“For me, the most essential part of biodynamics is the return to simple and complete questions. How is life created under those trees in the forest? How does soil regenerate itself?”
Michel Théron was, like so many winemakers, drawn to Bordeaux for wine school. He arrived in 1988 from the Languedoc, and while studying he fell in love — both with a young woman, his wife Stéphanie, and with the wines of the Médoc. He never went home.
It wasn’t until a kind neighbour sensed something in them, deciding to offer up a small pre-phylloxera parcel for lease, that they had the chance to start making their own wines. Over the years, they adopted artisanal winemaking methods and biodynamic farming practices. Now, they believe in passing it on – and as such, the very parcel that gave them a start in life, is now in the hands of two budding young winemakers. One artisan domaine helps another to get off the ground; long may it continue.
The Jaugueyron cellar and house are the inverse of what you might expect to find in Bordeaux. There’s no fancy sign, no glamorous fenced driveway and no parking lot or visitor’s centre. We’re not in Château territory anymore. Instead, we’re driving on a small dirt track, finding ourselves seemingly in the middle of the woods. It's raining, but the raindrops are lost to the canopies above us, giving a resounding pitter patter. It smells how only forests smell in the rain: earthy and alive.
We stop outside what looks like a large, unmarked wooden garage with mounds of firewood stacked outside. The only giveaway that this could be a winemaker's abode are the drying dead vines stacked next to the firewood. It turns out the garage is in fact a cellar.
The Clos du Jaugueyron Story
Clos du Jaugueyron is the name of the aforementioned small parcel (just 0.4 hectares) in Cantenac. It is one of only a few pre-phylloxera vineyards remaining in France and was planted around 1870 to ten varieties; some of which are no longer seen in the region.
After Michel had been working for a few years, he wanted to set out on his own, but had no idea where to start until his neighbour offered to lease the vineyard to him.
“It was thanks to that kind man that I was able to start to create my own wines. He had the confidence to believe in me.”
He no longer makes wine from the vineyard – they passed on the lease of this very parcel to the young winemakers Laurence and Pascale of Closerie des Moussis in 2009, with the belief that the vineyard could help other young winemakers to start up, just like it had for Michel and Stephanie.
Throughout the 90s and 2000s, bit by bit they were able to grow their domaine by leasing other vineyards, and now they tend and make wine from nine hectares in Margaux and Haut-Médoc. Most recently, in 2019, they bought and planted a vineyard to abandoned land in a section of Margaux that is usually discredited for viticulture, as it is borders the Landes forest and thus tends to be more susceptible to mildew. This didn’t deter this couple, who instead see it as a positive; this is a way to be separate from the otherwise often monoculture nature of Bordeaux vineyards and see if their proximity to the forest might in fact help their vineyard to have a more diverse ecosystem. It is also interplanted with trees; to see what the concept of agroforestry can bring to the vineyard. He takes us there in his van, and as we stand in the vineyard in our raincoat, we can't help but notice how much life there is, even in the middle of winter when the skies are endlessly grey.
In Bordeaux terms, surrounded by the giants who own 100 hectares or more, they are small – but it means they are able to farm and take care of the land themselves; to fully observe the natural development of each parcel.
Their parcels in Margaux are on slightly more clay-rich soils, whereas in the Haut-Médoc the soils are composed of very fine gravel. The original Clos du Jagueyron Margaux cuvée is Cabernet Sauvignon dominant – Michel emphasises that this is elegant Cabernet, not “Bulldozer” Cabernet. The Nout Margaux cuvée comes from a parcel they took over in 2009, which is more Merlot dominant. Having the two different cuvées allows them to show two faces of Margaux.
When they began their domaine in the beginning of the 90s, they farmed their vineyards conventionally, with chemicals, just as almost all other farmers in the region did at the time. Michel explains,
“It took us a while to get out of that bubble of conventional farming; everyone was working that way. It’s difficult to go another way when everyone does the same thing.”
But one day, they sat down together:
“When we were honest with ourselves, we suddenly realised that our practices weren’t what we wanted them to be. So, we asked each other, well — what other way is there?”
They began to buy and taste more and more wines produced from organically and biodynamically farmed vineyards.
“It was mostly the biodynamic wines that spoke to us. There was more emotion in those bottles — somehow more sincere messages were evident in the wines.”
With this realisation, they progressively converted their vineyards to organic and biodynamic practices. Today, despite being certified, Michel emphasises that the core feature of biodynamics for him is not the various preparations; it is thorough comprehension of soil health and plant life.
“For us, the most essential part of biodynamics is the return to simple and complete questions. How is life created under those trees in the forest? How does soil regenerate itself?”
Simply getting rid of synthetic chemical sprays and working manually by ploughing is not always enough, he explains. In order to farm a vineyard to its utmost potential, it takes a more holistic comprehension of how soil functions. He says,
“Claude Bourguignon [famous French soil scientist and agronomist] spoke of an example that is very important to me. If you put a concrete slab in the forest – what will happen to it? After a couple of weeks, there’ll be some fallen leaves on it. After a few months, there’ll be moss growing on it. Next winter, there’ll be some plants growing on it. In a couple of years, there’ll be more, and in 50 years’ time it might be underground, because soil creates itself like this.”
It is the conscious realisation of the natural balance that exists inherently in soil life, and how it can nourish the vine and create healthy grapes, that is of paramount importance for the Thérons.
