Mélanie Pfister, Bas Rhin
|Country & Region||France, Alsace, Bas-Rhin|
|Producer||Mélanie & André Pfister|
Mélanie Pfister is one of the most talented young winemakers in Alsace and since she took over the cellar from her father, André, in 2006 she has steadily improved the quality of the estate’s wines.
–Stuart Pigott, Senior Editor, jamessuckling.com, June 2021
I have only tasted a couple of vintages of Mélanie Pfister’s grand cru Riesling bottling from the Engelberg vineyard, but this is fast becoming one of my absolute favorite dry Riesling cuvées from Alsace!
–John Gilman, View from the Cellar, October 2020
Domaine Pfister began life in 1780 during our Revolutionary War. That seems a long time ago, until you learn that Pfister’s village of Dahlenheim was favorably noted for wine production in the distant year of 884. A written record has survived, detailing how the village supplied wine to the Abbey of Saint Michel de Honan during that era. Dahlenheim was an important center of wine production throughout the Middle Ages as well. It’s located due west of Strasbourg in the northern reaches of the Bas Rhin (legally, the Bas Rhin is a separate department from the Haut Rhin, and means, simply, lower down the Rhine River—keeping in mind that the Rhine flows north to the Baltic).
This is Riesling country. Up here the Vosges Mountains are not nearly so toweringly majestic, nor, correspondingly, so protective. Dahlenheim itself is nestled in the flank of the great Engelberg hill, due west of Strasbourg, and has no vines on the Rhine plain. Its vineyards are not as shielded from cold weather as further south in the Haut Rhin, and this cooler climate, along with the abundance of hillsides and of limestone and less sandy soils, favors Riesling and makes for particularly elegant, mineral renditions of the wine. Mélanie Pfister makes two Rieslings, both entirely dry. Berg, the first, comes from the limestone hillside adjacent to Engelberg, making for a wine that is tantalizingly full, rich, and piercing in its drive. The other one is from the grand cru of Engelberg, a wine whose endless fields of white flowers and orchard fruits, to say nothing of its electric minerality, makes you sit up straight.
If you like wines marked above all by purity of fruit, elegance, and character (to say nothing of reasonable pricing), you have come to the right place. Mélanie and her father farm 43 parcels totaling ten hectares (twenty-five acres) of vines, twenty-five percent of which is in Riesling. Mélanie “officially” took over from her father with the 2006 vintage, but dad is far from retiring. He very proudly has got his daughter’s back, and works the vines as hard as he ever did. He just no longer sweats the cellar work.
Leading up to that transition, Mélanie did internships at the following estates: Zind-Humbrecht (Alsace), Méo-Camuzet (Burgundy), Château Cheval Blanc (Saint Emilion), Château d’Yquem (Sauternes) and Craggy Range (New Zealand). It’s worth considering that most aspiring winemakers would take it as a fine feather in the cap to be accepted into any one of those training programs, and Mélanie got into all of them. In 2005, she made the first Cuvée 8 (now called Mel), a blended wine that she had long envisioned and so named because she is the eighth generation Pfister to make wine at the domain. Following the transition, the next big step she took came after the harvest in 2010, when she broke ground on a new cellar. She knows how she wants to make and handle her wine, and beginning with the 2011 vintage she has been able to do just that.
At the beginning of 2018 Mélanie and her father decided to embark 100% into organic viticulture. Certification takes three years and is expected with vintage 2021. It’s important to understand, however, that this step into organics is a small and logical one. In the early 1980s, Mélanie’s father quit using herbicides and adopted a no-till regimen. He was way out in front of his generation, but to him it was clear that this was a much healthier and natural way to farm grapes. Initially, he treated all the parcels identically, but over time and with Mélanie’s involvement he began adopting methods according to parcels. Thus, today a given parcel dictates what grasses, legumes and grains are sown, and some parcels are mowed and mulched while others are sown with plant material that can be pushed over by a machine (called a “rolofaca”) and left flat between rows. The photo below shows vines in one of the Berg parcels in the spring of 2016.
In 2019, at the urging of both of her parents, Mélanie retired the label with its distinctive band of orange and the signature of her great-grandfather in favor of a new design, one that gives each wine an acronym stemming from its vineyard name. Plus, she added her name to the domain name.
