MILLÉSIME BIO 2017: CONVERSATIONS WITH ORGANIC AND BIODYNAMIC WINEMAKERS

by Susan Manfull

Château Fontvert, in Lourmarin, is one of two biodynamic wineries in the Luberon appellation of the Rhône Valley. Photo by W.T. Manfull

“We don’t have fancy booths.  We are natural. Authentic, like our wines,” observed one of the exhibitors at last month’s Millésime Bio Wine Fair in Marseille, France. This obvious reference to Vinisud was a swipe at that other major wine fair that was taking place at the same time some 150 kilometers away in Montpellier. That one, devoted to wine produced in the Mediterranean, by comparison, is on the swanky side.  The two wine fairs have occurred in tandem every other year in the past—Vinisud had heretofore been held biennially– but this year, the two widely divergent wine expos were held separately.  (For the full story behind Millésime’s move to Marseille and what seems like a very public spat, read the story in the Wine Snoop Report.)


A cursory look around the cavernous hall at Marseille’s Parc des Expositions revealed that this winemaker was not far off the mark in highlighting the stark contrast between the physical appearances of the two huge wine fairs.  There are more significant differences, however, not apparent at first glance.  The greatest difference lies in the fundamental contrast between bio and conventional approaches to viticulture and viniculture.  That is, what goes on in the vineyard and the cellar—eventually ending up in the bottle—is where the main difference rests between the two wine fairs.“Bio,” for my non-French speaking readers, refers to “organic” and, in the case of French wine—as well as European wine—refers to the whole production process “from the vineyard to the bottle.” Until the 2012 vintage, “bio” only referred to “wine made from organically grown grapes.” But, effective 1 August, 2012, everything changed:  European Union Regulation 203/2012 was put in place. It specified “a common set of principles for organic wine making” that includes, for example, only the use of organic ingredients (e.g., grapes, sugar, alcohol, rectified concentrated must), limited use or ban of certain physical processes (e.g., dealcoholization, electrodialysysis, heating above 70 degrees C), limited use of additives and oenological auxiliaries, and restrictions on total SO2 (Sulphur dioxide) levels. 1 Thus, bio now refers to “organic wine” (not just “wine made from organically grown grapes”). 1,2,3

Pierre-Francois de Bernardi talks about Château Barbeyrolles, Château La Tour de L’Évêque, and Château La Tour Sainte Anne, all domaines that fall under the umbrella of Régine Sumeire. Photo by W.T. Manfull

Why organic?  Actively working to promote a healthy vineyard and a well-balanced ecosystem sets the stage for providing optimal quality grapes from which high quality wines, naturally reflecting the terroir and the grapes themselves, can be produced.  Looking at the bigger picture, eliminating pesticides and herbicides from viticulture is a necessary condition for greater soil vitality (and water purity), now and for the generations that will farm it in the future, and contributes to the well-being of the environment, including the humans and other organisms that inhabit it. (Also, according to Sudvinbio, an organic winery employs about 1.5 times more staff than a conventional winery which, depending on one’s socio-political perspective, the additional labor required is positive factor as well.)

Who’s drinking organic wine? According to Sudvinbio, in 2014, 7.5 million hectoliters (that’s 976 million wine bottles) of organic wine was consumed in the world, mostly by people living in France, Germany, the U.S., Italy, the U.K. and Austria.  Nearly 5% of the world’s vineyards are organic; that’s around 316,000 hectares in the world in 2014, a growth of 1% from 2013. Of the world’s organic vineyards, 80% are found in the European Union so it should not be surprising that the E.U. provided most of that organic wine to the world.  China and the U.S. are second and third in terms of the most organic vineyards. In 2015, over 281,000 HA of vineyards in the E.U. were organic, an 11.7% increase from 2014.  Within the E.U., the top producers are Spain, Italy, and France (representing 90% of all E.U. organic vineyards). In France, organic vineyards made up 9.1% of all French vineyards in 2015. Sales of organic wine in France totaled €670 million in 2015, up 17% from 2014 and exports of French organic wine as €361 million in the same year, a growth of 26% from 2014.

