The Aveyron is an austere but beautiful mountainous region full of fortified villages, medieval castles and old stone bridges across rivers that you imagine abundant in fish population. You drive on narrow roads with very few cars (if any) at this time of the year and marvel at every turn : there is a feel of both untouched natural landscape and tight-knit old-style social fabric. We are here in the Appellation area of Entraygues (bright yellow patch on the upper right of this map), still part of the larger South-West appellation but very deep into the foothills of the Massif Central mountains. Of the many vineyards covering the slopes around here in the past centuries, only a tiny proportion remain, and the Pays d'Entraygues has only a handful of wine farms today, among them Nicolas Carmarans. After driving along its winding roads you understand that life was tough in this remote region, and for that reason many Aveyronnais like their neighbors the auvergnats left their region en masse for Paris in the 19th century and early 20th to open cafés and bars or become bougnats. You could still find bougnats, these retailer of both coal and wine, well into the mid-20th century.
Nicolas Carmarans himself comes from a family lineage of cafetiers aveyronnais and he happens to have been the last owner of the Café de la Nouvelle Mairie, one of the most interesting wine bars in Paris. He probably got the virus from the many artisan and natural wines he served there, because he decided a few years ago to leave Paris, settle down in the village of his ancestors, bring the vineyards back to life and make wine. The result is astounding. I was particularly impressed by his wines when I tasted a couple of them at Kevin's wine restaurant Autour d'un Verre a year ago (2nd picture of this story). If that was how Fer Servadou tasted, I was a new convert to these Aveyron varieties thanks to his talented winemaking.
__ Nicolas Carmarans Chenin 2011. It finished its sugar and begins to get clear, Nicolas says, the malolactic fermentation are probably completed, he must send a sample for analysis soon. Pleasant, appetizing mouth with a good balance. Will be bottled probably after the harvest of 2012. The Chenin 2010 is still here, he racked all the casks in a vat where the wine is settling. He has almost one hectare of Chenin, with vines aged 30 years. Chenin has been around for a very long time, Nicolas says, like Fer Servadou. On the tiny 30-are vineyard which he purchased at the beginning, there was only hybrids, Jurançon Noir and Portuguais Bleu, these are traditional varieties which have a good maturity every year. It has been alas a trend in the area to uproot these varieties which were well-suited to the climate and contitions and replant things like Cabernet which is quite absurd at this altitude of 500 meters. Speaking of the wine region around here, Nicolas Carmarans says that this is the smallest appellation of France with 19 hectares of producing vineyards on Entraygues & le Fel. Le Fel is on shists and Entraygues (here) is on granitic sand. Note that there were 1000 hectares of vineyards here before the phylloxera, for the local consumption and as an exchange commodity with the cattle of the Plateau de L'Aubrac. Since then the forests have replaced much of this cultivated surface, and the unsuspecting traveller can't guess that there were so many vineyards back then. Nicolas shows us an old picture dating from the late 19th century where you see the surrounding valley and slopes with no trees and an intricate web ofcultivated parcels, definitely a different country. This is the northern-most vineyards this close from the Massif Central mountains when you approach them from the south. The Auvergne vineyards are 200 kilometers further north, on the other side of these mountains, where the conditions are again favorable for vine growing.
Pic on left : the cellar door with the chai/barn above
__ Nicolas Carmarans Rosé H2 Facteur, made from a 90-year-old parcel complanted with all sorts of varieties, like Portugais Bleu, Muscadelle, Negret de Banhars etc... There's also a nice local white variety in there, named Rousselou, Nicolas says.
He got this complanted parcel 5 or 6 years ago from a 90-year-old lady of the village, and it had been planted by her own father... All these varieties were also harvested together and vinified together. This is a maceration rosé made with a quick pressing. Very nice nose with acidulous notes. Good substance, fresh feel with aromas of wild strawberries and the likes. It makes only 10,4 ° in alcohol, he says, he may bottle it soon. The low alcohol is in part because these old vines had bigger yields this year when usually they have a more limited production. Still, that is not a high yield, he made 3 casks out of 30 ares... The lower alcohol maybe also because this year he decided to pick earlier, which he decided after 2 vintages where the wines took forever to finish their sugar. This was particularly true in 2009 where he was tricked by the local south wind named Olto (or Vent d'Autan) a southward blowing wind that can raise the maturity in the grapes as quickly as 1 ° every 4 days...
