We met Laurent Barth through Vincent Carême, an excellent Vouvray winemaker we do not work with, but who produces grapes going into Thierry Puzelat’s Vouvray.
Laurent’s vines are located in the village of Bennwhir, in the area north of Colmar with a particularly felicitous micro-climate, home to the most famous wine villages in Alsace. The village itself is hardly picturesque, having been almost entirely destroyed during the battles for the liberation of Colmar at the end of WWII.
Laurent took over his father’s estate in 1999 and for five years brought his grapes to the local cooperative, as his contract required. 2004 was the first vintage he made and sold his wines.
Before coming home, Laurent had spent several years as a travelling winemaker around the world, in Lebanon at Château Kefraya in the Beeka plain, in South Africa at Bergkelder in the Stellenbosch vineyard area, in California at Porter Creek in Sonoma, in India at Champagne India in Maharashtra, and finally in Australia at Delatite Winery in Central Victoria.
He now he tends 3.5 hectares planted with the seven traditional Alsatian varietals, on 27 different plots. The soils go from very heavy clay and marl to super light alluvial soil of sand and pebbles; Grand Cru Marckrain is marl and limestone, Rebgarten is limestone to clay and limestone with lots of rocks (limestone, sandstone and quartz), Pinot gris and Pinot blanc strive on sandy-limestone soils with some clay. There can be up to 10 cuvées in his cellar each vintage.
The vineyards are plowed one row out of two, on the second one natural grass is left to grow, alternating each year. Treatments are sulfur, copper, magnesium, calcium and algae, rich in oligo-elements, used in solutions to spray the foliage. Organic compost is used in the fall according to the soils’ needs. One of the main jobs of the growing season, after pruning, is a severe ébourgeonnage in the spring, to leave 8 to 10 grapes by vine (“debudding” is the removing, at an early stage, of the fruit bearing buds that are superfluous, in order to restrict yields.)
Laurent aims for an average 40HL/HA overall, while the legal limit in Alsace is 80HL/HA (55HL/HA in the Grands Crus.) In 2004, a very generous vintage after the heat of 2003, his overall yield was less than 40HL/HA. Another way of limiting yield is by planting at a higher density: for example, a plot of Pinot gris he planted in 2001, with vines from sélection massale, has 8600 vines/HA. The norm in Alsace is 4500 to 5000 vines/HA.
In order to achieve maximum ripeness, Laurent uses a double Guyot (two major shoots for each vine) that increases the proportion of foliage per vine. He also keeps as much foliage as possible by training the boughs up between the treillissage wires and letting them shoot as high as they can, without any trimming.
His wines are bright, pure, very satisfying. The cuvée he calls Racines Métisses is a blend of the pressed juices from all his varietals, except Gewürztraminer, a delicious type of Edelzwicker that deserves not to be called by that often pejorative name. The free flow juice goes into the single-varietal cuvées with intensified grape and soil character, more aromas and more minerality. The slow process of natural fermentation adds depth to the wines, but involves some risk of higher volatile acidity, and of malo-lactic fermentation. When the malo occurs, although he does not desire it, Laurent does not dose his wines to stop it. His idea is that natural winemaking may result in some imperfections, but those are part of the wine’s identity, and are always better than technical and analytical perfection.
This interview with Laurent Barth took place at L'Herbe Rouge in February, 2012.
Tell us about the estate.
I started in 2004, with vines recuperated from my father. I took over in 1999; my father had only sold to the cave cooperative, so I took an obligatory five year contract with them before becoming independent. I'm now working with 4 hectares of vines, which have been worked organically since 2004.
We're located in the village of Bennwihr, 10 km north of Colmar. The vines are spread through 28 parcels. The oldest are 65, the youngest are only 2. On average they're 30 years old. I have a lot of different soils: the lightest are alluvial sands, then we have silt with granite sub-soils, some are clay and limestone and finally one parcel is pure granite.
You bounced around all over the world for a while. Can you tell us about that?
After studying oenology and viticulture for 4 years in Burgundy, I wanted to see what was going on in the rest of the world. I started my journey in Libya. Then I worked in South Africa, where I met a Californian winemaker from Russian River (Porter Creek) who invited me to come help him out for a few months. My last stop was in India.
Yes! It was an estate that was just starting (one of the first actually), something that has really been developing rapidly over there. After India, I worked in Australia. That was over a period of two years. I settled back in France, because my goal was always to express my own terroir. It's always interesting working for someone else, but…
With all that travel, were you ever interested in starting up in another region or country?
