Here is a family estate in the southern Rhone (north of Pont Saint Esprit) which has been farmed organicly as far as the tracable memory can reach, and it goes quite a long way back in their case : back to year 1422 AD, with a Latin-sounding authentified document stating that the Saladin family was already around here growing grapes and owning vineyards in these remote times (prior to that year, no document, but certainly many winemaking years). When you meet Elisabeth and Marie-Laurence, the two sisters who now run the estate with their parents, your first thought is not about facing a living example of the enduring tradition or meeting a winemaking dynasty, because they are easygoing and warmful, and I could check that each time I met them, be it the blond Elisabeth or the brunette Marie-Laurence.
It's thanks to their father Louis Saladin that the estate can be considered as having been always organic : resisting the then-common trend of spraying all sorts of chemicals in the vineyard, Louis Saladin never used weedkillers or the other chemicals that the labs sold en masse to the growers back then in the 1970s'.
The grapes in the vat are destemmed-old-Cinsault over which some 1000 kg of whole-clustered Grenache picked at their uncle's vineyard were added. They've been now a week in this vat to ferment together. The bled wine of the Cinsault is gone in a separate vat for the rosé, and the free-run wine from the Cinsault/Grenache will be blended with the press wine in another vat.
The consultant enologist is a woman, and the fact that she is a woman is not decisive in her hiring (last spring) by a winery managed by two sisters, but Marie-Laurence Saladin says that she likes the way she tastes the grapes, the juices and the wines. Andrée Jovine is also the director of the Département Analyse Sensorielle in the Centre de Recherche et Développement Oenoagronomique in the Université du Vin (wine university) of Suze-la-Rousse in the Southern Rhone. She is also consultant for Domaine Gramenon and Chateau de Beaucastel.
Elisabeth finds a couple of glasses in the vatroom and fills them with the Cinsault/Grenache juice, this is such a sweet, dense and creamy drink at this stage, still a along way to a Rhone wine, but the wild yeasts are already there waiting behind the scene for their time... Marie-Laurence hopes that the creamy and fruity side will stay on. Marie-Laurence says that the bled juice (the cinsault alone) is on the fruit and the croquant side.
For today's vat of Cinsault/Grenache, Marie-Laurence says that she also added at the top of the vat lees from whites and from rosés. Everything that has been done in a particular vat is written with chalk on the outside [see pic below]. She says with a laugh that her father has always written on the vats this way and that X-ray analysis would uncover years of vinification techniques...The lees enrich the wines, she says, it's also the traditional farmer's thing that nothing is thrown away and has its use. She adds that the lees still have some yeasts, some aromas. They are middle-type lees, between the gross and the thin and they will bring richness to the red wines. She always tastes them of course before deciding to add them.
Speaking of the fermentation time, she says that the Syrah/Grenache here could take off rapidly, it fell at 1075, it went in one night from 1095 to 1075, so she is going to slow it down with a cold-water cooling coils [see the water pipes connected to the coils in the vat on the pictue above]. Right now the temperature is at 26°C and she will try to keep it at 25°C. If not kept in check, the juice could go up to 30°C. During the fermentation, the density will fall, because the sugar will turn into alcohol (which has a lower density), but the fermentation process will translate into a higher temperature. The coil is already in place and she just opens the tap. We can see the fermentation foam already.
For the harvest this year they have 16 people (it's all hand-picked), a very good team, Marie-Laurence says. There are some of their school friends when they were at the elementary school in Saint-Marcel and also friends from her father who are in their late 70s so it's a very multigenerational team. Speaking of intergenerational exchanges, her father comes from time to time at the winery, and even if Marie-Laurence is mostly in charge there, he is a good counsel when she has some worries about some issue. For example yesterday her white was long to start and she was wondering what to do. The plots of the whites lack nitrogen and the wild yeasts were lazy to start, so she added nitrogen to jump start them. She never has this problem with her reds or even her rosés, just for the whites. Her father helps a lot in the sense that like an experienced Chef, he knows by experience how to handle the bumps and trials of the vinification waiting at the corner.
