In an earlier article, I wrote about the flight of wines that I sampled with Bernard Duseigneur from his Chateauneuf-du-Pape vineyards. Before we started to taste his wines together, I asked Bernard a few questions about how he grew into running a winery and his philosophies on how to manage vineyards and produce his wines. I very much enjoyed hearing about all these things as it also helped me to better understand his wines. I hope you get insight into his wines as well and will have a chance to try his wines at the Festival tasting room during the Vancouver International Wine Festival.
My Interview with Bernard Duseigneur
How did you get into the business of making wine?
My family started to grow vines in Algeria in the end of the 19th century when it was a French colony. The family business started there. In 1962 when Algeria became independent my family moved to France. My parents were about 40 or 45 years old starting anew. My father bought some land, picking a place in southern Rhone with a Mediterranean climate that he understood. He planted on hillsides while everybody at the time was working the flat land. He also planted on North facing slopes which is very interesting because nobody was doing it that at the time. Me and my brother later figured out how clever it was. At the time you know my father was considered crazy because he planted on the hillside. It is very hard to work. He also picked the north face which has less sun. But he was quite a visionary because now we understand that from the north you get freshness and not too much heat. That is very important for the balance of the wines.
The vineyard started was actually the right bank of the Rhone river in Lirac. My father also worked the old way meaning he didn’t use any chemicals and he used all mechanical work. He learned to work this way from his father who learned from his father and so on. When my brother took over in 1990 he was very lucky that the land was already organic at the time but organic was not widely used in the world. My brother applied for organic certification as he was with struggling selling the wines and heard that in Germany and Switzerland there is a market for organic wine so he applied for the certification.
As far as I’m concerned I didn’t embrace a wine career right away. When I was a child I only had one thing in mind and that was to run away from the family. I did not see my father as a child because he was working all the time; the life of a farmer. So I studied economics and I went away and into banking in Paris and London. And then when I was 40 I decided to get back to my roots. It was my choice. I had a diving accident and I almost died. Maybe I realized that there was a lack of meaning in my life. I’m saying this now but not at that moment. My brother was also asking me at the same time to join him in the struggling family wine business. I did not say yes right away. I studied the market and why wines were so good one year and not so good the next year. I participated in lots of tastings and met many people. And then I met people who were biodynamic farmers. I did not know anything about this but I was looking for a way to improve the quality of the wine. Organic certification farming is good because they have a list of products you’re not allowed to use. For consumer health. But this actually doesn’t help to make better wine. One of the best questions the winemaker should ask himself is how can I make better wines? How can I understand my terroir? I had the impression that the biodynamic approach helps. I think its the best toolbox to help. I’m not saying it’s the only but its the best that I found so far.
How would you compare organic and biodynamic wine? What’s changed in the wines?
There’s a lot of change in my opinion. There is a big change in the vineyard. You see change in your vineyards as they are in better health. You have a better environment. Even when you walk on the soil you can feel the soil is not hard. In the beginning, there is a lot of change. After some time the changes from one year to the next are smaller and more subtle. I have the impression that in general the ones from biodynamic for me are more alive and vibrant. There’s something more interesting and complex. I had this impression about biodynamic wines but I asked people to tell me what is the difference. I met a very important man Francois Bouchet who passed away now. This man trained Nicholas Joly. He became my mentor.
When you changed to biodynamic is that when your sales increase? How did you go from struggling to profitable?
It is difficult to implement. So actually when we started with him it was 2002 and it was not popular at all. People were looking at you as if you were crazy. So it was not recognized as a sign of quality at all. But I believed that we were farming biodynamically and that there was no way back. You have to completely change your mind. In my former way of farming, organic or non-organic, you are curing disease by using chemicals. There are organic pesticides that organic farmers can use. With biodynamics, you try not to do that most of the time. You try to be proactive. You try to organize the conditions so that the vine can defend itself. If there’s enough biodiversity in your vineyard there is no imbalance. You want to create natural harmony like there is in the forest. So that is a completely different way of thinking. You have to monitor your vineyard looking for the first sign of imbalance so that you can correct or add something. You have to be very modest because you do not understand everything but you try to understand the changes in the elements. And you consider the definition of biodynamics; your vineyard as a whole organism and not considering things like the vines and the soil separately like how modern science tends to do. You have to be a generalist. So it is a long way and you need a guide. It’s impossible to progress just from reading a book. Change can be slow and quick. It can be slow for you and your state of mind to slowly change but actually you see spectacular changes at the beginning in the vineyard. It is evidence that you’re going in the right direction. You see the change in the vineyard quite quickly.
