The Story

Didier Barral is a thirteenth-generation winegrower. But that term feels entirely wrong for the work he does and the domaine he has created. Perhaps the title biodynamic farmer is closer, but that still somehow misses. He is in essence a polyculturist, a worm/insect/animal farmer, a thinker, a tinkerer and a renaissance man...

The Barral family has been growing vines in the hamlet of Lenthéric, part of the Faugères appellation in the heart of the Languedoc for centuries. In the early 1990’s, Didier decided to estate-bottle the wines and created Domaine Léon Barral, named after his grandfather. From the start, he wanted to implement biodynamic farming, but with a large domaine of 35 hectares he knew it would be a challenge so began with the singular aim of creating a self-sustaining ecosystem in his vineyards. Didier pioneered a wide range of practices to return natural balance to his soils, ultimately creating a biodiverse domaine overflowing with life. Local grapes flourish in this harsh, dry, windy region in parcels enclosed by trees, with thriving soils where all living organic matter is protected.

Didier has made significant advances in soil management, pest control and drought mitigation, and has strong views and opinions on all manner of organic and biodynamic viticulture. But he is not at all dogmatic and resists imperatives. From his insistence on bush training, the equipment he uses (or declines to use) in the vineyards, or his dedication to polyculture, he speaks only for himself – but with incredible detail and fortitude resulting from decades of observation and experimentation.


“Everything that lives should feel at home in my vineyard.”


All work is done naturally and with as little intervention as possible, with a common sense approach to encourage the optimal life of the soil. He uses straddle tractors to avoid compaction, makes compost from recycled cardboard cartons and avoids all chemical treatments. He fosters worm colonies to enrich soils, and builds nesting boxes for bats, offering refuge to these nocturnal allies who eat the insects responsible for grape worms.

Didier believes all living matter can benefit his vines.

Domaine Léon Barral is a model of sustainability at its finest – where an ecosystem thrives autonomously, under the watchful eye of Didier. It is the diagram of a farm that would have existed in the 19th century – with animals, fruit trees and cereals all co-mingling with rows of grape vines.

The result of these efforts are complex, powerful wines that develop exceptionally over time. The slightly acid schist soils give an earthy, mineral note to his four cuvées – three red and one white. All are made from a blend of local grapes: Terret Gris, Terret Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

Didier considers the wine all but finished once it leaves the vineyard, and practices hands-off winemaking. The various grapes are vinified separately, and always as whole bunches – nothing is destemmed. Fermentation uses only indigenous yeasts and long macerations get regular manual punch-downs. Most of the wines are aged for at least two years in wood, with a few in cement and stainless steel tanks. All wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered. Each wine features a signature freshness and acidity - which Didier believes is achieved thanks to his thriving soils, and intense flavours - which are the result of his dedication to low yields and the use of many old vines.

View Wines

"The wine starts to be made when you place the blade of the secateurs on the vine for pruning."


The People


Didier Barral is the rare type of winemaker who is so confident in his wines he doesn’t feel the need to talk about them endlessly, or serve them exclusively. During our recent lunch at the domaine Didier cheerfully poured wines from other regions, chatting about the winemakers and extolling their virtues.

Didier’s wife, Martine, seems to share this diverse love of wine, as well as an appreciation for homegrown and homemade food. Their vast open kitchen is perfumed with layers of aromas from countless lively meals.

We recently shared a delicious lunch around a large communal table, with both hosts explaining the origin of the ingredients – from local cheeses and meats to the artisanal bread. The highlight was a plate of lightly breaded and panfried discs of white mushroom tops. I had remarked on the many large cèpes growing in his parcels, and Didier had slyly plucked a few and asked Martine to cook them for us.

It's this desire to use every part of his ecosystem, and his eagerness to share it, that makes Didier’s approach so infectious.

Image alt text

"I simply want to produce wines that are pleasant to drink and digest, to make my olive oil and flour, and to be in harmony with my animals. I refuse to enter into a logic of immediate profitability."


The Team

Didier’s son is also increasingly involved with the Domaine, and returns home during university breaks to help out. But we would be remiss to not mention here the other essential members of his vineyard management team – his menagerie of animals.