Let's go back to Nicolas Carmarans family history : His grand-grandfather was a grower and made wine, and his grandfather stopped working with these vineyards when he moved to Paris, joining the exodus of the Aveyronnais fueling in the café business.
__ Nicolas Carmarans, a red from Le Mauvais Temps, no name yet, undisclosed variety. Harvested august 25, which was a first (usually it's more like september 10). His children helped for this harvest. Vinified wholeclustered, some of them being stomped in the tronconic open vat to have the base juice, because there's a very small volume, only 5 casks or a bit more than a ton. This is a semi-carbonic maceration. Fermentation went smoothly but it will need more time, he says, although it tastes already well. Tastes very well indeed. Delicious wine, goes down very well. He doesn't like extraction, he says, he favors the immediate pleasure of the thirst wines. In comparison, he says, when you taste the Marcillac wines, you have black wines with lots of tannins and astringency and you must wait a long time to get something good. There are good ones, he adds, but on the whole he rarely has pleasure drinking them.
Back to the winemaking : Nicolas Carmarans works on the fermentation-dynamics issue, meaning he tries to have fermentations that unwind smoothly and quickly, and this, without temperature-control tools either cold or hot. they manage the temperature of the incoming grapes for example by letting the boxes in the sun if they're too cold, so that they reach 11 or 12 ° C. He says that there's no room for the undesired bacteria when the wild yeasts on the grape skins start quickly. These wines fermented in only a week, and on their own indigenous yeasts...There's no SO2 adding at the harvest and all the wines we're tasting in this cellar never saw SO2 either.
__ Nicolas Carmarans. L'Olto 100 % Ferservadou wine (red). These are 40-year-old massal selections of Fer Servadou that he got in fermage (rented plot). Fer Servadou is said to have been brought here by the monks of Cluny who came down here to create the Abbey of Conques around the year of 970. They had picked this variety from the Madiran area and saw that it would behave well in these mountains too. 100 % carbonic maceration, wholeclustered. This cuvée being the first to ferment, he kept a bit of juice to jumpstart the following cuvées (pied de cuve. Very expressive nose. Very gourmand. Very light color for a Fer Servadou (also known under the name of Braucol). Here, there's no tannic heaviness at all or any astringency, really surprising. Not that I drink Fer Servadou every other day, but I know by reputation that this variety is usually very tannic and dark colored. The 100 % carbonic maceration which lasted 5 or 6 days saw no foot stomping at all. Nice job. He pressed before the end of the fermentation as the fermentation stalled. This year, he says, the yeasts asked for more oxygen than usually. He adds that winemakers making natural wines are usually afraid of oxygen but he considers this fear is unfounded. The yeasts need oxygen to multiply and a good way to give them this oxygen is to rack some juice and pour it over the mass of the grapes, which he did in this particular case when he saw the stalling of the fermentation. But a day later it was still quiet so he decided to press right away beore volatile or other problems show up. There was still lots of sugar to ferment and it started again in the vat. From what we taste here, nice intuition.
__ Nicolas Carmarans L'Olto 2011, third part. Here he put the casks in the outside to clear the wine with the cold so that he could bottle it early as Primeur for the Caves Augé and Le Verre Volé in Paris. Here there is more extraction, the tannins are more noticeable, more astringency (but the temperature of the wine is cold, which makes the tannins look strong). Lots of fruit too. On the whole he has more reds, but he says that this is in part because most of his whites have been recently planted and the vineyard is not productive yet. He adds that in his mind, the terroir is more better suited for whites than for reds, so he has great hopes for the whites. He planted only Chenin and it's by the way the only white variety being allowed hrere in the appellation.
