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A man of principle

Nicolas Joly converted his vineyard to biodynamic methods long before 'organic' became fashionable in winemaking. BEVERLEY BLANNING MW visits his Loire estate to meet the man behind the principles

Nicolas Joly converted his vineyard to biodynamic methods long before ‘organic’ became fashionable in winemaking. BEVERLEY BLANNING MW visits his Loire estate to meet the man behind the principles

If a Speaker’s Corner existed for winemakers, Nicolas Joly would surely be the first person up on his soap box. His evangelical zeal in advocating biodynamic methods as the only route to ‘true’ wine is at once fascinating, far-fetched and controversial. Here is a man who considers irrigation ‘absurd’ and proclaims clones ‘a lie to the diversity of life’. A master of the sweeping statement, one might be tempted to dismiss Joly as one of the wine world’s more amusing eccentrics. But his wines are no laughing matter. From a 7ha (hectare) site in the Loire Valley, Joly

produces one of France’s finest dry white wines, the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant. Is there some truth behind the rhetoric? Is it just a great site? Or is Joly simply a very good winemaker? Fiery-eyed and slightly unkempt in appearance, sporting Birkenstock sandals and a safari shirt, Nicolas Joly cuts the figure of an Indiana Jones-type explorer rather than a provincial French winemaker. He will happily talk for hours about the theories of biodynamics, but is reluctant to speak of his own role as winemaker. ‘It is ridiculous to call oneself a winemaker. I prefer “nature assistant”,’ he insists. Joly is not a winemaker by training, which perhaps explains his refreshing lack of enthusiasm for showing off his cellar equipment. Instead, he appears more in his element sitting in his capacious library, wth quotable tomes to hand, animatedly explaining his views on everything from biodynamics to religion.

Nicolas Joly came to wine via an MBA and a career in finance which took him to Canada, the United States and London. In 1977 he made the decision that he would prefer to spend his life ‘free and in peace, rather than rich and enslaved’. So he returned to run the vineyard that had been bought and managed by his mother since 1961. He came across the ideas of Rudolph Steiner, the founder of the biodynamic movement, by chance. As a relative newcomer to agriculture, Joly had accepted the received wisdom that chemical fertilisers were the modern way to grow grapes effectively. After two or three years, he noticed that the ladybirds and partridges had disappeared from his vineyard, and so considered an alternative approach.

Biodynamics is often treated by sceptics as the voodoo of modern viticulture. In addition to shunning chemical treatments in the same way as organic producers, the followers of biodynamic principles actively treat their soil with homeopathic doses of natural preparations. They also plan any activity in their vineyards according to the movements of the sun, moon and planets in order to harness the earth’s natural energies to the full.

working with nature

In 1980 Joly began to introduce biodynamic principles to the vineyard, and since 1985 it has been cultivated entirely biodynamically. He grows herbs between the rows of vines and has his own herd of cows for natural fertiliser. Most of the biodynamic preparations he uses are grown in the vineyard. He also leaves part of the vineyard area wild for birds. So did it take him long to get to grips with biodynamics? ‘The biodynamic principles are not so difficult,’ he explains, ‘but what is difficult is to develop feelings for the earth where you are, in order to apply those principles effectively. There is no recipe.’ Is he really convinced that biodynamics makes any difference? ‘I would say that the wines are now two to three times better. From 1988 onwards, the wines have been noticeably different. Before this time, the acidity was rather harsh. I think you have to believe in what you do. I was convinced before, but now I have proof.’Joly is now one of the most articulate and passionate exponents of biodynamic viticulture. He believes that chemicals, yeasts and enzymes (‘cosmetics!’) make the production of ‘true wine’, namely wine which is true to its origins, impossible. He is vehement in his attacks on chemical

fertilisers, and on the ‘dead soil’ that results from their extended use. He believes that they weaken the vine and fundamentally disturb photosynthesis.

