“Stay calm and have faith” – The chemist among Alsacian wine makers
Domaine Ansen is a small wine estate in the village of Westhoffen, Alsace, just a short drive away from Straßbourg. It was established in 2012 by Daniel Ansen. Daniel owns 8 ha of vineyards spread over the wine hills in and around Westhoffen, which he works organically. This means he doesn’t use any chemical additives to make his wine nor does he spray his vineyards with chemicals. He grows all of the varieties that are permitted to be produced into Alsacian wine, with Riesling being his major variety. He produces mostly white wines, Pinot Noir and also Crémant d’Alsace.
Daniel and I are driving back from Colmar, the wine capital of Alsace, where he had wine business to do. He is driving the car, his daughter is sleeping in the back of the car while I’m sitting in the passenger seat enjoying the view of the Vosges mountains. The peacefulness and tranquility of the situation encourage me to ask Daniel for an interview. He kindly agrees. So, lean back and enjoy reading the following interview!
Me: Daniel, is it ok for you if I interview you in the car, while you are driving?
Daniel: Yes, sure. We have 35 minutes until we reach home. What do you want to know?
Me: Ok, thanks. You are the first person ever I am interviewing, I am excited. Let me know, if some questions don’t work.
Me: Ok, let’s start with a very fundamental question. Why and how did you become a winemaker?
Daniel: That’s quite a long story. At high school, I was around seventeen, I became very interested in science, particularly chemistry and biology. At the end of one school year, my chemistry teacher organized a presentation portraying occupations related to chemistry. Wine maker was one of the jobs he presented. And I immediately thought: „Wow, that’s a job I would enjoy! I’m good at chemistry and we have vineyards in the family!“
One year later, after my graduation from high school, I finally had to decide what I wanted to do. The best way to become a winemaker was to take a preparatory course in engineering at a school in Montpellier. The entry to this course was very competitive and I didn’t get in. So I searched for alternatives and then joined the university in Bordeaux. Bordeaux was the place where I finally and with my whole heart decided to become a wine maker. Bordeaux is full of wine and wine related events, like wine tastings, that I got involved in. My interest in wine making increased and further developed. Also, many of my friends studied wine making and we formed a community of likeminded people who exchanged and supported each other.
Me: How then did you become the wine maker at Domaine Ansen?
Daniel: After having finished my studies in Bordeaux, I worked as a wine maker on different wine estates in Bordeaux, Alsace and also Australia. In 2004, I became a wine consultant for the French chamber of agriculture, advising many wine estates on basically everything related to wine making. That way I got to know many different wine estates and many philosophies about wine making. When my father, who worked vineyards for commercial use, retired, I moved back to Westhoffen and took over the estate. I decided to not sell the grapes to wineries but rather start launching my own wine. So, in 2012 I had my first vintage which was very exciting.
Me: Wow, this is quite an interesting story. What do you love about your current work?
I love the fact that I am involved in the whole wine making process: planting a vineyard, working in the vineyard, making wine in the cellar, bottling, deciding on the labels and meeting customers, just to name a few. Also, I think it’s great to work in an industry that is fascinating to so many different people. Professionals and non-professionals alike are fascinated by the same product. Our passion for wine – making it, selling it or writing about it – brings us together and offers opportunities for exchange and networking.
Me: What makes Domaine Ansen different from other wine estates?
Daniel: The ground of my vineyards is very unique. My grapes grow on grounds that are very mineral, with big amounts of magnesium and potassium. You can taste these in my wines. Also, I try to do many things a little differently from other wine makers. For example, before bottling I decarbonate the wine by using nitrogen, this procedure removes carbon dioxide from the wine. Since the amount of carbon dioxide in a wine influences its sharpness I would say that my wines are a little softer and rounder than other wines.
I am quite proud of my Riesling, too. It is totally dry, there is no sugar left. Not many growers in Alsace would do such dry Rieslings because they believe with some sugar in it Rieslings sell better. But my philosophy is that Rieslings should be bone dry and I am happy I can achieve this through total fermentation.
Me: What is the biggest challenge in your work?
It is definitely the amount of time that is required for all the tasks that I have to do. At the moment I am a one-man-business and my vineyards are actually too big to be run and worked by only one person.
