France Trip 2019 – Part 2 – Alsace & Koenig

For the first part in this series see here.

Next stop on our French tour was the Alsace region. To get there, David & I took a train at about 8 am to Strasbourg, which got us there at about 11 am. We then did a little shopping for yet more wine for this evening’s mega tasting in Strasbourg (more on that in the next post) and had a quick lunch before heading out to Koenig.

Founded in 1960, Koenig is one of the oldest brands servicing the Kosher market. Emille Koenig started producing primarily for local consumption of the Alsatian Jewish community in Strasbourg.  In 2014, production of the Koenig brand was taken over by the Willy Gisselbrecht winery. The Gisselbrecht family has been producing wines since the 1600’s, and the current winery is about 90 years old and is located in Dambach-la-Ville in Alsace.

Claude Gisselbrecht, the owner, gave us a brief tour and some general stats. The winery produces about 900,000 bottles annually, of which 60,000 bottles are produced kosher (95% under the Koenig label).  Only 20% is exported (of which 10% goes to the US & Israel and another 10% to the UK, Canada, and other parts of Europe). Walking through the winery, you really get a sense for the tradition carried through here. Some of the original ceramic tanks and wooden vats are still in use at the winery (though not for the kosher runs, which all use stainless steel tanks).

Now we were ready for the tasting. The tasting room is so nice and homey — without pretense. I was actually reminded of the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast throughout my visit. I’m not sure if that movie is set in a region close to Alsace – but walking through this winery felt like one those sets come to life. Very charming.

Quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting the number of wines that we would be tasting. I had no idea that this many were produced. There are only four wines exported each year (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Cremant) – and I thought maybe they did another two or three for local consumption – but really that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Gisselbrecht produces about 18- 20 different kosher wines under the Koenig label, Reds, Whites, Sparkling, Dessert wines, etc. Basically any wine which is typically made in an Alsatian winery potentially is also made Kosher. As noted above, the VAST majority of this wine stays local to France. It’s a pity because, depending on the vintage, some of these wines can be great and provide excellent value. 

We tasted nine wines that afternoon (many of the other 2018’s are simply not ready yet, and the 2017’s were not easily accessible or sold out) and my brief notes are below. One note about the 2018 vintage in Alsace. Many wines lacked acidity. Unlike many other appellations, Alsace has strict guidelines against allowing any additives to the wines – even when “corrections” are necessary. In exceptional circumstances, a winery can apply to the governing board to allow them to add acid  – but it must be done only at certain points within the process – and it can take a VERY long time to receive – and certainly for the kosher labels, which get pushed out rather quickly, this was something they couldn’t wait for. Having said that, a number of the wines we tasted still showed quite nicely even considering the difficult vintage.

NV Koenig Cremant d’Alsace, Brut – The nose here is nice with pears and apples, plus a healthy amount of toasty and yeasty notes. In the mouth, very typical flavors of apple, pear, and citrus. Really, this is a nice pleasant sparkler. As an aside – it goes for under 10 Euro in France. At that price, it would be a NO-BRAINER. In the US, it goes for $19. So that’s about NIS 70. I could see buying this from time to time just as a change from the Gamla Brut – or when that is not available, which seems more and more often. But here in Israel, this goes for a whopping NIS 109 – and really I can get the GHW BdB for NIS 120, which really outshines this bottle. I do hope that Zur reevaluates its pricing here….

2018 Koenig Rosé – unfortunately, this wine was not built for drinking this late into the season. Add that to the already low acid for the vintage and it presents sweet with strawberry and watermelon with nothing to really hold it together.

2017 Koenig Sylvaner – This is a really nice basic wine.  On the nose and in the mouth, you get a mix of citrus – Lemon, grapefruit, and some clementine. There is a nice amount of acid to balance out the sweetness. A nice simple wine that will do the job for a light meal. Nothing complex here – but it’s not trying to be.

2018 Koenig Sylvaner – Here the 2018 shows itself. The wine has much of the same profile as 2017 – but presents totally flat and sweet with absolutely no acid.

2017 Koenig Pinot Blanc – This is another really simple wine. Up front, I am not a big fan of Pinot Gris in general. If I am going to go for something with this profile, it will be Gewürztraminer, which usually has the potential to be more balanced than this. This bottle was off dry with typical lychee and guava and some citrus. It did have some acid to balance – but really simple. While not for me, I can see this working instead of Gewurtz for spicy Chinese.  

2017 Koenig Riesling –This wine is a winner. Nice petroleum and funk and great floral notes on the nose. In the mouth great mineral, funk, slate. Oily mouth feel. Very nice and super balanced. Healthy amount of acid and bitterness to balance it out. It is slightly less dry than the 16 but not enough to make me care. Great stuff.

2018 Koenig Riesling – Much more floral on the nose, honeysuckle, flint, petrol. Drier than ‘17.  All other notes are the same. Slightly short finish. This wine is young and that might actually change. Really nice. Looking forward to re-tasting in a year or so.  

2018 Koenig Riesling ,Grand Cru Frankstein – This wine has beautiful heather, pear, and orange blossom on the nose. In the mouth, it is VERY delicate in terms of flavor. Everything sort of fleeting and light with apple, pear, saline, and a touch of smoke. The finish for me was less complex, though it had nice pith. Claude cautioned that really we were drinking this year’s too early and that it would gain complexity and heft as time went on. Another wine that will be interesting to follow if I have the chance. 

2017 Koenig Muscat – Very floral both in the nose and in the mouth but DRY. Not bone dry, but pretty close. Jasmine and rose, on the nose. In the mouth, basically add melon to the mix. This is a rare dry-ish Muscat. The only other I really can remember was by Michael Kaye in California. I liked that one, and I think I like this one even more.

2018 Koenig Gewürztraminer Prestige. – This is a dessert wine – and one of the few true kosher Ice Wines on the market – the other being the Tzafona Vidal Ice Wine. To be a true Ice Wine, the wine must be harvested from fruit that has frozen naturally on the vine. The two Israeli Ice Wine style wines, Tzora Or and GHW’s Yarden Heightswine, are frozen at the winery, as it never gets cold enough in Israel to produce a true Ice Wine. This wine was harvested at 21 degrees Fahrenheit! Lychee and banana on the nose, some honeysuckle – in the mouth deep lychee, jasmine, and a touch of citrus pith and nice acid make this a perfectly balanced and VERY reasonably priced dessert wine. Out of the four mentioned, while not quite at the same level as the Or, it’s close enough and far better than the other two. Here’s the kicker – it goes for about 16 Euro in France!!!

2015 Koenig Grains Nobles, Pinot Gris – I believe this is a Botrytis based dessert wine. For whatever reason, I seemed to have not taken notes on this one. Though from the picture, I clearly drank it. Sorry!

All said, it was a really excellent outing. My hope is that we get to see a lot more of these wines outside of France. My thanks to Claude Gisselbrecht for his time and hospitality – and for his patience in answering a number of questions. My thanks also to Nathan Grandjean of Yavine who got us there and helped facilitate.

Next up – The Mega Tasting in Strasbourg

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