The Ollwiller vineyard as a Franco-German project of passion
In conversation with Thomas Mack, one of the managing partners of Europa-Park, and Mathieu Kauffmann, top Alsatian vintner, about cheap bulk wines, high-quality wines, biodynamic viticulture and synergies with Europa-Park
An interview by Horst Koppelstätter
Mathieu Kauffmann: In general, we have used too many chemicals in agriculture for too long. We are now reaching our limits. The soil is damaged, and that is also bad for your health. The plants are always sick. Things are starting to be reconsidered. Wine growing is also part of that. We can only achieve a balance in nature through organic methods. We need to go back to natural processes.
Mathieu Kauffmann: …I’ve been making wine for 30 years and my observation is that the products are becoming more and more similar. Wine is made from grape juice that has to be fermented with yeast in stainless steel tanks. Everything is sterile, everything clean, everything uses sulphur, everything is checked, tannins and protein are removed. Nothing is alive anymore. These wines, whether from Australia, New Zealand, Alsace or Baden, all have the same taste. Mass wines are being created that cost four or five Euros per bottle and they are becoming more and more similar. That’s a shame. The other thing: a bottle of Romanée Conti used to cost 100 Euros, now it is 1000 and maybe soon 10,000 Euros. People want to go back to nature, and they want different wines.
We have to let nature do what it wants to and the winemaker has to have more freedom. It has gone so far that you now see extreme natural wines, i.e. very cloudy wines that are simply bottled, allowing them to directly show the character of the soil. This is the opposite of sterile wine. Where I am is somewhere in between. I want to get the character out of the ground and try to make a classic, high-quality white wine that doesn’t taste like banana or apricot, but like Riesling.
Thomas Mack: The big wineries no longer put organic wine on their labels. This has become a standard for any very good wine. Every day I learn more about how Mathieu Kauffmann works. The natural soil is being restored, the roots can breathe again…
Mathieu Kauffmann: … the insects that go to the flowers growing between the vines also go to the vine itself. They control the vines. This applies to bacteria, worms, spiders. Everything develops in a balance. It will never be perfect, but it’s natural. This way, there is less and less need to spray chemicals. We also hardly need any copper or sulphur. We then spray with nettle and chamomile.
Thomas Mack: There are also approaches to not doing anything in the vineyard anymore…
Mathieu Kauffmann: …I’ve been testing permaculture at home for three years. I don’t have a tractor anymore, I don’t rip up the ground. You break the soil with it each time. With global warming, you can also see that the vines are often lacking water. So, we return to flowers and create a carpet of plants that hold in moisture. In these plants there are also worms, insects, bacteria, yeast. These are natural mechanisms to protect the vines. We first rebuilt the broken soil, and now it’s time for the vines themselves. For this, there is only cow manure, no more fertiliser. The plants become healthy and can protect themselves against diseases.
You have to see each form of agriculture as a whole. The question is: How can you influence the taste of wine with the help of nature? The wine only gets better every year. This is the difference between mass produced wine and good wine. The grapes look the same, but some have flavour and acidity where others don’t. Biodynamic cultivation has an incredible number of positive consequences. I studied agricultural engineering but had never heard of it. I have acquired all of this myself.
Mathieu Kauffmann: Organic means: no chemicals, using only natural products and copper and sulphur, no insecticides, no chemical fungus control. Biodynamic goes even further. We look much more at nature. This goes back to the anthroposophical teachings of Rudolf Steiner. We follow the phases of the moon and the stars. We want the plant to be able to grow naturally. That also means that we dynamise the soil, i.e. use dynamised compost. The focus is on the life of the soil.
Anthroposophy is quite controversial. It says there are other forces behind what you can see. Whether one believes it or not, the result is rather good. I don’t believe in everything either. My background is more in mathematics, physics and biology. I have been dealing with biodynamics for years. This is very old knowledge. The fact is that the best wineries in the world work in a biodynamic way. Is that due to Steiner, or just because they closely observe nature? I’m learning something new every day and regularly exchange ideas with many other winegrowers. I’ve been doing this for ten years and still know very little. It is certainly similar to homeopathy.
Thomas Mack: Big wineries do it too…
Mathieu Kauffmann: One of the largest in France is the Roederer champagne house. They started using biodynamic methods ten years ago. They are saying ‘if we can’t show that nature can do the same thing, nobody can.’ And their success only proves them right. We have to be role models. Today, Roederer has switched completely to biodynamic methods. And they have 260 hectares of vineyards.