Clos de L’Ours has new labels! Photo by W.T. Manfull

Millésime Bio showcases the latest vintage (or, in French, “millésime”) of organic wines from around the globe. Since its inception in 1993, the wine fair has taken place in late January—this year from Monday, 30 January to Wednesday 1 February–and been the first professional trade wine fair of the season. It is also said to be the world’s largest trade fair devoted to organic wine and the only international fair focused entirely on organic wine.  It is organized by Sudvinbio, a nonprofit association of approximately 300 members, winemakers (private and cooperative) and merchants of organic wine from the Occitanie region (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon and now including Midi-Pyrénées). 

Millésime Bio 2017

In an effort to showcase the wine (as opposed to glitz), all of the set-ups are, according to the Millésime Bio website, “’turnkey,’ all equal.”  On the same website page, one learns that “Each exhibitor has exactly the same equipment to present their wines:  a table, two chairs, a white tablecloth, a spittoon, tasting glasses, ice, and a display.  This is a competition to judge and compare wines, not a competition on the exhibition techniques of wine!  Here, all exhibitors are on an equal footing to present their products.” It is all about the wine, underscoring the observations of the winemaker I mentioned above.

Franck Breau serves wine from Chateau Romanin, biodynamic winery in Les Baux de Provence . Photo by W.T. Manfull

There were 902 certified organic exhibitors at Millésime Bio 2017.  The majority came from France (700), with the regions of Occitania (Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées) and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur accounting for the bulk of the French exhibitors (280 and 214, respectively). Italy (86) and Spain (63) were also well represented. In total, 16 nationalities were represented. There were no U.S. producers.  Approximately 233 of the exhibitors represented biodynamic vineyards.

Each exhibitor occupied one of the aforementioned uniform tables, arranged in one of about 20 very long rows, most of which extended from one end of the gigantic hall to the other end.  It was a veritable sea of tables as far as my eye could see, divided into three zones and organized in blocks of numbers, identified by large signs hanging from the ceiling.  There was also a very large adjacent hall devoted to tasting the wines that had received awards in the Millésime Bio Challenge and another large room where food was served.

Millésime Bio 2017 in Marseille. Photo by W.T. Manfull

Husband Towny and I were among the 4850 individual visitors4 that attended Millésime Bio. The majority of attendees were from France (72%) with the remaining visitors primarily from Europe (mainly Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Germany) and North America (Canada, U.S., and Mexico).

Armed with maps we were provided as well as thick catalogues detailing the participating wineries, we headed out from the press room.  We quickly discovered that the tables were not arranged by region or appellation or any other discernable way. At first, I thought this arrangement was rather unorthodox but later read that the exhibitors had randomly assigned tables “to promote encounters and curiosity.”  It worked: we had encounters—some quite curious—and our collective curiosity was certainly piqued.  

Encounters and Curiosity

The subject of weather over the past year dominated many of my conversations. This is often the case when talking with people in the wine business because, really, wine starts in the vineyard.  Farming. Perhaps, for organic and especially for biodynamic winemakers, weather is, arguably, even more at the forefront of their stories about the vintage.  For those winemakers, their philosophies and approaches to agriculture are closely tied to elements of nature (including, in the case of biodynamic viticulturists, planetary cycles, lunar cycles, soil, woods, and animals), all of which are seen as part of one living, self-sustaining, holistic ecosystem.

Domaine Duseigneur CDP

Bernard Duseigneur owner of Domaine Duseigneur, a biodynamic and organic winery located in the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, holds a bottle of his Lirac appellation wine, one of several wines he was pouring at the professional tasting of biodynamic and organic wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. About 20 producers set up stations in Marseille’s Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM) in the old port area. It was a great way to kick off Millésime Bio 2017. Photo by Susan Manfull

Because Provence and the Southern Rhône are both characterized by many micro-climates, weather patterns can vary considerable.  Nonetheless, the consensus was that 2016 was a difficult year and, especially when compared to the facile 2015 harvest, 2016 was challenging and, in many areas, long.  Problems began for some folks in the Var in late April with a severe frost and later a hail storm. The long, very dry summer was the greatest challenge and, especially where it was coupled with heavy rains at the end of the summer, the upshot was a difficult, and in some areas, very protracted harvest.

