True Wine or Cold Cleverness: Thoughts from Nicolas Joly

For many people in the world of wine, Nicolas Joly needs no introduction. But the average wine lover may not have encountered Joly or his wines, as they exist, by design, far outside the mainstream of commercial wine.

Joly lives and farms just outside the town of Savennières, in France’s Loire Valley. As a winegrower, he is known for two things: his family’s ownership of the 16-acre Clos de Coulée de Serrant, a walled vineyard so famously old and singular that it merits its own tiny appellation, and for being one of the earliest adherents of and proselytizers for biodynamic viticulture.

After reading Rudolph Steiner’s Anthroposophical lectures on farming in the late 1970s and early 1980’s, Joly converted his family estate to biodynamic viticulture, and thanks to both his voluble nature and his strong belief in the practice, Joly quickly became one of the most important figures in biodynamic viticulture.

His 2005 book, Wine from Sky to Earth, was for many years the reference guide to biodynamic wine growing, and he has written many since. Joly has attained something of a prophet-like status in the world of biodynamics, helped by the fact that much of the time he seems to speak like a prophet, describing forces at work in the world far outside the everyday consciousness of mankind.

When I visited the Loire last year, I made a point to stop by La Coulée de Serrant, where I found Joly busy trying to get the well in the back of his house into shape. Satisfied that things were going smoothly, he broke away to say hello to me, and offered to sit down and chat a bit after finding out I was a wine writer.

Sitting down with Nicolas Joly seems less a conversation than a hearkening, as he weaves a narrative encompassing many realms. What follows is my best attempt to capture the thoughts he decided to share with me on a beautiful spring day.

I have edited Joly’s words for grammar and clarity, and in two or three places I have rearranged the sequence of his narrative to avoid extreme tangents.

Joly on Place

“How do you express a place?

If you want to have a good end product, you shouldn’t worry about farming.

There are now 320 tastes we can put into wines, so you don’t need to worry too much about the expression of the soil and photosynthesis. We’ve known for 30 years that we have the right to use aromatic yeasts, achieved through genetics. It’s very flattering for wine. The new thing is that you can add the taste of slate, did you know?

You have two sorts of good wine. Those where the place doesn’t speak, and where the enologue has been creating something appealing. The taste is brought in the cellar. Sometimes smartly brought, but it is not the full local taste. These are good wines. I call them Appellation Control l’Oréal. You know, like the cosmetics? This is legal.

One thing I could add regarding Demeter, the strictest is Demeter America. Demeter France, and Demeter Austria have been forbidding aromatic yeasts. But not in Germany. Did you know you can have a Demeter wine in Germany with aromatic yeasts, which are completely changing the expression of the appellation? People don’t know that. I discussed this with Germany for 7 or 8 years. People are now accustomed to this wine profile so we can’t move backwards they say. This is a drama which the consumer doesn’t realize in many cases.

Farming should become an art. The art of connecting the place to the forces it needs so that it fully express the originality of the place

Nicolas Joly

The two next questions, is if you want your cellar to be like maternity, where you follow what happens, rather than a hospital [where you treat a sickness], it’s very important to go into the detail of these very subtle processes, which permit the place, the soil and the climate, to be fully there in the grape.

In other words the vine doesn’t work for you. It is creating seeds. These seeds are carrying the essence of…

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True Wine or Cold Cleverness: Thoughts from Nicolas Joly True Wine or Cold Cleverness: Thoughts from Nicolas Joly *True Wine or Cold Cleverness: Thoughts from Nicolas Joly