Benoit Courault is a young vintner who has been on the Loire scene for a few years now, he's managing a handful of hectares by himself and literally lives in the middle of hiis small estate with his wife and son in this spartan mobile home with direct view on the lined rows and a few farm animals which ALL belong to the young Alphonse (he was quick to tell me about all his mates while I was chatting with Benoit and Emmanuelle). The village of Faye d'Anjou itself is not the nicest village I saw in Anjou, it's a bit too serious maybe, almost bland compared to other communities near there, but Benoit lives on its outskirts in a farmland settings with vines, woods, hedges and grass roads. The area is very close to Angers, a major town in this part of the Loire valley, and lots of people live in such villages and commute everyday to the city for work. Benoit has the chance to work a few steps from his bohemian home and eat with his family on the grass when the weather allows it. I arrived a bit early that day and they were all in the middle of their lunch, so they invited me to sit and share some wine with them (I had already lunched along the road). These wine people seem to all compete to make me want to drop the city life and take root in the deep country... The first time I came across Benoit Courault's wines was relatively recently, during a tasting with other outstanding artisan vintners a couple years ago in Paris (7th story on this page). I had put in a corner of my mind the project to visit him one day, and this day happened at last.
At one point, the young Alphonse climbed into the hammock between the trees and had a nap, and when Benoit went to check him, he was sleeping deeply, with the goat keeping watch (picture on left).
__ Benoit pours me a glass of Les Tabeneaux 2010, vinified in vats (no wood), this table wine was bottled in july 2011. It's 2/3 Cabernet Franc (the ones along the house) and 1/3 Grolleau. Onctuous wine, very supple too. Costs 9 € at the winery.
__ Secondly Benoit poured me some Les Rouliers, table wine 2010 (identified through the fine-print code LR10). Raised in 400-liter and 300-liter barrels, a more square and tannic wine made from 100 % Cabernet Franc. No SO2 added here too if I remember. Costs 12 € here at the winery.
Benoit had had his training in Beaune between the wine school and winery work near there, after which they went to the south of France and finally came back in the region. He learned much from these experiences and vintners he met, although in Burgundy it was so-so : he was working in Chambolle-Musigny he says, but in spite of terrific terroirs, many family wineries there aren't very demanding on the way they make their wine because it sells well any way, so he felt there was an awful waste of potential quality.
Emmanuelle keeps working on the side until their winery and the vineyards are fully reshaped and profitable. The total surface is today about 5 hectares, while when I tasted his wines two years ago he still had 6,5 hectares. He began actually with some 7,2 hectares when he took over this wine farm but some parcels were not so valuable and some others had too many vines missing, so they preferred to concentrate on 5 hectares, replanting the missing vines so that the vineyards are whole and well. The vineyards were not very well managed but he saw that there was a potential for getting them back on track. The oldest vines are from 1905 and the yougest are 30 to 40 years old. He has Cabernet Franc, Grolleau, a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chenin. This is chenin country here, he says.
As said above, the vineyard and the soil are slowly revovering from years of weedkillers and the place is getting alive again. To make it more alive, there are all these farm animals in the middle of the estate [which make it on the Steinerian sense also more whole as a wine farm, I would add] with the best keeper you can have to watch them : Alphonse. I'm confident that these cute farm animals could help the vineyard feel well, as I'm more and more convinced that there are mysterious rules at work behind nice and living wines...
The picture above was shot close to the mobile home, these are 40 to 60-year-old Cabernet Franc (going mostly into the cuvée Les Tabeneaux) with only a few missing vines. The rootstock are old ones, grafted the old way, pretty good work, he says.
