Social media has long been fascinating to me and has in fact played a very important role in my life. It is through the world of social media that I met my wife. In fact, I’ve met many people who have gone on to become important to me through Facebooks, Twitters and The Gram. It is through social media that I ‘met’ Jasmin Swan. I say ‘met’ as we haven’t actually been anywhere near anything approaching proximity. Lucky Jasmin you’re thinking. I’ve been following Jasmin’s story this year as she set off to Germany to make her own wine for the first time. She very kindly agreed to answer some questions about her adventure as I was eager to share her story.
For me wine is about telling stories and I’m always interested in how people find their way into this industry. How did you land in the world of wine?
My way to wine is not a really straight forward one, I don’t come from a wine making or wine loving family. I still remember drinking terribly cheap wine from the supermarket when I was 18… Basically in my mid 20s I was working in a Michelin starred restaurant as a receptionist and made friends with the sommelier. She was the one that signed me up for a WSET level 2 after I moaned at her how little wine knowledge I had…“Sauvignon Blanc, what even does it mean – is that a brand or a grape?”
After the course I changed my path from reception to restaurant floor and took on a job in Reykjavik at Dill, sooner or later I became the sommelier and we gained Iceland’s first Michelin star. I did that for a while, really enjoying it but after working for years in customer facing positions I decided I need to stop and change my view. I was still very much interested in wine, so I decided to look on the other side of the bottle – the producing side of things.
What a wonderful way to get into the world of wine. I imagine being sommelier at a Michelin star restaurant would expose you to some incredible wines. Was there a particular wine that served as an epiphany moment for you?
I don’t really have an epiphany wine as such… but I went to the Ardeche, the hot bed of Natural wines, the Valee d’Ibie is a magical place and did an internship with Gilles Azzoni. He’s a wonderful esoteric natural wine maker who works sans sulphite and he really inspired me. It was actually his son that planted the idea of making wine in my head. I am from Mönchengladbach in Germany, the country’s equivalent to Sheffield – this isn’t really a place where winemakers are born. I never thought I’d make my own wines, it’s just something that is not possible for a lady from my area….but Antonin, Gilles’ son said “You know Jasmin, every person who did an internship with my Dad also became a winemaker”
My first reaction was “Oh dammit, I can’t be the sole black sheep, the one who didn’t make it” Personal pride takes me all sorts of places sometimes. I was back with the Azzoni’s for harvest and shifted 3 tonnes of Grenache by myself and as a former (well, current) couch potato I was kind of amazed what my body is capable of and that I am capable of way more than I would have personally believed. Those were basically my key wine moments that lead me to wine.
3 tonnes? That’s an incredible amount of fruit. I get tired moving 3 kilos of anything. You’ve obviously travelled a little, if I recall when we first ‘met’ you were living in Edinburgh, what spurred the move back to Germany?
I’ve lived away from Germany for 8 years more or less and been in the UK and Iceland for 1 year. I spent some time in London but the majority was spent in Edinburgh. I love Scotland; Edinburgh really is my spiritual home but I sold my flat because a) you cant make wine in Scotland and b) Brexit. Also after nearly 10 years away from home I thought it was good to go back to Germany and my parents aren’t the youngest anymore.
Well Germany’s gain is our loss. I heard of someone planting in St Andrews but he quickly realised that perhaps Scotland is better suited to barley than grapes. Jumping into making your own wine is a huge step, what made you tackle such a huge project now? What made you choose the Mosel over other German wine regions?
Having sold my flat at a beneficial time and having pretty good contacts in the industry now I thought it was a once in a lifetime option. I don’t necessarily have the skills but I had some money. You can learn anything you want but will you always have the financial option? Probably not. After some time in the industry I’d made some really good winemaking friends. Two of those are my German mentors Rudolf & Rita Trossen in the Mosel. I have spent more time there this year, helping with pruning and all the other vineyard work, and, well it’s beautiful there. Also I love Riesling and it’s only a 2 hour drive from my parents. So close enough but far enough at the same time, if you know what I mean. I think in an ideal world I would have probably chosen southern France for myself, somewhere close to the sea but we aren’t in an ideal world and I need to be closer to my parents. Mosel is basically a happy compromise that lets me follow my dream, has a amazing terroir and I have good people around me. It could be worse no?
