Early for our first appointment at Schlumberger, is this a first?!
Emerging from one of the long tunnels which cuts through the Vosges and descending through almost Alpine pastures with cute little log cabins, we arrive in the village of Guebwiller a little early for our first appointment at Domaines Schlumberger.
As soon as we entered Alsace the sun came out as if illustrating one of the key features of this wine region! Guebwiller is situated in the south of Alsace and vineyards here are on some of the steepest slopes in the region. Domaines Schlumberger is the largest estate in Alsace with some 140 hectares under vine, all family owned and at least half of them being grands crus.
Our meeting was with Séverine Schlumberger who looks after the commercial side of things at her family's property. Full of energy and dynamism, Séverine gave us a great introduction not just to her wines but to the region as well.
Smiley Séverine Schlumberger with Jo Locke MW
She is behind the creation of a group of 19 producers called ACT (Alsace Crus & Terroirs) made up of family estates with high-quality principles whose aim it is to promote the quality image of Alsace. The group had just returned from a tasting in London where they had been demonstrating the differences between some of the region's top crus – using just wines made from riesling so that tasters could pick up on the subtle nuances of character of these crus.
Séverine talks ninety to the dozen, has a wicked laugh and lots of strongly-held opinions on a variety of subjects; her passion for her wines is infectious. She's warm, friendly and speaks perfect English (she was running restaurants in England for several years) and she's a great ambassador for Alsace. She now runs the business with her brother and uncle. She joined in 2011 when her father told her he wanted to retire. 'He didn't want his company to age with him!' she tells us, admitting that she hadn't wanted to work with her father as they were too alike. I could see how that might be a problem!
Domaines Schlumberger have more than 55km of dry stone walls to maintain in their 900km of vineyards!
She went on to tell us how they are one of the biggest employers in the region. 'Our vineyards stretch for 900kms and we have 55kms of dry stone walls to maintain (two times the volume of blocks needed for Strasbourg Cathedral!)'. Schlumberger are unusual in having carved out their vineyards in terraces, like you find further south in the Rhône. They also continue to use an ancient breed of horse to work in the steep veineyards, the Comtois, who are steady and calm and have a good head for heights.
Séverine says they are lucky to have the luxury of not having to buy in grapes and to have access to decent volumes of their own grapes. 'It allows us to remain affordable and accessible. Some of our competitors complain we are too cheap!' On the subject of price, she also points out that Alsace grands crus are the cheapest in France.
She also thinks that they have been too humble in Alsace. 'We should be more proud, like the Australians! Alsace is one of the only regions in the world where you can have a white wine in just about any style and to go with every different type of dish! Everyone should have a bottle in their fridge!'
However, she believes that the wine world is no longer all about old world versus new but about crafted 'v' mass-produced. 'Having the word domaine on a label is a guarantee that you are buying from a farmer,' she goes on to say.
On the subject of grands crus, Séverine says that, like Burgundy, one grand cru can have up to 100 owners (with the inevitable variation in quality levels). Here again they are lucky in that they have just four owners of their grand cru sites and have agreement amongst themselves about the importance of reduced yields to maintain quality. On the hotly debated idea of introducing a premier cru level (as in Burgundy), Séverine believes this will confuse consumers who don't even understand grand cru yet.
Tasting through the Schlumberger wines (in the company of her brother's dog who Séverine is looking after and the daughter of one of the winemakers on work experience) Séverine explains that their wines always have a line of minerality about them: 'Like licking a stone' – they aim for food-friendly wines, not blockbusters.
And what of the Schlumberger's grands crus?
Grand Cru Saering
Sandy-clay soil with limestone; only riesling from the best parcels makes it into the grand cru wine. Venerable cru (first mentioned in 1250) renowned for balanced and refined wines.
Riesling Grand Cru Saering 2015 – still very young (Séverine recommends decanting these wines when young) but already a hint of petrol/kerosene on the nose. Feels quite rich and fat (2015 was a ripe year – 14% alc!), slightly peppery too with great seam of acidity underpinning the flavours and adding freshness.
Grand Cru Spiegel
Sandy-clay with sandstone bedrock; only pinot gris goes into the grand cru wine.
Pinot Gris Grand Cru Spiegel 2015 – white flowers and quince on the nose with a hint of smokiness which all come through on the palate too. Serve with cheese, says Séverine or Thai shrimp salad…ummm!
Grand Cru Kessler
One of Alsace's top grands crus. Sandy-clay and pink limestone. Best for pinot gris or gewurztraminer. A protected amphitheatre of vines, 'a bit like being in your mother's womb,' says Séverine! Elegant, structured wines.