Apart from her upper tier Pinot Noir “Rahn” and Pinot Gris “Silb,” which see time in wood, all of Mélanie’s wines are made and aged in tank. The élevage is an extended one on the lees, with the base range seeing nearly a year of aging before bottling while the upper range ages 18-24 months. Indigenous yeast is preferred, but she reserves the right to use non-aromatic cultured yeasts in more problematic years when the risks of off-flavors are greater. The wines are normally fermented dry and bottled with a minimum addition of sulfur. Normally, 15 different wines are made each year with an overall production of roughly 5,000 cases.
About her family’s style of wine, Mélanie wrote the following in 2012: “The house style appeared itself as the style of wine my parents and grandparents liked to drink: aromatic, well-balanced, rather dry style of wines. As a matter of fact, my grandfather used to say, Finally, I am probably the one who drinks the most of my wines, so I craft the wines I like! – no concession, he liked dry wines.”
Thanks to Jeff Bramwell for the photo of Mike Daniels, Mélanie Pfister, and Jean-Pierre Charlot.
|Breit (formerly Crémant d’Alsace)||Chardonnay with 25% Pinot Blanc and 25% Pinot Auxerrois||The acronym Breit comes from Hangenbriete, the name of the vineyard. The appellation rules for this wine were promulgated in 1976, and Mélanie’s father started making crémant in the early 1980s. From the first, he worked with a long aging period. Today, the Pfisters consistently make an unusually elegant, perfumed, top-end crémant. The wine rests on its lees for a minimum of twenty-four months (most French crémant, regardless of origin, ages on its lees for about nine months or so). There are three to four disgorgements of a given year’s production, and what you’re drinking could have aged as long as thirty-six months on its lees. This is a single-vintage wine without any older reserve wine, but the vintage is kept discreetly on the back label rather than printed on the front because of the multiple disgorgements. The final sentence in the back label text gives the exact number of months of aging on the lees. Production averages 800 cases annually; dosage is 3-4 grams per liter, making this an extra brut.|
|Paar (formerly Pinot Blanc)||Pinot Blanc and Pinot Auxerrois||Paar means pair in German; this wine is made from the two varietals, Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois. The vineyard surface is six acres essentially split between the two varietals, but Mélanie's wine tends to have a bit more Pinot Blanc than Auxerrois. Some is reserved for the sparkling wine, but most goes into this still bottling. Pinot Blanc gives floral notes and fine acidity; Auxerrois gives fat and spice. Most of the current crop of vines was planted in 1973 and '74, with a small section dating from the late '60s, and all grow in predominately clay soils. Production averages 500 cases annually.|
|Mel (formerly Cuvée 8)||The noble varieties of Alsace: Riesling, followed by Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat||The acronym Mel comes from Mélanie, the woman who created this wine. It is a blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat, in that order. Each year the percentages vary according to what variety does best, but the order is preserved. Accordingly, the wine is intended to reflect the best of a given year and to be flagship wine of Alsace. The varieties are picked separately and fermented individually before being blended. Save for the Muscat, all come from the Silberberg terroir. Production averages 500 cases annually.
|Berg (formerly Riesling Tradition)||Riesling||The acronym Berg comes from Auf dem Berg and Silberberg, two neighboring hillside vineyards. This is a wine full of earthy stone fruit and a dry, crisp length that rises far above its "entry" class. The vineyard soils are a variation of France's famous argile-calcaire mix, or clay-limestone mix. . (Locally, Berg's soils are known as Muschelkalk, a geological term referring to the middle Triassic period, and in Berg's case it's Muschelkalk topsoil--averaging 3-feet--over limestone bedrock.) The clay gives Riesling body while the calcareous limestone gives finesse, focus, and length.
Riesling from limestone terroir differs from Riesling growing in Alsace’s granitic soils or pink sandstone (grès) soils by virtue of its structured ability (and need) to age. Unlike clay soils, granite and sandstone soils drain quickly, and its wine tends to be expressive right out of the gate. Or, as Mélanie once said, comparing Riesling from granite terroirs with Riesling from limestone: "Granite is always more explosive, very delicate, while limestone needs time to show its great potential and length."
