"I feel that working biodynamically is a little like a pilgrimage. We are trainee pilgrims…"
is a winemaker who has captivated the world with his philosophical musings and his spellbinding no-sulphur wines. From humble beginnings here in Alsace, his winemaking style and biodynamic farming methods arose from conversations with friends and family, combined with a desire to follow nature’s path, not the advice of ‘wine doctors.’
In the sleepy Alsatian town of Pfaffenheim, Jean-Pierre has quietly and continuously worked according to his polar beliefs of how vines should be tended and how wine should be made. His key ingredient in both cellar and vineyard is a simple one: time.
Meet Jean-Pierre Frick
When talking about how wine should make a person feel, Jean-Pierre finds a way to describe the emotional and sensual side of wine through gestures only. Some wines, he describes, are wines you only feel on your tongue and in your mouth. Other wines, he points to his chest area and gently thumps against his ribcage, you feel in your heart. Next, he dances a little in his chair, moving his shoulders from side to side, when describing the third kind of wine: this is the kind that energises you. He points to his belly: these are the wines that enter the core of a person.
He is acting out what so many of us believe: there is energy to be found in wine. This, he emphasises, is an energy that cannot be rushed. It is born from patience in the vineyard and from giving the wine the time it needs; both in the cellar and in the bottle. He says,
“The biodynamic way helps us to rediscover our relationship with time: to become more patient, and to find the balance; the harmony.”
Jean-Pierre inherited his vineyards from his family. His grandfather, together with a couple of other winemakers, sold their wines in barrels (never in bottles) to the local wine bars of the era. He tells,
“Of course, at the start of the week the wine that came out of the barrel was a bit different to the wine that came out of the barrel at the end of the week - the wine that had been moved around a bit and changed - but it was just as good. In those days, oxidation didn’t at all have the somewhat negative connotation it has these days… because back then they knew that with no additives, as long as the wine was strong, it would be fine.”
He is alluding to the difficulties that Alsace has encountered in recent years. The wines of the region have, in a sense, been pushed towards a very certain style: pristine, crisp translucent white wines with no oxidative notes, often made with lab-produced products such as packaged yeasts. Frick, however, doesn’t believe in this way. He says,
“Back in the day, people learnt from their parents, grandparents or neighbours. They would taste together, and people would give each other little nuggets of winemaking advice of how they felt they had improved their wines."
When professional oenologists arrived on the scene in the early 70s, however, things changed. These oenologists introduced ideas such as lab-cultured yeasts and bacteria to carry out processes that would otherwise happen naturally. They analysed fermentations and told winemakers that their wines wouldn't ferment properly unless they added nutrients. So, the people at the time began to use additives in their wines.
He takes a sip of macerated Pinot Gris and tells us that oenologists are known as Wein-Artz in Alsace, which translates as wine doctors.
“Let’s compare it to this. If you have a small niggle, and you go to a doctor and they write a prescription, and there’s nothing on the prescription, people will say they are a bad doctor…”
He smiles at us and we nod. We see where he’s going with this.
“If your blood pressure is a little high, you shouldn’t eat so much salt. If you’re eating 250g peanuts and drinking a litre of beer every day, that’s not great. If I don’t want to take medicine, instead, I eat 100g of peanuts and reduce my beer consumption to half a litre. I adapt bit by bit and maybe I drink a certain tea, or take some essential oils, and I’m fine.”
He introduces another comparison: in medieval times, wealthy people would buy what were known as indulgences from the Catholic Church. Instead of sharing with the poor by leaving grain for them to use for food, for example, they would continue their luxurious lifestyles and essentially buy forgiveness from the Bishop, to ease their guilt and ensure that they could get to heaven.
“If you are scared, you want someone to reassure you. We need to be more autonomous...”
When Jean-Pierre started working in the vineyards with his father, he also met a group of farmers when shopping for meat and groceries in the town. Some of these farmers had already begun to study biodynamics twenty years before. They became friends, and one weekday or on a Sunday night, they would study biodynamics together and share what they had learnt from visiting other growers. Eventually, he also took a 10-day course to study the philosophy in-depth, and the estate became biodynamically certified in 1981. He says,
“The organic culture at the time hasn’t really changed compared to what it is now. By replacing synthetic products with non-chemical products - that’s a good step of course, it’s better for the microbiome of the soil and it helps against erosion. But by replacing a bad recipe with a better recipe, you’re still not really involving the person’s thinking. With biodynamics, however, you can live for 100 years and still never have answered the questions it raises. You expand your mind with observations and infinite studies. Human beings aren’t here to follow recipes, we’re here to find new ones, and to implicate ourselves.”