Pinot Gris Grand Cru Kessler 2015 – soft, floral almost sweet-tasting; hints of orange peel. Lovely tartness to finish. Great for the cheese course.
Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Kessler 2015 – exotic, aromatic Asian spices on the nose, rich exotic fruit flavour and candied citrus fruit. A meal in itself!
Grand Cru Kitterlé
One of Alsace's top grands crus; pink sandstone and volcanic rocks. Riesling, pinot gris and gewrurztraminer all do well here. Extremely steep vineyards. Strong but subtle wines. Séverine describes them as her 'teenager wines', always needing a lot longer than others in the glass to come round!
Pinot Gris Grand Cru Kitterlé 2015 – Séverine describes this as being most structure of her grands crus. Spicy and mineral with almost a hint of curry on the nose. Lovely ripe stone fruit and refreshing mineral twist on the palate. Lovely structure and balance with great tension between sweetness and acidity. A great foodie wine for spicy food like paprika-spiked chicken or tandoori lamb and gooey cheese, of course.
Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Kitterlé 2015 – subtle aroma; lovely interplay of grapefruit flavour and spice. Fantastic length and structure. Great on its own or with a mild Thai seafood curry.
Riesling Grand Cru Kitterlé 2015 – lovely creaminess to the fruit. Acidity a bit dominant at the moment but this will calm down. Fantastic length and energising citrus fruit flavour. Subtle yet powerful and great with grilled spicy prawns, any goat's cheese, chicken cooked with ginger…
Keeping the grands crus
'Minimum of 10 years, 15 years guaranteed and at least 20 for Kitterlé'
Les Princes Abbés
We also tasted wines from this range, Schlumberger's best sellers which always have a minimum of 35% of grand cru wines in them and in years where the grands crus aren't produced, represent particularly good value for money.
Pinot Blanc 2016 – a big crop here (which was a surprise). Lovely fresh nose, white pear and white flowers, easy to drink. Refreshing summer-time wine for barbecues.
Riesling 2016 – classic easy-drinking style; acidity a little too racy for me at the moment.
Pinot Gris 2016 – attractive white blossom on the nose, hint of spicy and caress of sweetness. 'A great bottle for four,' Séverine says which you can serve from starter to dessert.
Gewurztraminer 2016 – rose-petal aroma with underlying seam of citrus and appley freshness. A classic example of Alsace gewurz.
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All this tasting was making us hungry. It was time to hit the local restaurant for lunch which was already packed by the time we got there!
Over lunch Séverine filled us in on the history of her family's domaine. It's a fascinating tale of passion, commitment and triumph over adversity.
History of Domaines Schlumberger
The family originally came to Alsace in the XVI century from Germany. Guebwiller was under the power of the monastery 'Les Princes Abbés'. Unable to withstand the oppressive domination of the monks, the family moved to protestant Mulhouse, a free town. Mulhouse was at the centre of the textile industry and gradually the family built up their wealth in this trade, eventually investing in one of the most important factories in the region, Jean-Henri Dollfus.
The first of the Schlumbergers to move back to Guebwiller was Nicolas (b. 1782). He built up a factory to build machinery to supply the textile industry but also bought 20ha of vines dividing his time between industry and agriculture. It was he who founded Domaines Schlumberger in 1810.
Wars, German annexation and the vine disease phylloxera practically destroyed the wine industry. Vineyards were abandoned and there was no-one left to work them anyway. Several generations later, Ernest Schlumberger (1885-1954) had the foresight to buy up more land, keen to restore these historical vineyards and, Séverine explained, 'he was keen to provide employment to the local people and give those that survived the war something to come back to.'
He didn't just replant and expand the vineyards but introduced horizontal planting and the construction of the walled terraces, vital on this sandy soil to prevent erosion. It was he who increased the family's vineyard holdings to over 100 hectares.
Two generations later in 1971, Séverine's father Eric Beydon-Schlumberger comes back to Guebwiller after working in banking. He immediately takes to the family tradition of caring for the vines, replanting many of the old vineyards and also brings commercial expertise to the business.
Eric's brother Alain together with Eric's children Séverine and Thomas now run this business between them.
My turn for a photo with Séverine Schlumberger!
Séverine is bright and energetic and full of ideas and drive. I'm sure the family domaine is going to go from strength to strength if she is anything to go by.
We take our leave and head off for our next appointment and I realise that, rather shockingly perhaps, this was another 'first' for me. A business lunch in the wine trade with four women.
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