This is the English version of an article published for my wine column at Forbes Japan. The Japanese version is found here.
Group photo of members of "Bulles Bio"
Bulles Bio – An organic Champagne producers' group
In Champagne, like other major winegrowing regions, there is an increasing awareness about the necessity to produce wine in a way that is sustainable while taking into account the environment and people. The growing number of consumers who prefer wines produced in this way is also boosting this trend.
Bulles Bio is a producers' group that focuses on organic farming in the severe climate of the Champagne region. Champagne is a traditional wine region, but it is at the northern limit of the area where wine growing is possible and has a cool climate with a lot of rain. Even in the middle of April 2019, the temperature fell below zero in the early morning and there was concern about the risk of frost in the vineyard.
Le Printemps des Champagnes, the so-called “Champagne week”, is held annually in April and consists of a series of tasting events. This year, as in previous years, Champagne experts from around the world gathered in the city of Reims. Like last year, I traveled to Champagne to attend those events, including the tasting and La Soiree, a party organized by Bulles Bio producers to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
A producers’ group committed to organic farming
The Bulles Bio group was formed in 2010. At its beginning, the membership consisted of 20 producers who owned a total of around 150 hectares of organically farmed vineyards. Today, the membership has grown to 80 producers with a total of 900 hectares of organic vineyards. The total vineyard area in the Champagne region is as large as 34,000 hectares, so the group is still relatively small in terms of ratio. However, many members are prominent producers with high profiles and high levels of leadership, and its influence is increasing. The members are mainly small-scale grower-producers who make wine from their own vineyards but some major Maisons, such as Louis Roederer, Fleury, and Leclerc Briant, are also part of the group.
One condition of membership is to be a certified organic or biodynamic producer. According to Pascal Doquet, the group’s president and a forerunner in organic farming, “Sharing the same way of thinking is more important than the formality.”
Mr. Pascal Doquet in his vineyard in Vertus
Throughout the wine regions of the world, more and more wineries are carrying out such farming methods. It requires tougher commitments, especially in the region with severe climate conditions like Champagne, for producers being certified, as the members of this group are. At times when there is an increased risk of disease spreading to the grapes, such as during periods of heavy rain, for example, certified producers, which are only permitted to use certain types of sprays, may have no choice but to accept the disease. Consequently, the quantity of grapes harvested may be significantly reduced in such years.
“It's like we're walking a tightrope without safety ropes,” said Doquet, emphasizing the difficulties of grape growing in Champagne while maintaining certification.
By adopting such farming methods, it takes more time and effort to grow grapes and additional labor is required. Without the passion of wanting to “grow good grapes and make good wine,” such practices cannot be sustained. It requires a strong determination to cope with the challenges, but the producers in this group are all bright and entertaining.
Some members of the group formed a band and performed live at the 10th-anniversary party, which continued until near dawn. Doquet, who plays the guitar, is strong-willed and has a strong desire to accomplish his goals. On meeting him in person, however, he proved to be a calm and gentle character. “We need a rock-and-roll spirit,” he said with a smile.
Fantastic live performance by producers of Bulles Bio. Gt: Pascal Doquet, Dr: Olivier Horiot
Georges Laval, from the village of Cumières
One member of Bulles Bio is Georges Laval, a producer based in Cumières situated along the Marne River, about ten minutes' drive from Épernay. It was one of the first producers to start organic farming in the Champagne region and has been doing so since 1971. It has a cult-like following because of its low production from the small size of its vineyards despite its high popularity.
This village's vineyards are on a south-facing slope and the grapes grow well in the sun so they can be harvested at a high level of ripeness. The wines of Georges Laval are balanced, even without dosage (Brut Nature), because the grapes are round and fruity with a high level of maturity.
Lelarge-Pugeot, from the village of Vrigny
Based in Vrigny village, about a 15-minute drive from Reims, Lelarge-Pugeot is another member of Bulles Bio that practices biodynamic farming.
The current owner, Dominique Lelarge, the seventh generation, produces wine from about eight hectares of vineyards. He decided to stop using herbicides in 2000 and switched to organic farming in 2010, obtaining organic certification in 2015. Since then, he has moved toward biodynamic farming and has been certified by Demeter since 2017.
I walked through the vineyards of Lelarge-Pugeot with Dominique in Vrigny in April, when the bud breaks were taking place and a new life cycle beginning. The soil was comfortably soft and there was a beauty in the vitality of the vineyards that respected a diverse ecosystem. Dominique says that, among other reasons, he moved to organic farming because he wanted to leave better vineyards for his children, the next generation, and to consider the health of the neighbors living close to the vineyards. It has been nearly ten years since the transition and he realizes that the quality of the grapes has improved.
Dominique works to make wines as naturally as possible, with as little intervention as possible. As well as sparkling wine, he also produces still reds and whites, Coteaux Champenois.
Meunier grapes grow well in the area around Vrigny. Compared to Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, Meunier is the least well known and under-rated of the three main Champagne grapes. However, some producers have recently been paying attention to the grape because of its individuality and are trying to make the best of its potential. This adds another spectrum to Champagne’s diversity of wine styles.
Meunier is also an important grape variety for Lelarge-Pugeot. Its entry-level Tradition cuvée is made with a blend of over 50% Meunier, and 100% Meunier Champagnes and wines are also produced.
Dominique also comes up with original ideas and wines that others cannot think of. His Honey Harmony Champagne is a rare product that uses homemade honey as dosage. The amount of dosage is only about 3 grams per liter so the influence of the honey is minimal, but I found that there are subtle nuances of it in the aroma and the wine becomes rounder and mellower on the palate.
Organic or biodynamic viticulture is not just a way to attract consumers by putting such a label on a bottle. The passionate producers who commit to such challenges can harvest high-quality grapes by using such farming methods as a result.
It goes without saying that organically grown grapes do not necessarily produce good quality wines; appropriate decisions are still important at the key stages of viticulture and winemaking in order to create a great wine.