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At Last, We Meet the Bear

September 11, 2009 01:46 PM ET | Sue Guerra | Permanent Link

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Our final day in Alsace was winding down and I had pretty much given up on trying to connect with wine producer Marc Tempé, the famed “Bear of Alsace.”

But as we were about to pass Zellenberg on our way to the 12th-century castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg, my friend and guide Tom changed course and steered the Chevy into the quiet little square just across from Tempé’s house and winery.

Another couple was ringing the bell as I hopped out of the car—and just at that moment, the door swung open and there stood Tempé, grinning broadly. I introduced myself in “emergency” German and he greeted me in French as though he had been expecting me.

In no time, we were on our way to a small dark cellar where—except for a couple of tools with neon-colored handles—it looked like nothing had changed for hundreds of years. Not a cobweb was out of place. And over there stood a line of well-worn oval foudres (large oak casks) that in today’s more technological cellar might have been replaced with stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation vats.

But Tempé is not a modernist. His “formula”—if you can call it that—involves biodynamic farming with careful pruning of vines for very low yields, slow and gentle pressing of the hand-harvested grapes in order to retain acidity (and hence freshness), no chaptalization (adding sugar in various forms to increase the final alcohol content), no acidification (adding tartaric acid to enhance acidity), and no laboratory yeasts to “move along” the fermentation.

These wines take their sweet time fermenting in his old, damp cellars, after which they “rest” on their lees (dead yeast cells) for a minimum of two years—sometimes much longer. Most of his wines see no filtration; instead, unwanted particles settle naturally to the bottom of the casks, then the wines are racked. At bottling, the wines are not fined (the process of adding an agent to further rid the wine of microscopic particles), and only a scant amount of sulfur is ever added.

According to Roy Cloud, his importer, Tempé is “indefatigably upbeat.” His powerful frame and rugged hands show he is no stranger to hard work. And with his commitment to storing and aging his wines for such great lengths of time, it also is clear that he is in no hurry to turn a profit. And here’s another thing—he actually does resemble a bear.

Tempé cheerfully led us to his office where an international group—including American opera singer and wine lover, Henry Kiichli—had already begun tasting. They all patiently waited for Tom and I to catch up, as we tasted through more than a dozen wines.

For more information about Tempé’s wines in the United States check out

See Kiichli’s tasting notes from this and other Alsace wineries here.

Click here for a very detailed account from fellow blogger Bertrand Celce who visited Tempé in April.

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Tags: wine

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