It is always a pleasurable and educational experience for me to hear biodynamic wine makers share their passion for their work and their commitment to bio-diversity and respect for true terroir
. This was certainly the case when I recently met Robert Eden of Château Maris at a wine dinner in Washington, DC. Sustainability is his passion, and it goes beyond the organic and biodynamic farming he practices on his estate. In 2012 Château Maris built the first winery in the world from hemp "bricks," which reduced carbon emissions during construction and continues to help the winery reduce its carbon footprint years later. In the Languedoc-Roussillon region and located in La Livinière, the first Cru Village of the Languedoc, the wines of Château Maris have become among the most respected and highly sought-after of the entire Languedoc-Roussillon.
Eden wanted to make the best wines in the Languedoc while working in harmony with nature – that is, without applying pesticides or other chemicals. When the vineyard was purchased in Languedoc, the initial yields were lower than expected. The soil was essentially dead, due to the previous farmer’s overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, so they looked at ways of rejuvenating it, using compost. Biodynamic preparations were added to one organic compost pile and another pile was left alone. After a while they discovered that the biodynamic pile contained far more living organisms and there was no doubt about the right course of action for the vineyard as a whole.
It was the right business decision since the vines are now healthier – and the quality of grapes is better. The entire estate is certified by both Demeter and Biodyvin. The fertilizer is compost made from local cow and sheep manure plus some horse manure. Yields are 32 Hl/Ha on average and the entire estate is hand harvested. Château Maris was the first estate in the AOC Minervois La Livinière to be fully certified biodynamic and is now a 79 acres Biodynamic and Organic Estate (certified by Demeter since 2008, Biodyvins since 2004, Ecocert since 2002 and USDA Organic) divided into a multitude of small vineyards on the hillside above the village of La Livinière, the first Cru Classé of the Minervois, in the Languedoc region. They are also certified BCorps since 2016. (Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. They are certified according to a scorecard by B Lab.)
Eden described the Biodynamic Philosophy: “Biodynamic agriculture works with nature not against it and hence is beneficial for the environment. It also helps us to produce better wines. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other modern farming methods increase grape yields, but they also poison the soil and mask the true terroir of the vineyard. They strip the wine of any true flavor. Biodynamics takes a radically different approach. It could be described as a holistic, ‘supercharged organic’ approach to winemaking.”
Eden continued, “Vines do not work in isolation. The soils, the organisms that live within them and all the living things that surround our vineyards are all part of a highly complex ecosystem that ultimately influences the quality and flavors of the grapes. It is our role to enable this ecosystem to work as effectively as nature intended because when it does, we are all able to enjoy the well-balanced, expressive and individual wines that are the result.”
Eden noted that the current cellar was built in 2012. It is a unique building built out of hemp, wood and limestone. The wood is from certified managed forests which capture and store carbon.
As he remarked, “The hemp bricks also absorb Co2 during 20 to 25 years as the lime solidifies into limestone. Over that time the bricks harden to almost as hard as concrete, but much lighter and breathable. Utilizing only renewable raw materials, the cellar is a ‘vegetable’ building and completely recyclable. Neither heating equipment nor air conditioners are needed, so the building functions without any energy consumption. Hemp bricks, unlike concrete or metal, are ‘alive’ and able to breathe. They maintain temperature and humidity at a constant level on their own, whereas most buildings ineffectively use fossil fuels to function, and they passively consume Co2. Those bricks not only reduced carbon emissions during construction, they also continue to capture carbon dioxide from their surroundings.”
Why hemp? "We wanted the building to require as little energy as possible to function, yet retain a sane, healthful ambiance, to reflect what we are doing in the vineyard. We were very conscious of our environmental impact in choosing the materials, in transport and in the construction. It came from Toulouse where there are extensive plantings of hemp, so the material was both cost-effective and close to the winery, reducing the carbon footprint.”
Hemp straw, essentially a byproduct, was mixed with lime to harden it in a chemical process that captures carbon dioxide. The resulting bricks are lightweight, only 33 pounds for a two-foot-thick one. They also provide good insulation, while allowing for air flow, and have good acoustic properties. Wood beams from certified sustainably managed forests were used for the building frame and roof supports, and the construction form allowed for airflow between the wood wall and the hemp wall. The completed winery is covered with a living roof of soil and local vegetation.
Although it is not yet LEED certified, Château Maris has applied to the U.S. Green Building Council and hopes for LEED Platinum certification. They plan for a windmill and solar panels to provide all of the winery's power, and have also slated the addition of a hemp-based visitor center as well as the capture rainwater for reuse.
Chateau Maris wines are made with native yeasts and are unfined and unfiltered. Maris works with Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Grenache Gris. Grenache Gris was previously a varietal that was mostly planted to make dessert wine in the region. This white wine is incredibly ripe, and yet retains incredibly high levels of acidity. The grapes ferment in egg shaped tanks without any metal, an important aspect to biodynamic winemakers. Not surprisingly – given the winery’s priorities – the wines are bottled in lightweight, recycled glass bottles and have recycled paper labels.
On grounds of sheer quality as well as conscientiousness, this is not only a winery to watch, but among the most interesting and promising ventures in all of southern France. Just to whet your appetite for the wines – while also providing some pairing suggestions for when you’re able to try some of them, I’ll attach the menu from my dinner with Robert Eden. À Votre Santé!
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Menu for the Château Maris Wine Dinner
Maryland Crab Cakes | Espelette Remoulade
"Las Combes" Minervois 2017
(Grenache; no wood)
Artichokes, cipollini onions, baby kale, Pecorino
Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon IGP Pays d'Oc 2018
(from a neighbor’s certified organic vineyard; added to their offering to provide a light, drinkable wine for lunch.)