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Albert Boxler Sylvaner Old Vines 2000
World War II brought Jean’s grandfather Albert back to Niedermorschwihr from Montana, where he was busy enjoying the natural gifts of big sky country. After the war Albert returned to the family domaine in time to harvest the 1946 crop. He became the first generation to bottle the family’s production himself and commercialize it under a family label. The wine still wears a label drawn by his cousin in 1946. Albert’s son Jean-Marc continued the tradition for several decades until passing the baton to his son Jean in 1996.
The family’s holdings are centered around the ancient village of Niedermorschwihr in the Haut-Rhin, dominated by the imposing granite hillside grand cru, Sommerberg. Jean vinifies micro-parcels within this cru separately, de-classifying some into his Réserve wines and producing multiple bottlings of Sommerberg from the different lieux-dits depending on the vintage. Sommerberg gives racy, intensely structured, very long-lived wines. Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc are the specialties of the domaine, Jean also produces one of Alsace’s best Crémants (and Edelzwickers), an incredible Gewurztraminer grown in limestone, and some of the most hauntingly pure Vendanges Tardives and SGNs in all of Alsace. If that weren’t enough, the Boxlers also own land in the powerful grand cru Brand, the ultimate counterpart to their holdings in Sommerberg.
The Sommerberg hillside terminates in Jean’s driveway, making it easy to basically live in the vineyards, ensuring exceptionally healthy fruit year after year. After harvest, the wines are vinified and aged in old foudres in a small cellar underneath the family home until bottling. Not much has changed over the centuries; not much has needed to. Tasting through the entire range of Boxler’s wines is ample proof of the fact that Alsace, along with Burgundy, is the source of the world’s most complex, exciting white wines, and will probably always be.
With its fairytale aesthetic, Germanic influence, and strong emphasis on white wines, Alsace is one of France’s most unique viticultural regions. This hotly contested stretch of land on France’s northeastern border has spent much of its existence as German territory, and this is easy to see both in Alsace’s architecture and wine styles. A long, narrow strip running north to south, Alsace is nestled in the rain shadow of the Vosges mountains, making it perhaps the driest region of France. The growing season is long and cool, and autumn humidity facilitates the development of noble rot for the production of late-picked sweet wines Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles. Alsace is divided into two halves—the Haut-Rhin and the Bas-Rhin—the former, at higher elevations, is associated with higher quality and makes up the lower portion of the region.
The best wines of Alsace can be described as aromatic and honeyed, even when completely dry. The region’s “noble” varieties are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, and Pinot Gris. Other varieties grown here include Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Chasselas, Sylvaner, and Pinot Noir—the only red grape permitted here, responsible for about 10% of production and often used for sparkling rosé known as Crémant d’Alsace. Riesling is Alsace’s main specialty, and historically has always been bone dry to differentiate it from its German counterparts. In its youth, Alsatian Riesling is fresh and floral, developing complex mineral and gunflint character with age. Gewurztraminer is known for its signature spice and lychee aromatics, and is often utilized for late harvest wines. Pinot Gris is prized for its combination of crisp acidity and savory spice as well as ripe stone fruit flavors. Muscat is vinified dry, and tastes of ripe green grapes and fresh rose petal. There are 51 Grand Cru vineyards in Alsace, and only these four noble varieties are permitted within. While most Alsatian wines are bottled varietally, blends of several (often lesser) varieties are commonly labeled as ‘Edelzwicker.’
With hundreds of white grape varieties to choose from, winemakers have the freedom to create a virtually endless assortment of blended wines. In many European regions, strict laws are in place determining the set of varieties that may be used, but in the New World experimentation is permitted and encouraged. Blending can be utilized to create complex wines with many different layers of flavors and aromas, or to create more balanced wines. For example, a variety that is soft and full-bodied may be combined with one that is lighter with naturally high acidity. Sometimes small amounts of a particular variety are added to boost color or aromatics. Blending can take place before or after fermentation, with the latter, more popular option giving more control to the winemaker over the final qualities of the wine.