Gerard Bertrand empire embraces 15 wineries, and it is the largest in Europe in terms of vineyard area cultivated in a biodynamic way. This is astonishing 850 hectares of vines. I talked with Gilles de Baudus, winery manager and biodynamics specialist how this project started and what is its present and future.
You started to implement biodynamic principles at Cigalus estate in 2002. Where did this idea come from, and how did it develop?
Before joining the team of Gerard Bertrand, I worked for a long time at Domaine Ott in Provence. This winery has been practicing organic viticulture for many years. They generally never used herbicides, for example. When I met Gerard, he was already passionate about the ideas of biodynamics. In 2002, it was rather strange; many spoke about it in a very mystical, philosophical manner.
The main question was whether we would be able to combine this esoterical part of biodynamics with practical winegrowing, our knowledge of terroir and wine-making techniques. Later it turned out that to truly introduce biodynamics in the vineyards, you need to forget everything that you were previously taught. If you try to follow biodynamics, based on the principles of conventional or organic farming, nothing will come of it. It will not be a real thing. The first idea to accept is that the natural world lives according to its own rules, which are often incomprehensible to us.
What difficulties did you encounter when you started this project?
First of all, it was challenging to change my way of thinking and my vision. You can read a book or attend a conference, but the most important thing is to observe the soil, nature, plants and try to understand them. It is strange and unusual. We must stop imposing our will on the plant; we must observe the process. The process is a critical word here. One must strive to find balance. Rudolf Steiner wrote about this; he tried to describe all the forces that interact in nature, he was looking for the Great Law that governs everything in the world, the energy of the earth and the energy of the planets, which we can try to direct in the way we need.
What technical steps did you take to switch to biodynamics?
You need to understand that all the wineries of Gerard Bertrand group are independent in the way they work in the vineyards and in the cellar. Therefore, each domain has its own story. We are now in Château L’Hospitalet, almost on the seashore, at an altitude of 15-30 meters above sea level. It is humid; the soil has a lot of limestone and clay, which retains the water very well. Here we grow typical Mediterranean grape varieties. At Domaine de l’Aigle in Limoux, for example, we have different, “northern” varieties (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), the winery is at about 500 meters above sea level. In general, each winery has its own path and its own practices.
In biodynamics, a large number of special “preparations” are used, infusions which are based on cow manure, herbs, and minerals. Do you prepare them yourselves or buy them?
Now we satisfy our needs for 80-90%. Initially, it was not evident that this was important. We used to buy plants and compost, but then we realized that what we put in our soil is very important. Now we have three spots where we compost, and it is different, depending on the type of soil which it will be used for. At the moment, we cannot provide the compost for all our 850 hectares of vineyards, but this is our goal for the coming years.
As for the herbal infusions, there is not a single supplier in Europe who would be able to provide us with the required amount. Therefore, 7-8 years ago, we began to produce everything ourselves. Now we are making the preparation 500 based on manure aged in a cow horn, and 501 based on quartz. Recently we bought a drying chamber to prepare the herbs correctly for our infusions.
During all this time, did you make any decision that you regret, which was later declared incorrect?
I think that in the first three years in biodynamics I made all possible mistakes. That is why later we hired a consultant who accompanied us for 12 years. You can imagine spraying only 7 grams of horn quartz per hectare, and this is a coffee spoon, you can completely stop the growth of leaves and green mass of the vine! It seems unbelievable, but we are working with forces that are many times more powerful than we are. Every year I learn something. And if one day I say that I finally understood everything, at that very moment I will begin to make mistakes again.
Does climate change somehow affect the way you conduct your biodynamic viticulture?
Absolutely! In biodynamics, each of the plants used has its effect. For example, when it is very hot, we use yarrow, when the weather is very dry, we use nettle infusion, when some natural disasters occur, traumatizing the vines, such as hail or frost, we spray valerian. Each plant has its own purpose, and this herbal medicine is crucial in biodynamics and helps us to cope with extreme weather phenomena. But it is also essential to have the right winegrowing practices. Biodynamics does not work miracles if you have no good order in the vineyard.
How do you cultivate the land in the vineyards? Do you use tractors or animals? What do you think of the land plowing discussion?
At 3 out of 15 wineries, we use mules to plow the land. As for tillage, this is a big problem for us. We are in a very arid climate, and if we allow the grass to grow freely in the vineyards, this will stimulate a tough fight for water between the vine and other plants. The vines will suffer. That’s why the land must be plowed. Also, when the earth is loose, there is not much evaporation that allows you to preserve water at the roots of the vines. But we understand that bare soil is a problem, therefore, in those periods of the year, when it is possible, we try to maintain grass cover in the vineyards. In late September, we will sow a particular set of herbs that will help the soil to recover and saturate it with the necessary elements. This cover will remain in the vineyards until the end of April.
You have a Demeter certificate. How does this organization control the winery?
The Demeter specification applies not only to viticulture but also to the cultivation of other fruits and vegetables. A prerequisite is the use of each biodynamic preparation (500, 501 and compost Maria Thun) at least once a year. But in reality, you need to apply much more. For example, we use horn manure four times a year, horn quartz – 5 times, 15-17 different herbal infusions. Demeter gives a lot of freedom in terms of choosing practices based on individual natural conditions and ecosystems.
Many criticize organic and biodynamic viticulture because of the elevated use of copper, a heavy metal that accumulates in the soil. What do you think about this?
In organic farming, it is allowed to use an average of 4.5 kilograms of copper per year, in biodynamics 3 kilograms. Many will say that it’s a lot anyway. I think that the effect of copper is not yet fully understood. The conventional approach uses substances that are much more harmful than copper. Nevertheless, it is necessary to look for solutions on ways to reduce the use of copper and, in general, eliminate it in the future. We use an average of 2.2-2.5 kilograms per year and conduct a lot of research to reduce this amount.
Can you tell apart a biodynamic wine and a conventional wine in a blind tasting? Is there a difference in taste?
I believe there is. It is, first of all, the balance of the wine, bright acidity, and fruitiness, pure varietal aroma.
Now everyone is discussing the amount of sulfites in wine. Is it that important? Do they affect the taste of wine?
Yes, of course, sulfur changes the wine. We have a range of sulfite-free wines in which you can feel the whole expression of the variety. When we switched to biodynamics, we changed our approach in the cellar. For example, in Cigalus we have three white varieties – Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. So, for Chardonnay and Viognier, we stopped adding sulfur before fermentation, which leads to the initial oxidation of the must. The components undesirable for us, the ones giving grassy, ”green” notes in the wine, polymerize and precipitate during the settling, the must becomes more stable, which allows us adding much less sulfur than before during aging in barrels. As for Sauvignon, it is much more prone to oxidation, and to maintain varietal aromatics, we have to use dry ice and sulfur dioxide. Besides, at all stages of production, we try to minimize the contact of the must and wine with oxygen, which, in the end, allows us to use less sulfur.
Are “natural” wines interesting for you? Is it a fashion and a long-term trend?
Firstly, what are “natural” wines? In France, we do not yet have a clear definition. Secondly, the philosophy of “doing nothing” is very tempting, but, unfortunately, even if you did everything correctly in the vineyard, sometimes problems arise in the cellar. Fermentation does not take the right direction, and you have to step in; otherwise, faults appear, which, in our opinion, negatively affect the quality of the wine. Our philosophy is to interfere as little as possible, but sometimes it is necessary. I do not criticize “natural” wines, but this is not my way.
I would like to extend my sincere gratitude and appreciation to all “Gerard Bertrand” team for the organization of the visit and the warmest welcome!