We're here in Tracy-sur-Loire, a small village facing the town of Sancerre just on the other side of the Loire. It's in Pouilly Fumé, which is one of these Eastern Loire appellations where Sauvignon holds a prominent place, like neighboring Sancerre and lesser-known Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Reuilly. Long time ago, before Sancerre took the lead and left the others on the side, and particularly before the phyloxera if you rewind a little further, all these areas had been enjoying a limited fame (mostly local) without one emerging as the favorite, at least not Sancerre. And first, like Alexandre Bain told me, we must keep in mind that in these times, the vineyards were only one of the crops being grown, the region being not at all monocultural like it has become today. In the 19th century, the farmers made wine for themselves as well as for sale, and Alexandre who has deep roots in the region also adds that the majority variety in the region (including Sancerre) was not Sauvignon, but Gamay.
What brought me to Alexandre in the Pouilly Fumé in the Eastern Loire was my discovery of his wines a few months ago at a tasting event in Paris centered around his wines. The tasting, was organized by Christophe Guitard who deals with artisan wines at both his shop in the 10th arrondissement and online. Alexandre's uninterventionist wines were a good surprise for me and other tasters, as we are not always familiar with Pouilly-Fumé wines. And also, his passion for the vineyard and soil life was communicative and he was thus on my must-visit list since then. There are about 70 wineries in the Pouilly-Fumé appellation, and here is one of them (click on "Wine Producers", then on "All" to see the list).
Pic on right : the church of the tiny village of Tracy-sur-Loire.
We walk to the vineyards which lye along the chai, in view of the village of Saint Andelain in the far (pic on left), home to the Dagueneau winery. The vineyard was conventionally farmed before he got it and he turned it organic overnight, changing also gradually the vine training because it considers this to be essential for the wines he wanted to make.
This visit took place a couple days ago, and Alexandre hasn't begun to pick yet, and he will do it 2 weeks later on average than other growers around here. As I spot a tomato crop with its tempting ripe fruits at the foot of a vine, Alexandre says that they make a good company to the vineyard, like the other weeds that sprout by themselves under the vines (he shows me Mouron Blanc and also a certain type of Véronique, as well as Geraniums à feuilles rondes, among others, many of these plants being edible. The tomato plant also gets mildew like the vines, and mildew has been pushing hard recently with all the downpours they had this summer. But although as an organic grower he could legally use his copper-base Bordeaux mix to treat this mildew, he instead stopped spraying since july 2 to let the vines handle the issue with their own health capital, which is quite high under his biodynamic farming management. Since july 2nd, they got lots of rain (205 milimeters to be precise) and there's indeed some mildew here and there, but the vines were left alone in terms of sprayings because he tries to minimize the amount of copper going into the soils. He's quite sure that if the soil is well alive and breathing health today, it's not only because he isn't spraying weedkillers or pesticides but also because he limits as much as possible the copper sprayings.
The vineyard we're looking at here was planted in 2002 or 2003 and he managed to change gradually the training so as to have a higher foliage and better maturity : the vines were previously trained for easy machine harvesting, and he pruned the plant to lower it as much as possible, and open the branches in using the Guyot Poussard training, where branches on the sides are encouraged but not the ones above the vineroot, in order to get a better aeration of the whole. You can see on the picture at the top for example how the branch directly above the root has been cut while the side branches have been preserved. Also, you can see that the base of the vine is low : Alexandre lowered the bases of the vines, bringing them much closer to the ground, because he considers it brings more acidity overall when the branches open at a lower height. The photo-sunthesis is also higher because the foliage starts from a lower point, and this is good for the maturity. The larger foliage surface helps also in years like this one when mildew took a dent into the leaves.
The other thing is that he keep a fluid aeration between the branches and the clusters, which is easier when they are spread over a wider height.
The vineyard has various ages, much being planted in 1977. There has been lots of losses with the Esca disease, and he now tries to replace the missing vines by grafting directly on the vineroot (the American one) which is usually still alive and sometimes grows again from under the earth after the death of the vine.