Norway is a Trait Breton, apparently the result of a cross betwee the Ardennais breed and the Percheron breed. He has this horse for almost 4 years now, he found it through Olivier Cousin, another vigneron using horses not far from here and making wines with the same philosophy. The horse belonged to a guy who didn't really use it and they made a deal. Benoit had been interested for years in the use of draft horses in the vineyard, he had some training on the job with Olivier Cousin before getting this horse, two years after having started the winery. There's an adaptation phase, he says, because the most important thing is to have the vineyards plowed in time, which the draft horse isn't ready to do in the beginning as it has to be trained to his new assignment. Both the horse and the man handling the walk plow have to be ready to work together and know each other. Olivier Cousin helped him train the horse progressively, and now the horse has been doing many things, plowings, décavaillonnages, harvest-boxes transport. He says that using the horse during the harvest changes the mood immensely, it seems a detail but the pickers love it, and there isn't this tractor noise and exhaust fumes between the rows, it makes their work day much more fun. It's possible that he purchases a second horse one day.
He has also set up with Olivier Cousin and a few other growers a CUMA, a French system giving te possibility to several farlmers to co-own machinery and possibly like in this case, farm animals and share the use and the costs. They could this way purchase different plows and tools even if until now they keep their own horse apart.
Here also he begins to see the vineyard turning around and recovering from years of neglect and from chemical treatments including fertilizers. Now, after a few years, he is happy to have had access to this vineyard, although the life has not yet fully recovered in the soil (another 2 years and it should be perfect). He loves working here in winter, he rides the horse to here and spends hours pruning in this peaceful place, it's beautiful. He plans to bring a bit of manure to help fasten the revitalization of the soil, because he considers that if the wine still has trouble finishing fermenting its sugar year after year, it's because of the lack of lofe in the soil.
At one point we passed also vineyards belonging to another neighbor who works in biodynamy a huge surface for this type of farming, 56 hectares : this is the Domaine des Grandes Vignes, and Benoit says that they're doing a very good work using lots of staff and technical tools. He tasted their wines with fellow artisan vintners and he was particularly impressed. These wines which are often vinified without SO2 are sold in part in supermarkets at a price which must be a very good value.
We stopped at the parcel of Chenin (pics on right and left) from which Benoit Couralt makes the cuvée Petit Chemin ("narrow path", sounding in French like small Chenin), a borderline and humorous way to tell it's Chenin when on table wine you're not supposed to tell the variety. I joke that Olivier Cousin would have liked this one... These Chenin vines are part of the small estate he puchased, so he works on them since 2006. The vines are probanly 50 or 60 years old, and the soils is thick with schists and also a bit of volcanic debris.
Right near this plot we saw a recently uprooted parcel, that's where the 100-year old vineyard was standing but it was not very manageable with too many missing vines and he decided to uproot it. He may sow another crop like wheat for 3 or 4 years before deciding what to replant there.
the building is not big but Benoit manages to do every thing in there, he can store his cellar tools, the casks and the vats, and even a bottle cellar. Finding an empty building, even a basic one like a barn is problematic around here, because of the high demand from people working in the town of Angers, which is not far from here. People will buy such barns and remodel them into houses, so they sell for more.
Benoit bought this old vertical press in Brittany, it was doriginally used to press apples and make cider. It's basically the same type of vertical press I've seen at work, for example in the Beaujolais at Christophe Pacalet. It is a hand-powered hydraulic press, very simple and effective through the years, little or no maintenance needed I guess. You just push and pull the handle several times to add some pressure, doing it again when needed, when the grapes mass has shrinked. Benoit jokes that there may be a power cut, he'll keep making wine... He has a second, similar vertical press which helps for parallel pressings, it's hand powered too. The reds are easier to press than the Chenin because after the maceration, the grapes and the skins are softer and more decayed. It takes 6 to 8 hours for a press of red when for Chenin it usually begins toward 2 pm and ends toward 1 am (about 12 hours). It is a huge amount of work and as hygiene is so important he could forgo essential cleaning tasks by lack of time if he worked alone, so now since 2010 he hires a cellar clerk for the harvest season who takes care of keeping the chai clean, also the pumps and vats, and hosing the empty boxes and other things like that. He had hired Kenji Hodgson for example in 2010, he was very interested in all the details, being himself in the middle of the setting-up of his winery, and he did a very good job. For Kenji that was a way to see how vintners work, and for example the following year he was hired for the same harvest-time job at René Mosse, also near here.
