oRGANIC WINE MAKING IN BURGUNDY, FRANCE
Why buy organic wine?
Because our consciences tell us, enough is enough. Assez! As they say in these parts! In the space of a mere 100 years, we, and the generation before us, have poisoned the earth that feeds us. Oceans awash with plastic, rivers full of chemicals, soil without the microbiol matter that gives flavour to our food and wine. Fish, fruit, vegetables, animals, water and wine, all contaminated- obviously within EU permitted tolerances! Enough we say! At least in relation to wine. Making fine wine is not industrial agriculture, and winemakers the world over, have shown that chemicals are not only not needed, but that they are destructive of terroir and taste.
The Story of Monsieur Joly
Nicolas Joly returned to his family’s wine estate in the Loire in 1977. He decided that he wanted to make wines that expressed the ‘spot’ of Coulée de Serrant, i.e. the unique ground conditions of that particular place, the ‘terroir’. However shortly after starting, he was visited by an official from the local Chamber of Agriculture. ‘They told me that my mother had been running the estate well, but in an old fashioned way, and it was now time for some modernity. I was told that if I started using weedkillers, I’d save 14 000 Francs.’ Nicolas took this advice, but soon regretted it. ‘Within two years, I realised that the colour of the soil was changing; insects like ladybirds were no longer there; all the partridge had gone.’ Joly likened the state of the vineyards to a perpetual winter, devoid of life even in the summer.
Then fate intervened. Joly read a book on biodynamics. ‘I wasn’t attracted to the green movement, but this book fascinated me, and I had the crazy idea of trying to practice this concept’. As a result, Coulée de Serrant has been run along biodynamic lines since the early 1980s.
‘The more you help the vine to do its job, by means of a live soil, proper vine selection, and avoiding poisonous treatments, the more harmony there is. If the wine catches this harmony well, you have nothing to do in the cellar: potentially it is all there.’ He chooses to use the natural yeasts that exist on the vines to trigger the fermentation, rather than inoculating with yeast cultures: ‘Re-yeasting is absurd. Natural yeast is marked by all the subtleties of the year. If you have been dumb enough to kill your yeast, you have lost something from that year. ‘
And the wine? A sensation, and the estate a textbook example of biodynamic wine making. He is also at peace with his conscience. He has put something back.
Arthur and Mr Marvellous
Bonjour. My name is Arthur, and I am the owner of a real neat piece of kit. It’s a machine that makes things. For the purpose of my story, it does not really matter what it makes. The machine was left to me by my father, and before that it was owned by his father, and his father before him, and so on. We’ve sort of lost track of where it came from. And it’s still a bit of a mystery how it operates. But work it does, year in year out. It pays for my children’s school fees, annual holidays to Cap Ferrat, and contributions to my pension, with something to spare. The machine requires a periodical oil maintenance, sometimes some parts need replacing, but after that it runs just fine.
One day, when I was being trained by my father how to operate the machine, a man called Mr Marvellous, from Marvellous Machines Inc, turned up. He tried to sell my father a special chemical oil. He said the new oil would make the machine go faster, produce quicker, require less supervision, and make him more money - a 10% increase in productivity was guaranteed. We just had to be careful when applying it, as the oil was highly toxic.
My father was a wise and cautious sort of chap. I think the fact that the oil could damage us, put it into his head, that it could also damage the machine. He said to Mr Marvellous - that all sounds great- almost too good to be true, thank you for visiting! But will this new toxic oil have any adverse impact on the life of my machine? I wish my children to have the benefits that I have enjoyed, that my father enjoyed, that his father enjoyed..and so on! Here it has to be said, we struck real lucky. Because Mr Marvellous, although a salesman, was actually a straight forward sort of fellow. After only a moments hesitation, he said that his company did not think so, but they could not say for sure. The effect of the new oil on the special components was something that nobody really understood, and was not possible to assess. My father thanked him for his time, and wished him well. The machine has been working perfectly for me ever since, and I will pass it on in tact to my children.
Risk my machine for 10%? - in the words of a famous American tennis player - you cannot be serious?
There are broadly two different approaches to farming this special place called Burgundy. One is the way they have been doing it for 2,000 years, the way of the monks and Monsieur Joly, and the other relies on chemicals from Mr Marvellous. The problem is, we now know the chemicals kill the life in the soil, and to kill the fungi, they poison the vines. The poison goes into the sap, the sap into the grapes, the grapes make the juice, which makes the wine. Once the chemicals are withdrawn - when a winemaker converts to organic farming, it takes the vines 3 years for the vines immune systems to recover, and approximately 12 years to restore a reasonable level of microbial activity in the soil. In Clos St Jacques, just behind Les Deux Chevres, the plot immediately to the right of the Jefferson wall is owned by our neighbour, Domaine Rousseau. Rousseau is what is called a ‘traditional’ farmer - relying on the use of toxic chemical sprays. The leaves on his vines were the first to fall. Looking at the vineyard from afar, the impact is startling. Then there is the evidence from the soil. In the winter months, there are not so many visitors to Burgundy. The vines having lost their foliage, the ground conditions are there for all to see. The chemical vineyards are devoid of vegetal life, just the vine trunks. It is a sorry sight indeed, in this special place.
