In 1831, when Albert Bichot family winery was established in Burgundy, they farmed all of their vineyards organically. In fact, the majority of vineyards in France were farmed naturally in the 1800’s, because it was until the 1940’s, after WWII, that synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers were adopted by agriculture endeavors around the world.
But this year Albert Bichot has become one of the first large wine making businesses in Burgundy to become certified organic in their estate vineyards. The company has also adopted other sustainable practices such as reducing the weight of some of their wine bottles, and using recycled materials for the majority of their packaging materials, such as labels, glass and cardboard.
In a Zoom interview with Matthieu Mangenot in France, currently Assistant Technical Director with Albert Bichot, he explained why the company has adopted these progressive sustainability initiatives. Mangenot has a unique background, because he was trained to be both an enologist and agronomist, and specializes in sustainable agriculture and winemaking.
“The family is committed to taking care of the environment,” stated Mangenot. “And being organic is important to protect the environment, as well as the employees. We started to pursue organic certification in 2000, and it took us more than 10 years. The vineyards became certified in 2014, and the wine has been recognized in Europe as organic since 2018.”
Given that Albert Bichot is one of the largest wine businesses in Burgundy, with six estates and a total of 270 acres of vineyards to farm, becoming 100% certified is a large achievement. To date five of the estates have received the official certification, with the sixth one scheduled for 2025.
Using Both Organic and Sustainable Wine Grapes in Burgundy
Though there are other vineyards in Burgundy that are farming organically, very few have achieved official certification. This is because the certification involves a 3-year rigorous documentation process to prove they are only using organic materials in the vineyard and winery. All processes are validated by third party auditors on an annual basis, and each year the business must pay an auditing fee.
Albert Bichot also purchases grapes from local growers to supplement their estate vineyards. In doing this, they focus on vineyards that have been farmed organically or sustainably (often referred to as lutte raisonnée in France). This allows them to produce a wide range of wines, from basic regional wines that retail in the U.S. for around $26 per bottle to their Grand Cru range, such as the Domaine du Clos Frantin Richebourg which averages around $1,115 per bottle.
“We own 270 acres and buy from around 1200 acres, plus bulk wine,” explained Mangenot. All together the company produces 6 to 7 million bottles of wine per year with approximate annual revenues of €17 million euros ($18 million). They have around 180 employees, and offer wines from most of the major Burgundy regions, such as Chablis, Cote de Nuit, Beaune, Mâconnais, Beaujolais, and others.
Unfortunately Albert Bichot is not allowed to use the organic certification on their estate wines sold in the U.S., because of differences in regulations between the EU and U.S. In Europe, organic wines are often labeled as ‘Bio’ and must be made with organically farmed grapes, but can include up to 100 mg/L of sulfites (a natural preservative) for red wines. In the U.S., no sulfites are allowed in organic wine, so most organic U.S. producers will just label their wines as being made with organic grapes.
Albert Bichot Wines Sold in Light Weight Bottles in Specific Countries
“Our next step is to look at our carbon footprint,” continued Mangenot. He lists some of the actions the company has already taken in this endeavor, including reduction of bottle weight.
“We use cover crop in the vineyards, and use horses in vineyard at Chateau Gris because of the due to steep terraces. We also starting reducing our bottle weight 3-4 years ago,” stated Mangenot.
He explained that several airlines, as well as importers in Canada and Scandinavian countries are now demanding wine produced in lighter bottles. Bottle weight is one of the major contributors to wine’s carbon footprint, because of both the high energy consumption in producing glass and then distributing it.
“However, we can’t reduce the weight of bottles in some countries, because they want a Grand Cru to be in a heavy bottle,” explained Mangenot.
The company is also using 80 to 90% recycled glass, prints its labels on recycled bio-degradable paper, and focuses on forest stewardship, along with employee and animal welfare. They have recently refreshed their label design to be more modern but also to reflect their history with the deer logo and eco-responsible vision.
Does Wine Made With Organic Grapes Taste Better?
When asked if he believed farming organically impacted the taste and quality of the wine, Mangenot responded: “Organic grapes add to the complexity, texture, freshness, length, and finish of the wine. The quality and consistency is better with organic. This has an influence on the customer.”
The downside of farming organically, Mangenot reports is that it is 20 to 30% more expensive, due to increased labor and tractors.
Altogether, Albert Bichot produces 105 different types of wine, focusing on chardonnay, pinot noir, aligoté, gamay and sparkling wines from different Burgundian appellations.
“With Burgundy, everyone thinks of the high end, but Burgundy is not like that,” stated Mangenot. “In addition to the high end Premier and Grand Cru wines we make, the market is also demanding light, fruity regional Burgundy at an affordable price. Therefore, 50% of our production are affordable regional wines like our Bourgogne Blanc, Rouge, Aligote, Crémant, and Chablis.”
Albert Bichot sells their wine in over 100 countries. Their first market is France at 35% of sales, followed by Canada, the U.S., Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.