Biodynamic Bordeaux: the lost article
I wrote this piece over a year and a half ago as commissioned by a popular online foodie publication for their newly launched iPad magazine. Unfortunately (and frustratingly as I never received payment!) the deal fell through months after I’d already written the piece, but I thought it deserved to see the light of day in any case, so I’ve popped it up here. A few things may be a bit out of date but the overarching theme remains the same as far as I’m aware!
Brokers and branding. Leather armchairs and expensive suits. Endless rows of new oak barrels beneath stately aristocratic châteaux. Money and hype around wines not even bottled yet. These are the images that come to mind when I think of Bordeaux.
I’m not alone in regarding Bordeaux as the silver spoon of the wine world. Steeped in tradition and conservatism, it has simultaneously been labelled as a leader of the wine world and a stuck-in-the-mud has-been. Plenty a wino under the age of 50 loves to hate on Bordeaux. And not without reason. Much of what the younger generation now fiercely rejects in the wine world more or less started and continues in Bordeaux. The build-up of wines from certain châteaux and vintages with insanely inflated price tags attached. The points-chasing (wines made to suit the palate of all-powerful wine critics) and layers upon layers of red tape. The regular use of the wine consultant to make wines that can ultimately taste the same (see points-chasing), which is to say rich and heavy and loaded with lashings of new oak, a style that many a palate has gone away from.
“In Bordeaux we like to control things. Nearly all Bordeaux châteaux have consultants,” Olivier Leblans, the consultant oenologist at négociant Cordier Mestrezat, told me matter-of-factly.
The self-created image of Bordeaux is one that is exceedingly untrendy at the moment, at least amongst a certain expanding demographic of wine drinkers (with the exception of China, where sales have gone through the roof).
But that’s the surface. Dig beneath the tiny percentage of wineries included in the crus classés (classification of growths), and the large percentage of those aspiring to such classifications, and you’ll find that amongst the silver spoons there are some wooden ones too, quietly–and not-so-quietly–marching to the beat of their own drums. There may not be a “natural” wine revolution happening here, as there is in so many of France’s other wine regions, but focus is slowly shifting away from the regular use of sci-fi sounding procedures and high tech gadgets in the winery, and instead onto the vineyards themselves.
“25 years ago the improvements were in the cellar. But then we realized we better have good grapes for all that. So we went back to the vineyards to understand them,” says Marie-Hélène Inquimbert of the Dourthe Wine Company.
With more focus on the vineyards, there is an inevitable shift towards working more sustainably and organically. And now, for the first time, biodynamic farming in Bordeaux is on the rise, with more and more producers throwing in their chemical sprays in exchange for natural ones.
“In the early millennium no one was working biodynamically. I was considered pretty crazy,” says Alain Moueix, president of St Emilion classification and owner/winemaker at Château Fonroque, one of the first biodynamic wineries in Bordeaux.
Ch. Fonroque’s spinning machine for making preparations
“Now, many winemakers here come to visit me to learn to work this way.”
Biodynamics is a holistic approach to organic farming. It’s the idea that all parts of a system cannot work alone, but must work together as one. In the case of agriculture and viticulture, this means a self-contained ecosystem which relies on a symbiosis of plants and animals to create a self-nourishing environment. Farming is done by the cycles of the moon and the planets’ movements, a traditional concept lost in modern day farming but still practiced in remote agricultural areas around the world.
Much of what biodynamics has become today originates from the teachings of the Austrian Anthroposophist Rudolph Steiner, although really he put into words (sometimes coherently, sometimes not) ideas and techniques that have been in practice as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Every biodynamic farmer I’ve encountered has their own take on biodynamics, although to be part of Demeter, the official certifying body, or Biodyvin, another French organization, there are some basic practices that must be adhered to, which include the use of livestock, insects, birds, and other animal life, cover crops, green manures, crop rotations, and cow-manure based composts. Teas or preparations made out of dried flowers, herbs and manure, and believed to have homeopathic-like qualities, are sprayed on the vines or buried in horns under the vineyard floor.