On the right you can see the open-top fermenter for the maceration of the reds.
Benoit courault makes quite many cuvées for his surface (about 5 hectares), about 9 every year : there are two white cuvées raised in casks, one white cuvée raised in vat, then a natural sparkling which is bottled rapidly. There is also a still, dry rosé and a sparkling rosé. Then there are three different cuvées of reds.
__ Chenin 2011 which will make the Cuvée Gilbourg. This Chenin is pressed, put into vats and goes into casks when the fermentation has started. He doesn't stir the whites and as a result the wine has well sedimented and looks very clear. No SO2 here. This will be bottled next november, but racked into vats around the harvest so that he can use the casks for the new vintage without having to use sulfur (through a sulfur wick) in between. Very enjoyable, glides beautifully in the palate. Very suave, the alcohol is well balanced by the other parameters. Costs 16 € tax included here at the winery. The soil for this wine is like what we saw in our vineyard tour, with lots of schists. I spot the iconic poster on the wall by Tolmer (picture on left) , Epaulé Jeté, about the glass-holding, life-saver gesture that can save the vignerons... This building has its own fireplace as it was probably in its early years a regular house with farmers living inside, and it's strange to see casks full of wine standing there in the fireplace...
__ Chenin 2011, from the Prieuré vineyard. The wood is more recent here the cask being from 2008. He usually buys his casks (but not this one) to someone who also doesn't use sulfur (sulfur wick) between the élevage of different vintages. This wine is late in its fermentation, Benoit says, but it seems to me almost dry. The structure in the mouth is very nice, very enjoyable Chenin also, with tension. There's only one vat from the Prieuré and it may well end up in a blend with other Chenin.
__ Chenin, from a parcel/terroir we didn't see, close to the village, from 50-year-old vines : cuvée Les Guinechiens 2011. Table wine also (Vin de France), the only year he made Appellation wines being in 2007. Very pleasant nose. In the mouth it looks more stony, rocky compared to the previous wines. There's a saline side in this wine, Benoit says, that makes it stand out. He likes this wine in its youth like here, with its floral and fruity side. He has 60 ares on this parcel and next year he plans to replant the missing vines on this parcel and make it whole again. He took some wood from the 1905 vineyards that he uprooted recently and gave this wood to a nursery where the grafts will be prepared for his planned replantings. In the years prior to the uprooting of the old parcel, he checked the best vines for his massal selection and wood cuttings. The rootstock will be Rupestris, a well-adapted root for this soil. This wine costs 18 € tax included at the estate.
He also makes a Chenin with no wood, the Blanc de Cuve, which he sells at 10 €. His rosé costs 9 €.
__ We're tasting now a red from a Vaslin vat, a Rouliers. It has been racked there when he felt that the wine didn't need to stay longer in casks. While we're tasting the red, I spot an old gravity filler, with 6 spouts (picture on left). He uses it when he has a small volume to bottle, lifting the cask beforehand in order to get the right gravity. Otherwise he uses a service company that works very well, respecting the wine and bottling slowly with peristatic pumps without pressuring the wines. It takes only 6 hours to bottle 10 000 bottles and he can feel by tasting the wine several times after the bottling that it didn't suffer from the often-traumatic process. He says that these guys love wine and do what it takes to prevent the wine to be harmed. He had other experiences with other service bottlers before working with them and it was night and day compared to this bottling company. Now he will always work with them, that's the best thing he can do to his wine.
Benoit Courault also makes a cuvée of Grolleau, a small volume of 15 hectoliter. These Grolleau are 40 years old on very thin soil, it makes refined wines with a very feminine style. He plans to replant Pineau d'Aunis too on some of his slopes. For these replantings he will work with a nursery in the south of France that works on biodynamy, Bérillon. They came in the region recently to take sample wood from old Pineau d'Aunis and prepare the grafts. The rootstock will be Rupestris and the graft will be old style, through a vertical slit (and not through an omega graft like today).
Picture on right : the trap to the bottle cellar.