Thomas Mack: That’s a peculiar story…
Mathieu Kauffmann: …the previous owners, the Gros family, wanted to sell the vineyard. When I visited with a relative, I immediately thought that you will have to work biodynamically with the wine here. This is the only chance for the future. I developed a concept for it years ago. But a new owner was not in sight…
Thomas Mack: …that’s where we come in. In July 2019, I was stood with friends at the Tour de France on the Haut-Koenigsbourg. It was a hot day at 35 degrees. You had to get there by 9am, as the road was closed. And of course, we drank a few glasses of Alsatian Riesling. At some point, Mathieu Kauffmann’s relative stood next to me. I didn’t know her nor Mr. Kauffmann.
She asked: “Mr. Mack, do you like the Riesling?” I said: “Yes, of course, it’s really delicious.” The cousin then said, “I know you, Mr. Mack, we love Europa-Park, we are big fans. But you’re still missing a vineyard.” … I just immediately said “Well, a vineyard, that’s not for us.” But I’ve always had a soft spot for good food and good wine. She didn’t give up. In order to not seem rude, I gave her my business card. That same evening, she sent me a dossier about the Ollwiller vineyard. It all looked great, and really appealed to me. I didn’t sleep well that night because I kept thinking about it.
The next day, a Sunday, Mathieu Kauffmann was with us in the restaurant ‘Ammolite – The Lighthouse Restaurant’. Our sommelier drew my attention to him, as he was the vintner of the year in Germany. So, we got talking and lo and behold, the friendly Alsatian woman who had spoken to me at the Haut-Koenigsbourg was there again. “And so Mr. Mack, what about the vineyard?” I was still cautious. I thought, I didn’t know if I could convince my family. She persuaded me to definitely have a look at it. It was a one-time chance. The next morning, I drove off to see it. I didn’t say who I was, but asked if we could buy some wine. I was thrilled from the first moment.
Then the next step: I called Mr. Kauffmann to see if he would be on board if we took over the vineyard. His biodynamic concept had me totally convinced. My mother is also very close to nature and we grew up eating organic food from an early age. Looking back, I can say that we would not have done it without top winemaker Mathieu Kauffmann. He stands for quality and sustainability, and that’s exactly how Europa-Park came about.
I then sent a dossier to our family, which everyone met with enthusiasm. But that was all before the Coronavirus pandemic. I don’t know whether we would have bought the vineyard estate later, but that doesn’t matter anymore. It is clear that the house involves an enormous amount of work, and will require a high amount of investment in order to wake everything up from its slumber.I
Thomas Mack: …I said straight away that it’s primarily a wine project. We want to make excellent wine. Of course, we will also be renovating the buildings. Throughout the history of our region, there have been so many connections across the Rhine. At Europa-Park we have represented this Franco-German idea for a long time. So naturally it fits perfectly. After 195 years, a long-established Alsatian entrepreneurial family is handing over the vineyard to an entrepreneurial family from Baden. That’s really nice! Everything fits. Everyone is delighted.
We received a very positive reaction from the region, everyone welcomed us with open arms as they felt that we were approaching the task with heart and soul. It’s a great family project for Mack generations to come. It will take a few years before the first top wine comes out, and that will just be the beginning. We are thinking very long term. At the moment, we can hardly cover the running costs with the sale of grapes. But it’s not an investment project, we want to achieve the best quality. This is the way we have always thought for our visitors at Europa-Park. This is a modern form of sustainability. Many generations should be able to enjoy this.
We would like to develop this wonderful piece of land for the entire region, and our family, in the long term. It will also be possible to have events here later. In the end, it was really fortunate that we found the Ollwiller vineyard. During the Coronavirus pandemic, however, we would probably not have dared to take such a step.
Thomas Mack: Mathieu Kauffmann explained the basic philosophy. At Ollwiller, we will initially rely on Riesling, sparkling wine, rosé wine, and then perhaps red wine as a second step. We want to get the best out of the soil. And the soils are good. We want to be in the top ten of the great Rieslings in Alsace…
Mathieu Kauffmann: …that’s our goal. So far, I have always achieved such goals. But I will need ten years for it.
