A few weeks ago we ventured up to Alsace to meet a producer that we were confident was a great fit for our portfolio! We’ve been wanting to add another mainly white wine producing area for awhile and with Nic’s Riesling obsession, it seemed like a perfect fit!
Arriving in mid-October, the leaves were turning, but harvest was still ongoing for many of the winemakers! As we passed the rolling hills you could see the tractors going up and down with crates and bringing back all the juicy goodness back to the wineries.
First, I’d like to talk a bit about Alsace, then Domaine de l’Envol specifically, and finally the wines we are bringing in from them.
If you don’t know much about Alsace it’s a really fun region to look into both because the wines are delicious and because it has an incredibly rich history and booming tourism industry.
Instead of rewriting this, here is a quick overview from Wikipedia!
An important influence in the history of Alsace wine has been the repeated changes of nationality of the Alsace region, which has passed from France to Germany and vice versa several times throughout history. In the early history of the Alsace wine industry, they were traded together with other German wines since Rhine provided the means to transport the wines. In much of the post–World War II era, wine styles in Alsace and Germany diverged, as Alsace wines remained fully fermented, that is dry, to a large extent because they were intended to be paired with food. In the same era, Alsace has also experienced a drive to higher quality, which led to AOC status being awarded. In recent decades, the difference between Alsace and Germany has diminished, since German wines have become drier and more powerful, while many Alsace wines have become sweeter and the late harvest and dessert style wines have been "rediscovered" in Alsace since the VT and SGN designations were introduced in 1983.
A few other fun facts include that they have a large Grape Festival every year where they elect a Wine Queen for the festivities! She is elected “under the watch of the wine God Bacchus. A ball is organized after the vote to celebrate the new queen.”
They have their own language, or more of a dialect, called Alsatian. It is a West Germanic language and is influenced by all of the changes of nations over the centuries. We heard Catherine’s parents speaking it and it sounded a bit more like German than French to us!
The region has 4 noble grapes, which are the only ones allowed to have a Cru designation. These include: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat. They make some amazing Pinot Noirs as well, but they can never have the designation or the different bottle style. Other grapes you’ll find here include Auxerrois, Sylvaner, and Pinot Blanc.
Natural Winemaking in Alsace
Natural winemaking is fairly common in the region, as it has an ideal climate for dry farming. With 15% of the vineyards certified organic of biodynamic, it is one of the highest in the world for these practices.
With one of the greats, Christian Binner, nestled here it’s no surprise many winemakers are taking a page from his book and adopting the natural style of winemaking.
Domaine de l’Envol
We met Catherine and Raphael via our friends Melusine Wines and already knew a bit about them going into the meeting.
The first thing we noticed when we walked in was a photo of Catherine on the wall with a crown. Asking Raphael about this was the perfect lead-in to the story of the vineyard because Catherine was actually the Alsace wine queen (from the wine festival we mentioned above) several years back and this is how her and Raphael met! Raphael had been out on his own growing grapes for a co-op and Catherine’s parents were selling their grapes to the same one. A few years later Raphael decided to make his own wine, as he didn’t feel the co-op was getting the right expression out of the grapes and wanted control over the process. Since Raphael and Catherine were dating they all tried his wines and her parents thought they would also like to control the winemaking process of their grapes. This was the beginning of Domaine de l’Envol!
Because Raphael was already in the process of winemaking, they decided to partner up with Catherine’s parents and her brother to create the brand Envol, which means “to take flight” in French. This was their first venture into wine on their own and the name is perfectly fitting. Catherine left her job at a larger winery to launch with them and now they’ve been making their wines under this new label for the past three years!
One fun fact is that Raphael also does some work with Les Vins de Pirouettes, so if you ever see one that says “de Raphael” you’ll know who that is!
We were able to visit during harvest to get some really nice insight into their winemaking process and style. Showing up at 10am, Raphael’s parents were heading out with a few of their friends and Catherine’s parents and brother to harvest several of their small plots of Gewurztraminer. Both are retired and are now the main manpower behind the harvest!
Up in the vines we watched the group meticulously, and quickly clip the Gewurztraminer clusters into tiny bins, so as to not crush the grapes and start the fermentation process early. It was fun to see how they have 2 rows in one plot, then 3 rows in another area and we continued to circle the hills watching them pack up and move on until all the rows were complete! At the top of one of the hills, Raphael pointed out all of the plots where they grow and which ones did and did not have designations. Those with more granite typically had the cru designation vs those lower on the hill with clay and gravel.
With all of these designations and limited space, you can imagine how much one hectare of land costs here (a LOT), which is why it’s very common to see winemakers with only a few rows in different plots vs owning vast areas of land (especially the small natural winemakers!).
Back at the winery, some of the bins of Gewurztraminer were arriving and one of Raphael’s friends was immediately adding them to the press. Working with concrete, acrylic, old large traditional wooden Alsatian barrels, and some bariques, Raphael was struggling to decide which vessel these grapes would go into for fermentation when we first arrived, as they had a great harvest this year and most of them were filling up quickly!
