"Les Vignerons D'Estezargues" is a Southern Rhone Cooperative located in the Gard Departement, west of Villeneuve-Les-Avignon. In a region (including the whole of southern France) where every village has its cooperative, this one took a lonely path a few years ago when it chose to vinify separately and make single cuvées with the best plots of its 10 vignerons-members.
Cooperatives in the south have been producing high yields wines for the Negoce Houses for years, and many of them, having postponed the necessary changes in their production and methods, have been harshly affected by the dropping sales (and dropping prices) for low-quality wines (resulting in occasional riots of indebted and bankrupt growers). Most of these coops, for example, still vinify all their members' grapes together for generic cuvées, ignoring the potential benefits of vinifying separately the grapes of their best vineyards or climats.
The Estezargues Coop, which was created in 1965, did not stand out of the crowd at the beginning, and Jean Francois Nick, who began to work there in 1989, was the originator of the individual cuvées policy, that he put in place in 1995 after consulting the vignerons. The change was rapidly a success and the export share (which is more profitable than the wholesale market) grew. Then in 1997-1998, he added the natural wine approach, which was even more daring for a coop. Denis Deschamps, the winemaker now in charge [pictured upper-right pouring wine], began to work here in 2002, and continues to work along this approach : No external yeasts, no filtration, no fining, no enzymes, no SO2 on the grapes at harvest (or during the vinification), only a little bit for bottling. Asked if the natural-wine vinification is risky or bumpy, he says that for sure it is less simple than the additive way, but on the other hand it pushes the winemaker to be more precise and attentive in his "listening" to the wine. It also brings along a smaller volume approach, closer to the type of volumes handled in an individual winery, when "traditional coops" vinify in one batch huge volumes of wines, which I guess makes additives inevitable for commercial reasons.
The climate around here is quite healthy for the vineyard, and it helps. The last difficult year was 2002 but in general, the grapes at harvest are in good shape and allow a products-free vinification. They usually don't have the threat of bad rot here, plus they reach a good maturity which gives a natural richness in the wine, auto-protecting it with its natural tannins and its alcohol.
The vignerons make a selection of about 25% to 30-40% of their vineyards (their best plots) which will be vinified as individual cuvées with the name of their estate (and of the "Vignerons D'Estezargues" of course). The rest of their grapes will be blended in different cuvées of the Coop, like "Les Grandes Vignes" (their low-range wine, Cotes Du Rhone, in red, white and rosé, sold 3,95 Euro), "Granacha"(a Cotes Du Rhone-Villages Sinargues red at 6,65 Euro), "Les 40èmes Rugissants" (another CdR Sinargues at 12 euro), but like the individual selections, these wines see no additives in the vinification, and are unfiltered and unfined.
A Table Wine red at 1,30 Euro/liter
A Cotes du Rhone red at 2,05 Euro/liter
A Table Wine rosé at 1,15 Euro/liter.
The coop also sells wine in bag-in-box, at a price per liter a bit higher.
The most interesting aspect is of course this separate vinification for each of the selected terroirs of the 10 vignerons. The choice of the plots is made by the vignerons themselves, but the coop's winemaker (Denis Deschamps) has his say, as he is also the one who will ultimately make the wine. The 10 individual natural wines, labelled under each estate's name reflect different terroirs and vineyards expressions. This is rather unusual to find this individual-plots/natural-wine approach in a big structure like a Coop. Proves that size is not doomed to a systematic use of chemicals...
What about the work in the vineyards ? First, the vineyards around here are not the huge one-block surfaces found on the flatland further south. The region is moderately hilly, with lots of small surfaces surrounded by low walls and intermingled with woods. Mostly moderate slopes. Altitude goes from 60 meter to 120 meter. The soil is either pebbles or clay, a tertiary clay, a very rough type of clay.
60% of the packaged wine (bottles, bag-in-box) is exported. That is a lot. First, to the US (biggest buyer), then to Japan, then to Scandinavia (especially Norway with Arne Brimi's), followed by the rest of Europe and a few other countries accross the world.