The Rangen de Thann is the most southerly of the Alsace vineyards. In his book, Where Alsace wines ripen, Henry Riegert writes: « from the Middle Ages those wines which ripen on the Rangen hillside figure amongst the most famous growths of the whole vineyard region ».
The Grand Cru Rangen de Thann, is situated at the exit of the valley, overlooking the village of Thann with the river Thur passing at the foot of the slope.
When contemplating the landscape as seen from the slopes of Rangen it is possible to distinguish the magnificent church Saint-Thiébault ( Rhenish Gothic, built between the late thirteenth and fifteenth centuries), “la tour des Sorcières” (the rampart tower of the fifteenth century), the Castle Engelbourg (built from 1234) and if we know where to look “la cabane des bangards”, former home of the guardians of the vineyards of Thann, ( now situated in the center of Thann but once found amongst the vineyards when Rangen reached the maximum vineyard surface of 500 hectares in the 17th century).
Rangen Clos Saint Urbain
The Rangen already appears in history towards the 12th and 13th century. It rapidly acquires a great reputation due to the exceptional quality of its wines. There is no doubt that vines were planted here earlier, however the first important transactions relating to parcels of this vineyard are only found from the following dates:
- 1272 : according to a document from the Abbey of Murbach, the entire hillside of Rangen is planted to vines.
- 1291: following Act of 13 June, the Dominican Convent of Basle owns 4 scadi (16 hectares) of vines in the Rangen. Thann became renowned for its wine “Rangenwein” – “the warmest and most violent wines of the region”
- 1292 : following Act of 6 July, the Masmunster Abbey owns vines here. The St Ursitz of Einsiden Convent, the Cistercian Abbey of Haute Seille in Meurthe & Moselle are also owners.
- 1296 : in December, Burchard zum Rosen of Basle buys vines ‘in banno ville Tanne in monto diste Rangen’
- 1469 : The Archduke of Austria receives from Charles the Bold “many a swig of the wine from Rangen” and finds “in the wine of Rangen, a vigourous tonic of courage”
Since the founding of the village of Thann in 1161, many vintages have been described by lovers of fine wines. The good years, the less good and the most difficult years follow each other.
Malachias Tschamser recounts endlessly on the subject in The Great Thann Chronicle:
- 1186 : Harvest in August!
- 1228 et 1232 : Extremely good, it’s so hot you could fry an egg in the sand
- 1274 : Harvest had to wait until November
- 1347 : Bad year
- 1431 : Such an abundant harvest that with all the barrels full, wine was used to make mortar!
The exceptional quality of its wines resulted in Rangen being well renowned with its reputation extending well beyond the borders of Alsace. From the earliest times, the Collegiate of Thann, Saint Theobald, was a place of pilgrimage attracting a huge number of travellers from Germany, England, Denmark and the Scandinavian countries. During the Middle Ages, monastic life being also very active, monks arrived in large numbers, prayed but also tasted the wine from Rangen and finding it very good, praised it on their return home. Munster writes in his Cosmography of Thann in 1550: «Thann a fine town belongs to the Seigneurs of Ferret and a chateau on the Engelburg mountain and near the town a hillside called Rang where a delectable wine grows called Rangen Wine”. He carries on bragging about the diabolical effects of this wine.
In 1628 in Dr Claudius Deodatus’ the “Pantheum Hygistticum” the finest Alsace wines are noted including the Rangen de Thann.
During the reign of Empress Maria Theresa, the Rangen wine was consumed at Court and enjoyed an exceptional reputation. A private tutor to the family of the princes of Lowenberg and also introduced to the imperial palace, stated that more Rangen wine was drunk in Vienna that the whole of Thann and its surrounding area could produce. (Barth).
In 1648, the Treaty of Munster, King Louis XIX of France becomes the Lord of Thann and as such obtains the titles of a few vineyards in Rangen, previously owned by Archduke Ferdinand Charles of Austria.
- 1659 : the village of Thann (1150 citizens) is home to 20 vignerons or winegrowers.
- 1793 : the destruction of the chapel Saint Urbain (built circa 1480) by the revolutionaries.