It certainly could be worse and what a wonderful opportunity you’ve made for yourself. Over the last 18 months I’ve explored more English wine and I’ve met a few producers who not only had no background in wine but also nothing of any wine making experience. To me wine making always seems daunting given the amount of choices one has to make; do you have any experience in making wine previous to starting out this year?
Yes and no. Very little but enough to sort of roughly know what I am doing. I did my internships in Austria, France and Germany so therefore I had some experience in wineries but very little real winemaking knowledge. I certainly knew the basics of getting from A to B to C. The decisions came naturally in a way. Usually if I was stressed or worried about a big decision, I took a cigarette break, thought about it and then pushed on. It’s my first year, so I have a huge freedom in my decision making. I am not from Mosel so I don’t need to follow tradition as such and can kind of do whatever I want… even though that’s “not how we do it at Mosel, Jasmin!”
I hadn’t considered that level of freedom but it is interesting to know how a ‘new kid on the block’ might be received. How helpful have other producers in the area been in helping and guiding you on the way?
Some have been very helpful, the winemaker who lets me rent part of his cellar to make my wine for example and who lets me use his press. The Trossen’s and Staffelter Hof have also been very helpful with tips and advice. A lot of support came from France and Italy. If I have problems I call the Ardeche! I had also great support from L’ammidia, producers I know from the Abruzzo. Without Davide I think maybe I’d have never made it this year but probably would have continued to think “maybe next year”. He really knows how to push me, I take baby steps and Davide sometimes just told me to “jump”.
I think that’s the sign of a good mentor; someone who knows how to help you but will also give you the tools to take yourself out of the comfort zone. How easy was it to go about sourcing fruit for your project? Did you encounter any resistance being a first timer?
Surprisingly easy. I just sent some emails out asking Staffelter Hof for example if they know a good grape dealer and in fact they did. This helped me hugely out with the Riesling. The other 3 grape varieties I work with, Weissburgunder, Cabernet Blanc and Regent comes from the Winery where I rent my space. So all easy and all worked organically.
It’s great that these things which would probably be very difficult in some countries have all fallen in to place so nicely for you. With this being your first vintage (for yourself anyway) what were you least prepared for in terms of quick decisions that you had to make?
Hmmm… I think the rain: Just the sheer mass of it took me by surprise. I mean I kind of didn’t expect so much botrytis. How much botrytis is good? What do people really mean by “a little botrytis is interesting?” A bucket, 10%, 60%!?! I think we will know next year if I managed to get that right…
How much is good? I often think the same with Brett, which is something I don’t mind in a wine. As long as it’s only a little…anyway, can you tell me about the different wines you’re making and perhaps what to expect from them?
I made 4 different wines, 5 if we count my 30L demijohn. I am going to count it cause I love that wine…
The first is 100% Regent, my only red wine. Regent is a hybrid which is fungi resistant and deep in colour. It’s also early ripening so it was my first baby to go into the tank. I semi carbonic macerated it for 9 days and really enjoy the result that came out of it. This baby went into my restored basket press and also saw some foot stomping. Think of a Beaujolais just way deeper in colour. We have to wait and see how all the wines develop, but I expect it to be 9.5% alcohol, it currently tastes like sour cherry juice. Light and cheerful, I am pretty happy with it.
My Weissburgunder is probably my most complex baby. It was a struggle to get it in because of the rain; I harvested is 2 days solo and then did a 3rd day with my friends. I destemmed it and macerated most of it for about 5 days. I like to keep the use of machines to a minimum, so I have this awesome wooden manual destermmer, a Vougre that originates in the Jura. Additionally I semi-carbonic macerated a small amount and then there is also direct press in there. Now bubbling happily away in a fuder that is 52 years old. I like my skin contact wine to not be too tannic, so I think this combination is complex but with just the right amound of tannin. Should be around 11% alcohol.
My Cabernet Blanc/Riesling blend ended up being a blend because the amount of Cabernet Blanc was just too low for the tank it is in and I ended up having too much Riesling for the other tank. I know this destroys all wine romance but a lot of decisions I had to make this year were practical. Both varieties were direct press in stainless steel.
My Riesling is 100% direct press, quite a bit botrytis in it and as it only went into the tank last week I don’t really have much to reveal yet about it but will be about 13%. Currently in stainless steel, but a potential candidate to go into the Fuder barrel. My EFJ is my 30l demijohn, it’s a Rotling, so a blend of red and white grape varieties. I used 80% Regent, 15% Cabernet Blanc and 5% Pinot Blanc. It looks and tastes like cranberry juice right now and is a direct press.
