Tuesday 24th April, 2018
If ever a single individual personified the virtues of bio-dynamics it is surely Christine Saurel. Radiating health and serenity, she greeted us to MonTirius and proceeded to hold us in thrall with their approach to Biodynamic winemaking for the next three hours.
She and her husband Eric are 5th generation vineyard owners and winemakers now tending 63ha in Vacqueras and their daughters Justine and Manon are expected to follow them into the family business. The epiphany in their Biodynamic evolution came in 1989 following the serious illness of Justine as a baby for which Christine and Eric refused traditional medicine and sought instead a homeopathic cure. The following year, with the help of Francois Bouchet, guru to biodynamic farmers, they completely eliminated all chemical pesticides across the entire property. Even for Francois this was a courageous move: “Are you really ready for the chaos? It is a step-change; another reality of life”. They converted fully to biodynamic methods in 1996 and things were difficult for a while between the generations – “Our families thought we had entered a Sect”. But after the very difficult 1997 harvest, a year of widespread mildew in which the Saurels had only applied a little copper, sulphur and nettle preparation, the health of their vineyards was so apparent that Eric’s father was forced to admit: “I don’t understand it but it works!”
They tried to persuade the Co-op to convert to bio-dynamism also but eventually left in 2001 to pursue it on their own. Christine stressed how intuitive the process is: “It is important to be two of you making decisions because, solo, you often go for the safe option”. They pay no attention to colour, sugar levels or pH (indeed pH is typically a remarkably high pH4 but the wines are nevertheless very stable and long-lived – usually well over 14 years for the reds and 10 years for the white wines). Instead they go by taste: the skins have to be easy to eat; the seeds also.
In the cellar, most of which is below ground-level, they always de-stem, always macerate the berries in the tank and let a natural fermentation take place. There is no warming, the only intervention is some oxygen introduced to the fermenting wine via a homemade funnel to reduce the danger of reduction. They taste this ‘fruit salad’ infusion every day until the ‘shape’ of the wine changes and the tannins have moved from the back of the mouth and become rounder. Malolactic fermentation takes place on the floor below and maturation on the floor below that. They do not use any oak : “We stopped using barrels in 1999. They took the edges off the wines but they also took away the energy”. Now it is a mixture of concrete and stainless steel vats. “We are looking always for the third dimension in a wine” says Christine and for that “you need to use, and take, and give Time”. Filtration will sometimes take all day and bottling is always very slow and gentle in order to minimise the need for sulphuring.
But in the vineyard it can be quite the other way around: “With biodynamics you have to act in the moment. You cannot delay.” Vines mostly need ‘fruit day’ treatments but other details such as wind speed and direction have to be considered. And always one needs to “stay logical”. “Only harvest when properly ripe rather than pick on just any fruit day but do then take a little of the wine from grapes harvested on a fruit day and put it in the other tanks. It helps to settle the wine.”
Naturally, the moon plays a very significant role in the timings of management and of applications. For example, on June 21, when the moon is closest to the earth, it has a strong impact and may be the cause of mildew caused by drawing moisture from the soil even though the air itself might be dry. In these circumstances the Saurel’s have had very good results from applying formulations of marestail.
They were bottling on the afternoon we visited because it was a ‘day with a descending moon’. This keeps the aromas in the bottle – and it certainly seemed to be true: it was the least ‘winey’ winery I have ever entered.
And so to the wines:
We were offered
- La Muse Papilles 2017, Cotes du Rhone, owned and tended by Justine.
- ‘Mineral’, 2016, Vacqueyras white 25% White Grenache, 25% Rossanne and 50% Bourboulenc “because Eric wanted to understand why Bourboulenc wasn’t more poputlar”
- ‘Mineral’, 2014, Vacqueyras white 25% White Grenache, 25% Rossanne and 50% Bourboulenc
- Le Jardin Secret 2015 Cotes de Rhone (declassified from CdR Villages because it’s not a blend of two or more grapes as required by the Appellation regulations.
- ‘Garrigues’ 2015, Vacqueyras 70% Grenache, 30% Syrah
- ‘Le Clos’ 2015, Vacqeyras, 50% grenache, 50% Syrah
- ‘Terre des Ainés’ 2015, Gigondas. 80% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre
- ‘Confidentiel’ 2015, Gigondas. 80% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre. These last two wines are made from fruit on the same plot but the ‘Confidentiel’ is from vines planted in 1925 by Eric’s grandfather.
The wines all had a remarkable freshness and vivacity plus a very controlled sense of alcohol (even though some of them topped 14.5%). Tannins on the red wines were ripe and supple. The wines were all full in the mouth but never heavy. In fact my notes mention fresh and/or refreshing on almost every wine we tasted. If I had one criticism it is that I found the length on the La Muse Papilles and the two ‘Minéral’s a little short. The reds were considerably better sustained on the finish.
When asked “Have you any plans for changes in the future?” Christine answered cheerfully: “Who knows?” A very suitable response for someone so quietly confident and open-minded. and one who clearly believes their future is not so much in the lap of the gods but rather in the orbit of the planets.