What are the first things that you do when you’re converting to biodynamic? Biodynamic treatments take a while to create.
You are a bit stupid at the beginning, but your mentor gives you a recipe and tells you to do things. I do that and see what happens. And then you realize little by little that you are helping nature. You’re working with nature. One of the key elements is the soil because in France we are very much about terroir but terroir is nothing to me as long as you spray chemicals. If you spray chemicals you are not only killing the weeds and bad bugs but you’re also killing the biodiversity. And in that, I don’t see how terroir and minerality and other elements could be transferred to the wine. Biodiversity feeds the vines naturally so that you combine those mineral elements into aromas and flavours. It’s very logical and common sense to work with the soil and to protect and enhance the biodiversity of the soil. The key when you try to make fine wine in France is that you have to also understand the legacy of winemaking. For example in Burgundy 1000 years ago with the monks they realized using the same varietals and the same climate you can make different wines because it is the soil that gives identity to the wine. It’s not the climate, it’s the soil. Soil is very essential. So you’re working with compost and preparations to enhance the soil life. We understand then that the preparations work in certain ways. It helps natural forces and also captures the invisible forces from the cosmos.
Do you see any changes global warming going up that it’s affecting you as well?
Yes, it’s affecting everybody. Especially in southern France. The average date of picking for the last 30 years has moved forward by one month on average. Definitely there are changes. There are new challenges ahead for the winemakers but I think that by taking this biodynamic philosophy you have more options to cope with these changes.
What was this year’s harvest like?
The harvest is over. Every year is different now since 2000. Very different from one year to another. Every two or three years we have very hot and dry in the summer, much drier than it used to be. We would pretty much get the same conditions in the past; rain mid-August and September. Now we have no rain from June to the end of September. That is a problem.
Are you allowed to do drip irrigation with biodynamic farming?
It’s not restricted as biodynamic certification is concerned. The decision to apply drip irrigation is left to the Appellation unless you have your own irrigation. In Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it is forbidden. Now irrigation tends to be given every year. Irrigation can be a way to help the vineyard but could be dangerous because it depends on how you use it. I don’t like the idea because the idea of biodynamic is to organize things so that the root system goes deep.
But if our climate is changing faster than the plants can adapt?
If things continue at this pace. If that is a case will have to be very cautious and apply very minimum watering. It would be stupid not to do it and see the vineyards disappear. Having a north-facing slope helps for the wind not for the rain. With biodynamic you get more freshness from the soil but still need a little bit of water. Not much but a little bit.
A few last thoughts on wine production?
I try to express the best that terroir can express every year in a wine. I don’t view a vintage as good or bad. I view it as difficult or easy. You don’t do the same thing every year. Every year there is a random element that you cannot control. You have to select the right moment to pick the grapes; good fruit and balance. All the wines I use indigenous yeasts for fermentation.
You have different vineyards with different soil types. For your entry-level wines how do you choose the grapes? Is it based on soil?
I look for nice healthy grapes instead of soil for my entry-level wines. Ripeness I like, acidity and fruit I like. I am not always into terroir. When I acquired vineyards in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, there were 17 different plots, mostly Grenache (85%). I did not know what to expect when I acquired vineyards so I make 17 different vats every year. The best thing for me to understand is the origin of the wines. The wines are not the same quality. The average quality wines I sell in bulk. For my best wines, I try to understand the differences between the limestone, sand, and galette soils. There are lots of differences.
My philosophy of oak ageing is more like Burgundy, not Bordeaux. Bordeaux is known for trying to toast the wine with oak. In Burgundy, they use oak to affect the texture of the wine. We macerate and ferment longer to work the tannins so that they soften. Oxygen is used through the wood to polish the tannins. Very light filtering just to remove the large particles in the wine, not on the top tier wines. No fining agents either. Filtration can be traumatic for wine. We use cool temperatures for settling before bottling.
Thank you to Bernard for spending a lovely afternoon with me talking about his wines and biodynamics. I look forward to seeing him again at the Vancouver International Wine Festival in February 2020.