Saumaize-Michelin: A First Look at Roger Saumaize’s Intense 2012 Chardonnays

An Antique Map of Pouilly Fuisse. Vergisson is the Northern-Most of the five villages that make up the appellation.
An Antique Map of Pouilly-Fuisse. Vergisson is the Northern-Most of the four villages that make up the appellation.

Saumaize-Michelin is a top-flight small biodynamic grower-vigneron who is making some beautiful wines from his cellar in Vergisson.  Pouilly-Fuisse, unlike the appellations such as Chassagne and Meursault, is not centered around a single village, but rather four separate villages, Vergisson and Fuisse being the most renown. Vergisson sits in a valley below the massive limestone monolith of  La Roche de Vergisson, and some of its vineyards climb up and around the backside of this behemoth. Vergisson, the northern-most village, is the coolest in the appellations, and because of that, it is reputed to have the highest levels of acidity. In 2011, I would not have been so sure, but with these 2012s, the acidity and concentration of these wines (particularly with the Macon) are jaw dropping.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Roger Saumaize on a newly plated, steep-sloped vineyard that he thinks has tremendous potential.
Roger Saumaize on a newly plated, steep-sloped vineyard that he thinks has tremendous potential.

2012 Pouilly-Fuisse “Vignes Blanches”

While the 2011s were a bit fat in Maconnaise, this, the first of the 2012 Pouilly to be shipped from Saumaize is sensational in zingingly crisp acidity, with lots of chalky minerals in the nose and the palate: round river stones, apple, lime peel, some nice weight, and modest viscosity. The wine is long and fresh, there is also a waft of balsa and mahogany sawdust. While there are many inexpensive Pouilly-Fuisses on the marketplace, this is definitely not one of those. This is a big step up in quality and verve, and it should improve as it puts on weight and gras with a couple years of age. A fantastic Chardonnay that is comparable in style and quality with a fine St-Aubin. This is drawn from several of his Pouilly-Fuisse Vineyards around Vergisson.  $32.00   92 points

 

Outside the green line that demarcates the Pouilly-Fuisse appellation, are vineyards that must be labeled as Macon or Macon-Vergisson depending on their location.
Outside the green line that demarcates the Pouilly-Fuisse appellation, are vineyards that must be labeled as Macon or Macon-Vergisson depending on their location.

2012 Macon-Vergisson “La Roche”

Everything about this wine is intense, including its nose of cooked cream, lemon, lime peel and butterscotch. In the mouth there is ripping acidity, etching and intense in its attack, pushing the wines concentrated size and weight to their limit to hold this all together. This is a very powerful wine, that has both ripeness and fresh lemon and lots of lime peel flavors, some interesting twig/stem-like flavors, and finally, it gains some breadth in the back of the mouth, with fresh, yeasty bread dough flavors, and finishing with frothy cream, and toasty notes.  Impressive for its concentration and fierce attack, but it is almost difficult to drink.

“Roger Saumaize is swinging for the fences with this daring attempt to totally re-write what Macon village-level wine can be.”

Vergisson in the foreground and La Roche de Vergisson towering above. The vineyard Les Crays, one of Saumaize's top plots can be clearly seen (the area of the tan vineyard block
Vergisson in the foreground and La Roche de Vergisson towering above. The vineyard Les Crays, one of Saumaize’s top plots can be clearly seen (the area of the tan vineyard block

I fear this will turn to all lemon curd as it matures, but I’d like to see this mellow just a bit. For now, it really wants to be paired with some fatty food to tame it a bit.  Wow. That’s a mouthful. It is difficult to judge at this stage. Will it come into balance? Time will tell.  If it can broaden out and sufficiently cover the fierce acidity, this could be a 91 or 92 point wine. But if the lemon flavors overwhelm the other fruit as it matures, this will ultimately fail for me, getting a low 80s score.  Either way, Roger Saumaize is swinging for the fences with this daring attempt to totally re-write what Macon-Village level wine can be.

This Macon-Vergisson vineyard had a particularly small crop, and we got half of the wine we received in 2011. Only 10 cases were imported.

 

Vergisson has various soil types, and Saumaize’s vineyards various vineyards represent this.

Ronchevats sits in deep, younger, Triassic era soils of non-calcareous clay, meaning there is no limestone present, although there is a significant amount of magnesium present.

