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Biodynamic Alsace, part I

Text and photographs © 2006, Tom Cannavan

This in-depth feature on biodynamic and organic wine producers in Alsace features profiles of ten top domains. It is presented in two parts. This is part one, and there is a link to part two at the bottom of this page. Spend an hour talking to one of the several biodynamic wine growers in Alsace, and your head will hurt. It's not that you will have been beaten about the temples with a dung-filled cow horn; it's just that so much information will pour forth from these hyper-passionate individuals that you will be reeling from the deluge of facts, figures and thought-provoking comment.

Biodynamics is an agricultural system first developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner at the start of the 20th century. It is based on organic farming, but goes beyond the obvious avoidance of chemicals and synthetic treatments, to a much more holistic and philosophical regard for the land. Some of its tenets cannot easily be explained, including farming by a calendar that respects the earth's magnetic fields and the rhythms of the sun, moon, planets and stars, and working with preparations that seem almost mediaeval: infusions or herbs and minerals, some, indeed, packed inside cow horns and buried underground.

In seeking an answer to the question "What exactly is biodynamic agriculture?" the publication Stella Natura suggests the following: "let us pose the further question: Can the Earth heal itself, or has the waning of the Earth's vitality gone too far for this? No matter where our land is located, if we are observant we will see sure signs of illness in trees, in our cultivated plants, in the water, even in the weather. Organic agriculture rightly wants to halt the devastation caused by humans; however, organic agriculture has no cure for the ailing Earth.

"From this the following question arises: What was the original source of vitality, and is it available now? Biodynamics is a science of life-forces, a recognition of the basic principles at work in nature, and an approach to agriculture which takes these principles into account to bring about balance and healing. In a very real way, then, Biodynamics is an ongoing path of knowledge rather than an assemblage of methods and techniques."

Having understood many of the principles of biodynamism, but having been utterly lost by others, I approached this trip to Alsace with an open and willing mind. Alsace has a proportionately huge number of bio producers, and I was told by more than one that this is largley due to the ages of the producers (all children of the 60s and 70s) and the fact that they were so influenced by the Green movement just across the border in Germany. The success of the biodynamic producers since, has persuaded more reluctant farmers to believe in the benefits of the system.

I was hoping that all would be clearer by the end of my visit. Was it? Well, yes is the answer, even though I quickly realised there is no quick, easy, off-pat route to understanding all of biodynamism's beliefs and practices. I asked André Ostertag if Biodynamics was more religion than science, and he shrugged his shoulders: "yes it is, to the extent that many of actions and outcomes of working biodynamically cannot be fully explained: you have to just accept and believe. But then there are many aspects of science that we accept and believe, but cannot fully understand or explain."

   But despite the lack of explanation for some of the more esoteric aspects of biodynamics, I did come away from this trip with a much better understanding, and a much more fundamental belief in the system. This came about through the fascinating conversations that I had with the winemakers, from seeing the vineyards, the compost heaps, the preparations and detail of the system, and more than anything, from witnessing the respect and sensitivity that all of these producers so obviously had for the vines and their land. (Left: pretty as a picture, an Alsace village).

Some specific thoughts will come up in the profiles that follow, but in these few days I saw overwhelming evidence that biodynamic farming is a 'force for good'. The duty of care that each grower so obviously feels for the land, and the most sensitive relationship they have with their plants, is remarkable to see. If biodynamism is about anything it seems to me, it is about observation, gentleness and sensitivity. And with respect to agriculture and nature, that is a powerful force indeed.

For a closer look at some of biodynamism's treatments, please see the quick guide to biodynamic preparations and practices.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht

I met with Olivier Humbrecht twice on my trip: once at the domaine as we tasted some young wines and toured the vineyards, and once in the excellent La Palette restaurant in Wettolsheim where we enjoyed several glorious older bottles.

Olivier is one of the most erudite proponents of biodynamism. His approach is pragmatic, and his excellent English allowed him to explain his reasoning very convincingly. Olivier regards the refusal to use chemicals in his vineyards as a necessity: "It is a real problem. Look at Colmar (the nearby large town of southern Alsace) they had to dig only 30 metres to find drinkable water before the war, now the wells are sunk 250 metres - all because of nitrate pollution from fertilisers."

Other practices are very much at odds with contemporary thinking on quality grapevine cultivation. A lot of stress is placed on controlling vineyard yields, and the most common 'recipe' used by the vast majority of winemakers is to 'green harvest': to go through the vineyards cutting off some of the growing bunches of grapes so that the vigour of the vine is concentrated on those that remain. To Olivier this is madness: "Sure it works in the short term, but the vine has a memory, and the fruit you cut this year has an impact on the growth next year. You are locked into a cycle where the vine remembers the fruit it lost, so re-doubles its efforts to grow more for the next season."

