For a winery that has been around since 1626, even minor changes feel like a big deal. But for those of us that know and love Trimbach—undoubtedly one of France’s most important wineries, the “first growth” of Alsace—some recent changes don’t feel so small.
And yet, when I met with Jean Trimbach at the Trimbach estate in Ribeauville shortly before Thanksgiving, everything felt like business as usual. Classy and cool, Jean made these relatively big changes feel seamless and natural. Above all, of course, the family remains dedicated to continuing to make the world’s best riesling. Jean quipped, “After riesling, there is nothing. And after that, there is chardonnay.” He then paused before adding, as if making a difficult concession, “or Sauvignon Blanc.”
Everything about Trimbach, from its charming estate to its sleek wines to the family that makes them, is elegant, understated, and classic. Like Vermeer’s paintings, the wines’ colors shine brightly through sometimes stern, always elemental, backgrounds. The domain itself, directly under hills laced with vines and capped by a crumbling medieval castle, feels invitingly simple, bespeaking a sense of taste and proportion that make the monstrosities in, say, Napa, appear as shamelessly tacky as a suburban McMansion.
When my wife and I visited the domain for the first time on our honeymoon, a stork took flight from its massive nest across the ancient grain silo across the street. The nest was, of course, still there on our return some twelve years later.
Trimbach is history that never feels old; while some other classists in the region can feel outmoded or musty, Trimbach reflects the timelessness of perfection. Over the years they’ve resisted trends, such as the biodynamicism that swept through the region, for all the right reasons; why make changes when you got it right at the outset?
Instead, Trimbach has made gradual, precise changes to its vinification—changes that sometimes belie trends and conventional wisdom about quality, such as increasing yields to lower alcohol percentage in the face of climatic warming—drawing on the uniquely profound experience with vineyards and wines by a family that has studied them for generations. Seemingly old-school and decidedly untrendy practices—like refusing to hand sort grape bunches, choosing instead to pay professionals to hand select on the vine—define Trimbach’s thoughtful, pragmatic approach.
The Trimbach’s are not renegades, mavericks, gurus, earth dogs, or demagogues—they’re wine intellectuals.
But of course, the world around them changes. In Alsace, it seems to get warmer by the year. And there have been long standing debates about the Grand Cru system first established in 1975. Trimbach, an important thought leader both in Alsace and France in general, has long been known for opting out of the system. The problem? Not all Crus are made the same.
When the politically motivated bureaucrats first drew up the Cru boundaries, they painted with broad brushes; many Grand Crus, such as the popular Hengst and Schlossberg, include parcels that are both undeniably world-class and parcels that are totally mundane. Why, then, would Trimbach want to participate in a system that has failed to recognize the specialness of their unique holdings—especially, of course, the famed 3-acre Clos Ste. Hune in a privileged part of the Rosaker Grand Cru? The Clos Ste. Hune, reflecting the incompoerably complex terroir of Alsace, has the areas’ highest percentage of limestone, the same degraded seashell, ocean-bed character that distinguishes the finest vineyards in Chablis.
So what has changed? First of all, Trimbach has, against all odds in an area where nobody wants to sell, procured important new vineyards: the recent first bottlings from Grand Cru Geisberg will soon be joined by wine made from a 1.6ha parcel in the mighty Grand Cru Schlossberg. In addition, as of ten days before my arrival, they significantly increased their Ribeauville holdings by purchasing a fully biodynamic vineyard. They’re going to keep it that way—so be prepared for Trimbach’s first truly biodynamic wines. And new family members, now in the 12th generation, are taking on expanded roles, from designing labels to making the wines. After 36 of his own, Pierre Trimbach’s son has now participated in his second vintage.
While Trimbach exudes class and restraint, the tasting, lead by Jean Trimbach, was downright opulent. We tasted through much of their large range of wines, beginning with the “classic” bottlings ranging from the 2015 Pinot Blanc to the 2013 Riesling—Jean corrected me when I called them “entry level,” and given their quality, I take his point. All were good or better, and many ridiculous values. If you are a wine purveyor appealing to a value-driven consumer base, why are you not selling these wines?
Overall, unsurprisingly, what stood out at the tasting were the dry wines. To make great dry white wines is no easy feat, and given their successes it’s not hard to see why Trimbach is the darling of France’s Michelin-starred restaurants. More than just dry—after all, Trimbach makes excellent, restrained sweet wines too—Trimbach’s wines are full of character, class, and, above all, balance.
The 2012 Riesling Reserve, produced from an area next to the grand cru Osterberg that will soon itself be classified, was a standout for its purity, expressiveness, and undeniable value. This is the kind of wine that I like to cellar—I’m recently drinking the 2002, which I thought would never come around. It did.
As I gushed over the 2008 Clos St. Hune, Trimbach’s flagship wine, Jean stated in his dry, understated way, that Trimbach has a “solid image for riesling.” True. The 2008 is an early bloomer, drinking perfectly well already. I doubt that this will be the one to go 50 years, but I don’t mean this as a slight to its obvious quality.
Between the excellent 2008 and 2009 Fredric Emiles, I don’t know which I preferred. The 2008 needs age to round out its sharp acidity, and was relatively closed. The 2009, on the other hand, considered by some the best wine made in Alsace that year, was far more open and can be drunk now or later. Of the two, I’d put my money on the 2008 aging longer, collectors.
In a tasting like this, the non-blockbusters can get lost in the mix. But why not point out that the inexpensive 2014 Pinot Blanc—the 2nd vintage under screw cap, another change for Trimbach—was fruity, clean, a lovely aperitif. The 2012 Riesling Selection de Vieilles Vignes, a new wine for me, juicy with blood orange and tangerine, is another worthy mention.
Of the late harvest and dessert wines, the 2008 Gewurztraminer Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre was stunning, with excellent acidity and purity—a reminder that Trimbach is far more than a one trick pony. And as for the 2007 Gewurztraminer Hors Choix SGN… my god.
After the tasting, I was in need of a nap. But why not go wander around Strasbourg instead? First, I’d have to over-pack my cumbersome luggage with some Trimbach bottles, including an awesome Frederic Emile magnum, that I could then haul all over creation for the next week.
Already looking forward to my next visit, I’m excited to see what Trimbach does—and doesn’t do—next.