When I read the story of Jacques Maillet, Savoie vigneron, it echoed the message I’d heard from other biodynamic winemakers. The chemicals, they say, just aren’t safe. They are toxic to our plants, to our soil, to our wildlife and to us.
The Tale of Jacques Maillet
Jacques Maillet husbands four hectares of vines, most over 40 years old. In their 40 years, however, they’ve seen some changes. To get an idea of this, we need to go back in time to the early 1990’s… When Jacques was 34 years old he got inspired to leave his occupation as an educator and make some wine.
And why not? Wines produced in his home of Savoie are scooped up quickly by locals and tourists, with a small amount exported and sold. We all know the old joke about how to make a large fortune in wine, well, Jacques did need to spend a small fortune to get up and running, a small fortune he didn’t have. Off to the bank, where he’s told that his idea to farm without chemicals isn’t a solid financial bet for them. But if he’ll run his shop traditionally, with the standard agricultural treatments to protect his vineyards from pests and mold, they’ll lend him the money he needs to get his dream off the ground. He takes the offer and joins the local co-op, Chautagne Coopérative. He had his start; he was making wine and working with other local vintners and growers.
As the end of the decade (and millennium, remember that? Y2k?) drew near, however, Jacques felt his health decline. He was sick, and from his perspective, the illness was driven by the chemicals that surrounded him – the herbicides, fertilizers, and pesticides. He decided that it wasn’t worth it, the current way of doctoring the vines and soil with artificial and possibly toxic treatments. It wasn’t worth it if it meant losing his health.
By 2003, he’d pared down to a small parcel of Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Mondeuse and began to treat them biodynamically:
“I practice biodynamics. I intervene according to the lunar calendar, to spread preparations, herbal teas, plant extractions. For the past four years I’ve used hydrosols (floral waters) in complement. This different approach is sufficient to contain the various diseases and parasites.” ~Jacques Maillet, translated by Jill Barth.
At this point, he was able to control how his vines were treated, but he was still reliant on the co-op for a press and tank. They worked with him and provided support, support that was rewarded with a successful release of his cuvée, “Autrement“, a French word meaning another way. As momentum built, Maillet was able to purchase additional parcels, his current vineyards which overhang the Rhône River: Les Vignes du Seigneur and Le Cellier des Pauvres. He doesn’t filter. He uses indigenous yeast. He is quite sparse on the sulfur. What we taste in the bottle is strictly a reflection of terroir.
A couple of points here. Biodynamics is, essentially, in addition to organic and sustainable practices. Maillet, for example, is certified organic. The biodynamics business, that is on top of avoiding the use of chemicals. Biodynamics is a body of concepts codified by a scientist and philosopher named Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). In the words of the Biodynamic Association:
“Steiner came to the conclusion that western civilization would gradually bring destruction to itself and the earth if it did not begin to develop an objective understanding of the spiritual world and its interrelationship with the physical world. Steiner’s spiritual-scientific methods and insights have given birth to practical holistic innovations in many fields, including education, banking, medicine, psychology, the arts and, not least, agriculture.”
Non-believers and adversaries get hung up on the term “spiritual”, in my opinion. The concept is vastly different from what we’ve come to expect in the workings of education, banking, medicine, and agriculture at least. Psychology and the arts, well, they seem to have accepted the connection to some extent. My personal experience is with biodynamic winemakers, and I can’t speak to the application in the other fields. I will say that though the spiritual aspects might seem witchy, in practice they are are very…well…practical. (See article on Domaine Duseigneur for an interview of a Southern Rhône bio winemaker.)
Again, in the words of the Biodynamic Association:
“In the domain of agriculture, Steiner was the first to point to the danger of synthetic fertilizers, which were just appearing in his time. He was also the first to bring the perspective of the farm as a single, self-sustaining organism that thrives through biodiversity, the integration of crops and livestock and the creation of a closed-loop system of fertility. Steiner also brought forth a unique and comprehensive approach to soil, plant, animal and human health that recognizes the importance of the healthy interplay of cosmic and earthly influences. With this knowledge, he developed a set of homeopathic preparations used by biodynamic farmers on soil, compost and plants that help build up the farm’s innate immune system and vital forces.”
