Pfaffenheim may be the oldest operating cooperative in Alsace but that doesn’t mean it is staid or stuck in a rut. Far from it, argues Justin Keay who tastes six of their wines which are pushing the envelope of what is possible in the region – so much so that a lot of their wines don’t even mention Alsace on the label. There’s a zero dosage cremant, an un-Alsatian Pinot Gris, a 1957 Riesling and, most surprising of all, a 100% Pinot rosé with a lip-smacking retail price of €40 a bottle. Keay gets the lowdown from Pfaff’s marketing head Clara Richert and chief winemaker Jerome Attard about their unique approach to making Alsace wine.
“But for a producer like us, if you don’t have Wine Spectator ratings, it’s hard to shine. The challenge must be to do something quite different, but which reflects who we are,” says Clara Richert.
Famously scenic and imbued with history, Alsace has a lot to offer even by the standards of the world’s stand-out wine regions. Achingly beautiful towns and villages, distinctive cuisine, Riesling to match anything Germany can produce, and world-famous vineyards like the volcanic Rangen, world class producers like Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Hugel and Trimbach…the list goes on.
However, despite such producers and the high class wines made by lesser known names, one thing this region isn’t often associated with is innovation… pushing the boundaries somehow doesn’t seem very Alsace.
“The impression people have is that we are staid and conservative, very good at the basics but that’s about it. It isn’t true but many say we are making the same sort of wines as our grandparents,” says Clara Richert, head of marketing at Caves des Vigneron de Pfaffenheim, or Pfaff as it now calls itself on bottles. She admits such views are reinforced by a very traditional wine association which makes producers stick rigorously to carefully laid down rules, and come down hard on any deviation.
Established in 1957, Pfaffenheim is the oldest cooperative in a region with more than its fair share of excellent cooperatives. Working with 150 growers located around the scenic village that gives Pfaffenheim its name, it produces three million bottles a year of good value quality Pinot Gris, Riesling and other local varietals. Yet over the past two years chief winemaker Jerome Attard has been pushing the boundaries, making wines that might make traditionalists blanche but is key to the strategy of expanding the customer base.
“We’ve done lot of research to see what new products might put Alsace back on the map, and capture younger drinkers and millennials. Just producing more good quality Riesling isn’t enough because we have such strong competition from Germany. If you’re really famous or are a small producer there’s not so much pressure. But for a producer like us, if you don’t have Wine Spectator ratings, it’s hard to shine. The challenge must be to do something quite different, but which reflects who we are,” says Richert.
Attard says the plan is to produce wines that reflect Pfaffenheim’s unique terroir; he says its hilltop location south of Colmar gives it an almost Mediterranean climate quite distinct from the rest of the region.
“We’ve been looking at oak and extended lees ageing to see what we can do differently,” he says.
The result, two years down the line, is six new wines, some of which are as un-Alsace as it’s possible to be and as a result are not AOC wines, with some not even bearing the name of the region at all, for fear of contravening local wine laws. Some are tiny volume – just 2500-3000 bottles of each – and pricey by local coop standards, but all reflect Attard’s desire for differentiation from other local coops and producers.
So how were the six Pfaffenheim wines tasting?
First off, a Cremant Brut – but not any old Cremant. Cremant Pfaffenheim Zero is, as its name suggests, made with Zero dosage and from hand-harvested grapes. A 50/50 blend of Auxerois and Pinot Blanc, which spend one year on their lees, this is very fresh with the former variety giving a slightly left-field taste to what is a fizz clearly aimed at the millennial market.
Next, the Exception Chardonnay 2019 is a very consciously Burgundian wine, aged 12 months in barrels, with very rounded vanilla and marzipan notes supported by steely acidity which will soften if the wine is kept a few years.
La Gritte de Diable 2019 is a very non-Alsatian tasting Pinot Gris, aged and fermented in oak barrels. Named after a local legend, this ambitious wine is intended for extended ageing; I’m not entirely sure it works right now but hopefully the heavy oak feel will moderate after some more time in bottle.
The very fresh moreish 1957 Riesling 2020 is a complete contrast. Its name recalls the year of Pfaffenheim’s foundation and the wine is made from a carefully selected plot of grapes, which are hand-picked before being lees-aged for four months. This is a full and quite fruit-driven wine but still fresh with just 12.5% alcohol.
The Red Tie Pinot Noir 2018, smartly labelled with a red jacket and red bow tie, is part of the ‘Red Tie by Pfaff’ range. This almost pretty Pinot has lots of primary red fruit, just 12% alcohol and is very fresh and easy drinking. A million miles in fact from the tannic, sometimes muddy tasting Pinot Noir that used to be common currency in Alsace.
The final wine is in many ways the most surprising – and at around €40 a bottle the priciest wine made by Pfaff. Les Garides 2019 is a super-premium rosé – in a mega-heavy bottle which means you just have to take it seriously – made with 100% Pinot Noir. Aged for 12 months in oak this is Attard’s attempt to out-Provence the Provençal, taking advantage of Pfaffenheim’s Mediterranean climate, with its plentiful daytime sun and cool nights, with the grapes late harvested to show the terroir as much as possible. Pfaff seem very proud of it even though the Alsace region, of course, appears nowhere on the bottle.
“We’re not a family winery but with just 40 full time employees it often feels that way. We are keen to expand beyond our strong traditional foreign markets – which include Canada and the Nordic countries – and really hope these new wines, and this new approach, get Pfaffenheim a wider international customer base,” says Richert.
Attard echoes this.
“We’re very proud of what we do here and we think these wines reflect that.”
All the Pfaff without the faff, you might say.
The wines from Pfaffenheim are imported into the UK by Myliko Wines.