Monday, January 24, 2011

Visiting Yann-Leon Beyer at Maison Leon Beyer in Eguisheim in Alsace

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Yann-Leon and Marc Beyer at Maison Beyer in Eguisheim in Alsace

I visited a couple of wine makers in Alsace recently, including Jean Trimbach who I had met at the Sofitel Restaurant in Washington DC at a wine makers dinner. After Maison Trimbach, my next appointment was with Maison Leon Beyer in Eguisheim. Interestingly, Jean Trimbach reported that a few weeks ago former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing was on a wine tasting tour in Alsace; he had two wineries on his list: Maison Trimbach and Maison Leon Beyer! Good Choice.

Maison Leon Beyer and Alsace

Maison Leon Beyer has been wine making in Alsace since the 16th century, although the estate was not truly established until 1867 when Emile Beyer created the Maison de Vin d'Alsace.

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 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.

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.

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.

Picture: Yann Beyer in front of the office desks of Marc Beyer and the late Leon Beyer

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.

Since the creation of the Grand Cru AOC in Alsace, a number of winemakers have however shunned the system. Maison Leon Beyer is one of the most notable names to do so. The issue Maison Leon Beyer has with the Grand Cru AOC is that in their view the Grand Cru vineyards in a number of cases have too extensive boundaries.

Maison Leon Beyer

Currently at the helm of Maison is Marc Beyer, with his son Yann Beyer, 14th generation of the family, fully involved and eventually taking over. I had the pleasure to meet both Marc and Yann Beyer, but spent most of the time with Yann.

At a crossroads, a little way out of the center of Eguisheim, Maison Léon Beyer is perpetuating the tradition of great Alsace wines. The Maison Leon Beyer was initially in the centre of Eguisheim, before relocating to a former post-house outside the village walls, at the end of the 1. World War. The business was then managed by Léon Beyer, who was succeeded by his son of the same name in 1959, who was also Mayor of Eguisheim, as was his father. An enlightened gourmet, the elegant and affable Léon Beyer II above all focused on creating the prestigious gastronomic aura that sets the winery apart from the others.

Picture: Yann Beyer with a former Employee, who has spent all his work life at Maison Leon Beyer

Eguisheim is a spectacular wine-producing town. Bruno d'Eguisheim was elected pope in 1049 under the name Léon IV. The city of the Counts of Eguisheim, which passed into the hands of the Bishop of Strasbourg in the 13th century, had always been at the centre of a flourishing vineyards. The present day vineyards, one of the most extensive in all of Alsace, total 300 hectares.

Winemaking Philosophy
Maison Leon Beyer has a longstanding reputation for making elegant, bone dry wines. "Sugar in wine is like make-up on a woman's face – it masks the imperfections", comments Marc Beyer.

Maison Leon Beyer is both a domaine and negociant. It produces wine sourced from own vineyards (20 hectares) and from lease contracts (40 hectares). It has decent sized holdings in the two Eguisheim Grands Crus, Eichberg and Pfersigberg and markets the wines under the Comtes d'Eguisheim and Les Ecalliers designations, with no mention of any Grand Cru status anywhere. There are also Vendanges Tardives and Selections de Grains Nobles cuvées.

In terms of grape varieties, the emphasis is on Riesling, but Maison Leon Beyer also grows all other classic Alsatian grape varieties. In particular, Gewuerztraminer also figures prominently in the Leon Beyer wine portfolio. Yann reported about a vertical wine tasting of Leon Beyer Gewuertztraminer that he and his father had organized in Paris last year, tasting Comtes d’Eguisheim Gewuerztraminer from the vintages 1959 to 2009. “The 1976, 1964, 1961 and 1959 were brilliant” says Yann. Le Figaro carried a one page article about the tasting on July 8, 2010.

“We practice sustainable agriculture in the vineyard” says Yann Beyer “and the harvest is by hand. We do not use any screw caps. 90% of the cork is natural cork.”

Yann Beyer

Yann Beyer, now 34, is the future face of the Maison Leon Beyer. “I grew up in the wine cellar, I have wine in my blood” Yann says. He has a license in Biochemistry, he then got a degree in Oenology from Dijon and topped all this with a Master of Economic Management in Bordeaux. He is a good looking, eligible bachelor and has a lovely dog.

Picture: Yann Beyer Presenting the Leon Beyer Wines

He speaks excellent English and is great fun to be with. I hope we will see him more at wine tasting dinners around the world. “Who has the final word in the cellar, when it comes to the fine tuning of the wine?” I ask. “My father Marc, the cellarmaster and I” answers Yann.

The Maison Leon Beyer Cellars

Yann explains Leon Beyer’s wine making philosophy: “We ferment in stainless steel tanks and large, wooden barrels. It does not really matter, if a wine is fermented in a tank or a barrel. It is more a question of fitting our needs with what is available. The barrels are smaller than the tanks and therefore the wines we produce in smaller quantities tend to end up in the wooden barrels. We never use new oak. As a rule, we bottle very early to preserve the freshness and the fruitiness. This is what Alsace is all about. The wine then matures in the bottle.”

Pictures: With Yann and Marc Beyer in the Cellar

The Maison Leon Beyer has 2 quite impressive wine cellars. One is just below the winery with stainless steel tanks and large, wooden barrels plus large amounts of bottles wine sitting there to be released. Interestingly, wines are only labeled once Leon Beyer has received an order, because of the many country specific labeling regulations and language requirements that are implied by exporting all over the world. For example, a bottle exported to Russia needs a different label than one sold in France, at least as far as the back label is concerned.