You really have gone all in on this project, what a workload to undertake. It’s interesting that you comment on the romance as not many consumers really think of all the serious practicalities that underpin grape growing and wine making. I understand that natural wine is a key area of interest for you, still an area with many practical considerations. How did you arrive at what still feels like a niche subject and which natural wines/producers have particularly inspired you? It’s an area I know too little about and always look for pointers from those in the know.
Having worked in Copenhagen and Reykjavik, which are very natural wine focused, it pretty much always has been the main focus for me. They are just more vivid to me, they excite me and also feel better for my body. The hangovers of course exist but they are different, better than with conventional wines. Is it the smaller amount of sulphites? Who knows but I know they feel better for me. Taste and body wise. All the winemakers I interned with are natural wine makers, Gilles Azzoni again being the most influential on me, but also the Koppitsch’s from Burgenland in Austria, Collectif Anonyme from Banyuals and of course also Rita and Rudolf Trossen in the Mosel.
But also what I love and enjoy are the wines from Alsace, especially the skin macerated whites from there, Domaine Brand, Jean Pierre Frick and also Christian Binner all create beautiful macerated wines that I absolutely adore. Dry Gewürztraminer, Muscat or Pinot Gris are at their best from Alsace in my opinion. Eastern Europe and Austria have a great natural wine scene too. Franz Weninger, Christian Tschida and the Koppitsch’s of course, all around Burgenland make fantastic wines. Their Roses make me really happy and thank God for someone making interesting rose! There are too many lame roses in this world. In Slovakia there is Slobodne who make my fav eastern Traminer, their answer to my Alsatian dry Gewürztraminer love.
Thanks Jasmin, there are many there who shamefully I’ve not come across before so I will make a point of looking them out. Natural wines are still pretty new to me so that advice is really helpful.
Is there anything you would do differently if you had this opportunity over again?
I would call the weather gods and cancel the rain. It’s good though that my first harvest was so challenging due to the weather. I’m hoping that if it starts difficult then things will get only get easier. I am glad I spoke to Jason Lett in Oregon about this. I thought if someone knows bad weather it must be someone in Oregon or Washington and Jason sent me a wonderful email cheering me right up, with some instructions on how to handle it. Also the Azzoni’s in Ardeche said to me “anyone can make good wine from good grapes, but the real art is creating good wine out of difficult ‘bad’ grapes” I don’t like to call the grapes bad, but I hope you know what I mean, we selected really hard and got to work some beautiful grapes, just the quantities suffered because of that.
I know exactly what you mean; they’re not bad just a little harder to work with perhaps. With all the challenging conditions, and it being your first time around, have you had any sleep at all over the last few weeks? What has kept you sane?
I actually slept really well, 4 or 5 hours straight through like a stone. My friends really kept me sane; a lot of them came over from Edinburgh and Cologne to support me. They knew just when to give me the right amount of space to think when things got stressful and knew when to pat my back and say “hey, you can do this” Plus the amazing support from all my winemaker friends who helped me via the internet and even the good folk of twitter.
I saw your post where you were wielding an axe and getting your tanks prepped; that must have been quite a feeling to see your dream taking physical form. How did that feel?
That was basically the first day when I thought “wow this is really going to happen” – it was amazing. I only got the tanks one week before harvest so till then everything still felt a bit surreal.
Once you’ve completed the wines, what’s next? Will you be staying in the area and getting closer to growers? Perhaps own some vines of your own heading into the next few vintages?
I think for now I will stay with my negociant lifestyle, I like the freedom of it. I can buy grapes in other areas if the Mosel has a terrible year and no one sells grapes here. Then I have the option to buy from Rheinhessen, Rheingau or even Alsace! But also I don’t feel ready yet for my own vines, to me its like having a kid. Maybe one day!
Once bottled, how will we be able to get hold of some for tasting?
I hope that I will find a British importer, I have good connections to importers in Scotland of course but I am sure something in England will work out too. But this is all TBC!
What music pairs best with being a first time winemaker?
Icelandic hip hop and Enya. The first for the upbeat, the second to calm me down.
Jas, thank you so much for taking the time to not just answer the questions, but really give some wonderful insight into what you’re doing. I think you have tremendous courage and you’ve been nothing but inspiring. I wish you every success as you completely deserve it.