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Get to Know Nicolas Joly, Biodynamic Trailblazer

Get to Know Nicolas Joly, Biodynamic Trailblazer

In France’s Loire Valley, a figure stands out in the world of winemaking like a wizard of the vines dancing to his own grape-stomping beat. Nicolas Joly, with his tall, lean frame, gray, thinning hair and mischievous smile, is more than just a vintner. He’s a philosopher preaching the gospel of biodynamics. His practices have inspired countless winemakers globally, carving a unique niche in the wine industry.

Born in 1945 in Angers, France, into a winemaking family, Joly’s path seemed predestined. However, he found himself in investment banking, after earning an MBA from Columbia University and working for J.P. Morgan. But, in 1977 he felt the pull back to his family’s vineyards. “After four years I woke up one morning and didn’t want to do investment banking anymore, so I left my high-paying job for the vineyard,” Joly says. On his return, he took a different approach, saying, “I strongly believe this was faith.” The hallmark of his philosophy became the commitment to produce wines that show terroir—the idea that a wine should reflect the unique characteristics of its specific vineyard site.

“A lot of wine has lost the link to the place even though it’s made very well in the cellar,” he says. “When you taste the wine, it’s interesting to ask yourself: How much comes from the conductor of the orchestra, and how much comes from the quality of the orchestra?”

To achieve this expression with Famille Joly, he realized that terroir needs to “be alive,” which eventually led him to practice biodynamics—a decision that would shape his life and his legacy. But not without some naysayers. “My parents received a lot of phone calls from people telling them that I am destroying their beautiful vineyard,” he says. “We were treated as a sect because of it!” he says. But then legendary Burgundian winemaker Lalou Bize-Leroy paid a visit to learn about biodynamic methods, “and things improved,” he says flatly.

Image Courtesy of The Joly Family

The Universe in a Cluster of Grapes

What sets Joly apart isn’t the fact that he was one of the first to slap the biodynamic label on his wines (he was). Biodynamics is more than a farming method for Joly. It is a way of life. He views himself not as a winemaker, but as nature’s assistant, orchestrating the symphony of the vineyard in harmony with cosmic forces.

“Life is a gift from the solar system to Earth and without a proper connection to it, our planet is a dead body,” he explains. To him, viticulture is as much about producing wine as it is about fostering this relation and eschewing artificial products. He sees satellites and electricity as distortions. Moreover, he firmly believes that artificial, human-made enological aids destroy the correlation between the place and the final product. To wit:

“The four elements that kill the connection are: weedkillers, because roots need microorganisms; chemical fertilizers, which work, but they add more water, leading to diseases; systemic sprays, which poison the sap, blocking the plant to get the sense of the place; and artificial yeast, that make a perfect taste but one that is the same all over the world.”

Sunrise over Roche aux Moines
Image Courtesy of The Joly Family

Rejecting chemical interventions, Joly embraces practices like composting with herbal concoctions and following lunar cycles. At his estate, he implements a diverse ecosystem, with animals like donkeys, goats and sheep contributing to the farm’s balance. He understood that monoculture is detrimental to nature, advocating for biodiversity as the key to a thriving ecosystem.

“Monoculture is drama for nature,” says Joly. “It is like feeding your favorite dish to a person every day. After two weeks a person would say, ‘Please stop it!’”

On one visit to his winery, I notice Joly using a tuning fork next to a barrel—to tune it to the sun, he says. I ask how: “The tuning forks work, but it is the whole process,” and his explanation sprawls to the solar system giving life to the planet. “In biodynamics, we are connecting the vine to the frequencies it needs—like tuning a radio,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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