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Natural Burgundy, Two of the Greats!

Natural Wine Burgundy

Athenais de Beru

Although some are not convinced by natural wines, most people agree that the wines made by Athenais at the magnificent Chateau de Beru in Chablis are pretty amazing and delicious.  When you visit the Chateau, you are awed by the grandeur of the place; this is very obviously old aristocratic France and the family name which is that of the small Hamlet where the Chateau is located goes back centuries.  They have been making Chablis at the Chateau de Beru since 1627!  You can stay there at the B&B and it is really magical.  The Chateau surrounds a large courtyard with an unusual little bar by the entrance that they open on weekends for locals and tourists and sell their delicious Chablis at a bargain price.  The bedrooms overlook the stunning walled vineyard of the Clos Beru where the best Chardonnay is produced and beyond the Clos, one looks across to where the single vineyard sites of Cotes aux Pretes and Montserre lie across the hillside.  The clarity of light is dazzling and the feeling there is of stepping back in time whilst basking in luxury and pleasure.

There are 15 hectares of vineyard, since 2010 farmed according to biodynamic principles.  The domaine itself has only Chardonnay planted although Athenais producers a small amount of wine through her negociant business including some delicious Pinot Noir from the Cotes d’Auxerre a little further north.

Athenais has battled adversity to establish herself as one of the leading natural wine makers in Burgundy.  She is determined and opinionated and her belief that biodynamics are the only alternative for quality and the future comes from her intelligence and experience.

“For me, cultivating with respect for the land and the environment has always been essential; it’s a philosophy and a global way of living for me.  We question what we consume, what happens around us and the importance of the seasons. For me biodynamics is a much stronger connection with nature, how to use the natural force of the vine and transfer it to our wines.  The other pragmatic aspect of this is, being in the vineyards every day; we don’t want to spray disgusting products on our heads!”

Athenais’ understanding of vines and wine production came after taking over the vineyard from her Father, who several years earlier had become seriously ill and handed the wine production over to a farmer who sold the grapes instead of making the wine.  The vineyard had been run with conventional methods and commercial yields in some cases as high 120 hectolitres per hectare, well over the yield necessary to make quality wine.  Athenais saw the only way forward was natural production if she was to revive the land and the quality of the Chateau’s wine.

“You have to find balance and it takes time, it took several years for our vines and soils to recover from years of conventional farming and at first, it was very difficult, we had to go back in order to go forward. Biodynamics completely changes your vision in the winery and changes the wine.  From the first vintage, we saw things evolve, each year we had grapes with greater balance, more energy, more potential, it is a blessing. For example we have observed that the wines develop a kind of immune system so they don’t oxidise as easily when in contact with the air.  From the moment we began to vinify naturally, many living organisms began to coexist because we don’t destroy them. We don’t fine, we add very little of any sulphur, the wine has greater natural stability, greater balance, and doesn’t develop nasty bacteria. I’m tempted to say that now after 10 years, while remaining vigilant, I feel that we can watch the wines make themselves serenely.”

For this talented wine maker, it is not only her own struggle for balance which has preoccupied her over the last ten years.  Athenais is very vocal about what has become a major problem for the quality level in Chablis in general, a wine which should rank amongst the world’s finest but that can be bought for next to nothing in the supermarkets. Athenais wants to break from this characterization that has made the wines of the region symbols of industrial viticulture, standardized juices meant for a mass market.  In his book, Adventures on the wine route, Kermit Lynch, the famous American importer, said that ‘loving Chablis is like falling in love with a frigid floozy.  You begin to wonder if the rewards are worth the heartbreak and deception.’ One could arguably say the same about many of the great appellations of France.

“In Chablis not many work organically, we are in the Resistance; people are hostile towards the natural approach. I think it is a mixture of jealousy and fear of change.  Chablis has become a very standardized product.  It must be said that yields of over 100 hectolitres per hectare are frightening, there’s a hidden market that sustains this volume, when one makes too much they sell to one who has made too little, crop reports say everyone is at 60 hectolitres per hectare, one wonders where this comes from.  I have been denouncing this system for years but it isn’t pleasant, I am at war with everyone!  The brand of Chablis sells whatever it is and so growers are not motivated to produce quality, they sell they grapes to a coop and get a premium price so when you say, produce less and improve quality, they stare at you and say, ‘but why?’.  Unless they have this crazy idea to respect the environment and desire to make great wines, they have no motivation to change; it makes no sense to them.”