There are three people to work in the vineyard : himself, his wife who can help, and Vincent (pictured on right) who is the only permanent employee of the winery. He's a biker like me (I came here by motorbike) and we exchanged stories about speed checks on the road.... Alexandre occasionally hires additional, temporary workers for the pruning and of course for the picking.
least almost fine, he says, there may be still some time to wait if you check the seeds quality, not just the flesh and skin. But many other grapes are greener, and for the harvest he needs to wait more, even if the ripest could bring the whole up. To understand the issue, he lets me taste two individual grapes, one reipe and one unripe (pic on right) : actually the "green" one is not thar green when I eat it, quite good and ripe I would even say. But that's way less ripe than the other one, and the seeds (which I didn't try to crunch) were obviously far to be ready for the harvest.
But to decide if the harvest time has come, he also checks the color of the leaves. There are important differences between the color appearance of a conventional [chemical] vineyard and an organic/biodynamic like here : As the plant is nott boosted by products and fertilizers, it has a natural rhythm which shows in its appearance, and when the maturity is getting close to ideal, the leaves get more pale, less dark-green, and also the leaves will be less shiny or polished in their surface aspect. Curiously (for me), the foliage appearance is for Alexandre a prime way to see when the grapes will be ready soon. Then of course he also checks and tastes the grapes and the seeds. When the right time will have come, there will be more clusters looking like the one on the left, even more yellowish than that, and it's not uncommon for him to harvest with 5 % to 10 % of noble rot. There are already a few of these shrinked, violet noble-rot grapes, now.
Speaking of the acidity, Alexandre says that he doesn't share the traditional enologist view which takes into account the acidity levels and not the minerality. The enologist doesn't quantify the minerality, he could measure the dry extract but it doesn't help. Alexandre considers that even if he looses some acidity with riper maturities, he'll get back a good minerality through the long élevages. And in the end, he'll get a couple acidity/minerality which make a good balance with the other characteristics of the wine. Right now he thinks that the harvest will begin on september 19 or later.
Alexandre uses a horse to work the soil. He bought this beautiful, 8year-old horse in the Maconnais (Burgundy) from a guy he was visiting to see a tool that he had designed for horse-draft plows. The guy, Bernard Michon, set up a business centered on draft-horse service and specialized tools adapted to the revival of this type of farming. You can watch here a video on these new innovative tools made by Bernard Michon, and here is another one. The modernized plowing tools are getting attention from the new generation of growers who reintroduce the draft-horse plowing in their vineyard. This of course reminds me of my visit last year to Francis Dopff who makes horse plowings for several Alsace wineries. This thing is clearly getting momentum in France, particularly in the wine farms following the biodynamic principles. He heard about this man from Philippe Jambon who told it to Sébastien Riffault, a neighbor and friend of his in Sancerre, as he knew they both were considering working with a horse. He had a horse to sell then and it was love at first sight.
Alexandre keeps a collection of plows, each being appropriate for a specific ground work. He hasn't done any plowing recently because it would not be good for the vines, but he will plow again in autumn and winter. These days, he is just mowing the grass with a motorized walk-behind grass mower. This red one is the one he uses the most. There's another one he just got a few weeks ago, it's an old walk-behind plow designed to pass very close to the vineroot, with an articulated arm that prevents the blade from damaging the vine when passing it. I've seen this system working at the tail of tractors but I didn't know it hd already existed at the draft-horse era. Alexandre explained me what these different plows are designed for, like this Canadian plow on the right which helps make a first gross plowing when there's been several months since the last ground work. The depth of the blades is adjustable and when not plowing (for example walking from the warehouse to the vineyard, the blades are set up and the plows glides on the ground like a sledge. Watch the videos below. He bought these leather draft-horse accessories from an importer and they're made in the U.S. by Amish people. He also uses for family outings (with his wife and two children) a hitch cart similar to this one, it's a modern version of a 19th-century cart, complete with tires and disk brakes. They go out in the forest, particularly in the deep woods of the Sologne.
