We're here in one of these lesser-known Loire Appellation. The Coteaux-du-Giennois name means literally "slopes of the Gien region", Gien (picture on right) being a nice quiet town gently lying along the Loire river upstream from Orléans. But oddly, this Appellation zone is more centered toward Sancerre a few kilometers south (and upstream) than the town of Gien, and this name is for this reason a bit misleading. The Appellation area is the green patch on the top-right corner of this Loire map. Wine has been made in the region (Villemoison, Cosne-sur-Loire) since at least 849 A.D. as there are traces of a donation including vineyards and farms by King Charles the Bald to the bishop of Auxerre. Numerous abbeys spread viticulture and winemaking in the area too, like the Cistercian Abbey of Roche in Myennes and the Commanderie des Templiers in Villemoison, the hamlet where the winery is located. The varieties in the Appellation today are Gamay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon, and the production is split roughly between reds and whites, with also some rosé. The soil of the area is of the same nature than Sancerre's, but the actually-planted surface is much smaller, about 190 hectares of vineyards (compared with 2800 hectares in Sancerre) stretched among 14 villages. Another difference is that the Coteaux-du-Giennois wines are mostly sold inside France, with an export share of only 17 % (compared with 53 % for Sancerre).
Mathieu Coste took over a small surface of vineyards (5 hectares) a couple years ago from a vigneron who wanted to take the back seat, and he chose his winery quite well as the selling vigneron Alain Paulat was farming his vines without chemicals and had reached a top-of-the-art expertise on the handling of the plants, making long-élevage wines that clearly stood out.
Let's see how this story unfolded from the beginning : Mathieu Coste was in his former life a teacher at the Beaune Viticulture School, both his parents are also in the public sector (I'll abstain from bashing the State sector in this post...), and he quit his viticulture-school job when this opportunity showed up : a winery for sale with organicly-farmed vineyards and beautiful wines that he knew for tasting them regularly.
But before that time came up, he had had a few diverse experiences, like his time in the army (airborne commandos) and also before that, his taking part in what was to be an eye-opening experience for him : a scientific study on the top of the virgin-forest canopy in the French Guyana in South America in 1996. This was Le Radeau des Cîmes, an operation which was headed by a passionate man named Francis Hallé.
On the study front, Mathieu Coste who is originally from Nevers (close from Sancerre) went to Nancy to study agronomy, then biology in Tours (that's where he met the forest-canopy man Francis Hallé). This French-Gyuana time in the virgin forest opened his mind on the plant life and he considers this as pivotal along his learning years, he btw came back to Guyana on his own after that. Then he went to Bordeaux to pass his DEA of enology.
Later, Mathieu Coste was hired by the viticulture school of Cosne-sur-Loire nearby and then he went to work for the Viticulture School of Beaune in Burgundy. While there, he was in charge of a side course about organic viticulture in addition to the conventional farming that he also taught, and he had the opportunity to bring his class to the Loire for a visit at Domaine Alain Paulat so that the students could have a taste of this particular vineyard farming. One of his students at the time was Alexandre Bain who since then started his own winery in the Loire on the organic/natural-wine approach.
What happened while Mathieu Coste was working in Beaune a few years ago (2007) is that he learnt from Alain Paulat through the phone that he considered selling and that was it, he decided to take this opportunity to start his own winery. According to the deal, he would rent the vineyards from Alain Paulat and his father and he would buy the facility, the cellar, the tools and the stock. Alain Paulat would be hired as an employee which would help him learn the arduous and precise vineyard work.
This first vintage of 2008 when he came over here, he felt a respite from the conventional farming he was immersed into in Beaune. His wife says that he was smelling chemicals when he came home in Burgundy even though he didn't spray himself, but the whole vineyard around the school was bathing into these things and it pespired through everything.
Mathieu Coste says that Alain Paulat is very demanding and considers that the work in the vineyard is central to the type of wines that he makes, and even though the surface is only 5,5 hectares right now, the multiple tasks there are time consuming, especially that this asks a permanent "listening" to what the vineyard tells, and that the different things to do there must be in accordance with the moon positions to get the best results.
We look at the vineyard machine, it's an old model which has the advantage to be of easy use and which is very light compared to the latest machines, as it weighs at least a metric-ton less than the new models. There's no electronics in there and it doesn't break down, plus it's easy to customize and to adjust. The weight factor is very important for a living soil and heavy machines harm or disturb somehow the natural underground life. There's another tool that they use to plow lightly the ground, it is an Actisol, it helps aerate the undersoil and get rid of the grass without disturbing the horizontality of the soil layers
Alain Paulat farms his vineyards organicly since 1982. His family has always been distrustful of chemicals as the first time there were used around there, all the calves of the farm got sick.
Even though Mathieu Coste has already quite an experience in vineyard management (in the viticulture schools of Cosne and Beaune, he overlooked the farming of the schools's own vineyards), he considers that he hasn't finished learning with Alain Paulat viticulture mode. It's a very different way of tending the vineyard even if from an outsider view it's not obvious. Here too there are machines, but you don't use them the same way, and the sprayings are very different.
For example Mathieu showed me on this 40-year-old Gamay vine near which he kneeled down how they try to keep 4 branches on these goblets so that the sap flows harmoniously to the grapes. There's an achitecture model of a well-tended vine that can create this harmony. See on the video on the left how he does the de-budding on these Gamay vines (the sound is not optimal because of the wind). He explains that he leaves four branches so as to have a total of between 8 to 10 clusters on the vine.
