Biodynamic Alsace: JosMeyer et Fils, Wintzenheim, FrancePosted by Paul Howard on May 26, 2009 in Reviews
JosMeyer is easily found in Wintzenheim, it’s on the main street and approached via a lovely cobbled courtyard that features all the usual hallmarks of Alsace. There are half-timbered buildings featuring ancient oak beams, window boxes full of Pelargonium and red Roses climbing around doorways. Birdsong surrounds us and Bees buzz. Looking up, the sky is a deep azure and without a cloud. The elaborate ironwork sign featuring grapes and vignerons marks the entrance.
Wintzenheim is a small village in the heart of Alsace, just west of Colmar. Nestling in the foothills of the Vosges, the rain shadow created by these mountains means this area is one of the sunniest and driest places in France. Biodynamic and organic wine growing is therefore both feasible and relatively common. Wintzenheim is sandwiched between two large Grand Cru vineyards; Brand is to the north near the neighbouring village of Turckheim, while Hengst is south towards Wettolsheim. There is a feeling here of being surrounded by a patchwork quilt of fields, soils, slopes and vines.
The JosMeyer estate was founded 1854 by Aloyse Meyer and remains family run. Jean Meyer took over in 1966. Now in his early 60’s he has the appearance of a much younger man. He joined us for the latter part of our visit and two remarks he made struck me. While talking about perfectionist winemaking he said, “I make wine with humility and pleasure” and, “always remember first to please yourself in order to please others”. This sums up his thoughtful and artistic manner.
Christophe Ehrhart joined JosMeyer in 1995. He is now wine grower and Managing Director. If you are sceptical about biodynamics then Christophe’s highly articulate explanations will soon convince. Both men are sure that BD methods are responsible for the significant and consistent quality improvements at this estate during the last decade and that further improvements are possible.
All JosMeyer wines are deliberately made to accompany food. The house style is to vinify to dryness. They therefore resist the upward spiral of ever-increasing ripeness that is becoming commonplace in Alsace; increased alcohol levels and/or residual sugar are spoiling some Alsace wines. At JosMeyer only minimal levels of residual sugar are left for balance and alcohol levels are deliberately restrained. JosMeyer wines are about soaring aromas, freshness, balance, elegance and subtlety. Given that Alsace wine labelling gives little clue to the final sweetness of the wine then JosMeyer wines are reliably dry.
Christophe adds, “You must look elsewhere for those over-ripe extrovert wines that rely on immediate impact but that rapidly become boring”.
Biodynamic conversion commenced in 1999. The first fully biodynamic vintage was in 2001 and official certification is given by Biodyvin. Because the vineyards were always farmed by close to organic methods then biodynamic conversion here was a matter of evolution rather than revolution. As you would expect there is great attention to detail to ensure sustainability and respect for the environment – even the wooden storage palettes are fashioned from untreated timber.
JosMeyer make enough horn manure (BD 500) to share between ten other estates. They also use BD 501 horn silica, plus BD 508 horsetail and BD 504 nettle. As usual these are applied in very dilute quantities: 100g diluted in 200 litres of water will treat 1 hectare – the idea is to stimulate the life of the soil, not feed the vine. Consequently, copper and sulphur treatments used to combat fungal diseases are reduced – with biodynamics, JosMeyer are able to use less than 50% of the allowable dose.
JosMeyer have 25ha of vineyard in total, all within 3 kilometres of Wintzenheim. This includes just 5 ha of the much divided Brand and Hengst Grand Cru.
Brand has a quality reputation extending back to the middle-ages. A steep south facing cirque at about 340 metres altitude, it’s characterised by free draining and acidic sandy soils derived from granite. Hengst meanwhile can trace its origins at least as far back to the ninth century. It is a large wind sheltered slope rising to 360 metres, with marl soils derived from underlying limestone. Hengst means “Stud Horse” (i.e. Stallion) in the local dialect as it has a reputation for powerful, muscular wines.
The JosMeyer wine range is typically wide given the generous vinous palette of Alsace. Their holdings yield 27% Riesling, 25% Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois, 21% Pinot Gris and 19% Gewurztraminer. In addition to these four grapes they also have small quantities of Muscat (3%), Chasselas and Sylvaner (3%) and Pinot Noir (2%).
