André Durrmann is a winegrower who is making wine from his old family house in the middle of Andlau, a beautiful village nestled on the first slopes of the Vosges mountains south-west of Strasbourg. A mere half an hour drive from downtown Strabourg, this village provides an immersion experience into the quiet Alsatian countryside, and as it is less tourist-oriented than the wine-route hot spots of Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr, you have a more authentic feel there.
André Durrmann took over the family winery in 1979 following the steps of his father and after a few years he has been exploring new ways to farm his surface, not only converting to organic but also doing things (-or not doing, in this matter) on the edge of permaculture, that is, leaving the ground unplowed and with all its grass, and training some of his vineyards on lyre for a better balance between the fruit load, the vines and the grass. He is now working on a total surface of 7 hectares.
His facility is not big, and he's having some interior remodeling done these days on the 17th century building so that the space can be optimized. The village houses have no underground cellars here because there's lots of water beneath, so the vinification rooms and cellars are on the street level. They work in two adjacent houses plus one on the other side of the narrow street and they live upstairs. These houses where he and his family are working were already registred in a plan dating from 1736 as being farm houses located outside of the Abbey of Andlau which was founded in 880 and protected by thick walls against invaders. Because of this abbey, viticulture and winemaking have of course very deep roots here.
We go for a walk to the vineyards which are very close from the village. André's vineyards are planted on different training modes and concentrations, sometimes in lyre sometimes not and with a two-meter inter-row width. He chose the lyre mode for the quality of the wine, the relation between the quality and the lyre training being proved, he says, it has to do with the larger foliage surface and with old wood on the vine, the vine having more reserves with old wood. With a 3,2 meter width between the rows it also allows not to crush or damage the ground when you drive with the tractor.
A vine, André Durrmann says, is a plant that is programmed to climb on trees, not stay close the ground like humans use to train them, and using the lyre trellising system puts them closer to their original nature. People have problem to change their routine and working with vines in lyre is something difficult even if it’s proved that it’s better than the traditional vertical training. On a daily basis, working with a lyre is quite easy actually, André says, once you’re used to it and learnt how to plant the poles. The bright side is also that the inter-row space is large enough (3,2 meters) so that you don’t crush the ground when you pass with the tractor. You can also leave grass grow and become a refuge for insects and diverse life forms. The downside of a vineyard is that it’s a monoculture, it’s the consequence of growing grapes and you have to force diversity to come through different means like letting weeds grow and planting trees. The competition with the weeds keeps the vine rooting for deeper soils where it can find its nutrients and humidity.
When you use the tractor to cut the grass, you need special, adapted tools to work under the lyre, because of the V shape of the trellis and this means another investment that conventional growers (both for the farming and the training) don't have to pay for.
Against mildew and oidium he sprays copper and sulfur, using copper in low volumes, like 1 kg to 1,5 kg year/hectare when the organic rules allow much more. The grapes are hand picked but he still has to use a tractor to haul the boxes, even though he’d like not to so that the ground wouldn’t be crushed, but the tires are wide and the load of 800 to 9OO-kg doesn’t damage the upper soil.
Another good side of keeping trees in the vineyard is that they are observation points for predators and you get less instances of birds eating the grapes. For that it’s important to let the tree grow straight like a pole, like – meters at least and prune the lower branches so that the predator can have a good view over the ground. The small birds don’t feel comfortable having this tall canopy over their heads and they don’t stay beneath.
The problem sometimes comes from fallow fields near a parcel, the birds coming briefly from this refuge, flying 4 or 5 meters into the rows to eat grapes before going back to their bushy field, and in this case he uses nets to cover the first rows.
Right now they’re renovating the chai, or rather the press room, which they call Drothus in the Alsace dialect (it means literally press house). They’re currently insulating (with cork) this small barn-like outbuilding (the dark outbuilding on the left) so that they can work efficiently in spite of the squeezed room in the middle of the village. You need to work on the ergonomy and have a wise economy of means, putting back tools at their place as soon as you don't need them. That's the downside when your facility is sits in the middle of an historic village; let's remind that this house/winery is located just 100 meters from the nice square pictured on top-left. With 7 hectares André Durrmann can do it, but 15 would certainly not be manageable in these conditions.
