I know a wine writer who berates other wine writers who use the ‘A’ word. I won’t give her name, but I will say that she resembles a yeti, and not in a wholesome, Julia Child sort of way.
Now, my baby momma daddy, who doesn’t resemble a yeti but who would likely represent yeti in a class-action lawsuit against The Discovery Channel, also objects to the ‘A’ word. And in terms which a fellow lawyer might describe as a violation of Michigan Penal Code 750.102: Willful blasphemy of the holy name of God.
Both of these law-savvy, wine-knowledgeable intellects are ‘Type A’ alpha dogs who generally bring their ‘A’ game to the table, so it was with a sense of profound relief when the ‘A’ word slipped effortlessly, again and again, from the honeyed lips of Anne-Laure Helfrich—one pretty yeti.
The word is ‘Alsatian’. And Anne-Laure Helfrich—who is Alsatian—uses it to describe her nationality, her wines, her language and also, to refer to that breed of dog known elsewhere as a German Shepherd.
See, that’s the only time the above-referenced, self-appointed know-it-alls believe the word ‘Alsatian’ should be used.
Anne-Laure is not a dog. In fact, Anne-Laure is arguably the most un-doglike vigneronette in the entire global wine kennel. She makes her first-runner-up, Ivy du Toit of Jason’s Hill Winery, look like Sweet Polly Purebred after a botox bungle.
As a red-blooded Alsace-lovin manchild, breaking bread with Ann-Laure (at the same suburban restaurant where Jimmy Hoffa disappeared when I was a kid) was an experience that a more literarily-inclined hack might refer to as ‘a droll and delightful diversion’.
And, speaking of kids, turns out that Anne-Laure has never heard of Hoffa, dating me dreadfully, which is probably how I would have dated Anne-Laure.
So, with the ice broken, then re-frozen, we moved on to her wines, and do you what? Enough with the ‘A’ words already.
Anne’s Awesome Alsatian Array at Andiamo’s: Aromatics, Acidity and Affordability
Helfrich Family Winery teeters on the tippy-top of Alsace, that marvelous slice of vinous Valhalla wedged between France and Germany. Scarcely two hundred miles from top to bottom, the region straddles Lorraine and the Franche Comté to the west and the upper Rhine to the east, celebrating a wine style that can fairly said to be a fusion of both traditions and creating synergies that are occasionally greater than either. By law, focus is on specific varieties—mostly whites and a single red. Pinot noir from the appellation can be a tough swallow, however, often tannic and oaky; nothing to rival German spätburgunder and not even in the same ballpark as Burgundy. That said, the Alsace ‘serious’ red wine tradition did not begin until the 1980s, whereas the superlative whites have been around since the land was called Austrasia.
Perched on the cultural crossroads, influenced by the Franks and the Teutons, the wines pays them equal homage. Like the Germans, the lauded whites are made from riesling, gewurtztraminer, pinot gris, pinot blanc and sylvaner (with muscat accounting for around 3% of vine plantings).
Like the French, these wines are vinified dry, except in late harvest version known as Vendange Tardive (in Germany, these would be classified Spätlese) and Sélection de Grains Nobles, botrytis-infected grapes, similar to a German Beerenauslese.
In Alsace, the name of the varietal is listed on the label, and like the Germans, wines are bottled in flûtes d’Alsace, which resemble the narrow and elegant vessels of the Rhine.
Rich Helfrich History
The Helfrich family has been producing wine in Northern Alsace for six generations, while the vineyard itself, called Steinklotz, has been around since 589 AD, when King Childebert II was still lopping off the heads of Lombards. It is situated at ideal elevations ranging from 600 to 1000 ft, and soils are composed of a scant few inches of loam over a base of calcareous bedrock, helping it to retain heat. Like all vineyards in Alsace, Steinklotz is dry-farmed, but unlike most, it has been awarded Grand Cru status—a coveted AOC designation enjoyed by less than 5% of the region’s vineyards.
We sampled a selection from both the Grand Cru Steinklotz Vineyard and the lower-end Vin d’Alsace line made from grapes sourced from the Couronne d’Or Vineyard Association. With a single surprising exception, all the wines showed clean balance, pure fruit and the explosive aromatics and grape integrity that Alsatian wines display, occasionally to to exaggerated levels.
It was the Grand Cru Riesling—often the flagship of an Alsatian portfolio—that left me less than transmogrified. So I won’t dwell. Suffice it to say that the wine, vintage 2012, was a solid offering, showing a slight rubberiness typical of a younger, cold-climate riesling; wet stoniness was there along with some mandarin orange notes, although in moderate doses. From any other region, I would have sung its praises louder, but the bar for Alsace riesling is set Olympian high.
The others made the hurdle on the first try, especially the entry-level ‘Noble Varieties’ from Couronne d’Or. Pinot Blanc 2013 made a striking frontal assault in the way that this variety can in chilly northern Europe. Strong, lively scents of Bosc pear blended with softer apple and blossom notes, washing over the tongue with bright, oak-free persistence. Pinot blanc is considered an ‘everyday’ wine in Alsace, which is not to dumb it down, but to suggest that you could easily drink this wine on a daily basis.
Pinot gris also finds a resonant voice in Helfrich’s cellars—a voice that is both operatic and hedonistic. Rich, smoky, tinted with ripe, almost bruised apple flavors along with peach jam, the wine screams for a side of native Alsatian foie gras, a delicacy for which the region has been known since the 17th century. Like the rest of the line-up, Noble Varieties Pinot Gris 2013 undergoes a membrane press and a cold fermentation, after which it is cold settled in stainless steel and racked on lees. Neither is there so much as a splinter oak in the Grand Cru cuvée, and the fruit intensity redoubles.
For my palate, attempting to produce gewurtztraminer outside of Alsace is a fool’s game. I don’t care how talented the winemaker is or how heralded the vineyard, nobody has ever come close to maximizing the incredible potency of this grape like like the Alsatians in their narrow strip of medieval France. It’s like that time that decent filmmakers decided to remake the un-remakeable Pink Panther using Steve Martin in place of the irreplaceable Peter Sellers. Martin is a comic genius, of course, but dudes; why? If it ain’t broken…
Like the movie, most non-Alsace gewurtztraminer tends to be shadow wine; a poor imitation of the archetype. With Helfrich’s entry, a shimmery symphony of lychee, honeysuckle, citrus peel and grapefruit define a classic exemplar, drawing marvelously from an ideal terroir.
The two tiers of Helfrich wine retail for $15 and $28 respectively, and stand up beautifully to reference-point Alsatian wines—Trimbach, Lucien Albrecht and Zind-Humbrecht.
The Indomitable Snowchick
As for Anne-Laure, who also stands up beautifully, same as she sits down, I suppose my chances with her—the Betty Grable of the yeti stable—are about as good as any other snowball’s in hell.
In other words, about the same as my chances of finding Jimmy Hoffa.
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Damn, Chris, you didn’t invite me to sit in with your yeti and I’m headed to Alsace in a month…