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. Or, put another way, I shut up, and this is what he said while I listened.

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 the place. You can write a book about that.”

Just across the threshold of the Coulée de Serrant cellar door.

“Right now in Coulee de Serrant we have 10 centimeter buds. Hopefully in 6 months they will become grapes. It’s extremely interesting to understand how this happens, when you take a few tons of matter that appear on one hectare every year. One day you have nothing then a while later you have a crop.

If you take the water away, what are you left with? This is dry matter. The key point to understand here is that photosynthesis is 94% and the soil is only 6%.

This means that most of what you have in the bottle, taste wise, comes from the atmosphere, it comes from the upper part. If you want to avoid technology in the cellar the task is to bring enough reception forces for the vine so that all these upper qualities will become matter into the grapes.

It’s really helping a process of incarnation. Incarnating forces into matter. This is where biodynamie is efficient. Then you should have a sort of song in your juice and the key point is…. please don’t touch it. Please don’t control the temperature. Re-yeasting is murder of what is a vintage. You take a poor yeast born in the darkness of the laboratory, you ask that yeast to convert something from the world it doesn’t know into a wine. The first act of this lab yeast is to die.

Each preparation we use [in biodynamics] is connecting the place to to each planet, and each planet is creating a specificity in your climate and soils, in terms of microorganisms.  This is where I’m very much defending 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. Whether we’re talking about cheese or with specific animals. All the academic teaching these days is finally orientated towards higher yields, better profitability, satisfaction of the consumer at the expense of the greatness of what is an appellation.”

The vineyard closest to the house at Coulée de Serrant.

“But these changes are 30 years old. Whether you were living in Alaska or Chile fifty years ago you were tasting a bottle of more of less good wine, you at least had the originality of a tiny place that was protected worldwide. This concept is extraordinary. How much of this is left? Very little.

Are you touching your heart, is there someone speaking in the bottle? Or is it a cold cleverness?

Nicolas Joly

You kill the soil through weedkillers. These are not affecting the roots. These are destroying the microorganisms of the soil and the connections that the root needs to feed itself on the soil, over 5 to 7 years.

The next step is you have no growth in your vines. But for that you have chemical fertilizer. These fertilizers are salts. When you eat a teaspoon of salt, you need water. You are thirsty. The growth you achieve through chemical fertilizer is a growth borne of water. It is growth through water.

When a plant has something which is not balanced, it gets diseased. Disease is an indication of a problem. Now you have many subtle diseases for vines. So what did people do? Copper and sulfur were not strong enough, so they invent systemics, these are extremely efficient, molecules synthesized that can go into the sap within 30 minutes.

The positive point with synthetics is that you don’t get disease, you protect your vines. But the negative side is that you are poisoning the system that creates photosynthesis, you’re cutting the link to the soil and the link to the climate. What you need is urgently, technology, for creating for the consumer, something that is appealing with no place of origin.”

Clos de Coulée de Serrant. A walled vineyard planted by Cistercians, and farmed since 1130.

“Here’s is the test of truth. You follow the wine. You drink a glass, another glass, and then you wait and have another glass three days later. In summer, all true wines will improve for 8 or 9 days. In winter they can improve for 2 or 3 weeks. Is the wine better? This shows you if life forces are still in the bottle or if they have been destroyed by the farming and someone was obliged to use enology to create the wine.

We have to rediscover step-by-step through our heads and hearts and wills how we can play a positive part that can end up in a wine.

Nicolas Joly

Economically it is very important to understand that commercially this approach to farming was immensely profitable. Look at the evolution of yields over 30 years. You can go into the town halls in French villages and see declarations of yields. It’s been doubled or tripled in recent decades. When you create the taste in the cellar, you don’t have to prune short.

When I taste a wine — we do blind tasting every Sunday — you should shortcut all your head and feeling and see your emotion. Are you touching your heart, is there someone speaking in the bottle? Or is it a cold cleverness?

It is important in my mind to cover the details which permit us not to use enology. This is important and it can be pushed very far. The basic idea? Monoculture is a drama for nature. How do you fight it? The idea is to have places where you have no vines. One field for horses, one for goats. If you are in a place where one hectare costs you a million dollars it’s much harder. Here I could extend my production with trees, with fields. 

If you receive, a big vineyard, you are obliged to cope with it. You can’t be as strict with it as you can with something smaller. It shouldn’t be an ecology as advertising. Which is very often. The main ecology is within you to link to the forces that allow you to be a green thumb. We have to rediscover step-by-step through our heads and hearts and wills how we can play a positive part that can end up in a wine.

The second thing, which is extremely important. There are 4 levels of life — minerality, plants, animals, human, and on top of that, what is explained by Steiner as 9 levels of life, these 9 levels are expressed in the biodynamic preparation. You are not obliged to understand this to practice biodynamics by the way.

The diversity of animals is a key point for the full expression of place. Not just manure, though that is better than nothing The presence of these animals is itself important. Your place should be an organism, and the more notes of music you have through diversity of animals and plants, the deeper will be the music of your wine.”

The Joly family home and winery at Coulée de Serrant.

“I can add these four things. You have 4 types of animals, 4 levels of matter. You have animals linked to earth such as the pig. A pig will act on the root. Cows which are linked to liquids, the manure and presence of cows act on the leaves and sap. Then on top you have animals linked to light — sheep and goats will act on the flowering system. Last you have animals linked to heat — horses. Horses create mushrooms. You could push it further with birds and insects. There is an art to understanding the living agents of your place. 

This is an earthly process. You have to decide according to your senses, to your place.

