French natural wines have been imported for quite a while to countries like Japan and the United States as well as to the Scandinavian countries and other European countries, but little is known about the growing appetite of the German market for these wines, even though this country as a whole is still lagging compared to, say, Belgium which comparatively to its size is an avid guzzler of these wines. Alex Zülch is among the few pioneers who is helping them make a dent into the largely-conventional wine market there. He started to import these wines a few years ago and his portfolio at Vins Vivants is now quite well developed with indeed lots of living wines.
Alex studied enology at the Geisenheim wine school (in Rheingau) and he wasn't initially focused on importing these wines. During this scholarship he spent time training in interesting estates in Germany, in Austria, France. In Germany for example among other wineries he spent time in Rheingau at Georg Breuer, in Austria he went to Prieler in Neusiedlersee and also at Simon Bize for a harvest and vinification season. Travellin further he worked also in South Africa in a large winery where he made the experience of the industrial side of the trade, this was a family estate but with 120 or 150 hectares and a conventional, formatted vinification with lab yeast and everything. The other wineries he had his training in were not this style, from the start he went mostly to authentic producers having basically an artisan ethic in their work.
Alex's spent a few years from 2003 to 2007 studying at the wine-school and training in-between at various wineries, his intent being intially to possibly make wine himself one day, but on the whole he was also open to other things as long as it was realted to wine. Even though he was not from a family connected to the wine trade (his family didn't drink anything, not even beer), he loved the wine world, the wine culture with its different facets, the history, the hedonistic quality of it, the artisanal side also, it's connection with nature, with both indoors and outdoors activities that were exciting, the exchange aspect with other people also, he viewed this world as pretty thrilling and dense. He felt that as early as when he passed his Abitur at the end of highschool. He spent his childhood and school time in the Ruhrgebiet near Cologne, a region which is densely industrial, he discovered wine by himself then, going to tastings and buying books about wine, and he felt this was the way to go and further his knowledge on, at least now he knew he had found more exciting prospects than becoming a school teacher, which was the career of choice for many of his school mates.
Alex made his civilian service after highschool, and then from what I understood he had to get a first training in a winery before being accepted in the wine school, the German education system making sure that you're aware of what you're going to end up working in. Most of the students going to this type of school are already in the wine trade because of their family and the ones who lack any of this experience have to get one through such a traineeship. That was when he worked at Breuer, he learnt a lot with them, this is a traditional domaine in the good sense, working with old big-capacity barrels and not stainless steel. He had chosen this Weingut because it was very close from the school. Alex says by the way that in Germany like in France there are more and more young people with no family roots in winemaking or grapegrowing who start a career in wine, which brings a new spirit in the trade.
During these wine-school years Alex and a few fellow students/friends travelled together now and then to several wine regions to discover the wines and the domaines, they went to Piedmont, Burgundy and so on.
After his wine studies in Germany Alex went to work in the south of France in the Roussillon for a Swiss-German friend who had purchased a domaine there in 2006 (the Domaine des Enfants), he was offered to work 6 months there for a start and ended up working 4 years. This was a good experience as he did all sort of things there, working in the vineyard which needed lots of corrective work) and on the vinification side, building the cellar and the chai. During these years working in the Languedoc he discovered natural wine; He remembers his excitement after tasting Edouard Laffitte's Tam Tam (Domaine Le Bout du Monde, Languedoc), a bottle which he had found in a small wine shop in the region and he liked that. He drove to the domaine and befriended the guys there, who in turn told him about a couple of bars in Paris where he'd find more wines like this one.
Alex says that at the time also he stumbled on a blog while browsing the web with more wine bars addresses in Paris, this was WineTerroirs... That's how he discovered Pierre Jancou's Racines with lots of nature wines, some of them pretty wild, even too much over the top, with oxidation et al. But he went to other wine bars and extended his knowledge and appreciation of these wines. In 2009/2010 he went to wine fairs like La Dive Bouteille, a major even for these wines. During his Languedoc years he had many short trips to Paris where he could attend wine events, he says there's always something going on in the city because the vignerons come here often and have tastings all the time. He also met his future wife then there which added a reason for these travels.
Starting in 2010 Alex started his own business with importing a few natural wines to Germany. This was not easy at first, he had been away from Germany for years and had lost contact with the country, plus he'd go there bringing wines that were different to wine buyers who weren't yet knoweldgeable about about the peculiarities and qualities of these wines. It took him 3 or 4 years to learn how it works, he finetuned his wine list and got more experience in his contact with restaurants in Germany. He says that it's still an uphill battle to bring natural wines in German restaurants. Now, 7 full years after his debut he can notice that the interest of restaurateurs for these wines is beginning to rise. In 2010 the wine scene was basically devoid of natural wines, there were 3 or 4 importers altogether in Germany.
