This is a Guest Posting by my wife, Annette Schiller, who visited the Millésime Bio in Montpellier.
Picture: Annette Schiller
Annette has a thirty year long love affair with wine and is the owner of ombiasy Public Relations (http://www.ombiasypr.com), a transatlantic marketing, consulting and conference/event management firm focusing on sustainable development, renewable energies and organic food and wine.
Organic wines from Egypt?
Organic wines from Egypt? You must be kidding? This is exactly what I happened to bump into at the Millésime Bio in Montpellier, France. Convinced by my best friend Dagmar Ehrlich, a well known wine journalist from Germany, I flew to Montpellier. For years she has focused on the sustainable, organic, and natural way of making wine for healthy enjoyment. She was my guide on a journey of discovery, tasting over two hundred organic wines.
The Millésime Bio
The Millésime Bio, held this year from January 25 to January 27 at the parc d’exposition in Montpellier, is the only wine trade show worldwide exclusively consecrated to the organic winegrowing sector. In its 17th year the Millésime Bio has grown from a small local trade show, organized by organic winegrowers of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, to a powerful demonstration of wines stemming from environmentally friendly, health-focused winegrowing with an all time high number of 489 exhibitors and 2700 visitors. Although about eighty percent of exhibitors were winemakers from France, the international exhibitors comprised thirteen countries, with Spain and Italy in the lead and some surprising finds, like the Egyptian International Beverage Company (EGYBEV), which grows a nice “Jardin du Nil blanc” and “Jardin du Nil rouge” on terraces along the Nile River, exactly what people already did in that region five thousand years ago in the times of the early Pharaohs.
The first day of tasting I concentrated on white wines, starting with champagnes. I love bubbles; hence I tasted the champagnes of the five champagne houses present at the show. At the booth of André & Jacques Beaufort I had my first eye opener. Their champagnes are handcrafted in the pure sense of a complete devotion to a strictly natural wine making process. I tasted one of the best champagne I ever savored. The 1996 Brut Millésime Grand Cru, made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, was extraordinary, simply out of this world: a fantastic nose with an elegant aroma of honey and yellow fruit; a big wine but with a tension between delicacy and boldness that leaves you speechless.
I have a great affinity to the Alsace region and continued my wine tasting tour with Alsatian wines. Beautiful rolling hills ascending from the banks of the Rhine River dotted with vineyards and medieval towns housing century-old winemaking estates make for wonderful, unique, primarily white wines. I tasted the portfolio of Eugène Meyer, a winemaker in the town of Bergholtz, with a great reputation as an outstanding advocator for organic and biodynamic wines. The Eugène Meyer winery was established in 1620 and became certified by Ecocert for producing biodynamic wines and by Demeter for producing organic wines in 1969. The tasting was a fantastic exercise to refresh my memory on the specifics of the different varietals grown in the Alsace. Their clear-cut Rieslings, Muscats, Pinot Blancs, Gewuertztraminers, Edelzwickers, and Sylvaners, they all showed the distinctive characteristics of the grape variety seldom produced with such mastery.
The Domaine Marcel Deiss in the Alsatian town of Bergheim pursuits an opposite philosophy. They believe in the concept of “terroir”, the characteristics in soil, climate, and micro-climate of the vineyard. Most wines are field blends of different varietals. For old world standards this is a relatively new winery, founded after World War II, although the family Deiss has been involved in winemaking since they settled in Bergheim in 1744. The Marcel Deiss Domaine became certified by Ecocert and Demeter for making biodynamic and organic wines in 1998. All the wines I tasted showed a stunning complexity and an intense minerality due to the specific terroir. My favorite was the 2008 Grand Cru Schoenenburg, a full bodied, mouth full of wine with an incredible long finish.
It just came to my mind that those two winemakers mirror the volatile history of the Alsace. The great powers ruling the Alsace alternated between the Germans and the French. The German winemaking tradition is based on the concept of varietals whereas the French winemaking culture tends to believe in the concept of terroir. My tasting experience with these two winemakers from Alsace gives credence to my view that the art of winemaking is intimately intertwined with the history and culture of the respective region.
