Field of Dreams – Gerard Bertrand’s Spiritual Quest to Reimagine the Languedoc
For a universe to be believable, it has to be consistent. Theories and philosophies are accepted or dissed because of their internal coherence or lack of it. But should a premise be worth it, one can make the parenthesis known as willing suspension of disbelief, a term coined by English writer and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who once described it as “poetic faith.”
Defined by the dictionary as “a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment”, that is what even the most sceptical among our crowd granted to the explanations behind the biodynamic winemaking techniques used to create Clos d’Ora, Gerard Bertrand’s masterpiece and a groundbreaking wine in many levels.
In a nutshell, biodynamic winemaking encompasses a holistic approach to agriculture in which nature, people and the cosmos are connected. Organic farming is a given, but it goes beyond that and applies the teachings of Austrian philosopher and father of Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, to the production of wine.
“It’s more than just making wine, it’s a spiritual quest“, summarised biodynamic expert Jilles Du Baudus, who has worked since 2002 with Gerard Bertrand, the man and the namesake multi-award winning group of wineries scattered across the Languedoc region in the South of France.
We met Jilles on the grounds of Domaine Cigalus, a sun-kissed, wind-slapped vineyard and Gerard’s home. He acknowledged that back when he started in the company “biodynamics were more of a ‘crazy people thing’ in France.” By the time oenophiles started to take this form of wine-making seriously, Gerard Bertrand’s estate was already converted and ready to be given the pioneer’s credit it deserved.
Nowadays, the 2020 goal is to make sure at least 50% of total sales come from certified organic or biodynamic vineyards. With 14 estates, all in the Languedoc (Gerard’s region of origin), the endeavour is ambitious.
A few of them have already undergone the transformation or are works in progress; Chateau L’Hospitalet, which also doubles as a visitor centre with a restaurant and a 38 bedrooms hotel overlooking the vineyard, started the conversion in 2013.
Chateau de la Soujeole, located in the Malepère appellation, follows biodynamics practices de facto yet uncertified and it is the latest addition to the GB map, purchased in 2016 from the wealthy surname that still graces its label.
At Chateau de la Soujeole, winemaker Olivier Nollevalle explained how a slightly higher altitude meant grapes would retain a higher acidity. Baby powder (surely bio, as was the soap by the sink and the dishwasher’s liquid in Gerard’s house) was sprinkled around vines to absorb some humidity; it had rained a few days ago and they were waiting for them to get drier before picking.
If this seems like an unorthodox quirk, wait until you meet Victor, one of two mules allowed to accompany humans between the precious rows of vines in Clos d’Ora, where tractors and modern machinery were as unwelcome in the land as wearing shoes was at the dining room.
If you Build it, they will Come
Past the gates of Clos d’Ora, the 9 hectares estate located in La Livinière within the Minervois region, we witnessed the pinnacle of all that Gerard Bertrand stands for.
“PAIX, AMOUR, HARMONIE” (peace, love, harmony) read a poster visible through a skylight on top of the cellar where barrels of what is one of the Languedoc’s most premium wine matured, lullabied by the occasional sound of quartz crystal singing bowls being played on the upper floor, where an elegant dining room slash writer’s retreat crowned the estate.
Purchased by Gerard two decades ago, rebuilt in 2000 and only releasing its first wine in 2014, Clos d’Ora is both a wine and a statement.
A bottle from Minervois is considered expensive if it dares to cross the €20 mark. Clos d’Ora’s €180 price tag is not capricious, it is a wine made with the level of care and dedication generally reserved for top Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundies or New World Icons. The challenge, to make people understand that the Languedoc is also capable of such greatness, is formidable.
“It was my dream to make this wine” said the man himself over a wine paired lunch. We were informed about Gerard’s disfavour towards the concept of crafting a “style”. Still, the question was brought up between courses.
“Style is nothing”, he said with the confidence of a scholar and the charisma of a movie star. “That’s when you say a wine is good, but we want to be more than that”, aiming to be “very good” but hoping to become “exceptional”, he points out the wines he makes have a “message in the bottle.”
For People to Enjoy a Premium Languedoc, it Had to Be Made First
The idea behind crafting a premium wine from a region not traditionally associated with refinement, reminded me to the conclusions shared by Clay Gordon at the Academy of Chocolate Conference in London in 2012, where he explained that what “the fine chocolate industry needs a $100 bar of chocolate.”
In his lecture, available on his blog, he points out that “it is also very important that any $100 bar of chocolate be worth that price based on intrinsic factors that people who are knowledgeable about chocolate will agree support that price. The bar doesn’t cost $100 because it is decorated with gold leaf or contains every expensive other ingredients: the bar costs $100 because of what went in to its making.”
Nowadays, a 1.5 ounces bar of To’ak Chocolate retails at $260 and according to Los Angeles Times’ award-winning wine columnist S. Irene Virbila, it “might just be worth it.”
Is Clos d’Ora worth it? It is, not just because it’s an outstanding wine, but for the same reasons a designer’s dress, an artist’s painting or tickets to the opera are worth it, because it crosses the line that separates artisan from artistry, opening people’s eyes (and palates) to the Languedoc’s true potential.
The Pyramid of Taste
It all comes down to the “Pyramid of Taste”, a concept reminiscent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that François Pages, our host during the experience and part of the Gerard Bertrand team, explained during a masterclass: in the base you have pleasure, wines that you don’t care about and just drink as you’d eat “comfort food”; then there’s taste, and these are the wines that you go back to because they have something specific that you known and like; on the penultimate step, there’s emotion, and within that, the wines that you want to share with others because they create memories and mark an occasion.
On the top, there are the messages, wines that express something bigger than themselves and that just as any other work of art, are capable of moving people who are sensitive to what they’re trying to say. Can something as ephemeral as drinking a glass of wine be moving? The answer is in a dance, in a song or in a kiss.
Cigalus White 2016
€29.95 (on offer from €38) – Available at O’Briens Wine
The Languedoc’s response to a buttery Chardonnay from California or a rich Burgundy. This biodynamic Chardo is blended with Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc into a generous and creamy explosion of flavours.
Acacia honey and pineapples on the nose are met with a balanced and vigorous palate. Toasted almonds and a hint of caramel salé become more obvious as the wine ages (we got the opportunity to experience older vintages and it’s surely one worth storing!).
Gérard Bertrand La Forge 2015
€65 – Available at O’Briens Wine
Created as a homage to Gerard’s father, who taught him to make and appreciate wine since a young age, this wine comes from 100 years old Carignan vines with a dash of Syrah from the Corbières appellation.
Dark and intense, this wine combines the vibrancy of ripe blackberries and cooked black cherries with an iron-rich minerality, the toasted flavours of cocoa nibs and clove. There’s a subtle smokiness as well and the tannins are mature, big and round.
Clos d’Ora 2015
€180 – Available at O’Briens Wine
Gerard Bertrand’s masterpiece. Named with the Latin for “prayer” and made by following meticulously the principles of biodynamics, it is a wine created to demonstrate that the Languedoc is capable of greatness.
The wine is a blend of hand picked Carignan, Mourvedre and Syrah dark as night and as elegant and silky as a Japanese princess’ kimono.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.