Paul Barre is heading an iconic estate on the isolated front of the organic/biodynamic viticulture in Bordeaux. Chateau La Grave is located in Fronsac near a curve of the Dordogne river east of Libourne. We met him on a work day for a visit during a typical Bordeaux-region day with bright sunny moments and bouts of rain in the same day.
He begins to say jokingly that he could begin his life as a vigneron because his teachers in school where well-inspired to let him go. What was felt as a depreciating exclusion at the time turned out to be a great chance. He followed suit to a retiring vigneron. He was 19 and could have taken the road and travelled the world, but this opportunity to follow the vigneron life came at the right time. His father and grand-father were both in the wine world in Bodeaux, they were wine brokers (courtiers en vin), as well as other family members. He himself tried this profession but didn't feel it was his path. His brother became one of the well-known brokers in Bordeaux (Barre et Touton). He learned the job from scratch then, in 1975. La Grave had a vineyard surface of 4,2 hectares then. He also had a few other vineyards, rented some more for a peak of 15 hectares and came back to the present surface of 7 hectares today. This size fits him well. He began rapidly to follow organic farming with the Lemaire-Boucher structure, but he was not satisfied with the spirit of this system. there was no freedom in this organic-products label, you had to buy all their products and so on. After hearing about biodynamy in 1977-1978 and 1985, the understanding of this method slowly made its way and he decided to apply it in his vineyard in 1990.
Paul Barre says that when biodynamic farming is well done, the results are immediate, boom-boom he says as a sound image. With his experience, he would say to some one who wants to apply biodynamy that what is important is to take the care and the necessary time to do it well, which is not always easy because the calendar window is sometimes narrow. But rigor is central for biodynamy. Asked about weather constraints in Bordeaux, he waves it off and says that the biggest difficulty is with the vigneron's readyness (or lack of) to make the effort and respect the details and calendar. For example the vineyard should be worked in april as he understand it, because the soils shouldn't be touched between may 13th and june 13th when the sun comes in front of Taurus : this stellar position has an incidence on nitrogen and during this month the vineyard's ground shouldn't be opened or plowed, this work should have been done before in april. In may the only work should concern the grass, like cutting it. He likes to work on his biodynamic preparations on weekends, even on sundays, partly because he has a good friend who has another job during the week in a completely different field but who is an erudite on biodynamy and needs to experience it in the real world. There is a productive exchange between them. For example now (this takes place in mid-may) the flower is coming soon and he wants to bring the silicium/light element to the vineyard, and he will begin to dynamize at 4:45 am next sunday.
The "silice de corne" (horn silicium ?) preparation, the thinly-grinded quatrz, has been prepared, put inside a horn and dug in the vineyard at Easter, then dug out on Saint-Michel's day. Just a 3 grams/hectare of this preparation, mixed in water and sprayed on the vinerayd (20 liter per hectare), has a decisive effect on the vines. He says that he tried with- and without such sprayings and the difference is like day and night, this is a reality... He sprays that from the back container, not from the tractor, and don't think that all the vines have to be sprayed like a conventional spraying : here it works like if you tried to vaporize an "ambiance" in the vineyard, and he can spray only every 7 ranks. He compares this with what you would do to revitalize a room with a bunch of flowers : everything has to do with where you place the flowers, if it is in a closet it will not work but if it is on a nice low cabinet in the right part of the room, it will change its athmosphere. How strange as it seems, that's the way the biodynamic preparation-sprayings work.
To complicate the thing, the years are never the same and you must find yourself each year how to make the sprayings depending of the circumstantial conditions of the vineyard and weather. One thing doesn't change for him : the spraying has to be made in the narrow time-window of 1 1/2 - 2 hours after sunrise, and he says that you can feel it when you walk in the nature right after sunrise, there is this impressive silence and quietness. He used these silice sprayings even in august 2003 when there was already so much light (silice is light) in these canicule days, because these sprayings bring the light into the soil, something that a strong physical light doesn't necessarily do.
He still makes sulphur/copper sprayings from time to time to fight mildew but he is confident about finding alternatives for these type of sprayings. He says that farmers including organic farmers can use a maximum of 37 kilograms of copper per hectare in 5 years (a bit more than 7 kg/year). Last year, his own consumption was 9 kg/hectare over 5 years. he personally uses between 100 grams to 250 grams for one hectare. He regrets that no official study is made to determine which minimum copper dosage is possible. The independance of the public entity INRA being jeopardized by its connections with the phyto-chemical companies, it has not started any research in the subject although it might be a crucial research field to improve viticulture and agriculture and carry a positive outcome on the ecological front. The picture above was shot in a 0,8-hectare plot of Cabernet Franc planted a little more than a year ago, and which already had yields of about 35hectoliter/hectare (the previous vines were Cabernet Sauvignon).
