Friday, 9 April 2010

Some thoughts on Biodynamic viticulture and "natural" wines

At this week's gathering of the Nottingham Wine Circle, I presented a tasting of a dozen or so biodynamic wines from four growers on my list - Rolly Gassmann, Domaine de Montesquiou, Mas Foulaquier and Domaine de La Marfée. This isn't a report on the actual wines that we tasted - although they were very well received and I think the overall quality surprised a lot of people. One thing is for sure, though - whatever the merits of each individual wine (and I, of course, love 'em all), every single one was clean, pure and full of vibrant fruit. It was no surprise that the Rolly Gassman wines (a 2002 Pinot Gris and a 2004 Riesling) went down so well, as Alsace is a popular region amongst the Wine Circle members (and the wines really were on song). Similarly, the Domaine de Montesquiou wines (the bone dry Rosée de Montesquiou 2008 and the beautifully sweet, yet intensely zingy Grappe d'Or 2004) have always proved popular with the group. And my new wines from Pic Saint-Loup grower Mas Foulaquier were pretty well-received, with the top wine, Gran' Tonillieres 2006, proving the most popular (a serious wine, which will go for 10 to 15 years, according to some).

But the undoubted stars of the evening were the wines of Domaine de La Marfée. Although the white Frisson d'Ombelles 2007 was again a definite jury-splitter (some think it has too much oak - I think there is a great wine lurking in there, so let's see what a few years in bottle will do) the reds were universally popular. In fact, they were more than popular - I sensed that many of those present were extremely impressed, and they are a difficult bunch to impress, believe me!

Although this was, of course, a tasting designed to showcase the merits of biodynamic viticulture, I was also at pains to point out the fact that some of the wines were made with low - or even very low - levels of sulphur. Mas Foulaquier, in particular, uses no sulphur in the vineyards and none in the actual winemaking process. Even at the bottling stage, the amount of SO2 (sulphur dioxide - a preservative) used in the Mas Foulaquier wines is just 10 to 30 mg per litre (the maximum permitted by EU regulations is 180 mg/litre). Bearing in mind that so-called "natural" wines must contain 10 mg/litre or less of SO2, the wines of Mas Foulaquier are as close to qualifying as "natural wines" as can be, without actually doing so. I use inverted commas because - as far as I am aware - there are no hard and fast rules or regulations (i.e. no official regulatory body) for natural wines.

Moving away from the subject of the actual tasting (if you want to see my thoughts on the wines, my full tasting notes are all on my website) this subject brought to mind two separate occasions when I tasted Frank Cornelissen Munjebel 4 2006/7 Etna, Sicilia. Now this is very definitely a "natural" wine - i.e. no sulphur at all. The first time I tasted this wine it was utterly delicious - full of all sorts of faults, but delicious in spite of (or do I mean because of?) them. That was in November 2009. Fast forward to March 2010 and I tasted another bottle - and thse faults had completely and utterly consumed the wine. In fact, it was no longer wine, it was vinegar - and, at around 20 quid a bottle, very expensive vinegar. Basically, the absence of SO2 had rendered it so unstable that it's ability to store for a few extra months (let alone age at all) had been completely eradicated. Don't get me wrong, I love a good dose of volatile acidity in my wine (I adore Chateau Musar!) but this was an acidic, volatile, totally unstable mess, with all traces of fresh fruit long gone. In fact, as one of the Wine Cirle members succinctly stated, "I wouldn't put it on my chips"(!)

The morethanorganic website, which sings the praises of natural wines (and seems to pretty much dismiss every other type of wine as inferior), does state that natural wines must be transported and stored at temperatures of no more than 14C, in order to remain fresh and stable. I'm not sure if that was the case with this particular bottle, but it had nevertheless fallen off its perch to such an extent that I resolved never to invest any of my own hard-earned money in any natural wines (I didn't buy this one) - unless I intended to drink them straight away.

All of this led me to start thinking more closely about sulphur levels in the wines I sell. The Mas Foulaquier wines are all fresh and clean as a whistle, so winemaker Pierre Jéquier clearly seems to have found a happy medium with his sulphur levels. So what of Domaine de La Marfée? Partly because of my experience with the Cornelissen wine referred to above, I entered into a flurry of email correspondence with winemaker Thierry Hasard, since I wanted to know how he achieved such amazingly fresh and "alive" wines and how much (or how little) intervention there was in his winmaking. Thierry is obviously a deep thinker and very passionate about his subject and, as a result, I learned an awful lot about the man and his winemaking philosophy. Here are a few of his thoughts, extracted from various parts of that correspondence (and used with Thierry's permission);

On using sulphur......
"Yes, I use sulphur in the vineyards because I dont know any other efficient biodynamic way of fighting against oidium (LS: mildew - even Languedoc is not immune, during rainy periods). Today everybody is claiming he is using very low sulphur in his wines. I would tell you the truth: it is very easy for me to sell wines claiming they have no sulphur because I use very little sulphur during the ageing in barrels. So, if anybody is asking me, before bottling, "sell me your wines like this" I can say :ok, no problem for me. The only question is who takes the risks related to the temperatures during transportation and conservation? I add, just before bottling, a quantity of sulphur in order to have "20 de libre" (I can't translate). (LS: I think he means 20mg of "free" SO2, which is the important bit that preserves the wine in bottle). I dont fine and I dont filter any of my wines."