The Les Crays vineyard, at the foot of La Roche de Vergisson, as well as Courtelongs to the south of town has soils that are made up of white Marl (a mix of clay and decomposed limestone) with a high percentage of limestone in the mix.

Croinoids, a multi-armed sealife that feeds through a center mouth were abundant in huge numbers during certain periods in the prehistoric seas
Croinoids, a multi-armed sealife that feeds through a center mouth, were abundant in huge numbers during certain periods in the prehistoric seas.

The top of Sur La Roche vineyard has shallow soils with Crinoidal Limestone (limestone full of Crinoidal fossils) from the Bajocian era limestone from the middle Jurassic 170 million years ago to 168 million years ago. This period is associated with the development of ammonite biozones  While lower on the hill has shallow soil over limestone from the Bathonian stage 168 million years ago to 166 million years ago. It is interesting to note that the older limestone sits above the younger limestone on the slope. What major upheaval of the earth resulted in that?

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2011 Domaine Terres Dorees, (Jean-Paul Brun) Beaujolais L’Ancien

Jean Paul Brun's Domaine Terres Dorees near the Southern Beaujolais village of Charnay. While not a privileged address, Brun is making some superb Beaujolais from across the region.
Jean Paul Brun’s Domaine Terres Dorees near the Southern Beaujolais village of Charnay. While not a privileged address, Brun is making some superb Beaujolais from old vines here in the Beaujolais des Pierres Dorees, and from plots in Crus Beaujolais Villages he has purchased over the years.

I suppose saying the name of the firm that imports Jean-Paul Brun’s wines will say as much about the wine, right up front, as I can in a paragraph. It’s Louis/Dressner, the king among the proponents of “natural” winemaking. Pick a wine from Dressner’s portfolio, and it’s bound to be one of the least manipulated wines you will find in the marketplace. Indeed this is the case of Domaine Terres Dorees: Brun farms biodynamically, typically does not capitalize (- his wines hover around 12%+ alcohol,) uses indigenous yeasts, often does not use SO2, or uses the most minuscule amount. Instead, he relies on encouraging residual CO2 to remain in the wine during bottling to protect it as it ages (which may require decanted the wine before drinking.)  With diligence and meticulousness, the wines of Domaine Terres Dorees are routinely phenomenal.

A map borrowed from Decanter.com of the Beaujolais Crus. Note that Terres Dorees is quite a distance away, but still in the Beaujolais appellation.http://www.decanter.com/people-and-places/wine-travel/530454/beaujolais-six-estates-to-visit
A map borrowed from Decanter.com of the Beaujolais Crus. Note that Terres Dorees is quite a distance away – 100km from the Crus (top left map) but owns various plots in Cru Beaujolais appellations. http://www.decanter.com/people-and-places/wine-travel/530454/beaujolais-six-estates-to-visit

 

Jean-Paul Brun, Robert Parker, and the Natural Wine Debate

Brun started his winery with 3 hectares of family owned vines, and over the last 35 years has continuously added to his vineyards, bringing his current landholding to a sizable 25 hectares in Beaujolais des Pierres Dorees (in far south near Lyon) and 5 hectares of Cru Beaujolais scattered across various villages. Domaine Terres Dorees produces roughly 300,000 bottles / 25,000 cases per year. What is notable is for a winery of this size to produce wines which are not only biodynamically farmed, but produced in virtually an organic. That’s no easy feat, with so many of vats and barrels to monitor at any one time. Brun claims in the interview on the Louis/Dressner site, that he is not against using SO2. He says he’d much rather see people make good wine by adding sulfites, than produce bad wine because they couldn’t control the results of not using it, which is so often the case. Winemakers who don’t use SO2 and then make flawed wine, “discredits sulfur-free wine,” as a category, Brun says forcefully.  By extension, I take that to mean the work he is doing. Jean-Paul adds “For these guys it becomes less about making great wine and more about being part of a “cool” movement.” (see Side Bar, Counselors for more on this subject)

 

2011 Domaine Terres Dorees, Beaujolais L’Ancien $16

This wine is alive, and so vibrant! You can tell just by the color, but it’s the nose that hits you first, even you as you pour the wine. It virtually shoots out with high-toned cranberry, cherry fruit, and then finally clove and cinnamon notes eventually take over… (these are the tell-tail aromas of stem inclusion, although reports are that he de-stems.) In the mouth, the wine is light in weight yet spreads out broadly. It has an expansive texture that is soft, caressing and willowy, yet tingles with energy and vibrancy. The flavors just keep resonating, with rich black cherry, plum, and fresh, dark, black-skinned grape notes.  Brilliant winemaking for a “simple” Beaujolais to be sure, but then this is no mass-produced plonk either. A serious winemaking team put this effort together, using a good vineyard source, and farmed in an exceptional manner.

