The AWE regularly arranges tasting tours for its members to various wine regions around the world; a vital thing to do in order to keep up one’s expert wine knowledge. The most recent trip was to Alsace, which I jumped at seeing as it’s one of my favourite wine regions. The whole trip was extremely successful, but in this post I’m going to talk about a thoroughly splendid visit we had at Domaine Pierre et Frédéric Becht.
The domaine was established in its current location by Pierre’s father, Camille, who built many of the winery buildings himself. Camille was a grower and winemaker, but he didn’t bottle his own wine. That changed with Pierre, who has been bottling his own wine and selling most of it directly from the cellar door since the end of the 1970s. Pierre has handed over the winemaking to his son Frédéric now, but he is still very present in the front of house; warmly welcoming all visitors, showing them around the domaine and hosting tastings. He’s extremely amiable and quite a showman, as you shall see later in this post.
The domaine is found in Dorlisheim, in the north of the Alsace vineyard. It’s a shame that this end of Alsace, the Bas-Rhin (Lower Rhine), is often overlooked in favour of the more famous vineyards to the south in the Haut-Rhin (Upper Rhine). Although it’s true there is a greater concentration of great vineyards and top winemakers further South in Alsace, there are nevertheless fantantic sites and superb producers in the North too. The Becht’s vineyards cover 23 hectares in total, 11 around the village of Dorlisheim and 12 in the excellent lieu-dit of Stierkopf, which is found in Mutzig.
As is common in Alsace, they have a bewildering array of wines. Broadly speaking there are about 8 different wines at each of three different quality levels (traditionnels, Stierkopf and Excellence de Stierkopf), so that makes about 24 so far. But then there are another 8 or so sweet wines, plus half a dozen Crémant and various other oddities. And that’s not to mention Pierre’s Eaux-de-vie. They were delighted to have us there to try their wines and we were in for a monster tasting, with Pierre pouring two bottles at a time at breakneck speed.
But Before we talk about the tasting, a quick word on Crémant, which is fizz made in the same way as in Champagne (secondary fermentation in the bottle) but from different regions around France. Crémant d’Alsace accounts for half of all the Crémant made; it’s good value, reliable, can be excellent and is a very important market in Alsace. At Domaine Becht it accounts for 38% of their production and an amazing 90% of that is sold at the cellar door. To get the yeast out of the bottles of Crémant (a process called riddling) they have something at domaine Becht I’d never seen before, a sort of manual gyropalette. A gyropalette is normally an electronically controlled machine, gradually jolting and turning a palette of sparkling wine bottles up on their head over a period of days, so all the yeast sediment collects in the neck, which can then be frozen and removed before the final cork is put in the bottle. However, Pierre’s had a manual crank to ratchet the palette upright, a slightly frightening device to see in action but one he clearly loved using. Just the first evidence of the show man in action, but more was to come.
So, onto the tasting. We started with four different Crémants – one 100% Chardonnays with zero dosage (ie very dry) and one with 6 g/l dosage, then we also tried a Auxerrois (another Alsace variety) with 9 g/l and a Method Ancestrale, which was sweeter. I particularly liked the clean, fresh, appley and creamy zero dosage fizz. Note that they use cultivated yeasts for their Crémants for increased consistency, but all the rest of the wines are vinified with indigenous yeasts for a greater sense of place.
After the Crémants, we moved on to still wines. It was hard to keep up with Pierre and we sometimes had to slow him down to get any notes written. We had a range of Rieslings, followed by Auxerrois, then Pinot Gris, Muscat and finally Gewurztraminer. The regular Stierkopf Riesling was decent, but the cuvée Christine (from the Excellent du Stierkopf range) was very good, from 35 year old vines higher up the slope. The Cuvée Christine also had a lower yield compared to the regular Stierkopf, at 50 hl/ha as opposed to 70, giving more richness and concentration. The rieslings had good purity and persistance, with the Christine standing out. Amazing when you consider the wine is just €9.10 from the cellar door.
As for the other dry wines, I really enjoyed the Auxerrois, which was simple but lovely and fresh, a good lip-smacking summer drink. I also particularly enjoyed their Stierkopf Pinot Gris, which was dry but with a lovely rich and spicy palette and good length.
Before moving on to the stickies we also tasted their range of Pinot Noirs. The Cuvée Frédéric was vines planted in the mid-70s in the middle of the Stierkopf slope, with a yield of 50 hl/ha and aged in 30% new oak. It had a nice Pinot character with deep cherry flavours and a decent length. This was followed by the ‘Altitude 333’, which is grown at the top of Stierkopf, where there is less water and soil. The wine only yields 20 hl/ha and isn’t made every year. It was aged in 100% new oak and had a more intense nose; very pretty floral, strawberry and cherry aromas. It also had a decent length. Finally for the Pinots we had a 2003 Frédéric, which was drying out a bit, but was still very enjoyable.
After this we tried a barrique aged Auxerrois and Pinot Gris, followed by a sweeter Gewurztraminer, which led us into the sweet wines. There were four different Vendage Tardive wines (late harvest sweet wines); a Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat. They were all very good, but for me the raciness of the Riesling won the day. The grape variety’s ability to retain crisp acidity even when very ripe makes for a great balance with the sugar. Finally there were a Pinot Gris and a Gewurz Selection de Grains Nobles (very sweet wines made grapes with noble rot) which were superb.
By this time we were truly exhausted and also amazed at the generosity of spirit of Pierre and Frédéric, who clearly had a great time putting on the show. At the end I counted a bewildering 32 wines that they opened for us to taste, a record for me at one domaine I think.
After we were done, we were promised a light sandwich lunch. But a light sandwich lunch Chez Becht consists of a couple of huge and deep Quiche Lorraines made by Madame Becht, various locally cured meats, local cheeses, pickles and radishes, all washed down with another bottle of Crémant, this time consumed without a spittoon. To complete the show, Pierre performed sabrage to open the Crémant, using his father’s military parade sabre as his weapon. Here’s the proof with my AWE Council colleague Linda Simpson poised at the ready with a glass…
There are different models for selling wine. Some domaines, co-ops or merchants go strongly for exports, or for selling to the on-trade, or for getting into the supermarkets. However Domaine Becht goes down a traditional route of having a strong focus on selling to private clients with a large percentage direct from the cellar door. A trip there is greeted extremely warmly with a level of hospitality I’ve rarely if ever encounted in another domaine. Their wines are good quality, superb value and I’d highly recommend a trip there if you’re in the region.