Two weeks ago, we explored the numerous claims made for food and wines that are “natural” or “organic.” Producers and marketers use these terms loosely and indiscriminately.
This art of making wines in harmony with nature was once prevalent across all early wine regions. Before the Industrial Revolution, man, out of necessity, was reliant on nature, and learned how to live in harmony with the natural order of Mother Earth, in order to produce exceptional wines.
The Industrial Revolution, with the introduction of petroleum-based products, changed the winemaking landscape. Chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers were inexpensive, easy to apply and increased crop yields. Many winemakers abandoned established vineyard products and techniques and adopted practices that stripped the earth of natural elements and adulterated grapes with unnatural chemicals.
But a number of winemakers persisted in plying traditional methods.
I have vivid memories of watching my grandfather tend his home garden and make his homemade wine every year, following centuries-old techniques passed down from father to son; mixing the right “manure tea” for each crop and following the path of the moon across the night sky to determine the precise time to plant crops, pick vegetables, ferment, rack and bottle wine.
At a recent tasting of Chateau Maris wines from the Languedoc region in southwest France, I sampled wines that were unique. The grape varietals were common to the region, but the aromas, flavors and overall profile of the resulting wines were very uncommon. They were fresher and livelier than wines from nearby vineyards and wineries.
Why? I spoke to the distributor, who was very anxious to tell the winery’s story. The wines are produced according to centuries-old methods, which they hope to sustain and spread throughout the region.
The distributor summarized the winemaker’s approach: “We see the soil, the vines, the weather, the insect and animal life in the field and the men, women and horses that work it as part of the same, interdependent living system.”
He expanded, explaining that the winery owners view their role as that of farmers and their mission to sustain the land for the enrichment of future generations. Their credo is to place nature in the hearts of man and man at the heart of nature.
Here are examples in the seasonal life cycle that take place at Chateau Maris.
1. In the vineyards. Cover crops are a key element. Planted to eliminate weeds, these crops also provide fodder for sheep and goats that roam through the vineyard rows. In turn this keeps the crops in check and fertilizes the soil along the way. After harvest, the crops are tilled, by horse-drawn plows, to nurture the soil for the next growing season.
Farmers also encourage predatory birds and insects to colonize the vineyards. Owls and hawks deter grape-loving birds from the vines; ladybugs keep beetles and other enemies in check. And the farmers harvest their grapes by hand – at night, after a full moon – to capture the full flavor of the grapes.
- In the winery. Chateau Maris includes a winery and wine cellar built into the side of a hill, partially below ground, to eliminate the need for artificially cooling the facility. The walls and floor are built with bricks composed of hemp (grown on the farmland) infused with lime to insulate the building and to maintain optimal temperatures. Natural yeasts found in the vineyard are utilized to induce and enhance fermentation. Solar panels provide needed power.
- Beyond the winery. Lightweight, recycled bottles are used to reduce the carbon footprint of the wines when shipped. Wines are shipped from France to the eastern United States warehouses by cargo ship (and commercial sailing ships in the future). This creates a smaller footprint than for American wines shipped by truck to New York from California.
Crafting wines while living in harmony with nature is a noble endeavor. While there is a price to be paid by biodynamic winemakers – lower harvest yields, additional cost of labor – the end results are wines like no other. Clean, fresh, vibrant – just as nature intended – for generations to come.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.