A visit to Domaine Laurent Bannwarth, natural Qvevri wine maker in Alsace.
It’s always tough to plan visits to vineyards around vintage time. Depending on the way the vintage is progressing, where you are trying to go and what styles of wines are produced, vintage can take six weeks or longer. During that time, most winemakers and vineyard staff are under high stress and are not generally open to being approached for visits.
So I was particularly grateful that Stéphane Bannwarth found the time for me to come by – on very short notice, no less – between days of harvesting towards the end of vintage. It was a cold day, the sky was a static, leaden grey occasionally pushing out a niggling, icy rain to liven things up on the ground.
I wanted to get out to visit the domain because it is quite literally the closest producer to me to be working with Qvevri. These thin-walled clay amphorae from Georgia are becoming increasingly popular outside of the former S.S.R., and can be found in all the “classic” old-world wine nations. Often coupled with very “natural” winemaking, wines made in them often have a very distinct nose and palate. I’ve tried and even bought a number of wines made in qvevri or other amphorae, but I’ve never taken the time to visit a producer who works with them.
Qvevri and other amphorae are the original barriques of the wine world. They are some of the earliest vessels used for fermenting and storing wine. The porous nature of the clay used – combined with the relatively thin walls in relation to the volume – means that oxygen does get access to the wine inside, but very slowly. Much like the effect of a well-made barrel, which is watertight but not airtight, the presence of the oxygen has an influence on maturing the wine – but, obviously, no clay vessel will impart a taste of wood.
Stéphane’s estate is not large, and is planted with the traditional Alsatian varieties: Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Sylvaner, Pinot Noir. There are essentially three categories of wine produced, all organic since the domain converted in 2004: a line of more or less classic Alsatian wines, which remain the most economically important wines in the portfolio, a line of “natural” wines, and then the prestige line of wine labelled “Qvevri”, which are also “natural” in the strictest sense of the word, where nothing is added, not even sulphur, and nothing is removed. For these wines, Bannwarth uses everything he has planted but Sylvaner, of which he has too little to use in his amphorae.
Stéphane himself is a friendly, welcoming man, as happy to chat with me in German as he was in French. He described how his inspiration for adopting qvevri came, ultimately, from a Georgian vineyard hand he employed for a time. Through friendship and conversation about his homeland, Stéphane’s interest was piqued. An invitation to visit turned into two visits to Georgia, and a long stay. It wasn’t much longer before the first Georgian qvevri made it out to Alsace, finding their current home just beside the family residence. The first vintage was 2011.
Bannwarth talks of his “big project”: to see if qvevri wines can work in Alsace. A vintage is always unique, but novel methodology often brings with it a steep learning curve, and every vintage with the amphorae has brought new, unfamiliar problems. Winemaking used with qvevri is quite different even than most natural wines. The maceration is very long, usually a minimum of six months. For the reds this isn’t such a problem, as they are still quite recognisable as the kind of wine most people buy. But for the whites this is truly exceptional, and the results are often much closer to orange wines, with their somewhat tannic structure, haziness and unfamiliar (for white wine) aromas.
But the winemaker wanted to try it; he wanted to get as natural as possible – and also to eschew the use of all organic products, so there is no fining and there are no natural corks used, either. All of his qvevri wines are under Vinolok, a reusable glass stopper with a silicon seal that allows the tiniest amount of air into the bottle, so they can continue to develop. It is an elegant closure, and a useful one.
The qvevri themselves are all made in the mountains of Georgia by just a handful of families still capable of performing the task. As with so many traditional activities, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find skilled practitioners. Since the young people in Georgia are, like everywhere else in the world, more interested in moving away from rural areas to seek better-paying jobs, the craft of making qvevri is not being passed on. And it does require very fine skills. Only 10-15 cm can be made at a time, then it must dry for 2-3 days. This goes on until the entire vessel is complete, and they can range in size from under 200 L to over 1500 L. Upon completion, the qvevri must dry for 2-3 months before being fired in a kiln. Should the capacity be over 300 L, the qvevri must be buried to its neck in the ground to prevent the walls from breaking from the weight of its contents. Stéphane shows me one on the property that shattered before being buried in the yard. The walls are barely two centimetres thick; his analogy likening them to an eggshell seems quite apt.
