Crossing the border into Alsace after a brief two days on the German side of the Rheinland, our first stop in France during a February 2004 wine trek was at Domaine Barmès-Buecher. Situated on the Route des Vins in Wettolsheim, just SW of Colmar in the Haut-Rhin, the estate was founded in 1985, joining the work of the Barmès and Buecher families which had each been involved in some aspect of viticulture since the 17th Century. François Barmès and his wife Genevieve (née Buecher) along with eight full-time employees, farm a total of 16 hectares of vineyard, spanning six different communes in the environ of Wettolsheim, from the Grand Cru sites of Pfersigberg in the south to Hengst in the north. The estate is made up of 96 separate vineyard plots, ranging in size from as large as two contiguous hectares to as small as five or six rows in a particular climat. Our visit there would prove to be one of the most intense of the entire trip.
In the Field:
François Barmès completed conversion of his entire property to Biodynamics in 1998, reflecting a change in philosophy that had begun for him in the early 1990s. I’ve met few vignerons with energy levels as intense as that of François and I’ve yet to meet anyone with as passionate an attachment to his land. That passion was reflected in our time spent at the estate. Arriving shortly after a quick lunch at a little café in Wettolsheim, we met François at his winery and headed straight out to his vineyards. The sun was setting by the time we returned to the winery, at least four hours having elapsed. During those hours, M. Barmès led us from vineyard to vineyard, expounding on his farming practices, the special characteristics and energy of each plot, the negative effects of conventional farming on the land around his, and on the viticultural trends and climatic tendencies of Alsace in general.
The Vosges, at 1300-1400 meters elevation, lie just to the west of Alsace, creating a natural rain block for the viticultural landscape. Combined with the reflective power of the sun beaming off those hills onto the vineyards below, the climate in Alsace is naturally much warmer and drier than in the German portions of the Rheinland. In spite of that warmth, Alsace, as one of the northernmost wine regions of France (only Champagne is more northerly), sees a low number of sunlight hours throughout the growing season.
To work that limited sunlight to its fullest advantage, Barmès utilizes Double Guyot vine training, with wires placed at 1.8 meters to maximize the sunlight captured by his vines. He seeks naturally low yields in the vineyard, training his vine shoots in a downward arc meant to slow the flow of chlorophyll to the grapes and to promote full foliage development. He does not practice green harvesting, fruit reduction or leaf removal, operating in a belief that vines possess long-term memory and that removing pieces of their whole only redirects energy in confused directions. And it seems to work. His yields average 35-50 hl/ha, low by any reasonable standards and quite low given the Alsace AOC standard of 80 hl/ha.
To cope with the dry conditions – he has holdings in the Herrenweg cru, one of the driest vineyard sites in all of France – the estate is farmed completely by hand and, according to Biodynamic principles, with no chemical or synthetic fertilizers. Hand culture, François told us, keeps the soil soft and friable, promoting deep, vertical root growth that allows the vines to reach low water tables, creating natural drought resistance. Standing between his rows in Herrenweg, we could see the beneficial results of his work. Where his neighbors’ soil was gray and compacted, his was brown and soft under foot. It looked alive. Yellow ribbons, used to mark a dead plant, were tied around every third or fourth vine in a neighboring plot. We saw only one or two in Barmès’ entire parcel.
Given the timing of our visit, François spoke in particular of the rigors of the 2003 vintage. Only 200 millimeters of rain fell in Wettolsheim during the entire year, with nary a drop from the end of February through mid-October. Those deep root systems were put to the test and passed, with no damage occurring directly from the drought. That said, his plants did suffer from the intense heat, which averaged 28°C with little night cooling. Sugar levels accelerated so quickly at the end of summer that many producers picked their fruit only 80 days after flowering; 100 days is generally considered the minimum duration for achievement of physiological maturity. Those like Barmès who waited lost some of their fruit to the heat but achieved greater complexity, according to François, in their finished wines.
We finished the tour of Barmès’ vineyards with a hike up the slope of his most recent acquisition, a parcel called “Clos Sand” located on a steep hillside in a forested corner of Wettolsheim, followed by a drive through the rolling, wall-enclosed cru of Rosenberg. On the way through, François pointed out a parcel where, in 2001, wild boars destroyed 60% of his crop while he was away on a week long vacation. Apparently the pigs favor naturally farmed fruit, as they ignored the neighboring vines owned by conventional growers.
