Rugby Star Gérard Bertrand Tackled Languedoc Wines, Now he Takes on Biodynamics
The smell is not perfect,” Gérard Bertrand says, squinting into the sun on the grounds of his Domaine de Cigalus estate in southern France. Against the edges of a wooden table, a dozen men pound cow horns filled with manure. With each thud, an echo bounces off the stone farmhouse, and a clump of brown matter tumbles out. “We do this today because the moon is in the second Scorpio constellation after Easter,” Bertrand says, as if the significance is self-evident. With the pride of a pirate surveying his booty, the winemaker chooses a horn from the pile and holds it up against the cloudless morning sky. A shadow appears across his face, deepening the blue of his eyes, the bronze of his skin, the salt and pepper of his tousled curls. (He’s a doppelgänger for French movie star Vincent Cassel.) “The horns are the cow’s radar,” he says, with deep reverence. “They capture the energy of the cosmos.”
At dawn, the workers exhumed these horns from the ground, where they had been buried for six months to absorb the earth’s energy. Now nutrient-rich and rife with microorganisms, the filling will be diluted to an extreme degree; one horn will feed four acres of vines scattered among Bertrand’s many estates in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The odd practice is one of the many mystical rituals of biodynamics, a holistic farming philosophy guided by the cycles of the moon and stars that goes far beyond the merely organic. Some call it voodoo or pseudoscience, while disciples like Bertrand call it a powerful, tangible way to save an ailing planet. Making the grandest investment in terms of capital and acreage of any winemaker on earth, on this he is literally betting the farm.
Languedoc, which hugs the Mediterranean Sea and stretches from Provence to the snowcapped Pyrénées, holds a rugged, dreamy beauty. Dazzling Roman aqueducts casually appear among the deep canyons and jagged limestone plateaus. White Camargue horses run free in the Rhône delta, alongside black bulls raised to test the courage of matadors. Centuries of mystics, rebels, and romantics have found refuge here, among them the Cathars, a gnostic sect who rejected material concerns and the need for a church to achieve spiritual elevation. Hunted and massacred by Vatican crusaders over hundreds of years, they fled to fortresses perched atop windswept mountains. “Their spirits are still alive,” Bertrand says. “They were very strong and they fought until the end. They never gave up—like us! We are the descendants.”
The Romans were the first to cultivate grapes here, and the vines have grown like weeds ever since. The largest wine-producing region in France, Languedoc is responsible for 5 percent of the world’s wine. For decades, quantity meant bulk plonk, a status quo Bertrand’s father, Georges, tried to disrupt in the 1970s. A gutsy, intransigent innovator, Georges was a lone advocate for quality. He founded a collective that used forgotten Mediterranean varietals and was the first in the region to age wines in oak casks. He initiated Gérard when the boy was 10, working him from 5 a.m. until 1 p.m. on holidays and during each fruitage. “My father would say, ‘You know, Gérard, you are lucky, because when you turn 50, you will have 40 harvests behind you,’” Bertrand recalls.
Today, with 43 harvests behind him, Bertrand has grown his father’s initial plot to a fiefdom of 14 estates crisscrossing the sunny expanses of the Languedoc region. His range of wines, some 160 across all price points, is staggering; in 2017, almost 9 million bottles left Languedoc for the U.S., and nearly half were stamped with the Bertrand name. He and his father have been credited with elevating the once-beleaguered region’s status, and his mission has expanded to something more audaciously ambitious. He has been called to spread the gospel of biodynamics, a system that he says allows for the creation of wines capable of delivering a “quantum message, from the cosmos to your neocortex.” But not so fast: To receive this message, he says, “you need to be prepared; you need to be ready.”
