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“One year in May, when I tasted my wines from the barrel, in the sun, I thought I would never find that taste in the bottle. But, if you take risks like we do, I believe that you can.”

Domaine Rieffel

Here in Mittelbergheim, Alsace–just a dozen miles from the German border–Lucas Rieffel is farming and making wines of the future. These are not your typical charming-but-old-school Alsatian wines; rather they are emotive, jolting wines that show an entirely new face of Alsace. It’s like seeing an old friend with an entirely new look. Sylvaner–far too often the underdog–takes its deserved place as Ace of Spades in this hand. 

What’s more, the humble Crémant produced here might be the quiet one at a table sat next to its Champenois counterparts, but if there’s one worth betting on for pure drinkability and deliciousness–this is it.  

Why? The answer is much simpler than you might think. In Lucas’ words: 

“I’d rather be a farmer than a commercial director.” 

Meet Lucas

Lucas is a warm, welcoming, quiet guy, who has been on a continuous quest to farm naturally and make wines that reflect this farming to the best of his ability. 

He has become known for being a pioneer of natural wine in the area, but he has never done so to chase a trend or to create a certain style; rather it was a gut feeling and a desire to best protect and prolong the lifespan of his already-old vines. Amongst these are massal selection Sylvaner vines. Although his Rieslings and Pinot Noirs are considered some of the most exciting from Alsace, it is arguably his Sylvaner that is the beating heart of the domaine. It’s clear Lucas has a fondness for it; in a similar way to how we’re often fond of our shyest friends.

The Vineyards 

It’s not just a fondness for the variety that drives him; it’s also the importance of safeguarding the history of the variety. When the Rieffel family first settled here in 1946,  the farm was a polyculture; they also reared cattle. 85% of their vineyards back then were planted to Sylvaner, which is no longer the case, but Lucas is working to replant more. Thankfully, since 2005, the regional governing body permitted Sylvaner to be bottled as Zotzenberg Grand Cru. This has improved the situation for the variety, but only up to a certain point. It needs winemakers like Lucas to shine a light on it to burst through the doors of a somewhat closed market. Lucas likens it to the situation of Carignan in the south of France:

“People were pulling out Sylvaner vines because they couldn’t sell the wines. It’s like Carignan in the south of France–there are old vines on special terroirs, but it’s not taken so seriously because it’s not as well-known as Syrah, even though Syrah doesn’t work so well in the south. It’s a shame.” 

Lucas’ grandfather began with 1.6ha of vines, and over the years it has grown to 10 hectares across Zotzenberg, Wiebelsberg and Kirchberg. They are composed of Sylvaner, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois.  Lucas is happy with their current size; he feels this is the maximum vineyard area where they can remain in touch with every aspect of farming and winemaking. In addition, they work with very long press cycles in the winery, so it would be a logistical nightmare if more grapes were coming in and there was no space for them. 

“I don’t want to do more than we do now. This works for us; we’re not some beast of a company. Instead of being a commercial director, I’d rather be a farmer.” 

Lucas’ father, André, did not use chemical fungicides but he did use herbicide from time to time. When the time came for Lucas to start working in the vineyards and winery, he decided to do a stage at Domaine Ostertag to open his eyes to other domaines’ methods of working. He encountered a totally different train of thought there.

“I realised that you don't make wine according to just one method. This was totally different–more artistic. It was so exciting. I decided I would try to improve our own wines.”

He decided to stop chaptalizing (adding sugar to the wine); and in order to do so, he began to harvest a little later. He also began pruning shorter, and by 2002 the domaine had been converted to organics. He also began to pay attention to the lunar cycle and to respect it, both in the vineyard and in the cellar.

The Wines

It took Lucas a while to figure out the cellar part. Farming is step one, but the wine doesn’t make itself.

“I was confused. I wasn’t chaptalizing, I was harvesting later, and I was pruning shorter. The grapes were healthier, but the wine wasn’t necessarily much better. What was going on? Did I miscalculate? Then, someone told me I should work with whole bunches and a slow press cycle. When I tried that, I understood.” 

He discovered that the wines would only benefit from the phenolics in the skins if they were pressed for six hours or more. Any less than that, and the wine would miss out on the goodness to be found within the skins. This was a beginning of a love affair with stems: in 2004, he began to experiment with whole bunches for his Pinot Noir also. 

“By tasting our wines with stem inclusion, it was just obvious that they were better. We spend all day harvesting and sorting in the vineyards and winery to choose the most beautiful bunches: why would you want to throw them into a destemming machine? Plus, they cost a fortune, so what’s the point?”

Although he was more satisfied, he was nowhere near to resting on his laurels. There was still something about his Pinot Noir that left him wondering. Somehow, it felt too extracted to him. So, in 2007, he stopped pigeage, to instead introduce a gentler, infusion-style of winemaking. Finally, this produced something that spoke to Lucas. The wine is lighter, more delicate, and more focused on the floral aromatics of Pinot Noir. In a region that is getting hotter and hotter, with drier summers, this was a relief: Lucas had nailed how to make an elegant Pinot Noir despite the rising temperatures.

But—no rest for the wicked.  Now that he had figured out which fermentation method works for his Pinot, which took seven years, his eyes cast to his crémants. 

“Bubbles have been a huge project for me. I just couldn’t get them to work, but I didn’t want to sell the grapes. So, I changed things. I let the wines go through malolactic, harvested slightly riper, and aged the wines for longer on the lees. Apart from time, there was no huge investment.”

He also decided to keep the wines as brut nature; avoiding sugar. With his healthy grapes reaching ideal ripeness levels, they didn’t need it. He also lowered sulphur levels; so, the wines only see a small amount of sulphur at bottling. 

Sulphur is another aspect of winemaking that intrigues Lucas endlessly. He is currently experimenting with different sulphur regimens for his Pinot Noir, he has bottled three wines from the same vineyard, with the same vinification, but with different sulphur protocols. One was given 20mg/L (which is already very low), one was given none, and one was given a homeopathic dose—meaning the wine was given such a diluted sulphur addition that it is almost undetectable. This might not make sense to scientists or to winemakers, but the wine spoke for itself; it was the most vibrant and precise of all three. 

It is this trilogy of determination, open-mindedness and determination that sees Lucas create compelling wines year on year. Making wine without sulphur—or with very little—is not without risks, but the emotional reward he finds in his wines pushes him forward.

“One year in May, when I tasted my wines from the barrel, in the sun, I thought I would never find that taste in the bottle. But, if you take risks like we do, I believe that you can.” 

Suffice to say, Lucas has—perhaps unwittingly—become somewhat of a perfectionist in the cellar: not because he wants to make perfect wines, but because he has committed himself to the resolution of producing the best grapes that his terroirs and vines can, and in turn helping those grapes to become the most thrilling wines they are capable of. 

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