Château de la Roche aux Moines | Biodynamic estate in the Loire Valley. It produces white wines under the Savennières AOC and the Savennières-Roche aux Moines AOC. Red wine is made under the Anjou Rouge AOC.
Owner | Nicolas Joly.
Wine style–Nicolas Joly | Nicolas Joly wrote to me, saying ‘I am not in favour of these easy fruity wines made from grapes harvested too early to make sure no yield is lost. Then they are often processed in the winery to become bien droit, bien frais, bien net [to a standardised clean-fresh-fruity template]. Anyone can make a copy-cat wine like that. The only thing I want is grapes with a mineral taste, and for this you need grapes capable of long hang time. This means 20% lower yields [to avoid rot, bunch-cramping]. But with mass modern farming this is not possible.’
Estate vineyards | 13ha in total.
Biodynamics | In 1979 Nicolas Joly came across a secondhand copy of Rudolf Steiner’s ‘Agriculture’ in a Paris bookshop. | 1980 Biodynamic cultivation begins. | 1980s From 1984–1985 biodynamics was practised on the whole vineyard. | 1991 Wines taken on by Richards Walford, importer in the UK. | 1995 Nicolas Joly attends a biodynamic seminar at Kew Gardens. In the 1990s Michel Dovaz (in La Revue des Vins de France) questioned whether Coulée de Serrant is better now than it was in 1980 when Nicolas Joly took over. Joly has been accused of being as an intellectual succeeding at trying to be a peasant but who enjoys rather less success as a winemaker.
Biodynamic certification | 1981 Engagement initial (Agence Bio 2015). | 1987 Fully certified by Ecocert since 1987. | 2000 Certified Biodynamic by Association Demeter France for 40ha, including ‘elevage’
. Joly had a wooden dynamiser until 1995 when he bought a copper one. | 2008 Demeter certified. | 2012 Demeter certified.
Certification | 1995 Ecocert from 15th June 1995.
Compost & Polyculture | The estate has its own herd of Nantaise cows (with bulls), said to be a rare breed tolerant of wetlands). Some beef is marketed but the cows are there mainly for their manure. They are fed on home produced hay, beets and grain. Pasture and meadowlands occupy a place at the centre of the estate, surrounded by vines. There are 4ha of fallow land (could be what was the Anjou Rouge?). In winter a flock of Ou(e)ssant sheep (an old local breed) graze the vines. In the springtime, a portable chicken coop is installed in the parcels where there are snails.
Cover crops | Over time a dozen different species of interesting native plants have grown up around the vines. This limits the negative effects of monoculture. See cover crops.
Fungal diseases | Small amounts of copper-based sprays are used (Bordeaux mixture, 3 to 5 kg of pure copper per hectare per year). Certain parcels have not been treated for 3 years. ‘Copper is an oligoelement essential to life,’ Joly once told me. Sulfur is also used. As are milk or whey (5 to 10 litres per hectare and per treatment) which ‘is very active against oïdium and very healthy for the vines,’ he told me.
Pests | The skins of rabbits are burnt to discourage them. See pest ashing.
Plant-based sprays | These have been made from sage, sorrel, willow, nettle, thuya, elm, oak bark, goemon, arnica, blackthorn, grande consoude, etc.) These are medicinal plants that come from the property for the most part, or from the mountains–valerian is taken from the Alps, for example, Virginie told me (RAW, 2012). Stinging nettle, oak bark, yarrow, chamomile and dandelion (needed for the Biodynamic preparations) grow on the property.
Ploughing | Kept to a minimum. Two carthorses are used for ploughing on 1.5ha of the oldest vines, with five, as opposed to two employees.
Replanting | The oldest parcel dates from 1920 has provided budwood. From this Joly has grown ungrafted Chenin Blanc from his own seeds. ‘Seeds are a product of their time. The vine has lost all its living energy through having been replanted always by rooting the branches instead of replanting its seeds,’ he says..
Winemaking–criticisms of | ‘The “Joly problem”, if one might so phrase it, is that the biodynamic project is for him a moral imperative, and it is thus one that eclipses all other considerations. He much prefers talking about biodynamics to talking about winemaking; he would rather show visitors his herds of rare local cows (which he keeps for their manure alone) than conduct a vertical tasting,’ Andrew Jefford: 2002, p.55).
