This past September during harvest time I spent an afternoon in the cellar with Alsatian natural winemaker Christian Binner.
That afternoon Binner had noted that two particular tanks – a muscat in old foudre and a sylvaner in steel – were fermenting sluggishly, in ways that displeased him. So he decided to employ a device he’d received as a gift from fellow Alsatian natural winemaker Pierre Frick: a Flowform, which is to say a graduated series of basins through which a liquid can flow in figure-eights that are intended to mimic the movement of mountain streams.
Developed by the British sculptor John Wilkes in the 1970’s, flowforms are an elaboration of Rudolf Steiner’s vortex principle, which held that water and liquid preparations are re-energized by being swirled first in one direction, then the opposite direction.
Applied to water, Flowforms are intended to increase its oxygen exposure, to invigorate microbial activity with the aim of helping break down pollutants. Moving water through flowforms is also purported to create negative ions, which are in turn purported to have mood-enhancing effects.
Applied to a portion of fermenting wine must, Binner explained, the Flowform has the effect of hyper-oxidizing the must, which later, reintroduced into its parent tank, nourishes and reinvigorates the fermentation.
Setting up the pump circuit was a challenge in itself. Binner used a forklift to place the Flowform’s frame atop a rickety-looking pile of palettes. Then there arose a splash-issue at the end of the Flowform, where it fed back into a bucket of juice. The sheer lack of aesthetic value of Binner’s Flowform – which resembles a series of curvy toilet bowls, and indeed bore the trademark of a producer of toilet bowls – might give one to think it was specially designed for use in vinification. Its designer had nonetheless neglected to focus the spout protruding from the bottom-most bowl, which meant the juice exited with the precision of shotgun blast. I wound up standing beside the spout holding a funnel beneath it for fifteen minutes while Binner rigged up a grill that could hold the funnel in place.
I got a good gander at its effect on the juice over time. What was identifiably muscat at the beginning was closer to cider after twenty minutes, an effect that I assume would give many conventional winemakers pause. Nota bene, however, that the wines upon which Binner uses the Flowform do not necessarily come out particularly dark or oxidative; it depends at what stage of fermentation, and upon how much of the juice, and for how long the Flowform is employed. In September during fermentation we passed about half a hectolitre through the Flowform for just under thirty minutes.
I haven’t seen the technique performed elsewhere. But it seems like a particularly vivid illustration of what many natural winemakers speak of when they talk about ‘accepting’ oxygen-contact as an integral part of the winemaking process. Binner, for his part, evinces an equanimity in the cellar that belies his fundamentally exploratory spirit in vinification. He said more than once, as we rigged up the Flowform, “We’ll see what this does!”
The basis for Binner’s optimism is found in his magisterial range of unsulfured, unfiltered wines, which, particularly over the last five years, have quietly become benchmarks for the region and for natural wine in general.
Domaine Christian Binner
2, rue des Romans