The Decanter interview

  • Friday 18 February 2011

Interview: Olivier HumBrecht MW

A decade ago, I first had the chance to taste through an entire vintage of Zind-Humbrecht wines. Superlatives are common in the wine world, but even in the coldest sobriety, and under the admonitory finger of an Old Bailey oath, I’d still have to say that this tasting was one of the 10 greatest experiences I have had in 22 years of writing about wine. The first reason was that every wine in the range of 30 or so was distinctly different from the others. Ranges of this size are not unusual in Alsace or Germany – but this degree of articulate differentiation most certainly is. The second reason was that so many of the wines weren’t simply beautiful, but compelling, too. I felt they were teaching me something new, and expanding wine’s expressive boundaries in terms of aromatic presence and saturation of flavour. They moved the game on a notch or two. My personal wine world hasn’t been the same since, and my admiration for the man who created them has only been reinforced by subsequent tastings.

A family concern

Olivier Humbrecht was born to wine; the family has been making it since the 17th century. The Zind- Humbrecht domaine came into being in 1959, after his mother (Geneviève Zind) married his father Léonard. Every year during Olivier’s childhood, there was some extension to the cellar, with a new parcel of vines every two or three. ‘Perhaps it’s
over-stating the case,’ he says, ‘but I almost had the impression that I was being sucked into a sect. I think it’s a common scenario in the agricultural world. If you have a beautiful garden, you suddenly realise that you can’t just go away somewhere for a month any more. The children of winegrowers become winegrowers by that slowly deepening
relationship which establishes itself subtly over the
years. Then, one day, you realise “That’s it, I can’t do
anything else now”.’

He chose to study oenology at Toulouse rather than Bordeaux or Montpellier because the course was a broader, less strictly scientific one. Then came military service – or the option of overseas aid to French companies abroad. He could have gone to China to help Rémy Martin plant its vineyards there – but chose London instead, where he worked for
Sopexa, France’s food and wine promotion organisation. It proved doubly wise – first of all because, via shared journeys on the number 9 bus to Piccadilly, he met his wife Margaret, a willowy Scot. And secondly because work at Sopexa introduced him to the Master of Wine course. ‘At the beginning, I signed up for it out of curiosity and simply to learn.
But as it went on, I wanted to play the game. I didn’t want to be taken for an idiot.’ He failed initially, but passed second time around – and thus became, in 1989 at the age of 26, France’s first Master of Wine.

By then he’d done a world tour and was heading back to the domaine to help his father. It wasn’t a happy time. ‘Our soil was becoming impoverished. We used to spend a lot on fertilisers. Every year we’d get our soil analyses done, and they’d be worse than before. We had problems of inadequate magnesium, potassium, boron; we even had calcium deficiencies on limestone soils. There were terrible attacks of grapeworm at the beginning of the ’90s, and we
weren’t happy with the fruit quality we were getting. We realised we were getting to the limits of a system.’ The Humbrechts began making their own compost – but even that began badly. ‘It was a total failure because of the manure, which came from an intensive farm down the road. I asked the farmer what he was feeding his cattle, then took the ingredient list to a pharmacist. He confirmed that it was full of antibiotics and other drugs, in effect. He also said that if you ingest that amount of antibiotics, your waste products won’t decompose because the bacteria can’t develop in the right way.’

Dramatic results

The quest for good manure led Humbrecht to an organic farmer in the Vosges. ‘After that, the compost was superb, so we gave him an annual contract. And in talking with him, I found out he was working with biodynamics. Since his biodynamic manure was so much better than the conventional version, I began to make my compost using biodynamics, too, from 1996. And the difference was so noticeable – to the eye, to smell, in every way.’ Experiments in the vineyards produced similarly dramatic results, so Humbrecht switched the whole domaine over to biodynamics by 1999. ‘In a vineyard like Rotenberg, for example, with almost 50% active calcium, if I had the slightest problem in spring, the vines would be canary yellow with chlorosis the following week. I’d tried everything – iron preparations, conventional fertiliser, seaweed fertiliser … lots of money spent for very poor results. Two years after we took up biodynamics, chlorosis was gone. It’s never been back. The magnesium deficiency – finished. The potassium deficiency – finished. I could go on. We realised that the vine had recovered the ability to find the elements it needed.’

No French domaine is a better advertisement for biodynamics than this one, thanks to the quality of vineyards and wines alike. ‘Today, I wouldn’t know how to do things any differently. The only thing that might one day force us to do so – and I really hope this is never the case – is the cost of production. It’s very, very expensive to do properly.’

I wondered where this MW stands on some of the regional controversies. How does he feel about the grand cru system, for example, so implacably opposed by the likes of the Trimbach and Hugel families? ‘We use the system – yes, of course. There have always been great vineyards here, ones with a stronger personality that the others. But we use the system within our own system. Which begins with the Alsace AC. Then we have a range of village wines
followed by the name of the commune. After that, we have our lieux-dits (named vineyards), including some that are classified grand cru. I use the grand cru appellation provided the sites correspond to my idea of what a grand cru should be – if they are found near the heart of the grand cru, for example. If they are on the edge, in a piece of land I think shouldn’t have been classified, then I don’t. In Wintzenheim, for example, there’s a parcel of Hengst which I always declassify. The age of the vines also matters. If a vine has less than 30 years, I never put it into my grands
crus. That’s part of our ethics. Not all the parcels in a grand cru should go to market as grand cru. In Burgundy, of course, they all do. The price is too good to refuse. But I would ask the same question of them – is it adequate that a wine called Chambertin should be made with five- or six-year-old vines?’

Sweetness debate

Wildly varying levels of residual sugar in Alsace’s wines, too, is another long-running regional controversy – and Humbrecht’s non-interventionist, risk-taking approach means that every wine ferments only to the extent to which its indigenous yeasts allow. ‘Maybe,’ he says, ‘it would be easier to say to Alsace producers – okay, nothing but dry
wines. Everything with more than five grams per litre of residual sugar is no longer Alsace. Any
consumer could understand that. But it would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are thousands of excellent wines with 8g/l, 12g/l, 20g/l, 30g/l, 100g/l of residual sugar, and consumers like those wines, too. Simplifying to that degree means depriving ourselves of some of our greatest wines.’ All Zind-Humbrecht wines are labelled with a
number between 1 to 5 to indicate the perception of dryness or sweetness (1 being the driest). ‘If Alsace as a whole adopts a system, I will happily use that either with ours or as a replacement for it. But we absolutely need a system.’

I wondered what was left for a man who had managed to achieve so much by his mid-40s. ‘The challenges for the future are all viticultural. There isn’t much more we can do in the cellar. In the vineyard, the challenge is to adapt to climate change. Not necessarily global warming, but any climate change. We have more and more extreme periods – drought, heat, cold spells, lots of rain. We have to give the soil the capacity to react better, no matter what the conditions are.’ Needless to say, he’s been experimenting – and the results will be shared with anyone who asks.

There are lots of reasons for admiring Humbrecht, but the one which still strikes me as primordial is the quality of his wines. Until you’ve tried them, you don’t know Alsace; perhaps you don’t yet know what white wine can be, either. They are terroir incarnate

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