If you haven't had a try of Les Cailloux du Paradis' wines, I would describe them as strikingly alive and mineral. These non-appellation wines are gems that make you happy and feed you at the same time. This small estate of the Loire, which is now well known by amateurs of artisan- and additive-free wines, is now increasibly being run by Claude Courtois' youngest son Etienne, who at 23 has already mastered the challenging vineyard management and the careful uninterventionist vinification needed to craft these outstanding wines. Julien Courtois, Claude's elder son, is already running his 5-hectare estate a few hundreds meters from the family farm, and Etienne took 5 hectares on his shoulders while Claude Courtois keeps 2 hectares for himself, including the legendary cuvées Racines and Nacarat. Claude Courtois, who is busy right now building a separate chai at the end of the facility for his small surface (as required by law, separate wineries must have separate facilities), says with a grin that he wants to have more time to enjoy, and with two hectares he will still have enough to do anyway. As an introduction, Claude offers me and the two workers a couple of pours from a Cote de Beaune, Les Pierres Blanches 2007 by Emmanuel Giboulot, a pure delicacy with the cheeses on a plate. Claude Courtois says that he knows Giboulot since he was a child, he knew his father very well too.
The farm (la ferme) like Claude and Etienne say routinely when they speak about the winery, is located in a woody corner of the Sologne, in a peaceful area with the first vineyards plots a stone throw from there, separated from each other by blocks of thick woods (pictures right and left).
In 2007 at the age of 17, Etienne Courtois had already a 30-are parcel to exercize in the Art of winemaker; he would work there after school and on weekends and holidays. Shortly after he was on the farm full time to take things in charge. Of course since his youngest age he has been immersed in the wine farm tasks, be it in the vineyards that literally surround the farm or in the chai.
We've been walking along the vineyard parcels with the two dogs, the one which was already here in 2005 plus another one (pic above) that Etienne says came from nowhere one day, liked the place and stayed...
We pass rows of Chardonnay which are the result of a massal selection made from 90-year-old Chardonnay initially found in the Orléans region further east along the Loire. This Chardonnay comes from the vineyards of a vigneron named Reynald Héaulé, a man who has been working for 5 or 6 years, a couple of days per week, at les Cailloux du Paradis. He owns 2,5 hectares of his own, split in the Orléanais (the region of Orléans, which is also known for its wine) and he shares his time between hiw own vines and the ones of the Courtois. This Chardonnay is vinified in a cuvée named L'Arnoison, which is an ancient, disused name for Chardonnay. The soil under here is like in the rest of the vineyards, a thin layer of silica which is mostly flintstone (silex) dust, under which you deep clay flint stones, the roots going deep into it and feeding of a rain water which behaves like a silica extract. Other parts of the vineyards are very rich in quartz, which is basically melted silica. Further, we walk along some Pinot Noir, the dog following us between two rows.
The earth between every two rows is plowed on the surface, the grass being left to grow on the alternating row and cut with a portable grass trimmer.
Even though varieties are growing together, either complanted or single rows near each other, the harvest time isn't homogenized [in the Jura or Alsace, complantation leads to simultaneous harvest times]. They make many different pickings, sometimes 3 for a single row because maturity happens at different times, like you do for a tomato plant when you pick the red ones and come back later for the green. That's why they use many different vertical presses, some handling very small volumes.
__ Les Cailloux du Paradis Romorantin 2010, from a cask. They make an élevage of 30 months for this wine, with an exception for the 2009 which went through 18 months only because the 2008 waited too much to make its malo (and they needed available Romorantin). I love having Romorantin, this rare white variety from the region and I should purchase more of it, plus it is said to age very well and even show its best afte. a few years.The nose is beautifully flowery with notes of mediterranean dry leaves, laurel leaves, incense or the likes. Lovely wine. The average age for the casks is 20 years, even if the particular cask here dates from 2006.
__ Les Cailloux du Paradis, Plume d'Ange 2010. Sauvignon. Will be bottled around Easter 2012. Very atypical Sauvignon. Etienne says that they make 3 different cuvées of Sauvignon, and they're each very atypical : Quartz, Plume d'Ange and Or' Norm. The Plume d'Ange is more on the roundness side, the vines are 20 years old here. The wine is very mineral indeed in the mouth, but the Quartz is even more, he says. Delicious wine, no way, we're far from the usual Sauvignon feel but this is so good. The wines have their fermentation in the casks, they do some rackings, especially for the reds, usually one in spring and another one before bottling. For the whites, they don't stir the wines, they let them make their life quietly. For the SO2, if they add some, it's only before bottling. And for example if you take Racines, this cuvée gets 3 or 5 successive bottlings following the demand and the customers, and depending where the wine goes, it can get 1,5 grams or 2 grams if it's exported in Japan or elsewhere, other bottlings get nothing in terms of SO2 if they travel closer, or get just a light filtration.
__ Les Cailloux du Paradis Cuvée des Etourneaux 2009. 100 % Gamay. What I tasted at Louis Vins was from an earlier bottling of the same vintage, but there are 4 more casks of this wine. They will be bottled at the earliest next december, or more likely early 2012. Nice pepper notes, beautiful stony minerality. Makes an easy drinkability with an alcohol level which may be 13,5° (they still have to check the alcohol).