- 1897 : end of the destruction of the Rangen vineyards by phylloxera
- 1933 : inaugurataion of the “Chemin Montaigne” at the center of the Rangen
- 1934 : inauguration and blessing of the restored chapel Saint Urbain. Every year in June, the wiens of Rangen are served by the winegrowers to the parishioners at the Mass of winegrowers.
The Thann vineyard was admired by the philosopher Michel de Montaigne, during his grand journey across Europe in 1580 to 1581, he wrote:
“Thann 4 leagues. First town in Germany, subject to the emperor, very fine, wide plain flanked on the left hand side with hillsides covered in vines, the finest and the best cultivated and so extensive that the Gascons who were there said they had never seen so many in succession.”
From then on, the road running through the Rangen has been known as the Chemin de Montaigne.
Numerous poets have sung the praises of the wine from the Rangen.
Fischart in Garagantua (1607):
“Yes in the Rangen lives Saint Rango, he takes the row and struggles so much till he rolls under the bench.”
“Ja der Wein zu Dann, des Rangenweines, das steckt der Heylig Sanct Rango, der nimmt den Rang und ringt so lang, biss er einen ränt und trengt unter die Bänck.”
Sebastien Brant, the well-known Strasbourg poet is at the origin of a legend about the arms of Colmar inspired by the wine of Rangen which he so appreciated:
During a journey across Europe Hercules arrived from Xeres in Spain, via the Loire and Burgundy, in Alsace. Here, he wished to taste wines at the Zum Wilden Mann Inn. The innkeeper offered him a wine from Riquewihr which he found good but quite flat, he wanted a fuller bodied wine. Sothe innkeeper suggested a wine from the Rangen. He thought it so extraordinarily good that he consumed three bottles and said:
Das ist ein Schluk, potzt Element,
Wie der in Kehl’ und Magen brennt !
Herr Wirt, Ich Sag’s auf meine Ehr,
Ich fand noch keinen Wien so Schwehr !
Then he fell asleep in a corner. When he woke up he left as fast as his legs could carry him forgetting the club he always had at his side. He so feared the strength of the Rangen wine that he never returned to collect it. Since then this club features prominently in the arms of Colmar.
Als sich die Weld begann zu dreh’n,
Im Eck er liess die Keule steh’n,
Hat Sie auch nicht geholt bis Heut,
Weil er den ‘Thanner Rangen’ scheut.
Literature, odes, songs, poems on the subject of the Rangen wine abound. The splendour and strength of this sublime wine is celebrated by numerous authors including Barth who gives us a magnificent recapitulation in his book “Der Rebbau im Elsass”:
“No other appellation has ever been at the origin of such beautiful verses”
By the sixteenth century white wines were dominant in the Rangen, even though red grape varieties were still cultivated. We also start to see the presence of grape varieties like Muscat and Traminer .
The decrees of 1548 and 1581 also prohibit the planting of non-noble varieties such as “Rheinelbe”. Anyone, from Thann or elsewhere, who violated this law, was punished and their vines immediately uprooted. (Articles published in the Bulletin of the Historical Society Belfortaine).
It was also forbidden to mix the wine from Rangen with other wines when Rangen was mentioned on the label. Through these regulations, albeit very severe for the time, it was sought to accentuate and respect of the identity Rangen.
In 1646, after the revival of the vineyard of Thann following the Thirty Year War, the magistrate of Thann appointed four “Bangards” (guardians) to watch over the vines and crops.
In 1993, the winegrowers of Rangen adopted a chart which defined certain rules and regulations pertaining to production in Rangen:
- Adopting sexual confusion across the entire Cru and prohibiting the use of insecticides
- Minimum planting density of 6000 vines/hectare
- A ban on any enrichment technique
- Minimum potential alcohol of 11.5° (increased subsequently to 12°) for Riesling and Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris at 13.5° (which was later increased to 14°)
- Maximum yield of 50 hl/ ha without PLC
- At a local level, the winegrowers decided to add the following points to the charter in 2010
- In order to respect the natural balance of the grapes, an interdiction against acidification or de-acidification.
- Minimum vine age of 5 years before vines are used for the production of a wine from Rangen
The Rangen was classified as a Grand Cru in 1983 and awarded appellation status “Appellation Rangen Grand Cru” in 2011. In 2012 the maximum yield allowed in the Rangen Grand Cru was reduced to 50hl/ha.
