Before the lockdown, Peter Ranscombe travelled to Bordeaux to visit winemakers who are caring for the environment as well as their vines.
JEAN-BAPTISTE Cordonnier knew he was doing something right when the baby grass snakes started coming back into his kitchen.
His father, Pierre, had farmed the family’s vineyards near Moulis in Bordeaux organically “without knowing it”, explains Jean-Baptiste, pointing to his use of copper and sulphur sprays instead of synthetic chemicals, and his turning of the soil only once every four years.
Then came the “complex” vintage of 1987, when heavy rain led to mildew and rot, pushing Pierre towards the use of chemicals among his vines.
When Jean-Baptiste returned home to his family’s estate after seven years in Belgium and Africa, a very different landscape greeted him.
“When I was at school, one of my projects was to find 50 different species of insects and flowers in the vineyards and it was quick and easy – it wasn’t even possible to find 50 species when I came back,” he explains.
Jean-Baptiste took over the running of the estate from his father in 1993 and slowly set about restoring the balance between the vineyards and nature.
That work culminated last year in Chateau Anthonic receiving organic certification, following three years of conversion from conventional farming.
Being certified as organic means the estate doesn’t use chemical sprays on its vines, instead relying on the age-old treatments based on copper and sulphur.
Organic farming is becoming increasingly common in Bordeaux, with 9% of the region’s vineyards already certified or being converted, with 1% going further to achieve the stricter biodynamic standards.
As well as organic farming, biodynamic vineyards also apply a number of “preparations” made from natural ingredients to strength soil and vine health, and carry out tastes such as harvesting the grapes according to the lunar cycle.
What sets Jean-Baptiste’s estate apart is his focus on “agroforestry” – or incorporating trees and hedges into his vineyards.
While apple and pear trees are dotted around his fields, around half of the trees he has planted are maple; after reading that the maple and the grapevine emerged together from the Middle East around the same time, Jean-Baptiste was keen to exploit their symbiosis, especially their sharing of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil.
Planting trees has brought a range of benefits, from providing wind breaks to raising the temperature in the vineyards to help combat frost.
The birds and the bats
Conventional wisdom dictates that trees are the enemies of vines, sapping nutrients from the soil and providing perches from which birds can swoop down to gobble grapes.
Jean-Baptiste argues that they don’t compete; he trims the branches so they don’t shade the vines either and he says the birds are too busy eating the plethora of bugs in amongst the vines to bother with the fruit.
Indeed, his trees have encouraged bats to return to his estate, munching their way through pests like moths.
Jean-Baptiste has planted cover crops in between the rows of vines to improve the health of his soil and provide a natural fertiliser, with legumes such as peas fixing nitrogen, cereals capturing oxygen and radishes and mustard to work with sulphur.
Like all the best Scottish farmers, he also leaves a margin around the edge of his field to act as a wildlife corridor – allowing the grass snakes he saw in his youth to return to the chateau’s kitchen.
Further south in the Margaux region, another early proponent of agroforestry was Michel Theron at Clos du Jaugueyron, a winemaker from the Languedoc in the south of France who settled in Bordeaux in 1988.
He began making his own wines in 1993 from a single small parcel of land and has since grown to harvest seven hectares.
Michel achieved the strict Demeter biodynamic certification for his wines in 2008.
Standing in the kitchen of his home tucked away among the trees – reminiscent of winemaker Taras Ochota’s little slice of heaven-on-Earth in the forests of the Adelaide Hills in Australia – he explains that, for him, biodynamic express more feeling and emotion.
For him, organic farming is not simply about following rules but instead is about understanding the formation of the soil.
As well as making minimal interventions in the vineyard, Michel is also one of a growing number of winemakers in Bordeaux who make fewer interventions in the winery too.
While I dislike the term “natural winemaking” – it ain’t gonna happen on it’s own, after all – I really believe that minimal intervention winemaking definitely shows off biodynamic and organic fruit at its best, letting those intense and well-defined fruit flavours come to the fore and sing on their own, without being masked by vanilla-laden new oak barrels.
Standing in one of Michel’s newer vineyards, surrounded by trees around the fringes and sprinkled by the descending spring drizzle, his winemaking techniques feel like the ideal way to capture the essence of the environment in which his grapes grow.
March of the ents
Further south again down the long strip of the Medoc as it heads back towards the city of Bordeaux, Pierre Cazneuve stretches his legs in a mud-splattered field that will soon become another vineyard surrounded by trees.
The owner of Chateau Paloumey is keen to experiment with the techniques used by Jean-Baptiste.
