Fri 10 Jul 2009
Wine making, from beginning to end, starting in the vineyard, is a matter of balance. It’s either the easier thing in the world or one of the most complicated.
Listen to Rainer Eymann, owner and winemaker of Weingut Eymann, whose facility is located in the village of Gonnheim, in Germany’s vast Pfalz vineyard region. Standing in one of his vineyards, within a five-minute walk of the winery — even as a village, Gonnheim ranks as small — you will see, off in the west, the blue-gray bulk of the Haardt mountains, while farther away in the east, you discern the distant blur of the Odenwald. Also in the east, about 15 kilometers from where we’re standing, winds the Rhine River, the waterway that over thousands of years created this broad valley and laid down its rich loess soil.
Eymann has run his domaine using organic methods for 27 years; in 2006, he increased the intensity of the treatment by going with biodynamic principles. The estate consists of 15 hectares (about 39.5 acres) of vineyards around Gonnheim, planted to 70 percent white grapes, mostly riesling, and 30 percent red, mostly pinot noir, with a broad range of other grapes. He makes a little sparkling wine in addition to still wines.
“When I began organic,” he said, “people around here thought I was looney, but times have changed. Organic and biodynamic have reached the top producers now. There was a legend that organic wines would not be high quality, but everybody knows now that it’s not true. Still, we’re always learning with organic and biodynamic agriculture. In 20 years, we may be doing something different.”
The soil where Eymann has planted his feet in stalwart fashion between two rows of vines is some 30 meters deep, with eight to 12 percent lime, or “calcareous soil.” The sky that hovers over us is mottled with shifting and blowing dark clouds; one would swear that rain was on the way, but Pfalz in actually the driest area of Germany.
“The problem,” said Eymann, “is that the weather comes from the southwest. It rains in the mountains, but stops in the plains and then picks up again in the Odenwalt to the east. We have soil that can store lots of water, but we don’t have enough rain, and this effect is enforced by the change in climate. We put down the cover crops between the rows [between every other row] to help the fertility of the soil, but that also takes away some of the water that we need.”
This delicate balancing act, as if the vineyard were poised on a high-wire and the farmer/winemaker were a circus master urging the performer carefully onward, requires craft and experience to maintain. First, Eymann lays down a rough compost material in alternate rows (alternate to the cover-crop) to protect the soil from erosion, because, “we don’t get much rain, but when it rains, it pours.” Second, and especially after the record-breaking and death-dealing heat of the summer of 2003, he installed a drip irrigation system.
Constant work goes on in the vineyard toward leaf, canopy and cluster management. Harvesting is done by hand.
To defeat fungus, Eymann sprays, from the organic farming tradition, different extracts of plants, seaweed, mixtures of stone-dust, minerals, copper and sulfur. He also uses the well-known (or infamous) biodynamic mixtures called 500 — “horn manure” — and 501 — “horn silica.”
When I asked Eymann why he decided, three years ago, to take his organic methods to the level of biodynamic, he said, “I was just interested in what’s happening. I was in contact with a lot of farmers using biodynamic and we talked, and I decided to try it. The main point is that you have the basis of organic farming, and biodynamic is the apex of it. After three years, you cannot tell safely by statistics that anything is different, but we are building on the basis of 20 years or more of good organic practice. We have done many things, so I would never say that because of 500 or 501 that we are making good wine. We have to wait and see.” He did say that he believes that because of using biodynamic methods his wines taste more authentic, that you can smell and taste the vineyard more intensely, and that the wines “are more sophisticated.”
What is important, he said, is the health of the grapes. “Quality comes from the vineyard, from selecting the grapes and treating them gently. Quality is not coincidence. It takes planning and craft and management. We do not want to produce the same wine every year. The wine should reflect the vineyard and the vintage and the fingerprint of the winemaker.”
O.K., Readers, it’s 12.45 a.m. on Saturday, and I have a plane to catch in Frankfurt at 12:25 p.m. I suppose I should get a few hours sleep, but maybe I should go ahead and pack. Or read for a few minutes. Each day on this three-day whirlwind tour of organic estates in Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz, we have visited three or four wineries, had lunch at some and tasted wines, met other winemakers for dinner and tasted their wines. I have a lot to write about, not only about individual estates and wines, and meals we had, but about the issues and concerns that surround organic and biodynamioc methods. We had a terrific group of wonderful, funny and companionable people, though I’ll tell you that if you give 12 journalists a big enough bus, they will not share a seat! No way! We need the second seat for all our gear! Actually our number was diminished today (I mean yesterday), and sometime, perhaps, I’ll tell you the story — like something out of Beckett or Flann O’Brien — of the jolly Irishman who had to drive back to Dublin suddenly because he discovered that his passport expired at midnight.
But that’s for another day.