By Alice Feiring
In the spring of 2008, bespectacled Patrick Meyer stood behind the table at a New York City tasting. By mistake, I made eye contact. Feeling obligated I tasted the wines of Domaine Julien Meyer and obligation immediately flew out the window. The wines were delicious and the man equally intense. Given my focus on the wines of this nature, I wondered how I had missed him? This past January, he and I reconnected in Angers where I tasted some of his wines made under a flor– that yeast layer than can develop on a wine when not topped off in the barrel, like in the Jura. The 2001 Zellberg Sylvaner was nutty and sherried, the terroir and varietal sung out. I was riveted. I had to visit. That’s how I found myself in Alsace in his vines, a week before flowering.
Patrick Meyer’s parcel in the granitic soils of the Heissenstein vineyard was a sensual mess of wheat, blossoms and clover, thigh high and intensely fragrant with fertility. With the Vosges over my right shoulder and Germany in the distance to the left, I was in the middle of the rows, my bare legs pricked by nettles. I took a deep inhale. Then, the vigneron stabbed a pitchfork into the ground and waved the unearthed clump of dirt under my nose, “Soil is like an apartment building,” he said. “Do you want to live with your neighbors but do you want rummaging through your bedroom or your closets?”
One of those inspirational vigneron thinkers, Patrick is presently investigating the ‘do little’ farming beliefs of the master minimalist farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka. He’s stopped deep tillage and instead employs nature to keep the soil aerated. Yet, when he will turn over the vegetation, he’ll take care not to turn it over more than five centimeters, “So that all of the lives stay on their proper floors and right apartments.”
Nothalten, in the northern part of the Alsatian wine strip has been home to the Domaine since to 1706. Patrick currently runs the domaine and was only five years old when his father died. His mother then took over. Ironically, when Patrick finished his viticultural degree in 1982, he was the one to finally introduce synthetic treatments on his 8.70 hectares. But not for long.
Within three years he noticed he was poisoning his plants and swiftly returned to organic. A decade later embraced biodynamics. Making wine more naturally coincided with his return to organic. “ Also in 1985 I started to eliminate enzymes, then yeast, and meta-tartaric acid and ascorbic acid, and all the rest. Actually my story is simple,” he explained, “the less product I put in my wines, the more they seduced me. Common sense has always motivated me. Why put the yeast while any fruit ferments naturally? Why extract and remove the living that protects and nurtures the wine by removing the lees? Why sulfur the wine has the immunities that come from a healthy organic farming? If things are in balance and healthy why remove, add, alter, improve, work with biocides, sweeteners, make-up? Finally for the past ten years I either make wines with no sulfur or with the maximum 20mg total.” He had no idea that he had Alsatian colleagues who worked in simpatico ways, including Jean-Pierre Frick, Bruno Schueller and the Binners, until much later, in the early 2000s, when he went to attended a wine tasting, Vini Circus. “Until then, I worked without any community or influence for many years,” he explained. “It has always been the wine that guided me.”
An example is his work with oxidative winemaking. In 1997 he had much botrytis. “The wine had an alcohol potential of between 15 and 17 ° which would have been undrinkable to me.”
He did not top off the barrels. The wine developed a layer of yeast called flor. The wine lost its primary fruit characteristics and segued to earthy complexity. For Patrick, the wine became easier to drink, and handled the alcohol with grace. He says as far as he can see there is no tradition with flor wines in his area, “But consider what making wine was like before the 20th century from a hot cellar and left in until its 7th year. In literature, the wines are described with flor characteristics.”
His winery and cellar is on ground level, underneath his Nothalten home where he lives with his family. He ferments in smallish vats, some stainless, some larger wooden barrels, not the typical Alsatian ovals. He has three cement fermentation eggs–and he’s not sure if he likes them or not, yet.
Dipping his slender pipette into one of the eggs, he drew out some 2011 Muenchberg, Grand Cru. “This is more Muenchberg than riesling,” he declared, extolling the triumph of soil over grape. Coming from a vineyard that is a soil mash up of sandstone, limestone, granite, schist and gneiss, the wine has bracing acidity, with an earthy aroma and none of the standard riesling aromatics. He promised that in a few years the riesling will return.
Tasting older Muenchberg, I saw he was correct. The 2007 (which he said took four years to come around) was dazzling. Even with its botrytis, the wine had become magnificently dry and compellingly salty. The 2008 was no slouch either; tarragon, apricot and apricot skin. Other standouts from my visit were flagships of drinkability, the Nature wines affordable and intensely quaffable. After being spoiled by his crémants and pinot noirs, I wish we saw more of them in this country. His pinot gris has always been favorites in their savory meets brown butter endive personalities. The ’03 sylvaner was deep and nutty. The ’06 Dolmen pinot blanc was another dazzler. He said it wasn’t even drinkable until just now, in 2012 when after six years, the wine resurrected itself. I found it juicy and nutty with a brilliant candy-like freshness.
He is a seeker and a philosopher who knows himself. “I make wine differently now than I did ten years ago and ten years from now it will be different as well,” he said.
Perhaps, but his basic philosophies will always remain, like his mantra, “Choose the smallest actions for the biggest result.” Within those parameters, he will continue to farm without chemical. He will continue to use less copper in the vines until he finds a way to use none at all. He will explore possibilities of sulfur derived from vegetable and he will not be wedded to tradition but to sensibility. Above all things, when it comes to embracing the kind of wine he wants to make, he will always be open minded.
In Patrick’s view, wine is the world’s metaphor; it is after all, the apartment building. “If only we had the humility to listen to everyone and everything without prejudice and without interest. The living is forced into a chemical straitjacket that eventually make us all sick.”
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