Biodynamic Viticulture – A Bordelais Perspective: A Visit & Tasting with Alain Moueix in Saint Emilion

Chateau Fonroque is a 17-ha large family-owned and run estate in Saint Emilion. In fact it used to be the home of Jean-Pierre Moueix, who founded JP Moueix, a renowned Libourne wine merchant company and owner of a number of estates in Pomerol and Saint Emilion. Today Ch. Fonroque is run by Alain Moueix, also the president of the Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe.

Upon our arrival, a brief discussion unfolded about the fact that estates in Saint Emilion are regularly reviewed in terms of their classification. Alain explained that the review of the classification was advantageous, because it ensured that it stayed relevant and motivated the producers as well. The next review is due in 2012 and is done by an independent body of professionals, it is not an exercise of peer group endorsement. In terms of new vineyards that a chateau buys, they do not automatically become of grand cru or premier cru status, but on the basis of a permission which needs to be obtained before the purchase.

Ch. Fonroque’s vineyards enjoy a shallow top-soil and therefore the roots mainly sit on the limestone rock basis. This provides the wines with long, narrow and tense structure, as Alain put it. He also explained that the combination of clay and limestone gives power to the wines, as in Saint Emilion, whereas the mix of clay, sand and iron provides for the style of Pomerol.

It was in 2001 that Alain started the conversion of Ch. Fonroque to organic and subsequently to biodynamic viticulture and winemaking. He had three reasons to do so. First, he wanted to craft wines of quality and quality comes through personality and individuality. Second, because soil is a form of life and not only a combination of minerals and other materials, therefore it needs care. Third, a sense of responsibility: he wants to preserve the vineyard in a better shape so that he can pass it on to his kids. Summarising his view of biodynamic viticulture, Alain explained that it is about feeding the soil that will feed the plants, as opposed to the conventional way of farming that aims to feed the plant directly.

As for certification, Ch. Fonroque started the process in 2003 and completed it two years later with Biodyvin or in French the Syndicat international des vignerons en culture bio-dynamique, a French association of biodynamic winemakers. Biodyvin has at least two checks a year to ensure that all members comply with the regulations.

What does conversion lead to? The most noticeable is a healthier soil and less compaction. The diversity of plants within the vineyard increased, which is a move away from monoculture if you like. As a result, vines are healthier and have a better fruit / leaf balance. Therefore, there is no need for green harvest either, which used to be done twice or three times when still doing conventional farming. Potassium deficiency of the soil also ceased to be a problem. Previously, it was not the lack of potassium, but the lack of the plant’s ability to absorb it that led to deficiency.

The application of biodynamic preparations enhances the health of the soil and restores the balance of water. The latter is critical also in terms of humidity, as water impacts on disease pressure, such as mildew or botrytis. Ultimately, water is connected to the moon cycles, which explains the significance of the lunar cycles in the biodynamic calendar.

The biodynamic calendar is based on the moon cycles and sets the phases for the dynamics between the moon and the plants. There are four elements, which are connected to different parts of the plants: earth to the root, water to the leaf and sap, air to the flower and fire to the fruit or the emergence of the sun. For example, it is good to plant vines on a root day, whilst it is advised to avoid tasting wine on such a day.

Conversion has also led to changes in terms of how HR is managed. For example, a crucial difference is the time that is spent in the vineyard: observing and working in it. Working in the vineyard means that herbal preparations and teas are used instead of artificial and synthetic materials. The horn-manure preparation (500) brings energy to the plants in the spring. The preparation is made in the autumn by filling a cow horn with manure and burying it in the soil for 6 months before spraying it on the plants. The silicate, or sometimes referred to as the quartz preparation (501) is made in the same fashion by stuffing the silicate into the horn and burying it for the summer. Then in the wet season it is sprayed under low pressure on the plants to prevent fungal disease. The horns can be used for many more preparations, as I learnt it. Alain buys in all the other preparations, as his 17-ha vineyard is too small to make them for himself.

Conversion means that both vineyard and winemaking are managed biodynamically. It equals a decreased use of sulphur, approximately half of the normal; no yeasts or enzymes are bought in. The ripening of the grapes shifted forward and Ch. Fonroque starts harvest 7 to 10 days earlier than other properties in Saint Emilion. The grapes show a better polyphenolic ripeness despite the earlier picking date. In general, the vines are more balanced with an average yield of 35-40 hl / ha including old vines. As Bordeaux wines became successful because of their balance over the centuries, biodynamic winemaking is a path of return to this balance and to wines from which you can drink a bottle with your friend one evening and go to work the other day, as Alain put it.

The tasting at the end of the visit included four vintages:
1996 – pre-conversion vintage, conventional farming
2004 – organic farming
2008 – biodynamic farming
2009 – biodynamic farming

Tasting Notes

Ch. Fonroque 1996

Medium garnet with an orange rim. Medium intense nose, mainly cedar, leather, dried red fruits and a hint of mushrooms. Dry, tannins a bit dusty, leather and cedar. Fruits weak and a touch of leafiness. Alcohol and acids well balanced, tannins linger on the back-palate whilst the fruits fade a bit. Earthy finish. 15.4

Ch. Fonroque 2004
Crimson. Vibrant nose with perfumed cherries, violets, meaty, cocoa and cedar. Dry, densely structured ripe tannins with an excellent pine and nutmeg flavour. Definition, fruit and lively. Velvety mouth-feel with a big body, excellent balance and almost a floral finish. 15.9

Ch. Fonroque 2008
Medium deep ruby, plenty of legs. Highly intense and fragrant nose: violets, blueberry, sour-cherry. Dry, ripe fruits, fleshy and soft tannins, smooth velvety mouth-feel, quite supple. Alcohol, acids and fruits are very well balanced coupled with a subdued feel of oak. Excellent structure. 17.2

Ch. Fonroque 2009
Deeper purple, tiny ruby rim. Slightly restrained nose, but well concentrated sour-cherry, cocoa and violets. Dry, velvety tannins, voluptuous but restrained fruits, elegance and less ripe than ’08, but brilliant presence of fruits. Liquorice, sour-cherry and blueberry finish. 16.8

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