Nicolas Joly

The presence of a donkey on an estate is essential. I was always wondering in my life why there was a donkey in a creche. When you have a donkey…. Hmm. Talk to people who have a donkey. It has its place. Then it is a thinking process. Try to use local animals. 

The presence of animals is as important as the manure. People think it is about the manure. It’s notes of music that creates harmony, photosynthesis and the soil microorganisms will have more power through this diversity.

This place [Clos de Coulée de Serrant] has 9 centuries of vines. Monks. It’s important when you come to a place, there is a memory of a place. Having the Cistercians, they are monks linked to the earth. Most monks pray. But Cistercians would probably say we are human beings with capital “H” our duty is to bring life to the place. They were working on life expression of the place. That’s why you have many interesting places panted by Cistercians. Vines are an earthy plant. Wheat rises to the sun. 

Sometimes you prune vines very low, or very high you will have different wines. When people in Portugal have vines in trees climbing to 4 meters, you have a different grape. Farming should be an art.

When you have for centuries, monks, there is a past, and your part is to improve or at the very least to respect that past, and second to express that past through actualization. You are a being of your century. You cannot return to the past.

When all this is done, the last point is to consider when do you harvest.

Once you have the juice, the result of all your work, please make sure you don’t interfere.

Nicolas Joly

I find it shocking to make analysis of grapes. This is an earthly process. You have to decide according to your senses, to your place. You decide when harvest is right.

Clones are an absurdity. When you travel with 4 friends you are happy to talk with them. If you were all the same you’d get bored. When you have real massale selection, you are obliged to do at least three harvests, sometimes four.

The key point here is that when you taste grapes, on the same spot, with the same maturity, one week later, three weeks later, the taste is different. All those maturities are the same. The hints are to tell how to create complexity, so that once you have the juice, the result of all your work, please make sure you don’t interfere.

Fermentation can last 3 or 4 months. Sometimes 5 months. Let it happen. What do you do after. One or two racking. Very loose filtration if you worry that some people don’t accept small amounts of sediment. Then bottle the bloody thing. Full stop. The key is what happens before, not what you do in the cellar.

The meaning of life, as a human being, is that you are trying to give your forces to the expression of the earth

Nicolas Joly

The work in the cellar here is at most 3 weeks a year. I respect the point of view of everyone. The greatest quality of a human being is freedom. But this side of human beings should also develop, which is what is the meaning of life? The meaning of life, as a human being, is that you are trying to give your forces to the expression of the earth. The key question being, we are human from birth to death. After we are losing our body, you are submitted to rules that are very different. 

This is where for me Steiner is important. I became a Buddhist, born a Catholic. When I found Anthroposophy, I got a feeling of being linked to the upper world and using my humanity in farming.

All this is a summary for these young people who have difficulty to find their lives in this crazy world that is more crazy every year, I see very interesting sommelier, wine school students, you find among these people who are on earth to serve the earth.

This is what I try to defend and express.”

The Taste of Clos de Coulée de Serrant

Here are a few tasting notes on recently released wines from the Joly family. The family makes three Chenin Blanc wines: La Coulée de Serrant, from the famous walled vineyard with its own AOC; Le Clos de la Bergerie which carries the Savennières Roche aux Moines appellation and is made from an east-facing vineyard across from Coulée de Serrant between the Joly home and their neighbor Domaine Aux Moines; and Les Vieux Clos, which is made from vineyards surrounding the Joly home and carries the Savennières appellation.

For those unfamiliar with the Joly winemaking style, it is simultaneously as enigmatic and as simple as the man himself. The wines are fairly oxidative, often feature the influence of botrytis, tend towards the rustic and yet are extremely long-lived. They most certainly are not for everyone, tending to elicit rather strong responses, even among wine professionals, who tend to either adore them, or avoid them.

I had my first taste of La Coulée de Serrant courtesy of a sommelier during my first visit to Charlie Trotters in Chicago more than two decades ago. I don’t remember which vintage I was served, but I do remember that the wine was 14 years old at the time, and my first question to the sommelier was “is it supposed to taste like this?”

The answer was, and still is, yes.

You, however, get to decide whether you like it or not.

2020 Le Vieux Clos, Savennières, Loire Valley, France
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet leaves, pear and pear skin, and roasted nuts. In the mouth, lemon and pear flavors mix with roasted nuts, wet leaves, citrus peel, and acaica blossom. About 10-15% of the grapes used in this wine had botrytis. 1.5 g/l residual sugar. Grown on sandy quartz and grey schist soils. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2020 Clos de la Bergerie, Savennières Roche aux Moines, Loire Valley, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied citrus peel, acacia blossoms, and chamomile. In the mouth, silky flavors of pear and acacia honey, lemon peel, and crushed nuts have a savory briskness. Notes of citrus peel linger in the finish. Excellent acidity. 1.8 g/l residual sugar. Aged for 6 months in barrel. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $95. click to buy.

2013 Clos de la Bergerie, Savennières Roche aux Moines, Loire Valley, France
Light to medium gold in the glass with hints of amber, this wine smells of candied citrus peel, kumquat and honey. In the mouth, exotic citrus flavors mix with wet stones, herbs, and a faint chalky texture. Excellent acidity and depth. Quite complex. A hot year, but a good harvest. Aged for 8 months in barrel. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2020 La Coulee de Serrant, Clos de Coulee de Serrant, Savennières, Loire Valley, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of crushed rocks and crushed nuts. In the mouth, flavors of bright citrus pith and wet leaves mix with crushed nuts, wet stone, and herbs. Crystalline in quality, and quite savory. Very young. 1.2g/l residual sugar. Spends 8 months in barrel. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $150. click to buy.