Chablis embraces organics

Chablis is embracing organic viticultural practices as a new generation of growers attempts to protect the region’s valuable soils, writes Lindsay Oram.

ChablisParadigm shift in Chablis? A recent visit to the region showed a previously unknown side of this bastion of traditionalism: an increasing occupation with organic viticulture.

“There is a growing interest for all the sustainable practises… and the number of organic estates is growing rapidly,” according to Françoise Roure, who is marketing manager at the BIVB (Bureau Interprofessionnel de Vins de Bourgogne). This move towards organic, and in some cases biodynamic, practises encompasses a wide range of producers both large and small, from newer producers such as Domaine Garnier et Fils to co-operative La Chabilsienne.

Herve Tucki from La Chablisienne, who currently has two organic growers, is seeing an increasing interest among their growers to adopt organic practises, something that the co-op is assisting the producers to achieve.

So why it is happening now? The answer appears to be a change of mindset among many of the new generation of growers. Didier Séguier, director at William Fèvre, believes this change towards organics is a reaction to the previous generation of growers, some of whom impoverished the vineyards with the overuse of fertilizers and chemicals.

This is also the view of Louis Moreau and Jean-François Bordet, who are guided by the more natural viticultural practises of their grandfathers, than those of their fathers.

Such respect for the soil is paying dividends: Didier Séguier is seeing a better expression of terroir since moving to organic and even more precise expression where he has changed to biodynamics in his grand cru vineyards.

Winemaker Jérôme Garnier at his namesake’s domaine believes that the use of agro-chemicals by previous generations was the largest threat to Chablis vineyards.

While it is difficult to get absolute figures, the general view appears to be that around 5% of the Chablis vineyards are now certified as organic, but many producers chose not to be certified.

Louis Moreau, current president of the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis, believes that the true figure is nearer 35% and is optimistic that this will increase to 60% over the next 10 years.

Former William Fèvre winemaker Eric Szablowski is even more optimistic, “My dream is for Chablis to be 100% organic to respect nature and health”.

Why has this shift not been publicised more? It appears to be a combination of natural reticence from the growers, and doing the ‘right thing’ to protect the terroir, rather than slavishly following an organic regime in order to become certified.

For example, Benoît Droin carries out mainly organic practises, but disagrees with the use of copper, which is allowed in organic farming.

There are also the climatic challenges. Dennis Pommier, whose estate is due to be certified as organic in 2014, saw organics as the first step towards biodynamics, but the difficult 2012 vintage has made him rethink.

Didier Séguier admits that mildew can be difficult to control using organic methods. Certainly in vineyards with southerly aspects, like the grands crus, it is much easier to use organic practices.

But despite some difficulties there is no feeling that this shift in thinking will stall. Louis Moreau talks of “evolution rather than revolution”.

In the words of Herve Tucki, “In Chablis the terroir is great, the men are normal”.

But now these normal men are making sure that the terroir remains great.

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