‘Nicolas Joly forfeited some of the respect that should have been his due [as a biodynamic advocate] by what one might tactfully call an inconsistent winemaking record. It seemed as though he was too busy proselytising biodynamics around the world to be aware of what was going on in his cellar – yet his wines were, and are, far more expensive than those of his neighbours. This, alas, did little to enhance the reputation of Savennières. Fortunately, from around 2006 the wines have been made by Nicolas Joly’s daughter Virginie, a trained oenologist who has been turning out some stunning wines from the family estate,’ says Jancis Robinson (11 Sep 2010).
‘Nicolas Joly has one of the greatest terroirs in the world, and produces good grapes, but one wonders if he converts all of this potential. He doesn’t communicate properly with wine lovers, a reflection of him, lectures and hectors, very driven ideology. The best thing is that they are real wines, legend terroir, what is confusing is why they do not deliver more as everything is being done right; left feeling a bit disappointed that they are not grander, but tend to be ill-focused and muddy; this is one of the great appellation wines of France, and this should be a 200 euro wine, and that it does not deliver is perplexing. The wines from the old era were less concentrated than since Biodynamics was introduced, and they were over sulphured so they had to be decanted. Now there is more soil and more concentration in the wines, but they lack some of the cerebral elegance that they used to have. What NJ really needs is a winemaker, a Pinguet or an Eric Nicolas – and you can quote me’, says Roy Richards (speaking to me on 05th in his office in Pickworth, Lincolnshire in December 2003.
Biodynamics & quality–Richard Nurick | In June 2015 Richard Nurick sent me this email: ‘Many thanks for your prompt reply to my Email and for the info re Biodynamic vineyards. Yes I remember supplying Roberson [a London wine shop founded by Cliff Roberson in which I used to work]. I was distributor for Nicolas Joly and Coulée de Serrant. I remember him getting very cross as I suggested his vineyard produced superb wines because it was planted on top of a graveyard for English soldiers who died in the 100 years war [1337–1453] and not because it was Biodynamic. Richard.’
Savennières AOC Cuvée du Château | From 3ha of Chenin Blanc. | 2002 Low yield of 30hl/ha when 50hl/ha is standard. | 2007 Heavy and crisp, interesting but perhaps lacking lift at the Atlantic restaurant in Toronto with Mark Cuff, John Szabo and Zoltan Szabo (no relation) on Saturday evening 16 April 2011.
Savennières AOC, Le Vieux Clos | 2009 Clear, mineral, some alcoholic heat too (Return to Terroir, 2011). Dense, wild herb and honey (RAW, 2012).
Savennières-Roche aux Moines AOC, Clos de la Bergerie | The vineyard is adjacent to Savennières Coulée de Serrant AOC (see below) .3ha of Chenin Blanc. Three other growers have vines in Clos de la Bergerie. | 2001 Light honey, some milk, but dense (Corney & Barrow, 2003).
Savennières-Coulée de Serrant AOC, Le Clos de la Coulée de Serrant | D’Artagnan: ‘Pray ask our host if he does not have a few good bottles of Coulée de Serrant hidden behind the logs in his cellar’. – ‘Le Vicomte de Bragelonne’ by Alexandre Dumas (1844). 7ha (17 acre) monopole, south-west facing, Chenin Blanc. One of only two non-Burgundian AOCs in France under single ownership (the other is Château-Grillet). The name ‘refers to the moist depression between two hillsides,’ (Jefford: 2002, p.55). The Coulée de Serrant vineyard was first planted in 1130 by Cistercian monks. It has been a vineyard ever since. The monastery building still stands. The Château de la Roche aux Moines was built in 1130, a few hundred yards away from the Monastery but still on its property – a stronghold designed to protect the Loire below. In 1214 Prince Louis, son of Philippe Auguste, put to flight John Lackland, King of England. His father Philippe [Auguste] meanwhile was winning the battle of Bouvines. The fortress was dismantled in the 16th Century at the time of the religious wars on the orders of the king to prevent its becoming a Protestant bastion. The ruins of the castle can still be seen and its old underground passage still serves as a cellar to the present house which was rebuilt on the site two centuries after the castle’s destruction. Curnonsky described the wine as “Un des cinq plus grands vins blancs de France”. In 1959 the Joly family purchased the (then dilapidated) estate. In 1962 monopole AC status was granted to Le Clos de la Coulée de Serrant.