The first people he sold wines to, were friends who had restaurants in Bochum, then he built the website and business began to take off. Restaurants began to contact him, usually they were already in an artisanal-quality approach for their food and they wanted the wine to match that approach as well, organic grapes, no additives in the cellar, no correction, no filtration, sort of. I asked him if he ever rented a stand at ProWein to make his business known, but he says this wine fair is big-industry oriented, plus tasters there rush from table to table, spitting each time and this doesn't suit natural wines which you have to swallow at least a bit to appreciate their quality. I can't but agree more about that, professional tasters who spit the wine and focus exclusively on aromas and other detailed descriptions miss completely what wine is about, and Dionysus or Bacchus would endorse me on this one...
Today Vins Vivants ships the wines of about 60-70 domaines to 30 + restaurants in Germany & Austria (he also sells to Austria) and it keeps going up, plus some restaurants like in Frankfurt distribute to other restaurants in the region which allows Alex to sell more and spare time and energy.
Austria is not well-known enough in France alas, but it's also a great region for natural wine, and this brings the story on another facet of Alex's work : bringing Austrian natural wines to the French market. And Le Baratin, which was a pioneer in Paris for natural wines was the first restaurant to buy him Austrian wine when
Alex prospected the French capital.
What triggered this is that when he was eating out in Paris with his wife he'd speak with sommeliers & restaurateurs who would often ask if there were interesting wines with similar philosophy in Germany, and he said yes, thinking also about the Austrian ones, but there was nowhere to find them in Paris, so regularly brought a few bottles with him from his trips in Austria and that's how he began to also have Austrian wines shipped to French restaurants, this was around 1012-2013. These are small volumes of wines but in good restaurants & venues, like Le Baratin, and he does this also for the pleasure of it. What is pretty incredible actually is the fact that a domaine like Strohmeier for example was not imported in Paris at the time.
The first time he himself tasted Strohmeier was at the first Raw wine fair organized by Isabelle Legeron in London, and it was a plate-opening experience for him, he loved it. The first venues he sold their wines were unsurprisingly Le Verre Volé, Le Baratin and Roseval (closed down since, see my report on it at the bottom of this story). Right now there aren't many German wines he imports in France, there the cuvée Was ist Das by Weingut Schäfer-Heinrich, it's a project he mounted with the domaine, producing this naturally-fermented, uncorrected, so2free wine for an easy-drinking thirst wine, and it works well especially that the retail price is pretty affordable. Otherwise he imports 3 German domaines and about 10 Austrian domaines, Austria being more into these natural, uncorrected wines.
Pictured on right : this great-delicious queue de boeuf [ox tail] cooked by Raquel...
Austria adapted more quickly to the non-interventionist winemaking over time, and the good point also is that they're evenly split between the red and the white (roughly 50-50) while Germany is producing mostly Riesling where it reigns unchallenged, the problem with the type of Riesling they produce being that you find this style of wine if you vinify naturally, they're kind of stuck with corrective winemaking here. Here a cuvée (organic, natural & unfitered) made by two sisters Susanne & Stefanie in their family domaine operated by their parents since 1988 and a surface (as of today) of 13 hectares.
Renner was a precursor for organic farming in Burgenland and his daughters wanted, instead of taking over their father's domaine, to create their separate operation on the side, with a few parcels for the beginning and trying to make wines that are a bild wilder than their father's. Before setting up their winery they worked with Tom Lubbe of Domaine Matassa in the Languedoc-Roussillon and their experience there helped them for their 1st vintage in 2015 because the year was pretty hot in Austria.
Susanne & Stefanie also reproduced in Austria what they learnt in the south of France, doing several pickings in parallel, one tailored on pH, another on maturity, passing several times in the same parcel.
Welschriesling is not considered a very noble sub-variety of Riesling, it is traditionally a simple basic wine for undemanding drinkers, but like often for disregarded sub-varieties they realized that when you work from old vines and keep low yields you get pretty nice results (these ones are 30 to 40 years old). Its appearance makes you understand that you have here an unfiltered free wine, a very different Welschriesling compared to the basic, often extremely-acidic white found in the Gasthaus around the corner in Austria (a wine that was often home-made from the owners' parcel).