__ Les Cailloux du Paradis Gascon 2010, will be part of the cuvée L'Icaunais (means inhabitant of the Yonne). From a cask. There were 9000 hectares of this Gascon vazriety in the Yonne département (Northern Burgundy) before the phyloxera. According to the official records of the varieties surfaces as of 1988, there were only 3 hectares of Gascon left in the whole world. That's what we can call a survivor. A bit close at this stage. Perly. Its total élevage time will be 24 months. Samely, the 2008 didn't complete its malolactic fermentation, so they've been selling the 2009. They racked the 2008 in resin vats to let it continue its life..
__ Les Cailloux du Paradis, Cuvée des Etourneaux 2010 (in the other cellar we had the 2009). 100 % Gamay again. Dark Gamay in the glass. The vines are 40 years old. Here the minerality is properly striking, especially on the tongue. I wondered a second if it was perly or what, to give this particular feel, but no, this wine is just stone juice, on suce du caillou (we're sucking rock) like we say in French. Outstanding mouthfeel. This is fresh and balanced, with an unknown alcohol level which may be high (no analysis so far).
We taste a white now :
__ Les Cailloux du Paradis, Menu Pineau 2007. From a cask again. Incredible nose, voluptious, with many things, among which pear. this variety is originally a Traminer, Etienne says, coming from the Austrian region North of Venezia. It's also a distant cousin of Savagnin. It was harvested around november 15 and has been in cask for nearly 4 years... They top up, but not always regularly, the wines are grownups and they handle it. They have 4 caks here for 2007, they made yields of 10 ho/ha (in 2008 is was even less : 3 casks and 7ho/ha yields). They never knew the exact age of these Menu Pineau vines but they estimate them to be more than 45 years old. The wine is again exceptional, very classy and mineral. These wines also can surely stand a long time after having been opened. This type of wine stands well a light oxydative note, and by the way Etienne says that its other name is Orboué, like from Arbois. They vinified it a couple of times as a veil wine, Jura style in 1999 (Petit Coin de Paradis) and 2001 (cuvée Fleur de Damoiselle). They also made it in liquoreux with a potential of 18 °, it was bottled without any SO2 and didn't ferment again in spite of the high residual sugar. Usually this cuvée of Menu Pineau is named Evidence, except when they make another version like a liquoreux or a veil wine.
This is a small review of the many wines of Les Cailloux du Paradis, as Etienne and his father Claude made 18 cuvées altogether last year for example, from the 8 hectares of their combined surface. All these wines are made outside of the Appellation system, but who care really when you swallow this...
After this visit I was invited by Claude to have lunch outside in the shadow along the farm. This was another treat with great wines, a hearty terrine and some aïoli on a long table with all the family around it including Julien's daughter, Claude's wife Claudine and the two workers who help build the new chai. The bottles are in a bucket with ice and the kitty and the dog come there to drink. Here is is a real winery where the vignerons live in the house next to the chais, do themselves the vineyard jobs and eat under the trees right there in summer... Asked if they made this terrine themselves, Claude says no, but from 1979 to until 3 years ago they had all sorts of farm animals, cows, sheep, donkeys, goats, including pigs (they got up to 7 of them), but they had to let them down when they used their roof to make a 2nd chai. If I didn't know that Claude doesn't like the biodynamic hype which he considers as being often marketing driven, I would have told him that these farm animals around the winery were very Steinerian indeed [Steiner always insisted of the important of the farm as a whole, crops, animals et al]...
Claude first brought a bottle of Racines 2009, a white which is I guess is made like the red Racines with a large range of varieties growing on the property. Delicious, the complexity here is played on a mineral mode. The second treat was a Plume d'Ange 2009, a turbid white, and even Claude is surprised at the vividness of the liquorice on the nose. Another crazy wine. We drink this one with the Aïoli.
If you ask Claude Courtois what he keeps in the 2 hectares that he'll work by himself, don't ask for the varieties (like I mistakenly did) : he is not selling varieties, he sells cuvées, and in short he keeps Racines in white, Racines in red, and Nacarat, and if you keep thinking secretly about varieties, just know that there are many, many varieties behind these cuvées, they're part of the alchemy of the wines, with the striking minerality of the soil. He says with a grin that as his yields are low and he's a good drinker of his own wines, there's not be much wine left for the customers..
I think that Claude Courtois read in my mind because he finished this flight with a bottle of Nacarat, this magic wine with a flashy red color (you can see claude pouring a glass to his wife Claudine on the second picture from top). This wine is indeed mysterious, because I asked him how he vinified it and he said it was sort of secret. He just added that it was something that hadn't been tried with this type of grape. The first time he tried this technique and made a cuvée Nacarat was in 1996. He says that if you're formated by the enology schools, there's no way that you could have had the idea that led to the vinification technique behind Nacarat. Samely, he says, Plume d'Ange and Or'Norm are the result of a particular, non-conventional way to work and vinify.
The wines of Les Cailloux du Paradis are mostly sold within France, with exports in different countries like Japan (Racines - Mrs Goda), the United States (Jenny & François), Brazil, Canada (Quebec - la QV), and Australia.
In Paris, La Cave des Papilles, Racines, Vivant among others. Online : Vins Etonnants.
Watch Aurélia tasting Racines 2007 in Quebec for her video blog Busurleweb. If you understand French (with her lovely Quebec accent), you'll feel compelled to try this wine...