Every year, a horde of thirsty wine buyers makes its way to Montpellier for the annual Organic and Biodynamic wines trade show, Millesime Bio. It doesn’t hurt that the show takes place in the South of France, where the ambient temperature upon arrival was 60F. For reference, despite a relatively mild winter, when I left New York it was 28F and we were delayed 2 hours while the plane was de-iced. Lovely.
Usually I fly straight from Charles de Gaulle, but this year I took the TGV from the airport to Montpellier. Happily enough, I ended up doing a Grand Tour of France through some of my favorite wine regions, heading East through Champagne, South through Burgundy and the Rhône, then West through the Languedoc to get to my goal. And it only took 4 hours! Looking out the window as we flew at airliner speeds, I had to smile: even now, with years of experience under my belt, it always amazes me that such a small country (slightly larger than the state of New York) has so many different landscapes. From the flat green fields and farms of the north to the undulating rocky forests in the East to the dry bare stone of the South, this country has scenery for everyone.
The trade show itself is several halls worth of wines that have been made according to Organic and Biodynamic principles. It’s also (sadly) still an excuse for a lot of people to make a lot of bad wine. That said, and my blazé attitude aside, there are some really stunning things to be found these days. Of course, this also depends on the price, but that’s the nature of the business (and a business it is, make no mistake about that).
When these wines taste good, they’re great, really bright, living things, expressive of their origins and of the care the winemaker put into the vines and the winemaking. When they’re bad, they can (sometimes literally) smell and taste like shit. Bad Organic/Biodynamic wines take on an odd, nearly BO-like aroma and get sharp spiky notes in the mouth. Good Organic/Biodynamic wines, to put it mildly, go down smooth and feel alive, with vibrant fruit and lovely acidity and minerality.
The first thing that hits you when you walk through the door is the smell: it smells like WINE. And that just brings a smile to my face. For two and a half days, I wandered the tables of Millesime Bio, stopping to see people I knew and meet people I needed to know. I also had the chance to hang out with one of my winemakers, Pascal Pibaleau, who makes biodynamic sparkling, whites and reds in Azay-le-Rideau in the Loire (yummy stuff too but I am biased, of course). By the end of Day One my teeth hurt like Hell, and I’m pretty sure I yelped the moment the toothpaste hit them that first night (for those who don’t know, young wines tend to have lots of acidity, and that sensitizes the enamel on your teeth).
Like an evil wine-swilling Santa Claus, I had made my list and checked it twice, I knew which wines were naughty (already imported) and which ones were nice (undiscovered). Let’s face it, you can’t go in there without some homework: it would be like visiting the Louvre with no real clue of what works of art you wanted to see. You’d end up getting lost for days and someone would have to call Seal Team 6 to rescue you.
And for the record, it’s not an orgy of foie gras and cheese (sadly). In fact, most of the meals were pretty well-balanced, though the best part was sitting with various random winemakers and trying their wines at the table. I mean, wine is made to be both convivial and served with food, so this was a great showcase for them. As opposed to the relatively scientific method employed when standing in front of a table trying not to spit wine into your neighbor’s glass.
I will say that I still do love going to a table full of anticipatory dread, sort of like a child on Christmas Day running to the tree, hoping to unwrap something good but also hoping it’s not brown socks. More often than not in my line of work, it’s brown socks (some of these wines actually smelled/tasted similar to what I imagine old brown socks would be like). The worst part is finding something that’s delicious and checks off all your requirements, only to discover that it’s WAY too expensive. Talk about deflating your dreams…
On this trip, I found a few wineries I would love to work with, but there’s a lot of negotiations to be had before any hard decisions can be made. I was also lucky enough to have the time to visit some wineries I am working with south of Montpellier (there’s nothing like a few hours in the warm sun on a mid-January day to revive the batteries), as well as see another one of my winemakers, Christine Deleuze of Clos Bagatelle in St Chinian (while she doesn’t make Organic/Biodynamic wines, she does make some damn delicious ones using sustainable practices - again, I am shamelessly unapologetically biased, deal with it).
But it’s not easy: you’re on your feet all day from 8am to 5-7pm, there are long dinners afterwards with customers or winemakers, and your liver is just taking a heck of a beating even with the spitting, not to mention what must be happening to your teeth. And frankly, let’s not forget when you stumble onto a bad wine and have to remain poker-faced as the winemaker tells you his family’s been doing this for hundreds of years and thinks they’ve got the secret to success. Good luck with that one.
All in all, however, I am happy to report that there is a definitive qualitative trend that’s pointing upward. More people are making good Organic/Biodynamic wines at relatively affordable prices than at any other time. All it takes is the right importer to bring them in (Me! Me!).