The Biodynamic Vineyards of Savoie

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.

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The vineyards of Domaine des Côtes Rousses,courtesy of the domaine.
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 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.

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Thanks to Eben Lillie Chambers Street Wines for this photo of Jacques Maillet.

As the end of the decade (and millenium, 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 loosing 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 menating another way. As momentum built, Maillet was able to purchase additional parcels, his current vineyards which overhang the RhôneRiver: 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.

Biodynamics

A couple of points here. Biodynamics are, essentially, in addition to organic and sustainable practices. Maillet, for example, is certified organic. The bio 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.”

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A biodynamic preparation. Credit: Jill Barth

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…practicable. (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 bio preparations which are said to balance the soil. Distinction here: this is not performed in opposition of 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 acknowledge that cosmic influences essentially pour energy onto the Earth and this influence can be harnessed by performing chores in an accordingly timely manner.

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My biodynamic seed sowing calendar, open to today’s date. Credit: Jill Barth

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.

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The surroundings at Domaine des Côtes Rousses, courtesy of the domaine.

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 

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. 

 

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23 Comments Add yours

  1. amarch34 says:

    Nice piece Jill, thank you for the recommendations. Biodynamics is such a controversial area, many people I know get very uptight about the subject. I am a natural sceptic and some of Steiner’s work seems ridiculous to me but there is a clear link between biodynamic domaines and quality. Perhaps it is the extra care and attention given to the vines, perhaps there is more to it. Having spent two years working with someone in the Languedoc who does believe in the philosophy and calendar then I am less sceptical. He uses the calendar to decide bottling days etc and who am I to argue when the quality is in the bottle.

    The comment about winemakers with soil on their boots is oh so true.

    Maillet is at a salon I am going to in a week’s time, I shall be hunting him out for sure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jill Barth says:

      Thanks Alan — Your post was so timely and Vin Naturel was a great resource. If you see Maillet, please let him know it was my pleasure to write about his work. He isn’t aware of the article! I reached out to his importer but haven’t heard back yet. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dr B says:

    An interesting post especially with the story of Mr Maillot. I have become increasingly interested in visiting biodynamic producers and enjoyed my visit to Baur in Turckheim in 2016. They were one of the best vineyards we visited across the whole year and we have since visited many in France who are beginning this journey. Scepticism apart, why wouldn’t you want your wine created from a cleaner, purer, less chemical, more natural environment? We are visiting the Jura in 2017 and will definitely seek out Mr Maillot. Our review here http://wp.me/p3R1tV-pU

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill Barth says:

      Thanks for your note and for passing along your perspective. My connection with bio-d winemakers has been very happenstance. In a past “life” was an editor for the green section of a large international online publication — the connection there came because of my yoga practice (I’m a certified instructor) and the publication was influenced by the yoga community. “Green” got tricky for me: politically motivated and not always spiritually connected. As I began to write almost exclusively about wine I kept running into bio wine folks…not even intentionally. The topic fascinates me so very much that I’m on a path to gather the stories, by choice or by luck! I’ve not grown grapes myself so I’m not in the position to take a position, necessarily, but I am very fulfilled by writing and learning. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great piece Jill. I love the stories of these winemakers. Biodynamics is a bit controversial due to the “spiritual” influences. Such a shame, indigenous peoples of the world have been farming biodynamically, and spiritually for centuries.

    Like

    1. Jill Barth says:

      You make a great point here — I’ve been to places where the synthetics just never really took hold… old didn’t have to become new because it was just…still kicking…

      I love hearing the stories of symbiotic workings on the vineyard…how this bird or bug helps the vines…the balance that exists is so soothing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wendy Klik says:

    Always so much information in your posts. I am really surprised,, after reading this, that the wines were so affordable.

    Like

    1. Jill Barth says:

      Me too, Wendy! Funny you say that because I said the same thing to my husband. I didn’t find a bottle for myself, however, but I’m working on it. Cheers and thanks!

