Bas-Rhin, Alsace, France
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. These are clean, focused and precise wines; the opposite of the blowsy style of Alsace wines popularized in the mid to late 1990s.
Domaine Pfister began life in 1780 during the American 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. Dahlenheim is located due west of Strasbourg in the northern reaches of the Bas Rhin, (legally, a separate department from the Haut Rhin, and meaning, simply, lower down the Rhine River—but keep in mind that the Rhine flows north to the Baltic). This is Riesling country. 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, the eighth generation of her family, is a young and dynamic winemaker who 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.
Apart from one Pinot Noir, all of Mélanie’s wines are made and aged in tank. 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 Pfister labels is that of Mélanie's great-grandfather.
Pfister Pinot Blanc Tradition 2014
Melanie's Pinot Blanc parcel is only 2.4 hectares, or 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, while 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. Annual production averages merely 500 cases.
Pfister Cuvee 8 2016
The Cuvee 8 is Mélanie’s creation; a blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat, in that order—but every year the percentages vary according to what variety does best. In that sense, the wine is intended to reflect the best of a given year. It is also intended to proclaim Alsace! in spades. The varieties are picked separately and fermented individually before being blended. Save for the Muscat, all come from the Silberberg terroir. Annual production averages a mere 500 cases.
The first Cuvée 8 was made in 2005. This blended wine is so named because Melanie is the eighth generation Pfister to make wine at the domaine.
Pfister Cremant d’Alsace Blanc de Blancs 2014
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 started with a long aging period. Today, the Pfisters consistently make an unusually elegant, perfumed, top end sparkling wine. This is a blend of roughly half Chardonnay and a quarter each of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois (the back label states half Chardonnay and half Pinot Blanc because the latter is commonly assembled with Auxerrois in Alsace.). The wine rests on its lees for a minimum of twenty-four months (bear in mind that most French crémant, regardless of origin, ages on its lees for a mere nine months or so). Depending on what bottling you have— there are between three and four disgorgements of a given year’s crémant—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.
Pfister Riesling Tradition 2015
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 Tradi-tion, but it remains a delectable wine, born of the same place, a wine with full, earthy stone fruit and dry, crisp length rising altogether above its "entry" class. The Silberberg hillsides are a variation of France's famous argile-calcaire mix, or clay-limestone mix. Here, 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, granite and sandstone-based soils drain quickly, and its wine tends to be expressive right out of the gate. The Pfisters farm six plots of Riesling here, totaling 1.29 hectares, or 3.18 acres of vines. Annual production averages only 900 cases.
Pfister Riesling Engelberg Grand Cru 2013
Engelberg means Angel’s Hill. This was the south-facing hillside vineyard that was written about in 884 and praised for its fine 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, and the Pfisters farm 0.77 hectares of Riesling here, or just under two acres of vines all located in the prime mid-slope zone of this exceptional grand cru. Annual production averages only 300 cases.