Vines stand next to German anti-tank mines. Vineyard workers, determined to bring in the harvest as they have done for centuries, become tragic casualties of war to unexploded allied bombs or bullets from allied fighter planes attacking German vehicles. Planes crash and destroy vines that are decades old. Terrified yet hopeful people take shelter as the allied artillery rumbles and they huddle in cellars. Old cellars carved from the complex soils to protect a product so important to a place used to upheaval.
This is Alsace in 1944 and World War Two is reaching its climax. The Americans are arriving but the Germans don’t want to go. The cellars, some multiple metres deep, contain wines. Wines made from varieties like Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. In a town called Ammerschwihr some people retreat to a special cellar where they sit next to wines and statues of saints brought there from the local church for protection. This is the ‘Cave de l’enfer’ or ‘Cellar of Hell’. Dug in the late 18th century by the Baron Jean Jacques de Schiele and at 7m in depth this is the oldest and deepest cellar in the town. The local people still refer to this time as ‘when the saints were sent to Hell’.
This old and deep cellar is owned by the Kuehn family winery and here they store some of their finest wines. Grand Cru’s like Sommerburg, Kaefferkopf, Mambourg and Florimont lay undisturbed maturing gently in the cool, dark conditions.
Like five hundred or so other producers in Alsace the Kuehn family also make Cremant d’Alsace. A delicious and hugely popular traditional method sparkling wine that represents almost a quarter of the entire production of Alsace. Every year Alsace produces around 33million bottles of sparkling wine. Whilst this is only 10% of what is produced in Champagne it is enough to place Alsace in second place by volume of production.
Cremant d’Alsace is made carefully. Under AOC laws fruit must be picked by hand and grapes pressed gently in whole clusters. As a minimum Cremant d’Alsace, made via a secondary fermentation in bottle like Champagne, must spend 9 months on its lee’s and cannot be released until at least 12 months have passed after bottling. Most Cremant is made with a blend of the varieties Auxerrois, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir with a base of Pinot Blanc. Some varietal bottlings can also be found. Blanc de Noir from 100% Pinot Noir and Blanc de Blancs exclusively from Chardonnay , Pinot Gris and, in the case of Kuehn Brut Cuvee Prestige, 100% Pinot Blanc.
What a find! Apples and pears all wrapped in citrus with distinct aromas of white flowers. Aged for 15-18 months on it’s lees you would expect some yeasty notes but it is really subtle. With it’s moderate acidity, lively mousse and rich mouthfeel this was easy to drink and disappeared all too quickly alongside breaded fish and chips! Now I know I shouldn’t encourage drinking but at £12.99 this is a steal from http://www.virginwines.co.uk so you might want to grab a case! Recommended!
*Gratitude to the excellent Kuehn website and the brilliant book ‘Wine and War’ by Don and Petie Kladstrup for some of the material above.