The Pfisters farm six plots of Riesling to make the Berg cuvée, totaling 3.18 acres. Production averages 900 cases annually.
|Riesling Grand Cru Engelberg||Riesling||Engelberg means Angel’s Hill. This was the south-facing hillside vineyard that was written about in 884 and praised for its wine. The hillside’s topsoil is very thin and marly--average 20 inches in depth--sitting on a mound of hard Oolithic limestone mother rock into whose cracks the vines root. The purity of this limestone was such that a quarry was established in the middle of the slope and produced lime into the 20th century. The vineyard was granted Grand Cru status in 1985. It is the third most northern grand cru in Alsace (the northernmost is Steinklotz, in Marlenheim, while the second most northern is the Altenberg of Bergbieten, which is just about on the same latitude as Engelberg). The Pfisters farm just under two acres here, all located in the prime mid-slope zone of this exceptional grand cru. Production averages 300 cases annually.|
|Lenz (formerly Gewurztraminer Tradition)||Gewurztraminer||The acronym Lenz comes from the name of the vineyard, Lenzerstuecker. Two parcels, three acres total, all in the lieu-dit of Silberberg (see Riesling Tradition above for more on Silberberg). This is made in tank with a long aging on the lees and typically bottled in August before the harvest--but if the wine needs more time, it's given more time, for there is space in the cellar to do this. The terroir here is based on limestone, making for an elegant, drier style of Gewurztraminer with residual sugar levels hovering around 13g/L, which is much less than the much richer norm. Production averages 200-400 cases.|
|Furd (formerly Pinot Gris Tradition)||Pinot Gris||The acronym Furd comes from the name of the vineyard, Furdenheimer Tal. Of all the wines listed on this page, this is the richest in terms of sweetness, but the impression is one of concentration and elegance—a Pfister hallmark—rather than sweetness. This comes from 3.26 acres of vines, growing on a steep hillside with relatively rich, deep soil. Production averages 750 cases annually.|
|Silb||Pinot Gris||Silb takes its name from Silberberg, or Silver Mountain, where the vines for this wine grow. They are divided among three tiny plots totaling three-quarters of an acre on the Silberberg ridge, which is adjacent to the Engelberg ridge (the two join to form the plateau that falls down to Mélanie's village of Dahlenheim). These plots were planted early in this century on top of Silberberg in shallow, limey soil overlying dense limestone bedrock. The soils, plus the windy site, make for an atypically elegant, mineral rendition of Pinot Gris, one with exceptionally juicy acidity. The wine is fermented and aged in older 228L and 300L barrels, racked to steel after 15 months, and aged for another three to nine months before bottling. Annual production ranges from 1,000-2,000 bottles.|
|Macération (Orange Wine)||Pinot Gris||First produced with the 2018 vintage, this comes from Mélanie’s parcel of Pinot Gris next to her Rahn Pinot Noir vines: limestone and loess, east exposure, a cool site. The 2018 macerated for two weeks in stainless steel. Half was whole cluster, half de-stemmed; the two lots were aged separately in neutral barrels for a little less than one year, then blended and bottled without SO2. The whole cluster gave structure; the destemmed lot gave juiciness. Around 1,000 bottles were produced.|
|Macération (Orange Wine)||Gewurztraminer||This comes from the Lenz parcels (see above), where the vines were planted in 1999 and 2002. No SO2 additions during any of the winemaking or aging, and only 1 gram per liter was added at bottling. Half of the wine was made in steel, the other half in older wood. Production was 1,500 bottles, or 125 cases.|
|Rouge Toujours||Pinot Noir||Just before the pandemic, Mélanie decided to make a red and a white wine and bottle them under the Vin de France appellation, which permits much greater flexibility. For example, she could bottle this Pinot Noir in a Burgundy bottle rather than, as required by the AOP regulations, a Hock bottle (forget Pinot; it's hard enough to sell Riesling in those tall bottles!). Rouge Toujours comes from a small parcel of less than two acres planted in 1980 with sélection massale cuttings. The vines are hand-harvested early in the morning, the fermentations are normally spontaneous, and aging is done in steel. No fining or filtration. Mélanie looks for fresh, juicy, supple Pinot Noir here with this classic cuvée (there is a reserve Pinot aged in barrel). Production averages 250 cases annually.|
|Rendez-Vous en Blanc||Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, with 6% or so of Gewurztraminer||The sister to Rouge Toujours above. Each variety is raised for around 18 months in steel on its lees before being blended and then bottled. Dry, fresh, and aromatic, this is meant to be an easy, delicious preface to Alsace (and a great glass pour!).|