The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Nicolas Joly, a Superhero of Biodynamic Wine

Posted on | July 26, 2012 | Written by Camacho Vidal | No Comments

Photo courtesy of Winepictures.com

Awhile back when I had just started working at IWM, I was treated to a small conference that was held in our studio. The speaker was French winemaker Nicolas Joly. At the time, most of the discussion was over my head. I was relatively new to working with wine and had no idea what biodynamic wines were. I listened intently and found the wines I tasted to be interesting. I couldn’t get much from them, but I knew that I liked them.

Nicolas Joly is something of a superstar in the world of natural wine. He started out as an investment banker, but in 1977 he left finance to return to his family’s fabled Coulée de Serrant, a vineyard that comprises its own appellation and was planted by Cistercian monks around 1130. Joly decided that he wanted to make wines that expressed the terrior of Coulée de Serrant. He became skeptical of modern agriculture methods and the effects it had on nature after he took some early advice to use pesticides and fertilizers. Within two years of using them, he witnessed firsthand subtle but noticeable alterations in the vineyards. The color of the soil was changing, and insects like ladybirds were no longer there; he compared the vineyard to a perpetual winter, devoid of life even in the summer.

In the late ‘70s Joly by chance came across a book by Rudolph Steiner on homeopathic/astrological principles of agriculture, and the rest is winemaking history. Joly started working in biodynamics in 1980, and all the vines at the estate have been farmed under biodynamic principles since 1984. Today Joly is called the guru of modern biodynamism and has written many books on the subject.

The back of a Joly bottle

Some of the practices of the biodynamic movement make complete sense, being are as simple as avoiding chemical pesticides and herbicides and trying to establish a sense of natural harmony within the vineyard. Other methodologies feel more obscure, coming from an ancient manuscript that uses the alignment of the stars for planting and harvesting.  Joly continues to study homeopathic remedies to resolve imbalances in his vineyard or fine-tune the annual cycle of his vines. His book Wine from Sky to Earth describes the biodynamic preparation of silica. The farmer grinds quartz into a powder, ages it underground in the horn of a cow, “dynamizes” it in solution by stirring it for more than an hour, first in one direction, then in another. He sprays a dilution of the liquid over the vines to promote the plant’s ability to absorb light. Likewise, the farmer might use teas to convince an expanding population of insects to decamp, to emphasize or diminish an aspect of plant growth in the roots, leaves, flowers, or fruit, or to accelerate or slow the annual cycle of the plant. Maybe these practices seem esoteric, maybe they don’t, but they certainly make for some really good wines.

Les Vieux Clos label

I recently tasted the Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos 2009. Le Vieux Clos (or Clos Sacre in the United States) is 12 acres of vines planted in schist or quartz with some sand. These vineyards include the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant, and are widely considered one of the greatest vineyards of France. The wine’s color is gold or pale orange; it’s not 100-percent clear but it’s clean and very neat. Right out of the bottle, I got some funky sulfur-like notes mixed with green apple and apricot. I felt a little heat on the nose also and plenty of minerality. The mouth-feel provides a tangy texture, and the wine’s pretty closed at first but opens up while the acidity lingers very softly then hits you in the back of the jaw. After a while, the funk dissipates and makes way for smoky aromas. On the third sip, I got traces of vanilla and honey, but the green apple and acidity are present throughout. The wine expands the flavors as it develops in the glass. Although there are some oxidative notes present, it’s not as noticeable as I first expected. As with all good wines, the last sip was the best; this one showed hints of caramel almond appearing on the finish.

Something interesting that I just found is that Joly is beginning to experiment with using clay amphorae, giant clay pots are handmade in Georgia, like the ones that are currently being used by Friuli’s Josko Gravner, who is also one of my favorite winemakers. “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,” said Joly in a recent interview on another blog. 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.”  I can’t wait to try the first of these Joly amphora wines.

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