The soil structure of this famous locality is a very particular one and absolutely unique in Alsace. Dating from the Carboniferous era (Dévono-dinantien), it is made up of volcanic rocks and sedimentary sandstones with a varying abundance of volcanic elements. It is strewn with stones eroded from hard rocks: grauwackes, volcanic tufa, and a rock flow of brown micaceous andesite. This layer has a thickness of around 40 to 60 cm above the fissured bedrock rock, which allows the vine roots to penetrate to a greater depth and favours a better natural drainage.
This type of terrain and the soil depth characterize a poor environment, low in clay content (15%) and therefore favourable to quality. The dark colour of the soil, a shade of reddish-brown, lends itself to higher soil temperatures.
The full south-facing aspect of the vineyard increases the amount of direct daylight giving the vines a privileged position on the steep Rangen hillside (90% on average), which has dictated the choice of terraced planting. The proximity of the Vosges Mountains, higher rainfall (750mm) and higher altitude of this vineyard relevant to other vineyards in Alsace (350m to 450m above sea level) are important factors which contribute to the late ripening character of this terroir.
In contrast the south facing slopes and exceptional exposition allows the grapes to mature slowly in October and November thus making it possible to achieve very high levels of concentration.
The Grand Cru Rangen de Thann is the most southern vineyard in Alsace, situated at the end of the Route du Vin, quite isolated from the rest of the Alsatian vineyards. The Grand Cru is bordered
The late ripening character of the Rangen results in the potential of achieving great physiological ripeness, which is very important when working with a grape variety like Riesling. Despite a solar topography (steep south facing slopes and warm soils) the ripening process is slow and the harvest late, the harvest date quite often being 2 to 3 weeks after the start of harvest.
The acidic, well-draining, warm soils of the Rangen are very favourable for Riesling, yet more surprisingly are also well suited to the predominantly limestone grown Pinot Gris. The fact that the Rangen naturally yields very small crops, without any manual intervention (green harvesting), adds to the success of Pinot Gris on these slopes.
The poor soils (low in organic matter and topsoil) necessitate high planting density, with the average planting density at 10 000 vines/ha for Domaine Zind Humbrecht at Rangen Thann.
The volcanic soil imprints a specific aromatic character and unique personality to the wines grown on this soil. Flint and smoke are the two descriptors most often associated with the wines from this terroir, highlighting the minerality of the Riesling and the earthiness of Pinot Gris.
The Gewurztraminer Rangen is rare, not only due to the small proportion of vineyard surface, but the cool winds that exit the valley hamper the flowering (coulure) and result in very small crops. Despite these challenging conditions, the Gewurztraminer from Rangen is capable of great expression of the volcanic terroir.
Working in the Rangen
In the Rangen the vines are planted at high densities along the very steep slopes. The vines are trained low, close to the soil to benefit from the warmth of the soil and rock. This warmth is needed by the late ripening terroir to perfectly ripen the grapes at the end of the growing season.
The Rangen is a challenging terroir to work and to maintain. The steep slopes necessitate many small terraces created with dry stone walls, requiring regular repair and maintenance. The impact of erosion and heavy rainfalls can also be significant on this terroir.
The high altitude and cooler climate makes the Rangen more susceptible to the development of powdery mildew, a formidable challenge in certain vintages. Downy mildew is less significant and is kept at bay by the cool winds which exit the valley and the cooler climate linked to the high altitude. As it is not possible to pass with tractors in these vineyards all treatments are carried out manually. Botrytis is not a problem in this vineyard and the late development in certain vintages is sought after to obtain the maturity required for Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles wines.
The working of the soil, an important element for biodynamic viticulture as all herbicides are banned, is done manually with the help of a winch system. In order to prevent competition from other plants and grass on what is already not a very fertile soil; the vineyards are ploughed at least twice per year.
Vines grown in the Grand Cru Rangen deliver very low yields. Despite a high planting density the average yields are less than 30 hl/ha, often between 15 and 25 hl /ha (in vintages 2012, 2010). The low yields being linked directly to the challenging growing conditions and soils led to the decision by the collective of producers of the Rangen to accept maximum yields of 50 hl/ha for Grand Cru wines in 1993.
