Chateau Le Puy - 400 years of natural wine in Bordeaux
Updated: May 13
When we speak about the world's top wine regions, the ones that even the non-drinkers heard about, we all mention Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, maybe Piedmont. And what picture pops-up in our minds? Regardless of whether we've been there or seen it in someone's Instagram we imagine hills covered with vineyards to the horizon. Basically, no other agriculture, no crops, no animals.
But it would be very naive to imagine that this is the way it was done a couple of hundreds of years ago. Moreover, sometimes even half a century ago. Wine has been for a long time a synonym to fancy life - aristocrats and bishops were getting the crème de la crème, but we also know that wine was the most common drink for all levels of society. It was safer than water, as it's fermented. However, the wine wasn't a synonym to big business, parkers-sucklings-robinsons weren't invented yet, neither were wine auctions, so whole regions and countries couldn't rely on making their living solely out of producing wine.
So what were they doing? They were 'disloyal' to Vitis vinifera and growing various crops :) Wheat, barley, corn, beans, potatoes and lots of cattle, as there weren't many vegetarians then. And yes, also vine and vineyards, among all these crops and funky animals.
Therefore, after such a long preamble, let me take you to a place where wine is both - luxurious with sky-rocketed prices, but grown in those old-school traditions of our great-great-grandparents. Surprisingly, this place is well hidden in Bordeaux - the world's most commercial winemaking region with one of the most densely planted vineyards.
Chateau Le Puy - when biodynamic certification knocks your door by chance
"We never aimed for any kind of certification, this is just the way wine was made here for the last 400 years". This is how Emeline, the representative of Chateau Le Puy starts her explanation about the estate's philosophy. Fruit trees, cows, horses were always part of their ecosystem, at least for more than 400 years. Ever since family Amoreau owns this land.
The whole philosophy of the family is quite a bit rebellious. They enjoy being outsiders in Bordeaux with their own way of doing things. Jean-Pierre Amoreau who leads the chateau since the 90's even promised to break the rules of INAO and step out of the appellation system. From vintage 2017 all Chateau Le Puy wines will be labelled as Vin de France only. Wines that are different are not by default faulty - they're actually what wine is supposed to be - an expression of the terroir and the personalities of people that produced it.
Synthetic herbicides or fertilizers (and basically anything that is not sourced naturally) had never been used in those 400 years. Vines of Chateau Le Puy were known as 'doctor vines', and the area - as Coteau des Merveilles ('Miracle Hill'). Until World War II vignerons of Saint-Emilion were buying from them grapes to add colour and freshness to their own wines. This was allowed by law then but became illegal in 1946. Le Puy lost their main business and the next 20 years were really tough for the family.
Nevertheless, the estate kept growing vines and producing wine. Their way, without any chemicals. Today, as people are very much into certifications, it was just a matter of achieving the appropriate logo on the label and switching to the usage of the Moon Calendar. Which didn't hurt at all. In the past, people were closer to nature and kept track of their observations. They knew that the blooming of a specific crop might mean a drought that arrives every year at the same time. We lost this knowledge of observations, but we have the Moon Calendar that can lead our actions today. In Le Puy works in the vineyard are done on leaf and root days, in the cellar - on fruit and flower days.
The Terroir of Cotes de Francs - the Miracle Hill in Bordeaux
Bordeaux, right bank, the second highest point in the Gironde area, around 2m higher than Saint-Emilion. Same soil, same plateau that made the fame of Bordeaux Right Bank.
Deep red coloured clay is what you'll find until 60 cm depth, then, directly the limestone plateau. Add to this the fact that pesticides have never been used on the soils of Chateau Le Puy, and you'll get an answer to why was it called the 'Miracle Hill' that grows 'doctor vines'. The above geological conditions make the wines fresh, with higher acidity and allow to slightly delay the harvest without over-ripening the grapes.
Jean-Pierre Amoreau says it takes 1 person in the cellar and 15 people in the vineyard to make good wine. After my visit, I can add that it also takes 5 horses to make those great wines. 19 out of 55 hectares of the estate are worked with 5 horses. Each of them needs to 'study' for 5 years to fully acquire the skills of working in the vineyards (not eating while passing through the rows, not stopping, going with the right speed etc.). Basically, they're not ploughing, but 'scratching' the soil. Deep ploughing would destroy the sensitive ecosystem of the insects and plants that live on the surface of the soil. Scratching will shorten enough the grass on the vineyard, while still leaving enough for the insects to live in.
Besides the 55 ha of vineyards there is 100 ha of land dedicated to forests and simply field plants to grow and thrive. At Le Puy they don't sow specifically crops that are popular in biodynamic and organic farming, which can enhance the quality of the soil. On the contrary, they're trying to observe and maybe revive the grass that has always been growing in this area.
As for the biodynamic treatments - they're using the 501 and 502 preparations, spraying according to Moon Calendar.
Chateau Le Puy against INAO
Think of times when countries started to recover after II World War. Every industry, including wine, we're starving for money. At the same time, 'genius' inventions like pesticides and herbicides were popping up on the market. We're talking about the '70s here. Bordeaux started actively overproducing and INAO (the French Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualite) found a way to eliminate certain wines through tastings. INAO described the specifications for wine production and how the wines are supposed to taste. Theorists, not winemakers set the rules. According to an interview of Jean-Pierre Amoreau this was the beginning of the end for France, and specifically Bordeaux, as a wine region. The differences between wines became blurred.
