My Brief Afternoon Visit with Nicolas Joly

Written by Simone Popov · 5 min read >

To write this, I had to consult my little black book…no, not that kind. A journal I kept in early 2020 during my solo voyage through France’s wine regions. I am scratching my head as I try to read my scribbles. I have to admit, my month-long journey through France was based on nothing but good intentions and luck. But my time-however brief, however fortunate- with Monsieur Nicolas Joly truly resonated. I had no intention of writing about the encounter but knew that I would have to do it justice if I did.

The Domaine De la Coulee de Serrant owned by Monsier Nicolas Joly's family since the 80s.
The Domaine

The Vignoble

Vignoble de la Coulée de Serrant stands on the land owned and planted by the Cistercian monks in the 12th century. According to many sources, including Monsieur Joly himself, the Cistercians were deeply connected to this lot of land. The monks’ genius didn’t come from modern viticultural or geological reports but from intuition and an intimate understanding of the environment. Monsieur Joly’s parents purchased the Domaine in the 80s, continuing the monks’ agricultural practices centuries ago… Even in the Eighties, when synthetic fertilizers and pesticides tempted winemakers, the Joly family focused on pure agriculture on their 25 ha estate, dubbed “Return to Terroir.”

Meeting Nicolas

To be in the presence of Nicolas Joly, one of the pioneers of Vin Biodynamique in the Loire region of Savennières, was intimidating. During my brief first encounter with the man, after I finessed a face-to-face meeting by omitting that I was NOT his 1 pm appointment, he asked me about the rainfall in California. When I didn’t have a definitive answer, he furrowed his brow and told me that was something I should know. To him, the natural elements in the vineyard were of paramount importance, and he couldn’t understand why anyone who wanted to work in wine wouldn’t have the answer. He then briefly mentioned what he called “solar pollution” and lamented that “things are changing” before bidding me adieu and leaving me in the capable hands of Caroline, one of his cellar hands.

Tasting the Three Wines

I tasted through the only three wines of the estate, Le Vieux Clos, Clos de La Bergerie, and Coulee de Serrant. These wines are made from 100% Chenin Blanc, the grape required by the Savennières and Coulée De Serrant AOCs. The wines were made minimally but carefully,  in old wood (no oak flavors), with minimal sulfates added. I was shocked to learn that the grapes for each wine resulted from about five passes through the vineyard, with each cluster carefully selected. Even more shocking, about 10% of the berries used for the wines were botrytized or affected by the Noble Rot. I assumed that such a style was only for sweet dessert wines of Sauternes and Tokaj. Yet, the botrytis added an incredible layer of complexity to the wines.

The Wines of Nicolas Joly
Left to right: Le Vieux Clos, Coulee de Serrant, Clos de la Bergerie.

Caroline also informed me that a young Nicolas Joly Chenin needs to decant and open up for a week after opening a bottle. My mouth was agape. Finally, if my whole world wasn’t yet turned on its head quite enough, each wine reached about 14-15% ABV. Yet, as I tasted the wines, there was nearly no evidence of heat or alcohol that I was so used to in California wines. Instead, the tart, livewire acid balanced the alcohol, giving the wines an incredible lift. The wines exhibited flavors of dried pineapple slices, marmalade, nuttiness, and so many different nuances that I lost count. The highlight of the whole tasting was the flagship wine from the 7-hectare Coulee de Serrant, the “Grand Cru” of Savennières.  To say I was utterly blown away was simply an understatement of the century.

Walking through the Vineyards

I don’t think I have ever been so disappointed to have a tasting end. Experiencing the wines was just scratching the surface of understanding what made Monsieur Joly’s wines incredible. I didn’t know what else I could learn, but the day was idyllic, and I had nowhere else to be, so I asked Caroline if I could walk the grounds. I walked upon the volcanic Rhyolite, Spilite, Phtanite, and Schist that made up the soils of Savennières, daydreaming in the sun.