François Miglio, winemaker for Château Gasqui, a biodynamic winery in Gonfaron, and me. Photo by W.T. Manfull

François Miglio, winemaker for Château Gasqui, a biodynamic winery in Gonfaron, told me that he lost 65% of his grapes (about 100,000 bottles) due to the aforementioned frost, hail, and dry summer.  The vines that produce grapes for his rosé were especially hard hit, wiping out any possibility of producing a rosé this year. (Like many vintners, rosé sales finance the other colors of wine.) The grapes for his reds and whites, for which the Château is best known, were not compromised. I visited this estate last summer for a fabulous tasting and will soon post an article about that visit.

Philippe Guillanton, owner of Château Margüi in Châteauvert, talks with me about the 2016 harvest. Seated is son Titien Guillanton. Photo by W.T. Manfull

Philippe Guillanton, owner of Château Margüi in Châteauvert, acknowledged that 2016 was difficult.  “The dry summer and rain in mid-September made this harvest a ‘wait and rush’ one,” Guillanton said.  However, the three 2016 wines I tasted at his table suffered no ill effects.  On the contrary, the tank samples of the Perle rosé cuvée was excellent—very fresh, just the right amount of fruit, and lots of pleasing minerality—and the new (entry level) cuvée of rosé called Toscane de Margüi—named after  one of the daughters of Philippe Guillanton and Marie-Christine Baylet Guillanton—was also very pleasing. The 2016 vintage of Les Pierres Sauvages, a blend of Rolle and Ugni blanc has long been one of my favorites and, this year, our tank sample suggested it is, again, a brilliantly conceived fresh and flavorful white wine.  The Guillantons’ handsome son Titien, for whom the lovely Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon blend is named, was at the show with his dad (see the Wine Snoop Report article where he thoughtfully agreed to pose with his namesake bottle).

A casualty of the April frost at Château Margüi was significant damage to the olive tree blossoms resulting in a severe reduction in the olive oil production.  Only six liters of this luscious organic extra virgin oil was salvaged (and would you believe that you can only find it in Monsieur Guillanton’s personal cupboard?).

Matthieu Negrel and Maud Negrel, 7th generation siblings at Mas de Cadenet in Trets, and me. Photo by W.T. Manfull

Further south and east from Château Margüi, in Trets near the base of Saint Victoire, Matthieu Negrel and Maud Negrel, 7th generation siblings at Mas de Cadenet, concurred that the 2016 harvest was definitely affected by unseasonably hot and dry weather coupled with September rains. “It was a year for the wine grower,” Matthieu said, noting the need to irrigate and to be vigilant. Their harvest was longer than usual, beginning in late August and not wrapping up until mid-October.  The older vines (with more established root systems that reached deeper into the ground and into potential water tables) thrived where the younger ones (with less mature root systems) struggled.  For example, Matthieu told me that there were clear differences between the grapes harvested from two plots of Cinsault.  Although located very close to one another, one plot consisted of older vines and the other of younger vines. The older vines finished with 13.5% alcohol compared to 11.5% from the other grapes. With over 200 years’ history making wine, Mas de Cadenet overcame the challenges, as our sampling of wines confirmed. 

