Biodynamic conversion in practice – Francis Boulard

Biodynamic or natural viticulture is a challenge in the Champagne. In my first post on the topic I mentioned that the focus with most growers lies on securing yield, ensuring that nothing happens endangers the amount of grapes you get at harvest. As most growers are dependent on either the grands marques or the cooperatives, you can imagine the impact of the loss of a crop on their finances. Everything in the vineyards is therefore done with one goal in mind: yield instead of quality. As everything will be blended, either on the village or AOC level, a batch that is a bit tricky will not have a dramatic effect on the millions of hectoliters of wine produced.

Unfortunately, if you want to adopt a different approach, sustainable and more focused on quality, you are more often than not stuck with plots of land that have been treated with pesticides and herbicides for years. Conversion therefore takes time. You can use all biodynamic preparations you can find, buy a horse to work the soil or spray whatever you deem necessary in the vineyard, at best it will still be years before you can apply for an organic certification. Even so, this does not even mean that you have gotten rid of all the nastiness the soil has absorbed over time.

boulard-01The family Boulard had been working the vines for six generations, but it was only in the fifties that Raymond Boulard started to make his own wine instead of selling to cooperatives and négociants. His two sons and daughter joined him and continued the domain after his death. Francis, however, wanted to take a different direction and chose to apply the principles of natural and biodynamic viticulture in the vineyards starting in January 2001. As it so often goes in French families, there was disagreement amongst the siblings and the domain was split. Francis’ brother, Dominique still makes wine in a traditional way (under his own name), and Francis has gone full-on biological on the vineyards, resulting in partial Ecocert certification with the goal being the entire domain recognized as organic.

boulard-16The actual domain is located in Cauroy-lès-Hermonville north of Reims. All in all the family owns about three hectares of land and the average age of the vines is about 30 -40 years old. The most important plots are Cuchery to the north of Epernay in the Marne Valley, characterized by limestone and clay in the soil, Cauroy-lès-Hermonville itself (Massif de Saint-Thierry), sandy limestone soils, and Mailly – Champagne village. I find the last one a bit the odd one in the bunch, as it is a bit more out of the way in terms of terroir. The commune is grand cru and grows mainly pinot noir although chardonnay is certified grand cru as well. It is quite difficult to find champagne exclusively from Maily but if you spot a bottle, they are worth checking out, very dense in style at first, deep and structured but vivacious with a steely minerality. Unfortunately I have yet to taste Francis’ Mailly GC.

On to the wines then! The first cuvée is Les Murgiers, a blanc de noirs made of pinot meunier for about 70% and pinot noir for 30%. The one we got to try was the version brut nature. The wine has been aged on oak, old and new, large and small. In order to enhance the texture and structure of the wines, batonnage, increasing the contact between the wine and the yeasts, is performed regularly. First impression is very tight, white fruit mostly with floral aromas after a while. I got the same sensation in the mouth, but the creamy oakiness takes over on the palate and makes it a bit more delicate as the structure enhances the aromas you also had on the nose. This is perfect aperitif champagne; don’t serve it too cold though as I think it will not be as fully expressive as it can be.

The Vieilles Vignes was tasted in extra brut and brut nature as several of Francis’ champagnes are, so it is a great way to see what exactly the effect of sugar can be. This is 100% chardonnay so at first you have citrus, fresh fruit and a little bit of grapefruit. The brut accentuated the fruit, creating a rounder impression in the mouth. It also appeared a bit more evolved with a light nuttiness and riper fruit in the finish. The brut nature was different, a bit less accessible with a hint of salinity. To drink on its own, I would actually prefer the brut as it is rounder, easier and more open. The brut nature however would be more suitable to combine with something to eat and I think that the salinity would be the perfect complement for oysters or scallops.

boulard-59Les Rachais is the family’s top vineyard, a single parcel in the Massif de Saint-Thierry (100% chardonnay), which was actually the first parcel Francis converted to biodynamics. The parcel is characterized by sandy soils, which normally do not show a lot of promise for a wine but the quality and essence of the wine are astonishing, showing what an impact a skilled vigneron has on a wine. Just like all the other champagnes, the still wines were aged in oak of various sizes and batonnage was done according to the lunar calendar. I admit that I’m skeptical when it comes to the effectiveness of all the tricks and tools of biodynamic viticulture but as long as the wine tastes good, I try to keep an open mind! The wine itself is quite dense, quite young also, and instead of the fresh open fruitiness that you get from the Vieilles Vignes, you arrive at dried fruit and a light hint of honey that adds to the richness. The mouth is characterized by the typicity of chardonnay, freshness and lemon zest, but there is a distinct nuttiness like tasted in the other cuvées as well.

Les Rachais Rosé is a blanc de noirs, vintage 2005 made of 100% pinot noir. Unlike the Caudalies Rosé I discussed in the range of De Sousa’s wines, this is a rosé de saignée. Whereas a rosé d’assemblage is made by adding a bit of red wine to white wine just before fermentation in bottle, a rosé de saignée is made entirely from red grapes. This will lead to more structured wines, intense and darker in color. If it’s done sloppy, you would think that you have a supermarket wine with some fizz added, but if done the right way, these are beautiful wines that are best combined with food. The wine is still too young. Dense on the nose with strawberry and raspberry aromas but a bit too tight in the mouth. The palate is still not there yet, but the balled up structure shows a lot of promise for the future.

DSC03696The final wine we tasted was the Millésimé 2006 (50% chardonnay and 50% pinot noir). A lot of domains produce a vintage champagne each year, simply using their best crop of the grapes. Others try to create a Millésime only if the year actually warrants it and with a lot of vignerons, this was the case for 2006. This was the surprise of the tasting. Absolutely beautiful on the nose, I spent five minutes sniffing before I took the first sip. Delicate flowers, a hint of spiciness and brioche. Rich and still a little bit tight in the mouth, showing more vinosity than you would expect but staying fresh and elegant, probably thanks to the chardonnay. Simply a stunning wine!

The cult champagne of Francis is the Petraea XCVII – MMVII – Perpetual Reserve made from a solera started in 19970 right up to 2007. This wine is no longer for sale at this moment, as the Boulard family wanted to wait until all vineyards received their organic certification. The first new Petraea was bottled in 2012 and will spend a couple of more years maturing before it can be sold. A recent crowdfunding initiative on Fundovino allowed Francis to purchase a new barrel to be used for the creation of a new Solera. It was one of the first projects launched and immediately one of the most popular ones as the required funds were raised in no time. Hopefully this means that the Petraea will find its way to Belgium as well!

I kept my introduction to Francis Boulard for last as I think that he is one of the vignerons who sums up all the topics I have written about over the past month. Paying attention to terroir, to creating a living vineyard where the focus is not only on getting the highest yield possible but ensuring that everything adds to the quality of the eventual harvest is essential here. The use of natural yeasts and rectified grape must can seem a bit strange to fans of traditional champagne, but Francis’ champagnes show that, unconventional though these techniques may be, they can lead to excellent wines. About a year ago I knew of only one importer in Belgium, but I am seeing more and more of the wines, even in a local gourmet market which only shows that there is a ready audience for atypical but delicious champagnes!

Thanks to Francis for sorting out some technical details and granting me permission to take the photos from their website.

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