ust 15 years ago, the only estates in Burgundy using organic or biodynamic principles were the most famous ones. I am very happy to be in Burgundy, because these estates showed the way. They did not use it to sell the wine, because it was selling already, but they did it in order to prove what could be done in terms of quality. If you sell a very expensive wine quality can’t be anything but the highest.
Jean-Philippe Bret, one third of the brother team behind Domaine La Soufrandière and Bret Brothers, can look back on 14 years of wine-making, most of them organic or biodynamic, in the south of Burgundy.
– But organic or biodynamic wine-growing is not just something for the top estates, he says. Everybody can do it. Even the cooperatives. If you want to produce higher quality wines organic or biodynamic is the key.
The place is Vinzelles, a village in the Mâconnais with some 750 inhabitants. This is the southernmost part of Burgundy, with appellations such as Pouilly-Vinzelles, Pouilly-Loché, Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Vèran. All white appellations, only chardonnay.
– My paternal grandfather bought the estate in 1947. But neither my grandparents nor my parents worked with wine. Instead there were share-croppers and the local cooperative. We grew up in a suburb to Paris, but my parents, my two brothers and I spent all our vacations at our maternal grandparents’ house in Vinzelles.
In 1992 Jean-Philippe and Jean-Guillaume Bret decided to go for a career in wine. After wine school and various internships in France and abroad they produced their first vintage in Vinzelles in 2000. Marc-Antoine Bret joined his brothers in 2010.
– We were lucky because the contract with the cooperative came to an end in 1998, says Jean-Philippe Bret. The contracts with the sharecroppers ended in 1999. Before we could take care of the grapes ourselves we sold them to Jean-Marie Guffens-Heynen.
– When my grandfather bought the house there was only one hectare of vines included. Over the years he would then add small parcels to the estate until it reached a total of four hectares.
– With our maternal grandfather we would go fishing, picking mushrooms and tasting wine. We were only five or six years old when we started, so the quantities of wine were very small. So for us it was an obvious choice to start making wine ourselves when we got older.
These excursions also played an important role in shaping their future approach on wine-growing. Jean-Philippe Bret talks about his passion for the terroir in the Mâconnais.
– The Mâconnais has always been in the shadow of the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune. But both Jean-Guillaume and I were sure the terroir was there. It was just a question of explanation, a question of high quality growing, a question of high quality wine-making. It was a challenge. We were very proud of being from the Mâconnais.
– We decided to go for organic for two reasons. During my studies I worked at Domaine des Comtes Lafon in 1998-1999, where I learnt a lot about organic and biodynamic wine-growing. Since this was 15 years ago we didn’t learn much about it in school. Since I enjoy going fishing in the small streams in the Mâconnais I saw the impact of the pollution, so for us organic was the only option. Secondly, in Burgundy people are very proud of their terroir, but if there is no organic life in the soil it is difficult to talk about terroir wines.
From day one they used organic principles for all of the owned vines, the Domaine La Soufrandière part of the business. For the négociant part, Bret Brothers, it has been been a gradual process. Today 60 per cent of the grapes bought in for the Bret Brothers are certified organic. 20 per cent are organic, but not certified, and the remaining 20 per cent not organic, but at least a minimum use of herbicides.
For the Bret Brothers wines they work with the same growers every year. The quantities for each wine are small. Instead they offer a large number of appellations. Together with the Domaine La Soufrandière wines they produce over 20 different wines. All the principal crus are there, but also a number of wines from the vast Mâcon appellation. This appellation covers a large part of the Mâconnais and for the labels Mâcon may be used together with the name of one of 20 villages – Mâcon-Cruzille, Mâcon-Uchizy, Mâcon-Vinzelles etc.
– Much of the focus is on the south of the Mâconnais, where you have Pouilly-Vinzelles, Pouilly-Loché, Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Vèran, says Jean-Philippe Bret. But I am sure the rest of the Mâconnais will follow. I know there are projects where the aim is to have parts upgraded to village appellation, and eventually premier cru.
– The Mâconnais is often thought of as being homogeneous in terms of soil. But you have maybe as much diversity as in the Côte d’Or. The only thing is that 70 per cent of the Mâconnais are controlled by the cooperatives. I’m not saying they are doing a bad job, but they are quite big units and usually many of their wines are blends.
– In Cruzille we work with Domaine Guillot-Broux. It is one of the best terroirs in the north of the Mâconnais. It has the potential to be a cru in the same way as Pouilly-Vinzelles or Pouilly-Fuissé. Large areas are controlled by the Cave de Lugny, so it is difficult to say you have a terroir of your own.
– You have two parts in Cruzille. The most famous is east-facing, with very white limestone. Depending on where you are you have between one and two meters of clay mixed with a lot of small white stones. Quite active limestone, more than what you have in Vinzelles. The same goes for other villages - like Chardonnay - in the north of the Mâconnais. Younger soil than in Vinzelles, but very interesting.
The Mâconnais is the only part of Burgundy without any premier crus. The first steps towards a reclassification were taken in 2010 when a geological study of the Pouilly-Vinzelles, Pouilly-Loché, Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Vèran was sent to the INAO, the National Institute for Appellations.
– Premier crus is a good idea, says Jean-Philippe Bret. Again, it’s a way of saying that the Mâconnais is part of the big family in Burgundy. Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune and Côte Chalonnaise all have premier crus. But not the Mâconnais. The quality is there and we are often asked by clients why there aren't any premier crus here. I don’t think it will affect the prices; they are already quite high here at the estate.
Today most growers think it’s a good idea. But when they started the process that wasn’t always the case. Some were afraid they would not have any of their land classified as premier cru. At this point about 20 per cent of each appellation is considered for premier cru. Some will probably be disappointed, but the general approach is that no matter who gets the premier crus, having premier crus will be good for the region as a whole.
– We are in the middle of the process. A lot of work has been done. It takes time. For instance we have made 200 holes in the ground across the appellations. Many people have never had the chance to see anything like that. These two meter deep holes gave them the opportunity to see the different layers of the soil, the roots etc.
– Even if we don’t get any premier crus something good has come out of it. People have met, they have started to think about the soil here and the quality of the wine.
© 2014 Ola Bergman