Biodynamic vintners do a couple of things that we should acknowledge. Of course, there is the lack of synthetics…this is often the initial draw to grow grapes biodynamically. Similar to the way we’ve decided we don’t want to drink milk with hormones, some vintners have decided they don’t want to create a space loaded with chemicals that makes an output loaded with chemicals.
In lieu of synthetics, bio vintners apply teas, compost, floral waters and biopreparations which are said to balance the soil. A distinction here: this is not performed in opposition to the unwanted organisms and conditions that also quest to settle in the vineyards…this is meant to balance the whole ecosystem. Also important is the biodynamic calendar, which recommends the optimal time to sow seeds based on lunar phases. Biodynamics acknowledges that cosmic influences essentially pour energy onto the Earth and this influence can be harnessed by performing chores in an accordingly timely manner.
Whew, right? Nobody said farming and winemaking were easy…everyone has to do something and biodynamics may be no more or less work than traditional methods. My early education on the practice was in the vineyards of Les Baux-de-Provence, a hot and windy appellation which hadn’t really gotten away from the old way of doing things when the old way was pre-synthetic anyway. But it surprised me, when I started looking into Alpine wines, that the practice was being introduced, essentially reversing the state of grape growing, in areas further north, away from the sun and Mistral.
The Biodynamic Wines from Savoie
Maillet isn’t the only person in Savoie working biodynamically. Thanks to an excellent resource, the Vins Naturels website, brought to my attention by Alan March, I learned of Jean-Yves Péron, Domaine Giachino, Domaine Genoux and the team at Domaine des Côtes Rousses who say, “Boots caked with dirt are the mark of a good vigneron“. Chambers Street Wines, who makes our tasting notes below, also identifies Dominique Lucas.
These wines are notoriously hard to find in the US. The region of Savoie is quite small, under 5,000 acres (2000 ha) producing a 0.5% drop in the bucket of French wines. So, there’s just not a relative lot of it made. The precious wee amount is often consumed right at home, either by locals or by the rosy-cheeked tourists that come to play outside in the beautiful-year-round Alpine treasures.With this in mind, I’ve made several suggestions below, available as I type from Chambers Street Wines in NYC, with no guarantees about future procurement possibilities:
Maillet, Jacques 2014 Rousette de Savoie Altesse “Autrement“: From Maillet’s old vines of Altesse, this is bottled as appellation Roussette de Savoie. It’s dry, but compared to the blend with Jacquere, this Altesse is a bit richer on the nose and the palate. Ripe orchard fruit, roundness and a lingering finish that is refreshingly mineral. Very balanced and just plain delicious. ~Eben Lillie
Dominique Lucas (Vignes de Paradis) 2014 Pays d’Allobrogie Chardonnay: A thoroughly elegant wine that truly shows its Savoie roots! This wine is fermented and aged half in concrete egg à la Belluard, his very good friend, and half in used barrel. The result is a much more chiseled and ethereal interpretation of Chardonnay that you don’t get in either the Jura or Burgundy. Think soft aromas of orchard fruit, lemon curd, and mountain wildflower on the nose, yet the palate is much more invigorating and opens up with a bit of lush fruit anchored by laser sharp acidity, a slightly waxy, mouth-coating texture, and tangy minerals. Try this with sushi made from fattier fish. ~Tim Gagnon
The French Winophiles
A group of wine writers and bloggers, we call ourselves the French Winophiles, will be on twitter to chat about the wines of Savoie on Saturday, January 21st at 10am central. To pipe up, or just listen in, find us at the hashtag #Winophiles. Here’s what we’ve prepared as our portfolio of the region:
Michelle from Rockin Red Blog gives us Peeking Into the Secret World of Savoie Wines.
Martin from Enofylze Wine Blog asks Voulez-vous Savoie? Oui Mondeuse!
Jeff from FoodWineClick! writes about Soup & Savoie.
Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm enjoys “Savoie”ring time with Family.
Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla creates A Savoie Pairing: Soupe aux Cailloux + Gonnet Chignin.
And here on L’occasion, we are into The Biodynamic Vineyards of Savoie. (Note, more on Alpine and Biodynamic vineyards to come on L’occasion in 2017. If you are a winemaker in either of these categories, I would love it if you would contact me to share your story and perhaps answer a few questions.