This battle against the tide of opinion cannot be easy especially in the close knit community of wine growers so Athenais has had to be strong and forthright.  Fortunately, she has supporters and like minded growers fighting the good fight with her.  It also helps that she makes wines which are simply gorgeous.  She is also critical of the appellation set up in Chablis and the fact that standardized, industrial over production has devalued what were once and should be noble terroirs.  Producers make a fortune on their supposedly great vineyard sites, designated 1er Cru or Grand Cru but in reality, these soils are wasted and the wines are dull at best.

“It’s a bit like Champagne, the wines have a certain taste and the clients (for the last 40 years) have become attached to that.  The production is standardized with many interventions, machine harvests, plenty of sulphites, added yeasts, fining, filtering etc but that standard taste pleases (the masses).  In the production, there are not bad wines but I think the great Crus of Chablis are wasted terroirs.  The taste difference between village and Cru Chablis is minimal and one prefers the village!  But there are lots of geological differences in Chablis so there is the potential to do wonder.  Sadly, overall the quality level is not there with the Grand Crus.”

Athenais has lived in Paris, travelled extensively in South America and elsewhere in Europe and finally she returned to her family home to revive the work of her father who sadly passed away before being able to witness the accomplishments of his daughter.  ‘I didn’t have anyone to teach me, I would have loved to have learnt it all with my Father’.  He would have been very proud, her wines surely now rank as some of the best if not the best in Chablis and grace the best restaurant tables across Europe.  After 10 years of her own personal journey of discovery, she has found balance in her work and her vineyards and her wines reflect her as a person.  They are stylish, distinctive, pure, honest and absolutely sublime to drink.  Buy some and finally you will taste what is true Chablis and why is a one of the world’s most fantastic wines.

Have a look at the wines from Athenais

Emmanuel Giboulot

Emmanuel Giboulot is a softly spoken man who doesn’t like to attract attention.  He is never happier than when caressing his soils and tending to his vines in the low hills above Beaune.  So it was ironic fate that saw him end up in the media spotlight with one million people signing a petition on his behalf and the nation’s press hounding him for interviews.  This was because although quiet, Emmanuel is a principled man and he would not change his natural approach to farming for anything or anyone, not even the powers that be in Burgundy or even the French state.

Giboulot was born into a peasant family.  Hi father had livestock, a few vines, fruit tress etc.  His Father initially succumbed to the temptations of modern agriculture and used weed killers, fertilisers and chemicals when they became available in the 1950s.  But in the late 60s, he attended a seminar on organic farming and was transformed.  He converted the whole estate so Emmanuel grew up knowing only organic and natural farming and the vines have been cultivated organically for nearly half a century.

Like Athenais de Beru, Emmanuel has experienced rejection and even some hostility towards his natural approach and in the past, it was not always easy to explain the wines or sell them.

“The fact of being organic was always a bit of a handicap, we were a little in the spotlight, maybe there was also a bit paranoia on my part, I remember people were always a little taken aback when I said we were organic.  That has changed now. But I have vivid memories, one time at a show in Troyes, a man comes in and says, ‘serve me a Chambertin’, well I served him a Gevrey Chambertin Village, (Giboulot has never had a Grand Cru), I tell him a little about it and say, ‘by the way it’s organic’.  The guy stare at me, raises his glass to look at the wine, turns round and leave without saying a word!”

Despite these difficulties, Emmanuel like many of his contemporaries had no doubt that was he was doing was right; it was simply the only way to produce wine in his mind.  That said, he is not an out and out natural wine maker and his views on what has become the ‘Phenomenon’ of natural wine are illuminating.