The debate between the respective merits of ‘traditional’ intensive agriculture, with chemical supports, on the one hand, and organic farming on the other, does seem to have a particular resonance in Burgundy. This is probably to do with the fact that the land was farmed for such a long time without the need for such a violent approach to nature. And a land which is capable of producing such glorious nectar year after year, is deserving of respect. Spraying the land with noxious substances, which annihilate everything apart the sturdy vines, is taking a risk. But the winemakers who buy the special products from Marvellous are not just risking their children’s inheritance, they are putting at risk the ability of the land to continue producing Burgundy wine.
We moved to Gevrey Chambertin from the UK in 2010. From late Spring onwards, we would see tractors with tall narrow wheels, and tubes protruding in every direction - a bit like something you would not be surprised to bump into on Mars. In the cockpit, the drivers would often be dressed in white or green space suits, wearing masks to cover their faces. And In this sleepy little village, they would hurtle along the lanes towards the vineyards at alarming speeds, where, upon arrival, all the tubes would unfurl into protracted arms extending out over several rows of vines. The tractor would then straddle a single row and offload its spray left and right. In general terms we knew what they were doing - spraying, but spraying with what, against what, and why the need for all this protection? This is pretty much where it all started.
We chose Gevrey Chambertin to start our business, because it was one of the world’s most famous wine villages. Until we arrived however, we did not really appreciate its historical significance. Together with its neighbouring wine villages, Gevrey is the birthplace of the fine wine business in France. It has been thus since the 7c. It also happens to be in an area of outstanding natural beauty. So the fact that fine wine was made here without the need for chemicals for 2,000 years, is something else that affected both our thoughts and emotions, while we watched the men in the protective clothing, with their spray machines.
On a personal level, we stopped buying non organic food a long time before moving to France. Pleasingly, more and more people in France are taking the same approach. For some things you pay a bit more, but then know what you are eating. The volume of available organic products is increasing, and the two organic supermarkets where we shop in Dijon, have both recently moved into new and expanded premises, with improved product ranges. However the fact that the use of pesticides in French agriculture, and wine making in particular, is still increasing, suggests that things are not changing fast enough. In 2006 the government in France launched an initiative aimed at reducing the reliance of farmers on pesticides. Their usage has increased every year since, and is still on the rise - due at least in part to the fact that the vines develop resistance, and ever stronger doses and quantities are needed to achieve the required result. On respectable producers web sites, you will find every convolution of language possible to conceal their polluting activities - ‘almost organic’ ‘respect for the terroir’ and such other nonsense. In a sense, it is encouraging that they feel the need to resort to such subterfuge.
As recent events in Europe and the US show - it is the people who bring about the change, not the politicians. The agro chemical industry is a very powerful lobby, and French farmers inactivity in the face of a generally laudable initiative by the government, tends to confirm that the farmers are not going to be the agent of change - and why should they, if their conscience does not take them in that direction? Things will only change as consumers stop buying treated products. When a majority of people of different philosophical make ups, lose patience with the status quo - a gradual build up of sentiment, that finally blows the lid off the pot. A bit like the French Revolution really!
The Difference Between Organic and Biodynamic
Organic farming takes the chemicals out of the vineyard and the cuverie. Pesticides, herbicides like Roundup (still in widespread use in Burgundy at prestigious estates), and fungicides. The winemaker is permitted to use copper sulphate, a substance found naturally, and which is non invasive ie it does not permeate the plant. It is said that because Burgundy, Champagne, and the Loire are so far north, the wet conditions create more of a risk of fungal infection, and this can only be countered by the use of chemicals. This is clearly false, because every year farmers are producing wonderful wine without using such chemicals.
Biodynamic farming, could be better termed ‘Organic Plus’. Most organic farmers practice some aspects of biodynamic farming, which uses nature and natural forces to help the plants to combat infection and parasitic attack. Many of the basics of biodynamic farming are a rediscovery of methods of farming that existed before industrial agriculture took over. For example, plants respond to moon phases. It is about the movement of water in the plant, i.e. the sap. In the days before a full moon, the sap rises. This creates more humid conditions in the vines, which are then exposed to a greater risk of fungal infection. So in biodynamic farming, the lunar calendar dictates the application of natural protective compounds in the period before the problem arrives.
In studies carried out by Professor Jim Westwood at Virginia Tech in the United States, and whose speciality is plant pathology and weed science, he has found that plants communicate with each other, and they share information. He examined the relationship between a parasitic plant, dodder, and two host plants, arabidopsis and tomatoes.He discovered that to suck moisture and nutrients out of the host plants, dodder and the host were able to exchange messages within cells. During this parasitic relationship, thousands upon thousands of messenger molecules were being exchanged between both plants, allowing them to freely communicate. He said that through this exchange, the parasitic plant may dictate what the host plant should do – such as lowering its defences to make it easier for the parasite to attack. It is thought that using this new information, scientists could discover if other organisms such as bacteria and fungi also communicate.
