A swooping, curving tangle of wood, elegant and calming yet also just a bit architecturally chaotic–this was my impression of the new winery at Domaine Binner, a biodynamic estate in Alsace. The first harvest in the finished winery took place in 2012; Christian Binner had it built in an effort to create a harmonious, integrated energy that’s in line with Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy. Its graceful curves lend it a sense of movement or time passing, and the pale wood provides a subtle, forestal aspect to the winery. Christian opted to use local wood and stone after visiting other biodynamic wineries and noticing that they were made of concrete, held together with chemical glue, which Christian felt was contradictory to the philosophy, plus smelled bad. With the new winery, Christian feels that his wines are more stable and have less issues with VA (volatile acidity, a wine flaw). Prior to construction, Christian hired someone to measure the “vibrations” of the space before construction began, and was told that it reportedly had the energetic quality of a monastery. In other words, good vibes.
The winery stands a short drive from the city of Colmar, in southern Alsace. I was in Alsace on a press trip and put in a specific request to visit the Binner domaine, having tasted and liked the wines here and there, and knowing that it was biodynamic, natural, and in a portfolio that I admire very much (Jenny & Francois).
Christian comes from many generations of agriculturalists in Alsace; in the 1970s his family focused on grape growing and winemaking. The Binner estate has several Grand Cru holdings (Alsace’s 51 Grand Cru sites are located on steep slopes, with very diverse soils), including the well-known Schlossberg hill, the nearby Wineck Schlossberg site, and Kaefferkopf. I can’t claim to be an expert on Alsace terroir, but generally speaking, the Grand Cru sites produce wines with much more complexity and ageability, as you might expect.
As with many of the winemakers who interest me, Christian is something of an outlier in his region. He makes nearly all of his wines completely without sulfur. To this point, we tasted the exact same wine, vinified with a bit of sulfur in one bottling, and sulfur-free in another, side by side. (Christian aims to make wine without any sulfur, but occasionally adds it when the juice requires stabilization.) It was Christian’s 2014 entry-level Riesling, “Les Salon des Bains.” The low-sulfur version (10mg was added) had a golden color, a smoky nose, and stewed apricots and ripe fruits on the palate. The low-sulfur version also underwent a light filtration (I didn’t get details on what, exactly, was the method), whereas the sulfur-free wine did not (most of Christian’s wines are unfiltered). Christian likes to harvest grapes on the later side, and as a result I found the stewed stonefruit note present in all his white wines. The sulfur-free version of the same wine was, to me, livelier, with more acidity on the palate, and a touch of spritz. Both wines were very good, although if I had my choice I would drink the sulfur-free version.
As a winemaker, Christian likes to appreciate the unique qualities of each vintage; he enjoys being “spontaneous and experimental,” which perhaps makes it difficult to understand his wines, as they must vary from year to year. “I don’t want to make a brand, that’s bullshit for me. The vibration, you lose it when you want to be too much controlled,” Christian told me emphatically. Clearly, energetics are important to him.
Most of Christian’s wines are made in an oxidative style, with long élevage in barriques. The wines profess a lot of complexity, great acidity particularly with the Pinot Noirs, and exceptional personality. I feel that each time you drink a bottle of Christian Binner’s wine, you’re in for a philosophical experience. These are somewhat challenging wines, in my opinion. They demand a bit of attention, quite possibly a decanter, and a willingness to see where they lead you. Every wine I tasted was quite good, although my palate tends to prefer a touch of oxidization.
My favorites were the ’08 Auxerrois (purposely released late), a 100 percent varietal wine (highly unusual for this grape in Alsace) that displayed preserved peaches, a hint of nutmeg, and a rich, sexy, mineral quality on the palate, with a burst of acidity. As well, I loved the SI ROSE, a wine that Christian says was inspired by Sev Perru, the talented and knowledgeable wine director at The Ten Bells in Manhattan. It’s a stunning orange wine, made of 2/3 Gewurtztraminer (such an underappreciated grape) and 1/3 Pinot Gris. The structure and freshness were overwhelmingly impressive, and the nose was a beautiful mélange of rose petals and tangerines. As well, I found the 2013 Wineck Schlossberg Grand Cru wine to be quite good; it comes from a valley near the famed Schlossberg hill, spends 18 months in barrel without any topping-off or sulfur additions, and is a pleasant shock of acidity, with an overall austere and mineral quality, and that dose of stewed apricots I saw in all of Christian’s whites.
Something Christian said really resonated with me: he speculated that natural wines have become popular in cities like New York of late because we have a strong desire to connect with nature. I really do feel that, in the concrete jungle of the city, in a digitally mediated world, a bottle of wine can help us feel a bit less distant from the trees and the stars surrounding the world’s best vineyards, and certainly wine makes us feel more human. I wonder if it could be true of the Binner wines that many of them would best be enjoyed in France, where they don’t have to travel as far—I really don’t know. But I’d definitely be willing to test this theory out—so let me know if any of you would like to share a bottle of Binner sometime! And if you’re ever in Alsace, I do recommend visiting Christian, as he’s very hospitable and generous with his time, and speaks great English. In other woods, good vibes.