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A note on agriculture

The importance of living soils for taste


MAY 09, 2024

The vine and wine are great mysteries. 
In the plant kingdom, the vine alone is 
capable of rendering intelligible the taste of the earth. 
What faithfulness in the translation! 
It feels and expresses the secrets of the soil through the grape. 
With flint, we sense it is alive, melding, nourishing, 
and arid chalk cries tears of gold through wine. 

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette

What is the objective in making wine?

The answer to this question is perhaps complex but one element takes precedence over all others: taste. Given the range of events, fairs, salons, schools, courses, clubs, associations, orders, brotherhoods, wine shops, wine bars and simple gatherings of friends devoted to wine tasting, it is apparent that the taste of wine holds a predominant place in the drinking experience.

So, what gives good wines great taste? Again, this might seem to be a rather complex question as there is no arguing that the art of wine making is a complicated process that involves many steps and there is an enormous amount of study given to the question of taste. But the answer is in fact quite simple.

Taste, whether it involves food or wine, is an aspect of the vitality, the energy that comes from how things are grown. Living soil produces plants with greater vitality than soils that are destroyed with chemical additives. The macro-biological life of soils is also the plant’s immunity, its strength, its force, its resistance to sickness. This vitality translates into taste as it is only fresh, living foods that have the capacity to arouse deep satisfaction and organoleptic pleasure.

Manufactured taste, which has become increasingly common in wine making as vineyard soils succumb to the negative impacts of chemical treatments, producing insipid, poor quality grapes that lack vitality, uses various artifices to reconstitute what nature offers naturally. It comes as a surprise to most people that there are over 200 legal additives available to wine makers to ‘correct’ the mistakes made in the vineyard. Whereas ‘natural’ wines (what we used to call all wine before the intervention of chemical treatments) only require healthy, ripe grapes.

It is obvious therefore, that industrial methodologies, which are really about producing a ‘product’ rather than a true expression of terroir, are no different than the manufactured (artificial) tastes found in soft drinks and fast foods.

Organic vines of the Clos Fouret in Heaulme

Fortunately, there is a renaissance now in wine making (finally!) that is seeing an ever-growing number of

vineyards converting to organic and biodynamic methods and France, of all wine-producing countries in the world, is leading the way with 20% of its vineyards working organically. But the process of reviving dead soils and allowing terroir to again express its unique characteristics takes time. Years in fact. So real quality and real taste remain limited to those vineyards that saw the light years ago and have been striving ever since to improve upon the raw materials nature provides.

Though it is difficult to speculate about what the wines of Paris actually tasted like in the past, it is safe to say they were entirely ‘natural’. But what does ‘natural’ mean? In modern parlance natural wines are organically or biodynamically produced grapes that are vinified without any additives and in particular, no sulphur. Just grapes and nothing else.

This seemingly simple equation masks however a much larger concern and involves an ecological consciousness and understanding that acknowledges the limits of and a respect for, nature. Hence an indiscriminate use of fossil fuels is proscribed, while a positive energy balance between solar energy and photosynthesis while practicing healthy agriculture that increases humus, creating an environment that is propitious for animal life, most notably earthworms, is practiced.

These practices lead to moderate yields, which is perhaps the most fundamental requirement for natural wines. Moderating yields enhances the intrinsic qualities of the grape, increasing vitality which in turn gives them a longer life so that additives become unnecessary. The ‘energy’ that can be sensed, the ‘liveness’ is markedly different from ‘conventional’ wines, which are ‘civilized’, ‘stable’ and ultimately ‘predictable’.

So this growing movement towards natural wines is quite at odds with ‘conventional’ wine making (the use of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, chemical fertilizers, and a rather shocking array of possible additives during and after vinification to correct the problems created in the vineyard in the first place) because not only does it refute the need for sulphur, it aspires to sound ecological practices that encourage harmony, balance, and a real expression of terroir in the wine.

They are intentionally simple, allowing the grapes to speak without artifice. When they are made well, these ‘living’ wines are exciting to taste because they are sometimes surprising and always healthy, ranging in terms of sensations from beguiling to uplifting. The conventional wine world meanwhile strives for certitude and so technology comes in to play to eliminate uncertainties and control the entire process.

As Jules Chauvet, who many consider to have been the father of natural wine said, "Wine forces human beings to be confounded before nature and transports them to the frontier of the spiritual world. The soul of wine is the soul of nature."

My book, ‘The Hidden Vineyards of Paris’ (reviewed in Jancis Robinson’s wine blog, the Wine Economist and National Geographic Traveler UK) is available at ‘The Red Wheelbarrow Bookshop’ at 11 rue de Medicis, 75006 Paris. If you haven’t yet discovered this gem of a bookshop, now’s your chance. Open every day!

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