Though Jean Schaetzel is still involved in the business, it has been all-change at Domaine Martin Schaetzel in Alsace in the past year: that’s when former industrialist and 77-year-old man about town, Marc Rinaldi, acquired the domaine. Rinaldi made his fortune in aluminium and distributing Ferrari cars, before becoming a serious wine investor in the Alsace region, including owning this domaine and the 2* restaurant Jean-Yves Schillinger in Colmar.
But the new regime has brought fundamental change, including brand new state of the art cellars and a programme to convert all of the estate’s Grand Cru Vineyards to biodynamic certification. Key to that, was the appointment of a new Managing Director for the domaine: Christophe Ehrhart, formerly of Domaine Josmeyer and renowned as one of the world’s leading experts in the field of biodynamic viticulture and winemaking.
I met up with Christophe and his new UK distributor, Zubair Mohamed of Raeburn Fine Wines, at a lunch to celebrate their new business relationship. Like so many of Alsace’s top winemakers, from André Ostertag to Olivier Humbrecht, Christophe is a passionate and engaging speaker on biodynamic viticulture and the principles behind it. “The German winemakers began to use nitrates and of course the crops we’re easy and abundant,” he explains, “but Rudolf Steiner explained the plant had two roots, one for water and one for nutrients, and nitrates encourage the grape to effectively over-eat.” He tells the story of the extremely wet 2002 vintage, where his neighbour sprayed three times with synthetic chemicals to ward-off mildew, but still lost his crop, whilst Christophe’s was barely affected. The reason? “Because his vines were far too vigorous, they were not lean and fighting fit.”
Christophe came to biodynamics partly through the scourge of ‘mad cow disease’, believing that intervention in the natural habits and life-cycle of cattle, “to create meat from grass,” led to the problem. Having taken over at Martin Schaetzel only last year, some vineyards are still in conversion, so the wines will not all be biodynamically certified until the 2018 appears, though he insists all farming was very natural and “basically organic,” even before he arrived.
Christophe also has strong views on vineyard planting: “I will always use a massal selection from my own vines,” he says. Massal selection involves making new vines from cuttings of existing vineyard stock, rather than buying ‘clones’, specially bred for consistency by plant nurseries. “Cloning is the opposite of diversity.” he says. “It’s quite possible to have a full crop of 80hl/ha in a couple of years with the ‘right’ clones and using nitrates, but they will never be terroir wines.”
Impressive new cellars were built in 2015, but winemaking uses no laboratory yeasts, no enzymes, no chaptilisation and no acidification. They vinify parcel by parcel, mostly in stainless steel, but with some big, old oak vats. The wines are very impressive in a cool, precise way, but showing very forward and approachable fruitiness. Yields are low at only 30 – to 45-hl/ha, even for the ‘entry level’ wines.
Of Swiss descent, like many who arrived in Alsace after the 30 years war of the 17th Century, Christophe’s own family estate was one of the first to convert to biodynamic farming in the region, and Alsace runs in his veins. “We have 51 Grand Cru vineyards and arguably more complex soils than Burgundy,” he says. “Part of my drive to organics and biodynamics was to create true terroir wines from these soils.”