Note: This is the first in a new series, in which I’ll explore a different Riesling every week or so.
Thanks to legendary importer Terry Thiese, I’ve decided it’s time to learn about Riesling. My decision, though, has nothing to do with one of Thiese’s imports. Rather, I’ve decided it’s finally time to explore Riesling thanks to the wines of Domaine Pfister, a producer in Alsace.
Thiese doesn’t import the wines – his portfolio only includes wines from Germany, Austria, and Champagne – but if it weren’t for him, Domaine Pfister might not be in the United States today.
Domaine Pfister traces its roots to 1780. While that’s ancient by New World standards, the village of Dahlenheim, where Pfister is located, was noted for quality wine production as early as 884. And it’s always been Riesling country.
For most of its history, Domaine Pfister was little more than a local winery. The property was handed down from father to son, and virtually all sales were made at the cellar door, with just a small bit of the wine making it to local restaurants.
In 1972, when sixth-generation vintner Alfred Pfister handed the business over to his son André, the property entered the modern era. Together with wife Marie-Anne, André started treating the vineyard and winemaking more professionally, with a laser focus on making high-quality wines that would express his property’s terroir. So he modernized the property’s facilities and started taking great care of the vineyard.
As André’s daughter, Mélanie, recently explained to me, “Since my father took over, the vineyards have been sacrosanct. He recognizes that balanced, healthy vineyards lead to balanced, healthy wines.”
Mélanie should know. About ten years ago, she decided to join the family business — becoming the first woman in her family to do so.
Her father had always urged his three daughters to study whatever they wanted. Mélanie’s older sister, Céline, studied political science at university, and now works for a bank in Brussels. Her younger sister, Marie, studied philosophy and works for a media company in Paris.
At the age of 20, after studying biology for two years, Mélanie realized she wanted to pursue winemaking. Her father supported the decision — and not simply because it would keep the family business alive.
“My father always told us that if you’re not passionate about what you do, then you shouldn’t do it,” she explained. “He knew I was passionate about making wine.”
In 2005, she returned home — and made the first vintage of “Cuvée 8,” a blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat that she had long envisioned. The wine’s name pays homage to her family’s history, since Mélanie is the eighth generation to make wine the Domaine.
Mélanie “officially” took over in 2006, but her father is still very much involved — he loves farming, so spends most of his days managing the vineyards.
Mélanie hasn’t done much to change the winemaking and doesn’t plan to — she wants the family legacy to continue. But she has focused on developing the export market for her wines.
“My father is salt of the earth, so was never interested in being very commercial or pushing sales,” she explained. “He spent his time and money on improving our facilities and the quality of our wine. He never spent any money on marketing or anything like that.”
Domaine Pfister currently produces about 5,000 cases of wine, with 15 different bottlings. But most of its wines are sold in France — and mostly at the cellar door. Thanks to Mélanie’s efforts, about 40 percent of the wine is now exported, but less than 10 percent makes its way to the United States.
The wines are in the United States thanks, in part, to Terry Thiese. While traveling in Alsace, he asked his favorite vintners for recommendations — and several steered him to Domaine Pfister. Since Thiese doesn’t import any wines from Alsace, he introduced the Pfisters to Roy Cloud of Vintage 59, a DC-based importer. Today, Vintage 59 imports seven of Domaine Pfister’s wines.
The entire lineup was delicious, but I was floored by the Grand Cru Engelberg. Tasting note below.
Review: 2009 Domaine Pfister Riesling Engelberg
France, Alsace, Alsace Grand Cru AOC
The nose explodes with petrol, beautiful white flowers, golden apples, and a sharp, limestone minerality. The palate is extremely full and rich, with lemon curd, orange zest, and even more golden apples coming through. It’s perfectly balanced and fresh, with a never-ending and surprisingly dry finish. Absolutely stunning.