Sury-en-Vaux (Sancerre, Loire).
If you visit the Paris wine bars, you may find Sebastien Riffault's Sancerres on the blackboard-list of a few of them. The first time that I tasted his generous Sancerre whites was precisely in a wine bar and he was there in person. His grapes are organicly grown and his wines are vinified with a slow-vinification approach. His unfiltered Sauvignons have a beautiful turbid-gold color with an onctuous mouth feel. I told him at the time that I would drop one day in Sancerre for a visit
Aged 25, he is working on a 2-hectare vineyard near Sury-en-Vaux in the Sancerre Appellation area. The hills near Sury en Vaux overview both Sancerre (the town) and the Loire. Sebastien Riffault vinifies his wines at his father's winery (Etienne Riffault), a recently-built facility just outside the village, and the 2-hectare vineyard plots were intially part of the 10 hectares of the family estate.
If I trust my sense of smell as I ride my bike on the winding roads near the village, some vignerons of the area aren't growing organic, to say the least, but that's another story. The weather today is like it has been most of april in France this year : bright, warm, sunny and dry. The vines are everywhere in advance and it raises some worries about the unknown impact on this millesime of an ongoing exceptional warm and dry spring. The good side for organic growers like Sebastien Riffault is that the transition between winter and spring has been extraordinary healthy for the vineyard and lifted the risk of disease.
In addition to the organic farming, he uses elements of the the biodynamic principles without being certified. He stresses out that he never uses his viticulture farming as a flag to trumpet his wines and market them in a fashionable way. Right now, he is on his way to get the certification for the organic viticulture. His father's vineyard, from which his own vineyard was carved, has also gradually been turned onto the organic path.
His other climat, Akmeniné, is a 30-year-old Sauvignon vineyard on limestone soil, with many "caillottes", which is the local name for limestone plates [see picture above]. Akmeniné , which means "made of stones" in lithuanian, is on a gentle slope and has a 1,3-hectare surface. While the silex gives wines with minerality, but also needing more time to reach their full expression, the limestone gives wines with richness, substance and fruits, and this, on a shorter time range.
Before going to the winery to taste the wines, he shows me his Pinot Noir plot, on a slope to a small side valley. Here too, the ground is dry like in summer [picture on left].
__1 Akmeniné 2006. From a cask. Most of this wine is still in casks but he bottled some already (Market price for this wine : 15 Euro). The Sauvignon grapes were hand-picked in crates and pneumatic-pressed. The wine stays 6 to 9 months in old casks. The one in which he plunged his winethief dates from 1996. No SO2 added except 10mg at bottling. Very fresh on the nose. White flowers. In the mouth : richness with some fizziness on the tongue. He says there is some fermentation gas left. This wine's particularity compared with "normal" Sancerre wines is that it went through its malolactic fermentation. He says that it is erroneously considered that Sancerre Sauvignons are better without the malolactic fermentation, but the fact is that this "tradition" was a direct result of the massive addings of SO2 to prevent this malolactic fermentation to take place. The common credo is that the Sauvignon looses aromas when it goes through this second fermentation. Here, you can feel ripe aromas, and it has to do with the fact that he harvests at full maturity. Here, yields are at about 30 hectoliter/hectare. He doesn't target particular yields each year and he tunes to the vineyard's pace and rythm. Some years, it gets up to 40 ho/ha, but as long as the vines are not pushed and the soils are poor and stony, there's moderation in the yields.
__2 Akmeniné 2006. This Sancerre Sauvignon comes from an isolated part of Akmeniné with very-very low yields (10 ho/ha), due to hailstorms 10 days after bud-burst, plus a few heat days later where the flowers dried. Great aromas of mango, corinth raisins, honey. Very onctuous. Never had any SO2 yet. He says that since last year, he bottles all the wine by gravity : he shows me the 5 cm (2-inch) hose which he uses to transfer the wine to a resin vat, sinking the hose at a calculated depth not to take too much of the lees. Then, after some rest, he uses a pallet elevator to position the vat over the bottling line, so that he never uses a pump during the process, and thus avoiding the sometimes negative impact of mechanical vibration on the wine. He also uses a bottling line that can be set at a slower pace (900 bottles/hour compared with a maximum of 2000/hour), which is also better for the wine.
__3 Skeveldra 2006. Sancerre Sauvignon. From a cask. Minerality and ripeness in the mouth. The buttery side is not due the wood, but to the silex. Acidity, with hints of lemon. This wine needs time to reach its best expresssion and one year elevage is ideally a minimum. The Skeveldra 2005 is at 18 Euro.
__4 Pinot Noir Raudonas 2006 (means red in lithuanian). This wine will have a one-year-long elevage. Very nice, spicy nose. Ripeness, acidity, very nice wine already. Yields here are 30 ho/ha. On the whole, his yields are one-third of the average in Sancerre, because of the poor soils in his plots, the old vines and his non-use of fertilizers. The Pinot Noir 2005 is on the market at 15 Euro.
Sebastien Riffault found his first customers through several restaurants, cavistes and wine bars in Paris, with the decisive turn of events when two Paris wine shops, La Cave de L'insolite and Le Chapeau Melon, bought his wines.
Sebastien Riffault now sells in several countries. In the UK, for example through Caves de Pyrene in Guildfords, and [edit 2012] in the US with Return to Terroir.