Alsace and the Magnificent 7
Byline: By Helen Savage
Tasting wine with Philippe Blanck is a special event. A great bear of a man, with a personality to match, he's a born performer and intensely proud of the wine the wine he makes.
He's more than keen to share his passion, as I discovered last week when I met him at his winery, Domaine Paul Blanck, in the improbably pretty village of Kientzheim in Alsace.
Philippe's family has made wine in this part of France since they moved here from Austria in 1610.
Alsace is border country, facing Germany across the Rhine Valley. Armies have come and gone and, Philippe adds ruefully, "we've been 'freed' by almost every country in Europe".
In the Middle Ages, Alsace wine growers could choose from almost two hundred different grape varieties, but the deadly aphid phylloxera confined most to history in the late 19th Century.
Inferior hybrid vines were planted, which were, Philippe admits, a mess, but supplied copious quantities of cheap quaffing wine to a thirsty German public.
After the Second World War, with Alsace back in France, the INAO ( the National Institute of Appellations Contrlyes (rather wickedly described by Philippe as the Vatican in France) decreed that "seven holy grapes" should be planted instead.
They still make up the vast majority of the Alsace vineyard: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and the only black grape in the pack, Pinot Noir.
Alsace wines were thus the first in France to be sold by the name of the grape variety from which they were made. But the barometer of fashion swung again and terroir became, in Philippe's words, the new El Dorado. Terroir is impossible to translate succinctly. It means a kind of "somewhereness" ( not just soil, slope or orientation of the land, but everything that makes each vineyard special, including its climate and, Philippe insists, a human element ( the distinctive viticultural traditions of the people.
In 1983 some of the best terroirs of Alsace were accorded the status of Grand Cru, which involved vast amount of committee work and much angst. The Blancks were amongst the leaders of the initiative (other Grand Crus were added later), convinced that, despite all the hassle, it was a move in the right direction, just as they now support steps to make viticulture as environmentally friendly as possible, and were among the first in Alsace to take the plunge and bottle their wines for the export market with a screw cap to ensure that no cork taint could spoil them. …