According to most wine critics, bottles from Bordeaux, France, can’t be beat — at least in terms of quality. The price per bottle is another matter, when you look at pricey vintages from Château Margaux or Château Lafite Rothschild, although more affordable options are making their way across the Atlantic Ocean to America. Whole Foods Market sells several Bordeaux wines that cost under $20 and are personally sourced by the natural foods chain’s two wine buyers.
But is Bordeaux cutting-edge enough to follow what American wine regions like California’s Mendocino and Oregon’s Willamette Valley have been doing for years — cutting out pesticides and farming in tune with the moon? Biodynamic agriculture is a philosophy developed by Rudolf Steiner; he first lectured on the subject during the 1920s. While few wineries are certified biodynamic, many adopt the phrase “natural” to express reliance upon the same principles, which is to carefully integrate livestock, plants, and soil in a self-contained entity, and is a few steps above farming organically.
On a trip to Bordeaux in April I visited a handful of wineries that have embraced biodynamic farming. Still more are farming organically or at the tail-end of converting to organic. The number one challenge with any vineyard is to avoid the introduction of pests and animals that may destroy the vines. Certain plants and bushes attract well-meaning insects, while some wineries bring in sheep to “prune” the leaves or horses to plow the fields.
Château Guiraud, which imports its wines to the United States, has been making wine since the 15th century. It’s the first organic winery in Sauternes, achieving certification from the French Ministry of Agriculture in 1995. Down a long dirt driveway shaded by mature trees, the tasting room features a cathedral ceiling and all the gloss you might expect if it were Napa. But on the farm it’s more down-home, with two “insect hotels” constructed from wood that house beneficial pests. (It could rival any three-dimensional art installation in a museum.) Since converting to organic, says Xavier Planty, Château Guiraud’s director, vine roots slip deeper into the soil and there are now two connected layers of healthy soil.
Château Bastor Lamontagne, in Sauternes, is also in the process of converting to organic. “We’re going back to what our parents were doing years ago, so it’s nothing new,” says Michel Garet, in a matter-of-fact way while we admire a portion of his 52 hectacres of vines that were planted in 1953. Like Planty, he’s noticed the vines now fall deeper into the dirt, proof that this movement has roots.
Château la Maison Blanche has been in the Despagne family since 1812 on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, in Montagne-Saint-Emilion. Yet biodynamic farming is still new to owner Nicolas Despagne. He’s in his second year of converting to a sustainable viticulture system. As one of the region’s oldest wineries, it is poised to set a standard for innovation. Dressed in a crisp white dress shirt with blue jeans, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail, Despagne waxes poetic about the ease in making biodynamic wines in Bordeaux, filled with facts about fermentation and farming alike. It’s a success story after the winery lost its grand cru classé status in 1996.
Coincidentally, the city of Bordeaux — which, in the last decade, has morphed its city center into a college-like town that would rival Berkeley and Madison, Wis., if it were on American soil — banned the use of pesticides in 2009. But tripping over weeds that sprout out of cracks in the sidewalk is of no concern to locals. Bicycles — some borrowed from bike-rental stations — and scooters whiz down cobblestone streets. A light-rail line circles the city center. The staunch image of Bordeaux is finit.
Fueled by this new green mantra, a crop of organic, health-minded restaurants have popped up in Bordeaux, including an organic-only farmers market on Thursdays and a pizzeria (Pink Flamingo) that claims to use organic flour in its crust. There is even a green-minded sushi restaurant (Green Sushi, delivering via an electric bicycle and using only sustainably sourced fish). La Vie Saine, an organic-foods and body-products store chain based in Dijon, France, opened its first Bordeaux location four years ago, with the grandson of the chain serving as manager.
Back in the vineyards, however, the biodynamic battle continues. Some want to convert while others do not. Jean Michel Comme, Château Pontet-Canet’s technical manager, is on his 23rd vintage with the 1855 classified-growth winery (founded in 1750) in the Medoc region. In the Pauillac appellations, it’s just south of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, home to famous wines but also a partner with Robert Mondavi in Opus One Winery in Napa Valley.
Pontet-Canet’s 2009 vintage commanded about 1,000 euros per bottle. In 2005 the winery earned organic certification; it was yanked two years later when it became necessary to spray. After three consecutive years of not spraying, the certification was awarded again. Four seasons ago Comme introduced two pairs of horses to help cultivate the vineyard.
“The more I progressed, the more I became convinced it was the right way for me. Ten to 15 years ago, it was crazy, the idea to go organic or biodynamic,” says Comme. “Everything is connected to terroir. It’s a battle of nature versus nurture and first we have to understand the disease. Each animal has something to do in nature and we have to understand that.”