Since the clay used is quite porous, before a qvevri is used a layer of beeswax is applied to the inside. This sinks into the pores and makes it truly watertight.
A note about the winemaking
Stéphane Bannwarth experiments with his qvevri wines, partly also in an effort to make the winemaking itself more practical. Traditionally, the crushed grapes would be put into the vessel for fermentation, then allowed to macerate for months. The grapes would then be removed (a difficult task, made more so with larger qvevri) and the wine would remain in its vessel until it was used. To try to make it easier to remove them, Bannwarth puts the grapes into bags of fine mesh which are then put into the qvevri, as well as using the traditional method with other qvevri. The resulting wine, he says, is quite different depending which method he has employed, arising partly from the difference in convection that takes place in the wine.
The qvevri are buried up to their necks under a shelter erected right beside the family house. There are no walls, there is no heating – but the temperature within the amphorae remains remarkably consistent, he says. The containers are sealed with a plexiglass lid so he can see how things are progressing, and he covers the tops with wood chips in winter. As he pulls back the tarps currently covering them, the grapes floating in the must can clearly be seen in the free-mass qvevri, with only a murky fluid visible in the qvevri where the grapes are in sacks.
After a short tour of the cellar, it is time to taste a few wines. Although I was certainly interested in the traditional wines as well as the non-qvevri natural wines, I was there really only for the qvevri wines and, tragically, no longer had any time left for more than that. And it promised to be interesting; Stéphane had several wines that had been open for, shall we say, more than a few hours.
Synergie 2014 – Freshly Opened. A cuvee of Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer
- Hazy and nearly the colour of apple juice. Incredible light, peachy, peppery nose. Hardly any cider. Peppermint, white pepper, long and sleek, very dynamic – in the sense that it changes from second to second. There are clear tannins on the palate, but they do not distract nor disturb. Very fine…
Synergie 2014 – Open for two weeks
- Unmistakeably the same wine as the first, but with a more majestic, settled palate. Less tannin, more colour, going to butterscotch. Still plenty of stone fruits, spice. Even hazier than the freshly-opened one. Doesn’t seem to have suffered in the least for having been open so long.
Gewurztraminer 2011 – Open for five weeks (!)
- Filled in August 2012. Caramel coloured and hazy, peppery and with a strong roast/tobacco aroma in the nose, but the palate offers layers of stewed fruits (plums, raisins, apricots) and spices, and the finish is very long. Also a hint of “bite” to it.
Pepis de Gewurztraminer (Sparkling) 2012 – Open for two weeks
- Bannwarth added some fresh must to the wine when it was being bottled to encourage a second fermentation, which he hoped would “bring the wine around”, since it had been problematic. Despite having been open for two weeks, the wine still had some prickle and was very fresh, with a nearly-recognisable Gewurztraminer character, but not sweet. Light and floral compared to the 2011 still wine. My favourite of the lineup.
Synergie 2012 – not sure how long it was open
- Probably the clearest of the wines I tried, there was the most incredible nose of freshly-pulled carrots, lovely and slightly earthly, that was reflected in the palate as well. Quite herbaceous and fresh without much fruit, it was unrecognisable as being the same wine from two vintages later, though extremely interesting and long.
Truly, the wines are not what one expects after years of drinking fresh, temperature-controlled whites. The flavour and aroma profiles run much more towards spices and stewed fruits, they are differently-structured, appear very different in the glass. But they are fascinating wines. The lack of oxidative notes defies convention and expectation. Sadly, it is quite obvious that these wines would be very difficult to sell to most consumers – but the market for natural wines is growing, and the fans – like with any niche product – are extremely committed to the style.
The haziness of the wines was foreshadowed during the cellar tour when Stéphane and I talked about fining – which he doesn’t do with his natural wines. The result, he says, is that there is still a fair amount of proteins in the wine which react with the air, particularly, and make it hazy. The difference really is cosmetic.
In addition to trying these fascinating wines, I took home a bottle of his Pinot Gris 2012, which he encouraged me to sample over a week or more to see how it evolves. I haven’t opened it yet, but I am very much looking forward to doing so.
You can read my tasting notes on Qvevri Pinot Gris 2012 here!