There is a quote I like about being like a tree. It reminds me of the biodynamic wine producer Pontet Canet in Pauillac and their philosophy on making wine which seems to be ‘ruffling feathers’ in the world of wine.
Go out on a Limb – They are going it alone, ‘out on a limb’ to stand up for what they believe it takes to make good wine (challenging in Bordeaux’s variable climate but absolutely possible it seems). What it seems like to me is simply letting nature what it does naturally.
To mix a few more metaphors ‘the proof is in the pudding’. Both 2009 and 2010 were awarded 100 Parker Points. Recently they have suffered from a proverbial ‘stick in the spokes’ as professional tasters from the Appellation board have rejected the second wine of Pontet Canet vintage 2012 (Les Hauts de Pontet Canet) saying it was not a representative Pauillac wine.
Be Content with your Natural Beauty – It so happens that 2012 is the first vintage to use large neutral cement amphoras to age one third of the wine (instead of oak barrels). It begs the question what is a representative wine of Pauillac. Jean-Michel Comme believes that we have got stuck in the 1980s when dominant oak was a necessary part of Pauillac’s signature.
But surely the whole point is the expression of the unique terroir of Pauillac not the masking ‘make-up’ that excessive oak can be like false eyelashes and foundation that makes all fresh faces look similar? Do you remember the shoulder pads that were all the rage in the 80s?
‘The 60s, 70s and 80s were the worst time for wine’, says Jean Michel Comme. It was during this period that mechanisation took place and pesticides were introduced on a large scale to crops in volume. ‘Before the World War II the typicity of a wine was different’. Work was done by hand or with animals. There was less extraction, making wine was more passive, more expressive of the terroir it came from. Man did not have such a dominant role.
Today some vineyards resemble a ‘lunar landscape’ with massive quantities of weedkiller being sprayed to eliminate any weed. No chance for any biodiversity here.
Stand Tall and Proud – They are used to being criticised for doing things differently. And it does not seem to stop them. When they heard their wine had been rejected, instead of re-submitting the wine, they made the decision to declassify the wine to the lowest level (not Haut Medoc or even Bordeaux but Vin de France, equivalent to Table Wine). The wine merchants who had already tasted, liked , bought and sold on the wine seem to be standing by them.
As Comme says ‘the wine has only one jury and that is the consumers.’ The appellation body dictates analysis of the grapes before harvest. We are still obsessed with sugar levels and potential alcohol. Comme believes that that is an outdated idea. It is to more to do with skin ripeness (the home of tannins, colours, aromas).
Remember your Roots – For over 10 years or so Pontet Canet have been making wine using biodynamic principles, that is to say believing in nature and not interfering with its natural balance. They are the only classified growth in the Haut Medoc to do so and do so over their 80 hectares (some properties are dabbling with it on small parts of their estates). Little by little the vines have come out of their semi-shocked state and responded. With the improved soil and biodiversity to support it, the vine is responding and producing fruit of outstanding quality. When one tastes a grape from Pontet Canet the skin has almost a translucent quality.
That is not to say that man does nothing. He provides support in close accordance with what patterns nature is providing that particular year. It is all about keeping the balance despite the effects of the climatic ups and downs. Helping to keep the vine as healthy and happy as possible with a strong immune system to naturally defend itself against disease or insect attack. This support takes the form of spraying herbal infusions (such as stinging nettle added to miniscule amounts of copper sulphate for mildew attacks) and manure mixes to promote root development.
This involves acute listening to the signs that nature gives during the particular season (Comme believes that there is a nine year cycle of weather patterns). This spring (2014) Jean-Michel Comme noticed a snail attack in the vines despite the very hot temperatures. He remembered that the same phenomenon had ocurred in 2007. The spring heatwave he remembered in fact forewarned of a wet summer to come. Would it be same in 2013? He wagered that it would and started treatment in the vineyards to strengthen the vines and enable them to withstand the oncoming wet weather. This involved reducing the vine’s vigour so that they would have more energy to put to resisting fungal disease. He applied infusions of horsetail which is made up of a type of sand silica which has a drying effect at periods when the moon was close, in order to strengthen the effect.
Rather than use the very strong chemical to kill them (and other wildlife even dogs), the snails were rather removed by hand.
Minimal Intervention means nature is left ‘to do its thing’ – The main intervention by man is the pruning done during the winter months when the vine is dormant. It is not carried out on any day as all operations are done in accordance with the lunar calendar. The magnetic pull of the moon has a very strong affects on all fluids and shapes the world we live in; the ocean’s tides, blood in our bodies, our moods…
Pruning is done on days when the moon is waning when it has a crescent shape and its pull is not so strong. Some days it is the vine’s roots, its flowers, or leaves that are more responsive. So the work to is done on these days to maximise or minimise the effects.
There is no trimming of leaves on the top and sides of the vine ‘rognage’ (cutting only seems to stimulate more growth and more need for more intervention such as deleafing). The shoots are pointed down and tied into themselves to form circular foilage. This reduces the leaf growth and vigour. The vine seems to find a natural balance. They need for example no need for green harvesting (removal of excess bunches of grapes).
Even after harvest the vines are sprayed with a solution including manure (degraded underground in cow horn) which stimulates root development, the vine’s essential channels.
Jean-Michel Comme compares organic production to just changing the type of weapon used against the enenmy; using guns instead of bombs in the warfare against disease. Biodynamics are peace talks!
Organic Viticulture = Wines can be made from certified organically grown grapes, avoiding any synthetic spray products such as pesticides/insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. There is no limit to the amount of ‘natural’ spray products applied to the vines such as copper sulphate. Both copper and sulphate is naturally ocurring but both in big doses harm the environment. Often organic producers will have to spray every few days to keep fungal disease at bay.
Biodynamic Viticulture = is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles.
Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. (Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.) Some third-party agencies offer sustainability certifications, and many regional industry associations are working on developing clearer standards.