How Bertrand, a 6-foot-5 former rugby champion known as “Le Grand,” became ready is a tale unto itself. On the pitch, he embodied the rough-and-tumble sport’s je ne sais quoi—le flair français—a paradoxical mélange of rugged, brawling physicality and elegant inner grace. He could be cast as a cult leader who says, with complete sincerity, super-French things like, “Life is too short to drink boring wine.” And, like an itinerant preacher, he travels more than 150 days a year, offering 300 master classes in wine tasting and biodynamics along the way.
“When I first met him, I found him to be so arrogant,” says Andrew Bell, founder and president of the wine education organization American Sommelier. “Ten years later, you’d think he had been praying in the Himalayas—still Type A, but there’s a peace now. Maybe his intention with biodynamics is megalomaniacal, but it doesn’t matter because he is literally changing the world, and his influence is spreading.”
Left to their own devices, vines laze about, growing leaves. Only when stress is present are their survival instincts ignited, and they use their energy to produce grapes. In the vineyard, when stress is synergistically measured and timed—in the form of pruning, crowding, and restriction—grapes grow big and juicy. As vines are a part of nature, so are we. In 1987, when Bertrand was a 22-year-old enjoying rising rugby fame, his father died in a car accident. Although he was devastated, he stepped up, taking over the family’s small estate, and for years he led a double life as an athlete and winemaker, schlepping from store to store the first bottles bearing his name. The business thrived, but his health deteriorated; he began losing weight and energy due to a mysterious illness, and—irony of ironies—drinking wine would make him sick. With conventional doctors baffled, he sought out a homeopath in Narbonne. “In six months, he cured me,” Bertrand says as he nurses a cup of Japanese tea in the garden at Domaine de Cigalus, the 185-acre estate just west of Narbonne where he lives with his wife, two kids, and two rambunctious dogs. Homeopathy was a gateway to biodynamics. “The two are linked. Both are more than science—they are revelations about the perfection of the universe.”
Bertrand performed his first biodynamic experiments here in his backyard, farming four acres conventionally and four acres biodynamically—burying horns, fermenting herbs in a buck’s bladder or a heifer’s intestine, pruning on “root days,” handpicking on “fruit days,” all corresponding with the cycles of the moon. After two years, the biodynamic vines were healthier, and their grapes had thicker skins and higher acidity, a desirable state for aging.
About 10 years after his father’s death, while Bertrand was on a journey through the untamed foothills of the Montagne Noire, he discovered an estate that would further inspire his foray into biodynamics. The property had tumbledown vines pitched on hillsides leading to a crumbling stone sheepfold. The winds pulsed with wild rosemary and thyme, and Bertrand felt moved by a “sense of love for Creation—of the abundance and harmony of nature.”
Geological tests supported Bertrand’s intuition that he had found a special place. Despite its diminutive size, the old estate has two terroirs: The hillside rising north to the mountains is rocky limestone, while the hillside sloping south toward the sea is sandstone and clay.
After 15 years of biodynamic experimentation, aided by a deep dive into quantum physics, Bertrand released his first bottles, christened Clos d’Ora, from the Latin word meaning “to pray.” Even skeptics like Andrew Bell became believers.
“I used to think it was all hippie hogwash,” Bell says, “but the fruit tastes better, the yields are higher, and there was a real discernible difference in the wines—they had become outstanding.”
A scant 8,500 bottles of Clos d’Ora are produced each year, which helps to explain the $250 price tag. The wine’s value, however, comes not from scarcity, but from what Bertrand calls “a communion with the divine.”
To illustrate, in the vineyard at Domaine de Cigalus, Bertrand points out a man following a mule that’s pulling a simple metal plow. The animal’s name is Victorieux, and he is stopping more than stepping. “The mule with his bare feet knows when to work—if the soil is too dry or too wet, he doesn’t go,” Bertrand says. “We fight to keep the link between terroir and humans, with no chemicals or machinery to break the link.” Biodynamic wine, then, is like a postcard that tells a story of what happened at that place, at that time, more detailed and profound than anything organic wine can express—and much more than conventional wine.
