Once you meet Thierry Valette, you know it's time to listen with 200% of attention, absorb as much knowledge as possible and remember all the details of this magical winery where wine is a product of sensitivity and imagination. Now I know that Clos Puy Arnaud is a winery that pops-ups automatically in minds of biodynamic wine experts when it comes to Bordeaux, but that day I was just intuitively feeling how special is the place which I was lucky to get an appointment to.
Let's talk about the owner and the place
Thierry Valette is a 4th generation winemaker (his family-owned Chateau Pavie and Troplong-Mondot in Saint-Emilion), although, in the beginning, he chose not to make wine and instead have a life of a jazz-dancer and musician. This past of him is the reason why elegance and finesse are the words that can apply to all Clos Puy Arnaud wines regardless of vintage and cuvée. Along with his signature style, he wanted to develop a real production philosophy where agriculture respects the biotope.
As a result, he settled down in Clos Puy Arnaud and up till now the domain has been certified organic for 16 years and biodynamic for 11 years. Biodynamic farming was a logical path for Thierry as it's a holistic approach that takes into account the whole, not the details. His daily mission is to capture the energy of the place to restore it in tastes and aromas of the wine.
Talking about the place - Castillon is the green crown of Bordeaux, where 25% of the estates are either farmed organically or biodynamically. The reason behind this impressive statistic is that in the '90s a very talented winemaking elite urged to Castillon - land prices were very affordable and it became a laboratory of creativity where winegrowers express themselves in organic and biodynamic farming. Generally speaking, what if not a hilly countryside with woods and meadows full of biodiversity can host vignerons that dare to challenge the greatest Pomerol and Saint-Émilion names?
Terroir - a sense of place...
Of course, when we think of terroir the first thing that comes to our mind is the soil. But we all know very well that it would be too easy to describe what a 'sense of place' is only point out the soil.
What's really important and why I often feel the 'sense of place' specifically in biodynamic and organic wines is because terroir is a combination of soil, organic matter, wind (how aerated the plot is), sun exposure and the vigneron. And while biodynamic cultivation methods can't help on sun exposure or wind, they definitely matter when it comes to organic matter :)
Organic matter is a soil component that consists of remains of plants and animals at various stages of decomposition, cells and tissues of soil microbes, and substances that soil microbes synthesize. None of these will be present in a soil where herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides are systematically applied.
So as for Clos Puy Arnaud, after 16 years in organic and 11 years in biodynamic certification, we can be sure in the matter. What else?
Same limestone plateau as Saint-Emilion's with a very shallow layer of soil (up to 50 cm).
Exposure to the earliest morning sunshine - the most favourable light for the vine.
Good ventilation at 80-100 m above sea level.
...and Thierry Valette - an artist in the vineyard and vat room, who told us to always smell the soil, because a healthy soil smells delicious.
As for the type of limestone - we're talking about the Asteria limestone that was born 30 million years ago. It contains fossils of an organism related to starfish - Astéria, that's why on the label of Clos Puy Arnaud you'll always find a red star.
The Biodynamic Vineyard
As I mentioned above, in biodynamics you must be more open-minded and see the state of your vineyard as a whole, not as a list of separate problems. The main issue that leads to perhaps all diseases and complications in vineyard management is that we promote monoculture, while nature is always a polyculture. Cultivating one single crop, one single variety, and one single clone is our problem. So how do you solve it in biodynamics taking Clos Puy Arnaud as an example to follow:
Counterbalancing the monoculture with the help of an environment that surrounds the vines - woods, meadows, hedges at the last rows of vines, sowing supportive crops between the rows.
Alternating moments when the vine can express itself (no mowing before the weed flowers and spreads seeds, leaving long enough weed for the insects to live in) and moments of controlled development (disbudding, pruning, tying, lifting).
Balancing the varieties - currently, Clos Puy Arnaud's vineyard is 70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the goal is to increase the percentage of Cabernet Franc to 40% and increase massal selection plantings of Petit Verdot.
If winemakers switched to biodynamic or organic farming on a large scale, global warming would be less a concern for the world of wine. Vines can adapt to any conditions if we are supporting, not destroying their natural ecosystem in which lays their strength. Thierry Valette says the first results are visible in 4-5 years of biodynamics:
The physiological, phenolic and aromatic maturity arrives at the same time and grapes generally ripen earlier. While in conventional winemaking you always have to choose whether physiologic maturity (read alcohol level in the wine) is more important than the phenolics. Thus many wines have way too high alcohol levels as the winemakers were waiting for the phenolic maturity and harvested late.
Grapes have a lower pH, lower than in organic farming and way lower than in conventional. This means a higher acidity, more freshness and more natural protection for the wine (read less added sulfites, as wine is resistant to spoilage in bottle and more ageing potential).
The Vat Room
So we all agree that for great wine we need grapes of outstanding quality. The phenolic, physiological and aromatic maturity must be in balance. Careful manual harvest, grapes being brought to the cellar in small crates, the berries must be intact. What happens next:
The entire process after picking is done by gravity. The berries go through pre-fermentation maceration with inert gas in vats, think of carbonic (intracellular) maceration here.
Fermentation is cold, using only indigenous yeasts.
The wine is not 'heated up' in order to start malolactic fermentation, instead, the 'Burgundy' method is applied. Once spring and summer arrive the malic bacteria wakes up and does the job.
Only fine lees are left using cold racking.
Gentle extractions at 25-26 °C during alcohol and post-fermentation maceration.
Not more than 30% of barrels are new to preserve the freshness of fruit and at the same time add the complexity of oxidative ageing.
And most importantly, daily monitoring (meaning tasting) to determine whether it's time to interrupt the ageing in wood and return the wine to the tank.
Tasting notes - Clos Puy Arnaud
Cuvée Les Ormeaux 2014 - the 'small' Clos Puy Arnaud, a very gastronomic wine with well-preserved fruit. It's a 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc blend. This elegant and delicate wine has up to 7 years of cellaring potential though. Only 22 000 bottles were produced, 32 mg/l of sulfur dioxide.
Clos Puy Arnaud Grand Vin 2014 - a powerful wine that combines freshness and purity of ripe berries with the silky texture of the subtle oak. It's the first wine of the estate and goes through the longest oak ageing - 7 months in barriques, 25% of which are new. It's 60% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The total production is very boutique - just 29 000 bottles were made. Total sulfur dioxide just 35 mg/l. Cellar for up to 25 years.
I feel like a very lucky person to get to know Thierry Valette and his wines. It might be hard to believe, but sometimes to significantly broaden your knowledge it's enough to spend just an hour of your time with the right person at the right place.
*** Curious to find out about other nature-friendly wineries in Bordeaux? Check out my Green Bordeaux section or sign up to the waiting list for the next Biodynamic Bordeaux winery tour!