Olivier Humbrecht MW has been touted by Andrew Jefford as arguably one of the world’s best white wine makers, but perhaps one of the world’s best vine growers might be a more appropriate plaudit. For although Olivier undoubtedly takes a great deal of care and attention in vinifying his wines, the real reason for their greatness lies not in the cellar, but the vineyards themselves. Indeed, the winemaking process at Domaine Zind Humbrecht couldn’t be simpler. Grapes are pressed (slowly) and the juice is collected and settled before racking to cask where it is fermented by indigenous yeasts. Once the wines have finished fermenting and clarified naturally, they are stabilised with the merest hint of sulphur and then bottled. C’est tout!
Greatness undoubtedly derives from the terroirs where the grapes are grown, a testament to the foresight of Olivier’s father, Leonard Humbrecht, who bought and restored plots in so many of Alsace’s famous Grands Crus and lieux dits vineyards. Yet terroir alone cannot explain why Domaine Zind Humbrecht consistently achieves such excellence in its wines. It is the attention to detail in the vineyards above all else, that sets Zind Humbrecht apart. To find out more, we led a trip of wine professionals to Alsace to see first-hand the decisions that affect quality in the vineyards.
Standing in the Clos Hauserer plot on a sunny winter’s afternoon, the first thing we are told is to forget what the textbooks tell us about pruning. Pruning is not simply about leaving 6-8 fruiting buds per cane and moving on to the next vine. Winter pruning first and foremost is about controlling vine vigour and, as each vine’s circumstance is unique, the vines need to be assessed and pruned on an individual basis. Too much vigour and the vines produce poor fruit, too little vigour and the vines produce too little fruit. The next consideration is where to make the pruning cut. As vines have no healing mechanism, they protect the area around a pruning wound by killing off the wood that surrounds the cut. As such, this dead wood creates blockages that impede the crucial flow of sap within the vine. To combat this Zind Humbrecht aim to keep all pruning wounds to one side of the vine, in order to allow unimpeded sap flow down the other side of the vine. Whilst it sounds simple enough, one also has to remember that the pruning decisions not only affect the upcoming growing season, but also the positioning of the renewal spur for the following year too. And all of this is done whilst still taking account of managing the vine’s vigour, and working with the realities of a three-dimensional plant, in a restricted space! Little wonder that conversion to Guyot Poussard (the name of this pruning method) increased the winter pruning of the 1.2ha Clos Hauserer from 55 to 120 labour hours.
As the vines stand waiting to be pruned, we notice that the tops of each vine are carefully folded over the top trellising wire with their apex turned earthwards. In a conventional vineyard, the tops of the vines would have been hedged in July, to stop vertical growth and promote fruit ripening. This arching technique, pioneered by Olivier, decelerates vegetative growth naturally, rather than by force, which results in better ripening and better acidity in the grapes. Needless to say, the labour involved with individually arching each cane is immense, and this is just one other example of the lengths to which Zind Humbrecht will go to ensure the best quality fruit possible.
Whilst we barely scratched the surface of the intricacies of pruning and vineyard management this was nevertheless an illuminating masterclass that brought a new dimension of appreciation to the wines of Zind Humbrecht.