The explanation for a lack of articles these past couple of weeks will be known to those who follow me on Instagram – I’ve been in France. Over the next week (or more!) I shall be planning to publish five articles from my travels.
This first article, on André and Anne Durrmann of Andlau, is about a grower I’d never come across before, but they are doing interesting things, in the vineyard as much as in the bottle.
I make no apologies for calling the subject of the second article one of the “gods” of Alsace natural wine, though he’ll probably be annoyed by that – the truly talented Jean-Pierre Rietsch in neighbouring Mittelbergheim makes what are now my favourite Alsace wines. For me, they are towers of natural winemaking, not only for their quality and finesse, but for their innovation as well. An extensive tasting is a privilege here.
Then I shall be introducing Fritz Becker, at Schweigen in the Southern Pfalz, my favourite producer of Spätburgunder (yet totally absent from the recent Decanter Magazine article on the grape variety). What has he to do with Eastern France? You’ll have to read it to find out. It’s a fascinating story.
The fourth article will introduce Emilie and Alexis Porteret, of Domaine des Bodines in Arbois. They have entered my favourite half-dozen Jura producers over the past couple of years, and after our visit last week Emilie now also counts as one of the very nicest people making wine in the region as well.
I’ll round off the domain visits with my favourite of all Champagne producers, Bérêche, up on the ridge of the Montagne de Reims, at Craon de Ludes. It was nice to catch up with Raphael’s mum again whilst he and Vincent were presenting their wines in the luxury of London’s Savoy Hotel. I managed to plead for a few bottles and still spent less than the cost of a ticket to that rather wonderful event, and out in the vines I also got a good sight of the problems caused by frost on the mountain in 2017.
Looking further ahead, I’m off to dine at Brunswick House this evening, my first visit there for nearly a year, so I shall be letting you know about how that went. I’ll be reviewing what, at least for me, is the autumn’s major wine book release, and then, in time for Christmas we have the long awaited, inaugural, Wide World of Wine Awards (WWWA’s)! Oh yes, a rival to the DWWA and IWC if ever I saw one. I’ve a few more things up my sleeve to slip in before Christmas, so keep on reading.
DOMAINE ANNA & ANDRÉ DURRMANN (ANDLAU, ALSACE)
For most of the time I have enjoyed Alsace wines the received wisdom has always been that the best wines come from the Haut Rhin, effectively the southern part of the region, from the villages around Colmar and beyond. This is where all the so-called big names are based, like Hugel, Trimbach and so on. It is also where most of the tourists go, to the geranium-bedecked villages of Riquewihr or Ribeauvillé. But as Alsace has changed, so the epicenter of excitement has shifted, and whilst there are many wonderful producers in that heartland, including many new names, the Bas Rhin, the region’s northern sector, has come much more into focus.
My first ever trip to Alsace was not far short of thirty years ago. I knew little about the region save for photos of attractive half-timbered, gaily painted, houses in wine books of the time (I well remember a few years later consuming Tom Stevenson’s excellent tome published by Faber, before he became known solely as a Champagne guru, which increased that knowledge substantially).
By total coincidence on that trip I stayed in Itterswiller, just south of Andlau and Mittelbergheim, two villages where some of the best natural winemakers in Alsace are now based. Four Alsace trips later and I was finally back in Andlau for six nights, and it was during a stroll on arrival there that I spotted some Durrmann bottles in a window near the Mairie, and the next day took a short walk to see him. He’s not well known in the UK, so this was new ground.
André Durrmann inherited the family vines from his father in 1979, but after conversion to organic viticulture, he only began experimenting with some zero sulphur cuvées in 2008, alongside his interest in permaculture and l’agroforesterie. They have Agriculture Biologique certification now.
André Durrmann with “Zegwur” (right)
Before the tasting notes I want to tell you about our trip out into the vineyards. You soon discover that the Durrmanns walk the walk when you are introduced to their two electric cars. One is a small family car which André says can make Paris in eight hours with charging stops, the other is the vineyard car, a rather quirky “Mia” with the driver’s seat forward and room for three (at a pinch) on the back seat.
We headed off to a south facing vineyard in a valley close to the winery, where there is some Pinot Blanc, but mainly Pinot Noir, planted on limestone. André explained that he’d found this vineyard to be one where the vines both budded and fruited early, making them prone to frosts, so he’s undertaken quite a lot of vineyard modifications in order (he says successfully) to slow down growth.
First of all, he’s used a lyre training system, unusual in Alsace, which raises the vines from the ground. This means they access more sunlight, there is more old wood to protect the vine, and of course they are that little bit higher from the ground frost. Innovation number two is to leave the ground unploughed, with weeds between the vines (spaced wide at a little over three metres to reduce soil compaction) until after harvest, at which time he brings in his herd of sheep. They eat the vine leaves and mow between the rows, preparing the vineyard for the next season.
When Claude Bourguignon came to look at the vineyards they discovered the vine roots had reached a depth of more than 1.5 metres, and André said he believes this vindicates his decision not to plough. The roots get competition from the weeds and so are forced to burrow deeper, and hence, on the limestone, they find moisture and nutrients, whilst up top the untilled weeds harbour a wide variety of insect life.
Even more radical, but not unique, is the planting of trees in the vineyard. The twofold intention is both to offer some shade to the vines, and to make it less of a monoculture. A wide variety of trees are planted, including almond, cherry and oak, which will be allowed to grow to around eight to ten metres tall. There are already birds nesting in some.
