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Organically Farming Corbières with Sainte Croix

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Organically Farming Corbières with Sainte Croix


In 2004, when Jon and Elizabeth Bowen of Sainte Croix were looking for a property to call their own, Jon had a few prerequisites in mind. “Old Carignan, old Grenache and limestone,” he said. “And then we came across an area which I now know as Hautes Corbières, which I didn’t really know at all because like everyone else you either go down the coast, without getting too tied up in the geography, or you go way inland. There’s a zone between the two, which always gets bypassed, which is kind of cool because it’s the best bit,” he added and laughed. “The first time I saw that, I thought firstly, how do I not know about this and secondly, I think we can call the search off now.”

Known more for its bulk wine production, Corbières sits between Languedoc and Rousillion, with Sainte Croix situated between the two fingers of Fitou. “Up until recently, when you said Corbières,” said Jon, “people weren’t really interested in tasting but only in price point, if they had a niche to fill, and it’d better be pretty damn low or they wouldn’t be interested. It doesn’t take anything away from the potential of the region, it just hasn’t been capitalized on at all.”

When the Bowens first moved to Hautes Corbières, there were two other estates in the area, all located within five minutes of each other. Now, in a delimited area that Jon describes as five square kilometers, there is another winemaker from Touraine and two more from Burgundy, all farming organically. “It’s starting, at last, to punch above its weight,” said Jon. “It’s getting a disproportionate amount of attention, which is cool.”

0116stcroix-b.jpg#asset:9018Jon and Elizabeth Bowen

With an extensive history of viticulture, Corbières long supplied fruit to co-ops. And while that’s still more often the case than not, a number of growers have come to try their hands at winemaking, which is how Jon found his home. He and Elizabeth purchased the property from a grower who had constructed a winery for his son, only to find that his son wasn’t interested in making wine. To accommodate the tractors he had purchased, the father pulled up vines. “It was [originally] planted for horses,” said Jon, “a meter fifty square. This region is the only one that I’m aware of, that has adapted its vineyards to the equipment. We just ripped up everything and replanted it [in the 60s & 70s], to suit tractors for spraying.”

Farming organically since the start, Sainte Croix gained certification in 2008. Beginning with soils that were textured like concrete, Jon began working organically because to him it was common sense. They grouped their parcels to reduce the number of neighbors, at times exchanging, bartering or buying surrounding vineyards, so that neighboring sprays might not reach their vines. And while Jon is not one to toss stones at those who farm conventionally, he said, “The first thing we did was get rid of weed killers. For me, the main advantage of being organic is the way you treat the soils. Because if you can get the soils sorted out, the difference between weed-killing and plowing the soils has a more profound effect on the wines and also the ecology.”

And while Jon expected to see a difference in the soils, he was pleasantly surprised to see the effects on his wines. Bright, balanced and fresh, from a region that tends to favor over-extraction, the wines of Sainte Croix are clearly the result of careful farming.

0116stcroix-c.jpg#asset:9019Carignan, Ste Colombe 1905

“I remember reading an article by Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace,” said Jon. “He’s one of the earlier biodynamic producers, and I remember what he had to say about coming away from herbicides, when he bought this place in the south. He said that coming away from that had the biggest effect on the wines in terms of the acidity, but also the perception of the acidity, in terms of the pH. We can talk about soil, but you’re not actually drinking the soil. Marc was talking about the next stage where you’re finding what you’ve seen in the glass. And I thought, Gee, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it would be kind of cool if it was. We started seeing the biggest change in probably four to five years. In the fruit and right through to the wines. It takes that long to start to revive. Instead of having an average pH of 4, we’re now down to 3.2 in the reds, which gives you a much more stable base to start off, with a much more interesting base to play around with. We don’t pick any earlier. We certainly pick riper than we would have in the old days.”

However, Jon does not attribute the freshness of his wines solely to organic farming. “There’s a whole bunch of things,” he said. “For me the single most important element in all the wines is acidity. Richness, sun, power, depth, those are the easy bits, and alcohol obviously. Even in not too good years, the solar side is not a problem. You need something to counter balance that and you don’t have a million options. It’s important to pay attention to the fruit you have.”

Frequently, Jon said he cites 2012 as the ideal example. It was a vintage where his “hand was forced, because we didn’t have the ripeness.” Following on the heels of 2011 as an incredibly muscular and powerful vintage, 2012 begged the question—does one hold hopes for ripeness? Or, as Jon said, “Bring it in a bit earlier and just reinterpret what you have in front of you?” Thankfully he chose the latter. “You have to be alert to what the year gives you, because if you trying to impose stuff, you’re quite often going to fall on your face.”

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