JEAN TRIMBACH flies the flag for his native Alsace and discusses with GERRIE LIM his passion for Riesling
TO ME, JEAN TRIMBACH and his brother Pierre are the Blues Brothers of the wine world, their zany missionary zeal highly apparent even if only one of them enjoys public visibility. They make decisions together on all wines made and sold, but only Jean travels the world to represent them – as the 12th generation of a winemaking dynasty in Alsace dating back to 1626, hailing from Ribeauvillé (elevation 250 metres, population 5,000). Maison FE Trimbach, revered among connoisseurs of Riesling, is named after family patriarch Frédéric Emile Trimbach, who had first put the family on the map at the 1896 International Wine Fair in Brussels.
Indeed, the lovely 2005 vintage of Cuvée Frédéric Emile is what I enjoy with Jean over lunch, though when we first met in 2012 I was (and still am) besotted with his other flagship Riesling, the legendary Clos Sainte Hune (only 8,000 bottles a year, from a mere 1.67 hectares in the neighbouring village of Hunawihr). His brother Pierre, the company’s chief winemaker, prefers the company of his oak casks and steel tanks, while Jean tells the world about Alsace, now a territory in north-eastern France, but occasionally German turf (1871-1918 and 1940-1945).
The latter’s advocacy has resulted in Trimbach being the only Alsatian label poured in all 27 Michelin threestar restaurants in France today – no small achievement by this quiet gentleman in the Hugo Boss suit, Façonnable shirt and Brioni tie, who’s sitting opposite me over oysters and sea bass in a Hong Kong restaurant.
How was your recent harvest?
Well, 2013 was, as the English would say, interesting. Meaning challenging. The weather was difficult, and the spring was rain, rain, rain. Still, I think Alsace, because of its microclimate, managed to be the most successful region in France last year. I just tasted all the Rieslings three days ago with my brother Pierre, and we’re quite happy. The Clos Sainte Hune is awesome, the Frédéric Emile is delicious, but in smaller production: we are down 30 percent, and for the Frédéric Emile alone it’s down 50 percent.
What’s your production and how is your estate now?
Our annual production is 90,000 cases. We’re now one of the largest in Alsace, 45 hectares under vine, and the only winery in Alsace that grew 15 hectares in the last five years. We added 15, which is difficult because you have to buy from existing vineyards and very few people sell. Exactly how we did that, I can’t tell you!
My own favourite Trimbach is the Clos Sainte Hune. Do you have a favourite year?
It’s 1975, which funnily enough was and still is our father’s favourite. It was a great vintage, not exceptional – meaning not a blockbuster wine, but all about finesse, minerality, intensity and energy. Our father always said that was his favourite, so the more we tasted this wine the more we understood it and the more we agreed with him.
Do you have a favourite among your own wines?
Frédéric Emile. My favourite vintage is 1990 – because our first child was born in 1990, and the wine still drinks very, very well. The 1990 is considered one of the finest vintages, like 1971, 1988 and 2010. This 2005 we’re drinking is a classic, and it will age well for another 15 years. It’s a very elegant Riesling in terms of fruitiness, with white peach in the nose, a wonderful freshness and fine minerals. The minerality is the signature of the wine, coming from Grands Crus vineyards.
Alsace now has 51 Grands Crus vineyards and some 1,000 wine producers, but your Riesling differs from the German version because of the dryness. How so?
In Germany, they produce dry Riesling, but the flavour profile deriving from the minerality and the soil and the climate that we have makes them different. Alsace Riesling is very unique in that sense. The next vintage we are shipping is Frédéric Emile 2007, the driest Frédéric Emile ever! It has less than one gram of residual sugar – exactly 0.7 grams per litre residual, so it’s like a great, great Chablis but it’s actually Riesling. This 2005 here has four grams. In 2007, the yeast fermented to the very end, till there was not even one gram of residual, so my brother Pierre let it go – this is Mother Nature, he said, it’s unusual but we’ll take it. Usually the yeast stops around four, three or two and a half grams. Below three, it’s quite rare.
Do you still get your boots on and go out into the fields, like you used to?
Not so much any more. My brother, yes, but not me. I have no time. I tell people my brother is in the kitchen and I’m in the dining room. He makes my life easy because the wines are good. People ask how we came to divide the work and I say we tossed a coin, but actually it was never ever discussed. It all happened naturally. Pierre is four years older, so he started studying in Beaune, at an oenology school in Burgundy, and I decided to go the other way. I did accounting and later worked in California, mostly to perfect my English, though I did the crush and the crop in Sonoma at Gundlach Bundschu and also in Napa at Sterling Vineyards, for three months in 1984.
How many days of the year do you travel now?
No idea. Probably five months, but you’ll have to ask my wife. She has the calendar. I am very privileged, I travel to nice places, stay in beautiful hotels, have fabulous lunches and dinners, so it could be much worse. I could be selling, I don’t know, these oysters. Clos Sainte Hune and Frédéric Emile are easy to sell, but sometimes you need to sell. We have 33 employees that we have to pay, so at the end of the day it’s a business. It will soon be 30 years, in 2015. It doesn’t make me younger.
Have you thought of hiring an export director so you don’t have to travel yourself?
Yes, but the relationship is not the same. Alsace exports 25 percent of its total production, but we at Trimbach export 90 percent of our production, so if we do well in all the top restaurants and top hotels in the world, it’s because we do it ourselves. For example, the Grand Hyatt Singapore is going to pour our Pinot Gris Reserve Personnelle 2007 in magnum by the glass. They purchased 500 magnums so that’s 1,000 bottles, for one account. For their best customers, they’re going to be pouring it by the glass. I was there and I talked about that, and voila! It’s a relationship.
+Prestige Hong Kong