Many years ago, I visited the Salon des Vins de Loire, a wine trade show held annually in February in Anger, France, where I fell in love with the Chenin Blancs of Philippe Delesvaux. I was very happy to find him at the Millésime Bio having overlooked the fact that his estate became certified for producing biodynamic wines by Ecocert in 2000. This is a young winery, established by Phillipe Delesvaux in 1983, who, contrary to most winemakers in France, cannot look back on a family history with wines. He studied agriculture and moved from Paris to the Loire to work on a farm. Luckily for the Chenin Blancs lovers of this world his exposure to the wines of the Loire ended with such a fascination with viticulture that he decided to start his own winery. Luck was also on his side by ending up at the Loire, where it is still possible to find an unexploited piece of land with a great terroir for planting vines. In other prominent wine regions such as Burgundy or Bordeaux, the great terroirs have already been planted many centuries ago and remain in the hands of family wineries or big estates. My second eye opener and comprehension what an organic wines is all about was the Philippe Delesvaux Coteaux du Layon Sélection des Grains Nobles 2008. This is a 100% Chenin Blanc, produced from botrytised grapes, finished in barrique, with an earthy, musty bouquet which comes nonetheless across as crisp and lightly fruity due to a good backbone of acidity. This wine exemplified everything I ever wanted in a white wine. The earth, the character of the grape, a solid body, the fruitiness; every sip was a revelation and cognizance of how a wine can be in tune with raw nature. Only a wine stemming from good terroir and healthy natural fruit produced organically and without popular manipulations can achieve this grandness.
Of course I stopped by my compatriot, the only German exhibitor, the Weingut Zaehringer, whose owner and winemaker is Paulin Koepfer, a former classmate of my friend Dagmar from their days at the University of Applied Sciences, Department of Oenology in Geisenheim. Paulin is also president of the Baden chapter of Ecovin, the association of organic wine producing domaines in Germany. Since 1844 the Weingut Zaehringer makes wine in the Markgraeflerland, in southern Germany right across the Rhine River from the Alsace region. This region benefits from lots of sunshine, a good terroir, and a mild climate that favors varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinots. I tasted the entire portfolio of the Zaehringer wines, a beautiful sparkling wine, the Chardonnay, the 2008 Gutedel, and of course the Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Fruehburgunder (there is not really a translation for this varietal, one could call it a Premature Pinot Noir). After I had come to realize the true nature of organic wines, I again encountered that specific emotion in Paulin’s wines. They showed the earthiness, boldness, terroir, and elegance only detectable in natural, handcrafted wines.
Picture: The Wines of Weingut Zaehringer
Moving on to taste the reds, I started with the Domaine Pierre Clavel from the Languedoc region. Pierre Clavel, a very good long time friend of Dagmar, is the owner and winemaker and his domaine became certified as organic in 2007. Since 1992 he makes his top quality Copa Santa, a very special wine stemming from grapes planted on the terroir of La Méjanelle. The Copa Santa is a blend of Syrah from older vines, Syrah from newer vines, Grenache and Mourvèdre. The 2007 Copa Santa was gorgeous with a lot of sensuality and spirituality to it: a bouquet so grand that you have a hard time taking the glass away, velvety in the mouth, prominent tannins, a beautiful body and a long finish.
I was overjoyed to stumble across the Domaine Ilarria from Irouléguy at the Millésime Bio. From the very first time I ever had a glass of their Irouléguy last spring in a nice restaurant in St. Jean de Luz on the Basque coast in south west France, I was hooked on this wine. The first encounter took me totally by surprise: the bouquet was stunning, lots of cassis, blackberry, a touch of chocolate; on the palate this wine was wild, earthy, mysterious with a luscious feel in the mouth due to lots of tannins; a never ending finish and pure joy. This wine certainly had character and left a lasting impression on me. At the booth in Montpellier the Irouléguy Rouge 2007, a blend of 70% Tannat, 20% Cabernet Franc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, tasted just like what I remembered from last spring. Now I understood what makes this wine so appealing to me, it is the harmony of the complex soil on the steep slopes of the Irouléguy region, the mountain climate of the Basque Pyrénées, and a winemaking culture staying true to organic production principles since the first vines were planted in the eleventh century. I had a long chat with Peio Espil, the owner and winemaker of Domaine Ilarria, who assumed responsibility over the small 6 hectare (15 acre) family winery in 1988, and promised to visit his domaine in Irouléguy on my next trip to France.
Picture: Peio Espil from Domaine Ilarria and Annette Schiller
The Bodega Dionisos from the Castilla-La Manche region in Spain pursues the philosophy of making wines respectful of cosmic rhythms. Karina de Nova, the German born hostess of the Bodega Dionisos explained to me that in view of the harsh conditions in the region – difficult soil and very dry climate - traditional wine making techniques combined with observing the lunar calendar produce the best results. I tasted their portfolio: four wines made in the classical organic tradition and three produced following the lunar calendar. The latter three were the 2006 pagos del conuco, a 100% Tempranillo, the 2004 Vinum Vitae, also a 100% Tempranillo aged 12 lunar cycles in barrique, and the 2003 Ego Primus, a blend of 70% Tempranillo, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15% Shiraz. These wines showed more fieriness, more boldness than their just organic counterparts. My favorite was the Ego Primus. This wine had a gorgeous spicy bouquet, lots of tannins, a powerful body and a lasting finish. Somehow by drinking this wine I could feel the terroir (I have been to Toledo, hence I have an idea about the region) and the wine oozing from it.
