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part 5: an audience with Nicolas Joly

What better way to try to catch the flavour of the underlying philosophy of biodynamics than to attend a Nicolas Joly seminar? Joly, who owns Coulée de la Serrant in the Savennières region of France’s Loire Valley, is probably the leading proponent of biodynamic viticulture. He regularly conducts seminars for winegrowers, which are in high demand. Indeed, the roll-call of attendees at an average Joly seminar reads like a who’s who of old-world winegrowers. His seminars usually last for a few days, but we were treated to the abridged version – not enough to answer all our questions, but sufficient to provide an overview of his philosophy.

‘I was trained to be a banker, but I turned out to be a winegrower’, he says. Joly had a career in finance, which involved spells working in the UK and USA. When he returned to his family’s estate in the Loire in 1977, he decided that he wanted to make wines that expressed the ‘spot’ of Coulée de Serrant. Early on, he was visited by an official from the chamber of agriculture. ‘They told me that my mother had been running the estate well, but in an old fashioned way, and it was now time for some modernity. I was told that if I started using weedkillers, I’d save 14 000 Francs.’ Joly took this advice, but soon regretted it. ‘Within two years I realized that the colour of the soil was changing; insects like ladybirds were no longer there; all the partridge had gone.’ Joly likened the state of the vineyards to a perpetual winter, devoid of life even in the summer.

Then fate intervened. Joly read a book on biodynamics. ‘I wasn’t attracted to the green movement, but this book fascinated me, and I had the crazy idea of trying to practice this concept’. As a result, Coulée de Serrant has been run along biodynamic lines since the early 1980s. Joly emphasizes that this has been a learning experience, and his practice now is quite different to what it was then.

Joly’s prime emphasis is on living forces, and the correct timing of viticultural interventions. ‘The soil has to be alive. Organic manure is from different animals. Each animal produces very different manure. Some animals are dominated by heat, like a horse. If you force a cow against its will it will go down – the earth forces dominate. Wild boar and pigs feed on roots, so their manure will work on the roots. All these different fertilities are essential.’

He continues, ‘Spring is good for us. For a vine, spring is the victory of sun forces over earth forces. In autumn, the law of death comes into force: the law of gravitation comes into force and leaves begin falling. Look how tired we get in the evening. On the first day of spring the days are a bit longer than the nights. The sun attraction is stronger than gravitation.’

‘The vine is one of the few fruit trees strictly linked to the season. The vine is dominated by the earth forces. It goes downwards so it has immense strength in its roots and only goes up a little bit. It couldn’t flower in the spring like the cherry or the apple. The more a plant leaves its gravitational forces, the more it can develop its flowers.’

Natural timing and the rhythms of nature seem to be key here. ‘The vine is waiting for sun to land on earth. This is what happens at the summer solstice. It withholds its flowering process for the time when the sun lands on earth. The summer solstice is a very important day for a vine. If you taste wines where they flower too early, they have a very good first mouth but a bad second mouthful. The vines flowering closest to the solstice produce the best wines.’ Clearly, this is bad news for winegrowers in hot regions!

So what is the difference between biodynamics and organics? ‘In biodynamie we are connecting the vine to the frequencies it needs—like tuning a radio, we are tuning the plant to the frequencies that bring it life. Organics permits nature to do its job; biodynamie permits it to do its job more. It is very simple.’

What does Joly make of inorganic fertilizers? ‘Fertilizer is a salt. It takes more water to compensate salt. You are forcing growth through water: the plant has to over-drink, so it grows, and carries on growing after the solstice. The process of growth ends up conflicting with the plant’s act of retiring to seed and fruit. The result of this is rot, so you need to counter this with lots of chemicals.’

And disease? ‘Disease is a process of constrictive forces and contractive forces. Disease itself doesn’t exist. The living agents that bring diseases are just doing their duty. There is no point in fighting hundreds of new diseases. ‘

Joly’s biodynamic philosophy extends to winemaking, too. ‘The more you help the vine to do its job, by means of a live soil, proper vine selection, and avoiding poisonous treatments, the more harmony there is. If the wine catches this harmony well you have nothing to do in the cellar: potentially it is all there.’ He chooses to use natural yeast, rather than inoculating with yeast cultures: ‘Re-yeasting is absurd. Natural yeast is marked by all the subtleties of the year. If you have been dumb enough to kill your yeast you have lost something from that year. ‘

Very quickly, I realised that Joly is taking an approach to agriculture that is at odds with my training as a scientist. He is using an altogether different way of describing natural processes – a ‘picture’ language that jars alarmingly with the western rationalistic worldview. This is more the language of religion than that of scientifically based viticulture. Yet at the same time I have immense respect for the vision of viticulture he is expounding. It has a life and vitality of its own, which exposes the intellectual and environmental bankruptcy of chemical-dependent conventional viticultural regimes. Above all, he is making profound, interesting wines. 

Other ideas that Joly expanded on included terroir and grape varieties. ‘Different artists paint the same landscapes in different ways. It is the same with vines expressing terroir. This is why it is absurd to have created clones: the repetition of one specific vine a million times. Clones are a lie to the diversity that each specific vine expresses. Taking the “best” clone and producing millions of samples is absurd. This understanding of the “best” is absurd.’ In Savennières, Chenin Blanc is the only permitted grape. What does he think about it? ‘Chenin Blanc is like a difficult child: they will go on to be either a genius or a terrorist. Too often we see the terrorist version of Chenin.’

One interesting piece of information is that Joly is beginning to experiment with using clay amphorae. These are currently being used by Josko Gravner, in Friuli, who has just taken delivery of some. Apparently they are hand made in Georgia. ‘I am experimenting with replacing wood by clay. Clay can cure; it is strongly linked to the sun. Amphorae can be an alternative to oak barrels,’ says Joly. He still likes barrels, though. ‘There is an enormous wisdom in the shape of a barrel. Ask your dog. Put a barrel beside the kennel and in 12 hours the dog will have chosen to sleep in the barrel. The barrel is in the shape of an egg, and has the shape of life forces.’

See also: a vertical tasting of Nicolas Joly's wines

Other topics in this series 


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