André Durrmann says that he speaks regularly to organic farmers who grow other things like wheat or meat animals and they say that the productivity is sometimes surprisingly high even with using only organic treatments, which contradicts the thinking that organic means minimal yields. He adds that the planet could be fed by organic farming, actually. His own yields for example will be possibly around 60 or 70 ho/ha in some parcels, even if lower than the maximum of 80 ho/ha, and he doesn’t chaptalize which means that the grapes reach the right maturity. On the Grands Crus, his yields are of course lower as the maximum yield allowed was set at 55 ho/ha, in diminution from the previous years where it was at 60.
On the picture on the right, you can see a cluster with its lower part that has been partly gulped, and the culprit signed here : you can see the mud on the rest of the grapes, pointing to the wild boars who have always the front of their heads covered with mud as they keep foraging the ground with their snout.
And here is a 2nd clue in this investigation, with a picture you'll never find in the mainstream wine media : this dropping with grape seeds points to the usual suspect here, a ravenous wild boar...
Here we are in the terroir (can we say climat in Alsace ?) of Gezetz (not sure of the spelling), a vineyard of Riesling planted in 1975 with a width of 1,5 meter between the rows, after which he uprooted one row every other three to be able to pass with the tractor. Previously the tractors were narrow and small, that’s why the width was small. Historically, the rows and training have always followed the evolution of human work. In the ancient times, the vines were planted en foule, without trellising or wires, they were just hanging to a pole (échalas) which was playing the role of the tree on which the vine grew at the origin. And even the spacing between the rows has changed from the use of horses to the one of small tractors and then larger tractors. André says that the Panzerle (a slang word in Alsatian to designate tractors) have conributed in the 50s’ or 60s’ to the uprooting of all the trees remaining in the vineyards, because as these trees were never totally aligned with the vines, they were a problem for tractors going along the rows.
André takes a saw from the car to prune the tree and he will give them to his sheep, I’ll discover how sheep are crazy over cherry leaves. Nothing is lost here, the tree canopy is pruned to accommodate predator birds and limit the shade, and the sheep get their delicacy in the way... He says that if he had a full trailer of these leafy branches, they’d eat them all. The tree must also have a canopy small enough so that it doesn’t offer too much surface to the wind, which can be strong here.
We drive further and pass another Riesling in lyre and right next, a parcel of Auxerrois which is managed by André’s son. His son farms 2 hectares including these 20 ares of Auxerrois (recognizable because the grapes have a yellow/gold color), and he sells the grapes (as organic grapes) to the local coop (Wolfberger), waiting yet before making wine himself from this surface.
André Durrmann’s vineyards are scattered on about 30 spots around the village, he added parcels progressively when opportunities showed up and looked also for different soil qualities so that his cuvées express several terroirs. Sometimes it was complicated because you need to get the plantation rights, some of these parcels having been uprooted or abandoned as a vineyard long time ago, and replanting them is a long administrative process. And of course you need to pay for the procedure, then pay to get the rights [the winegrowers are indeed a good milk cow for the French wine administration].
We stopped at this climat of Riesling Kastelberg, a group or terraced parcels overlooking the church and the abbey of Andlau. In Alsatian, Kastelbari Kaschle means terrace, and on this succession of tiny parcels he revived the terraces and they just opened a grass path between them.
André Durrmann made this replanting in 1981 but he says that he planted the rows too close from each other, and it would have been more pertinent to plant on lyre here. The soil here is Steige shist. When he took over these terraces they were covered with grass and bushes, but on old postcards you could see that it was all covered with vines here. André says that at harvest, men would carry their back baskets on foot to their family cellar/vinification building, because there was no other way from these steep slopes.
In 1981 when he planted these vines he did it without plowing, and the last time he used herbicides on these slopes was in 1996, and it proves that it is possible today to work on multiple tiny terraces without spraying weedkillers. And the fact that they don’t plow allow them to avoid the erosion, they just cut the grass with the wire from time to time, and he hopes to be able one day to fence the whole plot so that he can put the sheep at work in winter. It’s a big job to fence this even if only 80 ares, because it’s steep and not square.
