Sunday, July 15, 2012

The problems of being ‘bio’ in Bordeaux

You might quite reasonably wonder if I’ve stopped drinking natural wine. Gone over to the dark side and started quaffing Blossom Hill. But no. The absence of posts simply reflects the fact I’ve been manically busy - travelling (to Rioja and Bordeaux) and relaunching my website.

There’s a lot to report - not least that more and more ‘conventional’ wine merchants and restaurants are stocking natural wine, including - I hear from my colleague Fiona Sims - the Connaught which now devotes 4 pages of its wine list to natural wines. But let’s start with Bordeaux, an area not exactly noted for organic viticulture.

There’s a reason for this as I discovered from two winemakers I met at the end of my recent trip - François Landais (above, right) of Chåteau La Caderie in the Libournais where he produces Bordeaux Supérieur and Gilles Borgon of Château de Cots in Côtes de Bourg, both of whom are members of a regional organic producers' association. "Bordeaux is one of the most difficult regions to cultivate organically" said Borgon who has been certified bio since 1999 and followed organic practices well before then. "In a good year you get downy mildew, in another, odium. In a bad year you have them both. It is complicated but then the profession of a vigneron is complicated."

It’s also problematic that Bordeaux is so densely planted which makes it hard to avoid contamination from neighbouring vineyards which are chemically treated. To retain their certification they need to be 12 metres away.

Despite that a growing number of producers has been turning bio - the number of organic producers has doubled in the last 4 years, according to Borgon, because of the premium organic wines attract. He’s not sure how many will stay the course. “Dfficult years like this (2012) will sort out the sheep from the goats. You need to be used to it - to be bio (organic) is an enormous amount of work. People who can’t cope will give up."

Even the use of horses - now popular among some of the better known estates such as Chateau Latour and Smith-Haut-Lafitte - isn’t quite as ‘natural’ or green as it seems.

“When I was young my father had a horse to plough the vineyards but one hectare of vines would take him three days. says Borgon. The carbon footprint of a horse isn't any better than a tractor. And you can’t just get up at 5 and go and switch it on. You have to get up at 4 and feed the horse which takes an hour - and you need to find time to make your own hay. We could do it if we had 3 hectares of Pomerol but not in Côtes du Bourg. We can be organic but we can’t go back to the Middle Ages."

It’s also hard to get people to understand how vintages differ these days. “People are used to Pepsi, Orangina and Heineken where every bottle is the same. But the way we make wine is different every year."

That said both winemakers were making very drinkable, inexpensive wines of the kind that represent the unsung backbone of Bordeaux. Chateau La Caderie’s fresh fruity young 2010 (a blend of 93% Merlot and 7% Malbec) was a real vin des copains at just 5.50€ from the cellar door while his La Caderie Authentique 2007 (€7.10) - a blend of 60% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon was smoother and more supple. Cabernet Franc is increasingly being planted to keep the levels of alcohol within reasonable limits, according to Landais.

Borgon’s wines were more structured and rustic (by which I mean characterful rather than coarse). His 2009 Chateau de Cots (6.50€ but apparently also available in Nicolas), a blend of 60% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and aged in 2-3 year old barrels was spicy and substantial and the Malbec dominated 2007 Cuvée Prestige (80% Malbec, 20% Cabernet) which is, unusually for the appellation, aged in new oak for at least 18 months, even more so. At first I found it excessively oaky but it opened up well in the glass suggesting that it could benefit from decanting - and further ageing.. 

Conscious, perhaps, that his style puts him out on a limb Borgon made a point of stressing that he makes wines that he think represents the traditions of his region. "Wine is not a fashion. If you buy Bordeaux it should taste like Bordeaux. I am Bordelais. I shall remain Bordelais and I make the wines that please me. If people want more fruit why not drink Beaujolais?"

He has a point.

I'd classify all the above wines as green (see guide on the RHS)


  1. Very interesting note today, Fiona, worth its while waiting !
    Two short comments: 1) “organic does not mean Middle Age” is a very intelligent remark. I would add: on the contrary !
    2) what about vans and/or lorries travelling miles and miles to get the horses (or mules) on the very spot of their ploughing work ?

  2. Fascinated to read this, as I'm doing a short two day trip round 5 organic vineyards in Bordeaux later this month - to try to find out more about how adoption of organic/biodynamic methods might develop in the region over the next decade.

    It would be interesting to talk to Pontet Canet about this.

  3. Oh, that's fascinating, Simon. I'm hoping to see Pontet Canet in September. Shall be really interested to read about your trip.

    I suspect the chateaux that uses horses probably keep them on the premises Luc but as our winemaker here suggests there are other costs to using them ;-)

  4. I wasn't able to organise Pontet Canet this time round, so likewise will be looking forward to hearing about that. I don't think there is anyone else with full biodynamic certification in the region yet?

  5. Hi Fiona,

    This is a brief article I wrote about the trip: