Biodynamic Wines Please at French Embassy

By Bill Shepard

The French Embassy in Washington, with the indispensable help of the French Wine Society, presented a delicious introduction to wines created by winegrowers devoted to the elimination of additives in winemaking. There was a lecture by Nicolas Joly, a leader in this movement, and some information about the varying practices of the 153 winemakers in 13 countries now said to comprise this dedicated group. More to the point, 47 producers from 10 different nations participated in the tasting. They seem to differ considerably in approach, if not in devotion to making good wines.

Let me say at the outset that I am sceptical about new departures in winemaking. However, these are the days when puffed up, alcoholic wines tend to command high point scores, with prices to match. Anything that leads us away from that towards a natural product therefore deserves a respectful audience. And these were excellent wines, of a far higher general level of quality than one often finds at a wine tasting. Furthermore, the pride taken in their wines by the exhibitors was evident. However, as one excellent wine succeeded another, it could not help but strike the taster that these winemakers were onto something important.

I was reminded that during my residence in Bordeaux, there were many schools of thought regarding issues such as fermentation, the use of oak casks or stainless steel, for example. The arguments were made, but ultimately I came to the conclusion that often there was no “right” answer. What counted was the passionate devotion to making the best possible wine. And that is what I tasted here. Let me give some examples, with sale prices where available.

The Domaine Marc Tempé, in Zellenberg, Alsace near Riquewihr, offered a selection of fine Alsatian white wines, poured in an order ranging from dry to rather sweet. The 2006 Pinot Blanc was suitably dry and very flavorful, a substantial wine. The Riesling St. Hippolyte 2005 ($22.99) was sweet but not overly so, with good body. Since all of these wines were made without adding sugar or yeasts, one began to wonder just why sugar would be considered a necessary or desirable additive in the first place! The Gewurztraminer 2006 was very spicey, more so than others of this variety that I had tasted over many years. If biodynamic methods had brought forth this spicey taste, thought to be characteristic of this varietal but only rarely tasted, then the case for biodynamic winemaking has proved worthy.

But there was more to come. Their Grand Crus Riesling 2005 Malmbourg (just 80/100 cases made) and Gewurztraminer 2005 Malmbourg (150 cases) were each superb. The Riesling was more immediately accessible, as a superior offering that you might choose for an importand dinner party, rich and opulent. The Gewurztraminer was a revelation. It was also rich and satisfying, with a spicey dimension that rolled off the tongue. I would enjoy this either by itself, or to accompany some carefully selected cheeses.

A Bordeaux entry was Château Falfas, said to comprise 22 acres near the Gironde River in the Côte de Bourg. It is a winemaking estate of very long standing, having been cited for excellence in the 1867 Feret guide. Their 2006 vintage blend, was 55% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Malbec. I asked about the Malbec grape, and was told that it is traditional in the region. Malbec grapes are said to be wonderful eating. They add color to the wine blend. They are, however, like Pinot Noir grapes, thin skinned, so a problem when the weather turns too hot. The wine was very satisfying and well balanced. The 2005 Château Falfas ($17.99) was even better, with more amplitude and structure, a perfect illustration of what can happen throughout the Bordeaux region on careful estates in a fine vintage year.

Then I tasted their 2005 Château Falfas Le Chevalier Vielles Vignes. This wine is the product of 75-80 year old vines, with very low yield but high quality. The wine, 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and 20% Merlot, was a very fine discovery. Serve it in a decanter with the cheese course. If the lack of synthetic chemicals of any kind has something to do with these results, then I sense a conversion in the making!

Next I visited with a perceptive winegrower from the Domaine de Villaine in Burgundy, Pierre de Benoist, the nephew of Aubert and Pamela de Villaine of the Domaine de la Romaneé Conti. Again, this fine domaine uses neither pesticides nor herbicides. I began by tasting their 2007 Aligoté from Bouzeron on the Côte Chalonnaise. It was moderately dry, and very satisfying. This is a grape varietal that had been pushed aside over the years, but the de Villaine family has taken a lead in its deserved resurgence. “Don't waste this in a kir,” was the advice given. Actually, I think it would make a delicious kir, or could be enjoyed by itself. The Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise “Les Clous,” made from the Chardonnay grape, was also very satisfying. However, it was overshadowed by another Chardonnay, the Rully “Les Saint Jacques” 2007 ($35.99). Fermented in steel, I would have taken it for a premier cru Chablis.

Three Pinot Noir wines completed this quality offering. I mention them in what seemed to me to be an ascending order of quality. The Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise “La Fortune” 2007 ($32) was clearly young at this point, but still good and flavorful. The Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise “La Digoine” 2007 ($37.99) had a very substantial mouth feel to it. It should mature nicely for a number of years. The Mercurey “Les Moutots” 2007 was a very good Pinot Noir ($39.99). With Nuits St. Georges premier crus, alas, being discovered and their prices rising accordingly, these three offerings might be your delicious alternatives!