The soils of Savinneres.
Nicolas Joly
The Rocky Soils of Coulee de Serrant

Then I heard someone call me over. I wasn’t sure who it was, and at the moment, it didn’t seem like the voice was coming from anywhere. It took me a minute to locate who was calling out to me, and -to my surprise- it was Monsieur Joly. I looked around to make sure he wasn’t addressing anyone else. He wasn’t. So I ran over to him, slightly worried that I had done something wrong and was somewhere hallowed where I wasn’t supposed to be. Fortunately, he just asked me if I wanted to go up to the Coulée de Serrant.

I couldn’t refuse such an offer.

Climbing the Coulée De Serrant

The vineyard view of the Loire River
The incredible view of The Loire from the top of Coulee de Serrant

As we drove, he pensively discussed the ecosystem of the vineyard. The car climbed up the hillside at such an angle that I had to grab the passenger-side handle because I felt we would roll downhill. The climb didn’t phase Monsieur Joly.

 Everything in the vineyard was alive and had an important role to play. The vines, leaves, animals, cover crops, bacteria, and bugs all provided a vital part of a life cycle that was Coulée de Serrant. He had sheep grazing the land to compact the soils while fertilizing them and helping with weed management. He mentioned following the moon cycles, although I had very little understanding of what that meant.

Yet, despite my ignorance, I understood something. Here was a man dedicated to his craft who painstakingly nurtured these vineyards without chemical shortcuts. He saw something in the world around us that most of us “pragmatic” people refused to see; that is how natural forces interacted. Whether one believes in Nicholas Joly’s Biodynamic approach, one can’t help but admire his stalwart resolve. And, if we take the pragmatism of wine quality into account, his wines prove beyond the doubt that Monsieur Joly is right.

Watching the Master Work

Once we reached the top of Coulée de Serrant, Monsieur Joly bid me adieu once again, this time to walk the vineyards with his vineyard manager. I observed him for a while, noticing how he stopped at every vine for at least 5 minutes, having meaningful conversations. Wintertime meant careful considerations were made for vine pruning, and it was paramount to ensure that the crew understood how to properly prune and preserve “sap flow”. I had to look around and take it all in. The sun shone brightly, yet I could still see my breath in the air. The Loire wasn’t too far from us, reflecting the sun’s rays. The volcanic soils are even more apparent up in the Coulée de Serrant. I felt like I was a part of this wonderful ecosystem and let my thoughts wander again.

A Visit to the Stables

I snapped out of the daydream when I heard the car turn on. I had to run quickly uphill as I wandered to the other side of the vineyard, but I managed to get there in time. Not that I wouldn’t be able to make the trek down to my car, I was just hoping Monsieur Joly could give me some more tidbits of information. He is a kind and patient man, and he was more than happy to show me some other parts of the estate.

We drove down, and he showed me the stables. There were chickens, goats, cows, oxen, and even donkeys. Every animal had a benefit to the ecosystem. Except for the donkey… Monsieur Joly joked.

The stables. Important for biodynamic practices. Nicolas Joly
The Donkey and The Ox at the Coulee De Serrant Stables

Finally, at the end of our journey, the man asked me about my raison d’etre. Why was I driving through France? I told him I was taking a month to explore and didn’t have a specific goal in mind. He told me about his incredible travels to South America after graduating from Columbia University.  He told me that right now was the perfect time to travel before returning to my day-to-day existence. [I had no idea how right he was. 3 weeks after I got back from Europe, Covid hit]

Merci Beaucoup

And there it was, an idyllic afternoon spent at the Vignoble de la Coulee de Serrant. A memory that I -admittedly- wish I had documented better but one that I will never forget. Driving away from the estate, I realized I could’ve asked him about the rainfall in Savennières. Maybe it would’ve been “smart-ass” of me to do, but I am willing to bet my life that he would have not just the exact number but the exact days and hours. 


for a more in-depth exploration of the Coulée de Serrant’s history, visit their website. If you want to learn more about Biodynamic winemaking, I would seriously consider reading Nicolas Joly’s books: Biodynamic Wine, Demystified, and What is Biodynamic Wine?: The Quality, the Taste, the Terroir

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