Thomas Mack: I really appreciate Mathieu’s planning and rigour! Quality takes time…
Mathieu Kauffmann: …I was at the Bollinger champagne house for a long time, where a bottle was initially 50 Euros. Then we gradually went up to 100 and then 200 and then up to 800 Euros per bottle. In Ollwiller, this is the new challenge. It starts at 10 Euros per bottle and we would want to move towards 50 Euros. It’s very exciting to build up such quality. I have freedom at Ollwiller and that is the basic requirement for success. I have a clear view of how the best wine can be made. This takes place in the vines themselves. The winemaker is not supposed to do anything but allow nature to take care of things. He is only supposed to observe.
Mathieu Kauffmann: 99 percent, no, 100 percent in the vines.
Mathieu Kauffmann: I have a direct comparison with a vineyard in Germany, where a large investor has gotten involved. It’s almost all about figures and earnings, tables, preliminary planning and revenues. There is a lack of trust. Here on the other hand, I feel that the Mack family has complete trust in me. I am able to make mistakes too. The cooperation here is very good. We have the same goal, high quality that is in harmony with nature. I don’t have to be someone I am not here.
Thomas Mack: We really have a very trusting relationship and are in contact almost every day.
Mathieu Kauffmann: I always try to act as if I’m doing it for myself. I’ve been doing this successfully for 30 years.
Mathieu Kauffmann: I’m certain it can. My goal is to create a Crémant from Ollwiller of the highest quality. I want to prove that this quality is also possible outside of Champagne. I will need a few years.
Thomas Mack: Several Rieslings Grand Cru, the Crémant and a very modern young rosé wine. We have the potential for it. For red wine, too, but later.
Thomas Mack: Pinot Noir still has great potential in Alsace. But we don’t want to get bogged down. We can’t do everything at once. We need time.
Mathieu Kauffmann: It’s a landscape with more or less the same climate. It is only Kaiserstuhl that has a special feature due to its volcanic rock. The soils are otherwise very similar on both sides of the Rhine. Overall, however, a lot is changing with the climate. We have much more warm air in Alsace, as well as in Baden. We have to adjust to that.
Thomas Mack: We already have potential as the largest hotel resort in Germany, with numerous restaurants. We have always sold a lot of good wines, so it makes sense to have our own vineyard, because we have a large customer in Europa-Park that doesn’t require any distribution costs. There is synergy there. For example, last year we developed the Frizz summer cocktail with the Crémant from Ollwiller. That went incredibly well. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a nice summer cocktail, a bit like an Aperol Spritz. The letters Frizz stand for France, for Italy and zz for Sprizz. In any case, our goal is to get the Ollwiller wine on the market alongside Europa-Park.
Mathieu Kauffmann: Europa-Park is an ideal test field. The rosé, for example, should be good quality but not expensive.
Unfortunately, Alsatian wines have somewhat fallen asleep. We have to show that we are waking up. As such, we need to get out into the market, to the people. They will very quickly say what is good and whether the price to quality ratio is right.
Thomas Mack: It’s the same with Europa-Park and the production facility in Waldkirch. Europa-Park is the testing ground for new attractions that become successful worldwide. Why not also with the wine from Ollwiller?
Mathieu Kauffmann: The Riesling must be well known and have a good standing on its own.
Thomas Mack: There will be the house Crémant for sparkling wine. It has an excellent price-performance ratio and is of top quality, which means the bottles have to be on the yeast for up to ten years. The Ollwiller vineyard is a project that is very close to the heart for everyone involved. I am grateful that our family is following this path through the Franz Mack Foundation. It’s a wonderful family project that spans generations. It’s a family tradition.
We will definitely be putting emphasis on the German-French aspect. We are a bit further away from Europa-Park and therefore can provide a wonderful addition alongside the hustle and bustle of the theme park. When you drive across the border, which is actually no longer a border, you enter a different world. A long-term sustainable project. The Gros family had the property for almost 200 years, and that should also be our goal.
Mathieu Kauffmann: That also applies to me. I’ve worked a lot throughout my life, and I’ve found a project here that fulfills me, one that I really enjoy. So it’s a matter of passion for me too. I’m Alsatian, yet at the same time a cross-border commuter who often feels like a German. I was born in Marckolsheim.
Thomas Mack: Ollwiller is a Franco-German project which dissolves borders.