Didier Barral: The Gentle Voice of the Earth

Didier Barral, winemaker and steward of the ecosystem in Faugères.
Didier Barral, winemaker, winegrower, and valiant defender of the ecosystem in the town of Lentheric, in Faugères (Languedoc, France).

Listening to Didier Barral — the most careful and loving steward of nature — speak from among his vines in Lentheric is a religious experience.

But even if it feels religious, and even if Didier is a noted advocate of organic, Fukuoka-influenced hands-off farming, nothing about Didier’s discourse feels preachy. There are no exhortations; no imperatives. His persuasiveness flows from the stunning beauty of his 35 hectares of vines, and from the freshness and purity of his wines. He speaks for himself, and tells his story: one of observation, of trial and error in his vineyards.

At some point in your experience of wine, you grow interested in terroir. Rocks; slopes; drainage; expositions.  Later, like it or not, you become interested in farming. Careful farming enables great wines, and is often the most reliable predictor of a wine’s ability to transmit terroir. 1

Didier is quick to contrast his neighbors’ vines with his own as a starting point to understanding his wines. What follows is my translation from French, with interjected bits of Didier’s English interwoven.

Didier: “Look at the difference in the grass between the neighbor’s vines and my vines. The key to soils is vegetative diversity. And what’s most important is to have different grasses in the soil. The more grasses, the more well-balanced your soil. Because if you have only one grass, you have an imbalance.”

Me: Yesterday I spoke with a Pic Saint Loup producer that viewed grass as the enemy: they use RoundUp, and they are terrified of harvesting grass.

“Let me explain.

One becomes the enemy of those they do not understand.

Here’s how I learned the value of grass. In 1995, there was a big drought. And at the end of the vinification, there were three vats that were better than the others. More acidity, more freshness. So I had an analysis done, and it was exactly that: more acidity. At the time, I understood how it was better, but not why.

And next year, I understood when I plowed the vine. All the high acidity grapes came from the vines where I had been plowing in a perpendicular direction.

If you have trellising, you always plow in the same direction. But when it’s in both north/south and east/west directions, the water is held in the soil. The water doesn’t have a channel to go away.

No trellising; no tilling; goblet pruning; grass everywhere; no channels formed by tractors to waste water.
No trellising; no plowing; gobelet pruning; grass everywhere.

This is called a gobelet system. Thirty years ago, no vineyard in the Mediterranean climate, from Perpignan to Nice, had tractor trellising — ever. There was never a trellised vine here!

So that proves that it’s a fashion. It’s like, if the fashion were to wear a tee shirt in winter — you’d be cold, but: hey, that’s the fashion. It’s exactly the same thing here with trellising.

At the onset of trellising in Mediterranean climate, people said it was better because it encouraged photosynthesis. But in a Mediterranean climate, the most important thing is to protect against the sun! It’s awful, once you really understand, you realize it’s a huge mistake.

So, in 1995, I realized there was a link between soil permeability and acidity. And I began perpendicular plowing. Then, two years after in 1997, we had a totally different vintage with a lot of rain.

And one morning that year, when I went to a pharmacy in Laurens, I noticed there were a lot of puddles in the vines. Plowing and puddles; I didn’t understand. And when I went to the mountain that afternoon looking for mushrooms, in the mountain, there were no puddles. Which means there was more soil permeability in the mountain.

Why? Because when you plow, you kill all the living beings — vegetable or animal — capable of rendering the soil permeable. We’ve found three ways of permeabilizing the soil: earthworms, insects, and roots. These all live near the surface. Earthworms can go 5 or 6 meters deep. But the problem with earthworms is that they lay only one or two eggs per year. And when you plow, you kill; and if you plow too deep, you can kill too many earthworms.”

Do you kill their eggs?

“Ah, when you plow, you kill everything! Plowing first of all kills the grass. And growers think grass is in competition with the vines. But the difference is that grass roots are shallow. Vine roots run very deep — 10 or 20 meters. The problem is that roots need oxygen in order to go deep. If the soil is compact, the roots have to come back up for respiration. And in this example, they are in competition with the grass. But, if you have deep roots, you have less competition. You lose in yield if you leave the grass, but you win with stronger vine structure, and less disease. 2

The most important reason the gobelet system is better than trellising is because it prevents the sun from cooking and burning the soil.

The desert advances wherever there is no shadow.

So it’s better to stop plowing. We did 10 years ago. And instead, we use the Brazil method — Rolofaca. It’s a roller, and you roll the grass down, to make a mulch, and to avoid evaporation twice per year. In May, and either June or July.”

You use a machine to do this?

“On treads, because it compacts the soil less. I’ll show you.

  • Didier Barral's homemade rolofaca.

I built this myself. It’s easy. It’s a can of gas, I cut off the head…then….”

So this is the only example of this thing that exists?

“No! Now you can buy them from dealers.