Then, there is a special cellar, dug deep into the hillside beneath the vineyards, about 50 meters away from the winery. It is amazing what you see there when you walk with Yann through the cellar.

Pictures: With Yann Beyer in the special cellar

The Beyers let their wines age in the bottles in the cellar during several years before they release them on the market, especially the two Eguisheim Grands Crus, Eichberg and Pfersigberg, marketed under the Comtes d'Eguisheim and Les Ecalliers designations.

The 2010 Vintage

Yann Beyer was very upbeat about the 2010 vintage: “It was a little scary in the beginning, not much sun. We let the grapes hang longer on the vines. At the end it worked all out. We are quite happy with the quality of the 2010 vintage. The 2010 wines will be fresh wines with a good ripeness. But of course, volume is down, by up to 50% for Gewuerztraminer and Riesling.”

The Leon Beyer Wine Portfolio

“90% of the 3 Michelin star restaurants in Europe carry our wines” says Yann Beyer”. I ask about New York. “70% of the starred restaurants in New York carry our wines” says Yann. And what about China? “We were one of the first to go to China. We have been in China now for over 30 years” answers Yann. Yann took us through the whole Leon Beyer wine portfolio: (1) Les classiques, (2) Les reserves, (3) Les grandes cuvees and (4) Les vendages tardives et selection de grains nobles.

Les Classiques

This is the Leon Beyer entry level range. Les classiques comprise Maison Leon Beyer’s 6 traditional white grape varieties: Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Riesling, Tokay Pinot Gris, Gewuerztraminer as well as the Pinot Noir. In addition, the Cuvee Leon Beyer and the Cremant d’Alsace come under this category. The prices ex-winery range from Euro 7.50 to Euro 12. Les classiques are fresh and fruity with a body and weight that reflect the grape varietal.

2007 Leon Beyer Pinot Blanc Classique: Elegant with a hint of spice, well rounded yet delicate, combines freshness and softness, representing the happy medium in the range of Alsace wines. A well-balanced wine.

2009 Leon Beyer Riesling Classique: A dry, refined and delicately fruity wine with an elegant bouquet of mineral or floral notes.

2007 Leon Beyer Pinot Noir Classique: The only Alsace variety to produce red or rosé wines, characteristically fruity with hints of cherry. Structured, light with a definite "tarry" Pinot Noir nose.

Les Reserves

The Reserve wines are made from sections with mostly old vines. These are more complex wines than the Classic wines and can age longer. Les Reserve wines come as Muscat, Riesling, Tokay Pinot Gris, Gewuerztraminer as well as the Pinot Noir. They cost between Euro 12 to Euro 15.

2005 Leon Beyer Gewurztraminer Reserve: Its intense bouquet displays rich aromas of fruit, flowers and spices. Powerful and seductive.

Les Grandes Cuvees

The Grandes Cuvees wines are selected from the two Eguisheim Grands Crus, Eichberg and Pfersigberg and marketed under the Comtes d'Eguisheim and Les Ecalliers designations, with no mention of any Grand Cru status. They are only made in great vintages. Fully mature, these wines are of exceptional quality. The Grandes Cuvees currently cost Euro 22,50 ex-winery, except for the Riesling Les Ecalliers (Euro 15).

2003 Leon Beyer Riesling Les Ecaillers: Fresh lime and peach in the nose lead to juicy, bright wet tones, cherry pit-inflected palate and a tight-focused, long and decidedly mineral finish.

2003 Leon Beyer Riesling Comtes d’Eguisheim: Fresh aromas of lemon and stony minerality with a suggestion of exotic fruits. Offers lovely richness and sweetness of lime and mint flavor, with an exhilarating sugar/acid balance. Very concentrated, dense, classic Riesling with a long life ahead of it.

2000 Leon Beyer Gewuerztraminer Comtes d’Eguisheim: Incredibly mature, remarkable fruit, stunning quality.

Les Vendages Tardives et Selection de Grains Nobles

Maison Leon Beyer has quite a number of these lusciously sweet wines in the portfolio. I counted 11 on the list, including an 1983 Gewuertztraminer Selection de Grains Nobles for Euro 1992.

Selection de Grains Nobles wines are even sweeter and richer than vendange tardive wines. They are harvested very late and the botrytised grapes are literally being picked one by one. They go very well with Foie Gras or very rich meals and desserts. These rare nectars have an enormous aging potential.

1998 Leon Beyer Gewuerztraminer Vendages Tardives: Very pure, dried pear, honey and apricot flavors accented by cinnamon. Concentrated and sweet, balanced by lively acidity, it shows heat on the finish.

schiller-Wine: Related Postings

Visiting Jean Trimbach at Maison Trimbach in Ribeauville in Alsace

The World Class Wines of Alsace

1. International Riesling Symposium, Rheingau, Germany

In the glass: Hugel et Fils wines at the cuisine des emotions de Jean Luc Brendel at Riquewihr in Alsace

In the world class white wine region Alsace

German Wine Basics: Sugar in the Grape - Alcohol and Sweetness in the Wine

Jean Trimbach and the Wines of Maison Trimbach in Washington DC

1st International Riesling Symposium, Rheingau, Germany

Aging Potential of Riesling – A Wine Tasting at the 1st International Riesling Symposium in Germany Led by Jancis Robinson

1 comment:

  1. Great article, from an educated wine-lover

    keep go on, culture of wine need to have developed explanations.

    Wines must not be resume as sweetie, woody, powerful, Bio, female...

    reaching pleasure with wines, is usually reaching "the equiliber"

    to find your's, you need knowledge. You share your's in a great way !

    My best regards,

    Yann BEYER