In the same way that the monks worked out, without the benefit of geological surveys, where the best plots were to plant the vines, it is also likely that they knew which plants to seed in close proximity to the vines to provide the sort of protection which Professor Westwood refers to above.
More than 20 years ago, Prince Charles was ridiculed when he disclosed that he talked to the plants in his garden. He was unrepentant, and said he thought that they were all the better for it. The newspapers had a field (or rather garden) day; most people thought he was loopy as a lupin. However not everyone agreed, for example - Colin Crosbie, a gardens superintendent at Wisley in Surrey UK, was reported as saying: "I'm a great believer. I definitely talk to plants. Most gardeners are quite tactile and we do talk to them. Sometimes we talk kindly, and sometimes we threaten them. There are times with a plant when you say 'If you don't do something this is the end. You are not producing flowers. I'm very sorry, it's going to be the compost heap.' - It's amazing how they respond”
This somewhat light hearted tale, and the studies of Professor Westwood, have important connotations for winemaking. Some plants offer the vines natural protection against fungi and parasites, and biodynamic farming is about finding these protective species, and turning them into compounds of value to the farmers.
Chateau Maris - a textbook biodynamic estate in the Languedoc.
The 45 hectare estate was purchased by Robert Eden and US financier Kevin Parker in 1997. It was well located and planted with 80 year old Grenache and 60 year old Carignan vines. However according to Robert, they had been farmed using all the products the chemical industry and Mr Marvellous could provide! The soils were almost dead, and the vines were sick. They had to work hard to repair the damage, and the plants that could not be cured, had to be taken out.
They looked at ways of rejuvenating the soil by using compost. Bio-dynamic preparations were added to one organic compost pile, and another was left alone. After a while, the bio-dynamic compost was found to contain far more living organisms, and it was obvious to that this was going to be better for the land. While they wanted to create an estate that was in harmony with nature, their decision to farm biodynamically was also a commercial one. The vines are healthier, grow longer – and the quality of grapes is better. Barley, bulgur and mustard is grown between rows and then re-ploughed into the soil, along with a bio-dynamic compost, to enrich the land. The estate uses its own recipes of teas/tisanes of nettles and chamomile combining lavender and many minerals, to protect the vines from pests and infection. Their new cellar is made entirely of hemp. They found a supplier in Brittany who made hemp bricks, and to ensure continued supply, bought out the supplier! Good to have a US financier on board! Hemp has great natural insulation properties, and keeps the temperature between 11°C and 18°C. No additional temperature control is required, an object lesson in ergonomics.
For winemaking Robert decided not to use stainless-steel tanks, but concrete vessels. He says that concrete is more neutral, and allows the wines to breath. They were one of the first to use concrete “eggs” (since 2004), helping a slow and constant stirring of the lees, giving fatness and complexity to the wines. The eggs are now popping up in organic vineyards all across France. The wine is made using only natural yeasts found in the vineyard, and bottled un-fined, and un-filtered. The oxidation is limited as much as possible by keeping the wines with CO2 at a constantly low temperature. The wine is racked the least amount of times, and all the wines are aged at the very least for 12 months in oak barrels. The end product is a "never corrected”, un-acidified, wine with no chaptalisation. The vast majority of the production is bottled in ecova ultra light recycled glass weighing 395g, half a pound lighter than a regular Burgundy bottle.
Does biodynamics work?
Well as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and very few estates who make the effort to practice biodynamic farming turn back. The more common experience is an almost religious conversion. Steen Ohman is a Professional Wine Taster, who tastes at the majority of the great estates in Burgundy, He describes his experience at Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair:
“On my trip to Burgundy I did however have an eye-opener, at the Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair. I tasted two samples of their Clos du Chateau 2014 – one made with organic viticulture and one made according to biodynamic principles. The samples came from two plots next to each other in the same vineyard, planted with the same vines, but each had been farmed differently to see whether a difference could be detected. In fact, the difference was very significant. The biodynamic wine was more focused, detailed and precise. It seemed to have an inner balance that was not found in the more floral and slightly less focussed, but nevertheless expressive organic wine.”
Nowhere is the case for cleaner farming better made than in France. The land where a food and drink philosophy used to be part of every child’s early learning; which has embraced intensive farming and the use of pesticides with more gusto than any other country in Europe. As adults we learn that actions have consequences, and that life is about choice. And that is particularly apparent in relation to what we eat and drink, where generally we do have a choice. Whether we are direct action types, or more of the wait and see variety, we have waited, and we have seen. And the sight is really not so pretty. Hopefully the tide is starting to turn - in accordance with the lunar calendar - bien sur!