On the other side there is a vineyard of gewürztraminer, planted in 1998, organic from the start. . The load of grapes is quite good and generous. Here too we see a few fruit trees, some of them are only beginning to grow below the last wire, while others are already standing high.
These vines have been planted on a lyre training from the start. The lyre training has also a seldom-noticed advantage in the sense that it makes the work easier for pickers : On harvest day, they pick as many clusters per hectare than on a regular vineyard, but from fewer vines, so they have less movements to do. Interesting detail which I didn't pay attention to...
The story of how André found out this generator is funny : one day he had the visit of Danish tourists who were buying organic wine, they tasted like all the visitors and bought some wine, and as they saw that he was into organic and open to clean energy issues, the visitor told him about this generator, as his job was to build these systems. What convinced André to choose this system is that the machine has a variable power which he can adapt to the exact amount of electricity needed, for example for a bottling machine, and it works in tune with the electric grid, which means that if he adjusts the generator under the needed power for the bottling machine (for example), the grid will provide the difference, and you can see this information on the display screen of the generator.
But what was funny here is that wine was the motive that led the Danish maker of these machines to walk in, and now André can make his own electricity...
André Durrmann and his family also use a solar cooking device which is installed in the courtyard, he says they can use it every other days with the sun. On the picture on left, André checks the temperature inside this iron-cast pot, 51 ° C, still more time before it boils.
André Durrmannmakes 5000 to 7000 bottles a year (the winery produces 25 000 to 40 000 bottles in total, depending of the vintage). He disgorges batches of crémant 2 or 3 times along the year depending of the demand and orders, which allows longer élevage on lees (bottle-neck down) for some of the production.
This bottling unit is powered with the in-house electricity generator.
Crémant, be it from Burgundy or Alsace, and especially if is organic, is a good & affordable alternative to Champagne, especially in regard to recent studies conducted by the consumer magazine Que Choisir on pesticide residues in wines. All of the 4 tested Champagnes had high amounts of residues, between 197 and 328 micro-grams of residues, coming from 7 to 8 different pesticides. These Champagnes were randomly-picked cheap bottles found in the retail (respectively 10,49 €, 13,92 €, 14,95 € and 14,99 €).
Link to the Que-Choisir pesticides-in-wines tests (you must subscribe first).
This cellar is lined with big-capacity barrels (foudres) on one side, these foudres belonged to the family of André's mother, and they just use a couple of them, the others not being fit anymore for containing liquids. This is another example of a house where people were living in the upper levels and the basement was used for winemaking and cellaring. I guess every house in this village was functioning as a family winery.
The narrow, vertical vats on this side of the vat room have been custom-made by André and his son. This was in 1982, a year with exceptional yields in Alsace and the vat makers couldn't deliver to the demand, so winegrowers had to rely on their own resourcefulness and welding skills : they built their own vats, and thus could adapt precisely the size and shape to the vat room and it's ceiling, making an efficient use of the scarce space. they even built their own version of a temperature-control system going around the vats.
Anna Durrmann says that the winery has several cuvées where you can compare the terroirs and the soil, like these two cuvées on the table, each displayed with its respective terroir, the sandstone on the left with the cuvée "Riesling de Grès" grown on the lower slopes of Wiebelsberg, and the schist on the right with the cuvée "Riesling Rabari". These cuvées are not from Grand-Cru parcels and are thus affordable, respectively 7,2 € and 8,3 € and it allows the wine amateur to experience the two distinct terroirs with the same variety and vinification.
I taste a few wines with Anna Durrmann (André was busy helping for the disgorgment) and their son Yann, who knows a lot about the wines and the vinification.
__ André Durrmann Pinot Blanc 2012. Bottled 2 months before. 5,6 € retail at the winery.
__ André Durrmann Pinot Blanc 2011, no added SO2. Anna says that the first time they made this wine without SO2, it was in 2007 and they had also made part of the cuvée with SO2, so they could compare and let also their customers compare and choose. They didn't make a SO2-free pinot blanc in 2012 because they wait that this batch of 2011 is sold out. The color is different here, darker, it's because of the oxydation. The fruit is more forward here, this could also be the vintage. Anna says that they also sell their wines to organic groceries like the Biocoop chain, and that a village of the region where the administration is very active on environment issues buys also their wines for their events, this is the village of Muttersholtz.