Don’t count out the fact that it is a natural wine*.  I have noticed a bright vibrancy that well-made ‘natural wines’ have in common. It is a unique characteristic that other wines, that have had SO2 added to them don’t share.  In the mouth they so fresh and alive, and an extra measure of expressiveness. Could this commonality be no more than the CO2 on the palate?  Whatever it is this had that unique characteristic in spades. Highly recommended: 91 points.

Reading Between The Lines

L’Ancien often indicates an old traditional methods of winemaking, but not in the case with Brun’s Beaujolais.  Here it refers only to the vine age. They are certainly over 50 years old according to some sources, though the Louis/Dressner site says 80+ years. Regardless of the age of the vines, there is little about the way Brun makes wine that is traditional for the often mass-produced wines of the Beaujolais appellation. Even though I am absolutely sure I tasted stem contact in this Beaujolais, it is written that he favors de-stemming. Destemming is fairly unusual in Beaujolais. Perhaps he de-stems his more prestigious crus, but not this l’Ancien?  In any case, there is a bit of cold maceration to set the color, which helps give it its dark color despite its relatively low ripeness of 12% alcohol.  It is also written that he releases late for Beaujolais, preferring to give extra time in the barrel, more that 18 months, to soften up the tannins. Again, I suspect this regime is for the Cru Beaujolais, and I am sure this lower tiered Beaujolias l’Ancien only saw any oak, it wasn’t for long. It was very fresh, even now after a year on the market. The 2012 has already been released in the US Market.

This wine comes from his vineyards that surround his winery in Beaujolais des Pierre Dorees, – way down South in Bas Beaujolais. Pierres Dorees means stones of gold, referring what is colloquially called “yellow sandstone” that dates back to the Secondary Era (between 30 and 70 million years ago). This “sandstone” is more famous for its use in building the golden stone architecture of the area than it’s presence in the vineyards – since in the past no one took the wines made there very seriously.  Sedimentary rock that has or more 50% calcium carbonate in the form of calcite  (which often comes from the fossilized remains shellfish) is considered limestone, and less than 50% is considered sandstone. It is well documented that the entire area was covered by oceans millions of years ago, having left many deposits of the calcareous (chalky) remains of sea life across the growing area. Some people have casually written there is a limestone sub soil there. But that kind of bedrock really sits below Domaine Terres Dorees and the rest of Beaujolais des Pierre Dorees?   That’s a good question.

 

most likely a natural wine may be more accurate.


 

Read an outstanding and colorful interview with Jean-Paul on the Louis/Dressner website. Be sure to click on the small gray words Read More below the word Interview to open it up – it’s not as obvious as it should be.

 

Side Bar, Counselors

SB 1: Can We Just Get To the Truth? 

There are conflicting accounts of Bruns methods (as well as for the total area of his holdings) with multiple sources stating various and wildly conflicting things. Where possible, I have used direct quotes from Brun to determine the “facts” I report here.  However, here is a typical dichotomy: Brun in a Louis/Dressner interview from 2011 alludes to not using sulfur at all, but the Louis/Dressner producer profile says he uses minimal SO2. It is entirely possible that since the website info was written, Brun had since stopped using SO2 altogether, and the Dressner website simply hadn’t been updated.  Other exporters site Brun is a natural winemaker, not using SO2. One website rawfair.com is written as if it were a Torres Dorees press release:

Le Domaine des Terres Dorées represents 30 hectares in Southern Beaujolais and 15 hectares in the Beaujolais crus. The soil is calcareous in the South with hints of iron and the stone is a golden color hence its name: Pierres Dorées means Golden Stones. Here we labor the soil, we protect the vines with copper and sulfur.”

While the Dressner site says the holdings are smaller at 40 acres, and quotes Jean-Paul Brun in the interview saying he has 5 hectares in among the Cru Beaujolais appellations.

