Christophe Ehrhart has a very real and specific goal as custodian of the vines and as a collaborative winemaker at L’éclat Josmeyer. “To avoid oxidized, unclear and unsound wines.” Erhart’s reality lies in his exacting state of certified organic and biodynamic agriculture. He is also a true expressionist, manifested in the feelings of love for biodynamism, running like a dream throughout viticultural life. They encompass an imaginative broad spectrum of respect and attention to all things natural, especially given the spiritual nature of his quest to express terroir.
At Josmeyer, “the first goal is not biodynamism,” Ehrhart tells me at the family winery in Wintzenheim. “We eat only organic and biodynamic. It’s a philosophy of life, but the final goal is to make the finest wines that express the terroir, in a biodynamic way.” I sat down with Ehrhart, along with sommeliers Fred Fortin and Jonathan Ross, to taste eight explanatory wines that fortified insight into Josmeyer’s oeuvre. This second foray took place three days after tasting through a flight of seven wines with Christophe at the Millésimes Alsace, the professional trade fair for the region.
Related – In a Grand Cru state of mind
Domaine Josmeyer is the present day incarnation of a business begun by patriarch Aloyse Meyer. He was succeeded in 1933 by son Joseph who then further developed the operation in 1946. The current operation was established in 1963 by Hubert Meyer, in memory of Joseph. His eldest son Jean is the elder statesman of the modern domain.
With daughters Isabelle (as winemaker), artist Céline (as CEO) and Christophe Ehrhart as wine grower, Josmeyer is three and a half centuries and 11 generations removed from its original beginnings. Today Christophe is a leader in Alsace, sitting on committees including the Alsace governing board of CIVA (Le Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace) and the local AVA. Since 2001, Ehrhart has been the head of the local growers of the Grand Cru Hengst.
In his position on the Hengst committee, Christophe Ehrhart has been instrumental in eliminating chapitalization (2003), reducing maximum yield limits (55 hL/L) and creating a sugar code index for wine labels. The latter is Ehrhart’s baby and a result of that vivid, expressive imagination.
“Sometimes Alsace wines make one person unhappy,” notes Ehrhart. “If there is an index, we can make two people happy.” The codex rates wines from 0 to five on a residual sugar scale. The index is specific to the wines of Alsace, which differ greatly from those of Champagne, or anywhere else that still white wines are made. The variegated mineral soils of Alsace wreak havoc on how sugar manifests itself, confusing the perceptive ability to imagine the true level of residual. The Ehrhart scale helps the consumer decode that mystery. The purpose is to avoid mistakes, to let the people know what is inside the bottle. “Just to have information in a simple way.”
Josmeyer is anointed with the highest level of Demeter and Biodynamic certification. In fact, Ehrhart is one of the three global VP’s of the organization, the other two being Olivier Humbrecht MW and Eric Saurel of Domaine Montirius.
In his extensive and definitive profile, Tom Cannavan points out Josmeyer’s transition from négociant to biodynamic grower within the context of a “unique ultra-viticulture raison née.” Cannavan praises the purity of the wines while at the same time bemoaning the “bewildering” diversity of products. He writes, “the different ranges are a product of Josmeyer’s négociant roots, but they do not project the image of a single domaine.” Cannavan notes that switching to biodynamic farming did little to change the Josmeyer style, which is all about dry, crisp wines and yet he ignores the reasons for the creation of so many variations on a single (especially Riesling) theme. Soil. Unique geographical spots. Terroir. Jean, Isabelle, Céline and Christophe feel compelled to make small lots from micro-parcels. Organic and biodynamic are important. Terroir is more important.
Jamie Goode posed this question today. Do we make too much of terroir? In the end of his piece, Goode writes “”I reckon terroir deserves to remain at the heart of fine wine.” Jamie and I were together in Alsace. As they did to me, the winemakers of such a region have left an indelible mark on Goode as well. He has been to Alsace on numerous occasions. It has no doubt helped shape his feelings about the importance of terroir, but also the part the winemaker plays in shaping wine.
At Josmeyer, the science of making wine is like wayfinding, based on dead reckoning. In his anthropological study The Wayfinders, Wade Davis writes “you only know where you are by knowing precisely where you have been and how you got to where you are.” Wine making, like wayfinding, is a craft of intuition and experience. Like the Polynesians who navigated the Pacific through knowledge and photographic images committed to memory, the winemaker learns from what the soil and each passing vintage have told. The agglomerated data is applied towards making better, cleaner and clearer wine.
