t suffer from vertigo, so they are crucial in the vineyard. It’s funny how when you open a wine brochure today, you’d see a picture of a horse because it has become fashionable. But for us these animals have been used since the times of our ancestors, so it has always been a natural thing,” adds Severine.
Relying on what works for them is more important than following the winemaking trends du jour. It’s why, although they have adopted biodynamic viticulture for 30 hectares of their vineyards in 2006, they are in no hurry to increase the size of their biodynamic plots. Manpower is costly, and adding another twenty more workers in each vineyard to handle the labour-intensive tasks of biodynamic farming—and not to mention, the steep slopes—isn’t feasible.
“At Schlumberger, we use [a philosophy that is] much older than organic or biodynamic viticulture—it’s called farmer’s common sense,” says Severine.
Since taking over from their father, Eric, 18 years ago, Severine and her brother, Thomas, have become the face of the estate, managing the sales and marketing, and attending trade shows around the world. “I believe Alsace is the only region in the world today that offers such a wide variety of white wines, from an easy-drinking Pinot Blanc, to the most opulent late harvest wine,” says Severine. Her current goal, she adds, is to increase the profile of Grand Cru wines from Alsace. (Alsace has a total of 51 Grand Cru vineyards.)
Severine thinks there is “a lack of recognition and understanding of Alsace’s Grand Crus”, and explains that history could have played a part in contributing to
this perception: after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Alsace was ceded to Germany, and remained under its rule till 1919. In the beginning of the 20th century, wines from Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy began to gain fame but before their influence could spread across France, the Second World War broke out, and vineyards were abandoned. During those turbulent times, Alsace “missed the train” and didn’t get to catch up with its winemaking peers. The region did not receive its first Grand Cru AOC status until 1975.
Domaines Schlumberger has four Grand Cru plots, totalling 70 hectares: Kitterle, Kessler, Saering, and Spiegel. “These four Grand Crus are like four children from the same family. They have the same education, but have different personalities,” remarks Severine. The Kitterle is their most masculine Grand Cru, its sandy, volcanic soil contributing to “bone-dry, aromatic and precise” Rieslings. Sitting in a small valley, the sandstone-filled Kessler is their most feminine plot, lending elegance to their ambrosias. The Saering and the Spiegel lie on flatter areas, producing well-balanced wines that are very approachable for most drinkers.
“The Kitterle is the most challenging [Grand Cru] to work with because it is very steep,” says Severine. “It’s like a teenager, too: the wine needs a bit more time to open up. It’s fabulous after five to seven years of ageing, when it really starts to show its terroir.”
Severine and her team do not take the term terroir lightly—it underpins everything that they do at Domaines Schlumberger: all of their estate’s 22 wines, whether they are Grand Cru or not, are vinified in the same way (six to eight months on the lees). Thus, the only difference between, say, a Grand Cru Riesling and a lower tier Riesling, comes from the soil or terroir, which shapes the taste of the wine in your glass. “95 percent of our job is done in the vineyard,” she remarks. “Our wines let you learn about terroir.
One of the trickiest things to get right is the picking of Gewürztraminer, one of the sweet wines that many associate with Alsace. For their Grand Cru Gewürztraminer, Severine and her team aim for a balance between sweetness, acidity and minerality, a style that has become one of the estate’s trademarks. “This balance all comes from the fruit. Gewürztraminer is one grape you don’t want to correct in the cellar. There are other producers who’d add acidity later in the cellar, but when you taste their wine, you can feel that the flavours are not well integrated,” she says.
The estate also makes a small amount of Pinot Noir (just 50,000 bottles), which they have only recently started exporting. “It’s lighter than the Pinot Noirs you’d find in Burgundy, it’s a bit more like a Sancerre red,” says Severine. “It goes well with fish and white meats.”
WEATHERING THE EFFECTS
Despite the spring frost that affected so many vintners in Europe in 2017, Severine maintains that last year’s vintage is one of the best they have had in the estate’s history (the hillside locations of the vineyards have helped minimise some effects of the frost). A little wine from their Grand Cru harvest will also be added to the bottlings of their regular line-up; a very rare move which is a boon for their consumers.
Severine is wary of the extreme weather patterns brought by climate change—“We have had more rain than usual when it used to be much drier”—but believes the vines will learn to resist and adapt.
“If you look back over the decades, we have had very cold years and very warm years, but we have always survived,” she muses. “I think the most important thing you must have is passion for this job. A hail storm can come and destroy all your harvest in ten minutes. If you don’t have the passion, it’s hard to pick yourself up and move on.”
Domaines Schlumberger wines available from Grand Vin. Tel: 6465 3081