Here you can see the raised Lyre training and some of the trees, newly planted and maturing
I asked André whether there had been any problems with neighbours, because I’m aware of a couple of vineyards in Southern France and Northern Italy where similar ideas have met with a frosty reception and vandalism. He said not. This valley is not in the centre of Andlau viticulture, the trees are not near the boundary, and he said that as a former president of the Andlau vignerons, he’d sorted a few things out so he felt he was generally liked in the village (a son is the current head of the Andlau winegrowers).
I also asked André about predators on the sheep. There are lynx in the forest, but the vineyard is fenced and he says they are not really a problem (the fencing also keeps the sangliers out when the grapes are ripe). Occasionally a local dog bothers them, but that is rare too. The Durrmanns are vegetarians, so the sheep don’t have humans to fear either.
André makes a large range of wines from his seven hectares, approaching thirty wines plus eaux de vie, which is not remotely unusual in the region. To some he adds sulphur, but we concentrated on the sulphur free bottlings.
Sylvaner 2016 – the Sylvaner variety shows increasing promise in the region as a whole, the result of it being taken more seriously in the vineyard, no longer a cash cow and best suited for the Edelzwicker blends which used to occupy the lowest rung on the Alsace ladder. Indeed, all of the good natural wine producers in the region do something interesting with Sylvaner. André keeps his fresh and lively, simple, and with a good lick of acidity.
Pinot Blanc Cuvée Nature 2016 keeps that freshness with somewhat less acidity, more suppleness, and indeed more subtlety, but it’s still a lively wine which I would see as a thirst quenching vin de soif . Antoine Kreydenweiss, of Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss, my top winemaker in the village, does something more serious with the variety, but the Durrmann wine has the advantage of being inexpensive. A little over €6. The advantage of visiting a relative unknown on the international stage is price!
You have to pay double that for the Gewurztraminer “Zegwur” 2016, another unsulphured wine which is floral and spicy. It only weighs in at 12.5% abv, which tells you that this is “new old school” Gewurz, not one of the blockbusters which have somewhat taken the edge off the variety for me in past decades. André describes it as demi-sec, but in Alsace terms it’s more dry than sweet, for sure. It’s also unfiltered, and the bottle I brought home is very cloudy. Standing it up for 48 hours will sort that, as will a handy carafe, but the ever so slightly cloudy glass I sampled at the domaine had a nice lees texture to it. Well worth €12.30.
Visitors to French domaines will have found meagre pickings at most again this year, short harvests from hail and frost leaving the poor vignerons with little to sell. In Alsace it seems the problem is worst with the red grapes, and few producers have Pinot Noir left from 2016 to sell. The Pinot Noir Cuvée Nature 2016 here has nice lively fruit with a little spice, hailing from the limestone vineyard we visited. At €11 you can’t really go wrong. Its moderate 11.5% alcohol suggests its lightness. Serve lightly chilled, as indeed one should with most (but not all) Alsace reds.
There are several single site wines here, mainly Gewurztraminer and Riesling, and André and Anna also have Riesling in the Grand Crus of Kastelberg, Wiebelsberg and Moenchberg, and as well as current vintages they offer bottles back even as far as 2006. Grand Cru pricing is more in the range of €23 to €25 (magnums around double when available), but that’s still cheap compared to the producers who make their way to London and New York etc. The Vendanges Tardives are no more expensive, but remember, if you want no sulphur you need to choose from the Cuvées Natures. One should also not forget the Crémant d’Alsace, bottle fermented sparkling wine for less than €10!
This is another producer working, at least for the most part, naturally (the only vineyard treatments used are copper and sulphur, but at levels much much lower than organic certification allows). The wines are nice (and inexpensive), the labels are nice, and André is a really nice, sympathetic, guy. The foil capsules covering the cork are “old school” and might benefit from an upgrade, but this address is well worth a visit when passing. You’ll find the attractively cramped premises, dating from the 1700s, at 11 rue des Forgerons, Andlau (tel (0)3.88.08.26.42). For €3 general visitors can arrange a two hour vineyard walk followed by a tasting. I can’t promise you’ll get a ride in the “Mia”.
The Durrmann premises and André’s quirky Mia electric car, not entirely designed for the rough tracks in the vines, but it made it
As an aside, Andlau is perhaps a perfect place to stay if you are up in the Bas Rhin. It is, if anything, less touristy even than Mittelbergheim, which boasts fewer facilities. Andlau has a great boulangerie, a butcher, post office, pharmacy and small supermarket, along with a handful of restaurants, not to mention a very interesting museum. You also have some wonderful walking literally on your doorstep. Climb up above the Kastelberg Grand Cru and into the forest (beautiful on a sunny autumnal day) and if you are happy to walk you can reach at least two ruined hilltop castles on well signed trails. The bird life was amazing. One morning, on a misty start, we disturbed a couple of deer in the vines, and we saw woodpeckers, jays and a plethora of raptors as we climbed.
Andlau views, with the towering Kastelberg Grand Cru which rises above the village, facing south (top), and the ruined castle of Spesbourg (constructed between 1246-1250) in the hazy distance (third row, right) which is, along with the even more impressive Château d’Andlau, walkable in around an hour-and-a-half one way (with about a thirty minute walk between them) through glorious forest. Allow around four hours for a round trip to both with a picnic. A longer route back can be taken via Mittelbergheim, also a very nice round trip in itself.