Mareuil-sur-Cher, Touraine (Loire)
This is a long way from New York, and this is in many regards a completely different world over here but somehow this new life that Laurent Saillard has been experimenting along the Cher river complements his New York achievements. Laurent was the man who opened with his wife Catherine Ici, a Brooklyn restaurant that soon thrived and played its part to popularize natural wines in the big city. He had discovered natural wines while in New York through the importer (now closed down) who imported Claude Courtois' wines, then through Jenny Lefcourt & François Ecot, then with Joe Dressner. To make it simple, the first venue to give natural wines a central place in New York was 360 (now closed) which was opened in february 2003 by Arnaud Ehrart, and this was also in Brooklyn. The second was Ici, opened by Laurent and Catherine Saillard in february 2004. For the information, the third place where natural wines were a centerpiece of the menu was Ten Bells which was opened in 2008 by Fifi (whom I met recently) in the Lower East Side. Natural wines, these wines made without the many additives used in commercial wines, have since rapidly expanded in New York, thanks to distributors like Chambers Street Wines, Astor Wines and people like Joe Dressner and Jenny Lefcourt.
For years, Laurent who had previously worked at Bouley and Balthazar after first arriving in New York in 1995, delished at preparing his cuisine at Ici from local fresh products bought at a farmers market. For the wine, his wine list consisted grossly of 30 whites and 30 reds, mostly from French natural-wine producers plus a few from Spain and Italy. These wines were still little known on the restaurant scene in New York but they were bringing a new life on the table. He used to enjoy the company of the vignerons who were behind these marvelous wines that he served and drank, as they were coming regularly to New York for tastings and he also visited some of them when in France for a visit. The human-size estates and the organic/biodynamic farming fared well with the philosophy he tried to convey through his cuisine. At one point, personal problems and the desire to try something else made him want to get on the other side of the wine trade. This all landed him in the Loire last year for a long visit to his friends/vignerons, and ultimately in this old house surrounded by woods and vineyards on the slopes going down to the Cher river.
The first vineyard plots he worked on last year were CRB's, which by the way are intertwinned with the ones that Noëlla rents : he replanted (repiquage) baby vines to replace dead vines or vines that were accidently uprooted by the plowing. He also learned with Didier how to plant vine poles, and then put the wires back in place, and Didier Barouillet was the best teacher he could dream of for these vineyard-management tips.
About the pruned canes, they either burn them or grind them, let the thing decompose somewhere before using it as compost for the vines. He says that the vine is a creeper type of a plant and thus, pruning is very important. An interesting thing with the vine and the canes, he says, is that paradoxally the furthest the buds are from their nurturing vine, the more juice they get, because the "creeper" vine wants to grow and extend as much as possible and favours its daring extremities. So, Laurent says that it is important to limit the growth of the vine itself, as it will also help it age well. It is also important to have the optimal grape weight, possibly well spread over the foliage surface.
Laurent says that the 5-year-old Sauvignon plot now rented by Noëlla Morantin was previously planted with half Chenin and half Gamay. We walk to another plot dotted with blue patches where young vines have been replanted (second pic above) : this is another CRB vineyard rented by Noëlla, 70-year-old Cot. Then we walk on plots still managed by Didier Barouillet, with some biodiversity rows here and there where long time ago a regular row stood. It makes a wider space without poles or vines where Didier has planted different plants in addition to the weeds and wild flowers that can be seen all over the place here.
The vineyard is full of good, edible plants, like wild raspberry canes, and wild lambs' lettuce. Laurent kneels several times as we walk back to the farm to pick some [picture on left]. And the spring flower explosion is still ahead. Walking in the spring time in a vineyard which has'nt seen any fertilizer or weedkiller for years is a powerful experience. We pass here and there the first flowers that announce that spring is coming : a small blue flower named Véronique for example, and elesewhere a small yellow flower named Orpin de Nice. And that's just the beginning.
About this French life which comes after so many years in New York, he says that some things here are disconcerting though, like the lack of service, the narrow opening hours of shops, and paradoxally, the relative disinterest of French people for good products, meaning organic and natural. Even in the countryside, people buy their food and vegetables in the supermarket where much of it is industrially made. He tips me about an excellent butcher in Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher where the meat is extra. OK, I'll try it after the saturday market. Of course, there are good products here, but the market stalls here have also lots of ordinary, high yield vegetables and he misses the product authenticity of the farmer's markets where he used to buy his products. Same for the restaurants : in Paris, many Brasseries including the famous ones like La Coupole or Bofinger don't have products as fresh as what you can eat at Balthazar in New York. Of course, this is New York, but still, it is unconceivable that you find more easily good products there, thanks to the farmer's markets than in many parts of France. Same for the eggs with real taste. Take the chicken for example, he has to go to Cour-Cheverny (some 30 kilometers away) at Cazin every three months where he is sure to find real, free run chicken; he'll buy 10 of them because they're really good and tasty, and not industrial, and will put them in the freezer back home. There are still many good, authentic products around here of course but many people still prefer to shop in the supermarkets. Speaking of Balthazar, where he worked several years, that's where he met Jonathan Nossiter. Nossiter was setting up wine lists for restaurants then, and he authored the one at Balthazar. They worked together several years. Actually, Balthazar's wine list was the first at the time to be 100% composed of French wines and it still is, an impressive wine list btw.
Speaking of this new life that Laurent is starting here, he says that it has deep roots in the restaurateur job that he loved. In New York, he was an intermediary between the authentic, organic products that he found on the farmer's market and his customers. Now, he wants to live on the other side of the trade and make some of these exceptionnal products, in this matter, wine. The great wine people that he knew in the Loire, like the Puzelat brothers, Olivier Lemasson, Hervé Villemade, Agnès & René Mosse were decisive in his decision to make the jump.