Domaine Pfister, Bas Rhin
|Country & Region||France, Alsace, Bas-Rhin|
|Producer||Mélanie & André Pfister|
Mélanie Pfister is one of the upcoming stars in Alsace, although her family has been cultivating vines in Dahlenheim (Bas-Rhin) since 1780. The village in the north of Alsace has a 1,000-year winemaking tradition, and its single vineyards such as Silberberg and the–today Grand Cru–Engelberg had a high reputation already in the 9th and 11th century. Mélanie’s dry, terroir-driven, well-structured and balanced wines are very elegant, digestible and gastronomic.
–Stephan Reinhardt, The Wine Advocate, June 2017
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. The vineyards are not as shielded from cold weather as further south in the Haut Rhin, and this cooler climate, along with the abundance of limestone and thinner, less sandy soils, favors Riesling and makes for particularly elegant, mineral renditions of the wine. Mélanie Pfister makes two Rieslings, both entirely dry. One is tantalizingly full, rich, and earthy, while the other, the Grand Cru, makes you sit up with its petrol, its white flowers, and its bounding, razor sharp minerality.
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. Domaine Pfister farms forty 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, 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.
Apart from her upper tier Pinot Noir “Rahn” and Pinot Gris “Silberberg,” all of Mélanie’s wines are made and aged in tank, and the élevage is an extended one on the lees (bottling typically happens for the whites just before the next harvest). 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.” The signature on the Domaine Pfister labels is that of Mélanie’s great-grandfather.
Thanks to Jeff Bramwell for the photo of Mike Daniels, Mélanie Pfister, and Jean-Pierre Charlot.
|Crémant d’Alsace||Chardonnay with 25% Pinot Blanc and 25% Pinot Auxerrois||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.|
|Pinot Blanc||Pinot Blanc and Pinot Auxerrois||The vineyard surface is six acres, essentially split between Pinot Blanc and Pinot Auxerrois. Some is reserved for the sparkling wine, but most goes into this still bottling. Pinot Blanc gives perfume and length; 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. Tech sheet here.|
|Cuvée 8||The noble varieties of Alsace: Riesling, followed by Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat||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.
|Riesling Tradition||Riesling||Prior to 2011, this was labeled Riesling Silberberg. The vineyard source hasn’t changed, but the administrative burden has—lieux-dits require more paperwork. Thus the wine has been renamed Tradition, but it remains a wine with full, earthy stone fruit and dry, crisp length rising far above its "entry" class. The Silberberg hillsides are a variation of France’s famous argile-calcaire mix, or clay-limestone mix. The clay gives Riesling body while the calcareous limestone gives finesse, focus, and length. Riesling from this 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 in Silberberg, totaling 3.18 acres. Production averages 900 cases annually. Tech sheet here.
|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, sitting on a mound of hard 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.|
|Gewurztraminer Tradition||Gewurztraminer||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, dry style of Gewurztraminer in contrast to the more often found big bruiser Gewurzt. Production averages 200-400 cases.|
|Pinot Gris Tradition||Pinot Gris||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.|
|Pinot Noir||Pinot Noir||This 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. 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.|