The wine whisperer: Does a bottle from a vineyard where everything is done by hand (or hoof) taste any different?
Karibi is a mighty horse, his back taller than a grown man. You would not want to get under one of his enormous hooves as they bite down into the soil, or try to stop this powerful beast from pulling his plough across this hillside in the south of France. He snorts at the presence of strangers, and shudders under his huge yoke, but keeps going, turning the earth.
Karibi is a Percheron, the French equivalent of a shire, a mountain of sinew and steaming hide. He and his driver, Yannick, work the patchwork of fields and vines known as Château Maris, co-owned by an Englishman, Bertie Eden (above). Scattered around the village of La Livinière in the Languedoc, these vineyards are kept by just half-a-dozen staff and their seasonal helpers. "When we drink a bottle of our wine, we know who has done what at every stage of the process of making it," says Eden, a balding, blond but deeply tanned 45-year-old in jeans and cotton shirt. "We know who cut the stem of the vine, going right the way through to who put the juice in the bottles. Our methods are different."
He looks down the slope of the hill towards another vineyard, owned by a neighbour, in which two men in boiler suits are preparing to spray chemicals. That doesn't happen at Château Maris, where everything is bio-dynamic, following a philosophy that originated with Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s and has now been developed into a sophisticated but entirely organic agricultural method.
Biodynamics sees the soil, the vines, the weather, the insect and animal life in the field and the men, women and horses that work it as part of the same, interdependent living system. "This is great shit," says Eden, kneeling and scooping up a handful of the coffee-black cow manure that has been piled under hay at the side of the field. "It's teeming with life. That is going to get spread and feed the plants." They don't use machines to plough the earth like their neighbours. "If you are putting lots of effort into covering the soil with live matter," says Eden, "it doesn't make sense to have it trampled by machinery."
All this is no doubt friendly to the planet, but does it work? I am not the best person to say, since I usually judge a wine by whether it costs under a fiver, and besides, my head is swimming. Over the course of several days in Eden's vineyards, I have sniffed, sipped and swirled countless gorgeous samples, and been overloaded with sensory information. But one lesson is burning bright in the alcoholic fog: I now know why the critics spit.
Fortunately, those who make a proper living writing about this stuff know when to stop, and what to write afterwards. The authoritative Wine Advocate answers my question by saying of the 2004 vintage Old Vine Grenache: "Anyone interested in understanding what purity of sweet fruit and polish is possible in the Languedoc should taste this."
For more than a decade now, Eden has been rehabilitating vines and soil which, when he bought them, had been exhausted and poisoned by chemical pesticides and fertilisers. He treats the plants with infusions made from their natural allies, such as camomile and stinging nettles (full of copper and sulphur). Planting and harvesting are done according to a calendar showing the movements of the planets and cycles of the Moon. "The real step forward in bio-dynamics is when you can sincerely comprehend that the spirit of a tree is equal to your own, therefore its life is equal to your own."
In France, there has been some resistance to the innovations of a bumptious Englishman with aristocratic blood (his great-uncle was the prime minister Anthony Eden), but Bertie is a wine man who spent decades learning his craft in the fields of Australia, Italy, France and Spain. Now he has an even bolder plan: for the first zero-carbon, self-sufficient, gravity-operated wine cellar in the world. Readers of The Independent on Sunday will have the chance to visit, drink its fruits and become intoxicated by Eden's enthusiasm for his pioneering work, by joining the paper's new wine club. You will also meet Karibi.
The vines in the field the horse is working today are a dozen years old. The grapes will be picked by hand, at night, in September and de-stemmed. Then, behind old sandstone walls in the present winery, the fruit will be allowed to ferment, with the skin, pips and juice all circulated and aired – a process known as racking – to give the wine its colour. "It is alive," says Eden. "You're not having to use cultured or industrial yeasts to develop it. You're continuing your respect for the live being, which in this case is a lot of juice in a tank."
In December, the juice will be put into wooden barrels, where it will stay for a year to 18 months. In the cool of the cellar, we taste a very young wine made from Syrah grapes, harvested just last year. "What I like about this is the elegance which is already there," says Eden, turning the glass by its stem, inhaling the fragrance. "That's delicious.
"Once you start thinking about bio- dynamics, it transforms your lifestyle and the way you think about food, energy, everything," he adds. "We see that life is intrinsically linked to cycles: the Moon, the planets, the turning of the seasons. So, we will keep doing what we are doing, making wine for people who appreciate it, our way. Not everyone understands but, in time, the seasons will turn."
The Independent on Sunday/Château Maris Wine club
How to order
Bertie Eden says: "The Grenache is a dark-cherry colour with a soft plum bouquet. On the palate, fresh violets open into ripe cherry with a silky satisfying roundness. A very complete wine matching a wide variety of foods."
Terry Durack, Independent on Sunday food writer, says: "There is something very likeable about this wine; it's relaxed and versatile with loads of character, a touch of pepper and a fresh hit of plums and ripe berries. I find it less tannic than the average Minervois, with a softness and naturalness that makes it extremely useful for summer entertaining. You could throw this at everything from platters of cured hams, terrines and pâtés, and hard and semi-soft cheeses, right through to grilled lamb cutlets and warm roast-chicken salad."
Château Maris, 2007, Old Vine Grenache
The offer is 12 bottles minimum order at £9.99 a bottle plus £6.95 delivery (total £126.83). UK mainland and over-18s only.
Order by visiting independent.co.uk/wineclub or by telephoning Vintage Roots on freephone 0800 980 4992. Wine will be dispatched by Vintage Roots Ltd – Specialist Independent Merchant of the Year, Decanter Wine Retailer Awards 2008.
Vintage Roots Ltd, Holdshott Farm, Reading Road, Heckfield, Hook, Hants RG27 0JZ, vintageroots.co.uk
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