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Domaine Rolly Gassmann | Alsace, France

Vineyards in Rorschwihr, Alsace

The vignerons of domaines Rolly and Gassmann have been diligently tending the vines of Rorschwihr and Rodern since the seventeenth century; the Rolly family since 1676 and the Gassmann family since 1611. With the marriage of Marie-Thérèse Rolly and Louis Gassmann in 1967 the two estates were united and today the 45ha are run by their second son, Pierre, a quietly self-assured man with an evidently boundless passion for his profession.

The Gassmanns' are a family of epicureans. It is hardly surprising then that 10% of their wines are sold annually to some of the greatest Michelin-starred restaurants of France. And herein lies a contradiction. Why are the wines rated so highly by many of the most prestigious Gallic chefs and yet they rarely win wine tastings? Why is the criticism “too much residual sugar” often levelled at their wines when they consistently have more acidity than most other Alsatian producers? The answer is simple. The Gassmanns' make food-friendly wines which, for the most part, should not be drunk before 5 or 10 years. With age the acidity comes through to create the most perfectly balanced wines which sing with food.

Pierre´s greater influence at the domaine has brought about a few changes: nothing terribly dramatic, no technological revolutions, simply a more profound approach to the work in the vineyards. What is his guiding principal? Balance. This is something of a Holy Grail for Pierre, who aims to find the perfect harmony between the leaf surface area and the number of bunches, between the biological activity of the soil and the growth of the vines. In a well-balanced vineyard, one square metre of soil should be home to 12 to 15 different plants.

To this end he has embraced whole-heartedly biodynamics, although with a more reasoned, pragmatic approach. He espouses the use of the different biodynamic preparations and concoctions, adapting his choice of treatments to the specific conditions of the vintage. The domaine is not however biodynamic, for two reasons. Firstly, they are technically excluded from certification as weedkillers are used to clear 20cm underneath the vines in the those vineyards with a high proportion of Liassic marl (a heavy form of clay). To achieve the same effect manually would involve employing an extra four workers – a luxury which the Gassmanns' cannot afford. The second reason is that he is not looking for a symbol to adorn his bottles. He is biodynamic by conviction but does not believe that this should be a selling point.

Harvesting begins each year with the Pinot Noir, usually a fortnight after others have begun picking. For the Gassmanns' the tell-tale sign is the pips – only when they are completely brown do they take the decision to pick. Each plot is hand-harvested and vinified separately. With around 70 different parcels, harvest time resembles a Herculean task, requiring a huge amount of organisation.

When it comes to winemaking Pierre often says “We are pretty lazy in the cellar”! Once past the presses and the “dynamizing” machine, the building is divided into two chambers, one for the majestic, ancient oak barrels (100 to 300 years old!), and other for a battery of stainless steel tanks. Each year the same wines from the same parcels find their way into the same tanks, working on the principal that if it ain´t broken...!

Once in the cellar the wines are left in peace to ferment at their own sweet will, some taking around 6 weeks to finish (e.g. Riesling Silberberg) and others taking up to 4 months (e.g. Riesling Pflaenzerreben). The following September the wines are bottled and are then preciously guarded until such time as they are considered if not ready to drink, then at least approachable. Whilst this practice is laudable, it involves a huge financial investment. At any one time, the Gassmanns' have four vintages’ worth of stock in bottle and one vintage in tank, which equates to nearly a million bottles of wine. Let us be grateful that accountants do not run this wine estate.

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