This winter, for the first time in his family estate’s history, Marc Berna has produced straw wine. When the young wine grower (35) saw the exceptional quality of his grapes, he just knew that he had to try an experiment that proved to be far from simple.
Back in December, you simply had to walk into Marc Berna’s cellar, right in the centre of the village of Ahn, and look up to realize that something rather unusual was taking place here. On the upper floor, just above the wine press, you could see bits of straw poking out from shelves that had clearly been cobbled together with what had been to hand: plastic bottle racks, wooden planks and, for decoration, beautiful bunches of grapes strung up at the end of the shelving! “Since the decision to make straw wine was very spontaneous, we had to improvise a little”, says Marc Berna with a smile.
Improvise he might have done, but that doesn’t mean it was rushed. Everything was done as carefully as possible… and using age-old methods. The straw was collected from the Diedenacker family, friends who run a farm and produce excellent fruit brandies a little further up in the village of Niederdonven. As this straw was really fresh, this meant that the grapes Marc selected were perfectly aired. As a rule, winemakers dry their grapes on specially made plastic racks; however, there was no time to order any!
Marc Berna decided to use the straw for his Pinot Blanc grapes picked on the Elterberg hillside right by his cellar. “I selected this particular terroir because the grapes here always retain a lovely acidity, exactly what is needed to balance out the sugar in straw wine”, he explains.
Marc Berna ended up with 200 litres of juice with a staggering sugar level of 235 degrees on the Oechsle scale. Way above the 130 degrees required by law!
When it came to sorting the grape bunches, he was ruthless. “I only used bunches which were completely healthy, of uniform shape and not too closed”, Marc points out. Taking such precautions makes it easier to dry the grape bunches as they get properly aired. Once the grapes have been laid out to dry, the winemaker has to keep checking them to make sure that no bunches are rotting. Just one diseased bunch and many others can be contaminated. Marc knew that he had selected correctly and used the right methods because throughout the whole process, which lasted around two and a half months, he hardly had to throw anything away.
This is what’s so magical about straw wine. Whole bunches of grapes are left to dry for at least 60 days (the statutory period) so that most of the water they contain evaporates. The sugar then becomes concentrated in the grapes and the level simply soars. But for this to work successfully, the grapes have to be stored somewhere that is dry and well-ventilated.
On 18 December, the grapes which had dried out the most looked just like currants, so it was time to transfer the grape bunches to the crusher. This machine gently crushes the grapes so that the grape skins burst and fall by gravity into a tray below. “The grapes are left to macerate for two days so that the skins get damp and go soft”, explains Marc Berna. “This means that you can extract more juice when you press them.”
With his press hydraulic set on the same programme as for crémant, once the grapes had been pressed Berna ended up with 200 litres of juice with a staggering sugar level of 235 degrees on the Oechsle scale. Way above the 130 degrees required by law! This juice is an incredible nectar with aromas that explode. However, the work is not yet over as the final challenge then appears: fermentation. The higher the sugar level, the more complicated fermentation will be, since the yeasts tend to get choked off given the amount of work that has to be done.
“We had already made ice wine, in particular in 2001, 2003 and 2011, but never straw wine”
And indeed, Marc Berna has patiently bided his time. “I would rather have had rapid fermentation but that wasn’t how it was going to be”, he explains. “All I can do now is wait for the yeast to do its work and reach the statutory 12° of alcohol which will qualify my wine to be called straw wine (appellation vin de paille).” And what if this doesn’t happen? “I’ll get it listed as a late-harvest wine (vendanges tardives), but then it really will be quite some late-harvest wine!”
Since the estate had never produced this speciality before, making straw wine has definitely been quite an experiment. “We had already made ice wine, in particular in 2001, 2003 and 2011, but never straw wine”, says Albert Berna, Marc’s father, who handed the running of the estate over to his son in 2010 but who still comes to help out. “If we were going to start, it was this year or never”, states Marc. “Given the grapes we had on the vines, we simply had to give it a go!”
When time comes to open these bottles, which is bound to be to mark a special occasion – to accompany foie gras or at the end of a great meal – you can be sure that Marc and Albert will not forget these wrinkled, golden berries that they nurtured so patiently and lovingly for almost 80 days. Because whatever happens, this is an exceptional wine made from grapes that are extraordinary in every respect.