Paul Barre invested heavily in 2006 and 2007 in a multi-layer sorting-system with sorting tables, vibrating tables and a wind blower to take out the unwanted elements. He considers thar this changed the work for the better : he has now 2 people to do a better job than they did before with 6 people. The wine : he fill his stainless vats and later, the casks when the fermentations are over. Speaking of fermentation vats, he thinks that some research could be done about the vat/container used to make the wine. He tried a couple of containers with other materials and shape (the shape of the container may have an important, if unknown to us yet, role for the vinification), like a big amphora, but for now, he keeps using regular stainless-steel vats with temperature control. About the amphora, he wasn't looking for an ancient type of container and he feels open to any imaginative new type of vat-design and modern material which would bring a decisive impact on the winemaking process.
When the grapes arrive at harvest, he fills the vats, cover them with CO2, sets the right temperature and in the matter of 24 hours the fermentation starts with the indigenous yeasts. present on the grapes' skin. He brings some air in when he he feels it appropriate, he respects also the calendar when he opens a vat or when he racks, because these operations are not neutral. The fermentation takes place, the macerations too (3 to 4 weeks), some pumping over, once a day when needed, without predetermined plan, lots of the decisions are made by intuition. After the first fermentation, the running off, then the malolactic fermentation follows suit quite fast at 22°C, even if he would somehow like to have it take place in the casks in spring. Then he puts the wine in casks in the cellar while last year's wines leave their casks for the vats in a sort of millesime exchange.
Then, when the wine is in casks, he doesn't move the wines for one year. He added a bit of sulphur after the malolactic fermentation. To get an idea of the doses, his 2006 wines had a total-sulphur level between 40 and 50, which is low. He is not looking for sulphur-free wines as he uses minimal quantities oof it. He also considers that sulphur is unjustly targeted and that the real problem of sulphur in wines comes from its combination/synergy with the other added chemicals, which brings harmful consequences for the health. A recent study made by PAN on 40 bottles of wines sold in Europe (mostly conventional wines) has found traces of 148 pesticides, some of these industrial wines showing traces of 10 different pesticides at the same time, and another showing levels of pesticides 5800 (five thousand eight hundred) times the authorized level for tap water [full study -Pdf]...These news were waved down by the French unions like FNSEA (farmers) and CIVB (Bordeaux wine producers), but it still set off an alarm for quality-minded growers, and several top-tier wineries in the region (and probably in other French regions) ordered an extensive (but confidential) analysis of their own wines for pesticide residues. Most of these top wineries having a very responsible and sustainable vineyard management, the results that leaked from these unofficial studies was that they had very reassuring levels, if any, for these residues.
The wines :
__1 Aux Caudelayres Fronsac 2005, the 2nd wine of Chateau La Grave. Bottled opened may 20th - we're the 26th of may. Nice nose of jammy fruits, clafoutis maybe. There's also some thing like chocolate, maybe coffee aromas here. 7,4 Euro. Great value. He shows us his future labels, where the Appellation is put on the side vertically with the legal notifications (pregnant-women warnings and so on).
__2 Chateau La Grave Fronsac 2005. Aromas of cooked cherries and cherry cake. B. notes the aromatic filiation with the other wine, just this one has more complexity. Beautiful. 12,1 Euro.
__3 Chateau La Fleur Cailleau Canon Fronsac 2005. Nice tannins. Black fruits, black cherry in alcohol. Nice wine. 17,5 Euro. His oldest wine in biodynamy was the 1990, which was in addition a great year and he remembers that he made the mistake to sell some of it in bulk...7 minutes later or so, this Canon Fronsac is so beautiful...All his wines have been unfiltered and unfined for the last 10 years (except 2004). He doesn't even top up the casks, there's some void under the bung. Paul Barre told us an interesting side story : he was the first vigneron to hire Stéphane Derenoncourt when he landed in the region in 1987. He was coming from the north as some sort of dropout and looking for small jobs in the vineyard. He was new to the vineyard world but learned fast. He was to become later one of the most well-known enologist in the world.