But you made the first? Or did the Brazilians do this first?

“Brazilians in the past used tree trunks between pineapple trees and coffee bushes. Because in Brazil, there’s a lot of rain.

It’s all about the earthworms. And in order to encourage the earthworm’s reproduction, in the past I put a lot of manure in the vines. But below the manure, because I laid it out with a shovel, there were no insects, no earthworms. It took me a long time to understand this! But it’s easy. It’s because manure is a blend of shit and urine. And the difference is that insects and earthworms don’t like urine because there’s too much ammonia.

So this is why manure is good for fertilizing, but not for encouraging the reproduction and feeding of earthworms. But if you put cows directly in the vines in winter, it’s great.

Cow patties are like a disco club for earthworms.

Earthworms go inside, eat, and reproduce. They can smell the cow patty from many meters away. And for this reason, we have a herd of cows, because the cow patty is better than horse manure. It’s gives humidity in summer, and heat in winter. Cows are better than horses.”

An alternative to roundup; cows, cordoned off by electric wire, munching grasses and weeds. Photo courtesy Didier Barral website.
Alternative RoundUp; cows, cordoned off by electric wire, munching away. Photo courtesy Didier Barral website.

So how do you prevent urine?

“Well, the cow, it poops here, and it pees there. Never in the same place. Never. Once the horse disappeared, and the tractor arrived, we lost that continuity with the feeding and reproduction of earthworms. And right afterwards, once the tractors arrived, they cut deep; and before you knew it, the last few earthworms were killed.

The ideal is to have 40 cows, 5 sheep, 3 goats … but the problem is that it’s a lot of work. It means one extra person per year who just works with cows. But we change the grass and flora every 10 years with the pasture. And in these parts, there are no cows — this isn’t cow country. That’s why we had to find a rustic breed of cows 3.

So, in the vineyards, I put the cows out in winter. And now I need to remove them, otherwise they will eat the flowering buds. They spend around 6 months in the vineyards, from October to mid-April.”

Do the cows eat the grass?

“Of course! And the cows, they can eat the branches from the vines. Then afterwards, when I need to prune, it’s easier for me. We use an electric wire to orient the cows. Every week, we change spots.”

What exactly is your soil?

“Schist. There’s only schist in Faugères.”

A retaining wall near Didier's vineyard highlights the schist (here, slate) soil components.
A retaining wall near Didier’s vineyard highlights the schist (here, in the form of slate) soil components.

Schist, earthworms, and grass, eh?

“It’s better to have grass and earthworms than schist!”

What do you have to pay the most attention to in the culturing of vines?

“The most important thing? Everything’s important! The goal is to use less chemical sprays. We’re organic; we don’t use herbicides. But, even with sulphur or copper, the less you use, the better. Being organic is good, but having a good balance is even better. In nature, a good balance is important, and the only way nature finds balance is through diversity.

And that’s why, in my opinion, farming organically while practicing monoculture doesn’t make sense.

If you don’t use chemical products, you get an organic license — no problem. But to have a good balance, it’s better to have polyculture.” 4

Yeah, and for the planet. So you’re not biodynamic — you’re beyond biodynamic.

“No. I can use treatments, but: I’m not limited like this (gestures as if he has blinders on).”

Thank God.

“Because nature existed before biodynamics.”

And Rudolph Steiner!

“Ha! Yes. Now, on the other hand, it’s true that people that work biodynamically have a well-developed sense of observation. In relation to plants, insects, many things.”

Well, they had enough sense to sidestep monoculture. I’ve always thought that explains their success: they embraced microbial soil life by abandoning chemicals and monoculture.

“Yeah. And, you know, we’re friends: we’re on the same team! One thing’s for sure: they’re better than conventional wines. It’s a step in the right direction, biodynamics. It’s a good direction.”

  • Note old, wooden basket press in the background.

While tasting barrel samples just outside his cellar and spitting on the ground, Didier noted:

“It’s better to give it back to the Earth. Just, not all in one place! …a bit over here, a bit over there. Because people just pour it down the drain, and that goes straight to the fish. You know, when I was a child, my grandfather, Leon, showed me how to use these big white bottles, kind of like Champagne bottles, but with holes on this side. And we used to go together to the stream downhill, and we’d put the bottle in the stream, and the fish would slip right in. And it really stuck with me; in summer, we would collect fish, climb back up to the house and eat them.

But the problem is that now, there are no more fish. They disappeared around 1997. Yesterday, I went fishing with the little ones, and they’re returning.

Because 5 or 6 years ago, I caught some fish further upstream, and I brought them back downstream by reintroducing them.

I’m rebuilding the fish population.”

When did you choose to be a winemaker?

“Ah, that’s a terrifying question. At first I stayed home and helped my father, and that way I avoided having to do military service! But later it was love of nature…and I started to love wine.