“I spent the evening with some Danes the other day, the guys were raving about the wine we were drinking when to me, it was obviously cider, it could not be wine.  The concept of natural wine depends on how you define it.  Does it mean organic or biodynamic farming?  Then in the cellar, being as respectful as possible, avoiding a certain number of things?  If that is true, there are people who would put me in this natural category and that suits me fine.  But if the definition is oxidised or reduced wine or wine full of Brettanomyces (a bacteria that grows in the wine giving it a musty aroma) and volatile acidity then I don’t I make natural wine.”

His opinions on the use of sulphites are also interesting.  This is a hot topic in the world of natural wine production and also it is something which consumers are beginning to understand and ask questions about.  In our shop, 5 years ago, nobody even knew there were sulphites in wine and certainly never asked for low sulphur wine.  Now, we are often asked to recommend a low or no sulphite wine.  We have to then explain the whole thing carefully as there is still plenty of misunderstanding bit nevertheless, consumers are now buying in to the concept of natural wine being healthier this trend is only going to continue.  Giboulot is in my mind a natural wine maker but his ideas about sulphur would be very different many natural producers.

“I sulphur my wines.  I have been making tests with sulphur free wines for a few years but it is still work in progress.  I don’t make sulphur free wine, I make wine.  I had problems with VA (volatile acidity) in the past, without sulphur, at the moment, it is impossible.  With my reds, we have about 40-50mg/litre SO2 in total, with whites 60-80, (these are still low levels.  I used to be much lower but when I tasted the wines with a bit of bottle age, I found that they had evolved too quickly, white wines with 35 mg/litre after 3 years tasted like they were 6 years old.  If we were in a region where wines should be drunk quickly then that would be ok, but Burgundy is not like that.  The wine needs to be easy to drink young but also capable of lasting.” 

So Emmanuel is a pragmatist when it comes to sulphur use in his wines and what he is looking for is the highest of quality and authenticity.  But when it comes to his care for the land, there is no compromise in this wine maker.  In June 2013, he refused to follow the Cote d’Or mayoral ordinance requiring preventative treatment of the vines against Flavescence Doree, a disease transmitted by an insect of the cicada family.  He stood up against the administration and was sentenced at the first trial only to be acquitted on appeal a year later after a petition with over one million signatures was produced.  He became instantly notorious to some and a hero to others and was seen as the symbol of the fight against the misuse of pesticides.  His feelings on the matter are typically matter of fact, he didn’t set out to be a hero, he just simply stuck his beliefs and the commitments he made when he became a wine maker.

“Dominique Lafon (of the Comtes de Lafon winery) had intervened in the same spirit as me.  We didn’t want to appear conservative or intolerant.  They wanted to make an example that you don’t mess with the law.  The problem is inconsistency from the law makers and society is calling for a different agricultural model, one based on greater trust between producer and consumer, it is about that, not about Gibolout.  I became the focal point but more than that, people are fed up of being taken for idiots.  There is a real Omerta when we talk about pesticides, you cannot question the system.  It is essential to change the agricultural system so it becomes closer to the consumer.” 

Giboulot stuck to his principles and won but his aim wasn’t notoriety although he was pleased that the exposure of the story has had some real positive effects on some growers and has also raised Burgundy’s profile as a region fighting for natural production, a land of Resistance.  Since the storm has settled, Giboulot has continued the fight in his own small way, not with the media attention and fanfare but with everyday gestures and communication with consumers and wine makers everywhere.

When drinking his wines, the purity, the honesty, the style is extremely evident.  Whites are elegant, imperceptible and clean.  Reds are fresh, taught, delicately woven and feminine.  Oak use is now exclusively old barrels and Giboulot I am told is one who virtually never chaptalises his red wines even in very tricky vintages.  That honest sourness of pure Pinot Noir is satisfying and moreish.

His wines are no doubt some of Burgundies finest and as the desire for natural wine grows, so surely will his reputation.

“There is no single way to define great Burgundy but, first of all, I would say it is a wine made with respect for the soil, and for practises that value the place, so each location has an identity.  But its not just the geological history that counts, there’s also the very old culture of the vine and wine in this region, of transmission through gesture.  We build the living; we build things through repetition, that’s the artisan’s gesture.  I strongly believe in it.”

Have a look at Giboulot's wines.

Quotations and information sourced from 'Between the Vines', by Gauillaume Laroche, Frederic Henry and Harry Annoni.