Biodynamic Viticulture – An Alsatian Perspective: Olivier Humbrecht MW’s talk at VinCE 2011

Olivier Humbrecht MW of the Zind-Humbrecht Domaine in Alsace flew in to Budapest to present on biodynamic viticulture in combination with a tasting at VinCE 2011, the foremost event for the trade and consumers in Central and Eastern Europe organised by Decanter Hungary.
As I had been helping pouring three bottles of sherry into 75 glasses in another seminar room, I joined the session a bit late, so these notes will be in medias res.
Olivier was giving a brief background to Alsatian viticulture when I settled. He explained that Alsace was a region of high canopy and double-Guyot training with an average plant density of 3,000 to 5,000 vines per hectare. Of course, at premium estates, such as the Zind-Humbrecht Domaine, it can reach 10,000 vines per hectare as well.
Olivier took over the family estate from his father, who had followed the principles of integrated and sustainable vineyard management. Thus, he had restricted the use herbicides to the absolute minimum, he had used contact instead of systematic sprays, and he had not used any cultured or commercial yeasts in the cellar. Despite this minimum intervention approach, he had had plenty of problems with the health of the soil, as microbiological activity had decreased to a minimum. This was worsened by the compaction caused by tractors.
Adding to the problems, some diseases had started to become more and more difficult to control. The composition of the sprays had to be reinvented all the time, as no systematic chemicals were used. The application of the Bordeaux-mix against mildew had to become more frequent, which increased the copper content of the soil and it eventually reached a harmful level.
The analysis of the organic manure, used for the vineyards, showed a very low level of microorganisms, which made Olivier decide to produce his own compost with a mix of organic animal manure and half vegetal. His supplier of manure was a biodynamic farmer, who gave him the idea of dynamising the compost. It was through this initiation that Oliver had discovered that some of the biodynamic preparations were quick and affordable to make. So, he decided to try them. The result was that there were 10 times more caterpillars and 10,000 times more microorganisms in his self-prepared and dynamised compost. Consequently, the experiment of 1997 neatly led to rolling out organic and biodynamic principles across the Zind-Humbrecht Domain from 1998 onwards.
In answer to the question whether there is a unified, Alsatian way of biodynamic viticulture, Olivier responded with a simile. It is like becoming a chef: first you learn how to peel the potato, then how to cook it, followed by preparing a meal from it and after that you will be able to make recipes of your own. One needs to understand the principles of biodynamic wine-making, get guidance on how and why things work and then after a while you will be able to rely on your own judgement at points where there is no more explanation for why certain biodynamic practices work.

The Tasting

All the wines were from the 2008 vintage, a classic one. Flowering was in mid-June, followed by a medium warm summer with cold spells and rain in August. Ripening was slow, and it kept the acids fresh. From the end of October it was very dry and sunny weather. Grapes of good balance and health were picked at the beginning of the harvest and then Botrytis started to increase from mid-October. This resulted in both good dry and aromatic sweet wines.
Hand-picked, straight into the pneumatic press with cycles of 8 to 18 hours, high pressure and low rotation in order to increase maceration and keep clarity of the juice. The juice stays a few hours in the press, then racked into large oak casks, no enzymes or oxygen were used, filtration only. The utmost intervention is the use of a bit of sulphite on the grapes, between 10 and 30 ppm*.
Natural fermentation took between 5 and 15 days followed by 13 months in barrel. The longer the wines stays in barrel, the more likely that the malo-lactic fermentation kicks in. 8 moths after the harvest the wine is checked if it is in need of racking. After the fermentation is finished, sulphite is added. When the wine is clear, it is bottled: 12, 18 or 24 months after the harvest. Wines of a richer style stay on the lees longer.
Before bottling the wines get a classic sheet filtration, if there is need, sulphite is adjusted. Olivier finds it easy to justify the use of sulphite in biodynamic philosophy, he added. Following this he explained that conversion to biodynamic viticulture is best to start after harvest. Olivier also gave a brief summary of the various teas and preparations: how they are prepared, used and how and why they work.

* ppm = parts per million
A = H2SO4 (sulphuric acid)

Muscat Goldert 2008
13.7% alc., 2.7 g/l RS, 4.7 g/l A, pH 3.3

Light golden core with watery rim. Medium intense floral nose: rose petals, camomile with sweet spices of cardamom, cloves and honey mixed with honeydew. Dry, fresh and perfumed with pear, honeydew and grapey tones, almost salty mid-palate, rounded and well-structured, long and medium concentration on the finish. 16.1

Riesling Clos Hauserer 2008
12.8% alc., 7.3 g/l RS, 5.3 g/l A, 3.1pH

Pronounced lemon, tiny bit of white gold. Highly vibrant petrol tones, purity and cleanliness of subtle exotic fruits: white grapefruit, melon and pineapple. Off-dry, fresh, silky texture with very rich palate throughout; minerals and fleshy, but restrained fruits. It is all about texture, with medium long finish. 16.8

Riesling Rangen de Than Clos-Saint-Urbain 2008
13% alc., 4 g/l RS, 4.2 g/l A, 3.2pH

Light golden, thin watery rim, viscous. Medium intense and gentle nose with subtle petrol tones. Grapey, white grapefruit, melon and pears. Dry, fresh and lean with a mineral backbone surrounded by grapefruit, pears and white peppery tones. Vibrant mid-palate, long finish. Very good concentration and balance. 17.5

Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl 2008
13.3%alc., 37 g/l RS, 4.5 g/l A, 3.5 pH

Light gold with a straw hue. Lovely intense spiciness in the nose, dried ripe grapes and smell of straw, white pepper and almond with pear. Sweet, fresh, creamy and soft texture, nutmeg, almond, pears and intensity over concentration. M finish. 16.3

Gewurztraminer Heimbourg 2008
13.8% alc., 57 g/l RS, 3.9 g/l A, 3.6 pH

Pronounced lemon with light bright golden. Youthful and intense floral nose with ripe fleshy melon, pear and honey. Sweet, soft and creamy with lovely freshness, concentrated and mineral mid-palate. Spicy long finish. 17.1

Gewurztraminer Herrenweg de Turckheim 2008 SGN
13.7% alc., 148 g/l RS, 4.5 g/l A, 3.8 pH

Deep golden core with a straw hue. Highly intense nose, lovely medium amount of botrytis, pears, dried apricot, tangerine peel and spices of cloves and nutmeg. Sweet, very good acid and alcohol balance with ripe and dried fruits. Superb concentration on the back-palate with a long finish. Quite broad fruits. 17.3

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