Moi with Michaël Renaud from Château Fontvert in the Luberon appellation of the Southern Rhône. Photo by W.T. Manfull

I caught up with Michaël Renaud from Château Fontvert in the Luberon appellation of the southern part of the Rhône Valley region.  Having spent several weeks in June and several more in August and September in the Luberon, I knew full well that “hot and dry” also characterized the summer further west in Provence, I thought I would see what happened in the vineyards. Located in (my beloved) Lourmarin, Château Fontvert is one of only two biodynamic vineyards in the Luberon, according to Renaud.  He said that they lost about 10% of production due to high summer temperatures and no precipitation whereas another nearby vineyard lost about 25% of production. He attributed the difference to the long term effects of applying biodynamic principles in his vineyard which, he felt, may have promoted a deeper root systems that found water at greater depths.

There were certainly conversations about subjects other than weather.  One such topic that many vintners mentioned was that because January was so early in the season, their 2016 roses had not yet been bottled. So, they brought tank samples or bottles so recently filled that they feel compelled to pour the tastings with the caveat, “it’s early.” More frustrating, according to several winemakers with whom we spoke , are the early wine competitions; for example, at Millésime Bio Challenge, bottles had to be submitted in December. 

Gwenaëlle de Wulf (left) with husband Matthieu de Wulf, owners of Jas d’Esclans in La Motte en Provence and Château de Vaucouleurs in Puget-sur-Argens. Photo by W.T. Manfull

This subject surfaced in our conversation with Matthieu de Wulf, owner of Domaine du Jas d’Esclans, a cru classé estate in La Motte en Provence, and, as of 2010, also owners of Château de Vaucouleurs in Puget-sur-Argens.  “The wines are simply not ready [in December],” de Wulf told us, referring to the most recent vintage in which the components of the wine (e.g., fruit, acidity, tannins, alcohol, and various often nuanced flavors) have not yet integrated.  Of course, one can enter older vintages of reds and whites in the competitions but, in the case of rosé, a category in which the majority of the public still believes the newest vintage is always the best, receiving an award for last year’s vintage may not benefit the estate in any meaningful way (because consumers are generally not as interested in last year’s vintage of rosé and there may be very little stock left). There is no real solution to this dilemma except for us wine writers and trades people to bear in mind that the elements of the wine have undoubtedly not full harmonized.

It was with great pleasure that we tasted the full portfolio of whites and rosés from both estates owned by de Wulf and wife Gwenaëlle.   I already knew the (2015) Rosé Jas (and really liked it) but found myself swooning over the Jas d’Esclans (2016) Coeur du Loup, a blend of predominantly Grenache with a little Syrah (and a little Cinsault, my notes suggest). We did not get back to this table to taste the reds so I intend to visit Jas d’Esclans to taste the whole line up of both estates later in the year.

Vincent Constant (left) and his mother Anne Constant from Domaine Ray-Jane in Bandol. Photo by W.T. Manfull

The discussion about early bottlings continued with Anne Constant, 29th generation of the Constant family at Domaine Ray-Jane in Bandol.  She was pouring wine with her son, Vincent, who, with his brother, comprises the 30th generation of this family who has worked on this property, they told me, since 1288. (They laughed when I questioned whether I had correctly translated their French about the year!). None of their rosés had been bottled yet but we were treated to tastes of tank samples of two and a taste of the earlier vintage of the third rosé; if the 2015 is the benchmark, my palate informs me that the 2016s will evolve very nicely. (I hope to find out.) The red wines, especially the cuvée du Falun, were my favorites.

Wines from Domaine du Bagnol in Cassis. Photo by W.T. Manfull

We stumbled upon Domaine du Bagnol (one of those encounters Sudvinbio had hoped for when randomly arranging the tables).  There, pouring the three cuvées produced in this Cassis property (two whites and one rosé) was owner Jean Louis Genovesi who, now with son Sebastien Genovesi, has held the reins of this coastal property for 20 years.  I spoke with the senior Genovesi who told me that his first career was in the software business and that he credited the legendary wine merchant Neal Rosénthal with teaching him a respect for the terroir that defines his wines.  With such elegant minerality with each whiff and swallow, one immediately recognizes Cassis. The rosé, a blend of mainly Grenache (55%) with Mourvèdre (31%) and Cinsault (14%), has a nose that hints of the freshness to follow on the palate but does not reveal the magnitude of it. (I later realized I have had this rosé and had noted that it was a favorite.)  The whites, the pride and joy of Cassis, definitely lived up to expectations.  I would love to marry any one of these wines with a big bowl of steaming mussels.