I met Alex in another occasion when he displayed a few of his imports at Aux Deux Amis in the 11th arrondissement on the rue Oberkampf. He was just back from a few visits in Germany, first spending also a few days in Alsace to visit Rietsch as well as a new vigneron for his portfolio, Christophe Lindenlaub. He went to Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Hamburg, where he visited all the restaurants where he sells [French] natural wines. This doesn't make a big list of restaurants overall, the movement is at its nascing point in Germany, but that's interesting he says, he deals with restaurateurs who are open-minded and pair the quality of the wines with the quality of the food they serve.
The bistrot "Aux Deux Amis" is famous for both its wine and its food as well as for its laidback ambiance and its 70s' retro bar furniture, plus it's just facing Le Verre Volé [the cave à vins or wine-shop branch] on the other side of the street, not really a bad combination. Aux Deux Amis has typically 6 wines by the glass and it routinely has foreign natural wines among them. That day there was a Müller-Thurgau 2014 by Carl Koch, a sign that these wines are getting a foot in these venues, which is still not common, except for a few Italian and Spanish imports.
Here is the special cuvée he made with a vigneron in Germany, it is named Was Ist Das (a 2015 red), something even people non-fluent in German (most French) can understand. The wine is just arrived a week ago, it's the typical bistrot wine, easy-drinking and at the same time with an enjoyable fruity chew, and it's cheap enough to be served by the glass at a price comparable to other French natural wine. The problem is that many other German natural wines (and Austrian) come at a hefty price which adds another layer of difficulty to set foot in the wine bars in Paris, and this cuvée, as well as a few other cuvées imported here by Alex match this condition.
This wine is made with Dornfelder and Cabernet hybrids (that are mildew resistant). Dorfelder hasn't a good image in Germany as a variety, a little bit like Grolleau, a high-yield type of grape, but like Grolleau, when farmed & pruned correctly it gives very nice wines. Alex checked this wine with an opened bottle over a week and it holds & behaves very well.
Here is yet another wine Alex imports in France : Crapeau 2014 by Weingut Burgmeister Carl Koch, a 11,5% Müller-Thurgau (white) from the Rheinhessen that goes down very easily, with an acute feel of truth and health. The wine has also zero SO2 is unfiltered and was vinified naturally. It's pretty rare in Germany to find such zero-zero wine with nothing added, this cuvée is also a common project Alex mounted with a friend of his in Frankfurt, Christian Lebherz of Cool Climate who deals with Naturweine artisan, real wines : they went to Heiner Maleton who is the winemaker at Carl Koch and asked him to make this Natur cuvée for them. Maleton, who is the cellar master there but has free reins to do what he wants, likes these wines for himself but is still wary of making them commercially because of the uncertainty of the response by the clients of his winery. So, being assured that the whole cuvée would be bought by Alex & Christian, he accepted to make the step on a larger scale than for his sole consumption.
This type of outside help seems to be bearing its fruits, I saw a similar project put in place in Hungary by Raw's Isabelle Legeron and Terroir Club's András Kató. You have plenty of artisan vignerons who are already doing a terrific job but need to be encouraged (beginning with the assurance that they'll not risk losses) to do the final step of eschewing totally SO2 and filtration. Alex says this wine fits perfectly in the wine-by-the-glass list of a wine bar, it's alive and easy, really a pleasure to drink, it glides in the mouth with a nice umami feel.
At aux Deux Amis that day it was priced 6,5 € by the glass, 26 € for 48-cl "pot" and the bottle was at 35 €. It was unusual by the way to see this German cuvée on the wall (pic on right) alongside a couple of nature Beaujolais on the wall...
Then we had a, Austrian red, a Blaufrankish Kalkstein 2014 by Claus Preisinger, a 12 % red from Burgenland (the bottle on the left on this picture). Kalkstein means limestone or calcaire in French.
This is also a pretty cheap wine given the quality, with pro price around 7-8 € and something like 11 € retail in Austria or Germany. Alex says that what's nice here on this cuvée is that it's made with Blaufrankish, a variety which, he explains in France, stands somewhere between Syrah and Pinot Noir, with elegance and spicyness at the same time. This is vinified part in casks, part in large capacity foudres, Stockingers probably. This cuvée is mostly sulfure-free, except maybe for 10 mg during the élevage.
Alex' Vins Vivants German & Austrian imported wines can be found in Paris in venues like Le Baratin, Aux Deux Amis, Septime, Clamato, Gare Au Gorille.