Picture: The de Nova couple from Bodega Dionisos
One of the newly established wineries present at the Millésime Bio was the Lazanou organic vineyard from the Wellington valley near Cape Town in South Africa. This winery was founded in 2006 and is fairly small with just 5 hectares. Jo Lazarus and Candice Stephanou, the charming owners strictly pursue organic winemaking and planted varietals conducive to the soils and microclimate conditions of their terroir. I tasted the 2009 unwooded white wine, a blend of 59% Chardonnay, 39% Chenin Blanc, and 2% Viognier. The nose was beautiful, heavy with honey, the body full without being overpowering and the finish was long and memorable. The 2008 unwooded Chenin Blanc was absolutely wonderful with a gorgeous fruity nose, lots of minerality, a good structure and a perfect balance of acidity and a hint of sweetness. This wine won first prize for best organic wine in South Africa. The two reds, one 2008 made from 79% Syrah and 21% Mourvèdre, and the other one a 2008 100% Syrah were also very nice and promising considering their youth. I particularly liked the Syrah with a typical smoky bouquet, lots of tannin, a strong character and a long finish.
Picture: Jo Lazarus and Candice Stephanou from Lazanou organic vineyard
As someone living in the United States I of course stopped by the booth of the only American exhibitor, the Frey Vineyards of Mendocino County in California. The winery was established in 1980 by the Frey family who pioneered organic winemaking in the United States. In 1996 Frey Vineyards was the first American winery becoming certified by Demeter Oregon, USA for biodynamic wines. The wines presented at the Millésime Bio were very young. The Organic Zinfandel 2008 had just been bottled after being aged in French Oak. The bouquet carried lots of black fruit notes; the wine was smooth, juicy on the palate and almost ready to drink. This was a typical New World wine, a blend from grapes from five organic vineyards, among them grapes bought from vineyards not belonging to the Frey estate. In general, there are many winemakers in the United States, who just produce the wines on their estates and leave the agriculture part of growing the vines and harvesting the grapes to others. In my view this is the distinctive difference to the Old World Wines where traditionally the vineyard and the cellar is in the same hand, and where terroir plays such an important part in the philosophy of winemaking. Paul Frey, the winemaker held a workshop explaining the sophisticated technical process of preserving and stabilizing the wines without adding sulfites. According to American laws added sulfites are not allowed in organic wines. During fermentation small amounts of naturally occurring sulfites appear but this is usually not sufficient for preserving the wine, hence other methods of preservation need to be applied.
After the workshop on my stop at the Château Beauséjour table, a heated discussion arose on the subject of how to preserve wines. Gérard Dupuy, the owner defended the European tradition allowing a limited amount of added sulfites in organic and biodynamic wines. He pointed to the challenge for small wineries wanting to become organic by having to bow to rules that require certain technical procedures. The Château Beauséjour in Puisseguin in the Saint Emilion region of Bordeaux has always refused to use chemical treatment on soil, vines and in the cellar since Alain Dupuy, Gérard’s father adopted a winemaking procedure respectful of protecting nature in 1947. For fermentation autochthonous yeast strains for many centuries adapted to the environment are used. The vineyards are planted with 75% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. I loved the wines; they clearly were children of the terroir with a typical Merlot bouquet, a hearty soul reflecting the chalky soil, a substantial body and a lingering finish.
What a Great Event!
My days at the Millésime Bio in Montpellier were well spent and I enjoyed every minute of it despite the physical exhaustion of being on my feet for hours and the mental force to concentrate on so many wines. My tasting experiences leave me with the conviction that the organic winegrowing sector has a lot to look forward to. More and more people will come to realize how wonderful it is to produce and consume tasty, sensual wines that are in harmony with their surrounding ecosystem.
A lot remains to be done to come up with a regulatory framework comprising worldwide certification. In general European and American views on what it means to be “organic” differ widely. In the United States the different State and Federal laws concerning the certification process add to the confusion and obstruct transparency. Organic and biodynamic certification touches on consumer protection and food law issues. Consumer protection is the responsibility of the respective State and food law lies in Federal hands. As a result a number of class action suits unfurled recently leading to the hope that a complete overhaul of the certification system is on the horizon. An important first step will be the upcoming European Union regulations on organic winemaking scheduled for July 2010, which could serve as example for future regulatory work in other countries.
I am very much looking forward to the 18th Millésime Bio next February to again tease my taste buds with the many wonderful organic and biodynamic wines. Who knows what I will discover then!
Schiller Wine - Related Postings
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In the world class white wine region Alsace
In the Glass: Irouleguy - a Wine from the South West of France
In the Glass: The Wines of the Industry Giant "United Internet Media AG" Board Member Matthias Ehrlich
Wine Basics: Field Blends