Reims is the northern most of the two major cities in Champagne, France. Just outside is the rambling farmhouse that is the home and winery of Champagne Francis Boulard. In the farmhouse yard, next to a modern bladder press, is a wooden cask full of a herbal biodynamic preparation that Francis Boulard stirs twice a day.
I visit Francis whenever I can to buy cases of his wine. This time I was with my friend Lisa from Massachusetts and she had brought gift bottles of Westport Rivers’ method champenoise sparkling wine from her home state. Francis regularly meets with likeminded winemakers to compare their Champagnes with sparkling wines from all over the world, so he was delighted with Lisa’s gift. He stuck a ‘back in 1 hour’ sign on the door of his tiny tasting room and we climbed into his battered old car to drive to the vineyards we could see at the crest of a nearby ridge.
There we walked with Francis Boulard through his Pinot Noir vines. The Boulards have been growing grapes since the 1700’s for sale to other wineries until Francis’s father decided they should make their own wine. Francis has now taken over, growing and making excellent Champagne biodynamically. In this wet northerly region thick clumps of weeds grow between rows and Francis spends one or two days every week pulling out by hand the unwanted ones.
“Biodynamics is not new”, he said. “People today have become separated from the land – they buy their vegetables from the supermarket. But the old timers knew you planted your tomatoes when the moon was waxing. Everyone knew such things, it is common sense, not—” he struggles for the correct word in English, shrugs his shoulders and smiles. “Come, let’s taste Champagne,” and we head for his ancient car and rattle down the hill. “Biodynamics... it is life,” he says.
At Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma, California I admired an ‘insectisorium’ set in the heart of their vineyards. A large mound is covered with a multitude of flowering plants that attract ‘good’ bugs that prey on vineyard pests. A herd of sheep keep weeds under control and cattle produce manure, and the cow horns vital in some biodynamic preparations. All of Benziger’s estate vineyards have been certified Biodynamic with Demeter as well as organically certified and Benziger are encouraging their partner grape growers along the organic route.
The Benziger’s haven’t always grown this way. They started out conventionally but came to realise that the land was suffering and in the 1990’s moved to organic and then biodynamic farming.
I think the wines from Benziger and Boulard show the value of their approach.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle and Apple iPad.
Disclosure: Peter F May travelled to Champagne and Sonoma at his own expense and paid full price for all his accommodation, meals, tastings and wines.