The Wines of Rangen
The wines of Rangen are distinguished by the late ripening character of this terroir; the strong minerality evoked by the volcanic soils and the potential of these soils to accumulate sunlight. The wines of Rangen have great depth and complexity which assert its personality.
Despite a high planting density the yields are low, often averaging between 25 and 35 hl/ha for the dry wines and much lower for sweet and noble rot wines. This factor contributes greatly to the power and intensity associated with the wines from Rangen.
The south facing exposition brings a strong presence of sunlight energy and warmth to the vines aiding in effective foliar and root activity. The vines are thus able to reach high levels of physiological maturity, translating into a very saline and mineral expression in the wines.
The volcanic composition and structure of the soil and subsoil allow the roots of the vines to descend deeply, bringing depth and intensity to the flavour profile. This intensity is translated into a few distinguishing aromas: flint, smoke, peat, iodine and a presence of vibrant acidity. The strong character of the wines of Rangen makes them quite easy to identify in tastings.
The topography of the slope of Rangen, the proximity to the Thur River and the late ripening character of the terroir coincide in certain vintages for the development of noble rot, producing exceptional examples of sweet wines often quite rich in colour.
Rangen de Thann is one of the rare terroirs capable of a defined expression of terroir through all the grape varieties. This is not to say that all the varieties taste the same, but rather that each variety shows a different side or character of the Rangen. Blending of the different varieties is at the moment only practiced on an experimental level and is not permitted for the Grand Cru wines.
The Riesling is harvested primarily from healthy grapes and produces dry and mineral wines. The earlier ripening Pinot Gris accumulates sugars and often is harvested with a percentage of noble rot, producing richer wines. The latest ripening grape variety on the Rangen is the Gewurztraminer which also develops botrytis and an important tannic structure.
All the wines from Rangen are concentrated, have length and depth and possess a great ageing potential. Rangens signature is a harmony of structure, acid and salinity. For the noble rot and late harvest wines the dry extract and acidity balance the residual sugars, yet the salinity and mineral complexity from the terroir are ever present.
The town of Thann has always held a cult and a particularly profound devotion to this saint. At the end of the 15th century a chapel in honour of Saint Urbain was built in the heart of the Rangen vineyard. Every year a procession made its way up to it on Saint Urbain’s feast day, the main participants being wine growers and innkeepers together with other members of the faithful. Along the route the Litany of Saints was sung but also with a special litany to Saint Urbain, known nowhere else but at Thann:
“Saint Urbain, work companion and helper to all the priests of the Lord’s vineyard,
Pray for us!
Saint Urbain, guardian and protector of all the vineyards and orchards,
Pray for us!
Saint Urbain, Patron saint of wine growers and innkeepers,
Pray for us!
From drink and drunkenness,
Deliver us, Lord!
From the devastation of tempest and frost,
Deliver us, Lord!”
This chapel was restored in 1774. During the French revolution it was completely destroyed by the populace. Since 1934, a new chapel dedicated to Saint Urbain protects anew this marvellous hillside.
The Clos Saint Urbain vineyard encompasses the chapel of Saint Urbain and is divided in two by the “Montaigne” pathway. The vineyard covers 5.5ha with the grape varieties present in the following proportions: Pinot Gris 2.7ha, Riesling 2.3ha and Gewurztraminer 0.5ha.
The river Thur is found running at the foot of the Clos and then changes direction at the end of this fault line.
The different parts of this vineyard tend to give different expressions to the grapes grown there. Parcels of both the Riesling and Pinot Gris can be found spread across the different sectors of the Clos Saint Urbain vineyard. The top sector, higher in altitude, is later ripening and cooler. The soils have a greater percentage of rocks, less topsoil and tend to be more acidic (the natural drainage of the steep slope results in a soil pH between 5.5 at the top of the slope and 7 at the bottom). The lower slope produces richer, robust and more powerful wines. The differences in micro-climate between the top and bottom part of this single vineyard each bring their unique expression to the blend that becomes the wine from the Clos Saint Urbain.
The reason why Gewurztraminer only represents 0.5ha of the Saint Urbain vineyard surface is due to the sensitivity of this grape variety to altitude. The two small parcels of Gewurztraminer planted are located at the bottom of the slope close to the Thur River. It is here where we find high proportions of clay in the soil and warming effect of the reflection of the sunrays off the river.