An excursion from Scenic Cruises’ Scenic Ruby not only put us in the heart of picturesque Mittelbergheim and its lovely half-timber houses but allowed us to meet one particularly passionate winemaker in the Alsace Wine Region.
Our guide Frederique Specht, aka “Freddie,” noted our next stop would be the wine tasting. She cautioned us to watch our step as our small group exited the tour van onto a narrow cobblestone street.
Meeting Andrew Seltz
Shortly after entering a set of gates, we were greeted by an animated spokesperson who quickly began talking about wine. When we stopped him to ask his name, he laughed pointing to the sign that read Domaine Albert Seltz.
Seltz is a 14th generation winemaker — yes, 14 generations — in a region full of wine-making history, where dating back to the 13th century there were more than 100 wine villages populating the rich, rolling landscape.
Vines as far as the eye could see in every direction seemed to surround the town.
Freddie had explained that 6,000 people are growing seven grape varieties here. This particular family vineyard dates to 1576 and only produces organic wines.
Down to the cellars
As we head within the dim wine cellars, watching the low clearings above our heads, Seltz stops alongside large, stacked wine barrels. He explains he uses seamed oak barrels, not burned, as “we are not trying to bring any of the flavors of the oak into the wine. We are just trying to bring the ripeness from the tannins of the wine with the tannins of the oak.” Barrels are used for two years per wine and used for two wines, so only for four years each.
Passing beside dust-ridden bottles, stored on their sides, Seltz is asked about newer, screw-tops versus traditional corks. “Corks are very important for people trying to age wines,” he answers. “My challenge is to try to have bottles that are capable to last for 50, 60 years.” One observer notes he might not be around then to taste them, and he quickly responds with a laugh: “I will give the chance to my son to taste them.” Asked if he is tasting his father’s wine, he slyly notes, “They didn’t have the same kind of quality that we try to have.”
The jovial mood continues outside as the group takes a seat on several benches facing a long wooden table containing orderly rows of wine glasses bearing the winery logo. Seltz begins instruction, like a professor on the first day of freshman classes.
He advocates that when tasting wine, you should be able to tell if the wine is “clean” simply by your first smell.
“You have a nose and you have a brain, and you know the nose is something working. The first thing you do is smell, and say yes, the wine is clean. Then you have two things: This is the computer,” he says, pointing to his mouth. “This is the database (pointing to his head). If you are not capable of reading what’s on the screen (tasting), the database is going to stay empty. You have to try to understand what the mouth is telling you. If you are not understanding what the mouth is telling you, you will not understand the wine; and you will not be able to fill this thing (the brain) up.”
He picks up the first glass to sample. “So, here, smell, taste. You discover first you have the fruitiness of the wine in front, the structure, the alcohol; when this is finished, then you have the saltiness of the wine… the minerality of the wine. Go.”
The tasting continues
As the tasting proceeds, he instructs: “Try to see the wines differently. When you go in a store and taste the wines, try to understand what type of wine would go with what type of food. That is the base. So when you taste, try to imagine what type of food you would have … when you are willing to serve this bottle of wine.”
Comparing the third wine to the first, he notes there’s more complexity than sweetness. “Fruity is not sweet. Sweet is not fruity. Fruity can be sweet and finish dry. Fruity can be sweet and finish sweet. This is where with two words, you could have four wines. Here we have something that is sweet that is integrated into the structure of the wine, which gives you more complexity than sweetness.”
Upon tasting the third wine, he remarks, “First, you have the fruitiness, then you have the sweetness, in the middle of the wine there is acidity, and then at the end, you have a stronger saltiness, a sharper saltiness than you had in the first wine. OK? It’s important. What I’m trying to tell you, you have to listen to the wine. You have to go through the wine and see what the mouth is telling you at the end. It’s important.”
He pauses. “Fruitiness is so boring to me.” The comment elicits smiles from the group.
A man with a calling
We’ve quickly realized this is a calling for Seltz, not just a job.
Asked about his approach, he explains: “We try to be part of the story. I am not trying to make wines to market to people who don’t understand these things. I am trying to do wines that you will like and that you will take care when you open the bottle, and there is a story behind this bottle.”
Our tasting featured 2013 Gewurtztraminer; 2009 Riesling Andlaugass (“I love this one,” Seltz proclaimed); 2011 Le Granit du Rebbuehl an Andlau Reisling (our personal favorite); plus a 2016 Pinot Auxerrois.
The story at Domaine Albert Seltz is a good one. As his website notes: “The work of the winemaker is a work of reflection that must be personal so that it can differentiate itself from others in the glass. It is an outdoor work of respect, from the life in the soil until the life in the vats in the cellar. A wine is like friends, we all have them, but they are not always the same. It is your sensibilities and your values that will allow you to love a wine and understand it.”
He puts it in perspective when he notes, “There are no bad wines, only bad winemakers.”
The wines of Alsace
We now better understand what our guide Freddie had explained at the start our tour: that “everything has to do with wine in Alsace.”
Consider, she said, that 150 million bottles per year are produced in Alsace, “but it is only a tiny wine region.” That impressive number, however, is still less than three percent of the six billion bottles produced in France annually. Still, Alsace wines have die-hard fans.
Nearly 40,000 wine acres here feature 13 distinct terroirs. The region is especially known for its Riesling. While neighboring Germany produces more, the tastes are starkly different due to the particular growing conditions of Alsace. Alsace also is noted for Sylvaner, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Pinot Gris and produces a Pinot Noir.
The Romans introduced vineyards in the first century before Christ. Over ensuing years, Alsace, with its capital of Strasbourg, has experienced a French/German tug-of-war time, changing hands frequently. Alsace’s location in the Rhine valley is only separated from Germany by the Rhine River, and it was once part of Germany.
Alsace vineyards, however, were largely destroyed as a result of the 17th-century Thirty Years’ War, “the first really big scale war in Europe.” Recovery took two centuries when Alsace was German (not French). Production, she said, was more focused on quantity instead of quality. That is no longer the case.
We leave Alsace fully charmed by the visit and knowing how special it was to meet such a passionate winemaker.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Wine lovers will truly appreciate this tour, the quality of the wines and the history of the region.
- We were honored to get a first-hand education from a long-time winemaker devoted to organic practices and good wines.
- There are uneven surfaces in the dimly-lit cellars, so exercise caution.
- The company website is in French as, of course, Alsace is French.
- Various cruise lines offer the wine tour, so if you’re hoping to visit on your own, inquire in advance. If your cruise offers this tour, sign up!
Disclosure: The authors’ trip and visit to the winery was hosted by the cruise line.
All photo credits: Fletcher Newbern
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