It's always tempting, especially when it meets your specifications. And the advantage of working for someone else is you don't have to deal with all the administrative and commercial stuff! It's not always the funnest thing in the world you know… But I have a link to my family's land, and I'm proud it finally has the Barth name on it. The idea was always to make wine from my village.
How did you come to discover organic agriculture and natives yeast/minimal intervention winemaking?
A work philosophy always grows in time. It was my goal to work the vines organically, but over the last few vintages I've decided to incorporate biodynamics. This element of evolution and adaptation is the key to being a vigneron, and it's also what makes it such a charming career.
As far as indigenous yeasts, it was obvious. I'd seen it function all over the world and knew it wasn't a risk as long as the juice was pure. If the grapes are clean, if they are well selected at harvest, you get much more substance. Fermentations are longer and harder to execute, but that's the price to pay for complexity.
What do you think about "natural wine"?
My approach to vinification is as natural and as humanely as possible. But I do use sulfur because I feel that when you work with reasonable doses, you don't harm or alter the product. I feel that working without any sulfur creates a lack of control I can't permit myself.
But I understand this recent rejection of sulfur. Just like everywhere else, Alsace definitely went through a phase of excess, where we wanted to overprotect our wine at all costs. People became obsessed with making "clean" wines, "flawless" wines: they were never oxidized and always the right color, but yes there tons of sulfur in them. To me, this sulfur free, "natural" style is an ideal you fully grasp when you work organically and biodynamically in the cellar: to make a wine as naturally as possible. I respect the final product, and don't believe there is just one way to achieve serious results.
What do you like to drink?
My tastes are always evolving, but right now I am taking great pleasure in wines made with Pinot Noir, most notably from Burgundy. The other thing I'm really into these days are wines from Northern Italy.
This visit visit with Laurent Barth took place in August, 2012.
Words and photos by Jules Dressner.
Laurent Barth lives in the small village of Bennwihr, about 10 kilometers North of Colmar. Thought it has been around for centuries, the village was completely destroyed during the struggle for the Colmar Pocket in World War 2. Subsequently, it was rebuilt from the ground up (explaining why many houses look far more polished than most old villages in France). This included housing but also local economies.
The region has always been rich in vineyards, and a group of local vignerons -including Laurent's grandfather- formed a cave cooperative together in the late 40's in an effort to get things going again. The team effort proved a success: Bennwihr's cave developed a reputation for its high quality wines, and did very well in sales. Unfortunately, the growth of the cave coincided with the introduction and standardization of chemical viticulture and mechanization. Today, the wines being produced there are the same you'd find from any cave coop (aka industrial), something Laurent wanted to break out of by starting his own estate.
Laurent has 28 parcels spread over 4 communes, though 80% of his vines are in Bennwhir. The first one we visited was some Pinot Gris planted in 2001.
This was all planted in massale and in high concentration. This used to be the norm in the area, but was lost with mechanization.
"It creates more competition between the vines, so the roots have to go deeper to feed themselves."
You've probably noticed that the vineyards are very green with grass. Laurent started converting the estate to organics in 2004 (the first vintage bottled under his name), and for the last 6 years has been using biodynamic composts. He plans on incorporating 500 and 501 preparations over the next year.
We continued to visit by checking out Grand Cru Gewürztraminer planted in 1967 and 1968.
Unfortunately, the vines are suffering a lot of mortality problems from esca here. On that same hill, Laurent showed us some of his Pinot Noir (planted roughly around the same time).
We then drove back down to the village to visit some Riesling planted in 1945.
These are the oldest Riesling vines Laurent owns. Here on the plains, the soils are thinner and have more clay. Up in the hills, Riesling grows in soils with more limestone.
I spotted a vine that had recently died of esca, and for educational reasons decided to share it with you.
The last parcel we visited was a recently acquired 27 ares of Riesling from the Grand Cru Schlossberg, all replanted in 2009.
It's steep up there!
The visit ended with... TASTING! Laurent has a teeny-tiny cellar.
Highlights of the tasting were the Riesling 11's and the Pinot Noir M from barrel (20% whole cluster, darker, more structured). The Riesling VV was off to a very promising start, but still needed some time to age and develop before bottling. The Gewürztraminers, while obviously on the sweeter side of things, were still balanced by very bright acidity and minerality, making them thoroughly enjoyable.
A.O.C Alsace Sylvaner