This notion of balance also extends to the vine itself. Michel explains that he is strongly against the notion of green harvest — the practice of cutting off unripe grape bunches to concentrate the efforts of the vine on the other bunches. For him, this practice is a grave mistake. He explains that if you have a vine which has naturally produced 15 bunches, that means the vegetation originally had the capacity to support all of that potential fruit. If you cut off seven or eight bunches, the vine will over-compensate elsewhere and the whole system fails. He says,
“I let my vines carry the amount of fruit they want to. The vine has an amazing memory. If it produces 25 bunches one year and you let it carry 25 bunches, and it realises that’s too much, it might make smaller berries and smaller bunches next year. The vine regulates itself, but this takes time – it doesn’t just happen in one year – but eventually, it does.”
The refusal to green harvest doesn’t just affect the vine, it also directly impacts the wines. As the vine produces smaller bunches, with smaller berries, the skin to pulp ratio increases, meaning the berries naturally have a higher concentration of flavour and polyphenols. This means it is easier for them to carry out infusion-style macerations. Michel explains,
“With these smaller berries, we don’t need to exert force on the fermentations, they can just infuse on their own. However, if you have six massive bunches per vine, you will have to extract more to get enough flavour – in a sense forcing the wine. This brings more rustic tannins, and you lose elegance.”
Wine here is made with very low sulphur – less than 25ppm is added, which less than half of the restrictions of Demeter, the biodynamic association. Nonetheless, they believe in always adding just the tiniest amount:
“If not, I find the wines can too easily drift off course. I’m still an amateur, and I want our wines to be precise – I want them to speak of their region, of the variety, of the person who is making them. I don’t want wines that are standardised by a specific flavour, e.g. Brettanomyces.”
It is this quest of purity that has led to several other implementations in the cellar. When the grapes come in, they ferment naturally in the large concrete vessels. We ask Michel whether he uses a pied de cuve to start fermentations [like a natural starter yeast in sourdough], to which he replies,
“No. I think making a pied de cuve is almost like adding yeasts, because you just end up with one dominant saccharomyces yeast. We want to try to be as close as possible to representing the diversity of yeasts; every element brings its own complexity, but at the same time, with so little sulphur, we want a fast and easy fermentation.”
So, Michel has figured out his own unique way. He creates a pied de cuve, but instead of using this to inoculate any fermentations, a few days before harvest he puts a little of this pied de cuve together with some carbon dioxide, using it almost like a cleaning tool. This displaces the oxygen and introduces just a small amount of healthy yeasts to the vessels. From analyses, he can see that the other yeast families still play a significant role, but fermentations start much faster and the risk of bacteria or rogue yeasts taking hold is lowered significantly.
They decide whether or not to use the stems according to the vintage. In hotter vintages, where the berries taste a little on the ripe side, with more sugar, they use whole bunches, feeling that the bitterness and sappy edge that the stems bring can help to make the wines more fresh. Meanwhile in cooler vintages, such as 2016, when the grapes felt very balanced on their own, the bunches were destemmed, as they felt the grapes had enough freshness on their own. Year on year, they are careful to maintain this line of freshness. Michel explains,
“I think Bordeaux went too far in the direction of over-ripeness. It’s a certain style, and I think it’s a shame for the region and for the varieties. When I first came here 30 years ago, the wines which I loved were the fresh, balanced, easy-to-drink wines. Now, we have lost that a bit – instead there are a lot of heavyweight wines with immediate presence.”
Most recently, he has been purchasing larger vessels – 400 and 500L barrels instead of the standard 225L, as well as foudres and concrete vessels. One of them looks a bit like it's wearing a circus costume. He laughs, explaining that it was one he found at an exhibition, and he didn't mind the colours — in fact the opposite, it brightens the otherwise dark cellar.
His larger oak and concrete vessels help him to create wines that are even less marked by new oak flavours, while still allowing them long periods of time for ageing. He’s happy so far, but it’s still early days:
“We began to buy the larger foudres in 2015. So far, I’m very happy, but you can’t just decide instantly. It will take many years to confirm – we need to see how the wines react after ageing in bottle, too.”
The wines are first aged in oak for 12 months, after which they are aged in concrete for around eight to ten months before being bottled. Nothing is manipulated in the juice or in the wine.
“Apart from sulphur and some new oak – if you count that – I don’t add anything to the wines. As soon as you start to correct a wine, you are formatting the wine to be a certain way. This takes us back to the soils: if we have balanced and healthy soils, then we have enough nitrogen in the must. Living, rich soils that are not deficient, and that are more drought resistant – this is the key to a balanced harvest.”
We ask Michel and Stéphanie what they think has changed over the years. They think for a while, before responding,
“We find it hard to judge our own wines, but what our friends and clients tell us is that the wines have always been on the elegant side of things, but that recently the aromatic message has developed with the farming. The most important thing for us is pleasure, the fruit, the origin. If our wines are deviant, then I’m uncomfortable. It’s great to see that the natural wine world is growing so fast, but when some of these wines are too deviant, and go too far, well… that’s then another form of extremism.”
Their wines are testament to the notion of healthy vines = vibrant fruit, and combined with clean and precise winemaking, this creates wines of the highest emotional capacity. These are wines of subtlety; of elegance and of brightness. In a vast sea of polished Bordeaux wines in stiff suits, these are wines in linen; wines of silver linings.