For Burgundian winemaker Emmanuel, organic is the only way...
Paul Giboulot, Emmanuel’s father, was a true trailblazer in organic viticulture. In the 1970’s, when when organic farming was mostly unknown and very much misunderstood, Paul began to work organically – plowing, composting, avoiding chemicals and respecting soil life and biodiversity. Even though the reaction from fellow winemakers was skeptical, Emmanuel saw the impact of these changes so when it came time to set up his own domaine in 1985, he naturally followed the same path.
Emmanuel slowly grew his domaine over time, and began to follow biodynamic practices in 1996. His wines became highly regarded and sold out each vintage, while he wholeheartedly rejected use of chemicals and pesticides in the vineyard.
In 2014, Emmanuel’s convictions were challenged when the AOC issued a mandatory order to treat his vines with chemicals to stop spread of a vine disease called floresence dorée. His refusal to do so ignited a firestorm of debate in the wine community, and he was prosecuted and fined. But he firmly defended his freedom to choose how to care for his land. In 2021 the ordeal was the subject of a film entitled “Intraitable” and the issue branded Emmanuel as both a renegade and a staunch protector of organic farming– a moniker that still suits him today.
We recently sat down with Emmanuel (over a bottle of Burgundy, natch) for a discussion about his legacy of organic farming...
Your father was one of the pioneers of organic farming in Burgundy. And parts of your domaine are now in their fifty-third year of being worked organically. How has this influenced your own path?
I fell into biological agriculture since I was a minot (“kid” in Burgundian dialect) and was inspired by the values and good sense of these practices.
My dad worked with Claude Bourguignon [a highly-regarded soil microbiologist and biodynamic consultant]. In 1970’s they did an organic conference in Versailles… to look at what is happening in the soil, what can we do, how to best compost.
The fact of having a father who was at the beginning, that really brings something, and for me it was evident to go down this path, at the same time for the guarding the identity of the terroir and the expression of the wine and also for the question of the environment.
When you started your domaine organic agriculture was still a controversial concept, and the Burgundian wine community is notoriously feisty. How did you handle that?
I had a group of colleagues who were like me [organic] at that time, and after a while, those who had built a good reputation started to put that they were organic on the labels. And little by little, we created a movement… and more people came to work with us and learn.
There is still a lot of confusion of natural wine and biodynamic wine, and what is on the ticket etc. But to say that organic wine is always this or always that, and say all of it is not good… is as wrong as saying that all conventional wines are good.
How has your own daily life as a winemaker changed now, compared to when you first started?
When I began, none of my neighbours were working the same [organic] way. Today I have many colleagues that work with biodynamic principles. We talk, share ideas, it's more open and understood.
The weather is of course also very different. There have been big changes in last 10 years, we all know this. What I see is more extremes; extreme cold or rain or heat. Nothing is settled. It’s very worrying. We have tried to adapt to the climate, but it is an evolution. One that has become very accelerated.
How do you guard against, or prepare for, these environmental changes?
During Covid the pollution was so low I could look out and see vistas I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. The air was so clear!
Unfortunately no one is completely protected from chemicals. Even if I would be all alone with my vines I would not be protected from the air or from the rain that falls. But there are many things you can do to improve things like the vines’ resistance to parasites, the quality of the soil, etc. If the soil is living it smells different. If you can’t smell the chemicals in the soil…that is life! Now we don’t plow, we let life grow between the vines. Twenty-five years ago, when you looked up at the hillside of vines, there was only a little green – just the brown of the soil. Now we have real paths of green…there is life between the vines!
In viticulture less is more. It means that the less we disturb the natural working of the soils - their regeneration with micro-organisms - the less we interfere in the biodiversity chain and the more we tend to wines that express the truth and complexity of their terroirs. This is the paradox of organic agriculture, less interventions and more authenticity.
How would you assess the state of organic agriculture in Burgundy today?
In Beaune, about ten percent of the surface is being worked organically, or is in conversion. In Burgundy overall its maybe 30%. It’s not ideal, but it's not bad either. But I remember when it was less than 1%! The important thing is to have the progress.
As things develop, and people get more interested, and aware, change happens. It is necessary we give the key of reason to people, and then everyone is capable of making a new path.
You can’t just say do this, don’t do that. Imposing things never works… The key is to understand the reasons. The key reasoning. Its better for the environment, better for our water, for the air we breathe, for my kids. If people understand that, they make changes.
What do you see for the future of organic and biodynamic farming? Is the glass half empty or half full?
This is not just a problem in vineyards. There is a social problem here– the impact of agricultural practices and the use of pesticides on the quality of produce, and therefore on human health. Burgundy, which has vineyards of exceptional quality, should be promoting practices which respect the environment.
Critics of biodynamics have come to see the reason. We can’t wait for the next generation. We must act now.
Words by Allison Burton-Parker
Photography by Matt Hickman