Jean-Pierre works across twelve hectares of vines in the southern part of Alsace, in between Colmar and Guebwiller. His parcels include the revered grands crus of Steinert, Vorbourg and Eichberg. There are many types of soil here, as the Alsatian terroir is immensely varied, but the majority sit on various degrees of “marl” (clay-limestone), together with some sandstone and loess. Variety-wise, he tends Riesling, Sylvaner, Gewürztraminer, Chasselas, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.
As a young man, Jean-Pierre did a couple of winemaking internships in Switzerland and in Germany, after which he worked his first vintage at the family estate with his father. It was 1966 and he was 20 years old. He has carried out every vintage since.
Today, he works with his son, Thomas. It is Thomas, Jean-Pierre tells us, who is now taking further steps in the vineyard:
“We’ve never cut the shoots of the vines much before, but we’d trim them a bit in summer. Four years ago, however, Thomas suggested that we start to do what is known as tressage.”
This a process whereby the vine shoots are never cut, instead being wrapped along the wire. It is intensive and requires a lot of time per vine, whereas trimming the vine is much faster. Nonetheless, they believe it’s the right path:
“It seems that the vine is less stressed this way. Think of the apex - the end of the vine shoot - in the same way as the horn of a cow. Cows, if they’re outside with lots of space, they won’t be aggressive. Historically, cows have had their horns cut off because they’ve been in too small a space, which annoys them so they fight each other and hurt themselves. A plant isn’t an animal, but the apex has the same function as the horn in a sense… If you don’t cut the apex and you don’t cut the horn, there is some kind of receptor, or regulator, that is less disturbed. Of course, if there isn’t a drop of rain, it won’t change that. But it might mean we have less difficulties.”
They have also together decided to help the vineyards to reach an older average age:
“You have to find the correct balance. You don’t want to exhaust the vine by pushing the yield, or to cause it to go on strike. In the vineyard, biodynamics helps us to find the balance that time can bring: we no longer need to replant vines as often; they can grow much older. We have older vineyards that are more consistent.”
The Frick family prescribes to the notion of "raising" wine, not "making" wine. The winemaking journey has always been very natural here - no lab-cultured yeasts or other additives - but there was one particular decision that took them further in this direction. In Alsace, the process of chaptalization (adding sugar to the grape juice, to increase the alcohol levels of the final wine) is common. Jean-Pierre explains that this is particularly the case for Riesling, as heat spikes and droughts often occur in the summer, which causes the vine to shut down, thus the grapes have less sugar of their own. However, in 1988 the Fricks decided that they no longer wanted to chaptalize, no matter what might happen in a vintage. Their decision to do so was also linked to what is done in the vineyards. Pierre explains,
“From then on, we decided to no longer go for high yields. It’s the same with a tomato. If you have a plant with 20 or 15 tomatoes versus 10, the latter is less likely to suffer from cracks in the skin, as these 10 tomatoes have been fed/nurtured in a different way, so they’re more resistant.”
Ever-contemplative, he ponders for a little while, before adding:
“It’s the same with children. If you have six kids, versus two or three, you have less time to spend with each child.”
He began experimenting with sans soufre cuvées in 1999 - wines made without added sulphur - inspired by a wine merchant named Michel Le Gris, and the work of the winemaker friend Pierre Overnoy, in the Jura. It is a personal journey for him:
“Simply, we wanted to treat the vines in a healthy manner, with no chemicals. So, we wanted to try to make wine from the grapes alone. The grape is the result of your care for the vine.”
In 2002, he began to experiment with using capsules instead of corks, as these allow for even less oxygen to come into contact with the wine. He feels this helps the no-sulphur cuvées to age for even longer. Next, he began to experiment with macerated wines, for which he has become well-known. He smiles and says sometimes his family feel he macerates too many of the wines, but he is adamant that the future is with the macerated styles, as they maintain a certain freshness.
The notion of time is also crucial in the cellar. He stresses,
“For the wines, we must find the balance that only time can bring. If you don’t want to add sulphur or filter your wines, sometimes they need to age both in the foudres and in the bottle. You must give the wines time.”
He believes that often wine spoilage occurs as a result of winemakers rushing to release their wines:
“There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about mouse taint. Firstly, I don’t call it that, nobody has eaten a mouse so it’s stupid. It just muddles the message. Organoleptically, if you blind taste the wine, you can actually compare it to rice, basmati rice - or foie gras - and other food tastes like that, but not a mouse! This might appear because there is no sulphur used, and there is oxygenation at bottling.”
He adds firmly,
“The wine needs time. Sometimes you need a further nine months or a whole year in the bottle, so that the oxygen which appears at bottling can become reabsorbed by the wine. Of course, we’re all under economic pressure, but the rush means you lose the relationship with time. Biodynamics helps you to rediscover this relationship, to become more patient, and to find this balance.”
He finishes with a thought that stays with us for a long time after we say our goodbyes;