Pat Desplats (pictured on right with Philippe Jambon) and Sébastien Dervieux are vignerons/winemakers who belong to the group of the wildest rebels of the natural-wine movement, along with people like Claude Courtois, Jean-Pierre Robinot, Olivier Cousin or Philippe Jambon. Like these winemakers, they don't only vinify without lab yeasts or any of the usual additives tricks, but they don't use any SO2 either, no sulfur addings anytime during the vinification and nothing at bottling either. Pat Desplats is also among the very few who can make liquoreux sweet whites without any SO2, something deemed impossible and that would render the Coteaux-du-Layon producers sleepless if they dared to try or even think doing it. There are a handful of winemakers who can make SO2-free sweet whites : these inspired winemakers are Bruno Schueller in Alsace, Philippe Jambon in Beaujolais, Claude Courtois and Jean-Pierre Robinot in the Loire, Anne-Marie Lavaysse in the Languedoc, and Pat & Sébastien of Les Griottes... I remember tasting Philippe jambon's sweet whites from a bunch of glass jars in his cellar (they hadn't seen any SO2 either) in the Beaujolais in 2007, Pat Desplats was there too and the evening in Philippe's cellar was wild that day. Great rare wines, read my modest tasting notes for these extraordinary drops of God.
Pat can be wild in the literary sense of the word, which was the case the day before my visit was scheduled, so blame it on a particularly-dense workload the previous evening, he couldn't come in person the following day... The good side of this untimed incident was that I could meet his associate Sebastien, who shares the same spirit and the same free-wheeling adventure. The Domaine des Griottes was started in the early 2000s' by the two rebels shortly after Pat Desplats and his wife Claire settled in Saint Lambert du Lattay. They wanted will to make wines on the most traditional way, both in the vineyard and in the cellar, where the wines take sometimes all the time they need. Their vineyard surface has varied since the early years and it is now about 9 hectares. As you may know, the Appellation bureaucracy doesn't like too much authentic, non-formatted wines and after trying without success in the beginning to get the agrément that they deserved (Anjou & Coteaux du Layon) if you consider the vineyards location and the authenticity of the wines, they stopped asking for it and bottle all their wines as vin de table (table wine).
They're farming their vineyard organicly, doing the work mostly by themselves, with varieties being Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc & Cabernet Sauvignon, Pineau d'Aunis, Gamay, Grolleau, Chardonnay and Sauvignon. When there's lots of work in the vineyard, they hire Benoit and Laurent, two young part-time workers who know well the different tasks.
The vinifications are non interventionist, with indigenous yeasts and long élevage on the lees, sometimes several years. They even have some casks in the cellar that they never bottled or even topped up for years, and when you sip this wine you think that they want to keep it for themselves and their friends. Some are more lucky and can have these secret casks bottled : Pierre Jancou when he managed Racines (the wine bar/restaurant in Paris) discovered such a private cask with a wine from year 2004 when he visited in 2007. He loved the wine and could convince Pat & Sébastien to bottled it so he could serve it in his wine venue. Happy man ! read the story here (in French).
We stop first at a 40-year old Sauvignon plot [picture at the top], a relatively productive vineyard. This plot like a few others that they have in this area is right next the Layon river : you just have to walk to the trees and follow a narrow, slippery path down to the river. A few vines miss here and there in the Sauvignon vineyard, they have to replant them when they find the time. Sébastien picks a big piece of schist on the ground and shows how it crumbles easily in the hands.
Next to this plot we walk into a 0,5-hectare vineyard that they planted in 2004 [pic above] and looks very healthy. They made their first real harvest in this plot last year, in 2009. As the vines weren't pushed with fertlizers and with this rocky soil underneath, it took more time than it would have on a conventional vineyard, but these vines are here to live a long, healthy life. The place is quite windy and Sébastien says that they had to put a wire to hold them. At the end of the plot they have some non-grafted vines which are more firmy rooted and can better handle the wind. The wine is not out yet but could be named Epona, Sébastien says, from the name of a goddess revered by the Celts in the ancient Gaul, Epona was a protector of horses, sort of. There will be an Epona cuvée 2009, 1700 bottles in all, and it will be on the market next autumn.
