There are some experiences in life where you move onto a celestial plane, far above the merely excellent.
Imagine spending most of your life listening to symphonies by Haydn but then hearing Beethoven's Ninth for the first time. Or listening to hundreds of hillbilly singers and then hearing Hank Williams.
For a white-wine enthusiast, that's what it's like tasting the Alsace wines of Zind-Humbrecht. Even in an exceptional French wine region that boasts at least a dozen excellent producers, the rieslings, gewurztraminers, pinot blancs and other wines crafted by the meticulous Olivier Humbrecht stand out.
The 1993s from this remarkable producer have recently been released to a limited number of fine wine stores, giving us collectors of celestial wine experiences yet another opportunity. The vintage is not a great one, but you wouldn't know it from tasting Zind-Humbrecht's wines.
The best word to describe Zind-Humbrecht's wine is "more" -- as in more concentrated, more intense, more complex and more dramatic.
Some of the best Zind-Humbrecht wines taste as if Mr. Humbrecht found some magic way to put a magnum's worth of flavor into a regular bottle.
The secret to this success is no secret at all. It's a simple formula followed by the best winemakers in regions all over the world: great vineyard sites, microscopically low yields, gentle pressing, minimal manipulation and absolute horror at the notion of filtration.
Naturally, the wines are more expensive than the common run of Alsace wines. The price starts at around $19 for NTC Zind-Humbrecht's pinot blanc and spirals upward from there.
My tastings were limited to a small selection of the Zind-Humbrecht's 1993s, but those were enough to make me lust for the chance to sample the rarer wines from the most prestigious vineyards.
The 1993 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot d'Alsace is simply sensational -- so far above the average Alsace pinot blanc as to be a separate species. It's a marvelously concentrated white wine with enticing flavors of lemon, marzipan, litchi nuts, orange and spices. It is one of the rare wines that combines creamy texture and fine acidity.
Zind-Humbrecht's 1993 Muscat d'Alsace ($21) wasn't in the class of the sublime 1991, the finest summer wine I have ever tasted, but it came close.
This bone-dry wine offers gripping flavors of herbs, melon and minerals. It deserves to be served with spicy, but not sweet, Asian cuisine.
The 1993 Riesling Herrenweg Turckheim ($26) was surprisingly fruity for an Alsace rendition of this varietal. While the characteristic mineral nuances were present, they were matched by penetrating flavors of melon, peach, hazelnut, litchi and even a hint of strawberry.
There was a mild disappointment in the 1993 Gewurztraminer Turckheim ($23), which showed fine concentration and flavor but not the iron grip and racy intensity one expects from Zind-Humbrecht. From any other producer, this would be an impressive wine.
But Zind-Humbrecht roared back with an excellent 1993 Gewurztraminer Heimbourg ($37), a very dry, powerful wine with tremendous length and complexity. Rather closed at first, it unfolds slowly in the glass to reveal an intensely spicy wine with just the right note of mineral flavor. It could use several years' aging to show its best.
Well-heeled devotees with a sweet tooth might still be able to find an occasional bottle of Zind-Humbrecht's 1989 Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive from Herrenweg Turckheim ($50), a riveting dessert wine that coats the palate with flavors of spices, orange, mint, litchi nuts, marzipan, peaches and apricots. It will improve for decades.
There are many fine white-wine producers in the world. Muller-Catoir from Germany, Marcassin Vineyards from California, Chateau Haut Brion from Bordeaux and Domaines Ramonet and Leflaive from Burgundy come to mind. But until somebody can show me differently, my vote for the world's finest white wine producer goes to Zind-Humbrecht.
The local scene
Two years after their release, you can still see occasional bottles of two truly extraordinary Maryland wines languishing on the shelves of Baltimore-area wine shops. They shouldn't be.
The Basignani Vineyards 1991 Lorenzino Reserve, a Bordeaux-style red blend, and Woodhall Vineyards 1991 Copernica Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon really should have sold out long ago -- even at their daunting price of $20 and upward.
These two wines demonstrate just how excellent Maryland wines can be when skilled winemakers take advantage of an excellent vintage. Both have developed beautifully in the bottle and are a pleasure to drink now, though they have many years of development ahead of them.
So if you can afford to play in this price bracket, don't overlook these wines just because they're from Maryland. They would put many $30 California cabernets to shame.
The time is right
About 10 years ago, I lavished praise on the 1983 Byrd Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon from Western Maryland, calling it Maryland's finest wine to date and one well worth buying in quantity.
Putting my money where my palate was, I bought a case.
Then the wine crawled into a deep tannic shell. Every few years I'd open a bottle and sample one of the hardest, harshest wines I ever had the misfortune to taste. I figured my credibility was shot.
But even at its depths, there was this resilient core of fruit. And now, for any poor suckers who bought this wine on my recommendation, I'm pleased to report that it has emerged. Yes, the 1983 Byrd is finally ready to drink, and by golly, it is awfully good, with plenty of black cherry and pepper flavors.
Do decant it, however. It has thrown sediment worthy of a vintage port.
These are my recommendations for 1993 Alsace Wines of Zind-Humbrecht:
Pinot d'Alsace ($19)
Muscat d'Alsace ($21)
Reisling Herrenweg Turckheim ($26)
Gewurztraminer Heimbourg ($37)