Helfrich Alsace Noble Varieties and Grand Cru Wines
wine pixies

Helfrich Alsace Wines

I must start this review with a conclusion, just in case the reader is interrupted. Helfrich wines are civilized, refined, superbly balanced, and yet the house's “Noble Varieties” and “Grand Cru” lines are mainstream affordable, at $15 and $25 respectively. Helfrich sources the grapes for its Noble Varieties wines from the Couronne d'Or vineyard association in central Alsace (it represents 19 local operations; all vineyards are dry farmed). The winery's Grand Cru wines hail from the Steinklotz vineyard in the north of Alsace not far from Strasbourg, one of only 51 vineyards in Alsace accorded the Grand Cru designation.

I enjoyed a superb lunch at the Modern Restaurant (in Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art) in the company of Frédéric Helfrich, one of the third generation of his family to produce wine in the region. More of a wine businessman than a winemaker or grape grower, Frédéric nevertheless keeps a hand in most aspects of the family business. “My major concern,” Frédéric tells me, “is to produce a product with good aromatic complexity and clean acidity at an appropriate price.” I tasted a veritable phalanx of wines as I dined on rabbit terrine cooked in riesling and anise hyssop with a fine herbs coulis for starters and flounder fillet filled with black trumpet mushrooms, watercress sauce and wild rice for my main course; I mention these dishes to highlight the fact that the restaurant's executive chef, Gabriel Kreuther, is from Alsace.

The Noble Varieties wines are 12.5% alcohol, cold fermented in stainless steel without wood contact of any kind, racked on the lees, and bottled in Stelvin screwcap. Each of these wines has sufficient residual sugar to call it off-dry; this is a matter of style choice. In every case sweet speaks in superb balance with acidity. The 2007 Riesling, with 8 grams of residual sugar per liter, is a perfect case in point. The nose brings crisp green apple and pear, the palate citrus and peach with a light minerality that survives into a dry finish. The 2008 Riesling shows even greater minerality—full slate with a feel of talc—and excellent ripe lime citrus. The finish is slightly sweeter here. Both Rieslings are medium bodied and hold together exceptionally well (I've had some Riesling disappointments lately, though none from Alsace).

The Helfrich 2007 Noble Varieties Pinot Gris has a decidedly deeper color than the Riesling, straw with a garnet tinge. The nose gives peach, pear, white flowers and orange blossom. The wine has 21 grams of residual sugar per liter; I know this from the specs not the taste, as the sugar contributes to the sense of body and fullness rather than any sensation of sweetness. I like a Pinot Gris I can eat with a spoon. Palate notes are similar to the nose. The finish is elegant. The 2008 Pinot Gris brought me similar results except for some stone on the nose, a greater prevalence of pear in the mix and some orange rind on the palate that led to a slightly bitter and altogether pleasant tinge on a refreshing finish.

There is a certain “Gewurztraminer something” that became a firm part of my sense experience when that wine and I first crossed paths. All five of the Helfrich Gewurztraminers I tasted that afternoon satisfied this sense test. The 2007 Noble Varieties Gewurztraminer is a greenish straw color with gentle aromatic notes of rose, honeysuckle, floral spice, nutmeg, pear, pineapple, banana, and I am probably missing one if I haven't gratuitously added one. The wine fills and engages the mouth, affording a rather floral finish. The 2008 Gewurztraminer tastes…well…newer, bringing more minerality and the pungency of lychee.

The $25 Helfrich Steinklotz Grand Crus feature Riesling and Gewurztraminer and no Pinot Gris; Steinklotz is one of the oldest vineyards recorded in Alsace (589 AD), although we started with the 2005s. Both varietals are hand harvested, whole grape membrane pressed, cool fermented in stainless steel, then racked on fine lees. The Rieslings average about 8 grams of residual sugar per liter, the Gewurztraminers 21 grams, with both varietals weighing in at 13% alcohol.

The 2005 Grand Cru Riesling has an elegant nose of grapefruit (my favorite citrus note), powdery mineral and white flowers with a good deal of citrus on the palate: lemon, lime and lemon peel, with a pleasant bitterness on the finish. The 2006 Grand Cru Riesling is rather different, with a seductive nose of slate, quince, bergamot and orange blossom, bitter orange marmalade, dried apricot and clove on the palate, and a finish of slate and warm citrus. The 2007 Grand Cru Riesling shows a well balanced nose of slate, floral tones and poached pear with a palate of slightly bitter white stone and some tropical notes of pineapple and mango. The finish has some good fruit tang; undoubtedly this wine will come together with a few years keeping.

I revere Riesling, but the Gewurztraminers were the true winners at this table. The 2005 Grand Cru Gewurztraminer is an orange-tinged straw in color with aromas of marmalade, honeysuckle, lychee and some nose-tickling spice. The palate: ripe apricot, pear, lychee, candied fruit, banana and bergamot, and it all finishes dry. Growing conditions in 2006 were difficult in northern Alsace, bringing a trace of noble rot to the mix; botrytis—showing as a deeper gold—is right up there with caviar in my flavor reverie. Nose and palate are similar here: ripe red apple, butterscotch, quince, toffee. This was my favorite among the fifteen wines. The 2007 Grand Cru Gewurztraminer has a perfumed, highly floral nose, a fresh feel in the mouth, with some lively citric acidity and notes of lime, orange, honey and candied fruit.

Frédéric stated several times, and the table agreed, that the wines of Alsace have a real future on the American market. In every case these wines are 100% varietals, a plus in a market where blends have an uphill battle, they are fresh and extremely food friendly, and of course we have already noted the absolutely heartwarming price points.

Verdict: A truly successful line at winning prices

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Wines from Alsace are coming over in increasing numbers and seem destined to take their place on American tables.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Frederic Helfrich

Frédéric Helfrich

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