Robert, Marine and Paul CHARAVIN – Domaine des Coteaux des Travers … Let’s talk about ‘Biodynamics’ and ‘Transmission’ (1/2)
© A.O.C Rasteau
In honour of Earth Day and Biodiversity Day (22 April and 22 May 2018 respectively), we wanted to find out more about the movement of biodynamic agriculture, a real philosophy of life that respects both the Earth and Mankind.
We met up with Robert Charavin, winegrower at Domaine des Coteaux des Travers, where the vines grow ‘on the slopes of the rising sun (the translation of ‘Coteaux des Travers’), and are tended by the same family since 1931. Since the ‘90s Robert has been convinced of the importance of agricultural methods that respect the biodiversity, and he has gradually converted the estate to organic agriculture, and then biodynamic agriculture.
Here is what we learnt from this interesting family with a passion for their profession!
What is biodynamic agriculture?
Robert Charavin: “Basically, it’s a bit like homeopathy… We make different ‘preparations’ which we dilute in practically the same proportions as in homeopathy (infinitesimal doses) before transferring them to our vines. These preparations carry a message to our vines for the benefit of all the plant life.”
Originally, the biodynamic approach is not solely for vine growing, it is a form of self-sufficient agriculture which respects the biological diversity of the land. “This could be the case in a farm for example. If we want to make compost and use it for our preparations in the vineyard, ideally we would have our own cows close to the plots, precisely in order to respect this natural balance and take into account the biodiversity as a whole.”
We discover that we owe this approach to several people who studied the subject in depth. To name just two, there was Rudolf Steiner who spoke to farmers about the approach in 1924, and Maria Thun who did a lot of research and wrote many books on the subject.
In the 1990s, Robert Charavin decided to stop using chemical fertilizers on his vines. He wanted his planting to be sustainable and sensed that it would be good to change things rapidly. “I wanted to convert to organic but I was not sufficiently sure of myself. And the vines themselves needed to be ready so that they would be stronger and would adapt well to the methods.”
In 2003 he stopped all weeding and in 2006 he stopped using chemical products on the vines.
In 2007, the conversion to organic agriculture showed improvements but Robert Charavin was still not satisfied by the state of his vines. “Going organic does not solve everything”, he says, and he still did not find the soil healthy enough. He went to see a friend in the village of Suzette who was already using the biodynamic method. He became increasingly interested in it, went to meetings, and then to more technical training sessions.
“It is essential to take the time to observe the vines, to know them, to take possession of them again and to listen to them… and above all to follow your intuition.”
An agricultural method which demands efforts in the vineyard and in the cellar.
Robert Charavin: “We make preparations which help the plant to be more receptive and consequently more resistant; rather than ‘treating its problem’ we give it information that will allow it to have sufficient force to prevent it.” So, these preparations are a way of giving the vine all the elements that will allow it to avoid or cope independently with the diseases to which it could be exposed.
Robert explains to us that he mostly uses 3 types of biodynamic preparations (although there are many others):
* Maria Thun’s Barrel Compost: a compost made from cow manure (from a farm that applies biodynamic practices) which helps the breakdown of nutrients in the soil and make them available to plants.
* Horn manure: it is also made from cow manure. “It stimulates plant growth in the early stages, the vine will develop more roots and in a more homogenous manner.”
Robert explains that there are two versions of this preparation; 500 and 500P.
*Horn silica (mainly composed of very pure and very finely ground quartz): it helps to capture the ‘forces of the cosmos’ because it is a mineral which is capable of capturing light and heat. “You leave the silica in a cow horn buried in the earth during the summer for a period of 6 months. When the dynamised silica is sprayed on the vines, it gradually stops growth and allows them to start the setting stage (when the flower transforms into fruit), and to begin building up reserves of nutrients.”
Each of these natural preparations, made in specific conditions, are dynamised (diluted for a long time in a special container) at precise moments defined by the winegrower. This is because one of the key principles of biodynamic farming lies in the close link that it draws with the planets, the Moon and its revolution around the Earth: “Depending on the work you want to do on your vines; the use of biodynamic preparations or the work on the vines, you target a precise period of the lunar calendar.”
A vine has 4 organs which form and change successively during the year. Each year is split into several periods, determined according to the stage of development of these organs. Following Maria Thun’s sowing and planting calendar, in the month of March 2018, Robert adds “There are ‘fruit’, ‘flower’, ‘root’ and ‘leaf’ days, which you choose depending on how you want to stimulate the vines. We try to target the ‘fruit’ days because the end purpose of the vine is the quality of its grapes.”
To sum up, depending on the type of work he wants to do; whether on the soil (furrowing, plantation, sowing, forming mounds, etc.) or on the plant (spraying, pruning, harvesting, etc.), the winegrower follows Maria Thun’s biodynamic sowing and planting calendar (M.THUN) which tells him the best period to go about it.
Robert Charavin: “We use Maria Thun’s barrel compost 1 to 3 times on our vines in autumn, to stimulate the breakdown of nutrients in the soil. We spray them once or twice with horn manure in spring, usually late March, to give them a good growth start. We spray them with horn silica 1 to 3 times before flowering, often at sunrise, and preferably on ‘fruit’ days.”
“For most of the work on the vines and in the cellar, we avoid lunar nodes which have a negative impact on the work, and these happen a few days per month… but that doesn’t mean that we are on holiday!”
Some may find all this a little far-fetched and complex. One thing is certain, biodynamic agriculture is not something that can be taken lightly. As well as real motivation, it demands determination and discipline.
