Article By: Fred Bouchard
NICOLAS JOLY • Winemaker-Viticulturalist-Educator • Savennières, Loire, France
The Loire Valley, arguably France's most exciting wine region, produces underrated and undervalued wines and is home to oenological rebels who thrive on experimenting and evolving techniques, and who regularly and convincingly break France's iron rules of viticulture and winemaking. Though the Loire's specialty white grape, Chenin Blanc, is especially delicious and often a steal, few Californian wineries bother making it (Dry Creek, Chalone, Chappellet notably excepted). Perhaps the Loire's most controversial figure is Nicolas Joly, who follows biodynamics with a fervor matched by few, even among his passionate countrymen. Joly's golden mean of biodynamic Chenin Blanc, Coulee de Serrant, has its own Appellation Controlee within Savennieres, has been grown by Cistercian monks since 113O, and ranks as 'hot property' among recherche winelovers and cognoscenti. The second edition of Joly's back-to-the-roots primer on natural winemaking, Wine From Sky and Earth (acresusa.com, 8OO.355.5313) was just released; it may well be the Bible of biodynamics. Joly bases his holistic theories on precepts put forth by anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, also known as the Waldorf Schools founder. Prominent biodynamic practitioners include many converted colleagues in Alsace (Zind-Humbrecht, Marcel Deiss), Burgundy (Lafon, Leflaive, Bize-Leroy), Rhone (Chapoutier) and Loire (Huet), and increasing advocates elsewhere. Having said, "Philosophy and practice must always go hand in hand," Joly today lectures and consults in vineyards worldwide.
OFF to RUSSIA I didn't want to travel with the banking, so I returned to the earth: I took over running my family's historic vineyard in 1977. But now I'm traveling again! I'm going to see how people tend their local vines as well as investigate the making of amphorae [clay wine storage vessels]. Each cepage is different; you don't look for polar bears in Africa! In Russia today, vineyards are going private, and local farmers cannot afford to pay what they ask. I'm looking into the share system, to be sure these farms will be biodynamic and help the farmers preserve their local varietals! It's done already for wheat, and they raise some rare varieties of wheat. Can it be done for vines as well? We'll see! I'm just back from Georgia (Russia) and have discovered some fabulous local varieties.
BIODYNAMICS DEFINED In biodynamics, we connect the vine to the frequencies it needs - like tuning a radio, we tune the plant to the frequencies that bring it life. Organics permits nature to do its job; biodynamics permits nature to do its job better. It is very simple.
RE-FORGING OLD LINKS Wine is made of climate and soil. If you move away from that physical reality to a complex energy system (like the sun shining), disease needs to link itself to the life system. Biodynamics serve to reconnect the plant to that tangible system. You may have lower yields, but the microclimate benefits and brings forth the true taste of the grape.
ARMIES of DESTRUCTION When you see diseases on the plant, you have to fight them. The truth is that when you treat diseases with chemicals, you further harm the vines. Let's see what the disease is linked to and take away that weakness. Look at diseases as if they were soldiers. They don't fight all year long, but once in a while go forth. Viruses are usually most dangerous when they find a weak thing without force or energy they can overcome. Disease can remove weakness. Root can never feed itself. Weed-killers prevent vines from linking themselves to the soil.
BIG BAD CHEMISTRY If an auto dealer advises you to add an accessory on your car, but you find that the secondary effects are increased road danger and carbon monoxide build-up, you can take him to court. So now we find that the chemical companies lied to us about the efficacy of pesticides and herbicides.
TEA for VINES Salt-based fertilizers are poisonous to the vine as they affect its balance. Instead, we rebuild the soil's strength and realign the vine by using tiny quantities of natural preparations of nettle, dandelion and chamomile. These herbs are also good for people and are prepared with a very strict protocol: we place a few grams into a small compost for a few weeks. We then quick-stirring the mix for an hour in 2OO liters of water - a process called "dynamization" - and spread it on the soil. This process engenders specific microbial life; it is what the plant needs to be healthy. We counteract their negative effects with teas made from nettle, dandelion and chamomilee. They also work for the human body, since chemical pills are not as healthy as homeopathic and natural herb treatments. Each preparation brings a process which the vine needs for health: camomile = calcium, yarrow = potash, nettle = iron, dandelion = silica, valerian = phosphorus.