Château Grand Boise owner Jean Simonet talks about his wine. Photo by W.T. Manfull

We sought out Château Grand Boise, an estate I discovered this past fall. I was in New York City then, poking around wine shops, per usual, and spotted a bottle of Provence rosé I did not know.  From Trets in Côtes de Provence Sainte Victoire, one of my favorite geographic denominations (aka, sub-appellations), it is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsault. I put it in my basket and didn’t think about it again until I opened it a month later to serve as an apéritif.  It elicited such rave reviews from the dinner party guests that we had to stop by to meet winemaker Jean Simonet. There, we discovered more rosés we thoroughly enjoyed and some very nice whites and reds. 

Part of the portfolio of wines from Château Romanin in Les Baux-de-Provence. Photo by W.T. Manfull

Château Romanin is another estate we sought out. David Scott Allen, in his Provençal Wine and Food column on Provence WineZine, had just paired a Château Romanin La Chapelle (2012) red wine with his Saumon à la Crème d’Oseille with glazed French breakfast radishes. He liked the pairing and was very fond of the wine so we thought we would make our way over to that table to see what we might find from this Les Baux-de-Provence property.  Lots.  Almost half of the production is devoted to red wines (not surprising in this appellation), slightly less than half to rosé (to fill the coffers) and a nod to white wines (15% of production).  The estate has been biodynamic since 1988 (I think they were the first in the area to commit to a biodynamic approach). We were not able to taste the 2012 La Chapelle David liked so much, but we tasted several other vintages and a few other cuvées we thoroughly enjoyed.  I particularly liked the 2009 Château Romanin Rouge.

Frédéric David of Vignobles David in the southern Rhône Valley. Photos by W.T. Manfull

Another acquaintance we made was Frédéric David of Vignobles David, who makes kosher as well as organic wine in the Rhône Valley. It was quite the education to chat with David, the owner of Vignobles David.   Clearly, I learned, when one is looking for kosher wines, there is no need to be shackled to Manischewitz. In fact, there is reason to be unfettered and excited! The red, white, and rosé wines we tasted were very appealing. I will be making a visit to Saint-Hilaire-d’Ozilhan this summer to taste more (and learn more). In the meantime, if I am invited to a Passover dinner, I know I can find the excellent kosher wine produced by Vignobles David at Gotham Wines & Liquor on the Upper West Side in New York City. (Even if I am not invited to a Passover dinner, I think I will drop by Gotham Wines & Liquor to find one of David’s bottles!)

Part of the portfolio of wines from Vignobles David. Photo by W.T. Manfull

There were many tables we did not have the pleasure of visiting and even more wines that I regret to report did not cross our lips. (As a reader, you may be breathing a sigh of relief we ran out of time and energy.)  I take solace in knowing Provence WineZine still has a mission. In sum, the 2016 vintage of rosé and white wines in Provence and the southern Rhône, looks very promising and I can’t wait to drink more! Santé!

Tasting at Château de Calavon. Photo by W.T. Manfull

Footnotes:

1 The United States defines “organic wine” differently than the European Union.  In both places, only organic grapes may be used, but in the U.S., in order to get the small green USDA Organic seal,  sulfites may not exceed 10 parts per million, meaning essentially that no sulfites may be added. (Sulfites can occur naturally in the fermentation process.)  In the E.U., organic wines may contain sulfites up to 100 parts per million.  (To put this in perspective, in the U.S., conventional wines may contain sulfites up to 350 parts per million.) Thus, in the U.S., if sulfites are added—even in nominal amounts to prevent oxidation and spoilage during shipping and non-refrigerated storage—the wine bottle can display the label, “made with organic grapes” but cannot display the USDA Organic seal nor be marketed as organic wine.  The implications of this discrepancy are many, including confusion for consumers making it less likely they will pay a premium for “organic wine” without the USDA sticker, making it less likely the winemaker will make the financial investments to produce “organic wine.” Furthermore, organic wine from the European Union cannot be marketed as “organic wine” in the U.S.  As Dana Nigro writes in a 2012 Wine Spectator article on this subject, “With more volume, it would be easier for retailers to devote a section to organic wines,” thus encouraging market growth.