__ André Durrmann Riesling Rabari 2011. Terroir of schist. Vinified in stainless steel.
__ André Durrmann Riesling de Grès 2012 (sandstone). Sorry, no notes again.
__ André Durrmann Riesling Grand Cru Kastelberg 2008, on a terroir with Steige schist. Aromas on the nose : wheat field under the sun, honey too. I didn't tell them but looking twice at their labels I think that they could find a better design, these naive folk-style watercolors don't do it, sorry for the author of these paintings.
__ André Durrmann Riesling Grand Cru Kastelberg 2010, also on Steige schist. Anna says that their son Yann is proud because the wine was chosen in the Guide Hachette des Vins 2013, a very serious reference indeed. The nose here is more expressive, the minerality is more forward here, the wine is stony in the mouth, with a particular astringency. The wine has a nice backbone because of this minerality. Costs 23 € here at the winery.
__ André Durrmann Riesling Grand Cru Wiebelsberg 2010. Also on sandstone from what I understand. Very nice nose, with both stones and flowers. There are citrus notes, Yann says too. I also feel anise notes, impressive. Nice structure in the mouth. Yann says that the sandstone brings a light bitterness in the chew which is welcome. Costs 23 € tax included at the winery. Can be had as apéritif for me. There may be 5 or 6 grams of residual sugar in 2010, Yann says.
__ André Durrmann Riesling Grand Cru Moenchberg 2008. The undersoil is sandstone, then alluvium, clay, marl and limestone, which yields a very strong acidity, Yann says, and to counter that they try to vinify it with letting a bit of residual sugar. That's why they take care that the other whites are really dry. The hill of Moenchberg is a bit like an amphitheater and there's a good ripeness in the wine, even if only with about 12 % in alcohol. I do feel this ripeness in this wine. Yann sas that there may be 20 grams of residual sugar but it doesn't feel that high in the mouth. They make 400 liters a year of this wine, and it costs 14,3 € tax included.
__ André Durrmann Pinot Gris 2011 (with SO2). Yann says that the SO2 is added toward the end of the malolactic. By the way, the malolactic doesn't always happen, they let the wine do as it wants and they don't inoculate. They look for ripe grapes and there is usually little hance that it unfolds. And if there are low amounts of malic acid in the juice, the malolactic completes itself sometimes without their noticing, they discover it only when they do a lab check.
For the SO2, speaking of dry wines, Yann, who joined us at this point, says that as long as the wine is on its lees, it is protected, so he will add SO2 after racking, typically 2 or 3 grams and then he will adjust at the filtration to reach 20 of free SO2 at bottling, and a total SO2 of 80. The bottling takes place usually in may.
Speaking of the yields, he says that the average is 45 ho/ha on the domaine, with on the lower bracket the Kastelberg at 20 ho/ha and the maximum for the crémant at 70 ho/ha.
Yann says that while the pinot noir sans sulfites ajoutés (without added SO2) was an immediate success and sells well when customers compared the two versions, it takes more time for the whites without SO2 because the public is not yet accustomed to the difference in the wine aromas and feel, that's why they still don't do the whites-without-SO2 every year. The people can sometimes be put off by the lightly oxidative side, with a more Jura-style wine they're not used to. Yann says that the pinot gris of Alsace suffered from the fact that big wineries in 2006 bottled this wine in spite of the high incidence of rot, and people were durably put off by the mushromm aromas of pinot gris.
Asked where he studied, Yann says that he went to the Agriculture School in Rouffach (Alsace) where students can learn how to make wine, the school having its own domaine of 14 hectares of vineyards and financing itself with the sale of its own wines. After the school, he trained at the Domaine Léon Boesch in soultzmatt (Alsace). He learns a lot also through exchanging with other young vintners of the region, discussing issues and tasting the results. He says that quite a number of people are working on sulfur-free wines in the region.