A bit bigger than some of the other winemakers we work with, they have an actual cellar and even a tasting center! If you are in the region you can absolutely go by during normal business hours and try all their wines. They’re located right on the wine trail in Alsace.
After some of the pressing, the harvest crew went back into the house of Catherine’s parents (who live next door to the winery) for a hearty lunch meat, salads, and potatoes. Even Norman the wine dog got a plate!
Finally it was time to taste the wines and man do they have a serious line-up! Nic and I tasted through 18 wines and settled on bringing in 9 of them because they’re all so delicious and want people to be able to try as many different styles as possible! Envol makes several sparkling wines, all the noble varietals in their traditional format, as well as most of them as orange wines. Trying one pinot gris as a white wine, and then the same grapes as an orange wine (macerated on their skins) was a really interesting experience because they couldn’t be more different and only one change was made to them! They also make several versions of Pinot Noir that we’ll talk about!
The highlights for us were:
Cremant d’Alsace - Sparkling Brut
Cremant is a wine made in the champagne style, just not from Champagne. So their Cremant d’Alsace is made in this style, but without the dosage (addition of sugar) before the secondary fermentation, so that it is more natural in style. This wine has the flavor profile of a traditional sparkling wine and was a delicious start with a frothy mouthfeel, tiny bubbles in the glass and everything you want a brut wine to be. This wine will be perfect for the holidays and we can’t wait to get it here! It is made with Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc, spending 1 year in tank before bottling.
Embuscade - Pet-Nat
Moving on from the cremant, Envol also makes a delicious pet-nat from Pinot Noir that has a fairly dark coloring but is also light on the palette and a definite glou-glou wine. The best comparison I can make is that it is like a very dry Lambrusco and we’re super excited to drink it with barbeques or by itself with only 12.5% alcohol. Embuscade loosly translates to ambush, where you enter a party and are ambushed by the wine because it’s time to party. Raphael gave it this name because it is exactly that, once you pop it it’s miraculously gone in a flash because it’s such an easy drinking wine.
Envol’s entry level white wine is called Trait d’Union and is their only blended white wine. A mix of Sylvaner, Riesling, and a small bit of Gewurztraminer, the wine is incredibly light but also has a perfect blend of acid and residual sugar to balance any meal. We drank this with our lunch and it was able to refresh your palette with every sip. We get light notes of apples and lemons.
With multiple Riesling’s Nic and I decided to go with their entry level, mixed plot AND one of their designated vineyard Rieslings because they are such different wines and pair with completely different foods. Their entry level Riesling is a delicious, almost completely clear, petrol acid bomb that we both preferred with Asian food over the designated wine. While not as impressive on its own as the designated Riesling, it really shines with a spicy pairing or with foods that need crisp acidity and a light pairing.
A complete departure from the entry level Riesling, the Steinweg is a perfect expression of a more refined Riesling with a golden hue, incredible aromatics of lemon peel, stone fruit, and some petrol as well as a much rounder mouthfeel that is delicious on its own or with some fish dishes.
This was Holly’s favorite wine and one of the two orange wines we’re bringing in from Envol. While the white Sylvanner was also delicious, the macerated one has so many notes of orange peel, grapefruit, and a tiny hint of tannin that makes it a perfect light orange wine. It spent 2 weeks on its skins with no sulfites added and came from an old vineyard close to Raphael’s village with limestone and marl terroir.
A very polarizing grape, Gewurztraminer is AMAZING in the right setting and very tough to pair if not planned for in advance. This one is a beautiful expression of the grape with 23 grams of RS (so we’re putting it in the dessert wine section). The aromatics on the wine are off the charts with lychee, and other stone fruit as well as floral aspects. We’d pair it with foie gras, strong cheeses, or something that complements something already a bit sweet like a squash. Maybe even Asian desserts! Mango Sticky Rice, anyone?!
Nic’s favorite from the line-up and a crazy expression of pinot gris, this orange wine spent 3 weeks on the skin and looks rose (because Pinot Gris grapes are pinkish instead of white/yellow). This wine is actually from a cru plot and has a slightly taller bottle than the rest of the wines, indicating its status. The Pinot Gris had quite a bit of skin contact so it’s a wonderful balance of acid, RS, and slight tannin to create a full mouth-feel and great texture that’s the most complex of the group.
Ending with Pinot Noir, a lot of people are sad that Alsace doesn’t give this grape more attention because the conditions to grow it here are perfect. Their entry level Pinot Noir is a gorgeous and unpretentious look at how to create a crisp, clean medium-bodied Pinot, perfect for the fussiest wine drinkers.
We are so excited to be introducing these wines to the US and can’t wait for you to get them in your wine club shipments! The Hirsinger and Marchal families are making beautiful wines that range from perfect representations of their grape and style to completely out there and wild natural wines and we want to show that range with the line-up we’re bringing in!