A PLOT TO RE­MEM­BER

Sev­er­ine Schlum­berger of Al­sace-based Do­maines Schlum­berger shows that ter­roir can be easy to un­der­stand

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS LIN WEIWEN

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.

SIM­PLI­FY­ING TER­ROIR

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

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