From the Domaine Leflaive in storied Puligny Montrachet came several quality offerings. Their white wines since 1998 have come from totally biodynamic farming methods. Since their one barrel production of Le Montrachet sets a standard for dry white wine, this domaine’s adherence to biodynamic methods says something significant about the process.

I first tasted their Sur le Dos d’Âne Meursault 2006. This was a fine first growth, solid and delicious. I think generally that the wines of Meursault still offer good value. At Vinexpo in New York several years ago, I was surprised to find that a Meursault first growth outperformed its pricer neighbors fom Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet.. 

The Domaine Leflaive 2005 Puligny-Montrachet was “just about perfect.” Why pay premier cru prices when this village appelation is also made? You can just enjoy this wine by itself, a grand wine from an excellent year. However, the Puligny-Montrachet Clavoillon premier cru 2006 was even better - layers of flavor against a background of minerality. It tasted better than that reads!

Champagne Fleury was the first biodynamic champagne producer, starting their own revolution in the bicentennial year 1989! I liked their Brut Tradition Carte Rouge, a blanc de noirs Pinot Noir based champagne ($39.99). However, their Fleur de l’Europe Brut was particularly tasty, with a rich mouth feel, and expansive flavors. I can still taste the bubbles! The Brut Rosé de Saignée ($54.99), was a fine rosé champagne, a field that does not always yield excellent results. Here again, I think the lack of additives may have been helpful. Best of all was the 1995 Vintage champagne, 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. These were quality products, from a house that may be getting better known.

Four excellent producers from the Rhône Valley completed my tasting. (I had a designated driver.) I discussed Châteauneuf du Pape vintages with the representative of the Domaine de Villeneuve, from Orange. This firm has been biodynamic since 2000. He shared my suspicion of the 2003 vintage, due to the extreme heat. There had been a wet spring that year before the great summer heat, and so the wines lacked correct balance. The wines from 2003 will therefore not age well. The same problem may recur for the 2008 vintage, and that is also partly due to the wet spring that was experienced that year.

Other recent vintages were more hopeful. Their 2005 Châteauneuf du Pape vieilles vignes was exceptional, made from 50-55 year old vines. It was a superb year here, as elsewhere in France, a small miracle in itself. The 2006 vintage, I was pleased to hear, will not be a repeat of the 2003. Desite the summer heat, there was sufficient water and no drought. It was therefore not an extreme vintage. It tasted very well indeed, if not the blockbuster of flavors that other recent vintages, such as 2005, 2000 and 1998 have produced. The 2007 vintage had quite a warm summer, but then August was fresh with cool nights, producing good acidity in the grapes. Therefore the 2007 should be a treasured vintage in the Châteauneuf du Pape region.

The Clos du Joncuas Gigondas rouge 2004 ($28.99), pure Grenache, was lovely, balanced and satisfying. It would go perfectly with game dishes, at far less cost than many classified Burgundies. That is why Gigondas should be discovered by consumers who value their budgets as well as their wines. The Domaine La Garancière Seguret blanc ($19.99) had a bit of a licorice taste, which I do not enjoy, but you might. Their Grenache Rosé 2007, should do well in America. It is rather full-bodied, and an altogether pleasant wine, not too sweet.

The Domaine Pierre André, biodynamic since 1992, brought some fine Châteauneuf du Pape wines. Their 2001 vintage ($40.99) was excellent, and will last for a nmber of years. It is just the wine, full flavored and rich, to accompany a substantial dinner on a cold winter night. Their 2004 vintage is now entirely redy to drink. It was very pleasant indeed, flavorful without too many tannins. The 2005 vintage, on the other hand, was the best Châteauneuf that I sampled at this tasting. It has powerful tannins that must soften, but it is a wonderful wine, which will last 15-20 years, at the very least. As for the 2007 vintage, I was told that it has very good fruit, and is somewhat less concentrated than the 2005. Evidently a treat is in store for us when that vintage is ready to be sampled.

The Maison M. Chapoutier brought a series of treasures to be tasted. Their 2007 Premier Cru Meysonniers Crozes-Hermitage blanc was a bargain at $32.99, full of excellent fruit flavors. The 2003 Hermitage Chante-Alouette blanc 2003 was an even better buy, a wonderful wine and a surprise for that hot year. I was told that 80 pickers descended early on the estate, on August 22, in order to bring the crop in! The Meysonniers Croze-Hermitage rouge 2006 was a good offering, substantial and satisfying. But it paled before the 2004 Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage rouge ($104.99), clearly the outstanding red wine of the tasting. It had depth, balance and swirls of flavor, all at once.

How much of this sustained excellence was due to biodynamic wine methods I cannot say. But the overall quality at this tasting was so very high that it is a fair guess that these producers are setting a very high standard indeed, and merit encouragement, and support by wine consumers.

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