Olivier Humbrecht practically grew up in the wine cellar. The 43-year-old owner and winemaker of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht is a 12th-generation grape grower; his family has been tending vineyards in Alsace since 1620, selling most of their grapes to negociants.
In 1959, his parents combined their families' lands, and named their new enterprise Domaine Zind-Humbrecht. Their steep hillside vineyards produce world-class aromatic white wines, such as Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris.
During a stint working in London, Humbrecht met his future wife, Margaret, and began studying for the notoriously difficult Master of Wine exam, which he became the first Frenchman to pass.
When Humbrecht took over the day-to-day operations of the domaine, he began to experiment with biodynamic viticulture, which treats each vineyard as a self-sustaining system that should be in harmony with its natural surroundings.
We recently met Humbrecht when he was on a round-the-world trip, including stops in New York, California and New Zealand.
Q: You grew up around wine, since it's the family business. Were you always interested in it?
A: I only started to get very interested when I was 15 or 16 years old. One day my father told me, "Go in the cellar and get a good bottle of wine." My grandfather Humbrecht was invited to dinner -- so I had to get a good bottle. I went down to the cellar to get the oldest bottle I could find. I had to rummage around because everything was piled on top of each other. I eventually got a bottle that was excellent (a 1967 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Hengst Gewurztraminer).
And then I said to myself, "I can't leave the cellar like that." So the following holidays, I just went through the cellar and put everything back into order, classifying the wines. And I really liked doing that. It sounds odd, but it was actually lots of fun.
Q: What is the first wine you bought for yourself?
A: A Burgundy from the '76 vintage. It was a wine from Gevrey-Chambertin from an estate that doesn't exist anymore called Domaine Clair-Dau. I remember buying some of the Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos St. Jacques, Bonnes Mares. I bought a mixed case, and it was very expensive. I must have been about 15 years old.
Q: What makes a wine great?
A: When you are with the right people at the right moment -- with the right glass even -- and everything feels great. Then you have a memorable moment. I am convinced it's not just the taste of the wine that is capable of giving you that experience.
Q: What do you drink at home?
A: If I am very thirsty, it would often be Champagne. Both myself and my wife like Champagne a lot. Or it would be a red wine -- because we produce white, it's a change for the palate. You get less acidity, more tannins, it's different.
Q: Which wines do you like that are from outside of France?
A: I love Italian wines. Unfortunately, Italian wines are a bit difficult to get in France, so we tend to open them only once every two or three weeks.
Q: Any wines you tried this year that surprised you?
A: A young grower from Cornas, Matthieu Barret (Domaine du Coulet), just joined (the French biodynamic association) Biodivin two years ago -- I never heard of him before -- and I had the chance to taste his wine six months ago. I really adored them. They were really very good. And when I was in New York recently I went to a wine shop and the guy says, "I've got a wine I'm sure you've never tried before and it's great." And it was from this guy -- a strange coincidence. I am glad I am not the only one to like it.
Q: Any other wines from around the world that you've discovered lately?
A: The Swiss make a lot of wine, but they don't export it very much. I went to a wine fair and there was a grower from the Valais, a huge valley on the Rhone River. At the end of the valley, there's a very small wine area on the steepest slopes where some growers grow very unknown grape varieties. The one that struck me the most was Petite Arvine, a local grape variety with only 50 hectares (about 123.5 acres) of it planted in the world -- and it's all located in that valley. It makes the most wonderful, aromatic, exotic spicy wine, often in a sweet style, because in those areas they harvest late with botrytis. It's a really, really great wine.
Q: Which New World wines do you like?
A: Most of the wines I tried in New Zealand I liked quite a lot. The Sauvignon (Blanc) is a bit of a cliche, and I am not convinced it's the best wine they make. I think New Zealand has a real potential for Pinot Noir. And definitely their Chardonnay is great.
My wife's parents live in Australia, and when I went there the first time, I was absolutely amazed by the red wines from Australia. I don't mind a wine that's big and bold if that's the true image of what the terroir and climate is capable of doing.
Q: What about California wines?
A: In California, what I like to drink -- and you might laugh when I say this -- is Zinfandel. Luckily, it's a really good one that I can't get in France, Ridge Geyserville. I like it a lot. Zinfandel, when it's well made from old vines in the right area from good people, it's a damn great wine.
Q: What is your favorite region to drink from right now?
A: For red wines, I would say one bottle out of two that we open is from the Rhone Valley. I have a lot of friends in Gigondas, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cote Rotie, Cornas, Hermitage, the Cotes du Rhone Villages and all that. I adore the wines.
I personally like Burgundy a lot, but my wife prefers Bordeaux more than Burgundy. The Rhone Valley is a good compromise because we both like it a lot.
Q: What is the first wine you drank with your wife?
A: We met when I was working in London. On our first serious date, I invited her to a wine tasting with friends. It was a comparison of Mouton-Rothschild and Opus One, from the early '80s vintages, with six wines from each. She was so uncomfortable because she had never been to a wine tasting before and there she was sitting among wine geeks, with 12 glasses of red wine in front of her.
After the tasting we went to a party, and I brought one of the Zind-Humbrecht wines, a 1985 Gewurztraminer from the Rangen Vineyards, which we drank together. She married me, so she must have liked the wine.