Chamomile drying for biodynamic preparations
And while there is little solid proof that working this way actually improves the quality of the wines (although it is indisputably a good thing to be working with such care and respect to the environment) many will swear it does. So much so that biodynamics has been adopted by some of the world’s leading wineries: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leroy, Maison Chapoutier, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht…to name just a few well-known French producers. Around the world wineries big and small, certified and not certified, are adopting biodynamic techniques.
Considering Bordeaux is the largest wine-growing region in France, biodynamic viticulture is a speck of dust in a giant vat of vin. But that speck is growing, despite it being a tough region in which to work this way.
“Mildew and oidium are the biggest problems. You always have one or the other,” Inquimbert admits. Compared to the drier climates of much of the rest of France, Bordeaux can be humid, damp and unpredictable, resulting in the extreme vintage variations of which it has gained such fame.
But Thierry Valette of Clos Puy Arnaud in Castillon Cote du Bordeaux, on the right bank of the Gironde Estuary, thinks things are getting easier for the region. “Ten years ago we had 900ml of rain per year. Now we get 750ml a year. It’s getting drier.”
Valette, who farms his entire property biodynamically, started his career as a jazz musician and was drawn back to the family business of winemaking. But he was sceptical about biodynamics at first.
“Each year I’m feeding the horns [with biodynamic preparations] and wondering, why am I doing this? But when you see the results each year, it’s amazing.”
Valette claims, like many others working this way, that he has seen a distinct improvement in the quality of his vines and wines.
Valette says, “After 2-3 years your PH lowers [resulting in higher acidity and therefore perceived freshness]. You get more bright fruit and balance. The wines are more stable so they need very little sulphur.
“The development of the roots is more vertical. They can explore double or triple the distance underground to limestone. If you use herbicides you can’t get minerality because you only have surface roots. I harvest one week earlier than my neighbors. I ask myself, why are they waiting? It’s because the grape skins aren’t mature. But the quality of the fruit just isn’t there to begin with.”
When it comes to fruit quality, Valette’s wines give him the right to shout loud and proud, and nothing demonstrates this better than his unoaked (unusual in these parts) “La Cuvée Bistro”. Comprised of 85% Merlot, the dominant grape variety on Bordeaux’s right bank, this cheeky little number is oozing with fresh juicy berries and the tiniest bit of fizz. It’s crying out to be drunk slightly chilled with pizza or a heaping bowl of spaghetti. Valette’s more traditional grand vin “Clos Puy Arnaud”, a blend of 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and a smidgeon of Cabernet Sauvignon, is aged for a year in oak barrels (although Valette uses the slightly bigger 228 liter Burgundy barrels and only 25% new oak). The oak is detectable in the form of whiffs of cinnamon and toast but again the clean, luminescent fruit is generous and seductive.
Valette has begun cultivating some of his vineyards with a horse named Tulipe.
Tulipe, Theirry Valette’s horse
“It makes me realize that the introduction of animals on the farm makes a complete difference to the energy of the people working here and obviously to the vines themselves.”
Because of the health of the grapes, the manner in which they’re pressed (no pumping or pressing, it’s all done by gravity), and their time on skins and oak (both natural preservatives), Valette is able to add just a sprinkling of sulphur right before bottling, much less than is normally used in these parts.
Venture further into the wilds of Bordeaux (a contradiction in terms?) to the broader AOCs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, and you’ll find smatterings of wineries working with an organic/biodynamic/natural approach throughout. Winemakers like Joel and Sandrine Duffau of Château La Mothe du Barry, Stephen Miejer at Château Auguste, David and Hélène Barrault of Château Tire Pé, Jean-Pierre Raymond, and Christian and Pascal Boissonneau, all of whose wines are worth seeking out.
But even in the more prestigious appellations, which house the famous crus classés châteaux, there are murmurs of moon cycles and manure.
Within the St. Emilion classification, Grand cru classé winery Château Fonroque, run by Alain Moueix, has been certified biodynamic for past the eight years.
“I studied agriculture for five years, winemaking for two,” Moueix told me. “After some years I had the feeling that what I was doing wasn’t right, for ecological reasons, for the health of my workers, and because I wanted to produce wines which were singular, with personality; to do that you have to respect the soil. Soil is a creation from life so it is fragile. Biodynamics gives another dimension to wine. The wines I was tasting from Burgundy and Alsace were reflecting this.”
