Ξ April 21st, 2012 | → 2 Comments | ∇ Herbicides, International Terroirs, Interviews, Languedoc/Roussillon, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Young Winemakers |
Happy Earth Day. How to celebrate? For my part, I have a very low carbon-footprint activity in mind. I have also prepared this account of a visit I recently made to Domaine Virgile Joly to speak with the man himself, Virgile Joly. Located in Saint-Saturnin in the Hérault department, Languedoc-Roussillon, Domaine Virgile Joly is one of 12 wine producers I have chosen for my next documentary. Over the next two weeks I hope to post interviews – of varying length – with each of the twelve producers in order to show exactly why I have selected them. With a difference. As is my custom and preference, I will allow each producer to speak in their own words. Let’s begin.
Virgile Joy I was born in Avignon, in the Rhone Valley. My grandparents had a vineyard. They were part of the local cooperative in northern Ventoux. It is quite high and not a very good terroir. In Ventoux, the good terroir is south of Mont Ventoux It is a little too cold in the north and there is more clay. Lighter wines are made, but it is difficult to find a good balance with such a soil and climate. The mountain itself influences the weather. Some years there is a lot of rain and wind, or it is too cold, the harvests are late. But it was that experience which gave me the taste of Nature. I studied Biology at school. I was very interested in the science. When I was 17, during orientation day, they explained to us we could be a winemaker. It involved two years of study in the university, but only after two years of Biology. So for me it was perfect! I was very happy.
After study I began to to work as a winemaker, but my idea was always to start my own business. In 2000, I was working here for a big winery, I was buying grapes for them from Perpignan to Nîmes. I was following something like 15 wineries.
Ken Payton Did you have certain ideas about organic even then?
VJ I had a personal philosophy, but about how it applied to wine, I had no ideas about that. At that time I did not really care about organic wine. Neither was it in fashion. But my mind was changed when I decided to start my own business, to work for myself. The big question was: What do I want to do? What kind of wine, what style… a lot of questions. The idea was to make very high quality wine, and I felt held back if I worked for another. I had ideas about the use of barrels and oak, which grapes would have better flavors if handled differently; I knew, for example, that grapes picked by hand would make a much better wine than that picked by machine. So from the beginning it was all about making the highest quality wine. I was very optimistic! (laughs).
Then I found something very special in Saint-Saturnin. Beginning near the end of 2001, I was focused on my own vineyard and company here. It happened faster than I was thinking it would.
So the question was: Why choose Saint-Saturnin? Why choose organic? Very simple. To have a high level of quality, you must respect your terroir, your vine, and what is around you, the ecosystem. So chemicals could not be a part of this. Yet even in 2000, I noticed that a lot of high-quality grape growers were already very close to organic viticulture, but without certification. So I began to organize my thoughts. We know that chemicals are very bad for the earth, and the grower is in intimate contact with the earth. So chemicals were eliminated from my plan, not only the sake of quality and for the benefit of the customer, but also for me and my sons.
Were you alone in the area when you made this decision?
VJ In 2000 it was all conventional, but now it is more and more organic. You know, I think somebody has to show people it can be done. For example, people are thinking that in organic viticulture you have grasses in the vineyard. It is not true. People think you have less of a yield. It is not true.
After working for 10 years in organic viticulture, growers can now see what has been the result in my vineyard. They can see that if you do your work well, you can have good results; and even with the higher costs of using more manual labor, at the end of the day we often have better results than conventional growers. They are beginning to understand. For me it is about higher quality wines. The next step is up to them.
VINEYARD AND TERROIR
VJ So here we are in the center of the Saint-Saturnin appellation, just beyond the plateau du Larzac. We were just in the village of Saint-Saturnin itself. To the south, on the right, is Saint Guiraud, on the hill. From there it goes east to Jonquières and turns around to Arboras, just north. So all of that big terrace is Saint-Saturnin AOC. It is part of 4 villages. Beyond these creeks is Montpeyroux, also an AOC village. But we are now in the middle of Terraces du Larzac. According to the AOC system, we have Languedoc, the region; sub-region, Terraces du Larzac, and then we have Saint-Saturnin and Montpeyroux.
We have a very stony soil with limestone. The soils here are very deep. There is nothing to stop the roots. This is one of the reasons it is such good terroir and so well known. The terrace soil is very homogenous and it is flat. That is very efficient for us to work. It makes things easier. We have the benefits of the terrace but no problems of the slope.
We have very high quality and don’t have big yields here, and this is one of the reasons the cooperatives started so late. Before the creation of the cooperatives, the growers did not need them, but because of changing markets, they realized they could save money if they joined together. This was in 1950, when the Languedoc region was producing a huge quantity of wine, much of it heading to the north of France. Back then the French were drinking 150 liters per person per year, I believe. Now it is 40 liters per person… (laughs) We’ve lost a lot of customers! Maybe it is better for them to drink a little less!
It was realized, because they produced such small quantities, that they could not compete with other parts of the region who produced far more for the bulk market. So they decided to plant Grenache and Syrah, very good grapes, in order to concentrate on making very high quality wine. There is a good reason I’ve chosen this place: when I started, I had old vines which had been planted for quality.
What was the viticultural philosophy then taught in school?
VJ When you go to school it is because you want to become a winemaker; you don’t study a lot about viticulture. It is mainly winemaking. In France, there are other people who take care of the vineyard. They are more specialized. But I have a big knowledge base, so I have no problem with understanding viticulture. Most of the teachers were thinking of commercialization. Many of the professors were themselves working on projects to make it easier to produce grapes, and generally with chemicals. Organic wine was not a subject then.
Were organic vegetables being grown? Other agricultural products?
