As the guru of modern biodynamism, Nicolas Joly has a lot to account for. The proprietor of the ancient estate of Coulée de Serrant, in Anjou’s tiny Savennières appellation, a fleck of prized Loire Valley real estate southwest of the city of Angers, in 1980 he by chance (on a skiing trip) came upon the obscure Rudolph Steiner’s semi-mystical homeopathic/astrological principles of agriculture, delivered in a series of lectures in 1924, and embraced them with the zeal of an aimless fanatic ripe for the fall. Wonder what would have happened if, instead of Steiner, Joly had discovered Wilhelm Reich, thereby filling vineyards around the world with enigmatic orgone machines instead of cow horns filled with silicalized dung. Or L. Ron Hubbard. Some people require a higher power to which to submit, and Joly found his in Steiner, who was not, allow me to point out, a farmer, yet somehow has been beatified as the Madame Blavatsky of viticulture.
Readers may think that I approach this subject with undue levity. Well, sorry, shoot me, but while some of the practices of the biodynamic movement make complete sense for anyone thoughtfully engaged in farming and are already widely employed in aspects of sustainable and organic agriculture — avoiding chemical pesticides and herbicides, using cover crops between rows, trying to establish a sense of natural harmony within the vineyard — other methodologies seem to come straight out of a New Age commune where flower-decked nymphs and satyrs promulgate fertility according to the alignment of the stars. Why do otherwise intelligent people not understand that the stars are really very very far away and that the so-called astrological “signs” are primeval figments of mythic imaginations?
(The best introduction to the principles of biodynamic agriculture and to the history of Coulée de Serrant and the wines of Nicolas Joly comes from Chris Kissack, aka The Wine Doctor. I highly recommend this post.)
A few producers and winemakers around the world have embraced the biodynamic principles, to greater or lesser degrees, perhaps encouraged by Joly’s writings and his boundless sincerity — the crushing sincerity of the zealot — and often these producers and winemakers turn out wonderful wines; I encounter such wines at the “Return to Terroir” biodynamic events regularly, and I have written extensively about them over the past three months, which you must not take as an endorsement but as curiosity and concern. As far as Joly’s wines are concerned, I have never encountered the problems with oxidation that some writers mention, and even when they may have been difficult to assess, as they tend to be initially, the wines have exhibited nothing less than tremendous energy and vitality. On the other hand, I taste many wines not produced under the strictures of biodynamic principles that are also models of energy, vitality and verve. Readers may point to the successes bred by biodynamic methods and say, “See, they work,” to which I reply, “Except when they don’t.”
My first encounter with a wine from Nicolas Joly was at the restaurant Rubicon in San Francisco around Thanksgiving 1996. The wine was the Clos de la Bergerie Savennières 1992, Joly’s “second-tier” chenin blanc and it cost $48 on the wine list. (Big sighs, groans, rolling of eyes and the chorus, “Those were the days!”)
In January 2003, I had dinner at La Caravelle in New York and tasted one Coulée de Serrant wine from 2000 and two from 1999. (The “entry-level” Les Vieux Clos used to be labeled Becherelle for the American market). I’ll include the notes from my old newspaper column:
Though at first it seems serious and reticent, Joly’s Becherelle 2000, which carries a straight Savennières designation, blossoms with honeysuckle and jasmine and seethes with a sort of liquid minerality (mineral liquidity?) that amalgamates lemon-lime and limestone with peaches and baking spice and rollicking acid. This should drink beautifully through 2010. Excellent. About $33.
Joly’s decadent but not decorative Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, sports a bright gold color and a bouquet that teems with smoke and old wood, orange zest, creme brulee and roasted apricots. Though touched with the earthy, damp leaf complexity of botrytis – the “noble rot” that affects very ripe grapes in proper autumn conditions and helps produce the world’s great dessert wines – this wine is bone-dry and perfectly balanced with a flinty-limestone element; the effect shows up in its plangent intensity, overwhelming ripeness and vibrancy. Keenly wrought, racy and elegant, Clos de la Bergerie 1999 is a great match with rich fish and seafood dishes. Well-stored, it could be a 15- to 20-year wine. Exceptional. About $43.
Third in this roster is the exotic, exuberant Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 1999, a bright golden-yellow wine (made from 40 to 80-year-old vines) whose qualities of cloves and cinnamon, pineapple and pineapple upside-down cake, bitter orange and tangerine seem not of this world. You have to keep reminding yourself: This is a dry wine! The tension and constant resolution here among a luxurious silky texture, ripe buttery fruit, zinging acid and deeply rooted mineral elements are thrilling. Long life ahead, 20 to 25 years. Exceptional. About $80.
In New York again, for the first and third “Return to Terroir” tastings in 2004 and 2006, I found the Joly wines from vintages 2002 and 2003, respectively, difficult to fathom, reticent, closed, oddly brooding in spirit for white wines, all qualities that match the reputation the wines have for not showing well in the first three or four years.