Me: What is important for you when making wine? What do you believe in?
Daniel: For me it is very important to have self-confidence in my skills and also in nature. It is important not to worry about how a grape looks or tastes or the taste of wine at the early stages of the wine making process. It is important to trust nature. We shouldn’t expect wine in January to taste like it should a year later, after bottling. I must have confidence in the wine itself and how it develops. Some people get worried when the wine is not to their liking at an early stage. They do more work, add more additives. But I try to stay calm and have faith. I believe that if I have done everything right in the vineyard and picked my grapes at the right time, then everything will turn out well.
I don’t put additives to my wine, no gum, no extra tannins. My philosophy is that wine should be a healthy and natural product. It should be as healthy and natural as possible. It should also be nutritious for the body. It should be good for you! The wine should taste grate, of course, but I want my wine also to be good for the body and your health. That’s why I strongly refrain from any chemical additives. I am also very interested in the science aspect of wine making. How exactly do different yeasts work? What is the relation between chemistry and aroma? These and many more questions drive my work and I hope to find answers through my wines.
Me: What do you think about French wine business and French wine culture?
Daniel: I think we are very very good at making wine but not so good at promoting it. In the whole of France and Alsace in particular. The whole business is also very traditional. We don’t care too much about research and the science background of the wine making process. I am comparing my experiences in France to my time in Australia. There, people use the knowledge, that is constantly being generated, immediately. New research findings are quickly applied to their work. Here, growers don’t seem to trust science.
Me: I think I understand. But could you specify your last point a little? About research?
Daniel: A good example is yeast. Yeast is widely used in the fermentation process. It is either added by the wine maker or is already in the cellar. There is a believe among wine makers that selected yeasts are not good. In Australia, I encountered many experiments with different yeasts in relation to Riesling. There, people took this topic seriously and tried to use research findings to improve their work. In France, everyone is worried that everyone is going to use the same yeast so that in the end every wine will taste the same. But I say: yeast is only one factor among many factors that influences the taste of wine. Each year something else has great impacts on the wine, like the for example the climate.
Me: Which wine place on the globe would you like to visit?
Daniel: Definitely Chinese vineyards. Everybody says China has been planting huge vineyards with huge amounts of grapes. They are among the top ten wine producing countries and are supposed to produce many ice wines and a lot of Riesling. But nobody really knows what is happening there. You never meet a Chinese wine maker, never meet a fan of Chinese wine, never get to taste a Chinese wine yourself. I’m curious about this and that’s what I would like to investigate.
Me: Well, China is not on my agenda but I am intrigued. A little investigation would be quite interesting! So, we have spoken so much about your estate and your philosophy. Off all your wines, which one is your favourite?
Daniel: My red. Pinot Noir. It has got strong structure, the perfume is unique. But also the Sal Weingarten, is a favourite of mine. It is a blend of Muscat and Pinot Blanc. The point of this wine is: most people believe a higher alcohol level indicates that the grapes were riper at the point of harvest and that the wine is therefore a better quality. But with the Sal Weingarten, we have flavours of ripe fruits and a balanced mouthfeel, but the alcohol level remains low. In my opinion, alcohol is the least interesting part of wine because it doesn’t contribute to good health as much as minerals, phenolics and organic compounds. I am happy and proud of this wine because I managed to make a wine full of aromas but still quite low in alcohol.
Me: I totally agree. The Pinot Noir’s perfume really is full and fruity. When I tasted the wine and compared it to some Spätburgunders that I recently drank from Rheinhessen, I must say, that your Pinot Noir was softer and somehow rounder than the ones I encountered. Also the Sal Weingarten was an aromatic explosion for me and I totally recommend this wine to everyone loving intense flowery aromas!
Daniel: Thank you!
Me: Well, thank you, Daniel, for this interview. I am very grateful that you gave me the opportunity to ask you so many questions and thank you for your patience with me and your explanations! Good luck with the wine and many happy customers!
Find further information on Daniel’s website: http://ansen.fr/
Interview: Agnes Honka
Feel free to contact me if you want to know more about Alsace, wine or simply want to exchange.