Along with a short visit at the Angers wine fair january 6th, we both visited two small outstanding wine gatherings that took place in the medieval Chateau d'Angers (downtown Angers) :"Renaissance des Appellations" (also named Renaissance des AOC and Return to Terroir) and "La Dive Bouteille", both offering the opportunity to meet (and taste) under one roof dozens of vignerons sharing the same philosophy of authenticity and respectful viticulture.
The 1st one (Renaissance des Appellations, or Return to Terroir) is the name of a group founded in 2001 by Nicolas Joly, winemaker in Savennieres, and which gathers vignerons from France and abroad (118 vignerons from 12 countries) who work with biodynamics, the essentials of agriculture by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1924), an austrian visionary and philosopher. Biodynamic viticulture is in use in an increasing number of estates, but Nicolas Joly has been a precursor (his estate has been fully in biodynamics since 1984) and he also goes further as he understands the hows & whys of Steiner's cosmogony and the consequences of this or that, for the vine-soil couple, for the wine and for the consumer at the end. And he has not been afraid to speak out about the Steiner vision of the universe that he made his own, in a world where the common thinking has trouble with anything esoteric. But his success and the obvious difference and results in his wines brought him respect and had "non-believers" among vignerons investigate and make some trials. His group regularly holds gatherings around the world, (there was one recently in Japan and there will one in New York soon) where he gives conferences to help vignerons to better understand why, at the end, it is good for the wine to apply such farming practices. For more details on Nicolas Joly and his conversion to biodynamy, read this resourceful article by fellow blogger Jamie Goode.
We arrived on the estate's grounds at 11am for a visit with Virginie Joly as our guide. Virginie, 27, is the daughter of Nicolas Joly and has been working in the estate after studies in art and a year spent in Finland. She first walks us (with her dog Alias) on a 100 meter long cypress-lined elevated alley from the Chateau to the view over the Coulée de Serrant which looks like a small valley opening on the Loire. Coulée means flow, and this small valley is named coulée because when it rains, the water just flows on it into the Loire. The Coulee de Serrant is a Monopole Appellation in Savennieres and winemaking here can be traced as far as 1130, when cistercian monks planted vineyards. There are several plots in the V-shaped valley of La Coulee de Serrant, and they are delimited by old "prayer paths" used by the monks walking from the monastery. The lowest plot, with 70-80 year-old vines is plowed by one of their horses (named Marius). But no separate cuvées are made for these plots. Under 10-15 cm of earth, the soil here is very schistic and the roots can slip through, deep under. The total surface of the estate, which lies on Savennieres Coulee de Serrant, Savennieres Roche aux Moines, and Savennieres appellations, is 15 hectares.
On the left side of the alley (picture with Virginie : on the left), a 15 year old plot with non-grafted Chenin Blanc vines on Savennieres "La Roche aux Moines" Appellation. Took some time to grow but now the vines begin to be matured enough. No serious problem with diseases until now, the soil and the vines are healthy. Nicolas Joly's philosophy is to work the least possible on the soil now, to avoid the destruction of the upper-layer's life, now that the soil is alive again. So they only plow along the vinestock twice a year, de-earthing in spring and re-earthing in autumn. They have also worked on two plots without using any SO2 nor copper-spraying and it seems to be conclusive. Instead, they used only herbal-concoction spray against diseases and, if oidium threatened the plants, a milk-based spray. But being able to work this way needs time and lengthly preparation, as Nicolas Joly says 9 years may be needed to revitalize a soil that had been previously chemically treated. There is even a plot they haven't been plowing anymore for 3 years, even along the rows. It is a Savennieres plot on a steep slope facing the Loire (picture on the right).
Lots of animals live on the estate : The plowhorse Marius, of course, who quietly looks at us from his stable on this picture (left), but also a dozen rustic sheeps who wander in the vineyard in winter, feeding on the grass and plants between the rows and depositing their manure. They stopped using goats as they were eating everything, even the bare vines... They also have 15 cows, most from the Nantaise breed (picture on the right) and a couple from the scottish highlands breed, all fed with natural grain, grass and hay grown on the property. They provide the much sought-after manure : twice during winter, the manure is collected in the stables, treated with additional concoctions and spread (usually after the harvest) in the vineyard. Near the stables, we have a look at the mysterious containers/dynamisers used to prepare the sprays (picture on left). The animals are manpower-consuming . Speaking of manpower, 4 people work full-time in the estate, plus her father and herself. There is also a secretary and someone to prepare shipments.
About Rudolf Steiner and how he came in the way of the viticulture hee, Nicolas Joly one day fell upon one of his books (or transcriptions of conferences, which I think are the most interesting part of his work). It is unconnected, but Steiner had had an imprint on his wife's family (who is german). There are lots of Waldorf schools (following R. Steiner's educational principles) in Germany and Virginie's grandmother went to such a school. By the way, it is strange that France which is much less into Steiner than, say, Germany, northern Europe, or the U.S., is yet the country where Steiner's biodynamic viticulture made a powerful start. This may be because of the smaller size of many estates which made it easier to try, this can be also due to the french notion of terroir which found some common ground with Steiner essentials.
We taste now two wines in addition with the ones we tasted in Angers (#3 to #5) :
__1 Savennieres Clos de la Coulee de Serrant 2004. Delicate mouth. Very fruity. Elegant. 15° (actually 14,7).
__2 Savennieres Clos de la Coulee de Serrant 2003. More exuberant. The different plots are blended, then lightly filtered, and bottled here. The wine rests some time in bottles before reaching the market in october.
__3 Savennieres "Les Vieux Clos" 2004. Ripe grapes side. Nice.
__4 Savennieres Roche aux Moines "Cour de la Bergerie" 2004. Poweful nose.
__5 Savennieres Clos de la Coulee de Serrant 2004. Tasting this wine in Angers, I noted the nice golden colour with some green reflections also. Nice volume in the mouth.
Thank you Virginie for the visit !