Since I had the chance to taste the wines of Xavier Caillard at Septime early may, I wanted to visit his small wine farm Les Jardins Esméraldins near Saumur. His long-élevage whites were particularly pure and elegant, and the guy had this rare patience to let his wines take their time and pace in the cellar, I mean something like 6 years or more before bottling them and leaving them in bottles another year.
Xavier Caillard began to make wine in 1999, but oddly he released his first wines only in 2007, just because he waited patiently until the wines were ready. He bottles his wine as Vin de Table, in short, out of the Appellation system; but his wines are indeed the result of a very careful tending of the vineyard, the word meticulous being more accurate here, and of a very patient, additive free (including SO2) vinification, and here also, the word patient being taken at full load, as Xavier waited so many years until his wines reached their potentiality in the cool, dark cellar. The name of the estate, les Jardins Esméraldins or Emerald Gardens plays on the symbolic meaning of emerald as the color of hope and a stone needing delicate work. Additionally, there arealso a few words in Latin on the labels which means «It is time for us to awake».
Muriel and Xavier met in Bordeaux where he was studying vegetal biology (he has a degree with an option in Viticulture). They didn’t buy an existing estate but settled in Xavier’s grandparents house which was unoccupied and started to make wine from an already-planted vineyard, half being in Brézé and the rest further from here. 3 years ago he got an old parcel of Cabernet Franc (his oldest - 60 to 70 years) on which he left the grass grow. In Brézé like elsewhere, there’s been a shrinking of the replanted vineyard surface after the phyloxera, and farmers had sometimes to replant in land which was less «chlorosant» than the previous soils, a «chlorosant» soil being one where the vine doesn’t fix the iron and thus has trouble assimilate chlorophyl. This problem came from the fact that the American rootstock on which the post-phyloxera vines were grafted was more prone to this chlorose deficiency, so the soil had to be chosen more carefully. The history of post-phyloxera replantings seems to be very interesting here like elsewhere.
Xavier wants as much as possible to farm not only organicly like he already does, but without using machines. Right now he still uses a self-powered plow or a portable grass cutter but he plans to bring a draft horse here. He considers that a machine breaks the connection between the substance, the fabric, and the artisan, the craftsman, be it a baker or a grower. And beyond that almost-philosophical opinion, he notices that when you’re on a tractor, your attention is not really focused on the vine or the plant, and this is felt somehow by the living organism. And he adds that he is convinced that the harvested fruits, be it grapes or whatever you grow, are not the same if you work on this or that way, meaning organic is not enough. Here, Xavier and Muriel make all the vineyard work by themselves, but they say that it’s possible also to transmit this artisanal and thoughtful approach to a worker, a commis like they say around here, and for example Marc Angeli did exactly that with his aide Stéphane Bernaudeau, who now also begins to grow a small surface for himself, thus perpetuating a very rare type of vineyard management. As the viticulture schools don’t teach this way of thinking, the one-on-one transmission is very important.
The underground chai and cellar of Les Jardins Esmeraldins lie right beneath the family property of Xavier and Muriel. You just walk across the garden and follow a few primitive steps going down to the door of a cave. Each step is actually an old slate post, as I leant during this visit that in the past, vineyard posts were made out of slate, of which the region had famous quarries and lasts longer than wood. As you can see on the picture on the side, Xavier still finds pieces of slate posts here and there in the vineyard.
Generations of winemakers have worked in these dark galleries and you find there several connected rooms, most of them several-centuries old. Xavier Caillard letting his wines age through particularly-long élevages, like 6 years or more, this is particularly interesting to experience this place. Long élevages weren’t something Xavier planned from the beginning, but along his philosophy of letting things unfold on their own rhythm, it just happened that he felt that the wines needed this cellaring time before reaching their best expression.
Incidently, the family cat followed us in the cellar whe walked in, and by the way it moved around it was clear that it had permanent entry rights in the premises and that the place was probably a fruitful hunting ground. It kept mewing while coming and going from under the casks as to show how good it was at policing the area.
The vatroom is actually set up in one of the cellar galeries, and it is almost surprising to see these stainless-steel vats sitting there in the dark. In this particular part of the cellar, you can see several types of vaults near each other. These stone vaults were designed centuries ago to secure the cellar ceiling and prevent a breakdown of the structure. Two are regular half-circle vaults and one is a diagonal-rib, gothic type of vault. That’s utmost interesting and impressing, finding such church features in the secular depths of a wine cellar...
