Organic grape farming is one of the few defined and regulated categories within sustainable winegrowing and has often been at the heart of a lot of discussion especially in 2012 when organic grape growers have really suffered and have used more copper and sulphur than usual. When I wrote about the new European organic wine laws, I explained that to be certified organic one has to forfeit the use of chemical treatments and fertilizers; only copper and sulphur (in limited amounts) are allowed to combat diseases, but unlike the chemical elements these heavy metals are not absorbed by the plant to cure it, instead they are mere fire fighters preventing the disease from spreading providing the sulphur and copper treatments are reapplied regularly.
Whilst organic grape farming is on the rise in France, it has mainly been adopted in the upcoming wine producing areas such as the Languedoc and the Loire, and it is still a rarity in Bordeaux. But after having tasted some excellent organic Bordeaux wines at Prowine and speaking to Simon we decided that it would be interesting to look into the developments in Bordeaux in terms of organic grape growing. We reached out to the Maison de Bordeaux, the Interprofessional Organisation for Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur, and asked them to suggest some organic producers we could visit. The selection the Maison de Bordeaux came up with was excellent as it gave us a good overview of organic movement in the region. We visted 5 producers in 2 days, all located in the area between the Garonne and Dordogne, varying in size, but all family owned businesses. Every person we visited stressed at some point that farming organically had allowed them to make wines which really reflect the terroir and had given them a point of difference. They believed that this was worth the struggle and were totally committed to their cause. And whilst organic wines are generally more expensive, all of the wines we tasted were definitely bargains if one considers the quality and purity and all were priced under €20.After a quick visit to Planete Bordeaux to get our itinerary we headed of to Vignobles Joel Duffau from Château Lamothe du Barry in Moulon and met with Joel Duffau who took us for a walk around one of his vineyards. In between the vines he told us that he decided in 2010 to take the leap into the organic movement and started the official conversion program for his red grape varieties. The last decade he had already been tending his vineyard in a non interventional way – focussing on working the soils to stimulate native grass and plants to grow in the hope to restore the natural balance – and he sees certification as the next step. His wines are very approachable and pleasant and great examples of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc blends of the area. But best of all they are a real steal priced between €6 (Cuvée mon Loup) and €10 (Cuvée le Barry)! One can enjoy Joel’s excellent wines and the beautiful landscape at the trendy and very original bed and breakfast at the Chateau. I was particularly enchanted by the room which was crafted from old cement tanks (La Cuve à mon Loup)!! In the afternoon we visited Château Auguste in Saint Aubin de Branne, where we were welcomed by Steven de Meijer. Steven’s background is marketing and sales and he came to organic farming because he saw a huge market demand for well priced organic wines. His main distribution channels are large upmarket supermarkets such as Monoprix and Trader Joe’s where he sells the bulk of his wine. To be able to make the supermarket price point and still farm organically, Steven has resorted to a more New World style of winemaking using chips, rather than barrels, favouring a style which is best drunk young. I personally found the Chateau Auguste wines too jammy and simplistic, but at €4 a bottle, the wine is approachable and a good alternative to a non organic new world wine. We spent the night in the beautiful gite at Château Tire Pé in Gironde sur Dropt. From his vineyard with a view on the Gironde David Barrault talked us through his view on organic farming. He believes that it is the only way to let the beautiful clay/limestone terroir tell its story. He wants the vineyard to seduce the customer and this is also why he makes his wines in a more natural way using indigenous yeasts and minimal use of oak barrels. I totally fell in love with his very elegant Malbec which was his most expensive wine at €15, but really liked his Merlot dominated Bordeaux blends as well. The Tire Pé wines definitely over delivered in beauty, elegance and flavour and totally defied the clichee that Bordeaux wines are heavy, high in alcohol and over oaked. The next morning we visited Vignobles Boissonneau- Château de la Vieille Tour in Saint Michel de Lapujade where we were welcomed by Christian and Pascal Boissonneau, who are 5 & 6th generation grape growers. The vineyard was first planted by Pierre Boissonneau in 1839, and a 4th generation Pierre Boissonneau was the first winemaker bottling his own wine in the sixties. Pascal joined his father in 2004 and wanted to farm in a more sustainable way; he initiated the conversion to organic farming in 2006 to reinstate the harmony with nature and the domain was certified in 2008. Since they started the conversion program Christian noticed a more lively macro cosmic environment in the vineyards with a diversity of wild plants and insects including wild bees from which the Boissonneau now make organic honey. Pascal has been toying with the idea of biodynamic farming and has been testing the waters but feels he needs to learn more about the natural balance in his vineyard before he can really start the conversion process. Christian and Pascal export 95% of their wine and really focus on the promotion of their organic/natural wine status. We tasted about 10 different wines, including a barrel sample of the rare indigenous Gaillac Arbouriou grape and again all the wines were beautifully balanced, approachable and excellent variatal terroir driven examples of delicate very well priced Bordeaux. It is important to state that the Château de la Vieille Tour was significantly larger than the first properties we had visited with 72 HA of certified organic vineyard – Pascal and Christian feel that size does not really matter as long as one is willing to invest time and hard work in the vineyard. Speaking of large operations, the last stop on this organic Bordeaux trip was Vignobles Raymond at Chateau Lagarde in Saint Laurent du Bois. The Raymond family farms organically on 90 HA of vineyards spread out over 5 communities. Whilst we had lunch Jean-Pierre Raymond told us how his family had become convinced and involved with the organic farming movement. It all started in the nineties, when he had bought the property next door to expand the business and allow his son Lionel to come on board. It seemed like an obvious choice as the family had come to know the neighbours wine over the years and knew the style was very similar to theirs. However when they tasted both their and the new property’s wine side by side, they immediately noticed the wines from the new property had a greater intensity and purity and more finesse and better expressed the terroir. The only difference between the two farms was that the neighbour had converted to organic farming a few years before selling up. Father and son were convinced and became avid proponents of organic farming; in fact everything we ate and drank at the farm was organic. The Raymonds have also heavily invested in sustainable energy and their winery and offices are powered by solar energy and all the winery water is recycled. Today the Raymonds are the largest organic producer in Bordeaux and the largest organic wine seller in Europe, as besides their own 800,000 bottles they buy and sell another 5 million bottles of organic wine as part of their negociant business. They only take on new products which are either in the process of converting or are already certified organic. The fact that their business has grown exponentially in the last decade means that there is definitely a market for certified organic wine as people tend to look for a label which guarantees sustainable farming and authenticity. The Raymond family is also the living proof that large scale organic farming in a marginal wine growing region such as Bordeaux can work if one is willing to put in the extra effort and care.
I hope more vignerons will follow in the footsteps of the 5 producers we visited, as I feel organic farming can be a real opportunity for the “petit chateau” in the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur appellation. It is a way for them to craft a niche out for themselves and create some well needed buzz about their wines!