As transparency becomes more important to a wider audience of wine drinkers, a growing number of small producers are turning to more principled methodologies. Conventions of the last half of the Twentieth Century were too often geared toward a higher vine yield, a more consistent finished product and a greater stability for worldwide shipping. That means artificial chemical fertilizers, mechanized plowing and harvesting, heavy manipulations in the cellar (adding sugar, acid, industrial yeast, tannin extract, etc.) and an increased use of sulfites. The effect isn't just unromantic, it's also commodified the experience of wine and severed the link between land and table. Sound familiar? After all, wine is a food stuff, an agricultural product, and has been through many of the same cycles as our produce over the last 75 years.
The last decade, however, has seen the rise of authentically natural farming and production methods. In some ways it's a return to the old, in other ways it's a radical approach that challenges authority in places where convention reigns supreme.
Biodynamics might be the most extreme category of conscientious viticulture, but it also seems to be the most sharply rising in popularity. Nowhere as much as France. Well, France excluding Bordeaux, that is.
With a reputation as the wine world's sweater-clad grandpa, the one you have to yell at for him to hear you from two feet away, who occasionally still mutters something so wise and brilliant you promise yourself to stop being such an idiot and call the old fart more often, Bordeaux has been a little slower than its neighbors in embracing the trend. That doesn't mean it won't, and it doesn't mean Bordeaux at its finest is anything less than transcendent, it just means in a land managed by traditionalists and financed by multinational corporations, fundamental changes in method will not come quickly.
Enter a few headstrong youngsters in the under-rated interior of the Right Bank.
Chateau Peybonhomme Les Tours "Crus Bourgeois" - Cotes de Blaye ($16) Things changed for Jean-Luc and Catherine Hubert one night in December 1999, when lightning struck (literally) and a strong wind blew down several of the sickly trees surrounding their vineyards. They decided then and there, at the sight of the devastation, to convert to a farming practice that encourages biodiversity and strength. Today it's one of the most important properties in the Cotes de Blaye. The chalky subsoils lend the wine a texture of fine-grained tannins, and despite being dominated by merlot, the cabernet franc asserts itself fully. A truly expressive wine with a tender, savory appeal.
Chateau La Grolet - Cotes de Bourg ($16) The second property from the Hubert family, who has lately become a bellwether in the Right Bank. The Grolet is predominated by merlot, and in this expression is youthful, powerful and more ripe than the Peybonhomme. Dark fruits fill the glass, a ruby red color shimmers all the way to the rim, and the spicy richness of the wine begs for hardy red meats.
Chateau Le Puys "Duc des Nauves" ($18) This property sits on the same rock structure as its very important neighbors, Pomerol and St. Emilion. And with 500 years of continuous farming by the Amoreau family, you'd think they'd feel the limitations of tradition. Instead, the current generation of Amoreau vignerons has, like the Huberts, become Demeter certified and is reaching new heights as a result. This wine, also predominated by merlot, is a youthful powerhouse. Richly layered red fruits dominate the nose, but the unfined unfiltered fullness of the wine is only apparent with the intensity of the midpalate. Demeter certified (like the Hubert properties) and righteously self-assured in its Right Bank provenance.
Taste for yourself this Saturday, January 11, 3-5pm.