So much wine reporting is done with casual exchanges of information, often being translated from one language to another. Then, with is so much room for error and misinterpretation, the information, gets propagated by multiple sources, be they wine writers, bloggers, retailers, and the general public, appearing all across the web as fact.  The original source material is buried by this regurgitation, and there is no reference to when the information was written, or even if it was correct in the first place.

 

SB 2: The Natural Wine War of Words

That couldn’t be underscored more poignantly than by Robert Parker’s recent essay (if you can call it that) “Articles of Merit: There is No Reason and The Truth is Plain To See”, which was published on erobertparker.com. In what quickly devolves into a rant,  he scorns the vocal natural wine proponents who rage against the mainstream wine world, and call mainstream winemaking over-ripe, cookie cutter, commercialized, and soulless. Of course Parker is routinely blamed for most of these vinous atrocities, and who can really blame him for letting loose?  Parker shoots back at the natural wine crowd: “just how absurd this notion is becomes evident when the results are oxidized, stale, stink of fecal matter as well as look like orange juice or rusty ice tea being poured into a glass and passed off as “authentic”, “natural” or “real” wine.”  Parker goes on and on, skewering and lambasting. And while he has many good points, it ends up sounding like bitter, drunk typing.  Clearly the battle lines are squarely drawn, with the hipster/artist natural wine folks on one side decrying wine’s industrialization, and their cries for natural wine with purity and untethered expressions of terroir; and the rest of the wine world, just trying to put a good glass of wine in their glass.  The reality is there should not be a war of words here, and I’m sure Jean-Paul Brun is shaking his head in frustration.

Kermit Lynch and Importers Important Role in Developing Regions

A Food And Wine Revolution Begins

Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants was a ground breaking importer of French Wine to the West Coast
Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants was a ground breaking importer of French Wine to the West Coast

This is an adjunct to the Domaine Leon Barral post, the producer that Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants imports and sells both through it’s own shop but as a distributor nationwide. Barral is located in wine backwater of Faugeres, and Lynch has been steadily raising the status of this bio-dynamic producer for the past couple of decades. Today the estate has a significant and loyal following in the United States, thanks to  Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants tireless work to promote it.  It is much easier import wine than to create a demand for it, and this ability to do so has been key to the firm’s continued success. As a retailer who bought from them, I quickly learned that Kermit Lynch’s reputation for importing only the best wines, could alone sell wines off the shelf, just by consumers seeing the importer’s wood cut logo on the strip label. 

Kermit Lynch was a ground-breaking revolutionary in early 1970s, when be began importing many previously unknown French wines into his Berkeley, California wine store. It wasn’t a sure thing, but the fertile intellectual ground of Berkeley allowed the food and wine scene to germinate, and Lynch, along with fellow visionary Alice Waters nurtured fledgling businesses that grew and prospered only a few miles apart.  It was perhaps inevitable they would become friends, along with  noted food writer, the late Richard Olney, who would help spread the word.

For his work importing and promoting small, emerging producers, often from  unheard of French appellations, Lynch has received two James Beard Awards. As much impact as he has made here in the states, he made even a greater impact on winemakers and regions of France that he represented. How much so is revealed by the fact that the French government  Knighted him! Being awarded him truly prestigious medal of “Legion d’Honneur”, illuminates the immense impact his relationship with so many small vignerons has made. He may not have made the wine, but he made it possible for others to make and elevate quality and reputation of their wine.  He has also been influential in directing wineries to make cleaner, more acceptable styled wine for a world-wide stage, ensuring their success, and in many cases creating their legacy. Some of the producers he has been involved with have become iconic and legendary in the industry. They include Vieux Telegraphe, François Raveneau, Coche Dury, August Clape, not forgetting to mention the winery which Kermit Lynch is most closely associated with, in part because of Richard Onley’s book “Lulu’s Provencal Table”, Domaine Tempier.

A new subterranean cellar takes the money of success, something a good importer can help attain.
A new subterranean cellar at Kermit’s producer Leon Barral in Faugeres takes the money of success, something a good importer can help obtain.

