Monday, April 4, 2011

Visiting Colette Faller at Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg in Alsace

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Colette Faller at Domaine Weinbach

I visited a couple of wine makers in Alsace recently. One of my stops was at Domaine Weinbach, where I was received by the Grand Dame of Alsatian wine, Colette Faller. I had met Colette Faller a few weeks earlier at the 1. International Riesling Symposium in the Rheingau, where she had presented her outstanding Rieslings.

Domaine Weinbach and Alsace

Domaine Weinbach is located just outside the castle-crowned town of Kaysersberg, the birthplace of 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer. Kaysersberg with its ancient buildings, Germanic half-timbered gingerbread houses and cobblestoned streets, is a magical place surrounded by some of Alsace's finest vineyards. Among them are Weinbach's Monopole Vineyard Clos des Capucins and the Grand Crus Schlossberg and Furstenstum, which have major holdings owned or controlled by the Fallers.

Picture: Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg

Alsace is one of the several world class French wine regions, which produces many excellent still and sparkling, red and white wines, but above all it is highly appreciated for its unoaked, dry and crisp white wines. They tend to be different from those in the other parts of France: Higher in acidity, sometimes really sour, but always a pleasant experience to have them in the glass. And they go very well with the Alsatian food, which is also unique in France. The famous choucroute you find only there in France. But of course, you find it also in neighboring Germany, for example in Frankfurt am Main. Compared with Germany, which also is famous for its world class dry wines, Alsace wines tend to be drier, more full-bodied and higher in alcohol. Finally, sweeter white wines and red wines play only a minor role in Alsace, but they have a very good sparkling wine, the Cremant d’Alsace.

Alsace is a fascinating amalgam of the German and French. The end of the 30 Years’ War in 1648 gave Alsace to France. In 1871, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Alsace was taken by Germany. After World War I, it was once more part of France — until 1940, when Germany reclaimed it. With the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, Alsace became French yet again — and so it has remained. Wine production in Alsace traces its beginnings to the early centuries of the Roman Empire, when the Romans conquered Alsace and introduced wine.

Alsace sits in the northeast corner of France, sheltered by the Vosges mountains to the west and hard against the German border to the east. The vineyards reach from around Wissembourg in the north to Mulhouse, 70 miles south. Some 12 million cases are produced annually from 32,000 acres of vineyards.

One of the most intriguing characteristics of Alsace wines is that they are bottled under their varietal names, unlike virtually all other French wines. Four grape varieties are considered to be the best:(i) Riesling – like in Germany, the most celebrated grape; (ii) Muscat – often used to produce sweet wines in France, the Alsace version is bone-dry; (iii) Pinot Gris and (iv) Gewurztraminer –Alsace's signature grape. Three other white grape varieties are also grown: (i) Sylvaner – A high-yielding grape, producing a refreshing wine, often used for blends, (ii) Pinot Blanc and (iii) Chardonnay – used only for sparkling wine. In addition, Alsace does have a little red wine made from the Burgundy grape, Pinot Noir. The Alsatian red wines tend to be quite lightweight, but can be delicious and interesting.

Alsace produces wines under three different appellations: (i) Appellation d'Origine Contrôlées (AOCs) for ¾ of the white, rosé and red wines, (ii) Alsace Grand Cru AOC for white wines from certain classified vineyards and (iii) Crémant d'Alsace AOC for sparkling wines. Alsace makes noble-sweet wines, but does not have the same reputation as Germany or Austria for its noble-sweet wines. I like the Edelzwicker from Alsace, which is blend and an easy to drink day to day wine.

Domaine Weinbach

The Domaine Weinbach is a former monastery built in 1612 by capucines monks, who made wine already on the Clos. During the French Revolution, the monastery was seized and sold as a national property. In 1898, it was acquired the Faller brothers. The Faller brother left it to their son and nephew Théo. He, a prominent figure in Alsace winegrowing, was devoted to Domaine Weinbach all his life and developed, expanded and enhanced it. Since his death in 1979, his wife Colette Faller and their two daughters Catherine and Laurence have carried on Théo's passion for the great wines of Alsace and his unrelenting commitment to delivering excellence.

Picture: Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg

Domaine Weinbach now comprises 27 hectares. Although all the bottles of Domaine Weinbach bear the name of the Clos des Capucins, only a small number originate from the Clos itself. The rest come from the Faller's other holdings, including in their Grand Cru sites. Domaine Weinbach wines also come from vineyards they have leased and cultivate themselves.

Schlossberg is probably the most significant site, being the first vineyard in Alsace to have Grand Cru status approved in 1975. Furstentum is a south-southeast facing Grand Cru site, nestled in the Kaysersberg Valley to the northeast of Schlossberg. The vines in Grand Cru Mambourg, like Furstentum, are a recent purchase for the Faller Family. The nearby Altenbourg lieu-dit provides Pinot Gris as well as Gewurztraminer.

Winemaking Philosophy

The Fallers believe in minimal intervention in the winemaking process. The grapes are harvested by hand and whole-cluster pressed in horizontal pneumatic presses. The wines are fermented under the action of the indigenous yeast and aged in the same old upright oval casks that range in size from 3,000- to 6,000-liter capacity, then usually bottled after about seven months. The wines usually do not undergo malolactic fermentation.

