Far from the stuffy reputation for sticking to tradition, Chateau Margaux has one of the most active experimental programs in the world of wine. Paul Pontallier presented the results of some of these experiments in a seminar in New York this week. “I believe in doubt,” he says, explaining that he thinks viticulture and vinification should be based on knowledge gained from testing situations rather than on unsubstantiated beliefs.
The first experiment was a comparison between wines made in the 2012 and 2011 vintages from vines that had been cultivated conventionally, organically, and by biodynamics. This experiment started 5-6 years ago with a 2 ha plot—unfortunately not one of the best, says Paul—and is going to be extended to a slightly larger, more homogeneous, plot next year. The plot is divided into groups of rows that are cultivated with different methods, and every effort is made to stop treatments from spreading into the other rows. There’s more than one separate block of each type in order to minimize soil effects.
I have always been a skeptic about the effects of different types of viticulture. It seems obvious that organic viticulture is better for the environment than conventional treatments with herbicides and pesticides, but it does not seem axiomatic that it will necessarily produce fruit of better quality. Whether biodynamic treatments add anything to organic cultivation has always seemed rather doubtful to me. One problem is that no one has tested the effects in any sort of controlled way, and you might well argue that many of the well known organic or biodynamic wines are better than conventional wines simply because the producers are more skilled at what they do. So this was a very rare opportunity to see whether wines made under exactly the same conditions, but from grapes cultivated in different ways, show any differences.
The wines were tasted blind: all we knew was that the first three were from 2012 and the second three were from 2011. The immediate surprise was that in each group two wines were closely similar and the third was distinctly different. The two similar wines shared brighter fruits and acidity, more sense of aromatic uplift, more presence on the finish: in each flight the other wine had a slightly flatter profile with less finesse. My assumption that the last wine must be the result of conventional viticulture turned out to be correct. I had not expected such a striking demonstration of the advantages of organic viticulture, but I feel the results were completely convincing.
The differences between organic and biodynamic examples were much narrower: in 2012 I had a slight preference for the organic wine, whereas in 2011 I had a very slight preference for the biodynamic wine. The differences were slight enough that I would not have argued if I had been told they were different bottles from the same lot.
Paul Pontallier says that to date they have found no objective differences in grapes or wines from the different treatments; and soil measurements this year suggested that if anything the conventional soils have more diversity. One of the most stunning aspects of the comparison, it seems to me, is that a clear difference should be evident between conventional and organic/biodynamic in only five years, given that it takes at least three years for a vineyard to be converted. Many producers whom I’ve asked about the effects of conversion say that the most significant difference appeared after something closer to a decade, so it will be fascinating to see whether these differences are sustained and broaden in the future.