People soon got bored of similarities in bottles coming from Aquitaine. This gave green light to other countries - diversity of tastes that consumers longed for. If Bordeaux fails to evolve, it will one day disappear from the wine maps just like other once great, and today forgotten, wine regions did.
Chateau Le Puy fought a lot with INAO. Their wines were always too different from INAO standards, so it kept them behind the prestigious appellations. At some point, they were ready to set their own appellation and that way stay in INAO (otherwise why would you keep paying INAO from rejecting you during tastings?). But many years passed without any result, so the Amoreau family took the decision to leave the INAO and label all their precious wines as Vin de France. We'll see it from vintage 2017. They're not too much worried about the change - Le Puy wines are on lists of 35% of the world's Michelin 3-star restaurants.
Besides that, they also move away from the concept of 'chateau'. The family wants to stay in minds of its' customers as rebels from the Bordeaux countryside, not snobs sitting in luxurious mansions, sure that they know everything about wine and make it the best. In fact, Jean-Pierre Amoreau, who's more than 80 years old still says that he can make wine better. Every vintage trying to do so.
In fact, here again, I heard that Bordeaux should have gone the way Burgundy did and based its' classification on climats, not chateaux.
The most fantastic vinification I've seen in France
The simplest and most logical approach in vinification apparently caused most of their rebellious fame. And, obviously, resulted in such uniquely tasting wines that people are ready to pay for them lots and lots of money despite seeing no prestigious appellations on the labels.
There is no stainless steel or new oak in the cellar. Red wines are vinified in open cement tanks with 'terraces' built on top to keep the cap submerged. These 'terraces' are made of the simplest material one could imagine - grape stems, the ones that are usually thrown away. The fermenting wine overflows these 'terraces', cools down and gets enriched by oxygen. The flow of fermenting wine never stops, so imagine it like a fountain, where water jets into the air and then pours back to the basin. An iron pipe that goes from bottom to top releases the pressure once fermentation starts at the bottom of the tank. Explosions are inevitable, but this is a way to make them less frequent, powerful and costly.
This is how wine was fermented for many years in Le Puy. Only now they could give a logical and pragmatic explanation of the phenomenon of wine not becoming faulty, oxidized. Apparently, grape stems contain lots of useful compounds that help to protect the wine against spoilage. If not used in abundance and if ripe enough, you won't get any of the green, unripe, bitter taste, only a well protected wine by its' own by-product.
So only natural thermoregulation, no laboratory yeast or enzymes, no chaptalization and of course no chemical intervention in the vineyard. But this is not all .... the magic doesn't stop at fermentation, we had lots of fun observing the malolactic fermentation too.
In biodynamics, there is a concept known as dynamization. It's used mainly for the preparations (treatments), stirring them for a certain time in order to expose as much as possible to air, enriching them with energy. In Le Puy they actually dynamize the wine during MLF. It's sort of lees stirring which is done according to the moon calendar and significantly increases the ageability of wine without adding any sulphur.
While wines rest in barrels they start stirring them with a wooden stick. The sediment releases its' aromas and flavours. Most of the fine lees eventually get consumed by the alcohol, some remain untouched. That's why before bottling wine rests without stirring for 2 months so that there's no need to filter it.
Let me just emphasize that lees stirring is something really unusual for red wines, while in Chateau Le Puy they mature the wines this way for 24 months without any addition of sulphur.
As for oak, they don't use new barrels, and if a need to stock-up with wood arises, they take the time to rinse them plenty of times to get rid of the oakiness.
Retour des Îles
Dynamization in the cellar was not enough for the Amoreau family. Every year 4 barrels of red wine set for a year-long journey crossing seas and oceans. The barrels are not protected by any means on board of the ship, there's no temperature or pressure control. The wines are left on their own to be dynamized by the sea. They sail all the way to the Caribbean, get some cocoa beans picked up over there and return back to Bordeaux in around 10-12 months. After the trip, they're bottled as Retour des Îles (Return from the Islands) and ready to be served for a very special Christmas dinner.
All the wines of Le Puy have a distinctive difference, an own character to express. There's no standardized Bordeaux style here.
Tasting Emilien and Barthelémy
Emilien is Le Puy's most popular cuvée, out of their total 200 000 bottle production 150 000 goes to Emilien. It comes from a plot planted with 85% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Malbec and 1% Carménère, The wine is matured for 24 months in oak barrels and casks.
This is Le Puy´s fruity wine with a dominance of black and red berries, some hints of almond and just a tiny bit of undergrowth. Tannins are elegant and smooth.
Barthelémy comes from the best plot of the estate - Les Rocs. It's planted with 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine goes through the magical lees stirring with dynamization for 24 months.
The wine is at a different level of complexity. The first thing that comes to your mind is that how perfectly ripe are the grapes. Then you start thinking of the dynamization and what a bold wine it has created. Lots of aromas come from the long maturation - there are some chocolate and coffee, hazelnuts, mushrooms.
It's not a floral-fruity wine, a very expressive taste, that I personally would not pair with food at all (although even the producer recommends grilled meats). I'd be afraid to lose some of the shades of this beautiful wine, so instead, just pour a glass of it and leave me alone to enjoy!
Again life managed to surprise me and prove that even in such a well-known and standardized wine region like Bordeaux, there are places that will leave you speechless and clueless. Just because they do their stuff their own way.
Thanks, Emeline, for being the perfect host at Chateau Le Puy!