The Auvergne wine region is the south-eastern-most Loire Appellation, it's so outcentered that few people know it's part of the family of Loire wines. Actually, two other small Loire Appellations are even further east : the Forez and the Côte Roannaise wines [Scroll down to the bottom-right on this interactive Loire map and thereafter enlarge the map to visualize these Loire Appellations].
Auvergne is part of what the French call the Massif Central, a mountain range in central France resulting from volcanic activity. What is striking is that out of a total of maybe 50 wineries in activity in Auvergne, 10 stand out for making additives-free wines from organicly-grown grapes. Patrick Bouju is one of these daring growers and vintners, this young vigneron who is originally from Tours further west along the Loire river settled in this remote mountainous region a few years ago and started his winery on rented vineyards, some of them being planted with very old vines. He makes several cuvées there, out of a total surface of 4,7 hectares, all labelled as table wines. He used to ask the agreement for his red Côtes d'Auvergne Corent (Corent is a terroir from Auvergne), but the new Appellation rules don't recognize the Corent reds, only the rosés, so he sticks to the vin-de-table label, or as they call it now, vin de France. He has lots of Gamay, and the interesting thing is that this is a local variety of Gamay with quite a few differences compared to Gamay elsewhere.
I reached the region by motorcycle, the trip was beautiful (I used the regular highway, not the toll one). After parking the bike near the vineyard where Patrick and his aide François were working, I could eat with relish these bird-scarred cherries. In Auvergne, there seems to be cherry trees (often complanted in vineyards) and walnut trees everywhere, and it seems that the Auvergnats are now too rich to bother picking the fruits...
Patrick Bouju's vineyards, which sit at an altitude of 500 meters, are among the ones which survived extinction and replacement by other crops or grazing prairies. Many small plots of vineyards that you spot here and there in Auvergne are private plots exploited by farmers of plots of which grapes will be sold to the local coopérative, the Cave Saint Verny, a coop which until 1980 only sold bulk wine to the Négoce and is now owned by the seed-industry giant Limagrain. The coop managers say that they are working toward a better recognition of Auvergne wines by raising the overall quality of the wines.
These very old vines are Gamay d'Auvergne, an indigenous type of Gamay, sort of, with small-size grapes and a skin that resists disease better. The soil shows lots of emerging stones, particularly in the upper part of the slope. Asked if he is tempted to make a separate cuvée with this part of the vineyards which suffers a lot from the arid and stony soil, he says that he still likes blending together the whole slope. When you make a wine from a stony-only plot, you get very austere wines, so he balances that austerity with the rest of the slope to get some roundness. As we walk between the rows, we come across many different weeds and wild flowers plus some edible plants, lots of insects also which may interest a large snake that we suddenly see with fright crawling away (pic on left), but we realize that it's a harmless grass snake.
At the end of the block of his rented vineyards, there's a conventionally-farmed plot with the usual bare ground under the vines. Patrick Bouju says that he puts apart the grapes of the row along this vineyard as well as the ones coming from rows overweight with clusters so that his important cuvées don't suffer from imbalance or from drifted sprayings. He uses the grapes for a sparkling instead. Speaking of the high proportion of organic wineries in this small appellation, he mentions a few names like Vincent Tricot, Jean Mauperthuis of course who was among the first, Frédéric Gounand (a passionate biker who worked at the recently defunct French motorcycle brand Voxan which was based in the region), Thierry Renard, François Dhumes, Pierre Beauger and others. He says that there is a big potential for planting vineyards of good terroirs around this region, for example the Turluron mountains which have a dense basaltic soil were both planted with vineyards in the past.
Now, since recently, the rules allow to plant any variety freely (which doesn't mean they'll be accepted in the Appellation, but as table wine at least, it's allowed). Patrick says that there's someone who is very knowledgeable about these local, forgotten (and until recently, forbidden) varieties : it's Claude Courtois, whom I consider myself as a courageous rebel who wasn't shy of colliding head on with the INAO or other wine-police administration. His wife is from the Haute Loire département (a very remote, sparsly-populated département of the Auvergne region and she brought back from there many samples of indigenous, forgotten grape varieties. Asked about how the other, mainstream vignerons respond to this new freedom about planting indigenous vines, he says that alas they're more interested in getting the Appellation Stampel which applies only with the usual varieties : for example, you can't even have a Côtes d'Auvergne label with a 100% Pinot Noir, and as the conventional, commercial wineries look for the Appellation more than for authenticity, they keep in line with the rules, because they feel they couldn't sell well their local-variety wines under a table-wine label. All these rules, he says, are at odds with creativity and authenticity, and they're rewarding conformism.
Patrick Bouju says that these volcanic, basaltic soils in the region could go well with some white varieties. He has great memories of a Grand Cru of Alsace on volcanic soil : the Rangen de Tahnn [the one of Zind-Humbrecht I guess], and he'd like to see what he could do here in Auvergne with volcanic soils.
He is surprised at the small number of vignerons daring to take the SO2-free path, we're a total of about 25 vignerons for the whole of France, he says, to vinify and bottle this way, and many people still consider that it is not feasible to get rid of SO2 to make wine. For what concerns him, he chose not to put any because he found out that his wines, after the élevage he raised them through, were faring better without.