She says again that 2009 should be a good vintage. Most of the production is in red at Saladin (rosés & whites make 10%), and they watch the condition of the grapes closely. From the analysis point for example, it's time to harvest, but she likes to wait a bit more. For example she says that when you open a grape, you see that the pulp is too close from the seeds, there is a lack of water flesh. For the press tuning, she can use a very minimal pressure, starting with a pressure of 0,1 bar and raising it gradually to a maximum of 1,5 bar in three hours. This pneumatic press works softly on the grapes, let's say she starts at 0,1 bar, the press squeezes gently, then pauses automaticly for a draining time, letting the pressure off and the juice flow. she just programs the time of the press (1 minute for example) and the time of the draining stage (usually 2-3 minutes) and so on. The press is a Howard Rotapress 2600 PLE, it's not made anymore now. It is not a big press, but it's big enough to handle the grapes load coming from 18 hectares of vineyards, there's the 12 hectares of the family plus the 6 hectares of her uncle. The fact they only work from the family vineyards (except for 50 ares that they rent) is also because her father and grandfather never used chemical products and so the soils are devoid from chemicals. Actually, her grandfather tried once to use pesticides in the 1960s' and it had an immediate impact on his health, he felt dizzy on that very first day. The next day, he went to do other work 200 meters from this vineyard and he felt bad again. They decided then to stop right away the experiment. It was probably a very wise decision, as many vignerons at that time put their health at risk with these sprayings. And it turns out to be a great chance today for the wines, because thanks to this, the vineyards stayed free of synthesis chemicals.
As we wanted to see the vineyards, Elisabeth showed us the way with her red van to the Haut-Brissan vineyard, which has this incredible density of pebbles, there are so much of them that along the years and the centuries, the growers have built a wall of pebbles between two plots. This sort of stone walls are named clapas around here. They're oriented East-West to block the Mistral wind, and their purpose is also to protect the vineyards from the infections. 100, 150 years ago, the growers would take stones away from the ground to be able to reach the earth when they worked in the terraces. The soil is clay/limestone here like in their other vineyards, but the rolled pebbles go 2/3-meter deep, and the roots go even deeper.
At Haut Brissan, we could see several plots of Saladin's vineyards. The vines look quite anarchic, with all this foliage growing in many directions, especially compared to conventionally-farmed vineyards, but this opulent foliage has protected the clusters and the grapes when elsewhere they suffered because there had been too much cutting and de-leafing. The downside is that the pickers will have to find the clusters, which will require some effort. We walk past a plot of Mourvèdre. This pebble-thick soil is the best climat of Saint Marcel d'Ardèche, and it had been let down for yearsbecause working there was more difficult. Elisabeth tastes a grape, she says that the analysis says 15° here, but still it's not ripe. It will be harvested next week [this visit took place late august]. All the area is surrounded by small woods which bring a positive, natural exchange
Elisabeth went also at Philippe Debrus' estate in Chile, he was a former enologist from Guigal. She arrived there as the Bodega was just starting and she lived through two months of a very exciting experience, with also lots of important responsabilities from the start. Marie-Laurence went to Mendoza, Argentina to follow a cursus at the University, she didn't even speak Spanish but learnt from scratch. During these 6 months, she had to make an internship and she went to an enology lab nearby (there was a crisis in the region and she feared that if she chose a winery, she wouldn't have anything to do). The name of this lab was Rolland, and this name was still under the radar (this was in 2003, Mondovino went out in 2004), but she felt from the staff (we was rarely in the lab) that the boss was an important person. Interesting internship too, the staff was mostly made of women, and she remembers that the color of the wine was already an important issue.
__Domaine Saladin Per El 2008, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages white. Means for her in Provencal, it is intended for Annick, thei rmother. 30% Marsanne, 30% Bourboulenc, 20% Viognier, 10% Clairette Rose and 10% Grenache Blanc. Very fresh and balanced. 13°. B. feels some apple or pear. Length. 14 Euro. From vineyards in rolled pebbles. It's by the way quite atypical to have planted white varieties in this stones-thick grounds. The vines are 35-40 years old. The ropws are complanted (mixed) and they have often to harvest row by row because the maturities vary from a variety to the other. Whites mean a lot of work here because of that. Very low yields for this wine (2008) : 15 hectoliters/hectare. They decided to sell every thing in bottles. Their father sold only 25 000 bottles, the rest to the Négoce, they sell 65 000 bottles, 50/60% overseas.
__Domaine Saladin Tralala, Cotes-du-Rhone rosé 2008. 66% Cinsault (bled wine), 30% Grenache and 10% Syrah. Very nice mouth, Neat attack, gourmande. B. notes tangerine, citrus aromas. 9 Euro.
