Loire Valley winemaker Nicolas Joly has been a rebel with a cause most of his life. Since 1961 his family has owned La Coulee de Serrant, a 7-hectare (17 acre) plot in Savennières. The Joly family is only the most recent steward of this prized land - Cistercian monks first planted it in the 12th century. However, Joly has brought the plot, and, one might argue, the larger appellation of Savennières, its greatest recognition. Along with that recognition there has been plenty of controversy, and last week the controversy continued in the French courts.
While it can make stunning wines, Savennières is one of the lesser-known and least appreciated appellations within the greater Loire Valley. The grape of Savennières is chenin blanc, a variety that flourishes in other parts of the Loire as well: Coteaux du Layon, Vouvray and Quarts du Chaumes, with their frequently off-dry and sometimes stunningly sweet wines, come immediately to mind. Like all great appellations, Savennières is unique, offering chenin blanc that is steely, laden with minerality and dripping with acidity and nearly always quite dry.
As unfashionable as it is in this age of immediate gratification, these white wines of Savennières require aging. A few years ago, during a flavorful week in the Loire I had dinner with the producers of Savennières. It’s a small appellation and nearly all the producers were there - they numbered fewer than 30. Each brought two wines, identical except for the vintage: one wine was the current vintage, the other 10 years old. The differences were stunning - where the younger wine invariably was pleasant but highly acidic and lacked depth, the older wines were consistently dazzling in the multiple layers of flavor and aroma, with nuances of lime flower and almond frequently apparent.
When I say almost all the winemakers were present at this dinner, my recollection is that only one did not attend. That was Nicolas Joly and no one was surprised, for while nearly everyone agrees Joly makes incredible wines (he makes three Savenièrres, one from Coulée de Serrant, and two wines from other vineyards as well) many of the winemakers also felt Joly was rigid. One winemaker told me in a hushed aside, “He’s not a team player.”
I think it’s not so much he’s not a team player, he's just playing on a different team. Since 1981 Joly has been exclusively biodynamic. He was one of the first winemakers to champion the biodynamic approach and for quite a while, he seemed a lone voice. Today, he is the revered elder statesman of an international movement to produce wines not only with minimal technological intervention but wines that respect a particular calendar of the vine’s life cycle as laid out in 1924 by Rudolph Steiner, the creator of biodynamic agriculture.
The biodynamic approach is mystical and to those who don’t understand it, mysterious as well. Today, there are more than 450 wine producers following biodynamic protocol, including some producers who were very highly regarded before they made the switch like Michel Chapoutier in the Rhône and Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace and, if anything, are even more respected now. Both Chapoutier and Humbrecht, are ardent proponents of the biodynamic approach and regularly trumpet their views on the international stage. Joly, both by character and fervent belief, has often been perceived by his colleagues as having a chip on his shoulder and he has engaged in countless skirmishes with the rest of his appellation over the years.
The most recent battle occurred last past week when Joly lost a court battle in which he was sued for refusing to pay his membership InterLoire, a quasi-governmental body that promotes the Loire wine region. To Joly, InterLoire is tantamount to the enemy, however. He feels that the group promotes the lowest common denominator in the Loire as a whole, and therefore both praises “industrial” wines and lacks respect for biodynamic and organic wine producers. When Joly withheld his subscription fees, InterLoire filed suit, and a French court sided with the establishment and fined Joly nearly 6,000 euros plus legal costs.
In the larger scheme of things, the amounts in question are small - Joly’s “membership” amounts to a few cents per bottle of wine — but his refusal to pay that says a lot about his perspective. His lawyer was quoted by the British wine magazine Decanter as saying, “producers who have cultivated their vines organically or biodynamically for decades, making wines that reflect their terroirs, see their subscriptions used to vaunt the charms of … wines without any roots, without history.” Joly went on to say that he would create his own group, “to promote the Coulée de Serrant and the principles by which it is cultivated.” Joly told me once, “I don't only want a good wine but also a true wine,” a statement that has gone on to be his mantra.
On the one hand, this court fight is a skirmish, but it points to a larger battle that is shaping up between producers, most of them small, who try to take an individual path within a wine region when the region as a whole wants a more all-embracing (some read “bland”) approach to success on the international stage. Wine regions form trade groups that seek a unified image because it’s easier to promote a single image than to sing the praises of diversity - who wants to have an ad campaign that basically says, “Try Our Wine - You Never Know What You'll Get”?
I wonder though - internationally, Joly is better known and more highly regarded than all the other producers of Savennières combined. Joly argues that he doesn’t want to support efforts to make a blander product and instead of claiming that the rest of the Loire makes a product every bit as good and fighting Joly on quality grounds, the region’s counterclaim boils down to basically saying, “Joly can afford it.” Laurent Menestrau, the president of the Anjou wine federation that encompasses Savennières was quoted as saying, “I don’t understand why Mr. Joly objects to paying the small subscription per bottle when his wine sells for 60-70 euros per bottle.” Clearly M. Menestrau either misses (or just outright ignores) what should be the main point: Joly’s wines sell for that price (much higher than the wines of his neighbors) for a reason. Shouldn't they be trying to emulate him rather than pillory him for his success?