It is not simply true to say that Kermit brought these producers into the limelight, because these producers would not become the great winemakers without his promotion, and the money it brought. With his promotion, and their new ability to raise funds for re-investment, allowed them to become producers of great wine. You can see a similar parallel of the Burgundy producers represented by another early importer of French wines, Chateau & Estates. C&E’s producers included Ramonet, Roumier, Grivot, d’Angerville, Niellon and Courcel which were all to become leading estates in Burgundy. It is no accident that Kermit Lynch and Chateau and Estates represented so many top producers while the rest of the area struggled through the 1980’s. It was with the promotion and money these importers provided they could re-invest in their vineyards and cellars. As the quality improved, these up and coming domaines (fields) could raise their prices. It was these producers who had distribution and financial support in the 1980s, which are the ones we consider to be the legendary estates today. Many other producers have caught up qualitatively, but it is these few that came to prominence first that command the most attention, and the highest prices.

2009 Domaine Leon Barral, Faugeres

Kermit Lynch Imports… The King of Faugeres (?)

2009 Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres  (50% Carignan, 30% Grenache, 20% Cinsault)

large-Leon Barral Faugeres 09 LABUnlike the 2008 which was so delicious right off the bat, Barrals 2009 Fargeres was so tight on release that I wasn’t sure it would be ready now, only a year later. My fears were unfounded. The wine is drinking well, but will should smooth out a couple rough edges with another 6 month to a year in the cellar.  This bottle is showing a significant amount of the yeast Brettanomyces, showing loads of dusky, earthy, leathery, with notes of mushroom, refried beans, and let’s face it, baby poop. The plus side is that often Brett tends to add cohesion to a wine, and an element of complexity. (More on Brett and a Napa Valley winemaker’s fascination with it Here.) While the Brett can be almost challenging, there is a tremendous amount of fruit to this wine. This level of fruit is miraculous since Brett can bury the fruit flavors of wine it grows in. The palate is impossibly broad and deep, spreading across the palate like a tidal wave of sweet blackberries, black plum, and raspberries, with meaty roast lamb flavors, coated by cocoa powder and espresso.  There is a massive amount of fruit and structure, but the fruit has the upper hand here, with it wrapping effortlessly around the tannins. But the tannins are evident, with the Brett hanging off them with furry, musky, gamey notes being the longest lasting impression. This is a big wine by French measure, and it pulls it off with aplomb.  On the finish there is the briefest bitterness with a

Brettanomyces yeast
Brettanomyces yeast

note similar to rubbing alcohol, riding alongside the tannins. That negative flavor was absent on the second night, so it seem that medicinal note will readily resolve itself with another year of aging.  This is a particularly interesting wine, if not an intellectual one of significant complexity. Normally I would not quote a wine critic, but how to evaluate the wine with a score, leads me to quote Rosemary George a Master of Wine who lives in the Languedoc. She writes of Leon Barral in her blog Taste Languedoc: “Domaine Leon Barral – More contentious.  I have very mixed feelings about Didier Barral’s wines, and sometimes wonder if this is not a case of the Emperor’s new clothes.  I have liked some of his wines in

the past, but more recent tastings have been a less happy experience.” So that was Rosemary’s take, in true critical fashion not mentioning Brett. At the heart of the difficulty for me is how do you evaluate Brettanomyces? It is generally considered a flaw today, but historically it was not. The British critics described it as barnyard, or in French, simply merde. But today, some beer makers are intentionally introducing Brett into their beer to give it ‘character’.  I will give it two scores, the first, considering Brett is not a flaw (those who know they are intolerant of it should already know to stay away) but this is a very solid wine in all other regards, with a long life ahead of it. Score 92 points.  For those who don’t like Brett, this is something of a failure: 82 points.  The truth lies somewhere in between.   $32

Faugeres is small in this map of Languedoc, but is in yellow, just above the center of the map.
Faugeres is small in this map of Languedoc, but is in yellow, just above the center of the map.

Domaine Leon Barral

Domaine Barral is a relatively new winery, being founded by Didier Barral in 1993 but within a decade had become one of the most highly regarded estates in Languedoc.  Didier Barral has farmed his old vines biodynamically from early in his domaine’s inception. He allows his horses, cows and pigs to munch down the cover crop across his large vineyard of 30 hectares, all the while working the soil with their hooves, and fertilizing, I suppose, as they go. There is something so simple and natural about this approach.

The schist formations beneath many of Languedoc's vineyards
The schist formations beneath many of Languedoc’s vineyards

Faugeres AOC, Languedoc

Unlike most of the other wine regions of France, Faugeres was farming community centered on the production of grains and olives, not wine grapes, before the French Revolution. Once vineyards were established, most of their production was dedicated to making eau de vie (brandy). The gradual switch to wine didn’t happen until after the second World War, and  it took until 1982 to achieve AOC status. The appellation covers 1800 hectares, and some hills in the Northern part of the appellation are up to 500 meters.