But especially, it was because I met one person who changed everything for me. His name was Pierre Martin. He came into my cellar, about 25 years ago, and when he tasted the wine, he could tell immediately if the wine was artificially yeasted, if it had sulphur added, the maturity in degrees of alcohol — everything. Because me, at the beginning, I didn’t know if the wine had sulphur added. Now, I know. It was his visit that changed everything for me.

Who the hell was this guy?! Was this guy a winemaker?

“No! He was a concrete engineer! 5 He was a passionate lover of classical music as well, and painting. And his fantasy was to be locked in a cellar in the Loire with his wife, and to die with while drinking Philippe Foreau’s Goutte d’Or 6!”

***

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As for Didier’s finished wines, it’s a shame that Didier’s white, mostly Terret blanc, is of such a tiny production that it’s nearly impossible to find in the USA7. Didier explained while sampling the Terret blanc from tank that we had to swallow (and not spit) this wine to understand it, because it caresses the throat on the way down. Terret blanc, a Mediterranean variety, was forgotten, and nearly extinct. The advantage with Terret is that it ripens at the end of the harvest (contrary to Chardonnay, which ripens at the beginning of the harvest), so Terret’s acidity isn’t burnt by the warmth of August, because it ripens in September.

Even unfinished in tank, the Terret was alluring and had a lightly honeyed character, with orchard fruits, and a stalky, earthy aromatic backdrop that brought to mind Alsatian Riesling. Caresses the throat as promised. Is this the wine to drink with a sore throat?

Seeing as Terret blanc is not an approved variety 8, the finished white must be simply called the 2012 Leon Barral Vin de France (blanc), but is quite impressive. The final assemblage is typically 80% Terret Blanc or Gris, 10% Viognier, and 10% Roussane. The nose offers pollen, honey, a fresh vegetal aroma akin to celery leaves, and a pear juice fruity palate attack.  I’m now desperately searching for this, and kicking myself I didn’t trouble Didier for a bottle to bring home.

The 2011 Domaine Leon Barral Faugères Jadis (50% Carignan, 30% Syrah, and 20% Grenache) has a broad, sweet nose and palate attack, but a lovely floral finish saves the day from Southern syndrome. This wine is great. The stalky character on the nose and palate (most certainly Carignan, although Didier’s Grenache has a pleasant vegetal character as well) perks up the ensemble.

The 2011 Domaine Leon Barral Faugères Valinière, Didier’s flagship wine, is a more tightly coiled, serious stuff for aging. These are younger vines, however they leverage  more highly-structured varieties: 80% Mourvèdre and 20% Syrah. It is still balanced and promising, if clearly wanting time in the cellar.

As his importer Kermit Lynch rightfully notes: these wines are fragile, living things. It will be worth the effort to source these immediately on release, or, failing that possibility, from a retailer who has impeccable temperature control — particularly if you are lucky enough to find the white! If Didier’s prices are higher than other Languedoc wines, just remember: one guy, just to care for cows, all year.

Besides, how do you put a price on complete harmony?

Didier Barral among his vines in Faugères.
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  1. This is not to say all organically-farmed vines go on to make great wines; some taste like a horse’s ass. Skillful, responsible farming simply enables terroir-driven wines to rise from a cellar. []
  2. The maximum permitted yields in Faugères are 33 hectoliters/hectare. Technically you can get away with 45hL/ha, but no one does this. Didier Barral’s yields are between 25-30hL/ha. []
  3. Jersey cows, visible here: http://www.domaineleonbarral.com/Vignes/BarralVignes8B.jpg []
  4. Polyculture allows other species of plants to grow alongside vines in order to encourage a more balanced ecosystem. Monoculture is the byproduct of an industrial age which sought to maximize yield, and profit from only one product growing in the ground. []
  5. It turns out that yes, he was indeed a concrete engineer, but that Pierre Martin’s passion for wine ran deeper than that: Pierre Martin formed Domaine de la Pinte in Arbois, a lovely Jura domaine with a particularly enchanting Poulsard I’ve sold many cases of. []
  6. Unicorn wine alert: Philippe Foreau is one of the finest winemakers of Vouvray, and only in exceptional vintages does he produce an off-dry Goutte d’Or, which sells for around $300. 1947, 1990, and 2011 are the only three vintages. []
  7. Even if it is imported via Kermit Lynch, then sold through IPO Wines []
  8. Faugères appellation blending rules indicate Faugères blanc must primarily use Roussanne and one of the following major varieties: Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, or Vermentino; it may then use secondary grapes (no more than 10%) such as Clairette and Viognier; and, if planted before May 20, 1998, Carignan Blanc and Macabeu; and, if planted before February 25, 2005, Bourboulenc. Cf. Cahier des charges de l’appellation d’origine contrôlée Faugères homologué par le décret n° 2011-1802 du 6 décembre 2011, JORF du 8 décembre 2011. Visible at: http://www.faugeres.com/cahier%20des%20charges.htm []

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