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Biodynamic Alsace, part2

This is part two of an in-depth feature on Biodynamic and organic wine producers in Alsace. There is a link to part one at the bottom of this page.

Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss

I was met in this beautiful old cellar in the middle of the village of Andlau by Marc's son, Antoine Kreydenweiss, who has completed his winemaking studies in Burgundy to join the family team. The estate has been biodynamic for 17 years, making it one of the earliest adopters. For the custodian of a family estate that was establish 350 years ago, Marc Kreydenweiss's radical move to biodynamics is echoed in other areas that suggest an ambitious and restless approach: in 1999 Kreydenweiss took over an estate in Costièrs de Nîmes in the southern Rône Valley which is now also certified as biodynamic. Biodynamics appears to be a deeply held philosophy, rather than a commercial convenience for Kreydenweiss, who farm 12 hectares, including three Grand Cru sites. Around 80 per cent of the annual 70,000-bottle production is exported. The USA is their top market.

In the cellar things are very traditional in this house, with the hand harvested grapes being crushed in modern bladder presses, but then fermented with natural yeasts in large foudres made from local Vosges oak. Antoine says his father experimented with barriques in the 1990s, but soon concluded it did not suit his wines, so they stick with the Foudres. They are also sticking with cork for now, but paying more and insisting on strict testing and certification from suppliers after a bad cork experience for their 2000 vintage.

As well as a very natural approach to vineyards and cellars, Kreydenweiss is an arch believer in terroir, and Antoine talks with an inherited passion about the five different soil types found within the domaine's vineyard sites, from the schist and granite of their Kastelberg Grand Cru, to the pink sandstone of the Wiebelsberg Grand Cru - the two sites separated only by the road that runs through the vineyards.

for tasting notes on nine wines from Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss

Domaine Remy Gresser

Remy is a gentle giant of a man who farms his eleven hectares biodynamically. He is currently in the process of certification, but is one of many here who is also a pragmatist: "it's pretty straightforward for me. I cannot always harvest on the fruit days (as opposed to the days for roots, leaves and flowers) because I don't have the manpower or machinery to do so, and I can't stop my next door neighbour who sprays his chemical treatments by helicopter - some of that must carry to my vines." As if to illustrate this point, made as we were bumping through the vineyards in his Land Rover, we pass through his neighbour's vineyard, where a worker in protective overalls and face-mask is spraying from a back-pack pump, the canister's bearing the word 'TOXIC' in bold, black letters.

Remy is also worried that Demeter, the international biodynamic organisation, is making a new rule on use of sulphur, that states the total sulphites allowed in a wine will be 150mg per litre, whereas now the legal limit is 400.

Remy thinks this is impossible for his Botrytis wines: "at 150mg my SdGNs will re-ferment in a container going across to the USA and they will be rejected. 150mg is simply not enough to guarantee this won't happen."

for tasting notes on 16 wines from Domaine Remy Gresser

Domaine Ostertag

André Ostertag is one of the superstar producers in Alsace, who is as radical as his wines are excellent. His 14 hectares are all farmed biodynamically, and include over 120 different vineyard parcels covering five villages, from which he produces 17 different wines. Since 1984 André has rejected official classification and instead created his own: Vin de fruits (wines that he thinks do not express a specific terroir in green bottles); Vin des Pierres ('stone' wines in brown bottles - terroir specific wines); Vin de Temps (sweet wines in clear bottles, 'Temps' indicating both time spent on vine and the right weather conditions).

This is a young estate, started by Andrés's father in 1966. I arrived at the winery just as the heavens opened, so we retired to the tasting room without seeing the vineyards.

That was a pity, as André has a mesmerising enthusiasm for terroir, and says that for him, apart from the "The German green party conscience", the biggest influence on his decision to farm organically, then biodynamically (since 1997) was when a large nuclear power station was built in southern Alsace. "Bio/organic is not a marketing ploy it is felt much more deeply than that - especially by my generation. The question is, 'can we save the world by this act?'"

For all that he too is pragmatic, André also grasps the more esoteric aspects of biodynamism: "My main influence is the moon phases - the moon is the dictator of water, so I work with tidal charts: at low tides I might rack, at high tides it is good for fermentation and everything is very active in the winery." He believes that biodynamism is as much about faith as science: "Some Biodynamic principles are not explainable, but that does not necessarily mean there is no explanation: sometimes we just don't know what the explanation is: I cannot explain why preparation 501 makes plants climb to the sky, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work: you can see the impact when you use it. 500 makes a plant much more able to cope with drought - I don't know why, but I've seen it happen with my own eyes."

The radical approach extends to the cellar. André was one of the first in Alsace to barrique ferment and age, and almost all wines are made in barrique, even though oak influence is very moderate - partly due to using only Vosges oak - which has small cells, and a dense structure - and very lightly toast. "The power and quality of the fruit means oak does not dominate."

for tasting notes on eight wines from Domaine Ostertag


Genevieve Barmes kept me entertained whilst husband Francois made his way back from the vineyards on his tractor. The 16 hectares of Barmes-Buecher spreads over 70 parcels, and was founded in 1985. It has been fully biodynamic only since 1998, and they never inoculate with yeasts, don't fine and don't filter. As Francois says: "I do nothing in the cellar: I'm always outside in the vineyards."

They started a gradual process of conversion to organic and biodynamic in 1985, but say it took a while to build up the confidence to go fully biodynamic, especially with their neighbours saying "but your vines are dying!" when they saw the characteristically 'unhealthy' appearance of biodynamic vines against the pumped-up beauty pageant perfection of the average chemically treated vineyard.

The couple say their principal motivation for the switch to biodynamics was Francois's years of working with chemicals in vineyards: "I just realised that if they were dangerous to humans, then how could they be good for the vines and the wines?" Francois says he also remembers having problems with stuck fermentations, and having to add lots of sulphur to clean up wines. He realised there must be a problem with the raw materials in the vineyard. Today he uses one-third the sulphur that he used to.

Again, there is more thoughtful tinkering with biodynamics here rather than blind acceptance: Francois racks wines made from fruitier grapes (like Muscat) on a fruit day of the lunar phases, and his more 'serious' wines like Riesling on a root day, believing that enhances the minerality of the latter.

for tasting notes on 11 wines from Barmes-Buecher

Valentin Zusslin

Brother and sister Jean-Paul and Marie Zusslin extend a truly warm welcome to their small cellar, which has been in their family since 1691 in the village of Orschwihr. Jean-Paul is in charge of winemaking, but with his father Jean-Marie and his 80-year-old grandfather are still very active - indeed both were busy on the sparkling wine disgorgement line at the time of my visit.

Jean-Paul is 13th generation to work this estate, which has been biodynamic since 1997. He says his motivating factor was concern about pollution and climate change, and a desire to stop using chemical. The estate is a members of Nicolas Jolly's group Renaissance de Appellations.

We drove up into the vineyards to see the biodynamic compost pile, a mound of rich, thick, friable and dry material. Jean-Peal picks grapes very late, often with two or three passes though the vineyard. Very long fermentation and ageing on fine lees follows, and there is no acidification or capitalisation, and only natural yeasts and Demeter's charter on sulphur are followed.

for tasting notes on seven wines from Valentin Zusslin

Go to part I.