While the name Faugeres refers to the kind of shale found in the region, the vineyards of Faugeres are planted above the flaky schist rock formations that are prevalent in growing regions across the South of France. Schist is notable for its ability to retain water, an important feature in the warm Languedoc-Roussillon.  Faugeres proximity to the Mediterranean is mitigated by the cooler mountain influences ripening is enough of an issue that most vineyards are planted on south-facing slopes to ensure maximum exposure to the sun. Many winemakers there say that ‘the grapes ripen at night’, from the warmth retained by the schist dominated soils. But according to the Kermit Lynch website, Barral’s vineyards are pruned in the Goblet style to protect the fruit from the ‘blistering sun’. To say it’d difficult to separate the truth from the myths, and myths from the marketing efforts of the wine world, is and understatement. It seems like there is a spin on everything.

Harvest Bos part 2: Biodynamics is Ascending

I think understanding Biodynamics is most easily done by breaking it down into two basic parts:  doing things at the right time, and feeding the

harvest moon
The Harvest Moon: For centuries, farmers have known to harvest on the cycles of moon -different times for various fruits and vegetables.

land, (thus feeding the plant, and by extension the grapes).  Too much time is focused on what on the surface seems to be hocus-pocus elements, and the language of the process, rather than the reasons behind them, and I think that just confuses the how people perceive Biodynamics.

The first part is doing things at the right time.  With biodynamics, the right time is determined by the moon.  The moon exhibits tremendous forces on the earth, pulling and pushing our vast oceans (weighing 1.5 quintillion pounds) several feet in one direction or the other, every twenty four hours and fifty three minutes.   Tides rise in rivers and lakes just as rhythmically.

Humans have been aware of moon phase harvesting since ancient times.  As recently as 100 years ago, farmers understood the relationship that nature, their farms and their plants had with the moon.  “What they didn’t have in education, they made up for in observation. says biodynamic farmer Dave Bos. “Today, we tend to discount what we observe. A lot of vineyard managers write work orders from their desks,” says Bos. “They don’t even go into the vineyard to see it what it looks like. I learn a lot more from walking the vineyard and observing.”

There is strong  evidence that produce that is picked on the correct moon cycle will have a longer shelf life.  Fruits and vegetables that are meant to be stored, like apples, cabbages, potatoes and onions are better picked during the waning moon, when water content is decreased. Conversely, fruits and vegetables that are to be eaten right away are best picked during a waxing moon.  Tomatoes are best harvested during a full moon when the plant will naturally have a higher water content.  None of this dictates that you need to pick at night – in case it needs to be said.

The route of the moon around the earth is egg-shaped, meaning at the two opposite points of the egg, the moon is farther away and has less pull than when it is in its closest proximity to earth.  From down here on the ground, we are of course most aware of when the moon is ascending and when it is descending.  The gross effect of  the ascending and descending is the moon pushes for two weeks, then it pulls for two weeks.  In the vineyard, this information can lead to timing when certain vine maintenance is performed, and the end results can save the farmer significant head aches.

For example: If you prune your vine on a descending moon, this will cause a later bud break.  Pruning in Napa traditionally happens in February.  An excellent description of pruning can be read here. However, if the vineyardist prunes late, and during a descending moon, bud break will be delayed, (hopefully) until after the frosts.  Frost, of course, can decimate a vineyard’s potential crop in a single morning, so every day counts.  Conversely, if you prune during an ascending moon, bud break will happen 3 (or more) days earlier.  Those 3+ days of delayed bud break, coupled with up to two week delay in pruning can make a world of difference in crop set.

Bud break 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
Bud break 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Photo credit: fris2008)

Planting is best done during the descending moon, because the descending moon has downward pressure, and it really positively effects the root system of the plant. Conversely, it is said the ascending moon positively effects the plant above ground – the moon is pulling during this cycle.

But those who study the moon have identified 3 major moon rhythms and 13 minor rhythms -many are so subtle, that Dave says he can’t observe some of them.   The most obvious rhythm is the full moon.  Dave says the full moon amplifies every thing in the vineyard. He says it turns up the volume.  The ground is wetter during a full moon, even though there hasn’t been any rain.  The new moon is the opposite of the full moon. It is a quite time, with more a neutral effect.