The vineyard got some organic fertilizer which has low nitrogen levels but which is higher in phosphorous and potassium elements. There hadn't been any such fertlizer added for 6 years but the vineyards suffered from hailstorms last year and they decided to help it recover this way.
The newly-planted (one month) Sauvignon (pic above) makes about half an hectare. The work here has been mostly manual because the vines are so small. The first vineyards on this area are traced in the 12th century and are related to the Commanderie des Templiers which sat in Villemoison. There are variations in the soil if you walk from one vineyard to another. In some of these vineyards, there are sharp-angled stones which are dubbed têtes de chat (cat heat) because they look vaguely feline (picture on right). Mathieu Coste named one of his cuvées along these oddly-shaped stones. In the same (Gamay/Pinot Noir) vineyard, we also pick other interesting stones, like a perfectly-regular small pebble stone proving that the Loire maybe overflowed here long ago. We also picked a heavy hollowed stone looking like iron or volcanic debris I don't know (picture on left).
When the red grapes are harvested (all manually here), they're put together (Gamay and Pinot Noir) to ferment whole-clustered in two open cement vats (pictures on right and left) for a couple of weeks, three weeks if the vintage allows it. The fermentation is done on the grapes' indigenous yeasts of course. These cement vats are located in a surface building which like the cellar has no air-con. The open vats are not temperature-controlled, the cap is punched regularly depending of the vintage, more or less once a day. There's some pumping over too. When they need to cool down the facility or the cellar, they open the doors at night. To protect the fermenting juice from the inroads of oxydation, they keep the cap tight by packing it down properly. When the cap is kept tight, he says, the fermenting juice can be left in these open cement vats three weeks, which they do sometimes.
The whole élevage lasts from 3 to 5 years, with regular check of the topping and a racking once a year. There's a SO2 addition each time a racking is done, and the thickest lees are taken out.
About the Sauvignon, the white : The grapes are pressed, the juice is pumped in the vats, this all without SO2 adding. the juice doesn't go through settling of the lees and the fermentation is done with wild yeasts naturally present on the grape skins. There's no temperature regulation either but the fermentation takes place in the cellar vats because that's the coolest room of the facility. I can testify that this cellar room is indeed very cool even though it doesn't seem to be only partly underground. It was almost hot outside a few days ago and this cellar seemed as cold as a temperature-controlled room. The Sauvignon will have an élevage lasting about a year. As the cellar has a temperature between 6 and 8°C in winter, the Sauvignon will clarify naturally through a natural deposit of the lees and impurities. But he says he can consider one day to raise this wine two years because it may yield something interesting.
The wines :
Only about three cuvées.
__Mathieu Coste Tête de Chat 2008. Taken from a vat (not bottled yet). Pinot Noir majority (80 %), the rest in Gamay. Complex nose, cooked fruits, blueberry notes. This is his first vintage here. The mouth has a very mineral feel. The vineyards have these odd-shaped stones all over. As said above, Alain Paulat understood that the Gamay on this terroir made wines with more tannic structure, adding complexity to the blend. The fact that they vinify whole-clustered grapes plays a role too.
__ Mathieu Coste Biau 2005. 80% Gamay, the rest is Pinot Noir. The other way around compared with the Tête de Chat. Filtered wine. The mouth is very enjoyable with a saline side and spices too. Refined and complex, nice wine. This wine had an élevage of almost 5 years and was bottled by Robin 3 days ago. Bottling is a collective work here, with Alain at the filtration and Mathieu connecting the dots. The filtration is a soft one, not too tight. It's done with Spindalite type R.
__ Mathieu Coste Rosé 2008. His first wine technically speaking. 50% Pinot Noir 50 % Gamay. Press rosé fermented on wild yeasts, no SO2 added except at bottling. No racking of the must. Richness feel in the mouth, nice drink and thirst wine. The wine was cleared by the natural cold of winter.
Regarding his prices, Mathieu Coste wants his wines to stay affordable for the general public and the cuvée Biau costs for example 5,85 € without tax at the winery. The cavistes in Paris sell it about 12 € tax included.
Soon after purchasing the winery, Mathieu Coste drove to Paris to present his wines and broaden his clients base (Alain Paulat sold only locally), visiting wine bars, restaurants and cavistes, and his wines can already be purchased in several good wine shops of the capital (link to the restaurants & cavistes page). I bought my first bottle of his wine at Paris Terroirs, a caviste in Paris. Once during one of these Paris trips, he met by sheer coincidence Jean-Luc Petitrenaud in a bar. The guy is a gastronomy critic who runs an interesting and funny program where good food and wine are central. Mathieu offered him a bottle and several month later the man called him saying he wanted to visit him to shoot a program. Here is a link to this story (video). You can also see Alain Paulat (beard) and the other guy is Patrick Cirotte, a cook from Sancerre.
His wines are also exported to the US through Ozwine Company.
Mathieu is married and is particularly thankful to his wife Ophélie who helps the family through her job (she is also a State employee...) during this newly-started business. Mathieu and Ophélie have two children, a boy and a girl respectively aged 15 months and 5 years.
Here is a short video (3:30) of mine about an oddity of the region : the canal bridge of Briare near Gien was built in the early 1890s' to allow a canal and its boats and barges to pass over the Loire. It's an amazing place to visit in any season, this water-crossing-water is beautifully symbolic, and it seems to me that it is never crowded.