An interview with Christian Binner

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This is an interview conducted with winemaker Christian Binner, that was featured as part of Saignee’s 32 days of Natural Wine series. It was originally conducted in French over email, and is translated to English here.

To start, can you tell us a little bit about your domaine and how you make your wine?

Domaine Binner has been making wine since 1770, always a father and son operation in Ammerschwihr, always working on the same terroirs, including above all the exceptional terroir of Kaefferkopf, today classified as an Alsace Grand Cru. My grandfather was one of the only winemakers before World War II bottling his own wine, and was therefore independant from negociants and the price fixing involved there. After the war, he continued to supply his clients with wine of quality and aging potential. He was cultivating his vines organically, not using any chemical products at all. In the 50′s my father wanted to continue to work the vines, and didn’t want to fall into the trap of industrialization, with it’s focus on maximizing productivity, use of chemicals, high yields and introduction of more and more machinery. Today, grapes are still harvested by hand, vinified in large old wooden barrels, and we never add yeast or sulfites. Wines are always aged on their lees, and bottled only when they are ready.

I took control of the domain in 1998, and have tried to continue their style of work since then. I converted the winery to biodynamics, restructuring the fundamentals, and I bought some vines in the great terroirs of Schlossbertg grand cru and lieux dits like Hinterburg. I’ve also tried to perfect the methods of vinification without sulfur and without filtration, thanks to help from people like Marcel Lapierre. Our domaine manages 11 hectares, on many different terroirs, essentially consisting of granite soils, which gives a finesse and freshness to our wines, with the quintessential grape varieties of Riesling, Muscat, and Pinot Noir.

How did you learn to make natural wine? What other winemakers did you work with?

My father taught me a lot. Unfortunately I did not go to school to learn to make wine. Marcel Lapierre and many of the winemakers who created the AVN (Puzelat, Overnoy, Castex, etc) were very helpful as well. The meetings of the AVN, the natural wine tastings, and many other travels in the vines helped me find the solutions to the particular problems of vinifying without sulfur. We are still waiting for centers of research to be become interested in this area of winemaking!

As far as biodynamics in wine are concerned, we have the chance here to be a very advanced wine region, with a great number of domaines already working in biodynamics, and the social chair of the Biodyamic Cultural Movement situated here in Colmar. Thanks to a diversity of regional associations, (Vignes Vivant (living vines), l’OPABA (Professional Organization of Biodynamic agriculture in Alsace), etc) we are able to exchange a lot of information.

Tell us what you think about the field blending method sometimes seen in Alsace.

During the German occupation, the monovarietal method so popular in Germany and Austria was imposed on us. Alsace was producing wine before the wars like everywhere in France, putting their terroir first. Kaefferkopf is otherwise one of the only alsatian terroir that always continued to claim the notion of a wine of blending where all the grape varieties of a grand cru were blended to make one single wine. The old lables of my grandfather’s wine showed the production of wines called Gentil, Cotes d’Ammerschwihr, Kaefferkopf and not always the grape variety. One vineyard planted by him that we are working with now is still planted with Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Muscat, and Chasselas! Today, with such a large area of terroir, I think it is sucicidal to continue to claim that a grape variety, which is unfortunately becoming an international brand with a very low price point, is all that we know how do to do. Imagine if Romanee Conti wrote Pinot Noir on their bottles all of the sudden! I work closely with Marcel Deiss, the expert in this area, who works in another grand cru practicing field blending in the the terroir of Altenberg de Bergheim, to advance these ideas in the Grands Crus of Alsace.

We know that the expression of a grape varietal works well with high yields harvested pre-maturely, vinified without elevage in reductive manners, with of course use of sulfur. However, the voice of natural wines is not a voice of technological expression of a single varietal, but it is one of terroir. The problem will be pedagogical for french and foreign markets, because the pronunciation of the 7 Alsatian grape varieties is complicated enough, not to mention the 51 Grand Crus and certain lieux dits!

What do you think of the state of natural wines in general, all over the world?

I am very happy to know that more and more there are many winemakers working on this around the world. For many reasons:

This is for me the only way to fully express one terroir, one winemaker, and one vintage.
This is the form of viticulture that respects humanity the most, as well as ones health and that of our planet.
This is a real challenge of engineering, a very demanding and exciting human adventure for the winemaker.
However, in our current society, we are condemned to remain marginal, even though consumer interest is increasing day by day, because industrial production remains dominant. But it does not bother us, since it leaves us the right to exist!

Have you tasted wines made without sulfur from countries other than France, such as California and Chile, for example? What do you think of them?

Yes, I have tasted wine made without sulfur from an American winemaker who has been working with a beauftiful terroir for a long time. Terroir, experience, and old vines are all that is necessary to make a nice wine. The same goes for wines made in Chili, or even for those already working in France. The carmenere made by Clos Ouvert is superb!

There are people who criticize the Chauvet method and its use of carbonic maceration, as a method that does not express real terroir. They think that it ads an effect that always tastes the same in all the different terroirs. What do you think, true or false?

It is clear that the Chauvet method is particularly useful for making a red wine without sulfur. But the carbonic method was typically found in Beaujolais. For me, it has to stay there. A cabernet from the Loire should not be vinified with carbonic maceration, because that’s not the best way to reveal the terroir of the Loire. Carbonic allows wine to express fruit qualities and has a tendancy to give an aromatic profile common to all the red wines vinified the same way. and therefore for the lovers of natural wines are very easy to recognize. But it’s a little unfortunate for natural wines to have one standardized taste rather than a diversity of tastes. Natural winemakers will not become wealthy by using carbonic maceration in the way others have taken on the use of wood dictated by our friend Parker! If you want to make a simple, thirst quenching wine, then ok, carbonic is fine, but for the great terroirs, stick to the old techniques, not only the simple carbonic!

I see that each wine region of France has a marketing company, which brands the region and markets to consumers. For example, there is an organization called Cahors Malbec, which recently put on a festival called the international days of malbec, in cahors. They receive funds from the government of France and the European Union, and they paid a lot of money to bring foreign bloggers and journalists to the festival, to help promote their wines throughout the entire world. I imagine that the AVN doesn’t receive any funds like that from the government. Why not?

The AVN is not yet sufficiently structured to organize a festival like that. We are not big enough in numbers, and don’t have a big enough budget to think about those kinds of things yet. But we have the future ahead of us, and the day willcome when we will have enough numbers, and will be well structured. Then the institutions will accept us in the European wine community (like has already happened with organic agriculture) and then that type of festival would be a grand success. Have patience!

At the Salon des vins Libres, there was a discussion of the need for a “natural” certification to put on wine labels. I imagine such a certification would be given by the AVN, yes? How would that work? Would someone do tests on the wines, like in the AOC system? Is this a real idea, or just speculation?

It is clear that the consumer wants to know when a wine is natural, if it adheres to our charter. They really want to be able to know if it’s natural or not. The idea of having a logo could be nice. We will see. As far as a certification, I think that the philsophy which drives the AVN goes entirely against the system of certification, control, or constraints. We prefer a relationship of social, and human contact for right now. Because any certification can be abused, it’s just a question of shuffling around numbers and papers, but a casual discussion of friends around a wine barrel, would much more readily reveal a “bad boy” in our midst.