Green reds and rosé

PUBLISHED: 11:03 15 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:06 20 February 2013

Catherine Wallace

Catherine Wallace

Philippe Boucheron went to the Organic & Biodynamic Wine Fair in Perpignan and met an English rose producing brilliant biodynamic French wines.

Philippe Boucheron went to the Organic & Biodynamic Wine Fair in Perpignan and met an English rose producing brilliant biodynamic French wines

Catherine Wallace is a fresh-faced, blonde English lady, just turned 40, for whom life is beginning in a big way. For Catherine spends half the year living up a mountain in a virtual eagle's nest 280 metres above sea level with 360 degree views over the surrounding Languadoc countryside. This is Domaine Chambebelle, a 20 hectare bio-dynamic Saint-Chinian AoC vineyard that she bought in 2005 from fellow Brit Robert Eden who had run it, with his sister, for some 20 years.

Catherine has had to wait the statutory three years to get her vineyard recognised as both organic and biodynamic, and was creating quite a stir among fellow growers and wine buyers at Bio Millésime 2008, the tenth international organic and biodynamic wine show held at Perpignan, in the south of France.

She is quite some lady. At the age of eight she had misbehaved in some small way at her home in Manchester and was sent out of the room. She picked up her father's first edition of Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine and from that moment determined to become a wine producer. As she grew older her ambition only strengthened and her father promised her every support if she would stay at school until she was 18.

Today she is making exceptional red and rosé wines from a blend of 60% Syrah and 40% Grenache grown in deep red clay soil over limestone and chalk. The clay stresses her vines, but when they reach the chalk they draw up minerals that give her full-bodied wines their special character. All her vines are cultivated free from toxic pesticides or artificial petro-chemical fertilisers. However, as she explained to me, she is only doing what farmers all over the world did 150 to 200 years ago, long before the BBC began broadcasting weather forecasts they looked to the moon and the stars to help them plan their work. And to all intents and purposes this was the way it continued until after the Second World War.

During the war DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) - that had first been synthesized in 1874 - was mass produced to combat mosquitoes spreading malaria, typhus and other insect-born diseases among both the military and civilians. After the war it was widely used as a most effective pesticide enabling farmers to increase food and wine production. Unfortunately, it not only killed insects and left long lasting damage to the soil, but was also found to be an extremely toxic source of cancers and eventually, in 1972, its use was banned.

But this Pandora's box was opened and agro-chemical manufacturers vied with each other to offer farmers toxic herbicides and petro-chemical fertilizers. While these did increase yields and so help reduce the cost of food production, they also spread poisons into the atmosphere and our bodies. But as many of the ago-chemical companies were part of international combines that also owned pharmaceutical businesses, they just made even more profits from the medicines that were prescribed to help combat the side effects of what went on the ground and so into the food that we eat and wine we drink. Some farmers were concerned about what was happening when they and their workers became seriously ill from sheep dipping or ingesting sprays and powders that they spread on their land. And so they began farming along strictly organic, and later, biodynamic lines.

Catherin Wallace's objective is to cultivate her vineyards with absolute respect for the environment. This enables her wines to express their origin as naturally as possible. She is totally committed to preserving her local eco systems in as natural a state as possible while researching ways of allowing her vines to establish natural defences against predators. Her vines are fed with compost from local farms that ensure that the soil is nurtured by living matter.

She allows her wines to slowly ferment for a full month before maturing them for a year in a combination of tanks and oak casks and they are bottled without fining or filtering. The hot sunshine of the south of France ripens the grapes so that they naturally reach around 14% abv, but the alcohol is so beautifully integrated that there are none of the 'hot spots' that could inhibit their finesse.

You won't find Domaine Combebelle in you shops yet. But seeing how British wine buyers at the show were enthusing about their fruity aromas and flavours of red cherry, plum and spice, it shouldn't be too long.

Oh, I almost forgot: what does Catherine do for the other six months of the year? Well, she spends that in Japan wither husband who is a senior executive with an international pharmaceutical company.

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