Pat to who I spoke later told me that they took care to plant densely, that is 7000 vines per hectare when in Anjou it's 5000 per hectare. He thus can't drive the tractor between the rows in this plot but they do all the work by hand. THe work is very basic, he says : first, the pruning, then, they go twice or three times in the season to cut some branches, a plowing and also later a clawing to get rid of some weeds, two copper sprayings and that's all. Also at the plantation they didn't tie the baby vines on sticks which helps make them stronger. They didn't de-budd, let the vineyard go very elementary, with a goblet pruning for a better light exposition and to keep the vineroot in the shadow in summer thanks to a wider foliage volume. It's also better to keep in check the alcohol levels. He stresses that it's not the alcohol that holds the wine but the acidity coupled with the minerality.
Pat says also that after 10 years, the winery investments beginning to be paid back, they plan to change the statutes of their agricultural farm and downsize to the equivalent of 3 hectares for each of them, because the compulsory social-contributions (health, retirement etc...) and taxes are getting punitively heavy once you've paid back the loans. He says that staying small is the best way to adapt in these conditions. There is a special status named Cotisant Solidaire that allows small-size agricultural ventures to stay out of the full weight of the tax and social-contributions system. It's the equivalent for the small agricultural farms of the auto-entrepreneur status, from what I understand.
Another thing interesting in that winery is that Pat has an old mare with which they haul the grapes at harvest. This is an old horse now and she isn't asked to hard a job. Otherwise, Pat has a common friend with Olivier Cousin who lends him his two horses when he wants to plow a one-hectare plot at spring. When he will have downsized, maybe he will do more with the horses. Pat says that in the region, Olivier Cousin is the guy in the Loire who makes the most of the plowing job with his horses. They of course all know each other and share information about their work in addition to sharing good time together.
__ Les Griottes Moussaillon 2009, a sparkling white and blend of Chenin (majority), Sauvignon and Chardonnay. It's a 2009 méthode ancestrale, meaning that there was no adding of any sort, no sugar or liqueur : the wine was bottled before finishing its primary fermentation and the pressure built in with the fermentation going on. The degorgeage was done manually and the bottle completed with the same wine. Very pleasant wine, and after a few minutes while we chat, the aromas seem to come out. It's light in alcohol, maybe 12° or 12,5° he says, but as you drink that like juice you may drink more than you should. There is a bit of residual sugar, if not much. Costs 12,5 € public price here. There were 5000 bottles made of it.
__ Les Griottes Navines Anjou 2007. A golden color Chenin. Named from the cadastral name of the plot. Got oxydized notes after bottling, he says, but it's coming back in line now. In the mouth, lots of freshness, the wine is dry. The malo ferm was completed here. Nut aromas. No turbidity. Sébastien says that when turbid, a wine is sometimes difficult to market, when the consumers are not open to the question of unfiltered wines. He says that a good sommelier can make the difference. Public price about 10 €.
__ Les Griottes, la Ptite Gâterie. Red table wine (2008). Pineau d'Aunis, Gamay, Grolleau. Grolleau is like Pineau d'aunis one of these nearly-extinct Loire varieties that are vinified back to life by daring vignerons here and there, often coming from the natural-wine movement. Very aromatic wine, quite concentrated, purple color. the wine macerated till christmas and was bottled in the following summer. They tend to do these blends rather than make separate single-varieties cuvées and bottlings. The blending brings a balance which is interesting, he says.
__ Les Griottes red, a mystery bottle without label, Sebastien is not sure what it is and will determine while tasting. First, he sees that it's a 2008 because they didn't make any wine in casks for that vintage, so the nose is different. It's a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, the name of the cuvée is La Griotte, a vin de table too. Bottled in november or december 2009. 2008 is not a year as easy for wines as 2007. More austere wine, some tannins. It's not yet on the market, they wait that the wine finds its marks and opens in the glass.
