What is special, even unique about wine? What distinguishes wine from other beverages, both alcoholic and non? How do we determine quality in wine? Why does wine matter?

To me these were the essential questions at the heart of a fascinating reserve wine tasting seminar I attended at the recent Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. The seminar was billed as a discussion with Nicolas Joly, owner of Coulée de Serrant, and featured a vertical tasting of his iconic Loire Valley wine, Clos de la Coulée de Serrant.

I describe the wines as “iconic” because Coulée de Serrant is an almost 900 year-old vineyard originally planted by Cistercian monks; because the tiny 17 acre vineyard is its own appellation growing only (the little known) chenin blanc within the larger (but also little known) Savennières appellation; because Nicolas Joly is arguably the leading proponent of biodynamic viticulture; and because the wines regularly receive high praise and high prices (around $90-$100, something pretty rare for wines made from chenin blanc); but also because Joly, his methods, and his wines are revered by many but also invite controversy.

Bobby Stuckey (Sommelier at Frasca Food and Wine) introduced Mr. Joly as a visionary who has spent more time thinking about and practicing biodynamic viticulture than anyone. Mr. Joly began by saying, “It’s all about how energy becomes matter,” a statement that succinctly encapsulates the biodynamic philosophy. He added that the main goal is to fully express the place, in this case the Coulée de Serrant vineyard. Hence, the importance of hat the French call terroir.

That terroir is the middle of the Loire Valley, the region of Anjou-Saumur (just to the west of Angers) where the appellation Savennières (a little further southwest) is the epicenter for dry chenin blanc. The steep, south facing slopes of volcanic soils infused with schist (coarse-grained, layered, mineral and crystal heavy metamorphic rocks) yield wines that, as Karen MacNeil (in “The Wine Bible”) writes, “taste like nothing else.”

That’s why Joly emphasized he is a strong supporter of the French “appellation controlee” system, the whole point of which is to “guarantee” that wines produced in a particular place uniquely reflect that place of origin. It’s also why he says, “I don’t only want a good wine but also a true wine.”

A Savennières typically asserts itself with tight acidity that grips the palate on entry. This and an impressive intensity of fruit enables these wines to live longer than almost any other white wine and even most red wines. The most common descriptors include quince, chamomile, honey, cream, citrus, and stone.

To succeed at his goal to be true to the terroir, Joly explained, requires understanding the farm as a biologically diverse system (even part of larger systems – the earth, solar system) and trusting those natural systems to facilitate the operation of their various components to grow the best grapes possible in a given place.

Once I grasped this fundamental orientation, it made sense when Joly said he is “not a winemaker but a nature assistant.” I’ve often heard the statement that “great wine is made in the vineyard.” At times, it has seemed rehearsed, designed to tell consumers and wine journalists what they expect to hear. Not so with Joly.

So how is the wine “made” in the vineyard? The central tenant of biodynamics, as Joly tells it, is to channel the energy of the vineyard to express itself through the vines into the grapes. As a caretaker of the process, the vigneron’s (or wine grower) role is to assist that energy flow to enable the grapes to achieve optimum balance and ripeness.

Similar to organic agriculture, the vines are tended without pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers and bioengineering and irradiation are off limits. Mr. Joly explained these destroy the “living agents” in the soil. But, like other practitioners of this approach, Joly will employ homeopathic or herbal preparations that are made using substances found in nature and are intended to act on certain aspects of the plant or growth cycle to release the flow of energy.

Then Joly said something that would be heretical in most oenology schools (and caused nervous giggling in the audience): “If the right decisions are made in the vineyard, there actually isn’t much to do in the cellar.” It made me think of an analogy to the world of high fidelity (vinyl) music reproduction, where audiophiles often point out “true” sound quality depends first on the quality of the phonograph (and especially the cartridge/stylus). In other words, if you don’t get it right at the beginning, you have to engage all manner of adjustments down the line to cover up the imperfections.

Mr. Joly continued, with high quality fruit, all he need do is press the grapes; keep the juice in neutral wood barrels; rely on indigenous yeast for fermentation; and pretty much let it all alone until March, only monitoring development and maybe stirring the lees occasionally. Then, he generally does one racking (transferring the wine from one barrel to another leaving sediment behind) and one light filtration right before bottling.

When all is said and done, though, it still comes down to what’s in the bottle. And to me, the eight wines I tasted (admittedly not blind) were a revelation. Joly told us to not expect Clos de la Coulée de Serrant to taste the same each vintage. And the wines in the tasting didn’t. Sure, there were similarities. Each wine to varying degrees showed strong acidity, luscious texture, honey, and an abundance of mostly stone fruits and citrus. Maybe that was the vineyard speaking.

But each wine did have its unique characteristics. An intriguing salty sea breeze quality reminiscent of Spanish Manzanilla Sherry distinguished the 2009. 2008 was the most highly focused. 2007 revealed tangy butterscotch notes, while for 2006 it was caramel apple. I found the 2004 to have the most intense fruit and honey. For 2003, it was the waxy, lanolin-like texture. 2001 was really different showing fennel and tobacco. Finally, orange notes emerged from the 1999, a 12 year-old white wine still incredibly vibrant!

Some have criticized biodynamics as too mystical and weak scientifically (particularly with regard to the more esoteric practices) but Joly argues it requires a deeper understanding of nature and of farming than assumed with the conventional scientific wisdom. Regardless, the most important benefit of biodynamics, at least as practiced by farmers like Nicolas Joly, is it also gives a guarantee of truthfulness in farming and “winemaking.” You know what you are getting, pure, unadulterated produce that is born of a certain place and no other. And we as consumers should be thankful for committed souls like Nicolas Joly for caring enough to assist nature on our behalf.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.