Picture: In the Cellar of Domaine Weinberg with Colette Faller

Laurence Faller is the winemaker. She is among a growing cadre of French winemakers that have embraced bio-dynamic farming in the vineyards. The 2005 vintage was the first 100 percent bio vintage at Weinbach, but Faller has been moving in that direction since becoming enologist at the family estate in 1993.

Madame Colette Faller and Her two Daughters Catharine and Laurence

Colette Faller received us in an elegant and charming tasting room where you feel through the pictures and the furniture the history of the place. She is a fascinating woman. I did not meet Laurence, but Catharine dropped by several times.

After the untimely death of Theo, Colette Faller buried Theo near the house in the vineyards he loved and subsequently called the wine those grapes produced Cuvee Theo. She took over the management of Domaine Weinbach and assumed the duties as winery hostess and titular winemaker.

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Colette and Catherine Faller at Domaine Weinbach

Colette Faller continued to achieve remarkable quality. Robert M. Parker Jr. wrote that Colette Faller, "a robust, vivacious woman of extraordinary charm and vision, has turned out a dazzling succession of profound Rieslings, Gewurtztraminers, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blancs and dry Muscats from her surrounding vineyards."

Much of the credit of course has to go to her daughters Catharine and Laurence Faller. The latter studied chemical engineering, then took enology courses in Toulouse and Beaune. She even did a stint in California in 1989. In 1993, she returned to Domaine Weinbach and began assuming some of the winemaking duties. By 1996, she was making many of the winemaking decisions, and in 1998 she was given free rein as winemaker. Catharine looks after the marketing and business side of Domaine Weinbach.

The Domaine Weinbach Wine Portfolio

We spent a couple of hours with Collete Faller tasting wines with her in the dining room of her charming, antiques-filled country home, where family mementos and photographs of her late husband stood on an old china cabinet. She came out dressed stylishly, took us through the Domaine Weinbach wine portfolio and showed us around the winery.


The Riesling range starts with the Riesling Cuvée Théo, sourced from the Clos des Capucins, where Theo rests. The Riesling (and the Gewurtztraminer) that grow there bear his name.

The Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg originates from the upper slopes of the Grand Cru Schlossberg vineyard. There are three further special cuvées from the Grand Cru Schlossberg: (1) Riesling Cuvée Ste Catherine, from the lower slopes of Schlossberg; the grapes are picked late (some time around the 25th of November, day of Sainte Catherine) so that they can enjoy the late autumn sun, (2) Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Ste Catherine which comes from old vines on the mid-slope in Schlossberg, and (3) Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Ste Catherine L’Inedit. "L'Inédit means the original one and is from the most beautiful plots. It is only produced when Riesling reaches an exceptional maturity” told us Colette Faller.

The Domaine Weinbachs Riesling wines have a fine and delicate fruitiness; they are racy, nervy, dry but at the same time they are mature and long on the palate. “Riesling holds a special place in our vineyards and in our hearts ” said Colette Faller.

Tokay Pinot Gris

The Tokay Pinot Gris Cuvée Ste Catherine is sourced from old vines in the Clos des Capucins.

The other Pinot Gris cuvées come from lieu-dit Altenbourg. The Tokay Pinot Gris Cuvée Laurence is sourced from vines in the lower part of the Altenbourg vineyard, whereas the Tokay Pinot Gris Altenbourg Cuvée Laurence comes from the main part of the Altenbourg plot.


As the Riesling, the Gewurztraminer Cuvée Théo originates from the Clos des Capucins. The remaining Gewuerztraminer cuvées are predominantly from Altenbourg again. The Gewurztraminer Cuvée Laurence comes from the foot of the lieu-dit, and the Gewurztraminer Altenbourg Cuvée Laurence comes from the main part of the Altenbourg plot.

In addition, there is also the Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Furstentum Cuvée Laurence which comes from Grand Cru Furstentum.

Colette Faller said “with wonderful aromas of rose, gilly-flower, jasmine, spices, crystallized citrus fruit… with velvety bodies, they are sumptuous as an aperitif, with exotic food, smoked salmon or even with cheese, especially with French cheeses such as Munster or Roquefort.”

Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Muscat and Pinot Noir

There is a Sylvaner Réserve from the Clos des Capucins. “The Sylvaner is good with cooked pork meats, oysters, fish. It is also a thirst-quenching wine “ said Colette Faller.

The Pinot Réserve is a blend of fruit from the Clos des Capucins and from vines at the foot of the Altenbourg lieu-dit.

The Muscat Réserve is a blend from the Clos des Capucins and the marly limestone soil at the foot of the Altembourg. “Dry, with an incomparable fruitiness, it really gives the impression of biting a raisin. It can be a wonderful aperitif and goes really well with asparagus and lightly spiced dishes” said Colette Faller.

The Pinot Noir Réserve is sourced from the Clos des Capucins and Schlossberg.

Vendanges Tardives, Sélection de Grains Nobles and Quintessences de Grains Nobles

There are also Vendanges Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles cuvees. However, many regard the greatest wines to be the Quintessences de Grains Nobles. “They are exceptional wines, remarkable because of their great aromatical complexity, of their rare concentration and their perfect balance” said Colette Faller.

The Quintessences de Grains Nobles are extremely rare nectars, produced in tiny quantities in only a few vintages. The word Quintessence was invented in Domaine Weinbach; it was used the first time to describe a sumptuous cuvée of the 1983 vintage.

Contact details:
Address: 25, route du Vin, 68240 Kaysersberg
Telephone: +33 (0) 3 89 47 13 21
Fax: +33 (0) 3 89 47 38 18

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