Moueix’s wines are traditional but not flashy–they are not “competition” wines as Mouiex himself has said. Instead they can be tightly wound and austere. The younger wines have prominent oaky characteristics, as do so many in this region. But they are wines for aging, and in typical Bordeaux fashion, there is great variation between vintages. Of the wines I tried, the 2009, a year heralded as one of the best in terms of upfront juicy fruit, does indeed have a forthcoming plummy nose. The 2010 is less giving, again a typical characteristic of the vintage. It’s more complex, herbaceous and earthy. The 2007’s oak is starting to mellow into milky coffee flavours with drying red fruit and vanilla spice. All wines possess dusty tannins and lots of oaky menthol, another common Bordeaux trait due to the type of oak used. These are wines that need to be forgotten about for at least the next 10-15 years, with the potential to age for far longer. They require plenty of patience, but will then reward in spades.
Mouiex admits that make wine biodynamically isn’t always the easiest route to take. “If you want to have an easy life, then don’t work biodynamically. But if you want your soil in good health, good terroir expression in your wines, and so on, then work this way.”
Healthy biodynamic compost
Mouiex also concedes that working biodynamically on the right bank of Bordeaux may be easier than on the left, which would account for the fact that more biodynamic producers are either on the right bank or in the south. “Right bank châteaux are smaller and so it’s easier to work this way than on the left bank where a winery may farm 100 hectares.”
However, there is one winery on the left bank turning the traditions of Bordelais winemaking on its head; a winery whose technical director actually went to Mouiex for advice when converting the farm. The winery is called Château Pontet-Canet.
Located in Bordeaux’s prestigious Pauillac commune, down the road from the Premier cru (First growth) estate Château Mouton-Rothschild, this Fifth growth château has been punching above its weight for several years now, and technical director Jean-Michel Comme is convinced that’s because of their conversion to biodynamics in 2004.
“The first time I heard people mention the word biodynamics I thought they were crazy,” Comme told me on a rainy day outside the stately 18th century château. “Ten years later I began to change.
“I had more and more concern about the pesticides I was using. Step by step I reduced them. I wanted to see if we could cut out pesticides totally. This is why ten years down the line I went back to biodynamics, to see what it could provide me with. And it was humility.”
It was Comme’s boss, the owner of Pontet-Canet, Alfred Tesseron, who first needed convincing. And Comme did not have an easy time of it.
“In 2007 we’d lost 20% of our crop. The boss [Tesseron] told me to spray pesticides. I was in a tough position, the hardest one of my career. We were in the third year of conversion. Just when we were getting in a routine nature reminded us that there are no routines in life. We were in the process of certification–almost there–when we sprayed, and then we had to start all over and wait another 36 weeks.”
As a result Pontet-Canet did not receive certification until 2010.
“People were waiting for us to fail. They wanted to show us that it’s impossible to work biodynamically in Bordeaux.” Instead, Comme and Tesseron have demonstrated the opposite, as their wines continue to garner more praise than some First growths.
Defying another stereotype, Comme is anything but the laid-back artist-hippy persona often associated with this type of farming.
“I am an engineer and an oenologist. We are very practical people. I approach winemaking scientifically, not philosophically. I have done hundreds of studies on the cycles of the moon. It makes me more prepared for the weather. But I’m still learning.
“I am comfortable being an engineer and biodynamic. It’s all about molecules and reactions, and some are more subtle than others. Biodynamics makes us understand nature’s subtleties. We don’t learn these things at school but they’re there.”
Comme put his engineering skills into practice when faced with the challenge of spraying the preparations onto his vines. Most farmers would have to use a tractor to spray if they had vineyards of any significant size. But tractors are heavy and they compact the soil, allowing little life or water to penetrate below the surface, and stunting the growth of the vines’ deeper roots.
Horse drawn carriages in the rain, Pontet-Canet
So Comme came up with a solution. In 2008 he designed a horse-drawn carriage exactly the height of his vines, so the carriage could straddle them. The carriage came equipped with machinery to spray the desired amount onto the vines, plus a solar panel to refill the battery needed to charge the sprayers, and security lights. Today there are multiple carriages, modified for ploughing as well as spraying, allowing his workers to avoid the long hours of hard manual labor involved in traditional horse ploughing.
