Visit to Michel Chapoutier’s Schieferkopf, Alsace

James McKenna
25 September, 2017

In mid-September Justin Liddle, Andrew Hawes, James Dodsworth & James McKenna travelled to Alsace for a meeting with Chapoutier at Schieferkopf where Michel Chapoutier and four friends, all, like him, passionate about great grape varieties and great terroirs, decided to turn their dream of “making a fine Riesling in Alsace together” into reality.

Justin, James & Andrew in Alsace

Schieferkopf is based around a five hectare Domaine in Bernardvillé. For many reasons, Schieferkopf is a very unique estate. The area around Bernardvillé is the only one in Alsace with schist soils that gives sharp, poised and austere wines, with high minerality. This is particularly well adapted for Riesling, the dominant variety of Schieferkopf along with Gewürztraminer and Sylvaner.

Blue Schist

As with all Chapoutier estates, Schieferkopf is managed under organic and biodynamic principles in order to best express the terroir through its wines. It is these principles, combined with the mosaic of complex soils, a sunny, hot and dry climate that endow Schieferkopf wines with their signature style.

The vineyard is one of the highest of Alsace at about 380m above sea level. This high altitude combined with the southerly exposure enables slow and gentle ripening of the grapes.

Rows of vines

Visiting the vineyards illuminated many things that until now I had missed… due to my ignorance of the German language more than anything else. The fog lifted!

Firstly the style of the single site Rieslings:

Buehl means Valley: this site consists of a very steep lower slope which offers a much higher level of exposure to the sun and therefore a riper style of wine compounded by the site being so well sheltered from the cold winds.

Berg means Hill. Again this was a site with very steep slopes but a higher altitude than the Buehl vineyard. Situated at over 500m the grapes grown here benefit from a much longer hang time and a higher acid expression and are also more exposed to the wind.

View down the valley

Fels means Rock, so unsurprisingly this was a much stonier vineyard site and it produces a more mineral style wine.

Via St Jacques: is named after the Camino de Santiago (the famous pilgrimage route) which originates in that area. Santiago in French is Saint Jacques. This is a blend of the three “lieu dit” sites along with fruit from one more vineyard called Weiss.

Secondly, all of the Rieslings undergo malolactic fermentation. This leads to a greater breadth of flavour in the wines and is very un- Alsace in terms of the winemaking, and therefore very Chapoutier to challenge the status quo. The belief here is that once the wine undergoes MLF less SO2 is required and therefore it is a more stable long term and natural expression requiring less manipulation. All the Schieferkopf wines are vinified in used oak casks.

Thirdly, the entry level is all from Germany now and this, from the local point of view, is no big deal since the climate, soil type and winemaking back story is very similar. In Alsace terms it’s all “Rhine Valley” and from the point of view of winemaking and viticulture there is little that requires explaining.