On viticulture........
"If you look at my website, one photograph had been taken in autumn, and you can see grass because at that time we dont fight against the weeds. The other photograh had been taken in summer, at that time we manage to eliminate all the weeds we can. The need for ploughing depends on the weather conditions in spring and summer (rain/ no rain) (more rain = more grass) and on each parcel of vines (very stoney/ less stoney) (more stones = less weeds)."

One of the Marfée vineyards in July 2008 - more stones equals less grass (especially in summer)

Thierry Hasard applying a biodynamic preparation in a vineyard of old Syrah, Autumn 2008 -
- note the grass growing freely, due to minimum ploughing

On "natural" wines........
"To my mind, nature is the opposite of culture. Making wine is a cultural act. As a winemaker your job is not to let nature do what it intends to do: vinegar. As a farmer or a vinegrower your job is to cultivate, that means to observe the natural forces and processes and then to prove you have a human brain by doing what is necessary to have a good harvest. Look at what happens to vineyards which are not cultivated for one year : vines die and fruits are spoiled and not able to make a drinkable wine. Cultivating is a human invention. Wine is a human invention. Wine is the most cultural product in the world and that is the reason why it is so fascinating. Am I warming up ? I agree with one thing: I would prefer not to use SO2. It is almost the only product I use in my winemaking. That is the only thing. At that time I think it is not possible if I want to sell my wines all over the world. There are so many examples of "vins nature" completly spoiled. I also know that the addition of little quantities of sulphur is not so easy to detect in a blind tasting (I tried many times)."

On viniculture.......
"I dont use any industrial yeasts for any of the reds or for the Roussanne - that means for 95% of my wines. The natural yeasts of my Chardonnays never want to wake up even after 6 days - probably because it is the holidays when it is harvest time for chardonnays - so I am obliged to use industrial ones!"

So there you have it - a sensible, balanced, but passionate view on winemaking. And a sensible viewpoint on why no completely sane winemaker should indulge in "extreme" natural winemaking. Basically, Thierry intervenes as little as possible, but does so when absolutely necessary for the health of the vines - and the wines.

"Natural" winemaking is not a new concept (in fact it is as old as winemaking itself) but it is definitely in vogue, at the moment. In many ways, it is a noble concept, and I can see plenty more winemakers jumping on the bandwagon before it reaches its peak of popularity. And in an ideal world, all wines would be completely natural. But the fact is - let's be honest - natural wine is a flawed concept, fraught with danger at every turn. Once made, it needs to be either drunk pretty damn quickly, or stored in perfect conditions (and at constantly low temperatures). Any less and the result will inevitably be wines that spoil very quickly. But if I am going to spend good money on expensive wines, I want to be sure that they aren't going to be vinegar when the time comes to drink them.

I like vinegar (and make gallons of the stuff from leftover wine) but I prefer it on my frites, not in my glass.


AlanM said...

That's an interesting read Leon. I was struck when reading The Great Domaines of Burgundy book recently how the biodynamic leaders such as DRC and Leflaive still use sulphur as an essential preservative.
I remember opening many whites in the 80s, often from the Loire, that were seriously sulphuric and would cause headaches as a consequence. Happily I think winemaking techniques have improved enormously since then. It is no coincidence, in my view, that the likes of Jequier, Leflaive, Joly produce great wines because they think about and care about what they are doing and how they can improve wine.

Mats L said...

I drank a bottle of Les Gamines 2005 tonight and it struck me how well it had developed. As you wrote, it has that special "natural" flavour of organic wines from Languedoc and Roussillon, yet is not off or volatile from lack of sulphur despite five years of age. A great wine for the price.

Leon Stolarski said...

Alan - as you say, sulphur is an essential preservative and all but the insane use a little. It is, after all, a natural element, even found in wines with no added SO2 - just not in sufficient quantity to make a wine stable.

Mats - glad you enjoyed Les Gamines 2005. If you have any more, I'd guess it has a good few years of ageing left in it.

AlanM said...

We opened some Tonneliers tonight, lovely complex wine with an almost porty finish in terms of fruit and power. I've left the second half until tomorrow when I am sure it will have opened further. Excellent.

Graham said...

Les Gamines 2002 has been a point for a couple of years and shows little sign of decline.

Have spent a fair bit of time cycling and wandering through vineyards. I have to say that all the growers who spray weedkiller or whatever that turns the flowers and herbs (weeds don't really grow in the Languedoc) yellow, subsequently leaving scorched earth, should be shot (I can rant as well Leon).

Leon Stolarski said...

Please feel free to rant, Graham - if we all rant loud enough, people may start to take notice!