Having worked as an environmental engineer, Pierre has a clear passion for caring for his surroundings.
Intriguingly, the land on which his winery and tasting room sits had been planted with vines in the 18th and 19th centuries, before being turned into a gravel quarry during the 1950s.
It was replanted with vines in 1989 and began being converted to organic farming in 2016, around the time Pierre joined the family business.
Engineering is also a key part of the story at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, an estate once owned by Leith wine merchant George Smith – who added his surname to its title – and now in the care of former Olympic skier Daniel Cathiard and his wife, Florence, who sold the family supermarket chain and sports shops in 1989 and bought the chateau the following year.
The chateau’s use of engineering extends from the satellite data gathered about the vigour of its vines through to the drones flying overhead to map its vineyards and break them down into smaller and smaller parcels relating to the underlying soil.
Perhaps its most impressive technological feat is capturing the carbon dioxide produced at the more modern of its two wineries when the grape juice is fermented into alcohol, with the gas turned into sodium bicarbonate.
Yet all that technology sits side-by-side with some very traditional methods too, including horses being used to tend the vineyards in which its white grapes grow and the beautiful sprawling chateau boasting its own cooper, who makes barrels on site – something we seldom manage in the whisky industry in Scotland.
As winemaker Fabien Teitgen explains, the estate may have only gained organic certification officially last year, but it has really been practising organic methods for the past 15 years.
While investment on the scale seen at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte requires cash, it quickly reaps dividends, not only in the quality of the wine, but also in the perception of consumers that are increasingly questioning in the environmental impact of the wines they drink.
I think a canny Scotsman like George Smith would approve.
Six of the best modern Bordeaux wines
Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2012 (£67.50, Cadman Fine Wines)
As complex a Bordeaux as you’ve going to find at this price point, morphing from warm red fruit flavours like raspberry and cherry through sweeter raspberry jam, vanilla and milk chocolate touches and on into more savoury blackcurrant, liquorice and smoked meat notes. Chewy tannins that are crying out for a bit of steak hint at the 60% cabernet sauvignon in the blend, paired with about a third of merlot and topped up with petit verdot.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2016 (equivalent to £90.19, Berry Bros & Rudd)
I was particularly impressed with Fabien Teitgen’s whites, including the 2016, which chasséd from light woodsmoke, apricot and lemon rind on the nose into wet stone notes and a touch of cream on the palate. The finish was warming and almost spicy. I’d love to meet this wine again in five years’ time – or even ten giving the freshness to the acidity, which hints at the longevity that lies ahead.
Clos du Jaugueyron Nout Margaux 2015 (£57.72, Winebuyers.com)
Traditional Bordeaux aromas and flavours but not a touch of the region’s terrifying greenness in sight – instead, this modern interpretation is full of warm coal smoke, blackcurrant, graphite and roast meat on the nose, passing through lively acidity and well-integrated fine tannins on the palate to find a touch of dark chocolate and redcurrant on the finish. Structured, savoury and delicious.
Chateau Anthonic 2016 (£19.95, Corney & Barrow Scotland)
It feels almost perverse to list a wine from before Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier’s full conversion to organic farming, but his 2016 was packed full of bright blackberry, blackcurrant and redcurrant jelly, plus chewy tannins and crisp acidity. Sweet milk chocolate, vanilla and raspberry jam rounded off the finish. The 2019 tasted from the tank was even brighter. I’ve also spied a bottle from the 2012 vintage on Wemyss Bay butcher McCaskie’s website for £19.50, which looks intriguing.
Chateau Paloumey 2014 (£20.18, Vinatis)
Cabernet sauvignon dominates this Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois with around two-thirds of the blend. Fresher red fruit on the nose – centring around redcurrant and raspberry, interwoven with blackcurrant and graphite – leads into darker blackcurrant and blackberry on the palate, alongside sweeter milk chocolate and blackberry jam notes. The fruit is really concentrated and does a better job of balancing the assertive structure form the tannins.
Osamu Uchida Haut Médoc 2018
Perhaps my favourite wine from my most-recent visit to Bordeaux came over dinner in the city at Bo-Tannique. Osamu Uchida is a Japanese winemaker farming a tiny 0.6 hectare plot. His wines has an elegance that’s more reminiscent of Burgundian pinot noir than Bordeaux’s cabernet blends. I’ve not tracked down his 2018 in the UK – yet – but I see Vine Trail has the 2016.
Peter Ranscombe offsets the carbon dioxide emissions from the international flights he takes for his wine trips by paying the Trees For Life charity to plant Scots Pines and other native species near his birthplace in the Highlands – find out more at http://bit.ly/SF_Trees