In 2013 the Domaine des Coteaux des Travers was awarded the label of biodynamic wine (the estate began this process in 2010 but it takes around 4 years to obtain the certification). Robert Charavin quickly saw the change in his vines. “In general we see changes in the vines and in the wine after 4, 7, or even 10 years. After a year of biodynamic practices we see a visual improvement, for example after spraying the vines with horn silica, the leaves reposition themselves so that they don’t overlap each other and get maximum sunlight. We gradually see more and more worms and spiders… a general revival of the biodiversity. The soil becomes softer and more alive.” He adds that some aspects are less visible such as the development of the root system which burrows deeper and deeper for mineral salts.
“As for the taste of the wines, we can really sense the purity, the terroir, and the varietals. We have been able to start making parcel wines from each separate plot.”
A family heritage and great example of value transmission
“My daughter Marine has been working full time on the estate for 3 years now, and my son Paul for 2 years. They both now belong to the agricultural team and are very dedicated. We have worked for many years to build up this natural heritage and I know I can trust them to keep things going in this direction.”
First tasting experience, transmission from their father; Marine, 31, and Paul, 28, share their earliest memories with us.
Marine and Paul Charavin: “When we used to come in from school we would make a beeline for the cellar and the bottling chain and stand on chairs to help seal the bottles of wine. At harvest time we used to taste the grape juice. It was a bit like our playground…”
A little later at the age of around 14 or 15, Marine and Paul were already working out in the vineyard.
“Back then we saw the vines as a summer job…and Paul always managed to cut himself to get to stop working! We were young and we weren’t really that interested yet.”
AOC RASTEAU: So when did you start taking a real interest in the vineyard?
Marine and Paul Charavin: “To begin with we didn’t really want to know and Dad always encouraged us to study whatever we wanted. We helped out every now and then at harvest time but we didn’t see ourselves following in his footsteps. It is only recently that we began taking a real interest.”
Marine has a doctorate in organic chemistry while Paul is a qualified industrial engineer (production and logistic design), and after his studies he spent 2 years in Australia.
“Our studies have given us a different outlook, our educational backgrounds have taught us a lot and forged our characters so that we are now complementary in our work on the estate ? We are constantly learning ‘in-the-field’. Next year we are going to attend a training course proposed by the wine school at Suze-la-Rousse.”
AOC RASTEAU: What sparked off the desire to get involved in the vineyard?
Paul Charavin: “It had been on my mind for a few years. The fact that I left made me ask myself some important questions. Papa started to talk about selling the estate and that got me thinking. In 2016, after we had both finished our studies and experienced different things, we found ourselves all together, me, Marine and my Dad. It was the right moment and we naturally seized the opportunity and got down to work, all together.”
Marine Charavin: “I thought about the estate while doing my thesis. I came back to Rasteau to find work and that’s when I discovered a whole different side of the profession; I went to the Prowein trade show in 2015 and tasted the wines, and then I did my first harvests, my first winemaking season and I loved it. In March 2016 Paul came back, and we started working all three of us together. We were saddened by the thought of stopping at the 4th generation… Dad has really transformed the estate and we realised that we had an amazing heritage in our hands.”
AOC RASTEAU: How do you feel about biodynamic agriculture? Why do you think it is important?
Paul Charavin: “Dad was the driving force behind converting the estate to this approach and he has seen the change in the vines. For the moment I don’t feel as attached to this method as he is. We have followed a few courses in it but they were more philosophical than theoretical so I can’t really pass judgement yet… I will see what happens.”
Marine Charavin: “We believe Dad in terms of the positive changes he has observed, and what I can say for the moment is that I really sense it in the quality of the wines. He shows us examples which allow us to begin to understand and become aware of certain things. Because of our studies, we both tend to look for scientific and tangible proof. So far, what we have learnt about the biodynamic approach has been more philosophical. But the last course we followed at Domaine de la Cabotte really left its mark; it was more practical, more tangible and very interesting. I think it will take time to really understand it!”
AOC RASTEAU: What are your future plans at Domaine des Coteaux des Travers?
Marine and Paul Charavin: “There’s no question of resting on our laurels! We are a small estate of 14 ha and financially, making a living for 3 people with that amount of vineyard is not easy. We hope to buy more plots and even if that means investing a lot of money, in the long term we will have 3 times more land (around 44 ha of vines), which would allow us to triple our production and consequently our sales.”
“We are taking a risk; the key is that people like our wines! Our father managed to bring the estate up to a great level; will we too be capable of that?
Having said that we don’t want to stop there and we are approaching it as a challenge. Obviously it means investing, which means added stress. But it is good stress and an exciting challenge!”
AOC RASTEAU: What can we wish you for the years ahead?
Marine Charavin: “Better harvests maybe! To successfully lead the project that we have set ourselves, to maintain the level that Dad has achieved… or even to take it further!”
Paul Charavin: “When Dad took over the estate from our grandfather, a lot of people didn’t recognise the wines… The transition was complicated. But we are lucky enough to be able to work alongside him, and for several years to come, which facilitates the transmission. We have different ideas, we are looking for things we can improve, and we are building up our experience. We are very curious; we recently experimented with aging the wines in amphoras. That’s how we were educated. And maybe that’s our strength? We question things all the time.”
Thanks to the three of you to have given your time to A.O.C. Rasteau! See you soon at one of our upcoming summer events…
Domaine des Coteaux de Travers
15 route de la cave