__ Nicolas Carmarans, an other red, he doesn't disclose the variety yet. Relatively light type of red. Nice legs on the side of the glass. Lots of gas here. I try to warm the glass in my hands. Actually all the wines that we tasted have been racked even if they're sometimes back in casks, but this one hasn't been racked at all so it's still on its lees. Same for the 1st Fer-Servadou that we tasted. That's because these wines were long to finish their fermentation. Plus he considers that the lees will bring more substance. As my glass warms up, it's already better : light wine, lots of fruit. B. likes the structure in the mouth. Nicolas says that it's Cabernet Franc with Cabernet Sauvignon. Plots at 500m and 250m altitude, one of them (a rented plot) being in Entraygues (on Coteaux de Saint Georges), these are vineyards planted in 1960 that they rescued from uprooting. The guy had 7 hectares there and alas sold most of the surface as construction land (which pays more). The one here is rented on a contract that expires soon and the only option is to buy the plot, but at construction-land prices, which is enormous. There were 30 hectares in the past on this Coteaux-de-Saint-Georges terroir and now it's covered with new homes, most of them being empty in winter.
__ Nicolas Carmarans Mauvais Temps 2011 (red). 50% Fer Servadou, 50% Negret de Banhars. The Cab is yet to come. He buys the casks used, either from Christophe Pacalet or François Frères directly. Vinified in tronconic vat, wholeclustered, and foot-stomped partly with 2 remontages (pumping over).
__ A last red wine. Undisclosed variety. A 2010. Very beautiful. I note meat juice, withered rose too. Incense. Foot-stomped several days in a row, here.
All the wines here cost between 7€ and 9€ wholesale, and from 12€ to 15€ tax included (at the winery).
Speaking of SO2, there's no adding during the vinification. Some wines are bottled without any SO2, like l'Olto (the one in the Grenier tronconic vat). Others like the 1st Olto we tasted are more on the edge and he'll see in spring if he ads a gram per hectoliter one month before bottling or not. In the Chenin sometimes bottles without any SO2, like in 2008.
This parcel of Le Mauvais Temps, which is exposed south, is part of a 20-hectare surface which was largely abandoned, some after the big frost of 1956, a frost so severe all around France that even very old olive trees died. Around february 1956 the temperature fell under minus 10 ° C during 40 consecutive nights after a mild january during which the sap hag gone up in the wood. This altitude and location above this woody valley gives cool nights which are good for the grapes and the phenolic maturity and for the aromatic range. The whites also have a good mineral expression here, particularly in the last years as the vines become mature.
These single-row terraces are planted with Chenin. He works on the slopes with a cable plow. No weedkillers, the soil looks vibrantly alive. In the first years when he left Paris to start this adventure, he was so happy to work in this landscape (he still is). No wires, the vines grow on echalas the old-tradition way. With all these mountains and woods around, there is a strong insect diversity which facilitates his
Nicolas tells us that vignerons in the area and in the south-west routinely go to Spain to buy chemical products which are forbidden in France, all the chemical products for the vineyard being also cheaper there, including copper and sulfur. This may explain why recent studies find residues of forbidden pesticides in the French rivers (see page 8 of this pdf document__in French). They also go to Spain to buy lab yeasts, deacidifying prodcts, detartaring products, all the additives being cheaper there. Chaptalization is also common around here. For example this Cabernet that we taste makes only 12° in alcohol (he doesn't chaptalize of course) and most vignerons around here would consider it as wine : in their mind, a Cabernet must be at 14 ° and be tough and woody, so they use whatever mean to reach that goal. organic management.
Pic on left : other plots (old vines) near the Truyère river (below).
On this picture by Norbert Dutranoy you can see Nicolas preparing the plot for planting.
Nicolas Carmarans has 2 children.
Nicolas Carmarans exports his wines to Japan (Oenoconnexion - Mr Ito), which could buy everything if he didn't restrict their share, he says. The Japanese were the first to come here and ask for his wines. He also sells to the United Kingdom (Caves de Pyrène), the United States (Chambers Street Wines, Ten Bells), Australia (Tasmania - Living Wines), Belgium (la Boite des Pinards), Switzerland (le Passeur de Vin), Denmark (Pétillant).
His wines can be found in Paris among other places in the Caves Augé, at Le Verre Volé, L'Agapé and at Kevin's Autour d'Un Verre were when I called two cuvées were available at 14 € (to go).