      Like

  5. culinarycam says:

    Very interesting read, Jill. I remember talking to my friend’s wife when she first moved here from Ecuador. She was baffled by the term ‘organic.’ In Ecuador EVERYTHING is organic because pesticides and chemicals cost money. Only wealthy, subsidized farms – producing for America – can afford them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill Barth says:

      It is, in a way, how Americans in the 1950’s embraced processed foods (TV dinners, sliced cheese, jello) because they were newly available in a prosperous environment. What you describe in Ecuador is the idea that synthetics are a non-essential cost. In the end, it seems the wisdom in this is meaningful. Thanks for sharing!

      Like

  6. kupers says:

    It is less of a challenge to opt for biodynamics in hotter areas, as it is with organic viticulture due to more favourable climatic conditions; so it’s nice to know that it is a possibility in Alpine regions. My interest in the Savoie has been piqued, it never really popped up on my radar as it is frankly a region way too complex for its own good, but the Roussette de Marestel from Domaine Dupasquier (organic) I drunk and wrote about the other day was an eye-opener:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill Barth says:

      Thanks for your comment, Peter. I popped over and read your thoughts on the Roussette de Marestel from Domaine Dupasquier and I’m happy to hear of your enthusiasm. Being in Belgium, I would imagine your proximity makes these wines slightly more accessible (no ocean to sail upon)… I really value a tasting perspective.

      I was fascinated, too, by the ability to run biodynamics in the Alpine setting. Constantly bowed to as a bio helper, the sun and wind in southern France seem to blow off anything unwelcome. I am so curious to dive more deeply into what environmental factors in the Apline setting provide the balance of bio.

      Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. kupers says:

        thank you for the feedback! I have more experience with German wines, and the use of biodynamics is not as wide-spread as it is in France for instance, but they are getting there. They have a big issue with the use of copper, which is allowed within Demeter, so a lot of them opt to use their own hybrid form of organics and biodynamic principles. I agree that it would be very interesting to look into though!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. When you look past the mumbo jumbo it all makes a lot of sense and anything that reduces the chemicals in what we consume has got to be positive. Steiner might have been rather too spiritual for the mainstream but he certainly wasn’t wrong when he predicted that humans would bring destruction upon themselves if they didn’t change…I think he was quite a visionary (my experience is mainly in the field of education). Thanks for writing this fascinating piece and linking it to #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill Barth says:

      Hi Pheobe — What I’ve seen in the biodynamic vineyards is so essentially practical. Though it gets dubbed ‘mystical’ it has simple, clear, well-timed practices just like any other method of work. I think people are thrown off by the mention of “cosmic influences essentially pour energy onto the Earth and this influence can be harnessed by performing chores in an accordingly timely manner.” Cosmic influences just aren’t in our current discourse. But the idea of soil as a living thing in need of balance — I think most conscientious vineyard managers understand this. It really is fascinating! Thanks for your comment.

      Like

  8. Wink Lorch says:

    Hello Jill, I just came across your excellent post – Jacques Maillet, who I’ve known for a dozen years or so is a really amazing character and when they are on form, his wines can be extraordinary too (they do vary with the weather, he will confirm!). He made his last vintage in 2015 and has now sold his vineyard to Florian and Marie Curtet, who were working with him anyway.
    Another excellent producer working in biodynamics is Louis Magnin. And one other particular person, to mention to make this story more complete, is Michel Grisard. He founded Domaine Prieuré St-Christophe and was the first to work with biodynamics in the region from the late 1980s.He has now retired and sold his vineyards to Domaine Giachino. Michel was the driver behind encouraging organics in the Savoie vineyards, also founded the extraordinary IGP Domaine des Ardoisières and today works to promote rare grape varieties.
    All this and more in my future book on Wines of the French Alps!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill Barth says:

      Hello Wink — Thank you for sharing. I’ve enjoyed learning from your Jura Wine Book! I’m making a point to cover Alpine wines and biodynamic wines on L’occasion this year. I’d love to make a connection with these producers. Thank so much for sharing these names with our readers and for your comment. Cheers!

      Like

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