At the Winery:
Back at the winery, François drove home the points he’d been making all afternoon. 95% of the work at the Domaine, he said, is done in the vineyard, only 5% in the cellar. The vineyard is everything to him; the cellar is only for tasting and making sure all goes well. In keeping with that philosophy, Barmès puts only juice into his tanks and barrels. All wines are wild yeast fermented; nothing is ever added other than sulfur, and that only for anti-oxidative purposes after completion of fermentation.
Believing that their fruit and wines should be handled just as gently as the soil in their vineyards, François and Genevieve have constructed a three-level winery. All fruit, after harvest, is brought quickly into the top level, where a vibrating sorting table is used to remove any imperfect clusters before the fruit goes to the pressoir. After pressing is complete, the juice is moved by gravity to the cuves in the level below. Only following a long, slow fermentation and the appropriate aging regimen are the wines moved, again by gravity, to the lowest level where they go through a gentle filtration prior to bottling.
In the Cellar:
By the time François led us to his underground cellars for a tasting, we were all feeling the effects of a long, cold day in the vineyards on top of the day-three creep of jet lag from our recent journey across the Atlantic. We knew that the estate produces a huge array of wines – approximately 30 different cuvées are vinified each year – but we were nonetheless astounded when we saw the array of bottles he’d lined up for us to sample. The dégustation proceeded at a blur, resulting in some rather brief tasting notes.
- Pinot Noir “Réserve” 2002
Pinot Noir was planted on the property in the 1950s, at the suggestion of the Marquis d’Angerville following his visit to the vineyards of Wettolsheim. 2002 was a difficult vintage, with a bout of frost in September and rain at harvest. Aged in barrels previously used for the “Vieilles Vignes,” this exhibited pale color, lean texture and smoky, wild red-berry fruit.
- Pinot Noir “Vieilles Vignes” 2000
All fruit for the “VV” comes from the Hengst vineyard, from which Pinot Noir is now entitled to Grand Cru status (as of 2006). In any given vintage, it spends between 18-22 months in new barrel. Darker, richer color, with smoky fruit and delicate oak carrying ripe, red and black cherry fruit. Only four barrels made.
- Pinot Noir “Réserve” 2003 (from barrel)
Reductive. Apparently, François stated, this is normal at this point in the wine’s evolution. If the reductivity shows only on the nose, it will dissipate with more time in the barrel. Darker, richer and softer fruit relative to the 2002, with lower acidity but good tannin development.
- Pinot Noir “Vieilles Vignes” 2003 (from barrel)
Just finished malolactic fermentation (all of the estate’s wines, red and white, go through malo). Big fruit, grapey nose, with high alcohol showing on a sweet finish.
Before moving on to the white line-up, our host described what he sees as three distinct families of white fruit types in the Alsace vignoble: mineral (Riesling, Silvaner), oxidative (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris), and aromatic (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Auxerrois, Muscat).
- Pinot Blanc Rosenberg 2001
Limestone, sandstone and flint dominate the soil in Rosenberg. Rich yellow color. Ripe, melon and orchard fruit on palate, balanced by better acidity than I remembered from the 2000 bottling.
Wettolsheim as seen from the Rosenberg vineyard.
- Pinot Blanc Rosenberg 2002
Drier, leaner and more mineral than the 2001.
- Riesling Rosenberg 2002
Lean, dry, mineral and apple driven fruit. Bold, spicy aromatics. Very bright acidity.
- Riesling Herrenweg 2002
Herrenweg is a very flat, extremely dry and warm site on the southern end of Turckheim. Richer, more woodsy and piney aromatics (typical of Herrenweg, according to FB) relative to the Rosenberg, along with a broader, rounder mouthfeel.
- Riesling Pfleck 2002
Situated in Wettolsheim. Oilier, richer fruit with a dense structure.
- Riesling Leimenthal 2001
Huge lemon-lime aromatics followed by citrus, fennel and licorice on the palate. Leimenthal, in Wettolsheim, is an extremely terroir driven site with multiple strata of calcareous soils.
- Riesling Grand Cru Steingrubler 2002
Also in Wettolsheim. Round, spicy apricot fruit. Very rich. Ripe for the vintage.
- Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2002
Hengst, located in Wintzenheim at the northern reaches of Barmès’ holdings, is arguably one of the best known of Alsace Grand Cru sites. Of its 60 hectares, Domaine Barmès-Buecher owns one. François had bottled this only one week prior to our visit, based on a specific point of the lunar cycle: “As the moon influences the tides, so the wines….” Very closed and a bit awkward but rich and promising.