‘Vintages of Coulée de Serrant since the mid-1990s are far riper and more allusive than the sometimes disappointing, under-ripe, hit-and-miss wines which preceded them,’ (Jefford: 2002, p.55).
| 1947 Fully sweet. | 1949 Fully sweet. | 1957 ‘Good sunshine with low yields (Ahmed). | 1968 Poor vintage. | 1978 ‘very low yields (18hl/ha) on account of frost,’ (Ahmed). Said to have been picked in excellent conditions. | 1981 A small crop, picked in ideal conditions. Earth and mineral nose with some cream; piercing acidity but plenty of texture; bit heavy maybe, not ethereal enough (Burghley Road, December 2003, sample from Roy Richards). ‘Aromas of bandages, suggesting the presence of Brettanomyces,’ (Ahmed). | 1982 The end of this hot harvest caught the rain. | 1983 A late harvest which finished on 8th November. | 1988 12.5% dusty, broad, steely. | 1990 ‘A magisterial wine of prodigious aromatic power,’ (Jefford: 2002, p.55). | 1991 12.5% alcohol. Honeyed but lean finish. | 1992 12.5% alcohol. A mid-straw colour, warm taste of nut kernels. | 1994 12.5% alcohol. Honey and cream, nut and apricot skins. | 1995 ‘A sweet nose of yellow plums with rich, ripe pear, mineral and cloves…6g/l of residual sugar,’ (Ahmed). Labelled as containing 12.5% alcohol. Tasted on 27th July 2002 with Laure in Burghley Road. Rich amber colour. Bright, ripe, passerilié aroma. Mature and at its peak. Intense, rich entry with stone fruit and marked acidity the dominant characteristics. Not opulent at all though. Very tight, a meanness also to it which is strange considering the intensity. ‘Superb – and very different from [1997 and 1998]…smells of baked almond pastry,’ (Jefford: 2002, p.55). | 1995 Liquoreux Joly says this was how Savennières used to be before the AC change (ie see the vintages of Clos de la Coulée de Serrant in the 1940s). Drought in July and August, some rain at the start of September. Picked end of September, from 10th October and from 20th October (this produced a traditional liquoreux with RS 49 g/l). | 1996 15% alc. Good vintage, acidity level is key (Roy Richards). Joly says this is probably the best wine he has ever made [although he does not like to be described as a winemaker]. | 1997 (6g/l residual sugar. | 1998 Botttles. | 1999 Mid-gold, quite evolved and ready, some oxidation, soft wood and diacetyl, honeyed too, takes a while to open, crisp palate, good mineral tones and freshness for a wine with such evolution, parsley too, tires quickly on second tasting two hours later, 83 points when tasted at the Wine magazine biodynamic tasting, 23rd April 2003. Very honeyed and rich, ripe, exotic, full middle, good length, maybe slightly burnt (Corney & Barrow Biodynamic seminar, May 2003). | 2000 Low sugars. | 2001 Honey, some milk and denseness (Corney & Barrow, 2003). | 2002 High sugars. Picked in four stages during October with good weather. 22 hl/ha (40hl/ha is standard). | 2008 High alcohol. | 2009 Clean, very intense, big potential but maybe a bit hot (Return to Terroir, 2011). Big again, bit more integrated, oily almost, bright yellow almond colour but 15.5% alcohol on 23rd August 2011 Southbrook Vineyards, Niagara during my Biodynamic wine presentation there. Warm, with an impression of sweetness (RAW 2012).
Anjou Rouge AOC, Château de la Roche aux Moines | No longer made, it seems.| 1990 Carbon dioxide (decant two days before drinking), mint and pepper on the nose, mossy, corrugated, crisp red fruit, no mention of Demeter Biodynamic certification on label.
Château de la Roche aux Moines
F-49170 Savennières (Maine et Loire), France
Tel+33 (0)220.127.116.11.32 Tel+33 (0)18.104.22.168.80 (Nicolas, home)
Andrew Jefford., The New France (Mitchell Beazley, 2002) p.55.
Association Demeter France., Liste de Producteurs, Transformateurs et Grossistes, Demeter France 2000.
Bernard Jarman., Grapes on the river Loire, Star & Furrow 102, p.53-54.
Jancis Robinson MW., ‘Revived Savennières’, jancisrobinson.com published 11 Sep 2010).
Jean-Marc Carité., Les Bonnes Addresses du Vin Biologique 2000-2001, p.143.
Nicolas Joly., Le Vin du Ciel et de la Terre (Editions Sang de la Terre).
Sarah Ahmed MW., ‘Savennières a half-century tasting’, World of Fine Wine 2 2004 p.21.