NEW MUSIC As in music, if you extract one note from a melody, you diminish it. These teas help the vine plant move from one direction to another via acoustics through the solar system to the leaves. Thus we capture the essence of the microclimate and of the AOC (appellation d'origine controlee) that defines specific soil and climate. So the vine expresses a little more the place where it is growing. I'm playing another song on diseases and vines. I show young people that you don't have to know about the mechanics of breathing to sing; it's like that for farming, too. They know chemistry but not acoustics. What's important is to attune the soil to what is above - plants! sun! solar system!
TERROIR = SOIL + CLIMATE Terroir is composed of soil and climate. Climate is made of humidity, light and heat, three highly variable factors that affect the life of the soil that the roots capture. Rain may be short or long, with or without heat (more or less fog). You may have a lot of light with little heat or the reverse. Keep in mind that when the Greeks divined seven gods of the wind, from the weakest to the strongest, they were referring to specific forces or processes. There is much to study in the ancient knowledge that is completely misunderstood today.
HARMONIOUS FIELDS Nature does not like monoculture. But people seem to. Nature doesn't like to get bored either! Mixing vines with peaches or garlic is fine! I have fields around the vines that I could plant but do not choose to; instead there are fields of cows, horses and sheep, and some woods. Winemakers must understand their soil before the grapes, not the reverse. Timing is everything! When the sun weakens a little in winter, and the leaves fall, we see a sort of death coming. Autumn is a busy season, where the farmers can help the vines 'die a little death' by choosing the precise natural fertilizers.
IN the CELLAR The more you help the vine to do its job - by means of a living 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. This is why I call my self a nature assistant and not a wine maker.
NATURAL YEASTS I choose to keep the natural yeasts, 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.
THAT DEEP BURNISHED GOLD The reason that even my young Chenin Blancs have that deep gold color is harvesting late to encourage the positive botrytis - up to 3O% in some vineyards. Once farming is good, the question becomes, 'When do I cut my grapes?' When you see light yellow green, the vine will have fruit but lack minerality. You must lose 2O% of the juice by waiting until the grapes approach being dry raisins. This waiting is effective only if your farming is sane. Grapes may not rot, but the maturation process achieves increased minerality.
NEW EXPERIMENTS I'm taking away vines I planted from seed: after six years, they're still lacking forces to grow. I let sheep run between the vines from now until spring; their manure is excellent. I'm fighting disease with new teas. When the sun is harsh I try seaweed and fucus. My advice on the West Coast is to reduce the sun's effects with very small doses of aloe vera. [High in iodine and used in cosmetics and health products, these brown mossy Mediterranean seaweeds were used by Greeks and Romans for fodder and herbal medicines.]
ZODIAC EFFECTS [German theorist] Maria Thun's experiments 5O years ago show that zodiac signs affect parts of the vine: root (Capricorn, Virgo, Taurus); leaves (Pisces, Scorpio, Cancer); flower (Aquarius, Libra, Gemini); or fruit (Sagittarius, Leo, Aries). By working or scratching a soil when the moon is in front of one of these 4 tendencies, you increase the receptivity for the soil's micro-organisms to these forces. For example, when you open your shutters you receive more outside weather. But when soil micro-organisms have been killed by herbicides or chemical fertilizers, forget it.
READING the ANCIENTS Steiner has already digested the ancient writers, tuning them to our time. Botanist Wilhelm Pelikan's Medicinal Plants is an important volume.
LAST WRITINGS The new edition of Wine From Sky and Earth adds 3O important pages. There's also a new book, available in English in 2OO7, that attempts to explain to consumers what is "real wine", wine that has received no 'cosmetics' or artificial taste and is fully expressive of the place where the vine grew. Also, what system provides life to earth and how to use it in farming.