The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Chateau la Canorgue - Bonnieux
Luberon, Rhone, France

Romans found springs, and then built their homes near to these sources of fresh water. The ruins of a Roman estate are under the Chateau la Canorgue, which was constructed in the 18th Century. Nathalie Margan grew up on the farm. She said it was common to find Roman coins and pieces of pottery in the fields. The Margan family have an amphora used by their ancient predecessors to store wine. It is one of many pieces of evidence that Romans grew vines in Bonnieux.

Canorgue is an old word meaning underground aqueduct. Over a kilometer of Roman aqueducts remain, barely a meter under the surface of Chateau la Canorgue. They still provide the water used at the Chateau. Nathalie Margan explained how this contributed to their decision to farm organically.

“We drink the water. We know the chemicals would end up in us, if we used them (in the fields.)”

All the grapes for Chateau la Canorgue’s wines are made from fields surrounding their home. 98 small parcels- including 100-year-old vines used to produce a special cuvee called Coin Perdu- are rigorously cultivated. The estate includes 10 full-time laborers to maintain these fields, and hires 20 more for harvest, and an additional four more to prune in winter. To make organic wine at this high standard requires intensive laboring, by hand. Ignorance is one barrier to the progress of the organic farming movement. High labor costs (and potentially beneficial-to-quality reduced yields) is another. Fear of catastrophe magnifies the issue.

Nathalie Margan sees it in a different context.

“If you farm chemically, your soils slowly die and the land becomes useless, without value.”

Discussions of conventional agriculture must contain the knock-on impact, the long-term soils and water degradation as part of the equation. Until these hidden costs are counted many consumers will not be able to make a fair analysis of organic ware and their comparative value. And that’s without scratching the surface of potential impact to the health of the consumer....

Chateau la Canorgue’s 17th century cellar used to be a silk factory. Today it contains the wines that spend time in barrel, and its top floor houses a member of their vineyard team

Work on a new round cellar built from red cedar is under way. Since Nathalie’s father returned the property to the production of wine (in 1974) the cultivated vineyard acreage at Chateau la Canorgue has doubled, exceeding the capacity of the old building. Also, the ceiling of the old space was neck-bendingly low, even for the diminutive Margans.

Nathalie Margan’s maternal great-grandfather was a lwine PHd who taught locals how to make wine, and established Bonnieux’s first co-operative at the property. Unfortunately her grandfather died young, and wine production ceased. Nathalie’s mother worked as a nurse and her father worked part-time at other domaines to save money for necessary cellar equipment. They slowly built an internationally-acclaimed winery of considerable size and quality standards.

At the time of Nathalie’s great-grandfather, Chateau la Canorgue was one of only three estate-bottlers in the Luberon. Cherries, not grapes, were the main crop of the the area at that time. Apt, a nearby town, was the largest producer of candied cherries in the world, and still produces a considerable volume of the fruit.

Nathalie Margan is the opposite of the “anything-goes let nature make the wine” image of the hippie organic wine grower! She knows organic farming is about more work (and more attention to detail) not less. Some examples:

They plant a rotation of cover crops between every 2 rows of vines to replenish the soil. These are carefully selected and rotated to fit the vineyard’s specific needs. Last year they planted clover crops in March, when the vines need an energy boost.

The grapes are picked at night so fruit enters the cellar cool,which slows oxidation. After the harvest Margan typically tastes her wines five times per day to assess their evolution and monitor for the development of any problems. She also solicits the opinion of outside oenologists frequently to allay her fears and to obtain impartial opinions.

At a glance the Margans seem privileged. Their beautiful chateau and property are the setting of Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, a movie based on a book by one of their customers, Peter Mayles. Across generations the Margans have struggled to make the place what it is today. Their determination to keep the estate as it should be, to work honestly and correctly makes them the rightful owners of the estate. They are just stewards of the land.


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