- Edelzwicker “Sept Grains” 2002
Backing up from tasting notes for a moment, this wine bears some explanation. In a simple sense, it falls under the catch-all term of Edelzwicker, used in Alsace to identify blends that are often made of a little bit of everything a producer grows, nearly always with the unspoken suggestion of leftovers. “Sept Grains,” though, is a wine made not from leftover juice but rather from the free-run fluids which are released by his grapes as they pass along the sorting table on their way into the winery. It’s not uncommon for the skins of fully ripe fruit to be near bursting point at harvest time, so Barmès devised a method, using his sorting table, to capture the fluids that are inevitably released and funnel them to a cuve where fermentation begins naturally. As each picking, of various varieties and from various plots, comes into the winery, this free-run juice is added to the vat. By the end of the process, there is a blend which naturally reflects the conditions of the vintage. Based on the vintage-specific physiological qualities of each variety, one year the wine may be dominated by aromatic varieties, in another the oxidative or mineral grapes may dominate. In any case, FB views this as a non-terroir wine, as there is essentially no pressing or skin contact involved in the winemaking practice.
The 2002 suggested peaches, red berries, white pepper and sappy green wood, along with passion fruit and a hint of sweatiness. In most vintages, the wine is a touch off-dry and makes an easy pairing with aromatic Asian dishes. It’s also not a bad choice for the Thanksgiving table.
- Pinot Gris Herrenweg 2002
Spicy and lush, with delicious cinnamon-apple fruit.
- Pinot Gris Pfleck 2002
This was Barmès’ first vintage of Pinot Gris from the Pfleck cru. Deep golden in hue with more wood showing on the nose than with the Herrenweg. Honey and sweet orange marmalade in the mouth.
- Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Silicis” 2002
So named for the soil base in a particular plot of Rosenberg. Cola nut on the nose, followed by spices and sea air. Rich and slightly off-dry, with a long, long finish.
- Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Calcarius” 2001
This cuvee comes from a parcel of calcareous soil within Rosenberg. Botrytis on the nose. Honey, white peaches, flowers and green figs. Fat in texture yet bright in flavor. Seriously tasty.
- Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Calcarius” 2002
Less honeyed, spicier than the 2001. Less botrytis showing on the otherwise lovely nose. Hints of vanilla on the palate.
- Muscat Ottonel 2002
All lilacs and citrus oil. FB considers Ottonel a much more distinctive vine and wine than Muscat d’Alsace. He also finds it very risky to farm; if the temperature drops below 12°C at flowering, the entire crop is lost.
- Gewurztraminer Herrenweg 2002
Heavily herbal and musky. Fuzzy green herbs, thyme and cannabis on the nose. Slightly bitter finish. Not an easy wine yet very interesting in the context of possible food pairings.
- Gewurztraminer Rosenberg 2002
Herbal again – oregano and dried herbs. This was the first vintage produced from a plot of young, nine-year-old vines.
- Gewurztraminer Wintzenheim 2002
Herbs no more. Quince and white flowers on the nose. A small percentage of botrytis. Fat, ripe orchard fruit flavors led to a long, rich finish.
- Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Steingrübler 2002
Lean aromatic and flavor profiles, with a distillate-like nose that reminds me of Pineau des Charentes. Orange confit and caramelized sugar hints. This was previously FB’s least favorite cru though he was, as of 2002, starting to come into a better understanding of this Grand Cru slope in Wettolsheim.
- Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Pfersigberg 2002
Pfersigberg is a grand cru of limestone, clay and marl soil situated in the commune of Eguisheim. Powerful and incredibly aromatic, with bright and lively acidity heralding a long finish.
- Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Vendange Tardive” 1999
Rich amber color. Intense aromas of butterscotch, crème brulée and a raisined grapiness. On the palate, ripe melon fruit, exotic tea, caraway and rye. 180 grams of residual sugar. M. Barmès felt the bottle was a bit advanced, perhaps due to a slightly faulty cork.
- Muscat Ottonel “Sélection Grains Nobles” 2000
99% botrytis. Pure decadence on the nose. Super viscous, drink it with a spoon texture. Dark wildflower honey and citrus confit.
- Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Calcarius” Sélection Grains Nobles 2000
Bottled, after a full three years of fermentation, at 6.7% alcohol and a whopping 550 grams of residual sugar. Pure fig conserves. Rich, brooding and earthy with low acid and immense texture.
- Riesling “Tradition” 2002 (from vat)
Back upstairs on the winery level, we tasted one last wine, something light and crisp to revive our palates. The Riesling “Tradition” is produced from fruit grown outside any of the crus and is meant to show the general typicity of the region. The 2002 had not yet finished its fermentation. Shutdown by the winter cold, fermentation would start anew with the coming of spring.
Addendum, August 2009: Video clips of biodynamic preparation and field work at Domaine Barmès-Buecher.