Again using a hunch to test an intuition, Bertrand had macroscopic images taken of a droplet of Clos d’Ora and a droplet of a non-biodynamic wine from the same appellation. Both sets of photos show gorgeous starburst shapes of the wines’ electromagnetic fields—but they’re remarkably different. The corona of the Clos d’Ora is larger, denser, more brilliant, and uniform. A scientist would say its photon flux (the number of photons per second per unit area) is higher and therefore more powerful, more energetic. Bertrand believes the wine offers something much deeper. “Some people find pleasure with wine, which is good,” he says. “Some are ready to go further, to feel an emotion. With quantum wine, it’s possible to have a multidimensional experience, a message from God of peace, love, and harmony.”
Like any spiritual practice—and for followers of biodynamics, it is definitely a practice of a spiritual nature—the more you turn on, the more you tune in. “You learn to observe and obey nature on a very small scale, and you become humble,” Bertrand says. Daily yoga, meditation, and evening runs through the vineyards help him “keep the connection.” And, because he’s Gérard Bertrand, he flexes his eco bona fides by driving a Tesla.
Climbing into the blue machine, he presses the ignition button and, like a kid who just caught a frog, asks, “You know why I like this car? You don’t have any noise—it’s like a plane—and the acceleration is fantastic.” Pedal to the metal, he hugs the country curves en route to Cap Insula, his new production facility outside Narbonne, a few miles from his home.
The new site—a modern concrete monolith—seems out of place among the postcard-pretty vineyards. “The roofs are bamboo,” Bertrand says, explaining that the super-high-tech building requires neither heating nor air conditioning. Belying the ominous exterior, the interior is sunny, happily humming with busy humans and machines. Gliding through a labyrinth of offices, Bertrand greets everyone individually and offers encouragement. (“Jean-Pierre—he is 51 and still playing! He is like a Viking!”) A succession of doors and hallways leads to a winery that could be a nuclear power plant. Workers wearing bright orange vests and carrying clipboards stand on steel catwalks along the tops of enormous computer-controlled steel vats.
Though Bertrand’s estate wines are blended and bottled at Domaine de Cigalus, the wines crafted here are made through partnerships with local growers, an effort that supports nearly 2,000 families in the region. “I have always played as a collective,” he says. “This is a lesson from rugby.” Beyond good will, it’s smart business. This negociant arm fuels less profit-driven initiatives, like an agroforestry project and a school for biodynamics. He also works with environmentalist/filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s GoodPlanet Foundation. “Gérard is a rare entrepreneur,” Arthus-Bertrand says, “one with a lot of ethics and morals. What he is doing with biodynamics is amazing. He can convince people to work in this painstaking way. He has a lot of charisma, but also you feel he is an honest man.”
Wine bottles float like ducks on conveyor belts on their way to being filled, labeled, and boxed. With the merry abandon of Willy Wonka showing Charlie his wondrous concoctions, Bertrand plucks them up for show-and-tell. “This a natural wine with no sulfites—and it’s vegan!” “This one is bee-friendly!” “This is our best-seller rosé in America!” Also in the mix is the Hampton Water rosé, a collaboration between Bertrand, Jon Bon Jovi, and Bon Jovi’s son that’s flying off shelves.
In another room is a laboratory where the final touches are made to the blends. On shiny white counters are test tubes, droppers, and bottles with handwritten labels. A waist-high silver spittoon stands like a baptismal font. The winery follows biodynamic practices devotedly all year, but the moment of truth is the blend. “Blending is like painting—you can make a masterpiece or you can make bulls***,” Bertrand says, swirling a glass of wine seven times to the left, then seven times to the right before taking a sip. “Even if you have good juice, you must have an intention in your mind and in your heart. To execute this, you need to be peaceful. You need to be connected—not with your intellect or ego, but with your intuition and imagination.”
I close my eyes and take a sip. I don’t receive a message from God, but I do smile as the taste of ripe berries and musty earth washes over me, making me feel alive and, maybe, at peace.