Yields are very low compared to the Alsacien average in order to pursue quality over quantity. The maximum yield allowed is 80 hl/ha + derogation but JosMeyer is generally 55-60hl/ha, but even lower for the Grand Cru at only 40-45 hl/ha.
Vine propagation is by cuttings taken from their best vines (sélection massale) rather than clones and vines less than 5-8 years old are excluded from the vintage. The vines are densely planted to encourage deep rooting and extract varietal character, especially necessary for Pinot Gris.
Other practices designed to maximise quality include hand-harvesting and the use a table de tri to reject imperfect grapes. There is no de-stemming, the gentlest pneumatic pressing is used and subsequent fermentation is only with naturally occurring wild yeasts. As you would expect, there’s never any chaptalisation required – the addition of artificial sugar to the grape juice at fermentation is rightly an anathema.
Fermentation takes place in 1,200 litre open oak vats that have been used since 1895. Being so old, the wood is completely inert and imparts no flavour. There are also 6,000 litre ceramic vats and modern temperature controlled stainless steel. Slow, cool fermentations preserve aromas and some Carbon Dioxide is also retained in the wine as an anti-oxidant. This means that JosMeyer need to use even less Sulphur Dioxide preservative.
The secondary (Malolactic) fermentation is usually blocked. A naturally occurring ‘malo’ can be an uncertain event in Alsace and the preservation of fresh malic acid is part of the JosMeyer style and also enables the top wines to develop in bottle over many years.
Jean Mayer also has a willingness to blend if it benefits the final wine. And not just varieties are blended either – the Hengst and Brand Grand Cru Pinot Gris was blended together in 2000 to create ‘H&B’. Heresy! Jean Meyer felt that this created a far better wine in that particular vintage even though by doing so the Grand Cru designation was surrendered.
As is common in Alsace no wood is used in maturation. The wines are given a very fine filtering to leave them bright before bottling in traditional flûtes. Less traditional are the striking labels that reflect Jean Meyer’s love of Modern Art. There is also a pragmatic use of closures; cork is used for those wines designed for ageing in bottle, while screw caps are used to ensure freshness for the wines designed for earlier drinking. The wines are arranged in clear quality/price levels:
• Generic – entry level varietal wines or blends for early drinking. The blends are what Alsaciens once called Edelzwicker before that description became devalued;
• Artists’ Range – classic varietal expression based on aromatic and fruit purity with aging potential;
• Prestige Range – terroir classics that need bottle age, perhaps 5 years;
• Grand Cru – terroir giants that can be delicious in youth but demand at least 10 years to reveal all their subtle nuances and complexity;
• Vins d’Exception – small quantities of sweet late harvest wines – Vendange Tardive (VT) or Sélection des Grains Nobles (SGN) – made if vintage conditions permit.
The wines featured below were tasted at JosMeyer. I was honoured to be tutored by Christophe Ehrhart and latterly Jean Meyer on a warm spring morning.
Naturally the conversation included suggestions for food pairing. This is the land of copious helpings of Pig and Cabbage. Choucroute Garni, sausages, pork and bacon are all delicious with Alsace Riesling, as is goose. Onion tart and risotto is superb with Pinot’s Blanc, Gris and Auxerrois, while Gewurztraminer is brilliant with the local Munster cheese. The usual fish and seafood matches are all possibilities and then there’s oriental cuisine; Alsacien wines combine well with subtle Thai or sushi and sashimi flavours. Specific suggestions are made with each of the tasting notes.
Pinot Blanc, ‘Mise de Printemps’ 2006. 12.5%
Artists’ series. The first wine to be made each year. Sandy soils, actually 20% Pinot Blanc and 80% of the closely related Pinot Auxerrois. Pale, fresh and floral – white blossom. Very dry with good refreshing acidity underpinned by a streak of minerality, no spice development yet. Excellent length and balance. The 2005 has developed a spicier finish and a 2006 cask sample confirmed these impressions. Simple dishes like Asparagus or vegetable dips.
Pinot Blanc ‘Les Lutins’ 2004. 12.5%
Prestige series. From older vines over 35 years old at nearby Herrenweg – much more clay in these soils. Bigger and more intense nose, peachy. Very pure greengage fruit, hint of residual sugar, no more than that. Real palate weight and intensity, broad body and a spice finish. Pinot Blanc is so under rated in my view. White meat and Quiches. Christophe also suggested eggs – I can see this working well with an omelette.
