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Domaines Schlumberger Grand Cru Saering Riesling 1998
Today, the Nicolas Schlumberger's heirs own and cultivate a 135 hectares spread located over four miles on the steep flanks of the Vosges Mountains. The Schlumberger vineyards are the largest in Alsace, and one of the largest blocks of contiguous vineyards in France. The domaine also has the distinction of owning the largest acreage of Alsace grand cru vineyards, and references to the famous blocks of Kessler, Kitterle and Saering date back to ancient Roman times.
These impressive holdings are the result of efforts devoted over six successive generations of the Schlumberger family. Many growers gave up their property in the late 1800s as they became involved in industrial and commercial activities, leaving the vines to languish untended. In the beginning of the 20th Century, phylloxera further ravaged the vineyards, and war completed the devastation.
In 1911, Ernest Schlumberger undertook the rebuilding of not only the familial vineyards, but the whole of Guebwiller. Over the years, he pieced together more than 2,500 parcels abandoned by their owners. In time, the small domains grew from an original 20 hectares to its present 135 hectares. Today, Schlumberger wines are made exclusively from grapes grown in these estate vineyards.
Planted at altitudes of 750 to 1,450 feet, much of the terraced hillside vineyards above Guebwiller are so steep that driving tractors can be extremely hazardous. Therefore, the domaine uses draught horses specially bred for balance and unaffected by vertigo.
The vineyards are divided into large parcels, each planted to specific Alsace varieties selected according to microclimate and soil characteristics. In general, the soil is light, sandy and porous, ideal for grapes. The natural dryness contributes to the richness and mineral flavor of the wines.
Due to the aridity and steepness of the domaine, production levels at Schlumberger are generally 50% lower than the average in Alsace. By law, Schlumberger could produce 160,000 cases a year from its vineyards, but they limit production to 80,000 cases per annum. Limits dictated both by nature and the domaine result in small yields of very high quality grapes, with an exceptional concentration of flavors.
After harvest, all Domaines Schlumberger wines are fermented and aged in large oak tuns. These large casks have been used in the cellars for decades and are the heart of the Schlumberger cellars.
Domaines Schlumberger is renowned for its luscious wines, full in body and flavor. Their richness and delicate sweetness is balanced by excellent acidity. Therefore, the wines are never cloying or overly heavy. Even the vendange tardive, or late harvest dessert wines - the Gewurztraminers Cuvée Anne and Cuvée Christine capture exquisite honeyed flavors with an ethereal lightness.
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.’
A regal variety of incredible purity and precision, Riesling possesses a remarkable ability to reflect the character of wherever it is grown while still maintaining easily identifiable typicity. This versatile grape can be just as enjoyable dry or sweet, young or old, still or sparkling, and can age longer than nearly any other white variety. Riesling is best known in Germany and Alsace, and is also of great importance in Austria. The variety has also been particularly successful in Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys, New Zealand, Oregon, Washington, cooler regions of California, and the Finger Lakes in New York.
In the Glass
Riesling is low in alcohol, with high acidity, steely minerality, and stone fruit, spice, citrus, and floral notes. At its ripest it leans towards juicy peach and nectarine, and pineapple, while in cooler climes it is more redolent of meyer lemon, lime, and green apple. With age, Riesling can become truly revelatory, developing unique, complex aromatics, often with a hint of gasoline.
Riesling is very versatile, enjoying the company of sweet-fleshed fish like sole, most Asian food, especially Thai and Vietnamese (bottlings with some residual sugar and low alcohol are the perfect companions for dishes with substantial spice), and freshly shucked oysters. Sweeter styles work well with fruit-based desserts.
It can be difficult to discern the level of sweetness in a Riesling, and German labeling laws do not make things any easier. Look for the world “trocken” to indicate a dry wine, or “halbtrocken” or “feinherb” for off-dry. Some producers will include a helpful sweetness scale on the back label—happily, a growing trend.