Instead, as with so many aspects of his viticulture, Olivier observes his vines, watching the pattern of growth and bud break, pruning the wood and training the vines so that yields fall naturally into place as vines age. In other words, he tries to work in harmony with the plants rather than any more brutal forcing of nature's hand. This philosophy extends to the cellars, where the vineyard dictates the style of each Zind-Humbrecht cuvée, and variations in style between vintages can be marked. Many Zind-Humbrecht wines have high alcohols - 16% is not uncommon - but Olivier insists not only that this is the natural expressions of his vineyards, where fermentation uses ambient yeasts, but that his concern is the overall balance of the wines, not purely the alcohol, sugar and acid numbers.

for tasting notes on eight wines from Zind Humbrecht

Domaine Josmeyer

Managing Director Christophe Ehrhart showed me around the busy facilities of Josmeyer in the village of Wintzenheim. Josmeyer is a fairly large producer, with 25 hectares of estate vineyards, supplemented with grapes from a group of neighbouring farms, all certified as organic growers. Like others on this trip, Josmeyer's wines are certified by the French Biodyvin organisation, though others have allegiance to the Demeter international body.

Josmeyer has holdings in the Grands Crus Hengst and Brand, amongst no less than 42 different parcels of nine different grape varieties, giving Josmeyer a broad palette of terroirs. The Josmeyer style contrast hugely with Zind-Humbrecht, the wines being dry and relatively lean in style, made to be drunk with food (owner Jean Meyer is a renowned gourmet) where they really blossom.

Josmeyer's commitment to sustainability and the health of the land seems paramount in their approach to viticulture.

Christophe talks of absorbing the "forces of life" that were "mobilised" in the production of the wine, and owner Jean Meyer (Christophe's father-in-law, and busily scurrying between winery and bottling plant on my visit) is on record as saying: "I have been eating biodynamic vegetables for years. They are not always the prettiest, but they always have the most flavour. This is what I want from my grapes: I used to make my wines in the cellar. Now I make them in the vineyard."

Pol Roger brings Josmeyer's wines into the UK.

for tasting notes on four wines from Josmeyer

Domaine Jean Becker

The Becker family have been winegrowers in the village of Zellenberg since 1610. Today's generation of Beckers includes my host, Martine Becker, who showed me around their ancient cellars.

In 1999 Martine's brothers Jean Philippe and Jean François Becker (winemaker and viticulturist respectively) converted the 14-hectare estate to organic farming, and later adopted biodynamic principles, though they are not yet certified. This is a common theme in Alsace, where 'biodynamic fever' has gripped the entire winemaking scene: amongst the non-certified estates, organic farming and adopting pick 'n' mix components of biodynamic practices is almost universal.

Though undoubtedly there must be some who are leaping on a bandwagon, many, like Jean Becker, are simply using their intelligence and generations of knowledge of their vineyards to adapt biodynamism so that it works for them. Some vineyard sites have specific conditions that mean relying only on biodynamic treatments is impossible, so biodynamic farming is supplemented with other organic regimes. This disqualifies them from biodynamic certification, but does not mean that the winemaker is any less committed to the principles and fundamental beliefs of biodynamism.

Becker's wines include many from their extensive Grand Cru holdings, and can be obtained from Mayor Sworder, The Big Red Wine Company and Churchill Vintners amongst others.

for tasting notes on 11 wines from Domaine Jean Becker

Cave de Ribeauville

I am always keen to see a major cooperative cellar in any wine region I visit. Often the amount of investment and progressive thinking in evidence gives a clue to the general zeitgeist of the region. Here, in the immaculate, airy winery and visitor centre the dapper and alert M.D. Philippe Dry met me, and the omens looked good.

Philippe and winemaker Evelyne Dondelinger-Bleger showed me around the pristine cellars, with plenty of shining stainless steel, bladder presses and a bottling line pumping out screwcapped Riesling at a brisk pace. Around half of production is in screwcaps, cork being reserved only for their most traditional markets. The co-op is not biodynamic, but one of its 40 members is an organic farmer, and a major contributor, supplying around 10% of total production, for the organic 'Terroir' range of wines within the portfolio.

This was an extremely impressive line-up of cooperative wines, showing pristine flavours and a very intelligent hand on the tiller of style and refinement. The large range covers sparkling, rosé, white, pink, red and sweet wines, but there is lovely consistency across the range. This model co-op has a lovely exhibition space too, where art shows change regularly, making it a 'must visit' if in the region.

for tasting notes on 17 wines from Cave de Ribeauville

Domaine Albert Mann

I had dinner with the shy but sharp-witted winemaker and owner of Domaine Albert Mann, Maurice Barthelmé in the excellent Michelin one-star 'JY's' restaurant in Colmar's 'Little Venice' district of canal's and quaint narrow streets.

Maurice and his brother Jacky farm 19 hectares spread across eight communes, all of them certified organic, though not Biodynamic. But the brothers follow the biodynamist's holistic approach, and Maurice stresses that the health of the earth and the plants is at the core of their philosophy. Their 'mission statement' includes the advice that "Our philosophy is to make a wine nourished by the elements of the soil and not by fertilisers. Our estate wants to produce a wine in harmony with nature. The wine is the memory of the grape."

That last sentence seems to lie at the core of belief for the most committed of both organic and biodynamic producers; that only by treating the grape with utmost care and respect can a great wine result from it.

for tasting notes on two wines from Domaine Albert Mann

Go to part II - five more producers profiled.