"It’s important to have a good mood and feng shui in the cellar. When you put yeasts in a place that isn’t zen, then they can’t work easily and bacteria will come and cause problems."
Christian is a visionary in a region that hasn’t always made it easy for visionaries. He’s a humble, thoughtful character. On arriving at his winery, his simple exclamation of, “thank you for coming and for liking my wines!” is heart-warming. Words of kindness go a long way.
He might be a gentle person, but Christian is by no means meek. He has strong opinions and defends them; if your wine doesn’t have something to say; if it doesn’t speak of a place and of its culture, why even export it?
We're sitting in Christian's kitchen eating doughnuts from the local bakery. He says something that remains at the forefront of our minds today:
“You must feel something in a wine. If not, why use fuel to send the wines to London? Just plant Gewürztraminer in the London area. With climate change, I’m pretty sure you would be able to soon. If we decide to pollute by shipping wines around the world, it’s because we can bring something cultural to the people. It’s like sharing art. If it’s just the same as what exists next to you, just drink that; it will be better for the planet.”
Food for thought.
Born and raised here on the family farm in Alsace, the history of the Binner domaine dates back to 1770. This part of Alsace has an even longer history; the grand cru Kaefferkopf, for example, dates back to 1328, and wines here quickly developed a reputation on an international scale, as the Rhine River provided trading opportunities to northern Europe. More recently, the Binner domaine was a polyculture farm; the family tended various crops and raised animals as well as producing wine, but his father’s generation decided to focus solely on wine.
His father had been somewhat alone in organic farming. In the 70s, when the ‘green revolution’ hit Alsace, many growers thought that chemicals were the way forward. His father bowed to pressure and tried a synthetic spray application just once. Immediately afterwards, he decided it wasn’t for him. Christian remembers,
“When I was a child, he was ploughing while all of his neighbours were using chemical weed killers. It must have been very complicated to be alone in that. But today, it means we have soils that have never seen chemicals; they’ve never been killed. This makes it easier to make more life.”
Christian is fortunate to work with many old vine parcels, planted via massal selection. He says,
“It’s sad when you see young vines dying because of their genetics. So, although my old vine parcels might not have been planted with machines in mind, and it takes more time and it’s more expensive to work with them, for me they produce more complex wines with more minerality and elegance.”
Alsace is renowned for its complex geology and grape varieties. Christian has made a name for himself by creating blends, as well as the more commonly seen ‘one variety, one soil’ wines. He explains,
“I like the complexity of different varieties together. To separate them makes less sense to me – varieties are like people in a community. It’s important to have different kinds of people, so they can exchange together, and together make something more complex.”
He also champions the diversity of soils and winemaking styles in the region:
“We live in this diversity. Every winemaker has the possibility to have their own ideas and their own philosophies, but you can still taste the Kaefferkopf vineyard through different aesthetics. You have this feeling – the wines are from the same family, and that’s great.”
He explains that it’s important to take into account which grape varieties thrive where, saying,
“There is lots of Gewürztraminer in Kaefferkopf. It might not be very trendy but I don’t want to just say, ‘oh the mood is changing’ and plant something else. It likes to be planted here and it’s who we are.”
When Christian began working in the vines in 2000, he encountered a different problem to his father; he didn’t feel that organic viticulture was providing enough opportunity. He found that simple copper and sulphur applications weren’t providing the vines with enough power to combat diseases, and that it was difficult to restore the balance post-sprays. He was frustrated and began to research other natural methods; bringing him to biodynamics. He says,
“Biodynamics gives balance – to feel when plants are more sensitive – or when they’re not. Everything which is alive has a vibration and communicates with other alive beings. Animals, trees, the soil, the people working in the vineyard – they’re all in communication with one another. A machine cannot communicate.”
This realisation led him to cut out machine work where possible; all his grand cru sites are ploughed by a horse from the village. All biodynamic preparations are dynamised by hand, using a wood dynamiser – Christian feels wood is softer and feels more alive than copper. They are then sprayed also by hand via backpacks that they make themselves. Despite it taking more time and manpower, he believes this is important to feel connected to nature:
“I noticed – the less I use machines, and the more I work with people – the more life there is, and the disease pressure is lowered. The fermentations are more alive and more active, too. This is very important and is a problem all around the world. If the yeasts aren’t functioning well, then bacterial problems are more likely.”
Since converting to biodynamics in 2003, he has noticed a prominent difference in the wines. For over ten years, he has felt confident enough in the microbiology of his wines to work without sulphur and without fining agents. He says,
“Of course, it’s never zero risk: we take a risk to make free wines, but it’s more and more rare that I encounter any problems. When you go into a forest, all the cycles are working together. It’s balanced. When you disturb the nature too much, there are consequences: problematic fermentations, lack of life, low yields, vines dying from disease. Now, I feel something coming back… that’s cool.”