Speaking about the horse plowing issue, he gets lots of advice and exchanges with fellow growers who also use horses, some being in the trade for many years, like legendary Olivier Cousin further West in the Loire. These growers most of the time are also in Biodynamics and into natural winemaking, and every one is eager to share his experience and help emulate. For example, Alexandre often works with Sébastien Riffault on a given plot (here or at Riffault's place), each bringing his own horse. Phénomène and Ophélie (Sébastien's horse) have a different character and pace and this helps to have them work on the same vineyard, each pulling a type of plow or tool best adapted to their style.
See also this Percheron photo blog, a French blog centered on the Percheron draft-horse breed. The man behind this blog works for Sabots, a French magazine dealing with terroir and traditional animals.
Now, the growers around begin to notice that his vineyards doesn't behave too badly, they come to him and say that they're having lots of bad rot because of the rain and in spite of intensive sprayings while he's relatively safe in that regard and with a good ripeness compared to theirs. Alexandre thinks that the problem is that they have high yields with too much vigor and nitrogen and this makes an unbalance in the plant which turns into bad rot and endangers the vines.
Most of what you see inside here is about Sauvignon, except as said above for 5 casks of red. We first taste a wine from a bottle :
__ Alexandre Bain Pouilly Fumé, Pierre Précieuse 2010, bottled 2 weeks ago. 100 % Sauvignon, all vinified in vat. Comes from the Portlandian terroir with the thick stone density. Harvested around october 20th. On the nose, nice ripe grape aromas, also cane syrup notes as well as honey. Rich in the mouth with a nice length. Very pleasant and the relatively high alcohol doesn't impede the drinkability and pleasure. the minerality-acidity couple certainly helps. Costs 20 € at the winery. The grapes are picked by hand in buckets which are unloaded in larger plastic boxes, then at the winery, the big boxes are lifted-over and poured into the press whole-clustered (the stem are good for draining in the press), he doesn't want any pump or other machine, not even a conveyor belt at this stage, that would damage the grapes (he wants intact grapes in the press). Then the pressing stage will be soft and long, which yields purer juices and so ha can abstain from the settling (débourbage) stage as well as from the SO2 adding. The juice goes straight into the vats or the casks with all the lees. He doesn't stir these lees during the vinification. The wine we taste here only got SO2 three weeks before bottling, at a dose of 20 mg. This wine hasn't got any other SO2 during its vinification. He had analysis conducted on this wine recently for the export to Japan, and the data showed 36 mg, the additional 16 mg being the result of the vinification process. This is very low actually, which adds to the drinkability of the wine. The excess of SO2 in white wines is often a big problem for modern wines, it's like the winemakers don't trust the way they made their wines and feel the urge to block them by high doses of sulphur. Of course, Alexandre lets the malo fermentation proceed, as this 20 mg adding wouldn't suffice to prevent it from starting. To block the malo, he would need to add like other vignerons around here 100 to 130 or even 150 mg of SO2. The homeopatic use of sulphur makes his wines very easy to drink and very healthy. When he bottles, he lets the thickest part in the bottom of the cask (the part with the lees) and lets it settle for topping-up use. The white has no filtering at all, the long againg without stirring making it quite clear at the end. What we've been tasting here is a bottle which has been opened august 29 (8 days before), amazing, doesn't hint at this and so drinkable...
__ Alexandre Bain Pouilly Fumé 2009, the same cuvée one year ealier even it wasn't named Pierre Précieuse then. The nose is way more opulent and generous with a darker golden color. 2009 was a solar vintage and the wine is indeed more solar. Vinified 30¨% in casks, the rest in a vat. Bottle also opened august 29. The nose in very nice with notes of ripe grape, bitter almonds, dry fruits. Beautiful wine indeed. Costs also 20 € at the winery. 10 mg of sulphur added only. He got the appellation stamp for this one but he says that if he had to ask the agreement today it would be refused because the wine evolved and is now so different from the mainstream wines of conventional growers. The very low SO2 adding keeps this wine alive and that's what makes it beautiful too. On the other hand, the careful vinification and patient élevage made it very stable, something conventional wines can't get without high doses of sulphur. Again, he says that high dosages of SO2 is a real disease for modern wines, similar to what the weedkillers do to the soil's life. This particular wine was bottled nov 2010 and went through a second élevage, in bottles this time, which is also very important.