Further, Biodynamics indentifies four types of “days”, they name them: Fruit, Flower, Leaf and Root “days”.  These “days” last two and half days each, so any given day can be split between say, a leaf day and a flower day. To know what kind of day it it, and what time it will change, you need to consult a Biodynamic Calendar. Biodynamic farmers use the knowledge to determine when to pick and when to plant various fruits and vegetables. 

From Maria Thun’s Biodynamic calander that is available on Amazon.com

Leaf plants on Leaf days
The cabbage family, lettuce, spinach, lambs lettuce, endive, parsley, leafy herbs and fodder plants are categorized as leaf plants. Leaf days are suitable for sowing and tending these plants but not for harvesting and storage. For this … Fruit and Flower days are recommended.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Leaf days occur, (among other times) on the full moon, and during this time their is more water in the air, in the ground, and in the plants. -this sentence is not from Thun.

Waning Crescent Moon
Waning Crescent Moon (Photo credit: I am marlon)

Flower plants on Flower days
These days are favorable for sowing and tending all kinds of flower plants but also for cultivating and spraying 501 (a Biodynamic preparation) on oil-bearing plants such as linseed, rape, sunflower, etc…

Fruit plants on Fruit days
Plants which are cultivated for their fruit or seed belong to this category, including beans, peas, lentils, soya, maize, tomatoes, cucumber, pumpkin, courgettes, but also cereals for summer and winter crops…Fruit plants are best harvested in Fruit days. They store well and their seeds provide good plants for next year. When storing fruit, also remember to choose the time of the ascending moon.” (Maria & Matthias Thun, The North American Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar).

First as a distributor rep, and then as a retail wine buyer, I noticed that wine tastes different on different days.  Early on, I associated this solely with the fact that wine does not taste good on hot days. Then an old industry salt, Don Beatty, told me it was barometric pressure that effects how a wine tastes.  At that time I was tasting roughly six wines a day. Ok, I could buy that… maybe. Still, some days, regardless of the moderate weather, my palate would just be seem off. Later, I was buying wine and tasting seventy wines a day, or more. I was my palate was super-tuned, and I was really confused by the fact that some days wine really just didn’t taste right. It wasn’t until talking to Jared Wolff from Palm Bay Imports, perhaps one of the straight-out most intelligent and knowledgeable guys in the wine biz, told me about root days being bad days to taste wine. Finally, this was something that made sense.  It all has to do with the phases of the moon.

Fruit Days:  Wine tastes its best on fruit days

Flower Days: are neutral in the taste of wine and not effect the wine negatively

Leaf Days:  Leaf days are neutral-negative days for tasting wine.  Not the best.

Root Days: Wine will generally not taste good on root days

Maria Thun has written a book (that I admit I haven’t yet purchased) on the subject, called When Wines Taste Best: A Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers.  It’s on my to-do list.

Next up: Biodynamics: Treat the Soil, Not the Symptom.

Harvest Bos: Biodynamic Grape Growing In The Napa Valley

Part One

The Case For Biodynamics

grgich winery, napa valley, California
Grgich Winery, Napa Valley, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the difficult, cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, winemakers and vineyardists across California were complaining of harvests rife with rot and mildew  – everyone it seems, except Dave Bos.

Dave only makes 3 barrels of his own wine,  but he points to the wine in the glass and says, “Look at the color.” “I’ve got plenty of color.  I didn’t cold soak, or do an extended maceration.  I just did a normal fermentation, and this is the color I got.” The Syrah is very dark, almost black in color.  It is the nose that sets the wine apart. It is vivid, with lavender, plum, blackberry, earthy loam, ad lots of fresh black and green peppercorns.  In the mouth there was plenty of richness and weight, with tremendous freshness.

Both the 2010 and 2011 Boss “Pheonix Vineyard” Coombsville, (100% Syrah) were spectacular regardless of vintage. In both vintages -2010 (cool) and 2011 (cool and wet) a lot of really good winemaking teams saw difficulties getting the kind of color and concentration they were looking for.

