French Wine Connection 2011:

French Organic and Biodynamic Wines

Tasting Event November 7, 2011

Why do the concepts of organic and biodynamic farming and viticulture attract so much interest in the wine world? At one level the focus is on developing and maintaining healthy soils and healthy plants, requiring fewer chemicals and pesticides. Who would argue with that?

But surrounding those ideas is a sense of personal interaction with the land, plants and their produce; and personal interaction implies a smaller scale, and a focus on each particular place. In the world of viticulture this means unique vineyards, unique grapes and (we hope) unique wines. For those who work this way in the vineyard are inclined to continue with a "natural" approach in the winery, often using indiginous yeasts, and a minimum of chemicals and filtering, allowing the uniqueness of each place and each vintage to show itself in each wine. That's the holy grail for many wine lovers.

old_vines_domaine_du_closelOld Vines at the Domaine du Closel, Savennières (from their website)

Then connect organic and biodynamic concepts with France, and we get even more excited. For France has been the home of some pioneers, such as Nicolas Joly in the Loire, and the "natural wine" movement inspired by Jules Chauvet in Beaujolais, many of whose followers practice some form of organic or biodynamic viticulture. The movement has at least some adherents in most regions of France, and is beginning to lay down roots in every wine region of the world.

The tasting event at the Park Hyatt in Toronto featured 18 producers from eight regions, and I can say without reservation that it lived up to my expectations. It's not that I liked everything I tasted, by any means, but I found the excitement, focus and commitment I was looking for. I'll mention just a few of my highlights, which I think topped the list because they tended to stray from what we know as the international mainstream.

vineyard_by_LoireVineyards in Savennières (Domainie de Closel website)

I'll begin with the Loire, specifically Savennières (in Anjou south of Angers), and the Chenin Blanc wines of Clos du Closel. The proprieter and winemaker, Evelyne de Pontbriand, also the president of AOC Savennières, speaks with passion both about her own wines and the region. From reading and listening I get the sense that improvements in viticulture, with the growth of organic and biodynamic farming in the region, have helped to improve the quality of the already great wines, adding riper fruit notes to the traditional austere profile of minerality and high acidity.

The premium single vineyard Le Clos de Papillon, 2007, was a thought-provoking example: lemon, stone fruit and floral notes sit above a nutty, beeswax frame. There is citrus and minerality on the palate, and while I want to say honey, there's no sweetness involved, and so I'm guessing that's what my nose says is beeswax. This is a wine that should probably be cellared for years, yet it is beautiful now.

vineyard_chateau_chalonVineyard of Chateau-Chalon, Jura (from Caves Jean Bourdy website)

Let's move to the Jura, east of Burgundy on the border with Switzerland. Jean-François Bourdy, along with his brother Jean-Philippe, represent the 15th generation of ownership of his family's estate Caves Jean Bourdy. While the estate became fully biodynamic in 2006, the wines proudly emobdy the unique traditions of Jura with little accomodation for modern winemaking techniques and modern international wine styles.

vin JauneVin Jaune in its 62 cl clavelin bottle

The Bourdy Côtes de Jura whites are Chardonnay, but they are aged four years in barrel before bottling. Since the barrels are not topped up, this leads to some interesting oxidative notes. The high acidity of the wine keeps it fresh, and a 1992 version, presented for comparison, still showed youthful acidity. Although not a specialty of Bourdy, it should be noted that some Jura whites are made with the barrels continually topped up (ouillé), and these have the character of old world Chardonnay.

The well-known specialty of Jura is the Vin Jaune. This is always made from the local Savagnin grape, and is kept in barrel for a minimum of six years. It should develop a surface film or voile of yeast, similar to the flor of Sherry, that allows for oxidation over time while protecting the wine from deteriorating and forming volatile acidity. The 2003 Vin Jaune from Chateau-Challon, a tiny AOC which is only used for Vin Jaune, was recently bottled, and showed the nutty "sherry" aromas and flavours, along with spices and bruised apples. M. Bourdy also presented a sublime 1952 Chateau-Challon, which while evolved and concentrated, still showed a brightness and freshness from the underlying acidity. These are not mainstream wines, and they really demand food — hard local cheeses and nuts are a favourite. These wines can age indefinitely, and M. Bourdy has examples of both the Côtes de Jura and Vin Jaune spanning the 20th century.

Mauzac grapesMauzac grapes (from the Causse Marines website)

A final brief stop is with Patrice Lescarret of Causse Marines of Gaillac in southern France. Not only is Patrice an organic and biodynamic farmer, he is committed to supporting the local grape varieties of his region, rather than adopting the mainstream international grapes and styles. White varieties include Mauzac, Loin-de-l'oeil and Ordenc, while the reds include Duras, Fer and Syrah. While several of his wines are AOC Gaillac, his interest in highlighting the local varieties has led him to using the broader Vin de Table category, where the rules are a little less strict.

ZacmauThe label for the Mauzac Vin de Table

With a strong sense of fun, Patrice challenges even the Vin de Table rules (which do not allow the use of grape names on the label) and uses names such as Zacmau (Mauzac), Dencon (Ondenc) and Rasdu (Duras). The Zacmau 2010 is fresh and acidic, with a nice weight that will stand up to food and cheese. The Rasdu 2008 has lots of acidity and surprising tannins, that support pretty fruit, yielding a red with very nice structure.

I could go on. Representatives from Entre Deux Mers, Chablis, Burgundy, Southern Rhône and Languedoc all had important things to say about their regions and their wines. And many had stories about their challenges and successes. As always, I failed to try every wine and my notes are in disarray, but the afternoon was filled with great talk and fine wine.