Malcolm Jolley meets the legend of the Loire, Nicolas Joly.
The name of Château de la Roche aux Moines translates as the ‘rock of the monks’ and past the 18th century château, at the end of a winding road that crosses the vineyard hill called Coulée de Serrantes is a 15th century abbey where wine has been made from Chenin Blanc grapes for the better part of a 1,000 years. The man in charge of making wine there, since he left a career in finance in 1977, is Nicolas Joly. Joly is a legend among those who care about organic and biodynamic wine because he is a pioneer who, after an unsatisfying vintage in which he used chemicals, he eschewed them and ‘modern’ winemaking altogether and became an adherent of Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic practices, going completely organic in 1980. “Everything,” Joly says, “you need to make wine you can find on your farm.” Joly is also a legend among those who are interested in delicious wine because he’s good at making that too, and his bottles are listed on many of the world’s greatest carte de vins and are priced commensurately.
I met Joly at the Château de la Roche aux Moines last week as part of a delegation of international wine journalist on a trip to the region sponsored by Vins de la Val de Loire. I was surprised, frankly, that we’d have access to the vineyards and almost incredulous that Monsieur Joly himself would be on hand, let alone give us a tour (in the rain) of his vineyards, which he did. And he did more: he and his daughter Virginie and son Vincent hosted a walk around tasting in the great hall of the old abbey at Coulée de Serrant featuring the Chenin Blanc wines of the small appellation of Savennières (15 of only 30 producers present), the micro-appellation of Savennières Roches aux Moines (four of six producers present, and the nano-appellation of Coulée de Serrant (one of one producer present). It turns out Nicolas Joly is generous with his time and is a passionate proponent of the wines made by his neighbours and, crucially what he calls ‘biodynamy’. While Joly prefers not to travel anymore, and hardly needs to given the now longstanding reputation of his wines, he is accessible. Roche aux Moines is open to the public, and Joly told us he regularly hosts workshops on biodynamic wine farming both on the property and virtually. Despite his personal success, and the growth of organic and biodynamic winemaking around the world, he believes there is much work to do. “The problem,” he explained, “is the schools are paid for by the companies making chemicals, of course they are going to teach you to use them.” The key to Joly’s viticulture is, he said, complexity, and he has been steadily adding to his biome for 40 years, and finding living, organic solutions to complications in the vineyard. He told us, “Fighting disease chemically is the best way to create disease.” In the cellar, Joly is a pioneer of minimal intervention: native yeast, old barrels and a long “slow cook”.
For all of his evangelism, Joly is not a fundamentalist, and is happy to employ any technology or machine available. The foggy banks of the Loire invite disease pressure, and he uses small amounts of sulphur and copper if needed, though careful not to harm the soil. We noticed, too, gas powered anti-frost heaters deployed in the vineyards to ward off spring frost. Still, he explained he will always try and find the solutions to problems in nature and with what he has on his farm, and he hopes more winemakers adopt this approach: “Farming should be free; you have everything you need around you to recreate balance.”
Oh right: we also tasting some wine! On hand were the 2013 vintages of Joly’s Les Vieux Clos Savennières and Clos de la Bergerie Savennières Roche aux Moines. Wow. The Vieux Clos was an amazing nectar of concentrated fruit, yet bone dry, and then the Clos even more so. The Coulée de Serrantes was something else again. We tasted the 2017 and 2013 vintages, and both were very good, but a little disjointed. Joly remarked that his Coulée wines really need ten years to come together, and his theory was proved right when we tasted the 2005. Wow, wow ad wow. Rich and deep with complex stone fruit and seasoned vibrantly with a touch of volatile acidity. If there is a finer expression of the Chenin Blanc grape, I haven’t had it.
The wines of Nicolas Joly are represented in Ontario by The Living Vine agency.