Asked about the sulphur-wicking of casks at La Bohême [SO2 could find its way to the wine through this cleaning mode], he says that his choice is to never let a cask empty long enough to need to do it : he empties a cask usually the same day before having to fill it again with a new vintage. For his purchased used casks, they've been sulphur-wicked before usually, and to tone down this, he fills the newly-bought casks with water for some time as a precaution. Now, he says, he's not into the sulphur-free wines because of fanaticism but he prefers wines that don't have SO2 surfacing (as he's very sensitive to it) and his wines happened to get along very well without it.
We drove to several other vineyards across the region, to the extent that I can't keep the exact count of his plots, but there's lots of diversity and the blocks are always surrounded by hedges, fallow land and wooded plots. His vineyards, which total about 4,7 hectares in surface are all very slopy. I remember his 60-year-old Pinot-Noir vines, and walking on diverse soils, basalt, limestone, and also a light, red volcanic soil which is sometimes used for road construction.
At the end, we go to his Chardonnay vineyard, the Choria plot from which he makes his "The Blanc" white cuvée, it's 30 year-old vines, planted on a "cold" terroir where the vines blossom late and seem to suffer, although the soil is a basic clay/limestone combination. At the end of the vineyard, we pause near several cherry trees and picked a few fruits left over by the birds. He says that for example in this vineyard he made only one spraying since the beginning of the year when conventionals made already often 4. Above the Chard vineyard, there's a fallow field of almost one hectare that would like to plant with Alsatian varieties, like Riesling or Pinot Gris, but he must first convince its owner to rent it to him. All over these vineyards the view is very beautiful with the mountains around, and Patrick says that it's already a good reason to love this job.
__ La Bohême The Blanc 2008, a still Chardonnay. This was a very good vintage for the whites, he says. From mid august to october, the weather turned great but without "burning" the aromas in the grapes, as it happens when the weather is too hot. On the reds, it was less positive that year, with mildew occurences on flowers, which made him nervous. In terms of volume, the total harvest was halmf a normal vintage. With the whites, what happened is that the maturity came progressively thanks to the cold mornings and mild days, allowing the aromas to come clean and whole. This Chard was pressed, had its beginning of fermentation in resin vats and then he filled the casks with it. Very charming wine, richness feel with acidity and freshness at the end. He makes this cuvée since 2007. 15 months élevage, zero SO2, unfiltered, unfined. He made 7 casks or about 2000 bottles. His average that year was about 27 hectoliter/hectare. To compare, in 2009, with conditions slightly better, he made 31 hectoliter/hectare which isn't much either.
__ La Bohême Lulu 2008, the Gamay in Corent, on basalts. Very nice, on the fruit, fresh, neat and nice ending. A small bitterness too, which goes well with the whole. Patrick is happy too with how this wine tastes, same for Hacer, his girlfriend. On the other hand, he says, this wine could destabilize someone unacustomed with natural wine, someone who isn't used to a straight acidity. Lulu is a very long maceration, like 60 days. Usually he presses before the new year but this last vintage it was january 14th. Otherwise he's un-interventionist, he only empties the wine a couple of times and pumps it back over the top, it's a way to select the right yeast and put on the side when he smells some volatile.
__ a last wine in a carafe : Pinot Noir 2007 from Corent, from a 15-ares vineyard (1500 square meters), he made only one cask from that plot, it's sold out. It was his first cuvée of Pinot Noir. Eric Pfifferling (L'Anglore, from Tavel) loves this wine, Patrick doesn't even know where he tasted this wine. Nice red with transparency. 18-month élevage. The maceration time was even longer here, about 80 days. And the odd thing, he says, it's that the wine is not on the tannin side, long macerations work like that, there's a peak, then the longer it gets, the tannins are toned down. It's destemmed. A bit of reduction on the nose, with spices coming behind. Lots of freshness. Patrick asks us to guess the alcohol level here. Not frankly strong alcohol feel but I guess his question means it's not low. He smells faded roses behind the spices notes. I would say 13,5° for the alcohol but he says it's 14,4°. Smells the wet stone also. This wine makes him want to plant more Pinot Noir. Thank you Patrick for opening one of his last bottles of this wine (he has only 7 bottles left now).
__ This same wine from 2009, still in cask, he went to the cellar for our pour. It's very fruity, like cooked morello cherry, santal wood or other exotic wood says Patrick. He made only one cask of this wine. But the wine is still into its malolactic fermentation, there's what he calls cheese aromas surfacing here and there. It's been vinified differently : destemmed and crushed with the feet, but he says that the terroir overcomes everything with this wine, even the variety. I tell him that it's funny, that's what Jean-Michel Deiss say is possible on great terroirs. He considers this particular vineyard as being unique. this wine will spend another winter in the cask probably, and he'll see in 2011.
Patrick Bouju has two daughters, aged 7 and 9.
La Boême wines are exported to Japan (Vinscoeur - his Pdf file there) and to Belgium (Wijnfolie). You can find his wines in many artisan-wine cavistes in Paris, like Racines for example.