VJ Yes. I think generally for the consumer, organic produce was their first introduction to the idea. Now the customer understands you may also find a good organic wine. It was not the same 10 years ago. Ten years ago the consumer was thinking that organic wine was not very good. It was just a philosophy, but not a way to make wine. Now there are far more growers and greater volume, and people have more contact with the growers themselves. For example, a wine consumers had been drinking they now learn has converted to organic and that the wine has not really changed. More than that, they now understand the larger purpose of organic which is to preserve Nature, that it is better for the earth.
This follows the same pattern in California. People would go out of their way to spend more for organic produce when the choice began to appear in the market. But when it came to wine, people were initially unwilling pay a premium price. Of course, now both organic produce and wine are far cheaper owing to so many producers converting. A lot has changed…
VJ In 10 years the difference in France is really big; the mentality has changed, not only for the customer but for the producers and retailers as well. When I started, organic was not in fashion. It was very rare.
This vineyard of mine is one of the biggest. We have here 2 hectares. You can see we have planted some trees where we can help assist in restoring the three levels of the ecosystem. The first level it that of the floor [soil surface]; here we have birds, rabbits, grasses – we don’t use chemicals, so we have good life in the soil. The second level is the human level, the level of the vine. There are also birds here living in the vines. The third level is that of the trees, which we have now planted. So when and where possible, we plant them around the vineyards. Here we have even more bird and insect varieties. We work at all of these levels both to preserve the ecosystem and, sometimes, to re-introduce a more balanced ecosystem.
What is the rainfall here?
VJ Here we have something like 800 millimeters a year. Pic St. Loup has 900 to 1000, but we are the area with the best rainfall. The elevation at Saint-Saturnin is about 170 meters above sea level…
So in the Summer the grasses must really compete for water…
VJ Yes. It is really a problem. It is a Mediterranean climate, so we have water in Spring and in Autumn. The Summers are always dry. Competition with grasses makes it difficult.
So the soils here drain well. Do you cut away the surface roots of the vines?
VJ In fact, when we work the floor to till the grass, we remove them. It is one of the reasons for the high quality of the grapes here. You have two kinds of roots, those which go deeper and those which stay at the surface. So, if you want to produce high quality, you want to keep your vines for more than 50 years. Now, if you want to produce as fast as possible, Chardonnay for example, because it is enjoying good sales, or because now it is Pinot Noir, then you plant and after three years you can have a first harvest. But if you want to make high quality wine you must have your vines for a long time. For myself, I wait for around 7 years before I take a first harvest, and even then I have a low yield.
So if you want rapid growth for a harvest after the first three years from planting vines, then you need lots of roots, a lot of water, so superficial roots will be permitted to grow faster than the deeper roots. But if you let the vine take time to mature, the deeper roots will go deeper and deeper into the soil to find water. Then, after 10 years, for example, if it is drier you can easily see the difference. The vine with superficial roots will suffer from the dry conditions.
Here in Saint-Saturnin, with the good depth of our roots, even in 2003 when it was very hot with no water, most of our vines did not suffer. The only vines suffering were those in vineyards which were not worked and where chemicals [herbicides] were used on the floor. In those vineyards the ground, the soil, was much harder and the deeper roots were underdeveloped. After that experience a few growers returned, not to organic, but to the understanding to use less chemicals and to work the soil.
A CONVENTIONAL VINEYARD
VJ Do you see that very chemical ground?
I do. That’s a conventionally farmed vineyard?
VJ Yes. It is a bad idea to add that black plastic when vines are planted. Now they have no idea what to do with it. The floor is completely white because the surface is never worked; so the stones are cleaned by the sun and the rain. The stones are never moved. The ground becomes very hard, so the water cannot penetrate. The rain will then run fast across the surface. Two problems here: the first is that of erosion. The water has to go somewhere and you can often find deep holes and cuts. The second problem is that the chemicals do not kill everything. Some grasses always win, win, win. So you end up with soil without water, erosion, and you still have grass.
It is soil you can never get back. When producers convert to organic, do they remain organic?
VJ Well, five years ago organic wine was like an El Dorado. The sales and prices were high. There was a big demand and little organic wine could be found on the market. So a lot of producers changed viticulture to take advantage of this. Now, if you are a bad producer, becoming organic will not help you sell your wine. You are still a bad producer. Organic does not help you. It must first be a good wine; if not, it doesn’t sell. People will not care if it is organic or not.
Being organic the first year is easier. During conversion, you still have use of some chemicals. So you can still control the grasses and weeds as you have in the past. But by the 4th or 5th year, they all come back. Now, if you were a large producer, or have become by then a bigger producer, the more hands-on work required in organic viticulture becomes very expensive. For example, you have to learn to spray correctly or you can lose your harvest or have a greatly reduced yield. You need greater technical understanding of viticulture.
In 2001 there were some financial incentives to help people convert to organic. Many producers joined up for a 5 year program to full organic conversion. But after 5 years, many gave it up and returned to conventional, to non-organic In their eyes, it was just too difficult and expensive. Some left the conversion after 2 years, it was just too difficult for them!
Do you think you’ll always be a winemaker?
VJ Yes, of course! I really love it. I love being in the vineyard and making wine. I love blending wines. I also am very active in two groups* to help spread the organic message. The first group is to help defend and to promote the Saint-Saturnin AOC – we are in the process of having our own AOC. The other group is dedicated to promoting organic viticulture. We organize wine fairs like Millésime Bio; and we organize wine tastings.
But to answer your question clearly, winemaking is my life.
Thank you, Virgile. I will see you in May.
*[Mr. Joly is vice-president of the Syndicat des producteurs de Saint-Saturnin and a technical administrator with the very progressive Association Interprofessionnelle Des Vins Biologiques Du Languedoc-Roussillon AIVB-LR.]