Pinot Auxerrois ‘H’ Vieilles Vignes 2004.13%
Grown since 1959 on the Hengst Grand Cru but can’t officially be a Grand Cru as the Auxerrois grape does not qualify… hence ‘H’ for Hengst! All the terroir of Hengst is here: a pale glinting gold, flecks of green. Marzipan/almonds on the nose. A very powerfully rich palate, bone dry but lifted by refreshing acidity and chalky minerality underpins grapefruit and apple flavours. Watch out white burgundy! Lovely now but try not to touch before 2010 and always decant it. The 2001 shows more development and is now probably at peak: fat in the mouth and a lovely silken texture with apricot and peach.
Riesling ‘Le Kottabe’ 2005. 12%
Artists’ range. Green apple nose, fleeting traces of petrol. Very youthful so little complexity, this wine is more fruit driven with a nice lime and green apple character – but it feels very slim, precise and focused and has excellent length – fine tolerance engineering would be a good analogy. Pebbly minerality. Leave 2/3 years. Sashimi heaven.
Riesling ‘Les Pierrets’ 2004 12.5%
Prestige range; and a big step-up in quality. Older vines, the majority from the north face of Hengst. Very young and tightly wound, 2010 at the earliest, but all the right signs are there; pale lime green, gentle petrol and focus. This is much bigger, broader and more powerful; Christophe Ehrhart described the wine as having “shoulders”. Big flinty minerality on the palate, stone fruit cocktail. Will be splendid; be in no doubt and terrific value. Fish, sushi.
The 2001 had superb honeyed fruit, long length, minerality and rapier acidity, showing the benefit of bottle age.
The 1999 has deepened in colour to a golden hue, is very dry and less complex and probably at peak, nicely balanced with subtle tones and a hint of orange peel amid the petrol and stoniness – very good with home-made crab fishcakes, I assure you.
Riesling Grand Cru Brand 2004. 13%
Ying – the rush of Life. Old vines and sandy soils, an outstanding Grand Cru site. Acidity like a knife, precise and pure fruit, huge length. Tight and austere; an intellectual wine needing bottle age. 2010 earliest for broaching, 2015 probably better.
Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2004. 12%
Yang – the power of Nature. First impression is that this is softer textured, then the acidity hits – a function of the chalky soils of Hengst, JosMeyer’s other outstanding Grand Cru site. Slightly darker colour, power and ‘shoulder’, more open than the Brand, a touch richer and delicious drinking now, lovely stone fruit/apricot flavour. Resist all temptation to drink before 2010 and decant it. Will do well with Lobster or Comte cheese.
The 2000 (12.5%) was a real standout, just starting to benefit from bottle age; a wet stones nose and a whiff of petrol then an explosive palate – rich rewarding and very pure with a melange of spices on the finish.
A 1997 decanted was simply stunning with a fresh Crab, all mineral focus and almost ethereal on the nose. Strong yet delicate – a prima ballerina of a wine.
Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2003. 12.5%
Compare this 2003 to the vintages above. Deeper and more open – that hot vintage makes this atypical – but still there are nice surprises in store. Less acidity, but still enough to carry the wine. Not classic in the way the 2004 or 1997 are. Christophe Ehrhart feels that that their BD vines coped better with heat stress and so still produced grapes that could make balanced wines, in contrast to the large crops of over-ripe flavourless grapes from those that used chemical treatments. There’s brioche or toast on the nose. More open, with stone fruit and herb reminders – thyme and rosemary. Will probably age quicker. Still a delicious experience. Roast Chicken and herbs would be a fine pairing.
Pinot Gris, ‘Le Fromenteau’ 2005. 13%
Artists’ series. A perennial favourite of mine from the JosMeyer range, Fromenteau was the dialect name for Pinot Gris in the middle Ages. A lovely floral nose with hints of nuts, the palate has that soft texture, the fruit overlays some pear, earthy and meaty flavours. Muscular yet fresh, dry and easy to drink now, will improve over the next 2/3 years. Mushrooms, terrines and tofu are all mouth watering food suggestions.
The 2006 has white blossom aromas, broad and muscular, well balanced with earth and subtle spices underpinning pear and quince fruit. Fresh now, leave for a couple of years to develop further. Remarkably consistent every year, so buy and drink with confidence.