__ André Durrmann Pinot Gris 2010 sans sulfites ajoutés (without added sulfites). Soil with schist too. Yann says that there was no SO2 at all here, including when the grapes came in and all along the vinification. He says that as the fermentation yields its own SO2, there may be 14 or 17 units in total SO2 found in a lab analysis. 12 % alc. Costs 8,8 €. Production : 16 hectoliters. More color in the wine, with aromas of wheat filed on the nose. Nice mouth, some richness with vanilla notes (but there's no wood here). Yann says that on the first year the wine moves and changes and then it's stable.
__ André Durrmann Pinot Gris 2012 with residual sugar. Not very sweet in the mouth, maybe 12 grams, Yann says.
__ André Durrmann cuvée Immunité 2012, no variety on the label. I have to guess the variety. Aromas of raisin. Yann says that it is a late harvest of sylvaner, with sorting in the vineyard. They make the cuvée every other year. the cuvée was named as an allusion to the lawsuit filed against André Turrmann by the state (the french state is often after artisan winegrowers apparently....) because he refused to vaccinate his sheep against bluetongue disease. The story made headlines 2 years ago in the French agriculture magazines and the local newspaper and André Durrmann later won as the administration decided to abandon its lawsuit. The odd thing, Yann says, is that this all happened about a year before the doomed attempt to have the whole country vaccinated against the swine flu which ended in a costly loss for the French tax payer as the government purchased 94 millions doses and managed to vaccinate only 5 millions...
__ André Durrmann Muscat 2012. Some residual sugar. Yann says that they always look for a light wine, and this wine makes 10,5 % in alcohol. They avoid the overmaturation to keep a fresh feel.
__ André Durrmann Gewürztraminer Raboehl 2011, on granite soil. Yann says that this Gewürz is usually on flower notes and they avoid the residual sugar because it would erase this floral character. 12,5 % alc. This is moderate in alcohol because this parcel is steep and the soil is poor, mostly granite and sandy debris, with some hydric stress in summer. The mouth is well balanced, nice swallow. Costs 11,7 €.
__ André Durrmann Gewürztraminer 2012. Soil with clay. More a classical gewürztraminer. Different nose, generous flower notes, ripe pear aromas too. Again, none of their wines are chaptalized, Anna says, it's good to remind oneself that the practice is still common in Alsace. Non-chaptalized wines are lighter to digest because of a molecule being slightly different when there are added sugars, some research of the enologists union has proved that, André says, and 10 % of wine drinkers are bio indicators in the sense that they have a negative feel with chaptalized wines. And because they don't know that chaptalization is the cause, they reject white wines in block.
__ André Durrmann Pinot Noir 2011. Regular version (with SO2). Fruity nose, griottes (acidic cherries. In the mouth, light tannic feel. Yann says that they would have more like meaty aromas if the élevage was longer. This wine was filtered. Costs 9,4 €.
__ André Durrmann Pinot Noir 2011 without added sulfites. 10 hectoliters in total. In 2012 the whole batch of pinot noir was bottled without SO2, the previous year they had made both a SO2-free and a SO2-added pinot, but people preferred overwhelmingly the unsukfured as it was more expressive and the cuvée was rapidly sold out. THey don't have to bother about the transportation for te SO2-free as most customers buy the wine at the door, including foreigners (Germans & Swiss). Now they see these people coming back and asking for more SO2-free pinot noir...
The mouth is more dense, more concentrated, but it's the vintage, Yann says : the weather and conditions brought them mildew and losses and the yields were 13 ho/ha on this parcel, but the remaining grapes were of good quality. Nice tannic grip on the palate. Costs also 9,4 €. Asked if this was filtered, Yann says yes, but he adds that he would like to try bottling without filtration, he'll see. He noticed that he preferred the wine before it was filtered, it lost something in the way.
Pic on right : Google street view of the winery
André Durrmann sells 90 % of his wines at the winery. Three of four wines can be found at Oeno Taste Vin en Bouche, 27 rue de l'Abbé Grégoire 75006 Paris.