Turckheim, France. During several extended stays in French wine-producing regions during the grape harvest, I have never been on a formal vineyard tour. Instead, I prefer to poke around looking for grape pickers at work, schmooze with tractor drivers hauling off the morning harvest and stick my head into the doorways of homes where freshly picked grapes are being pressed.
In the process I’ve met some colorful characters, perhaps the most memorable of whom was the wine producer’s wife who told me she doesn’t drink. This was after she proudly served me a cup of vin nouveau – the super-sweet, slightly fermented liquid that is the first product of the harvest.
My latest chance encounter only strengthens my belief in serendipity. You just never know whom you’re going to meet in the vineyard. And this time it led me to an innovative wine, made from a grape that had once fallen out of favor.
That grape is the red-skinned Sylvaner, which happens to grow in one of the vineyards uphill from the house that my husband and I rented here, in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. This week, during the vendanges, or harvest, we were hiking through the vineyard looking for grape pickers in action so I could capture the clipping sound for an audio story that I’ve been reporting.
When a small truck passed us carrying a load of the empty, now familiar, yellow grape-collection baskets, we quickly changed direction to follow it. Spotting a crew at work, I scooted downhill to see if they would oblige.
Only after this pleasant (and no doubt to them amusing) interlude did I notice a man standing nearby taking pictures with his iPhone. At first I assumed he was a tourist. But as another truck pulled up to retrieve the 100-kilo (220-pound) baskets that the workers were filling with the afternoon haul, I realized that he was the boss. And not just any boss. This guy in jeans and a gingham shirt was Christophe Ehrhart, a leading expert in the field of biodynamic viticulture and winemaking. He comes from an Alsatian wine-producing family that goes back for 11 generations. As it turns out, he is the vice president of the Alsace Grand Cru association.
Grand Cru is the most prestigious designation a wine can earn. The appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), a French government certification system that applies to various agricultural products, is based, among other things, on soil, the slope where the vines grow and the amount of sun they get. All affect the wine’s terroir, or earthy characteristics. When describing Grand Cru wines, aficionados wax especially poetic, reaching not just for adjectives, but also for personality traits.
Here in Alsace, there are 51 Grand Cru areas but only four white grapes are eligible for this status: Gewürztraminer, pinot gris, muscat and Riesling. Of the 900 producers in the region, most own a parcel in one or more Grand Crus. Each Grand Cru has a name, used to describe its particular soil. In Turckheim, it’s the Brand Grand Cru.
Domaine Armand Hurst, where Ehrhart is a partner, has Gran Cru parcels situated in the granite soil just steps from where Ehrhart and I were standing during our impromptu vineyard interview, but the grapes being harvested that day were not Grand Cru – far from it. Ehrhart referred to the red-skinned Sylvaner as “very special grapes.” But about 30 years ago, he told me with an impish grin, they were the subject of what back home might be called a scandal.
Profiting from this grape’s resemblance, in shape and color, to the more valuable Gewürztraminer, it seems that some growers were passing the former off as the latter. When selling huge vats of grapes to the cooperatives of local grape growers, they were topping off a vat consisting two-thirds of red-skinned Sylvaner berries with the more costly Gewürztraminer ones. After the scam was revealed, the co-ops would no longer buy red-skinned Sylvaner. And some producers, burdened with unmarketable crops, tore out these vines.
Only a handful of producers kept them, reducing their availability. “It’s low yields on old vines,” Ehrhart says.
Hurst, which was one of them, is now restaging what was once forbidden fruit. In 2015 they brought out a white wine made with red-skinned Sylvaner. Last year they mascerated the skins to give the 2017 vintage a reddish tinge. The day after meeting Ehrhart in the vineyard, I stopped by the Armand Hurst Turckheim headquarters (8 rue de la Chapelle) to check it out.
Called Sy’Ro, it has the appearance of a rosé but tastes nothing like that or the notoriously dry Sylvaner. The name is a contraction of the words Sylvaner and rouge (red), says Estelle Geiller, who runs Hurst’s tasting area. It’s pronounced the same as the French word sirop, evoking a play on words, she adds. In France, fruit-flavored syrups are mixed with water for a thirst-quenching summer beverage. Likewise, this “is an easy-drinking and refreshing wine.” In the United States we would call this branding.
I bought a bottle (€10.90, or $12.82, at the current conversion rate) to uncork back at my rented house and ponder privately – tasting rooms make me self-conscious. To my nose, Sy’Ro has a bouquet of cherries and raspberries, and these are the first flavors that register. Later, a hint of citrus lingers pleasantly on the tip of the tongue.
From Turckheim, my thoughts drifted to the ocean. The pucker in my mouth left me craving a plate of scallops sautéed in butter, or lobster boiled in a court bouillon that contains tarragon. Any of these flavors would be complementary, not competitive.
Though not a Grand Cru wine, the Sy’Ro definitely has a personality. It is persistent and assertive. And so will I be next year in tracking down the 2018 vintage, made with the same grapes that I just saw being picked.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of the five-time award winning book, Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures – and misadventures – living in France. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.