We also taste a 2010 Sauvignon which is not ready yet :
__ Alexandre Bain Mademoiselle "M" 2010. It's in a vat (pic above) and displays a nicely-turbid aspect. The taste is not as expected, there isn't as much residual sugar as I expected, and if it wasn't for the turbidity, I'm not sure I'd noticed it was not ready yet. There's indeed a light perly feel, but so discreet that you may not notice it. Alexandre says that the wild yeasts are still at work now. In a few days with the fermentations of incoming grapes, there will be an ambiance in the chai thanks to which the fermentation will intensify, he says. He feels that this wine has a great potential and we'll know more in a few months about the fate of this 52-hectoliter vat. There has not been any SO2 adding here at this stage.
__ Vin de France red 2010. He could have asked the appellation for this wine (forgot to ask which) but decided not to ask for it because growers he knows told him it wouldn't pass the agreement commission. As said, he hasn't this rented plot anymore and will have to plant some red if he wants to make some more. He'll do it for sure but there will be several years before he can make wines from the vineyard. He is a fan of Gamay and these vines were planted in 1961 (the Pinot Noir was 30 years old), which plays a good part in the quality of this blend.
__ Alexandre Bain Vin de France red 2010. Blend of Gamay & Pinot Noir, vinified together in a vat first (complanted), for a 15-day maceration of the whole-clustered grapes. This was a carbonic maceration, then he ends up with doing a Burgundy style maceration as in the last days of this maceration, he pours some juice at the top. When there's just a bit of sugar remaining, he presses and blends the 2 juices in the casks.
Very nice peppery nose, like if there was Pineau d'Aunis in the wine (there isn't any), delightful. In the mouth, very nice feel with fruit and suavity. No sulphur at all here, and there will be none at bottling. The yields are 20 ho/hectare here. Here is again an odd cuvée (a red table wine in a white-only appellation) which rocks, the type of bottle which could be looked down by the uninformed wine amateur while it's so pleasant to drink. Costs 15 € here at the winery. Alexandre's 2009 red of 2009 was split between Caves Augé in Paris and Japan, so you won't find it out of these two locations (plus the winery itself). This red which is still in the casks will be bottled somewhere next year, he is not in hurry, especially as these are the last reds until several years when his would-be-planted vineyards are old enough for fit grapes.
Alexandre recounts me how both Marc Sibard (Caves Augé) and the Japanese importer Mr Ito who tasted separately this red from the previous year (2009) wanted both (unknowingly to each other) buy the whole stock of 3 casks. Alexandre had to battle against their frenzy and finally split the cuvée between them...
We taste the same red blend from another cask, it's more inky in its mouthfeel, more Pinot Noir. Each cask goes its own way and style but in the end they will be blended and bring more complexity to the final wine.
Alexandre Bain sells in wine in both France and abroad (60 % to 70 % for export). In France, his wines can be found in places like Le Baratin (wine bar/restaurant), Café de la Nouvelle Mairie (wine bar), La Contre Etiquette (wine shop), Judith & Clément, Caves Augé (wine shop), Le Vin en Tête (wine shop), L'Arpège, le Chateaubriand, in general to bistrots/restaurants looking for healthy and tasty food and wines as well.
Outside France, he sells (in volume order) first to Denmark (a very good export market, he says - Rosforth & Rosforth), to Japan (Mr Yoshio Ito, Oeno-Connexion, Noisy's), the UK (Caves de Pyrene), Italy (Stefano Sarfati), Switzerland (Vinivore), Belgium (Wouter De Bakker), Canada (Diane Turcotte - Vini-Vins), the United States (Louis Dressner Selections), Portugal, Australia (just beginning), Brazil (just beginning too).
Alexandre Bain and his wife have 2 children.