The detail of a vault above shows the engraved date of 1760 but part of this cellar dates from the 1100s'.
__ We begin with tasting a 2009 white (Chenin) from one of those big barrels. We hadn’t tasted it at Septime, it’s still in the élevage stage and Xavier thinks that with the nice vintage of 2009 it will yield very beautiful wines. Beautiful nose. The wine is relatively translucid, there’s a bit of turbidity, of yeasts cloud when you look at your glass by transparency. He doesn’t stir the lees, because as the élevage is very long, if he stirred the lees there would be too much aromatic impact of the lees on the wine. The long élevage already provides a good exchange between the wine and the lees. No racking along these years. In the mouth, nice aromas of pear and soft-textured nougat. The barrels are old in general, they don’t keep stats but most date like from 1998, bought used from Marc Angeli when 2 years old (they take care to buy the casks from people who make true wines). He tries in general to fill a cask when they’ve just racked the previous one. Xavier says that this Chenin still has a bit of residual sugar and has gone into refermenting 2 weeks before even if it’s not detectable. The élevage will be probably shorter than for the early vintages (8 years...). In the mouth, there are notes of nougat, wheat maybe too. Very fresh wine.
Xavier tops the casks regularly, and in winter, he keeps the doors of the cellar tightly closed, the wine sort of takes its winter quarters also and everything seems on a hiatus. The cold temperature in the cellar even makes the wine retract and under vacuum, sort of, and he leaves it that way. In spring if he opens the bug he fills the void to compensate. The wine usually starts to live again and he lets it going. Having the fermentation last lonf brings complexity to the wine, especially that it’s at a low temperature. The yeast population is diverse and it helps for the diversity. With a fermentation that took months to unfold, you don’t get this alcohol-heat feel typical of wines having fermented on a short span. The alcohol is given a patina because of this outstretched fermentation : they routinely harvest with 14-14,5° and end up with (dry) wines making 12-12,5° in the bottle.
Right now most of the wine is fermented and raised in casks but Xavier Caillard envisions to use other types of containers for bigger volumes, like cement vats, amphorae, or Nomblot vats, these sometimes-ovoid cement vats made with pure water and other organic elements.
At this stage it’s the time for Simon’s afternoon nap and Muriel walks back to the surface with him. __ Xavier walks to a stainless-steel vat in the cellar and fills our glass with a brightly red and translucid wine, a 2010 rosé. When I see the vivid wine in the glasses it makes me think to Claude Courtois’ Nacarat, further North-East in the Loire. And you know what ? this Cabernet Franc has something in common with it, an appealing fruit verging on the grenadine candy, and a joyous feel when swallowed. This is Xavier’s first rosé ever, and he makes it from a plot planted with Gamay (some of it teinturier, dark Gamay) and Cab Franc, the Cab being direct-pressed and the Gamay going through a light skin contact in a vat during a night before pressing. For the Cabernet Franc he does a slow pressing which makes an equivalent of a short maceration. This all explains the color at the end. There’s still some fizzling with the fermentation going on with the residual sugar, and he’ll wait until the wine is dry. Xavier says that he opens from time to time the door of the cellar near this vat to activate the process. His idea with this wine is to work the rosé like a white wine, he’s not sure it has the potential in terms of structure but he’ll see that later. It will probably stay in the cellar for another year, if he releases it for spring, it’ll be next spring.
__ From a cask lying alone in a corner of the cellar : Cabernet Franc 2009, a wine with very nice aromas evoking wet stones and also ink. Made with the vineyard pictured further above. In the mouth there’s a good balance with the tannins and the fruit. There’s a maceration à l’ancienne with whole-clustered grapes in the vat but with only a partial foot stomping of the grape load.
in the future, there will be more chronology in the releases of their wines. In the beginning, they first released the 1999 (some 8 years after the harvest), then the 2002, the 2001 then the 2000...
__ From a bottle : a white 2000 (Chenin), bottled february 2011. Very nice nose with ripe aromas, very classy wine in the mouth. Muriel likes it too, she says it has a feel between the Chenin of 1999 and the 2002, it has both maturity and verticality. The interesting thing is that this bottle was opened a couple of days ago and it still just tastes so well (he just put back the cork).