In the heart of south-west France, an English man leads a revolution in wine production, creating fruitful vineyards using ancient, biodynamic methods. Mary Novakovich meets Robert Eden and his horses.
It’s a strange sight watching someone get excited about manure. “Everything that’s gone into this is biodynamic,” says Robert Eden, proudly showing off a large pile of manure on his Languedoc vineyard. He even picks up a large handful of the stuff and holds it out towards me so I can get a better look. Oddly, it hardly smells. I suppose that’s what comes with feeding horses nothing but biodynamic feed, grown on healthy, chemical-free fields.
Robert bought the 40-hectare vineyard in 1997 in La Liviniere, in the Minervois region, north-east of Carcassonne, intending to produce organic wines. He had a massive task on his hands, however, as the previous owner had overworked the land considerably. “I inherited a lot of sick vines and dead soil,” recalls Robert.
He went organic so that the soil could have a chance to rejuvenate itself but, after the first couple of years, he wanted to take a more holistic approach and decided to go down the biodynamic route. It’s a choice that is becoming more popular in France – and in Britain.
The philosophy has been around since the 1920s, when the social thinker Rudolf Steiner first developed the principles of biodynamic farming. Emphasis is on the natural ecosystem that exists between the soil and its plants, without the need for anything as alien and harmful as chemicals. Herbs such as valerian and camomile are used as fertilisers, and the vines share the space with plants that act as natural weed killers and pesticides. A very common example is planting rose bushes beside the vines: any potential blight shows up in the roses first, giving the wine-grower a chance to act before the disease affects the vines themselves.
A fundamental element of biodynamic farming, and one that raises the eyebrows of sceptics, is the principle of planting and harvesting according to lunar cycles. It might sound strange to modern ears, but for centuries peasant farmers have been using the moon as their guide for sowing and harvesting.
It does make for rather unusual working hours, though. “It’s definitely not a nine-to-five job,” laughs Robert. “In fact, it’s not a job at all – it’s a lifestyle, especially when sometimes you have to be up at 3am to catch the moon at the right time for planting.”
The lopsided timetable is in keeping with a general air of eccentricity about the place. Robert’s two Percheron horses (a French version of the shire horse) stand in a paddock beside the huge barn in which the wine production takes place. Karabi and Malicieuse (whose nature apparently suits her name perfectly) not only contribute to the manure pile but also plough several of the fields using a bizarre contraption
Robert threw together using various bits and bobs that were lying around. “I designed it myself,” he says with a grin. “It’s the only one of its kind.” Indeed.
He intends to get rid of all motorised vehicles on the vineyard eventually. In the meantime, a rickety old tractor works the rest of the land. But even that is powered by oil made from rapeseed which grows on what would have been a fallow field.
Nothing, it seems, goes to waste here. This was something I noticed on the journey to the vineyard in the heart of Languedoc. Many of the hillsides are covered in wind farms, which harness the incredibly strong wind that blows in the region.
Just as Provence has the infamous mistral, Languedoc has the tramontane, which is extremely vicious at certain times of the year. It’s just as well that the French don’t have much of an aversion to wind farms and consider them to be a vital (and often beautiful) part of the landscape.
Back in Robert’s barn, I’m given a taste of some of the unfinished wine, accompanied by the heady smell of fermenting grapes. Robert grows syrah and grenache for his Chateau Maris label, which you can find in Britain in Waitrose and Oddbins, among others. Even at this early stage of the production, the wine is full of flavour and hints at wonders to come.
They come later when I taste the finished syrah he sells as Les Vielles Vignes du Chateau Maris. It is full bodied and delicious. I’m not enough of a wine connoisseur to taste the difference between biodynamic and non-biodynamic wine, but it’s obvious that the work Robert and his staff put into the production is definitely worth it.
It seems Robert has finally found his niche after several decades roaming around the world’s wine regions. The great-nephew of former British prime minister Anthony Eden, Robert developed his taste for wine-making during a picaresque journey from Australia to Languedoc, via Tuscany, Burgundy and Bordeaux. He recalls the time when he first managed to persuade local French staff to come and work for him. “They got a bad reputation around here because they were working for ‘that mad Englishman’ who was guided by the moon,” he says.
“But then when things started to work out, all the old grandfathers would nod their heads and say, ‘Ah, well, that’s how we’ve always done it’.”
The history of organic wine
Organic wine has long been something of a poor relation to other organic products: somewhere at the thin end of a wedge which has babyfood, meat, dairy products and vegetables at its thick end.
While most households in Britain will have bought organic foods at some point, most will not have bought organic wine. There are many reasons why this is so; arguably the most significant is that wine is already seen as an innately ‘pure’ product, free from additives and adulteration.
The image has been consolidated by the absence of any serious wine-related scares – with the shocking exception of the so-called ‘anti-freeze’ scandal in Austria in 1985.
Wine has also enjoyed exemption from mandatory ingredient labelling. Drinkers who are keen to have some basic reassurance about the provenance of their glass of wine are increasingly switching to organic at a time when production worldwide is increasing and quality year on year is rising.
Put simply, there’s a much wider choice available now and many of the previously well-intentioned but inexpert producers have either sold up or sought help in improving their quality.
The market for organic wine (particularly strong in Germany, the USA and Japan, as well as northern Europe in general) has grown to the point where it can demand the quality it expects.
Despite a strong tide pulling in the direction of biodynamic production (now increasingly common, especially in Burgundy, the Rhône Valley and Alsace) with organic producers eager to ‘take the next step’ and wine journalists often mesmerised by the results being achieved, this has yet to translate into significant consumer demand.
Biodynamic wines are more notable for their quality than their budget pricing so in these troubled times their market share is likely to remain small for a while longer.
What’s on the shelves?
Any supermarket worth its own-label salt stocks organic wines these days but the range is very limited and of necessity excludes many of the smaller and more interesting producers. Specialist importers like Vinceremos have many years of experience in this field and offer a far wider and more varied selection, with almost every kind of organic wine you could wish to buy as well as a good range of biodynamic wine.
Look out in particular for the delicious Italian range from Fasoli, highly respected and award-winning Spanish wines from Albet i Noya in Penedes (including some excellent cavas), sumptuous biodynamic Rhône reds from Montirius and a selection of superb Riojas from Bodegas Bagordi.
Jem Gardener is organic wine director, importer and wholesaler
Tel: 0800 107 3086 (UK only)
• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in April 2009