Vertical Tasting of Trimbach's Riesling Frederic Emile

It is no exaggeration to say that if I am writing professionally about wines today (instead of doing what my medical degree calls for), it is because of the many exceptional Clos Ste. Hune and Cuvée Frédéric Emile rieslings (and rieslings of the Mosel) I drank in my teen years courtesy of the always extremely well-stocked Vintages shelves (back then called the Rare Wine and Spirits store) at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.  Wines like these are enough to give your life direction, and mine is a case in point.

So you can imagine my joy in sitting in the Trimbach family's tasting room in the company of Jean and Pierre Trimbach, and Frank Wilhelm, their commercial director, going through a once-in-a-lifetime vertical of their Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile.  This IWC tasting report describes one of the most complete vertical tastings of this world-famous wine ever; in fact, the Trimbachs could not remember a more complete set of wines sourced directly from their cellars having been tasted anywhere.
The Frédéric Emile Riesling really is a unique wine; in fact, what probably hurts it most is that Trimbach also produces the legendary Clos Ste. Hune Riesling, widely considered to be one of the world's greatest dry rieslings (and the subject of a earlier vertical tasting written up by Stephen Tanzer back in January of 2012). Still, many experts believe the Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling is Clos Ste. Hune's equal in many vintages.  The wine is named after Frédéric-Emile Trimbach, the Trimbach who did the most to improve his family's fortunes and notoriety (his initials still form the firm's exact and legal name, which is not Trimbach, as commonly believed, but F. E. Trimbach) and who moved the estate from Hunawihr to its present-day home in Ribeauvillé.
The Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling is made from grapes grown in the very steep  Geisberg and the Osterberg grand cru vineyards, while Clos Ste. Hune is made from grapes grown in the Rosacker grand cru.  The south- and southeast-facing Geisberg and Osterberg are located between 250 and 350 meters above sea level and overlook the winery.  Though the Geisberg (stony clay over multicolored sandstone) and Osterberg (stony clay over calcareous marl, with increasing amounts of multicolored marl, especially in the eastern portion of the cru) differ geologically, it is worth noting that the Trimbachs' portion of the Osterberg is right next to the Geisberg.  So the vines used to make the Cuvée Frédéric Emile are located on essentially the same soil type.

Like the Clos Ste. Hune, the Frédéric Emile does not carry any vineyard designations, as Trimbach is one of the remaining domains in Alsace that prefers to do without the name of the grand cru on the label.

Today the Frédéric Emile is most often a 50/50 blend of grapes from both grand cru vineyards.  Actually, Pierre Trimbach told me that historically the Frédéric Emile riesling was always made with a slight preponderance of grapes from the Osterberg. In fact, while the average age of Trimbach's vines in Geisberg and Osterberg is 45 years, the are some vines in the latter cru greater than 60 years of age.

Like practically all of the wines made by the Trimbach family, the Frédéric Emile riesling is made in a very dry, not immediately accessible style that greatly rewards patience.  Winemaking is the same as for the Clos Ste. Hune:  a cool, slow fermentation, a quick racking to remove the wine from its lees, no malolactic fermentation, and a short period of aging in older, neutral wood barrels.  The wine is always bottled early to preserve its freshness and is allowed to age in the bottle--usually for five years--prior to release.  It was first produced in 1967, and according to Jean Trimbach no Cuvée Frédéric Emile was made in the 1968, 1969, 1972, 1977, 1980, 1984, 1987 or 1991 vintages, while 2003 and 2010 saw the smallest production ever.  This remarkably popular wine is featured in most of the world's best restaurants, and there is never enough to go round.  According to Jean Trimbach, annual production is only around 40,000 bottles.  Back in the summer of 2001, while in Alsace visiting wineries, I remember taking a rare break to have lunch at the three-star Michelin restaurant Auberge de l'Ill.  Upon asking star sommelier Serge Dubs to surprise me with his favorite riesling on the wine list, he promptly returned with the 1990 Cuvée Frédéric Emile.

The Cuvée Frédéric Emile is an uncompromisingly dry and powerful riesling, underlined by a mineral note and firm, fresh but ripe acidity.  Berries affected by noble rot are practically never used (though a few Frédéric Emile Vendanges Tardives have been made in the past, such as in 2001 and 1998, and there was even a Sélection de Grains Nobles in 1990).  The Frédéric Emile bears a passing resemblance to Clos Ste. Hune when young, exhibiting fresh, high-pitched white flower, lime and wet stone notes, then turns richer and spicier over time, typically developing licorice, quinine and cinnamon nuances and a lingering flinty minerality.  In almost all vintages, it is a touch fuller and less austere early on than its more famous sibling, but over time it is usually not the fleshier of the two wines.

According to François Wilhelm, the Frédéric Emile shows best around eight years after the vintage, on average, while Jean Trimbach believes that even fewer years are required for the wine to enter its optimal drinking phase, at least in most vintages. "Still, this is only the first level of appreciation," he explained.  "At roughly 15 years it reaches a second level--or a second life if you prefer--that can be utterly extraordinary, like for example the 1983, a memorable wine."  Not surprisingly, the great aging potential of the Cuvée Frédéric Emile was once again clear in my recent tasting.

The wines in this article were selected and tasted last summer at the Trimbach estate.  We tasted perfectly stored bottles from the Trimbach cellar that had never traveled; impressively, not a single bottle was defective and needed to be replaced.  For the sake of completeness, I added another five vintages from my own cellar (2003, 1997, 1996, 1988 and 1981) for this special IWC tasting report.

Show all the wines (sorted by vintage)

-Ian D'Agata