“It’s how the vineyard is farmed.” Dave says. “It has nothing to do with the way I made the wine.”  Dave Bos is a vineyard consultant, who only uses Biodynamic practices. The name of his company is Harvest Bos Dynamic Vineyard and Farm Management where he manages several small vineyards in the valley. “I manage more then I consult, it allows me to have better control. I do have a few clients that I consult for in Napa”

“I have voodoo in my vineyard”

“I consult for Brian Phoenix, who owns this vineyard.” Bos says referring to the wine in our glasses. “He is a mechanic.  Brian’s a really sharp, meticulous guy who can fix anything.  “But he doesn’t really believe in Biodynamics, so I’ve had to convince him to trust me.  “Brian laughs and says, ‘I have voodoo in my vineyard!’ . . .”Brian would tell you,” Dave adds, “he has seen a huge difference in quality and health in his vineyard since he converted it to BD.”

Dave moved to the Napa Valley ten years ago, and signed on as a vineyard manager for Grgich in 2005. The winery had already started the process of converting a few blocks to Biodynamics the 2003 looking to combat the leaf roll virus that was infecting the vineyards. When Dave got there in ’05, they embarked on the mammoth, 2 year process of converting all of Grgich’s five vineyards, covering 367 acres of vineyards, to biodynamic farming. Dave worked closely with winemaker/general manager Ivo Jeramaz to see the enormous project through completion and Demeter Certification in 2006 and 2007.

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Dave Bos, Biodynamic Farmer and Consultant

Over that time, Dave has seen the direct, positive results of the changes in a vineyard due to Biodynamics. Most notably he has witnessed the problems have been completely avoided, that his neighbors have waged desperate struggles to contain.  The 2011 vintage was especially notable. Rains in June and September caused a significant amount of mildew and rot, whereas he notice much less of this at  Grgich. In 2011, at Grgich the whites were exceptional – Dave feels they are some of the best the winery has ever made.

Having visited many, many wineries over the years, it seems every sales manager spouted off about how they are farming sustainably, many saying that they are Certified Sustainable. “Certified Sustainable” however, can mean no more than someone at the winery took a class on sustainability, not that they ever implemented any sustainable processes in the vineyard to become “Certified.”  There is no legal definition for Certified Sustainable at this time, so the meaning of the term can vary widely depending on the organization providing the certification.

Certainly there is wide use of cover crops these days, to attract the right insects and give nutrients back to the earth. I have been told by many Sales Managers that they are no longer using pesticides… but they invariably slip in the caveat, ‘unless there is no other alternative.’

The French call this kind of farming lutte raisonnee, (the reasoned struggle.)    I have begun to think lutte raisonnee means, what happens in the vineyard, stays in the vineyard.  

While all these General Managers sounds like they really have a solid environmental plan, and they use all the right buzz words, I have always gotten the feeling that there is too much spin, and a lot of lip service, being given to the subject.  I mention to Dave that sustainable farming is a talking point of every winery manager, and his response was this: “By definition, if they can continue to stay in business they are sustainable.”

The Power of a Healthy Vineyard

When Grgich Hills started converting its vineyards over to Biodynamics, there was a section of old vine Cabernet that had been part of the reserve program that was dying, and had been scheduled to be replanted the following year.  In the meantime, it was easier to farm the entire vineyard in the same manner.  So for the next year, this section of Cabernet was farmed just like the rest, Biodynamically.  At the end of the year, it was noted that the vines which had barely be producing any fruit, were looking much better, and had produced a larger crop.  The decision was made to leave them in to see what happened.  Today those old Cabernet vines still has the disease that plagued it before, but now the vines are strong enough to withstand its affliction, and once again produces a high quality crop with a feasible yield.

On a ride-with a few years ago, I had asked Mike Benziger (who is a tremendous advocate of Biodynamics) if he thought Biodynamically grown grapes produced better wine. His response was surprising.  He said that he felt Biodynamics acts like a lens in winemaking, focusing whatever you have. If what you have is good, it will focus and heighten those attributes, and if it isn’t so good, then those lesser attributes will be heightened too.  He also said that he thought that the intense focus, observation, and effort put into the vineyard, moves with the grapes into the winery.  When so much work went into growing these grapes, greater effort is made to make them into the best wine possible.

It is no accident that if you look at a list of the world’s greatest winemakers, Biodynamic producers will populate the  top 100 in a remarkably high percentage.  The primary reason is the land is healthier, so the vines are healthier, and the fruit is healthier. But also this care in the vineyard has a dramatic effect at the crush pad: to take every opportunity to do everything right.  To observe, adjust, and to not take any short-cuts.

Next Post:  Harvest Bos: Biodynamics is ascending