Comme is gradually replacing his lighter-than-average tractors with the carriages. Currently 40% of the vineyards (32 hectares), worked by two men and two women, are completely tractor-free. Twelve horses are needed to work all of the vineyards, and Comme hopes that next year they’ll be able to increase to 50% of the horses needed pending investment towards the building of new stables and a larger work force.
Horse drawn carriages for spraying, Pontet-Canet
“I want to create an image of biodynamics that is modern,” says Comme.
The wines themselves are unsurprisingly traditional in style. This is still the elite left bank of Bordeaux after all. Led by Cabernet Sauvignon and inky in color, they show incredible complexity and longevity–these wines can age for 50 years or more–but with the purity of fruit that is so common in biodynamic wines.
Comme has strong opinions on the often over-used modern term “sustainable”, believing it to be misleading and used more frequently for PR purposes than for true environmental good. “Nothing is truly sustainable. I must use gasoline to drive my car here for example. I try therefore to do the least harm. It’s more honest than sustainable. We cannot continue farming in the future if we throw this word around. We can lie to people but not to the vineyard.”
Comme’s transparency is refreshing amongst the stiff upper-lipped crus classés wineries, where the layers of corporate secrecy and red tape in the name of brand protection can be all at once infuriating and impenetrable. I discovered this first hand trying to contact the First growth Pauillac winery Château Latour, who announced several years ago they were beginning to farm a percentage of their vines biodynamically with the goal of eventually moving to 100% biodynamic farming. I was handed to an assistant, who after several emails told me that while they were still working biodynamically, they were declining my request for answers to a few basic questions, which raises suspicions over their actual intentions, and/or whether they had to stop during the difficult 2012 vintage. Whatever it is, I hope they’ll continue to farm this way.
Not everyone in Bordeaux, however, is pleased about the rising popularity of biodynamic farming. When I mentioned it to the kind and softly spoken Chanfreau family of Château Fonréaud in the Listrac-Médoc, Philippe Chanfreau suddenly bristled at the mention of the term.
“I think they’re dreaming. It’s hard to work a large vineyard this way.” This anger comes perhaps from the very real feeling that plenty of winemakers not working biodynamically are still working with care and a gentle touch in the vineyards, as Chanfreau was eager to emphasize.
“People today take more care of the vines and are more attentive than they were 30 years ago when it was all about how you can improve your cellars. Today the focus is more on the grapes than the winery.”
Nicolas Thienpont, owner of the Second growth winery Château Larcis Ducasse in Saint Emilion, gave a more measured response.
“You have some who are working seriously in biodynamics and some mystics who are crazy. But I believe that anything that is working towards nature is good. The best producers do it for a long time, and they speak the least about it.”
Thienpont’s winemaker David Sury was quick to add, “Biodynamics is fashionable now. Winemaking needs tradition not fashion.”
Fashionable though it may be, biodynamic Bordeaux producers insist that while it will probably never become as mainstream as it seems to be heading in places like Burgundy, it is nevertheless here to stay.
“People are starting to understand that there is a price to pay for quality,” says Jean-Michel Comme. “More and more producers are beginning to experiment with biodynamics, and over the past five years, the serious estates are getting on board too.”
But it takes a technical director like Comme to convince a sea of shareholders and big bosses just how important it is to change.
“The love I have for what I do is high enough to pay the price. Three times I went to my boss and said, ‘it’s not working as we hoped. I can leave’. If a [winemaker] is willing to accept this and pay the price, it will work.”
“The problem amongst Bordeaux’s prestigious châteaux is that the staff are divided,” says Thierry Valette. “On the one side are the shareholders whose only interest is money. On the other side are the winemakers who are often tempted to work biodynamically but who are afraid of the pressure from the shareholders. In Bordeaux you only talk of business and money, but in Burgundy the shareholders are the winemakers, so they talk of agriculture and the wines themselves. And that makes a big difference.
“However, here in Bordeaux we are at the beginning of a big movement, because nothing can be done against evolution.
“Even in Bordeaux, biodynamics has a future.”