Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night can stay these Bordelaises about their fashion.

Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night can stay these Bordelaises about their fashion.

I’m starting to notice that there is no correlation between Bordelais fashion and climate. Remember that photo from swelter-y August when I first arrived? Apparently I missed the memo informing of the local uniform, as the skinny jeans and sockless ballet flats are still in evidence as the temperature approaches freezing. Perhaps it’s the steady diet of wine, coffee and cigarettes which has some impact of internal body temperature regulation? Whatever it is, I’m definitely doing it wrong.

Here I am, rocking my three sweaters layered on top of each other (I rotate the one on the outside each day so it’s not obvious I only have the three), plus my fall jacket because I stubbornly refuse to buy a new jacket better suited to the wind and rain.  I tried, really, I did. There are massive sales on in Bordeaux right now, but after the week of wine-econometrics, I can’t help but see even lowered pricing as a clever ploy to pry every last consumer dollar out of my pocket. There were options, of course; I could have purchased a raincoat for €30, but I didn’t love it, you know?

Things are moving on the housing front. I’ve located a one-bedroom apartment, and there is enough paperwork in play now to make me think that a rental contract is not too far away. All being well, moving date should be in two weeks. Fingers continue to be crossed.

All hail the campus! Not-even-that-early morning walk to school across the field, whose level of sogginess determines my footwear each day. Evening rain outside my window.

All hail the campus! Not-even-that-early morning walk to school across the field, whose level of sogginess determines my footwear each day. A lonely postbox in the rain outside my window.

For the second week back we have another visiting professor; an Argentinian from Hancock College in California, he’s here to talk about sustainable, organic and biodynamic viticultural practices, as well as teach us a little more about specific vineyard techniques (pruning, trellising, irrigating, cover cropping, etc) in use in California grape growing. The classes are, as usual, interspersed with vineyard visits, this time to Pauillac in the Médoc.  It’s a good time to see pruning and trellising techniques as the vines are bare and we can see what strategies are in play, like whether the vines are cane- or spur-pruned, and how they’ve been trained onto the trellising.

trellising

We study different methods like gobelet, or head training, on the left – typical of Rioja, Spain, which I saw a lot of on the Camino. The one on the right is vertical shoot positioning (VSP) on terraces in the Douro Valley, Portugal – from my visit in May. This is important because it determines how the vines can be managed – for example one consequence of the style of the first and the location of the second is that they have to be harvested by hand.

The first visit is to Château Lafite (that’s Lafite Rothschild to you!), a First Growth Grand Cru (or Premier Cru, the highest possible ranking in Bordeaux for red wine), owned by the Rothschild family, and producer of some of the world’s most expensive wines. A classmate of ours, in the 2nd year MBS, works here and leads us on the tour.

A tour of Château Lafitte with a 2nd year classmate; fermenting barrels, and a mystic-looking aging room.

A tour of Château Lafite with a 2nd year classmate; fermenting barrels, and a masonic-looking aging room.

The second visit is to Château Pontet Canet, Grand Cru Classé and by far the leaders on biodynamic viticulture in Bordeaux. They’ve been fully bio since 2005, and Demeter certified a few years later. It’s interesting to hear them present what being biodynamic in their vineyard means. For the uninitiated, biodynamic is something like a combination of biodiversity, Eastern medicine and… cosmic energy. The holistic and biodiversity aspect is fairly easy to comprehend; but following the lunar calendar to determine timing for planting and harvesting, or burying cow horns stuffed with herbs and manure in the vineyard to improve growing efficacy – these practices are a little harder to swallow. The few practitioners of biodynamics I’ve spoken to thus far have only introduced certain elements into their vineyards, (not everything is required for biodynamic certification, including following the lunar calendar), but Pontet Canet incorporates the most practices that I’ve seen yet.

Ok, there are some nice days in Bordeaux. Lafite's vines.

Ok, there are some nice days in Bordeaux.