Pinot Gris ‘1854 Fondation’ 2000. 14%
Prestige range. Very different from Fromenteau and another step up the quality ladder. Vanilla tinged honey, a rich, rounded grainy texture and much bigger bodied. Yet the alcohol is still in balance. Huge ripe fruit flavours and a slightly sweet gingerbread mid-palate, a hint of residual sugar. Orange peel (a little botrytis?). On the cusp of dry/off-dry. Everything comes together on a long length. A lovely subtle combination of taste and texture. Drinking now. Ideal with Foie Gras or a big powerful cheese like Reblochon.
Pinot Gris Grand Cru Brand 2001. 13%
And this is the quintessence of Pinot Gris from a great vintage. There’s huge power, superb white blossom aromatics and that precision that seems to be the hallmark of the Brand Vineyard. A sumptuous honeyed texture, the most harmonious balance of fruit, acidity, alcohol and a touch of residual sugar. Figs and quince on the nose and palate. A dried fruit character (dried apricot?) on a lingering farewell, with hints of spice. Drinking now but will improve yet, no rush. Joyous and life affirming.
Pinot Gris Grand Cru Hengst 2001. 13%
No actually, this really is the quintessence of Pinot Gris. Honey, vanilla, peach, minerals, quinces. Concentration and intensity, yet finesse and elegance. Densely textured and slightly bolder than the Brand, dried fruits with hint of nut and smoke on the finish. The best Pinot Gris I’ve encountered? Heading toward off-dry. Leave another 5 years – what can that bring?
Pinot Gris Grand Cru Hengst 2002. 14%
A golden yellow with some viscosity, the nose is white flowers and just a hint of botrytis. The honeyed palate, off-dry, is full bodied and powerful, with a mouth filling texture leavened by good levels of acidity. The fruit is quince, quince and then more quince; a streak of minerality runs through before dried apricots appear on the finish. There’s just a hint of smoke. There’s certainly muscularity and vigour, but combined with precision and elegance. And yet it’s not really ready at age five, this wine could do with at least another five years sleep, but so hard to resist now. A roasted vegetable tart made with filo pastry proved to be a fine match.
Gewurztraminer ‘Les Folastries’ 2005. 13.5%
Artists’ series. JosMeyer dry style – very dry. Fabulous rosewater and lychee aroma, good varietal typicity and fresh acidity, full-on fruity palate and the expected spices kick in at the end. Dry forward style and avoids heaviness or excessive oiliness. Excellent wine, rather fine drinking from an exceptional year. Few wines work with fresh tomatoes, this is one of them – try with tiny cherry tomatoes, nothing else!
Gewurztraminer ‘Les Archenets’ 2000. 13.5%
Prestige range – more serious Gewurztraminer with bottle age. Deepening brassy gold. Turkish Delight and smoke aromas rise from the glass to meet you, less pungent but more complex than Folastries. A thicker, oilier palate so typical of Gewurztraminer, yet leavened with fresh acidity so not tiring to drink. Roses to the fore, especially on the length. At peak now, though I prefer Folastries. Fresh tomatoes? Slice them with pepper and balsamic vinegar. Cheese? The powerful stench from the local Munster cheese is perfect. Apparently mild curries work well too.
Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Hengst 1995. 12.5%
This wine had been open for eight days, a really special way to conclude this tasting with a Grand Cru wine at age 12 from a lovely vintage. The nose has developed honey and honeycomb (think cinder toffee), there’s quince and Mirabelle (a local yellow fruit) too. Mirabelle again on the palate plus the unmistakable orange peel trace of botrytis – very late harvesting has brought wondrous golden complexity. Some residual sugar but remarkably dry and well balanced. All-a-tangle complexity. An exotic wine for contemplation, I’m assuming it’s a late harvest Vendange Tardive rather than a Sélection de Grains Nobles. I kept thinking about Tarte Tatin afterwards. Old vines, planted in 1954.
Final thoughts (for now)
My personal JosMeyer favourites are the Pinot Gris Grand Cru from Hengst and Brand; both are truly the essence of Alsace. The Riesling and Gewurztraminer Grand Cru rank among the finest examples too. But don’t overlook the “humbler” wines in the range – they bring much pleasure and represent great value.
Far from the simulacra of the mass market, JosMeyer make beautiful wines that are highly accessible and affordable. This is a superstar property run by people with perfectionist passion that epitomises the very best of Alsace and Biodynamics.
JosMeyer et Fils SA
76, rue Clémenceau