Rocky road to an auspicious wine
The village of Fully (CH) lies at the feet of stony vineyards too steep for roads. Cable cars have been installed to transport materials. On 13 hectares of this terrain grow the vines of vintner Marie-Thérèse Chappaz. They are now certified biodynamic but it has been a long, hard road to get there.
Madame Chappaz originally wanted to become a midwife, which in French is called a “sagefemme” or, literally, “wise woman”. But then she was invited by her family to take on 1.2 hectares of vineyard, and decided to go for the grapes. She had to work her way into winegrowing. She did all the work herself, and the older vintners in the neighbourhood had respect for this young, determined woman, and supported her with practical advice.
The vintner and her vines went through hard times together
Marie-Thérèse Chappaz loves plants, as you can sense in the vines growing all round her house. She has a close affinity with the sensitive vine, and felt inner turmoil each time she sprayed the necessary chemicals on these offspring. She felt that this robbed her vines of their vitality. Although she found it almost unbearable to inflict this on her grapes, she saw no other option.
In 1997 she visited a winegrowing associate in Burgundy. By chance there was an advisor there who gave a talk on biodynamic winegrowing and who described how biodynamic preparations, good compost and other means meant one could dispense with chemicals. Marie-Thérèse was delighted when she heard this. From that moment on she knew she would treat her vines by this method alone. She employed the advisor to tell her what to do, and how and when, and she followed his instructions devotedly. Now, at last, she no longer had a bad conscience about her vines.
The hardships of the new way
Far from plain sailing, though, she found to her sorrow that her vines did not thrive as she had hoped – that they were stressed and flourished less well than before. The vines planted in the 1970s, especially, suffered badly in this first phase. Those that had been planted in the 20s and 30s fared better, for at that period artificial fertilizers had scarcely been used, and so their roots went deeper into the earth rather than lying close to the surface. But there was no way back for her: her conviction held firm.
A great turn for the better
Her wine deteriorated in these early, difficult years because she did not sufficiently understand biodynamic agricultural management methods and practice. She decided that she must definitely learn more. In 2003 she attended the first introductory course in biodynamic winegrowing in western Switzerland, and subsequently registered her whole business for Demeter conversion. She found this course inspiring, and it gave her the necessary foundations. Key texts were recommended to her, she grasped what was involved and what she must attend to, and, in particular, she developed great interest and enthusiasm for the biodynamic preparations.
A steep learning curve with the biodynamic preparations
She asked the introductory course tutor, Pierre Masson, whether he would become her adviser, and he agreed. On his first visit he showed here how the practical work could be done most efficiently. When he visited again in the second or third year, they were standing in her vineyards and he asked her how often she had applied the biodynamic preparations. It had been a hard year and she replied that she simply hadn’t found the time. “But you have time to harvest, don’t you, even in hard years?” he asked. This answer was the key to her dedicated work with the biodynamic preparations which, since then, she has pursued intensively, thoroughly and with the greatest success. Treating the vines on the steep slopes of Fully is not only physically exhausting, however, but requires excellent planning: the vintner first uses wood to warm the spring water to body temperature then adds homoeopathically small quantities of the biodynamic preparations and stirs for an hour. Then she fills her backpack sprayers with the fluid and transports them up the mountainside to her vines. She and her co-workers each attach one sprayer to their back and, depending on the preparation, spray it either on the vines themselves or the soil. For the right effect, this has to be done within one hour of stirring. To spray the whole of her 13 hectares once, it takes three to four days with her team. In total, she applies the biodynamic spraying preparations five to six times each year.
Nature is an organism
She learned from the mistakes which she made up to 2003. Nature is a whole, an organism, and just one small change to any parameter in vineyard cultivation requires other compensating changes to avoid the whole system losing its equilibrium. She knows the various soil properties of her terrain very well and therefore adapts other biodynamic procedures - for instance compost quantities - to suit specific conditions on different plots. She gladly passes on the knowledge she gained from early mistakes to others who are in the process of converting.
Seeing, giving, enjoying
From 2003 her vines recovered and grew ever more vigorous. It is wonderful for her to see and experience how they have developed since then. The grapes are somewhat smaller, but of better quality, and the soil is softer and looser. She learned to focus on the whole, and to observe how the plants and soil were changing and developing. Biodynamics requires active perception: the vintner must feel what vines and soil need. This is why she goes for a walk through her vineyard with her dog every day.
The biodynamic preparations are very effective. The horn manure preparation helps soil development, the horn silica preparation aids the development of leaves and grapes. These applications are the heart of biodynamic agriculture, but additional measures such as biodynamic compost are also part of it. Here’s one example: the Valais soils contain a great deal of sand but little clay, and therefore they erode faster, and take longer to recover. It does not rain much in the Valais, and the sun burns down on the steep slopes. To protect the soil, therefore, she mulches under the vines with straw.
Inspiring midwife to biodynamic wine
With biodynamics, the wine’s quality and taste change. In the past she used to make a Charrat and Chamoson Pinot but can no longer do so since the taste of the terroir of each plot is too pronounced. She therefore now markets five different varieties of Pinot. Marie-Thérèse Chappaz is one of the pioneers of biodynamic winegrowing in the Valais. She has become a “midwife” to her grapes and biodynamic viticulture: her ability, knowledge and understanding of nature’s holistic interplay, and her love for the vines, are inspiring.
She closes our conversation by saying, “It makes a lot of sense to work in this way. I feel carried and continually prompted to do things even better. Biodynamics is one of the most important things I have come across in my life.”
The conversation was recorded by Susanna Küffer Heer