2 Short of organic and biodynamic certifications, U.S. consumers can look for “sustainability” certificates (although, currently, I think these certifications may only be permitted on secondary marketing materials, as opposed to bottles).  Although most focus on resource management (water and energy), some extend further to encompass the management of pests, the ecosystem, and human resources. “Certified Green/Lodi Rules” is one of the most rigorous programs (although, in practice, it is limited geographically). “Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing,” another “certified sustainable” program will be able to display that certification on bottles with the 2017 vintage (although this program is limited to California). There are other certifications in California and in other western states but this subject exceeds the scope of this article.  It is, however, a subject that is reported to be an increasingly important one in wine trade purchasing but I expect it will remain a little like the wild west for a while.

3 What are sulfites and what’s behind the controversy about adding them?  The subject is beyond the scope of this article, but I refer readers to a recent article by Julien Miquel in Social Vignerons.     

4 “Individual visitor” or “unique visitor” means that each person was counted only once over the course of the three-day event.

Notes:

Other articles related to this subject include:

Millésime Bio 2018 Slated for Late January in Montpellier

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A WINE WRITER: VINISUD 2017

Millennials in New York City vs London: A Vinisud Study Casts Light on their Wine Preferences

Vinisud 2017 Masterclass: Rosé Diversity in Ten Glasses

 

8 Comments

  1. Fascinating and thorough. Thanks so much!
    I used to buy US wines labeled “organic” about 12 years ago when a close friend drank them exclusively. At the time I found them lacking, possibly due to my preference then for French wines. I think it’s time to explore Bio. I appreciate the clarity on labeling definitions.

    • Organic or not, I would like to see some truth-in-advertising about what is added to wine. An ingredients list could be the death knell–and with good reason–for many wines…although not the ones on our respective tables!

  2. Susan, I thoroughly applaud your mission to drink more wine and to bring home these interesting articles! The Tasting Counter, a restaurant hre in Somerville, MA. only serves bio alcohol pairings. I did find many of them flat to my taste, but will try again! I also appreciate your photos! It
    gives a sense of being there–and liked the thumbnails.

    • Hi Mary,
      Let’s go to The Tasting Center! Sounds like fun. Thanks for the nice comments and I will make sure Towny hears your feedback about he photos!

  3. Wonderfully informative account of a unique annual event (by American standards). Bio in Europe is so much more than wine. A practice that once was the purview of artisanal producers now has the attention of a broader supply chain. Over here, aside from more limited interest at wine estates, the only arena I see that shares the tenets of naturalism seem to be at the farmers markets. But I remain hopeful. As a youth I only recall Velveta cheese. Today we have far more American offerings to draw upon.

    • I love the Velveta cheese analogy! Yes, if we can rise above that nadir, surely there is hope for the wine industry! It is such an interesting time with so many options in wine, but proportion of the market devoted to organic, biodynamic,and natural wines still remains quite small. The demand is growing.

  4. OMG – what an experience! It is wonderful to know that so much BIO wine is being produced in Provence, and in Europe in general. It is also fun to put faces to the vintners of some of my favorite wines – so glad you like the Château Romanin! If you get some of David’s wine at Gotham, please save the cork for me! It might have to become art in my kitchen!

  5. We loved the Château Romanin wines! I hope to visit the estate this summer to do an indepth piece (and to taste some more wine!). I will keep you posted on David’s wines (also very good!). It’s another place to visit this summer, but hope to get to Gotham wines this week! Such fun!

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