I’d met André Ostertag, very briefly, a few years ago at his agent’s portfolio tasting. Tasting through just a small selection of his wines then, almost at the end of the day, my tastebuds flagging , concentration waning, I was abruptly brought back to the moment by the focus, precision and sheer energy of his wines. So I was delighted to see Domaine Ostertag on our itinerary and to have the chance to learn more about this quietly spoken maverick of a man of such outspoken views and his extraordinary wines.
André is the second generation of the family domaine . His father started the domaine in 1961 with a selection of small parcels within the family. The Domaine now has 14.3 hectares, roughly two thirds of which are around Epfig where the domaine is based, just under a third in nearby Nothalten and a trio of small parcels in Albé, Itterswiller and Ribeauvillé. In 1981 André was despatched to the Lycée Viticole in Beaune. He followed his studies with a stage at Comte Lafon – a period which has had a huge impact on his life since. When he retuned to the family domaine in 1987, his father gave him the option of looking after either vineyards or wine making . He chose the latter – and apparently his father never set foot in the cellar thereafter.
It must have taken some courage (and vision) to turn over control of the winemaking so generously and allow André to make all the decisions . He went on to make some quite revolutionary choices. He got rid of the old foudres and replaced them with stainless steel tanks and barriques . André treats the Pinot family as the Burgundian grapes they are, fermenting them to dryness in barrique and ageing them on the lees. Muscat, Riesling and Gewürztraminer are fermented in steel to conserve the purity of the their aromatics.
In 1997 he experimented with biodynamics on a small plot and was so enthused by the results that the whole domaine was turned over to biodynamics in 1998. He remains convinced that the impact of biodynamic viticulture on the health of the vineyard has helped the vines weather some of the difficulties in recent vintages. Wine -making here is resolutely non-interventionist. Ferments are natural – the first 20 litres of ferment are analysed and used to inoculate if good enough . Fermentation may go on for as long as 9 months and will continue to dry balance. Unusually for Alsace all the wines go through malo-lactic. André sees malo as part of the wine’s need to balance itself. Sulphur is used at the press and bottling.
We were greeted by Thomas Larmoyer who looks after commerce and tastings for the Domaine. Thomas explained the unusual way in which Ostertag classify their wines in three categories .
Vins de Fruit – are fruit driven wines , pure expressions of the grape variety , picked at normal ripeness and aged for 6 to 9 months and bottled in green glass with the variety in capital letters and the cuvée below -detailing the vineyard and for examples barriques in lower case. These wines are intended to be drunk within 5 years.
Vins de Pierre – are terroir -driven wines, picked later, fermented to dryness and aged for 11 to 18 months. They are bottled in dark glass with the name of the terroir in capital letters and the variety in lower case -denoting the significance of origin first and variety second- an inversion of the normal labelling for Grand Cru in Alsace.These wines can be age for 10 to 20 years.
Vins de Temps – are wines shaped by time and weather (temps meaning both), picked much later , they are an expression of over-ripeness or Noble Rot and may be aged from 9 to 12 months . They are bottled in clear glass to show the beautiful colour of the wine and should last from 20 to 50 years.
Thomas had selected ten wines for us to taste, giving us plenty of opportunities to see the Ostertag philosophy in practice .
We began with 2 Vins de Fruit- Les vieilles vignes de Sylvaner 2014 and Pinot Blanc Barriques 2014. André believes that Sylvaner is the most under-rated grape variety in Alsace , often relegated to the poorest sites and grubbed up well before it reaches its potential. If the concentration , freshness and length of this was any guide he certainly has a point. The vines are aged between 30 and 75 years and come from a mix of parcels on limestone and sandstone .
The Pinot Blanc is 50/50 Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois fermented , Burgundian fashion in barrique . It wore its oak elevage with grace – most of the barriques are 3 or 4 years old with a very small percentage of new oak.
We then tasted a pair of Pinot Gris from the 2103 vintage , one from the Zellberg Lieu Dit the other from the Muenchberg Grand Cru . These are Vins dePierre . Zellberg Pinot Gris 2013 comes from a small plot (0.3ha) on the Zellberg – a southeast-facing hillside with a mix of clay, chalk and pink sandstone soils near the village of Nothalten .The delicate nose of this wine belied totally the power and richness on the palate.
This one of the sites that is being considered for promotion to Premier Cru status . Throughout our trip we met growers with the same view -they feel that customers in Alsace don’t understand the concept of a Lieu Dit but do grasp the idea of Premier Cru. With just 3% of Alsace sale being Grand Cru there is surely some room for another quality level .
A360P Muenchberg Grand Cru Pinot Gris coined its name from the grid reference when, in 1993 the wine was refused Grand Cru status for want of typicity. Muenchberg is a large vineyard -Ostertag have 2 hectares here planted mostly to Riesling with some Pinot Gris.It’s a natural south-facing amphitheatre with chalky and volcanic soils with limestone at its eastern edge. This version of Pinot Gris is as taut, intense and linear as the Zellberg is opulent.
Three wines from the Fronholz vineyard , Muscat 2014, Riesling 2013 and Gewürztraminer 2012 ( A Vin de Temps) all showed the freshness of this site. Fronholz is on the south west side of the Epfig hill with a mix of quartz, white sand, clay and marl soils. Although it’s a very sunny site it is also cooled by a constant breeze that ensure good levels of acidity and elegant aromas in the wines.The Muscat is 100% Muscat Ottonel . André prefers to use this old variety for the purity of its aromas in the dry styles he wants. It had classic floral notes on the nose , great concentration and a long finish. Fronholz Riesling again showed the kind of nervy, racy qualities typical of cooler climate German Riesling . When you consider that these wines have all gone though malo and been aged for a year on the lees it makes the imprint of the vineyard in the final wine the more remarkable.
The Fronholz Gewürztraminer 2012 is an extraordinary example of success snatched from the jaws of disaster . The year had inflicted very possible adverse weather event on Alsace- drought in spring , difficult flowering conditions and heavy rain at harvest . The grapes for this wine were picked on October 30th, 3 days after snow and 2 days before the region caught the tail-end of Hurricane Sandy which brought rain and fog for all of November.
Two more single vineyard Rieslings completed the line up – Clos Mathis Riesling 2013 and Heissenberg Riesling 2013 .
Clos Mathis is a walled vineyard belonging to the domaine’s vineyard manager Hubert Mathis , next to the Kirchberg Grand Cru in the village of Ribeauvillé. The domaine has leased this vineyard since 1997 . It is a terraced vineyard on granite soils which gives great ageing potential. The wine just buzzed with zingy freshness and energy.
Heissenberg -or hot mountain is a much warmer cru on a small south-facing hill on pink sandstone near Nothalten. Predictably this was a much riper style but with an almost saline finish.
If Alsace is sometimes regarded as the place where grape variety triumphs over all else, then Andre Ostertag , with his very Burgundian education and focus on pure, dry expressions is a great advocate for the power of terroir . His work in the vineyard and hands -off approach in the winery are fundamental to his approach -to nurture great quality raw material and allow it to express its origin.