Ever wanted to live on a vineyard in France? Wake up in the morning to the smell of espresso and fresh-baked croissant, open the windows and gaze upon vineyards and majestic Mont Blanc in the distance? Eat delicious, locally sourced food and drink organically grown wine made in your backyard? Work, eat, drink, sing and dance with locals, and make friendships for life?
Ok, let’s back it up. We’ll get back to the idyllic French dream sequence in a bit.
It’s June, and I am in Morgon, in the Beaujolais [click here to read Beaujolais Part 1!]. I arrive at Domaine de la Bonne Tonne, which has been in the Grillet family for 7 generations, and am met by Anne‑Laure, who apologizes for her appearance and explains she has come straight from the fields. She is tall and slim with an athletic build, and is wearing gym shorts and a white tank top stained with grape juice. Of course, despite having been working in the hot sun all day, hand-pulling grass that takes precious nutrients from the vines, she looks like a million bucks. If this is what physical labour in French vineyards does to a woman, sign me up.
Making a difference
We walk through the vineyards behind the Grillet house, admiring the healthy-looking vines. Anne‑Laure tells me about growing up on the family vineyard, saying that she and her brother always helped out in the vines and were raised with a deep respect for the environment, something that has become a core value. The family always used traditional grape-growing practices, but modern farming techniques, like the use of fungicides and pesticides, slowly crept their way into their business. Sometime in the late 90s, Anne‑Laure’s father, Marcel Grillet, decided to make a change and stop spraying his vines with chemicals after realizing that they were negatively impacting the land and, as a result, his wine. It was the first step in the arduous task of converting their land to organic farming. Many of the vines had become dependent on these chemicals for their survival and didn’t make it. But eventually, life returned to the soil and the vines grew back stronger. In 2007, they started using biodynamic practices in the vineyard (more on that later).
The difference is visible—the vines are taller than their non-organic neighbours. Anne‑Laure says it’s even more noticeable in the winter, when their vineyard is still green and the neighbours’ vineyard looks as lifeless as the moon. In 2006, all their hard work paid off, and Domaine de la Bonne Tonne officially earned its organic certification and label. But what does this mean? Essentially that instead of using pesticides to kill off the weeds, Anne‑Laure spends a lot more time hand-picking those weeds (while also getting a killer tan).
Change of plans
Even though Anne‑Laure grew up in a vineyard, she never planned to take over the family business. She was an education specialist who spoke at schools on environmental topics. Her husband Thomas’s career had also taken an environmental path—he was a solar panel project specialist. A few years ago, both Anne‑Laure and Thomas were at points in their careers where they were looking to do something else. They had been living in Switzerland for 6 years and wanted to find something closer to home. So when her parents said they were retiring, they decided to go for it. Thomas had no viticultural experience, so he learned what he could from the family and was weeks away from earning his diploma in viticulture and oenology earlier this summer. In 2020, the young couple will officially take over Domaine de la Bonne Tonne.
Bonne Tonne biodynamics
Besides the daily operations of running a winery, Anne‑Laure and Thomas have given themselves a significant goal: obtaining the official Demeter biodynamic certification, even though Bonne Tonne is already biodynamic in all ways except on paper, and has been since 2007.
We’ve talked a bit about biodynamics before on Wining with Mel, which is a bit like next-level organic grape growing. This holistic agricultural process is based on the phases of the moon, as well as the stars and the weather, and makes the soil and the vines naturally strong using only natural, plant-based preparations, essentially creating a self-sufficient little ecosystem.
In organic farming, only naturally occurring products like sulphur and copper are allowed, and they are referred to as “contact products” because they stay on the surface of the vines and don’t work their way into the whole ecosystem. So it’s understandable that on the day of my visit Anne‑Laure was bothered by the smell that lingered in the air that meant other grape growers in the area were spraying their vines with penetrating chemicals. “On vit avec,” she said. You live with it. Later in an email, Thomas said something similar: “Nous respectons chaque vigneron car c’est un métier difficile.” (We respect every producer because it is a difficult job).
They know you can’t change everyone else, but you can change how you do things. “C’est à nous d’agir,” she added. It’s up to us to act. And that’s exactly what Anne‑Laure and Thomas are doing. They are being the change they want to see in the world. They are taking their passion, determination and strong environmental convictions and building an ecologically sustainable legacy for their young daughter. And the movement is growing. There are now a handful of biodynamic wineries in Beaujolais, and lots more organic ones. And the movement isn’t limited to wine. By 2021, the commune of Villié‑Morgon is going entirely pesticide free, just one of 17 Beaujolais communes that have signed the charter.
Bonne Tonne wines
I can’t express how exciting and inspirational it was to witness Anne‑Laure’s passion, but I can say that it made me very thirsty.
We were able to taste the Beaujolais Blanc from their small parcel of chardonnay grapes grown on clay‑based soil. Lovely aromas of citrus and minerality with just a soupçon of toast and vanilla. This balance of freshness and roundness comes from 1/3 of the blend being fermented in a barrel, with the other 2/3 in stainless steel. This is a delicious chardonnay, and really hit the spot after a day of exploring the vineyards of the Beaujolais.
As you may recall from the last post, the Beaujolais cru Morgon is divided into distinct areas determined by soil type and orientation. Bonne Tonne has plots in three of these, including Les Charmes, Les Grands Cras and Côte du Py. We were able to have a taste of the 2017 Les Grands Cras, with grapes from Bonne Tonne’s biggest plot. It was distinct from the others we had tried that day, with blackberry flavours, floral notes and lots of acidity. Sadly for us (but great for them), they were all sold out of the other bottles, so I was unable to try Les Charmes and the Côte du Py. The good news is Bonne Tonne is represented in Quebec by the Boires agency, so the 2015 Côtes du Py is available at the SAQ in very limited quantities, and the others can be ordered privately.
Now back to that dream sequence!
This is your chance to fulfil that dream of living on a vineyard! Domaine de la Bonne Tonne is still looking for a few extra sets of hands to help with the harvest for a week in mid-September. If you love wine, are interested in sustainable agriculture, want hands-on grape-picking experience and aren’t afraid of hard work, this is an excellent opportunity! In exchange for your services, Bonne Tonne will put you up, feed you, and make sure the wine bottles are never empty! Interested? Email Anne‑Laure and Thomas at grillet.marcel (at) wanadoo.fr ASAP (and check your spam folder regularly as some of their emails seem to end up there)!