We now taste a long élevage wine :
__ Les Griottes Caroline 2004. Sweet Chenin. Very long fermentations, 5 years in casks. 100-year old vines. Bottled in november 2009. Color with amber notes. Not turbid. Cristallized quince on the nose. They made two 400-liter casks of it. Harvested between november 15th and the end of november. Beautiful wine, very fresh. In the mouth, hints of raisins and whisky, peat. Residual sugar is maybe 120 gr to 150 gr here, thee was 24° potential end of november. See this short video by Marise Sargis of Patrick Desplats speaking about this wine.
I spoke lengthly with Patrick about his work and he told me that he waits very late so that the Botrytis has eaten into the grapes to transform into botryticin which is like a natural antibiotic. Plus, as it eats into the grape skins too, the yeast population is weakened, so the wines don't go high in alcohol, don't get jammy and keep a huge acidity and a nice freshness, yielding a vibrant balance between the sugar and the acidity. He says that this can be done only on deep-roots old vineyards. The young replanted vines that we saw are actually the successor of the Caroline vines. When they'll be 10 years old, he says, they'll begin to yield wines at 10° or 11° and will keep rooting deeper until they're 20 years old and then serious wines will begin to be made with them.
__ Les Griottes. From a (forgotten) cask. Sébastien brings a wine thief full of the white wine... This is a sweet Chenin Blanc from 2003. They took some wine to taste and drink along the years and never topped it up, making this Chenin become some sort of magical vin de voile that tastes so well. The cask is now less than half filled and gets along pretty well. The wine is intense, complex and refined, a pleasure. I won't spit it even though I've a motorbike ride back to the Cher valley later that day, and potential ambushed breath-checks along the way. This 2004 vintage was the only year they made some passerillage (raisining). The grapes dried on the vines without maling botrytis. 17,5° alcohol potential. Pierre Overnoy tasted these sweet Chenins and loved them, that's not an easy public to get.
I asked Pat about his Pineau d'Aunis, he says that it was an old Pineau d'Aunis plot that survived years of uprooting of this variety in the region. It's even the last Pineau d'Aunis plot of the village sector, it lies on an area which isn't even recommended by the Appellation area board to make red wines. So the people in the region when they havr some, they make Rosé de Loire with it. He says that this variety has fragile skins that rot easily but yields fruity and delicious wines. He has right now this 0,5 hectare of old vines but he will maybe plant more in the future. To make a comparison with the other rare variety, Grolleau, they have 0,7 hectare of Grolleau. He regrets that the region has massively planted Cabernet clones when these varieties make such delicious fruity and delicacy wines, the opposite of high-extraction, deep-color or high-alcohol wines. His P'tite Gâterie with its 11° is easy to drink, he says, and fits with the character of these varieties.
After walking through the vineyards, we were beginning to follow the path down to the Layon river when I had the idea to shoot this video. This was a first for me to experience so vividly the closeness and the relation between the vineyards and the layon. I try to figure how the mist coming from the river in the early-autumn evenings and mornings help transform the grapes. To reach the Layon river, we just had to follow a narrow and steep dirt path across the trees and soon after we fell upon a tiny piece of paradise : a private farmer-owned vineyard complete with a cabin and barbecue where I guess the fish from the river were fried on summer evenings. Listening to Jérome and Sébastien, I learned that this private plot is now managed by a vigneron. The river and its immediate surroundings is a haven of quietness. It is unusually low for this time of the year, they say. It might rise again in the folowing weeks.
Les Griottes' wines can be found in Paris at Racines as well as at Crus et Découvertes, at Cave de l'Insolite and Le Vin en Tête, the two latter being profiled on the Wineterroirs Cavistes page.
Les Griottes wines are exported to Japan through Eno Conexion, and also Hideaki Kito, a caviste in Nagoya.
Patrick has two children and Sébastien is the father of one.
Read about Vinosseur's Joseph Di Blasi visit at Domaine des Griottes.
Pat & Babasse parted in 2012 (they're still good friends), each setting up their own winery. Here are the info for Sébastien Dervieux's winery :