__Domaine Saladin, Loï, Cotes-du-Rhone red 2006. Means Louis in Provencal (their father's first name). 80% Grenache, 10% Carignan, 10% Syrah. 9 months minimum elevage (in vats for this vintage). Very nice nose of ripe red fruits. Jellied cherries. Suppleness in thev mouth, and powerful too. 9 Euro.
__Domaine Saladin, Paul, Cotes-du-Rhone red 2007. First name of their uncle, for whom they vinify 6 hectares of vineyards.90% Grenache Noir, 10% Clairette. Vineyards planted in 1917 (complantation also here). A more powerful wine, more concentrated. Blueberry, blackcurrant. More acidity in 2007 than in 2006 here Elisabeth says. Vinified in vats (not foudres). The stems were kept here on the Grenache : when the color of the stem is yellowish/brownish, it's good and can be vinified whole-clustered. The stems aerate the grapes and bring a more fruity side in the mouth. 12 Euro.
__Domaine Saladin, Fan dé Lune, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages red 2006. 40% Mourvèdre, 40% Syrah, 20% Grenache. More animal than the others which are more on the fruit side. B. feels tobacco notes. Almond notes at the end of the mouth. Suppleness. Some complexity on the nose. 14 Euro. Elisabeth says that in the cellar they don't look for extraction, no crushing, no delestage and no punching of the cap, just regular pumping over.
During the harvest, Elisabeth is usually in the vineyard checking the picking and Marie-Laurence in the vatroom. This year (2009) they had to make the bleeding one hour and a half after bringing the grapes in, when usually it's 4 to 6 hours after.
__Domaine Saladin, Chaveyron 1422, Vin de Table red (2006, not printed on the label as it is a V. d T.). Very ripe, spicy wine. A méthode Cote Rotie wine, on the style of Jean-Louis Grippat, a vigneron who is very close from the Guigal family. 95% Syrah, 5% Viognier (no complantation here). Their father was very excited by this innovation, he had never done this type of fermentation. This is done routinely further North in the Rhone but not around here. Jean-Louis Grippat came very often here to help for the first such vinification. One-month-long vatting, they have to keep the cap in the juice, they did that with boxes. The nose is very refined, lots of complexity. 17 Euro. The Viognier brought refineness in the blend. They used a very soft pumping-over here. The vineyards are located on the Appellation but because of the viognier, the wine had to be labelled in Vin de table. This year, Marie-Laurence wrote to the INAO to downgrade the wine in Vin de Table, but keeping allthewhile the vineyard in the Appellation. Her Haut Brissan wine was downgraded first in 2006 because it was considered atypique (atypical) (there was no Syrah and the peppery side missed). The INAO encourages the extraction, this is an overt policy. When the wine was refused the Appellation, her father pushed for selling it in Vin de Table, because in spite of the fact that he was among those who helped to the creation of the Cotes-du-Rhone Appellation, he considered that the agreement bodies went too far with this rejection as Atypique.
__Domaine Saladin, Haut Brissan, Vin de Table red (2006). This is the first year where they had a downgrade to Vin de Table. Density, minerality. Thin tannins. Ripeness. 100% Grenache Noir. 17 Euro (all prices are tax-included for individual buyers at the winery). Elisabeth says that the Grenache usually goes through a first stage of 3-5 years of exponential openness and then closes itself for a few years. She felt this one close a couple of months ago.
One last thing : the family manages a restaurant stcuck in the middle of the vineyards just outside of Saint Marcel d'Ardèche (it's in a different location from the winery). We stopped by it after our visit but it was closed at that time. It has a nice shaded terrace overlooking the vineyards, there's a fig tree there if I remember, and the menu was appealing with its meat and fish specialties : Entrecôte AOC Mezenc Bio (organic) 16 Euro; Agneau Haute Ardèche 14 Euro; Panellada Royale, grillade mixte de poissons 16 Euro; Filets de Barracuda 12 Euro; Dos de Cabillaud 12 Euro; Epée du Mazt, brochette de cochon de lait 11 Euro; Loup sauvage de la Méditerranée à la plancha 16 Euro. I am sure that the wine list is as worth a visit as the menu...
Here is a link to a page about le Mazet by Amy Lilliard of la Gramière. La Gramière is a 5-hectare estate managed by two Americans [that I hope to visit some day...] sharing the same wine philosophy if I might say as the Saladins. They're also located in the southern Rhone.
Le Mazet : phone 04 75 90 50 46
P.S. Eiko, the cute dog is not only known to lick people's face : he has a taste for grape juice at harvest time and also for wine spills year around...