Didier employs a motley crew he calls his “natural weed killers”– a herd of twenty or so Jersey cows, plus a few horses, donkeys and pigs, that wander amongst the vines from October to April. They naturally mow the grasses, and their manure adds organic matter to the soils: Ants, ladybugs, earthworms, and mushrooms flourish, bringing important nutrients and aerating the soil, without compacting the dirt the way a tractor would. The cows also nibble on the upper part of vine shoots, effectively pre-pruning the vines. As soon as buds appear, the animals are herded away to enjoy the warmer months on fallow land nearby, and it’s time for the rest of the (human) team to get to work on the vines.

Watch Interview
Image alt text

The Place

Faugères, Languedoc, France 

Domaine Léon Barral is in the tiny Hamlet of Lentheric in Faugères, at the foot of a hill covered in oaks nestled between the Pyrenees mountains and a vast garrigue forest. Where the houses end Didier’s sea of vines begins, and his various plots extend in all directions. The land is extremely hilly, rocky and rugged. On our recent visit Didier drove us to visit several parcels, and at more than one point we feared being thrown from his truck as it battled the rumbling, steep terrain.


"If you see a wire, it’s not my vineyard!"


The area also battles a true Mediterranean climate, with regular heat waves and drought during the growing season. Since most of the domaine’s plots are south-facing and get full sun exposure, Didier uses gobelet style pruning (bush vines), used historically in the area as it shelters the grapes from the blistering sun. While other nearby winemakers forego this in favour of methods that permit mechanical pruning and harvesting, Didier insists on only this traditional technique. He explains, “Thirty years ago, all the vineyards, from Languedoc to Perpignan were only Gobelet. No wires! Grapes were grown this way here for over 2000 years, why would we change that?” Didier says bush vines improve resistance to wind and drought as well as grape quality.

The Languedoc appellation is the largest producer of organic wines in France, and Didier has pioneered sustainable winemaking practices there since the 1990’s. He began by planting trees that attract insects and birds – like linden, olive, acacia and pistachio – between neighbouring parcels. He has since planted over 7000 trees, and in 2012 he finished by enclosing all his plots with trees. This keeps out unwanted organisms and animals, and protects the biodiverse utopia he has created.


"Nature has found only one way to get balance, that’s diversity."


Didier believes the only way to create great wine is with healthy soils – ones that are not touched by chemicals, and touched as little as possible full-stop. He refuses to use Copper at all, Sulphur is added only in tiny amounts at bottling if a bacteriological analysis shows it is needed.


"To make interesting wine in these conditions, you need soils that are both permeable, aerated and capable of better retaining water."


The domaine is dotted with several small buildings including a large garage chockablock with various agricultural machinery, most of which remains unused since he stopped plowing in 2005. He realised plowing damaged the soil structure, took away too much from the soils and destroyed the galleries for earthworms and insects. This meant that when it rained, the water just ran off, rather than penetrating the soil. Over the last 15 years he has seen a dramatic change in the permeability of the soils as a result. At first, the unplowed grasses grew frantically and competed with the vines, which in turn produced fewer grapes. But once the vines adapted, yields rose again and Didier noted the grapes had better balance, acidity and freshness.

Three times a year, Didier gathers a team of workers to lay down his own bespoke mulch, made of around 10% compost, 10% manure and 80% broken branches. The mixture is rolled out like a carpet between the vines in every parcel, and preserves the humidity and moisture in the soil. He considers this a vital part of his ability to make luscious wines in this challenging climate.

In 2012 he began an ambitious project to expand the domaine’s winemaking facilities – but with the same minimalist approach. His vision was to, “Create a new chai that uses the land, while respecting it.” He built a new natural cellar, carved into a hillside of shale, using only rocks taken from the land and no polluting materials whatsoever. The stones were shaped and arranged carefully in a traditional manner, to build walls using only a lime mortar – no cement or concrete. Arches and vaults promote air circulation and a clay floor retains constant temperatures and allows the space to breathe. The space has an ancient feel to it, aided by a back wall of exposed rock. During heavy rains water trickles down the wall, which Didier considers excellent proof he has created a truly natural space.

The wines that are made and aged here are indeed among the finest wines from Southern France. For three decades Didier has drawn attention to the possibilities of this winemaking region and the ultimate benefits of natural farming. Whether one calls him a naturalist, biodynamist, experimentalist, or simply a farmer, his intense, flavourful wines defy labels as much as the man himself.


Words by Allison Burton-Parker

Photography Matt Hickman