It takes a person with vision and courage to decide to grow vines in the wet, warm climate of Bordeaux without using fungicide. Or perhaps even a little folly in the days when no-one had heard of biodynamics. Yet this is what Alain Moueix decided to do in 2002 after taking over the family vineyard.
His grandparents bought the estate in 1931 – a traditional vineyard of 17 hectares of vineyards, 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc located on the western side of the famous limestone plateau of St Emilion.
Here the vines live in forty centimetres of clay then hit the rock of limestone which the roots find difficult to break through. When it rains water is soaked up by the limestone which acts like a type of sponge. The roots of the vine suck up moisture from the rock by through capillary action. This water has a special taste and gives the wine a certain marked ‘minerality’. The wines made from this special ‘terroir’ (trenches dug into the rock have been found dating back to Roman times) are austere and intriguing, “longer,” as Alain describes “than they are wide”.
Here Merlot grapes just finishing their veraison (changing of the colour) are looking healthy and midew free despite the high pressure this year in conventional agriculture.
He took over the vineyard in 2001 and immediately set about its conversion to organic and then biodynamic vine-growing. In the changeable maritime climate of Bordeaux where every vintage is uniquely different, fellow wine producers said that is was not possible. Alain clarifies ‘they should have said that they did not know how to do it, not that it could not be done!’
He has proved them wrong and today is one of the classified châteaux in Bordeaux to be biodynamic (along with Pontet Canet who started around the same time as him, more recently two in Margaux, Ferrière, Palmer and the sweet wine from Barsac, Climens). They are all managing to produce wine according to biodynamic principles today taking these philosophies into the cellar too under the organisation Biodyvin.
On tasting the wines (we tasted Fonroque 2012 and 2014), it is obvious that the wines are different from conventionally produced wines in Bordeaux. They have life, they grab your taste buds, full of energy. The 2014 was fruity, the 2012 had taken on a thickness and smoothness already. Even within the few minutes we were there, they were changing evolving, metamorphosing almost….
On either side of the Fonroque vineyards the vines are conventionally sprayed systematically every 12 days regardless of the weather and risk of disease. Here everything is done according to the rhythm of the moon, like it used to be done in ancient times.
As Alain explained; “Nature dictates where she wants to go and the wine producer observes and goes with the natural phenomenon – going with the natural forces rather than as with conventional agriculture, to go against is and try to control it. Today we like to simplify everything; either black or white or in computing either 0 or 1. In nature the world is more complicated with shades of grey!
So what is biodynamics and how does it help the vine to ripen its grapes in this marginal climate giving the wines such vitality and life?
Having a Soil that is alive is key, this means aerated soil, full of air pockets and worms and other micro fauna which constantly decompose plant matter turning it into organic matter. Also the mother rock is being broken down. It is fragile. Its balance can be easily disturbed. In biodynamics any chemical fertilizer is forbidden. Only organic fertilizer is allowed (animal manure, sea shells). Copper (against mildew) and Sulphate (against oidium) is allowed in small doses (max 6kg per hectare). Too much and it pollutes the soil with the accumulation of copper, a heavy metal, that can poison the soil displacing other valuable trace elements.
The idea is to have a harmony between the three elements of the plant, the soil and people which all interact. We must not forget that we need nature but nature does not need us.”
The moon plays an important role. Its force is strong enough to move oceans. Its force has an impact on the diseases of the vine that are linked with water (that occur when there is humidity); mainly Mildew and Botrytis.
When the moon is at its fullest and when it is closest to the earth (perigee), it is at its most powerful, its most dangerous.
The aim is to treat the vines when they are at their most receptive in relation to this.
Historically the elements are divided into four; earth, water, air and fire. The vine and its environment are divided as follows; roots (earth), leaf (water), flower (air), fruit (fire). For example it is best to plant lettuce on a leaf day and carrots on a root day for the best results.
Not using any chemical pesticides enables natures natural cycle not to be affected, interfered with, destroyed. Good insects are able to eat bad insects…
The grapes will be ripe one week before the neighbours – valuable time saved at harvest when the Autumn storms often threaten and winemakers are stressed. Alain Moueix seems quite calm. His role is quite simple; to listen to what nature is giving him each year and treat when the plant is most receptive.
It is the skins that ripen earlier, that give the wine its tannins and its texture. The fruit is linked with sun. Ripeness occurs but with lower alcohol levels and acidity that remains which gives freshness to the wine. Perhaps it needs a little folly but it makes a whole lot of sense.
Biodynamic Preparations There are 8 biodynamic preparations in total. The two most famous are; i) Horn Manure ii) Horn Silicate
- i) Horn Manure; buried 50cm below the ground, it decomposes over the winter turning into a black substance without smell which is rich in yeast and insects. It is then left 6 months and becomes like soil. It is used in the spring when the vine grows. Only 240g (not a ton like conventional manure) is added to water and dynamised (with a mechanical dynamiser) and applied on a root’s day in the evening (in biodynamics, the day is divided into elements and seasons too*). It is diluted and dynamised like in homeopathic medicine. When the spring comes roots develop first and then the vine buds. It is put in a cow’s horn which acts like an ‘antennae’, attracting energy (if the same is placed in a plastic tube this transformation does not occur).
*Winter is dormant (soil). Spring is water (growth). Summer is fire (ripening). Autumn branches green to brown to prepare for the winter (air).
- ii) Horn Silicate – it is crushed in a horn, only a pinch, 7 to 8g dynamised for one hour. As the fruit ripens the vine moves away from water to fire. The vine stops to grow, buds fall off with the production of a hormone. It is applied on a fire day.