Then, in March 2007 I discovered a cache of Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000 at a local retail store, $40 a bottle; I bought three. Here’s what I wrote (some extraneous comments edited) at the time on this blog:
Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000, Savennières, Loire Valley. At a bit more than six years old, this example bursts with quince, peach and pear, spice-cake, mango and orange rind that get smokier and more roasted as the minutes pass, all nestled in a plush texture cut by vibrant acid. The wine tastes like honey, but it’s completely dry, so dry, in fact, that the finish is austere, offering the slight bitterness of grapefruit rind tempered by lanolin and a touch of jasmine. Exceptional, and under-priced at $36 to $40. Long life ahead; drink now through 2010 to ’14 (well-stored). 2010 to ’14! More like 2018 to ’20 I would say.
I include these notes on previous Joly wines I tasted (or drank) because they reveal a sense of consistency that seems to run true, at least in my experience, from year to year. They do not make an immediate bid for your regard, yet even in youthful reticence they offer tremendous vitality and the innate potential for richness. Some writers, particularly French critics with long experience and memory, decry the era of Nicolas Joly and prefer the wines produced by his mother before the son took over the estate. I cannot speak to those issues. I can only assert that generally I find the wines of Nicolas Joly and Coulée de Serrant to be among the world’s greatest expressions of the chenin blanc grape. Do biodynamic practices make them so? Do these esoteric methods “work”? Yes. No. I don’t know. The philosophy is what it is; the wines are what they are.
The wines of Nicolas Joly are imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York. Prices are approximate and represent a range found on the Internet. Image of Nicolas Joly from jimsloire.blogspot.com; map from vinsurvin-blog.com.
Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos 2009, Savennières. The color is pale gold with faint greenish-gold highlights; the aromas come first as classic chenin blanc — hay, candle wax, camellias, a delicate touch of honey — then deeper aspects of cloves, quince and ginger, dried orange rind, a winsome whiff of lilac, and, amid these sensual delights, a touch of something slightly astringent, slightly bracing and withholding, perhaps a hint of salt-marsh. The richness expands across the palate, not quite buttery but certainly ripe and fat yet — always a “yet” — again that feeling of resisting its own power, of insisting on a sense of spareness or refusing to surrender to its own florid potential; remember, this is a completely dry wine. Flavors of spiced and roasted lemons and pears are permeated by bright animating acidity and the presence of clean scintillating limestone minerality that burgeons through the finish. 15.2 percent alcohol. Approximately 580 cases produced. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. Prices vary widely; say $35 to $50.
Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines. The 33-hectare vineyard of Roches aux Moines, among the most important in Savennières, is its own appellation; Joly owns 3.5 hectares. The vines average 30 to 40 years old, though some are as old as 80 years. There’s an immediate impression that Clos de La Bergerie 2009 is both more intense and concentrated and more generous than its cousin, Les Vieux Clos ’09. It’s a golden wine, rich, shimmering, honeyed, again almost buttery yet imbued with a formidable acid and mineral structure that provides a reservoir of inner resources; this is authoritatively dry, fine-boned, crystalline, a-quiver with crispness, liveliness and vitality and beautifully balanced among the suppleness of its texture, the ripe, spicy forwardness of its stone-fruit flavors and — here we are once more — the sense that the wine (as I scribbled in my first note): “resists too much richness.” That quality of inherent leanness, of a vibrant linearity, saves the wine from excess and flamboyance and keeps it consistently inviting as well as multi-layered; the evidence points to terrific grapes from an excellent year (following the inconsistent vintages of 2006, ’07 and ’08 in the central Loire) and skillful winemaking. So: macerated peaches and greengage plums with a vivid hint of pineapple; hay and straw, quince jam and lemongrass, a slightly earthy note; a spice-packed, resonant, elegant finish. The alcohol level is controversial: the label, as you can see, states 13.5 percent; in his survey of the Joly 2009s, Chris Kissack at thewinedoctor.com, says that the alcohol content of this wine is 15 percent; and the importer’s website has it at 15.8 percent! Whatever, there’s no trace of alcoholic sweetness or heat; the wine is exquisitely balanced, but with a gratifying risky, nervy edge. About 580 cases. Now through 2020 to ’25 or ’26. Exceptional. About $45 to $60.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Nicolas Joly Clos de Coulée de Serrant 2009, Savennières-Coulee de Serrant. The 7-hectare Coulee de Serrant vineyard — about 17.3 acres — is wholly owned by Nicolas Joly; like Roches aux Moines, it is a sub-appellation of Savennières. At a little more than two and a half years old, the wine is a beguiling and intriguing merging of dryness that hints of a core of sweet ripeness with a lush yet spare, lithe texture and intense resonance and vibrancy married to profound limestone-like minerality. Does this wine out-perform — not that it’s a contest — Clos de La Bergerie 2009? Again, I would say that the case is one of matters of degrees; the wines are similar in character, but Clos de Coulee de Serrant 09 possesses not only the limpid, luminous, spicy stone-fruit qualities — and, yes, the quince and cloves and ginger, the earthiness of damp hay, a touch of leafy fig and greengage, an extra hint of lightly buttered cinnamon toast — of its stablemates but it feels actually savory and mouth-watering; this wine practically glistens and gleams with personality (the topmost layer) while it delivers a pretty damned consummate iteration of the depth and dimension of which the chenin blanc grape is capable. 15.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2014 through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $65 to $90.