‘Basically, there are two approaches. The first has the goal of elimination of all bacteria. This leads to a sterile planet. The alternative is balance – this is life as it should be. Some disease is good, normal – it highlights weakness.’ He is particularly critical of the rules governing rootstock production. By law, rootstocks have to be grown in disinfected soil, ‘so we can be absolutely sure that there is no life in the soil. In one gramme of healthy soil there should be one billion living organisms. It is a twisted intellectuality.’ This is one of the factors he believes is leading to the loss of AC character in wines.

Often invited to expound his views, Joly is reluctant to devote less than a full day to his audience. This might seem excessive, but consider the subject matter. We are not really talking about viticulture, or even agriculture here, but an approach to life itself. ‘Life is not tangible’, he begins, ‘life is not made of matter, but of frequencies. We can slow them down or increase them. Followers of organics just let nature do its job. But with biodynamics we try to enhance the energies of life, to help the plant “catch” more life forces’. These are not simple concepts to grasp, but Joly believes this is because we have lost the knowledge of our ancestors. ‘The way people used to look at plants is so different from how we view them today. This [he seizes Culpepper’s Complete Herbal] is a treasure.’ One gets the impression that Joly is perhaps lost in the past, yearning for a world where families worked small parcels of land by hand, and all wines were true to their origins. He is opposed to modern farming of huge surfaces of vines (‘monoculture is the enemy of life’), but denies that he is against conventional views of progress. ‘Tractors and electricity have undoubtedly been very beneficial. Even clones are technically very useful, but very boring – imagine the conversation in a room full of identical people!’ His major complaint about progress is that it is made for economic reasons rather than to improve quality. ‘In this respect, biodynamics itself is progress. Each time we make a decision, we have to bear in mind how much it will affect or increase life.’

family fortunes

Joly lives with his family in an old monastery, picturesquely situated in a hollow behind the vineyard of the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant. (The vineyard was originally planted by Cistercian monks in 1130 and has been continuously under vine since this time.) It is a peaceful and beautiful place. Under the roof of a well in the courtyard a candle is burning. ‘I keep it alight always’, he says. ‘The energy of a well is so positive’. In front of the house is a well-kept vegetable garden, which is also home to some of the herbs he uses for preparations in the vineyard. It is an idyllic spot and, he is pleased to report, ‘out of range of any mobile phone network’. At night he switches off all his electricity, saying it disturbs his sleep. Despite his garrulous nature, Joly talks little of himself. He claims to have no pride in his work, nor is he satisfied with what he has achieved. How would he like others to think of him? ‘I don’t mind. I just try to explain things. I feel driven to do what I do.’ One gets the impression he does not spend too much time worrying about what the rest of the world thinks of him. Idealistic in his views, his conversation is nevertheless peppered with ominous predictions: ‘There will be a drastic increase in new diseases… We are paying the debts of the past… The whole world is sick’. He is not, however, remotely gloomy: ‘I am an optimist,’ he claims, adding cheerily, ‘but things are worse than we think.’ Does his zeal spill over into religion, I wonder? ‘I was baptised as a Buddhist 20 years ago. Now, I consider myself a deep Christian, but I’m not interested in formal religion.’ He is also wholly committed to Rudolph Steiner’s holistic belief system, anthroposophy, and reads Steiner or similar texts every night.

Talking to Nicolas Joly is mentally exhausting, yet it is hard to imagine a more compelling communicator for the ideas behind biodynamics. The challenge to conventional thinking about viticulture is immense, and he tackles the task with an energy and enthusiasm that both demand attention.

Joly is right: he is not a winemaker. He is a thinker, a talker and an idealist, with a captivating passion for his work. His wine is simply the end result of a much greater process. But for all his controversial views, Nicolas Joly is really no different from any ‘true’ winelover. ‘Every place on earth has a different face,’ he says. ‘True wine should reflect this.’ Now who can argue with that?

Beverley Blanning became a Master of Wine in 2001 and is a freelance wine writer.


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