Earth Day this year may be a little bittersweet for many French winemakers as they continue to assess the damage wrought by Mother Nature’s historic frosts this month. But despite her fickle trickery, the French have a deep respect for the terra firma, increasingly adapting practices that promote conservation and sustainability. Farms adapted organic farming practices in the 1950s, spurring the formation of several groups over the decades, making France a pioneer, according to the French National Federation for Organic Farming, established in 1978. Today a number of official certifications allow producers to operate in a natural way, as fitting to their circumstances. These include:
High Environmental Value (HVE), a voluntary effort by which producers commit to managing water, biodiversity, fertilizer and plant health.
Terra Vitis, a sort of seal of approval for eco-responsible producers who “respect nature, man and wine” and promote linkages between terroir and vine/wine.
Agriculture Biologique (Certified Organic) applies to estates that are fully or in the process of conversion to organic viticulture. General practices include low-intervention farming and zero synthetic chemicals.
Demeter certification is the most rigorous biodynamic, requiring its farmers to adhere to regulations about use of fertilizer, pest and weed control, water conservation and biodiversity. Its overriding principle is the creation and management of a closed ecological system in which nothing is imported and the supportive plants, animal, bird and insect life are inter-related and co-beneficial.
This is the first of in an occasional series of environmentally focused wine regions, beginning at the beginning of the alphabet in French wine: Alsace and Beaujolais.
Wine producers in Alsace like to say every day is Earth Day, and with good reason: The region in northeast France is one of the greenest in the country, with one-third of its vineyards certified organic or in conversion (a multi-year process). That’s a 33% increase in just two years, showing a strong trend for the practice. Some of those producers, like Domaine Valentin Zusslin in Orschwihr, were early adopters.
Winemaker Marie Zusslin said her father converted to biodynamics after attending a masterclass in 1996—so enthusiastic about the practice, he told her of his desire to do it all at once and right away.
“He wanted to begin immediately for several reasons: to be more precise in the terroirs’ definition, more protective of the environment and to be closer to our natural rhythms,” she said. Their territory a complex geological mosaic of soils, Alsace winemakers are uniquely known for interpreting the those soils through their wines.
Converting was a challenge Zusslin said, but also a “a real gift for nature, our family and our customers.” With respectful farming, she said they can enhance the land’s characteristics and without it, she says, “we notice a real lack of vibration and terroir dimension.”
“We [have been] conscious for decades that our vineyard is like a magnificent garden, unique on Earth. It is paramount to protect them for great, unique wines.”
Domaine Valentin Zusslin Crémant d’Alsace Brut Zero. The terroir shines through in this crisp, clean, citric-inflected sparkler. Made in the traditional method of second fermentation in the bottle, this ultra-dry, elegant crémant features fine bubbles, complexity from its year on lees with a bit of saline minerality. $28.
Albert Seltz, Riesling Reserve 2016. Known well for his passionate stance on Sylvaner (he championed for the grape’s grand cru designation in the Zotzenberg vineyard), Albert Seltz’s attention to Riesling is no less. Produced from a certified organic vineyard, where Seltz uses essential oils and herbal tinctures, this wine has the classic markers of Riesling from Alsace: Meyer lemon, green apple, light layers of stone fruit and honey. The seductive petrol and flint nose speaks of the territory. A steal at $16.
François Baur Pinot Noir Schlittweg 2018. Alsace has kicked up its Pinot Noir game, delivering richer, fruit- and earth-driven wines in the last decade. Some even say this is what Burgundy was a couple of generations ago. Pierre and Thomas Baur are now the stewards of the family’s winery, which dates to 1741, with biodynamic conversion in 2001. This red-cherry scented wine is packed with ripe red fruit, laced with spice and elevated by a hint of anise. Round, rich and supple in the mouth. $23
Lying at the southern end of Burgundy—some say in its shadow—Beaujolais is now enjoying recognition as a region of enjoyable, increasingly elevated wines with their own environmental footprint. The Beaujolais Wine Growers Union established more environmentally friendly specifications in 2009 with improved vine management, and there is a strong movement toward agroecology, a farming practice that considers the relationships between plants, animals, people and their environment, and the balances therein. For viticulturists this means low intervention but high attention to soil health and water quality, balancing resources and biodiversity.
The crus of Beaujolais have become a hub for environmentally sustainable practices. Of the 1,058 producers who have made at least one cru Beaujolais, more than half are currently certified through one (or more) of five sustainable qualifications, said a spokesperson for the wine bureau.
Numerous wine companies in Beaujolais have made commitments to Corporate Social Responsibility and the number of producers in other certifications is growing:
· Beaujolais boasts more than 200 HVE-certified vineyards.
· More than 100 are members of Terra Vitis, which originated in Beaujolais in 1998.
· More than 150 estates are fully or in the process of conversion to organic viticulture.
· About 10 Beaujolais producers have committed to Demeter certification.
Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly AOC 2019. A blend of grapes from seven parcels, this is a deep, almost Rhône-like expression of earth and bramble with dark plum and blue/black fruits and spice. Firm structure that can last for a couple of years. Certified organic. $31
Michel Guignier Morgon AOC “Vieilles Vignes” 2019. Many consider Morgon one of the “noble” of the crus for the intensity and longevity of its wines. This example, made from 70-year-old wines, has an exotically perfumed nose and followed in the mouth by ripe, lush red fruit driven by strawberry. Juicy and fresh, a bit earthy; can age for a bit. Organic cultivation. $21
Domaine du Clos du Fief Saint-Amour “Les Capitans” 2019. From Beaujolais’ most northern cru and a rare single vineyard, this is blue-black in color, deep and heady wine with a deep concentration of small black and red fruits (currants) uplifted by bright anise notes. Drink now, but good to cellar for up to eight years. $22
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