In The Cave of a Natural Winery

Whew! It’s been a crazy week. I got a really bad fever and head cold on Wednesday, was completely zonked out on Thursday, worked all day Friday, went to Strasbourg on Saturday, and yesterday spent all morning sleeping/napping and all afternoon hiking around the Vosges mountains. I hope that excuses my lack of blogging for the week.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Today I’m going to talk about wine. Mostly making wine, and being in the cellar, but also a lot about the philosophy of natural and biodynamic winemaking.

Decades-old “barriques” – giant barrels used for storing and aging wine.

To start off, let me say that there are some serious differences in philosophy between winemakers today. The so-called “natural wine” movement is generating a lot of hype over here in Europe – both good and bad. Basically, making “natural wine” involves making wine with as close to zero chemicals as you can get. You don’t spray any pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides in the vineyards. You don’t add any acid, tannins, or vitamins to the wine during the winemaking process. You most definitely do not inoculate with large yeast cultures to start fermentation. And, as far as it is possible to do so, you do not use sulfur in your wines. Sulfur is used as a preservative and an antibacterial agent.

A lot of winemakers believe that you CANNOT POSSIBLY make wine without adding sulfur (in SO2 form, also as KMBS, or potassium metabisulfite). At the wineries I worked at in America, it was viewed as a literal impossibility. As if somehow wine would not be wine without added sulfur. Here in Europe, the view is a little more complex: most people acknowledge the possibility, but say that without sulfur, wines don’t age well, or transfer well. So, you might as well forget about drinking anything over four years old without sulfur, and don’t even bother trying to export your wines if you haven’t at least added minimal quantities. There are a handful of producers, however, who try to avoid adding sulfur unless it’s absolutely necessary–for instance, if there’s a bacterial infection of some sort. At the Domaine where I am currently working, Christian , the winemaker and proprietor, has said that added sulfur, in standard quantities, “kills the soul” of the wine. He only uses it in his own wine unless he has no other choice.

Let’s be clear here. All the wineries I’ve worked at before have used chemicals in their production process–at the very least, to clean things. Almost everyone believes that in order to clean tanks, and hoses, and pumps, you have to use at least some sort of antimicrobial chemical to sanitize your wine-storage receptacles or wine-moving equipment. Not here at my Domaine. Here, a few thorough cold water rinses will suffice. Whenever I ask if something needs to be cleaner, or if we should really try to get those tartrates out from the inside of those barrels, or why we don’t use hot water to at least kill SOME of the bacteria that are no doubt residing in that very musty, dank cellar, Christian just grins at me with a semi-maniacal look in his eyes and says “No, it’s good! It’s alive.” And then his eyes twinkle and he dances away like some crazed gnome.

The first time I was in the cellar, I was almost immediately lost. There are two stories. First, the upper level, for warehousing, labeling, and bottling facilities. This alone has at least six or seven different rooms that each has a different, though related, purpose.

Even just this one room is chaotic enough to drive anyone with OCD absolutely insane.

And then there’s the cave itself. It’s a maze of twisting, dark, musty, cobwebby nooks and crannies, hallways, and dusty crates of old wine bottles. I think there must be easily ten to twenty thousand bottles of wine in the cave, tucked away in various corners, left to rot until someone remembers they’re there years from now. (Although Christian seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of his own storage system, so I don’t dare go picking at individual bottles.) Judging by the size and quantity of the cobwebs, I assumed Aragog or Shelob was lurking somewhere around the corner.

The Bottle Catacombs

The Bottle Catacombs (title of my own invention) go on for about a hundred feet and culminates in a large, square room that houses all of the Binners’ most prized personal bottles. Labels like Grand Crus, Vendanges Tardives, and “Millesimes Exceptionels” abound, from anywhere from three to thirty years ago are stored here. I perused the miscellaneous crates, browsing through the Catacombs, somewhat afraid to touch the dusty bottles, and definitely afraid to move the crates. I couldn’t shake the feeling that at some point I would look into one of the crates and find not bottles, but skulls.

On one of our more recent days of work, we were racking two wines, a Gewurztraminer and a Muscat, that had begun to climb to unhealthy, unhappy levels of volatile acid. Christian hoped that by racking the wine off the lees (the dead yeast), we could eliminate, or at least stop, any bacterial infection. This is what came out of the barrique of Gewurtz once we had siphoned all the wine off:

Slimy, gooey, highly acidic and deliciously tart, white wine lees. Dead yeast.

It was far more lees per unit of wine than I had ever seen before. It was also surprisingly tasty. (Christian encouraged me to dip my fingers in and try some.) I wasn’t sure if the quantity of lees was somehow a result of those natural winemaking processes, or if the combination of a mild bacterial infection and a heavy fermentation meant that there were just more lees than normal. Or, even, maybe that’s just normal for Alsatian Gewurztraminer.

Later that day, I got to have another adventure: I got to get INTO one of the barriques to spray it out. That’s right, I spent a good half-hour, well-equipped with head-to-toe rain gear, spraying out one of the barriques with a pressure washer. That hole you saw above? Yep, I got to crawl INTO something that size. Here’s the one I cleaned out:

You can see the waxen outlines arcing around a hole at the bottom of the barrique. I crawled in through that. It’s a good thing I’m not very big.

At the end of the day, Christian decided to use a minimal amount of sulfur (approx. 15 grams) on both of the barriques we racked. Tasting the wine before and after racking, however, was incredible. It was amazing how much fresher, lighter, and fruity the wine became after racking. Like all it needed was a good breath of fresh air.

Whew! So that’s what we’ve been doing in the cellar these days. That, and a lot of cleaning (all of which was my own inspiration. Christian doesn’t really do much cleaning, as far as I can tell). And in the meantime, I’m learning a ton about how to make wine when you have practically zero chemicals at your disposal for sanitizing, let alone to change the character of the wine. It’s amazing, how different it is here than it was at my last jobs. I haven’t yet decided where I personally stand on the issue of “natural” winemaking as a whole, but I can say that I love the wines we’re making here!

Stay tuned for an update about natural and biodynamic viticultural practices, about which I have also learned quite a bit in the last few weeks. Also, feel free to leave your own comments on your opinions of natural wine, wines without sulfur, biodynamics, organics, and the lot. Thanks!