Welcome to the first in a series of stories that draw on some of the more unlikely experiences that I’ve enjoyed during my working life in wine. This first edition is set in the rolling hills of the Alsace in France, where a moving discovery leads to spiritual contemplation. It is, perhaps, a story best enjoyed with a glass of wine in hand!
The Alsace retains a special place in my mind as being one of the most picturesque parts of the world I’ve ever visited. I fondly recall the verdant hillsides planted out to stone terraced vineyards, intersected by the ‘route du vin’ and dotted with small townships with names like Riquewihr and Kayserberg. These are ancient towns filled with Germanic influenced ‘ginger-bread house’ style architecture and meandering laneways. In 2002, aged twenty, I secured a vintage winemaking position at Domaine Khuehn in the township of Ammerschwihr. A quant village, slightly outside the heavily trodden tourist trail, Ammerschwir sits nestled in the shadow of the famous Grand Cru vineyard, Kaefferkopf. Domaine Khuen was established in 1675 and carried with it an unbroken history that was well outside my realm of comprehension at the time. Unbroken may not be the right word to use though.
During the second world war this beautiful town passed between occupying forces more than once as the powers wrestled for its prized strategic location. Following a period of extended German domination, the Alsace was finally liberated with the support of the American armed forces. However, some believe Ammerschwir was left behind, or even sacrificed in the liberation, finding itself levelled by artillery and airstrikes. This means much of the current architecture arrived in the post war era, and certainly carries more of an austere and functional personality than some of the other towns in the Alsace. There were other deeply haunting reminders of that dark period, but more on that shortly.
Francis, the winemaker at Domaine Khuehn, was a wonderful man; charismatic, warm, and affable. He was generous with his time and knowledge – happy to share so much with me. He spoke fluent English, but our handshake agreement was to only use French whenever we were in the winery. While my command of the language was just handy enough, the deepest transfer of knowledge would come from time spent together beyond its walls. I fondly recall mornings walking through the vineyards. With the approaching harvest, we would sample the ripening fruit – by sight and taste (chemistry came later in the winery) and discuss the unique qualities of the grape varieties and specific vineyard sites. I held the soil in my hands as Francis patiently and passionately educated me on the unique geological and climatic attributes of the region. And then sometimes, on the other side of the working day, he would take me along to meet other local winemakers to talk about the harvest and try their wines. If we were lucky enough to be invited to stay for dinner, dusty bottles would be retrieved from ancient cellars, and I was given a privileged taste of the history of the Alsace, captured in wine and passionate discussion.
My time in the region was quite possibly the most formative of my career. There I learnt about wine styles, grape varieties, and winemaking techniques that continue to shape the wines we make today. However, there were other profound discoveries I made that I really only began to appreciate the significance of in recent years.
Domaine Khuen was built across three levels, one above ground, with two levels of cellar below. The lowest level was the most recent addition to the winery – the only space housing more familiar stainless-steel tanks and other modern winemaking apparatus. The remainder of the cellar was filled with large timber foudre. These are effectively oversized wine barrels, though unlike a normal size barrel, they can be used for many years thanks to their extra thick staves. Too large and heavy to move easily, the foudre remain fixed in their place, often for many years. The middle level of the cellar was a relatively long and narrow expanse, with a modest concrete walkway flanked by two rows of these large foudre. The space was fairly dark and damp, due to limited natural light and airflow.
One day, I found myself working at a particularly old foudre which occupied a solitary position at the end of the cellar. Apparently, this particular barrel was over 100 years old, needless to say my 20-year-old mind was blown! Preparing to receive the next batch of juice for fermentation, the foudre needed to be cleaned. This involved entering the tank via a very modest doorway positioned on its front face. Arm, then shoulder, head, then body. Even though I was relatively small in size, this was still quite a manoeuvre as I’m sure you can imagine. Once inside, I was armed with a large, dull chisel, and the gun attached to a hot water power washer. In the haze of steam, I sprayed and chipped away at tartrate deposits so thick I could only imagine how many years they had been there. Each layer of natural crystalline deposit was a legacy of the many great wines that started life here. Again, relative to the highly sanitised stainless-steel environments found in most Australian wineries, this was a very different thing to experience. Once Francis was satisfied the interior was clean enough, I exited and began tidying up the exterior of the foudre.
And this is when I saw it.
The natural stone walls of the cellar were blackened through the years of damp, which is why patches of a lighter shade caught my eye. These were on the wall behind the foudre. When I inspected more closely, I realised these patterns were actually the impressions of hands. Many, many, handprints. With curiosity aroused, I asked Francis where these had come from. In quiet tones he described how many of the villagers had taken shelter in this very cellar during the bombings and artillery attacks of the second world war. While the town above was violently levelled to the ground, they hid in fear and forced silence until the blasts finished and the earth stopped trembling. In all likelihood they remained down there for many days following, waiting to be sure it was safe before emerging. While they bunkered in the cellar, some – mainly children – had made these impressions on the wall.
Sitting here and writing this now, the hairs on my neck stand up in the same way they did when I was there, with my own hand hovering above theirs. While Francis’ story is light on details, my imagination is not – I picture the families of townsfolk huddled in the dark cellar, in total silence, wrapped in the warmest clothes they had, but utterly frozen by fear. I imagine how much of this fear they would share and the questions they would ask themselves – how long would they be down there? Would they have enough food and water? Would the German forces discover them? Or would the winery simply implode from above? I think about the young and the infirm, and the helplessness with which their loved ones could protect them. I wondered if they had all survived.
While I was in no way superstitious, or even a believer in the afterlife, it’s fair to say at times there was an eerie feeling in this winery. It was almost as if the ancient cellar had a soul. After too many wines one afternoon, Francis began talking about this very thing. He asked if I had sensed it. I’m sure I smiled apprehensively, nervously wondering where this discussion might go. He went on quite seriously though. He described how this winery, and others like it, had a spirit. The spirit was a presence borne of the memory of anyone who had spent time in the cellar, be it making wine or cowering under artillery blasts. It was a manifestation of their residual energy, and all of the energy that moved between its walls and tanks and into the bottles. From grapes to press, from press to foudre, and finally foudre to bottle – each step of the way saw a transfer of energy, and this is what fed the spirit.
At the time, I shrugged off Francis’ story as a bit of wine-induced mumbo jumbo, but now, twenty years on, I appreciate the more romantic side of what he spoke of. I love the idea that those working within the walls of the winery leave something of themselves behind – a kind of mystical energy that accumulates season after season like the layers of tartrate crystals on the inside of that foudre.
Sometimes, when I’m in a quiet spot in our cellar, I find myself smiling as I remember this story and allow my sense of rationality to bend, just a little.
P.S. If this story lands with you or sparks any memories of your own unlikely wine experiences, please feel free to send me an email – I’d love to hear from you!