Nothing goes to waste here. The family also makes their own compost and return the grape skins to the vines to decompose. They even go to the length to remove the pips from the grapes, as the pips are wooden and can be difficult for bacteria to break down back in the vineyards, but by pressing them, they are able to extract grapeseed oil and use the leftover pressed pips for burning in the stove to heat the house.
“Biodynamics must bring something to the growers in terms of responsibility, reusing and recycling.”
This extends to his team; he emphasises that it is important for all the workers to feel like part of the family. They share all of their meals in the kitchen, together with customers and any buyers.
Christian is a staunch supporter of the notion of terroir. Working across such drastically different soil types, elevations, mesoclimates and varieties means he gets to explore what different elements bring to the final wines. He feels each vineyard retains a certain characteristic in the wines:
“Granite is a wonderful stone. It tends to make elegant and fine wines – wines like the air or wind. And because of the cold winds coming from the valley, the acidity is very fresh in Schlossberg wines. Even when the weather is very hot, you keep that freshness. It produces austere, elegant, thinner wines: that is the definition of Schlossberg.”
He feels the combination of pure granite X Riesling in the Schlossberg cuvée heightens the element of purity. Meanwhile, the Kaefferkopf vineyard, with varied soils including more clay, is geologically more complex. He feels that field blends planted to multiple varieties here can help to produce an even more complex wine, as different soils and different varieties will each contribute to the overall conversation happening in the blend. He continues,
“Granite, grès, schist, the older soils, give very straight wines – vertical wines. The younger chalk soils give wider, horizontal wines. Once you notice it, it’s really crazy – you can feel it in water, in bread… You have this feeling – this yellow plum comes from granite.”
His winemaking style varies from year to year; going with the flow of the vintage instead of making uniform cuvées. By understanding the weather and its effect on the grapes, he adapts: for example in very hot years, he uses more maceration in the wines, in order to give the sensation of freshness from tannin, and in cooler years he might make more pét-nat.
“Even if you change the aesthetic of the wine – if you make pét-nat or use maceration, or age oxidatively, you still see the elegance and complexity of the grands crus.”
This means that the cellar is often full of new wines and ideas.
“There is no recipe, it’s more complex than that. When you feel, you can connect. If you just follow the recipe you’re not connecting with the world.”
There are no winemaking laws chez Binner, apart from the two rules: respecting the vintage and respecting the maturity of the grapes. He always makes sure to harvest when they are fully ripe, explaining,
“It’s very important to respect the maturity of the grapes. I never saw a bird or a wild boar eating a grape that isn’t ripe. No animal does that because they know it’s not good for their body.”
This means that in some years if he notices there is botrytis appearing, he will make sweet wines, whereas in other years there’ll be no botrytis.
For over a decade, Christian has made wines without any sulphur additions. He believes that longer ageing periods are sometimes of crucial importance in order to successfully make clean no-sulphur wines.
“It can take six months or three years. It’s not me who decides – it’s the wine. Some develop quickly, some need more time. That’s it – it’s exactly like children.”
Longer ageing time on the lees helps to amplify the saline characteristic in his wines. It is this saltiness that he credits for their drinkability factor. He winks, saying that back when he still added sulphur, he made more half-bottles, whereas now he makes more magnums and jeroboams.
"I think we lost this notion of ageing wines after the war, when we had the need to make wine quickly. If you make wines quickly with fining agents and sulphur, they can be crisp and aromatic - the aromas of technology and grape variety are present and surprising, but you don't get the terroir taste."
He also built a new cellar a few years ago. It took him five years, as he wanted to do most of the work himself, to transfer his personal energy into the building. He says,
“I wanted to bring my vibration to every stone and piece of wood. I worked with an architect who was very connected to this idea too. It’s important to have a good mood and feng shui in the cellar. When you put yeasts in a place that isn’t zen, then they can’t work easily and bacteria will come and cause problems.”
He also makes sure to not leave the electricity on unless absolutely necessary when working in the dark, emphasising that the wine must not be disturbed by electromagnetic fields. He beams when he tells us that his fermentations and wines have become much healthier since the new cellar was built.
We’re left with the feeling that too often, we don’t think about the wine’s home. Here is a man who tends his vineyards with the utmost care and wants to make sure his cellar yeasts and bacteria are given the same amount of loving. And trust us - when you sip Si Rose – you find that love in the wine.