Biodiversity here extends to the farm animals; the estate is just at the point of getting rid of tractors completely and moving back to horses (draft horses and Percherons). It’s an expensive strategy, as they have to build new stables to accommodate the 15-20 horses that are needed to farm the 80 hectares of vines. There are donkeys on site and sheep incoming, as another aspect of the biodynamic practice includes the positive energy flow between different animals and the plants to help them grow. One tangible result of being biodynamic that our tour guide speaks about is the increased natural resistance of the vines to bugs and diseases. They actually do very little pruning and canopy management during the season, leaving the vines to self-regulate both quality and yield of grapes. It’s a risky decision, as vineyard managers typically invest a lot of energy in all the activities included in our topics of the week to ensure that the grapes at harvest will be high quality and fit to make great wine: lower yield and higher concentration of sugars and tannins than you would get in table grape growing.

If you look closely, you can see working draft horses; this spaceship-looking cement egg is used to age wine. Other cement tanks used to age the wine, and ~65% of the wine is aged in barrels.

If you look closely, you can see working draft horses; these spaceship-looking cement eggs are used to age about 35% of the wine. Other cement tanks are used to ferment the wine, and about 65% of the wine is aged in barrels.

And yet, the wine speaks for itself. We taste the 2007 vintages at both Lafite and Pontet Canet. The estates are less than 15 minutes away from each other, so in theory they should be fairly similar in taste. However, 2007 in Bordeaux was a challenging vintage; this means that what we’re tasting is hugely influenced by the winemaker’s ability, unless the vineyard decisions have made a significant difference to the quality of grapes in spite of the weather conditions. They both have leathery/animal aromas, the Lafite more than the Pontet Canet, but evolve quite differently in the glass as we drink them. I’m impressed with the Pontet Canet; is it the biodynamic vines, or something else? It’s hard to tell, but I’m certainly curious to learn more.

There is some free time in the week, so a few of us head off to explore the Dutch connection in Bordeaux. There are a few vineyards that are Dutch owned or managed, and we see two of them: Château Labadie and Château D’Aurilhac. They are both in the Pauillac region as well, so it’s a good comparison against the Grand Crus – in style and quality of the wine and size of the estate – from earlier in the week. They are both in the Cru Bourgeois  program, so we get some more insight on another aspect of Bordeaux wine marketing.

The view from Château Labadie; the cellar at Château D'Aurilhac, and a styrofoam container hides an aging experiment in the form of Austrian wine barrels.

The view from Château Labadie; the cellar at Château D’Aurilhac, and a styrofoam container hides an aging experiment in the form of Austrian wine barrels.

We return to the classroom to finish the week, which includes a pot-luck with the class. It’s inspired by the professor, but it goes so well, we may consider having one fairly regularly.

Venetian blinds take human form on a particularly sunny day, and the class wraps up for the week with a pot-luck lunch and Lilia finding la fève in the galette des rois.

Venetian blinds take human form on a particularly sunny day, and the class wraps up for the week with a pot-luck lunch and Lilia finding la fève in the galette des rois.

After such a busy week, the weekend is fairly quiet. I have my first raclette dinner; if you don’t know what this is, it’s the most amazing thing. There’s a pot with hot potatoes, and underneath a little broiler to melt little pie-shaped shovels full of cheese and whatever else you like (jambon, mushrooms, peppers) which you then eat with the potatoes. I had no idea there were so many different ways of eating cheese on which I was missing out!

raclette

Weekend snaps: a spooky bridge on the way to dinner; raclette is my new favourite food group, and Hamlet puts a cork in it.

And that’s it for the week. A few other things that are getting interesting – like applying for internships in French, and in the Alsace region, no less – where biodynamic viticultures are quite prevalent. But I’ve got to save something for next post, right?

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4 thoughts on “to bio or not to bio: that is the question

  1. Cool. My ancestors used to plant by the lunar calendar… They used plenty of manure, too, but they didn’t stuff it into cow horns (as far as I know). Fascinating!

    • Isn’t it? Some countries/cultures follow the almanacs and astrological calendars naturally but others are quite skeptical. It’s certainly an interesting discussion to have with scientists. I think I’m open minded enough to agree there are influences that we might not completely understand but it would be good to know what’s truly useful and what’s not.

  2. While waiting to enter class today near the Grand Théâtre, I people watched with amazement. It was a wet 6C (43F) with a bone chilling humidity. Didn’t stop every third person from an umbrella with no jacket, or as you say skimpy shoes with no socks, both walking hurriedly while puffing on the cigarette in hand. I guess living in a warmer, dry climate made my skin thin.

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