Each time Ehrhart and Meyer navigate the process, from grape life cycle to élevage, they are like the mariner making use of a 360 degree compass of the mind. The navigator will integrate climate (clouds, winds and rain) skies (sun, light refraction and stars) land (marks and bearings) and water (swells, pitch & roll of waves, feel, currents, widths & colours caused by light & shadow, horizons, subtended mast angles and the vessel’s relative position). Davis writes “the genius of the wayfinder lies not in the particular bit in the whole, the manner in which all of these points come together in the mind.”
At Josmeyer the winemaker uses terroir; lieu-dit & Grand Cru, granite, limestone & clay, slopes (steep or not) facing in various directions, climate and vintage. Christophe Ehrhart the wayfinder is what could be called a terroirist. But what about biodynamic wine growing? According to The Living Vine’s Mark Cuff, moon cycles and tides aside, what matters most, as opposed to organic, biodynamics is all about soil, vitality of land, resistance to disease; vines are like icebergs, we concentrate too much on what’s above the soil when 90 per cent of a vine’s life takes place under the soil.
The world according to Josmeyer, as related by Christophe Ehrhart is technically, biologically and viticulturally delicious. Yes, the biodynamic winemaker must concern himself, immerse herself, be disciplined to think deep. What happens in the vine’s subterranean world is everything, and at the same time, nothing. Everhart asked Jonathan Ross, Fortin and I what we thought may be the percentage a vine’s growth and energy is derived from beneath the soil (considering the rest comes by way of photosynthesis from the sun). Our guesses ranged from 10 to 33 per cent. Not even close. Christophe said that scientific studies show the number to be between three and five per cent. Who knew?
Ehrhart’s concession that the quantitative number is small for a vine to derive its personality, divined though the earth’s brine, was quite shocking. Though Ehrhart does not rely solely on the common practice that other Alsatian winemakers take for granted and even believe with blind faith, terroir still drives the Josmeyer machine. Like a sailor who can’t find his longitudinal way without a chronometer, the winemaker who is not in tune with the earth must make use of technology to find his viticultural way. Christophe Ehrhart has an advantage. Organic, biodynamic, wayfinder. This is why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world.
Tasting twice with Christophe in four days left a mark. It was Josmeyer’s imagination, running away with me. Here are notes on the seven wines tasted June 15th, 2014 at Millésimes Alsace.
Pinot Auxerrois Vieilles Vignes 2012 (WineAlign)
From calcaire-limestone, there is fine design in line, a mime of sugary lime with notes of white pepper and thyme. Wise and so very dry (5 g/L residual sugar), balanced, rhyming, keeping perfect four four time.
Pinot Auxerrois 1996 (WineAlign)
Acting as if it were recent, current, yet bottled, this is freshness in elegance defined. Still a bit reserved and not quite forthright, this is Auxerrois composed of tight, jutting angles, from ripe phenols and grape tannin. It must have been made with “crossing fingers and wiping brows,” by a winemaker with an awful lot of big dreams. At 18 those dreams remain unrealized. By 25 they will have materialized. Would partner well with Unagi.
Riesling Les Pierrets 2010 (WineAlign)
Simplified, the terroir here is part marl, part limestone. (See the 2002 note for more specificity.) The three areas combine for a full orchestral expression of Riesling. Dry as the desert with a triple threat tang of terroir. Intense, as per the vintage, from what I gather and heard around the trade show floor, the closest repeat to 2002 there has been. The sugar here is strikingly low (3.5 g/L) and the acidity (7.8 g/L) raging in comparison. Such sharp, awry but ripe citrus intensity the likes rarely seen in Riesling at 13 per cent alcohol. A Josmeyer study to be sure that needs several years to settle into its mineral skin.
Riesling Les Pierrets 2002 (WineAlign)
From a selection of prestige vineyards in Wintzenheim, Turckheim and Wettolsheim. Positively terroir street in this most arid yet fresh-driven ’10, yet another example of the absolute purity by way of the vantage point vintage brings to the path through time. There is poise but also texture in the form of a yogurty lees. This from flat alluvian Fecht deposits rich in clay of a soil predominantly built of sand, shingle and silt with les pierrets (little stones) and plates of loess. What it must be like to be a wine such as this. Turns a song on its head. This I would say to it. I wish that for just one time I could stand inside your shoes. “And just for that one moment I could be you.
Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2010 (WineAlign)
From calcaire marls, the levels are raised, especially the sugar (9 g/L) though you would have no way of knowing it. More chalk grains through and less citrus, but it’s still a matter of zest. This shouts low yields and concentration with a Grand Cru’s deep, guttural voice and the immediacy is frightening. A dart to the Riesling heart. The stallion is at its finest and most focused in 2010. Like so many other pH arrested fermentative ’10’s the couple of extra grams of residual sugar rise up with the elevated level of acidity, but again, the change is both subtle and impossible to figure.
Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2005 (WineAlign)
A slim Hengst, lower is sugar (7 g/L) and acidity (6.1 g/L) and minutely up in alcohol. That said it is possessed of a sweet round sensation with leaner, less obtuse angles of tension. More flesh and higher aromatic tones, of stone fruit, of tropical wafts most unusual and standing out in the Josmeyer scheme. The approachability here is base and nearly fun, like a tease of late harvest fruit.
Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 1993 (WineAlign)
Travelling back 21 years you see the Jean Meyer take on Hengst, from another era, another Josmeyer. The sugar (10 g/L) is higher, the acidity (6.4 h/L) lower and the alcohol (12 per cent) too. The atomic rise and petrol fuel-driven sensations are more pronounced, the vineyard speak quite real. This is the most polarizing wine I tasted (of the 15 from the Domain in Alsace), not because of the natural and wild expression but because of the way it arrests the ability to produce saliva. A touch of past ripe apple adds to the difficulty in deciding which direction this has taken.
Riesling Grand Cru Hengst Sélection de Grains Nobles 2002
An (SGN) already signed, sealed and delivered to now begin its secondary development stage. Persists with the character of freshness, angular pierce and of a tempered (8 g/L) acidity poking holes in the sugar’s (94 g/L) membranes. Very balanced and delicious, an atomic marmalade of peaches and cream of micro-managed sweetness.
Here are notes on the eight wines tasted at the domain on June 18th, 2014.
Pinot Blanc Mise du Printemps 2013 (SAQ, $22.90, WineAlign)
This is the first wine that goes to bottle (February 2014) from out of stainless steel and 1600-2500L old (1895) oak vats. A verdant amalgamation of spring vegetables, herbs and lime gain elegance and acidity from the blending in of Pinot Auxerrois.
Pinot Auxerrois “H” Vieilles Vignes 2012 (WineAlign)
Straight out the uncanny symmetry to Chablis-like sustenance is uncanny. From a vineyard planted in 1959, the “H” refers to the great Hengst, minus the Grand Cru attaché. Sticky soils with marl and clay make complexity real (like Burgundy). Jean Meyer was the pioneer of circumvention to the 1983 Grand Cru decree by using a letter in lieu of the GC. Many followed (like Albert Mann and Paul Blanck). This PA is clean, precise, creamy, dry and expansive.
Riesling Le Kottabe 2011 (WineAlign)
From the Josmeyer artist series, “young and impulsive, it shares with you its poetry and its intimacy.” The votes between Wintzenheim and Turckheim are old, the sugar (approx. 5 g/L) low and the alcohol (13.5 per cent) higher. “Riesling speaks a salt language that expresses terroir,” says Ehrhart, “as much as a fingerprint.” This has more full-bodied heft as compared to 2010, more muscle, more girth. Shells and a spritz of citrus mark this salt lick of a Riesling, spread evenly, in a chalky sprinkling throughout.
Riesling Le Dragon 2011 (WineAlign)
Very hot, described by Ehrhart as “little Senegal,” from the southwest facing slope of Letzenberg in a sheltered area known locally as “Petit Sénégal” with the dragon that is said to live (or resolved to die after a duel with the sun) in a cave within the Grand Cru Brand. From very ripe grapes that receive major amounts of sunshine. Flinty minerality comes by way of yellow limestone Muschelkalk (shell bearing limestone or, calcaire coquillier). Long and true, with a distinct chalkiness, from a bottle that had been open for five days.
Riesling Les Pierrets 2010 (see above)
Riesling Grand Cru Brand 2011 (WineAlign)
Here lies the mineral of perception, energy and of what is spoken by the fiery locale. Expressing the polarity of silica and chalk, Brand is a vertical line of silica filtering through granite rock. Pure, crystalline and focused because the mineral is filtered out, remaining behind only in deja vu, temptation like sensation. This here, in Brand, is the biodynamism of Josmeyer incarnate. Always the talk of terroir, for right or for wrong. “But it was just my imagination. Runnin’ away with me-once again.”
Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2011 (WineAlign)
The solar-powered Grand Cru talks in proteins and salinity so the wine will seek more complex saltiness in food, like sharp (Reggiano-like) cheeses and lobster in a rich sauce. This is endowed with a completely different structure than the Brand, with more surround and circulating roundness. The mineral salinity resides in the back, of both the palate and the texture. It’s richer, with deeper density, less piercing and linear than the Brand. An enveloping, circumventing Riesling.
Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2010 (see above)
Good to go!