A few kilometers from Angers and from Faye D'Anjou, in this region (Anjou) with a high concentration of artisan vintners, there's a British expat going under the name of Toby Bainbridge who lives with his American wife and their two sons in a charming village named Chavagnes les Eaux. I had met Toby shortly a few years ago while visiting the estate of Agnès and René Mosse, where he worked then full time (I had made a short audio interview then and you can listen to it on the Mosse story). He had already got a small surface of vineyard of his own, one hectare if I remember, but he waited fort the right time to officially open shop, working in parallel on his own vines and on the ones of his employer (he has been working 3 days a week at René Mosse until recently). Starting his own estate for good is what he's doing right now in 2012, even though he has been already making wines of his own for a few years. It took him some time but somehow it was his British restraint which commanded patience, while his American wife Julie was in favor of bolder moves. Considering the wine farms he worked in before starting his own, I think he got a good training, both in the vineyards and in the cellar.
The D day is august 1st, he'll benefit from the Jeune Agriculteur loan program set up long time ago in France to help young farmers to kickstart their business.
Looking at this family in their charming house was heartening, the two sons (who are technically Americans) will go to school in the village and they'll grow up in a region many French city dwellers would like to settle in. Their house has its own story : it was an annex from the Forever Hotel (also a bar and restaurant) sitting on the other side of the street, and when Gérard Depardieu spent time in the area before purchasing the Chateau de Tigné winery, he would stay there in the annex which had three rooms with their bathrooms. Later, the hotel downsized and sold this annex, that's when the Bainbridges came in. The owners of the hotel which is still in business, told him that Depardieu was often awake early like at 5 am, reading his current job's script or doing other rehearsal, this all with charcuterie trays and wine delivered by the hotel staff...
Although he worked with René Mosse for years, he says his wines are different in style and the grape varieties are different too, he has lots of Grolleau and doesn't make long-élevage wine and doesn't use barrels, they're all wines to be consumed early. His total surface which began with one hectare in 2007 reached 4,5 hectares now (4,28 to be precise), of which 2,5 hectares of Grolleau, 70 ares of Chenin and the rest in Cabernet Franc, and on very different terroirs. He both purchased and rented vineyard plots, not that the region is expensive but it's fine that way too, you don't need to buy land to make wine and farm the way you want.
Toby says that he leaves some CO2 in all his wines to protect them, they're unfiltered and unfined, bottled with a 4-spout artisanal filler and closed with these crown caps which prevent the exchange with air. Speaking of the bottlings he schedules them along the weather and air pressure, which helps a lot
__ We begin with a rosé, cuvée L'Acrobate, the result of a 2-hour maceration of Grolleau, made from a plot located on the road to Thouarcé on the other side of the Layon river, with a thick-gravel soil and harsh hydric stress in summer. 2011 was quite dry and many vineyards suffered in this sector, but most growwers don't plow their vineyards and his could sustain the stress unharmed, the roots going deeper. This rosé is a summer wine, enjoyable and easy to drink. Ther's also a refreshing bitterness in the wine, a peculiarity of Grolleau I guess. Toby tells me something I didn't know : Grolleau was created not so long ago, in 1907, just outside Tours, as a response to the phylloxera and in order to get productive varieties accelerate the rebirth of the wine sector. Grown and pruned a certain way, it gives tons of grapes which is not good for the wine, and it was eventually discontinued, but with the right vineyard management and pruning, this is the qualitative variety that we know.
__ The second wine is not bottled yet, Toby filled this bottle for me, it's a dry Chenin, a cuvée named Les Jongleurs, also a 2011, made from a small parcel near Faye D'Anjou on Clos des Rouliers, a terroir on a lower slope. Surface : 14 ares, 60-year-old vines. The soil there is sandy, it tends to retain the water, so he plows it deep to better the draining properties. This Chenin is vinified in resin vats, like the previous wine. There's 12 ° in alcohol, the grapes were ripe in 2011 but there wasn't lots of sugar. tHere are several maturity stages in parallel on this small parcel and it wasn't worth making successive pickings. Chenin is not easy and it is never ripe at the same time depending of the spot. Vivid wine with something to chew. Asked about why he doesn't use wood, he says that he wants to make wines that are not impacted by wood, also as he's starting, he wants to sell his wine on a shorter time span, without élevage, he's looking for simple wines which are clean and without animal notes for example. Toby farms organic with some biodynamic techniques but he's not fully in biodynamie. As an English, he jokes, he views nettle tea as very healthy and tonic for the vines, and he adopted theses practices easily. He sells the three cuvées we're tasing now at the same price : about 7 € abottle (tax included) or 20 € for 3 bottles. Very well priced indeed.
__ tHe 4th wine we taste (and drink) is a sweet Chenin 2010 made from the same 14-are parcel. Beautiful sweet wine with a vibrant golden lightly-turbid color (picture on left) and a superb nose. He discovered that the parcel had turned into botrytis, which made dry wine impossible, the sugar had raised to 15,5 °. He ended up harvesting it two weeks later with a potential alcohol of 21 °. The wine fermented without lab yeats has an alcohol level of 11 ° with 10 ° of residual sugar. As he had a very small volume he kept in in casks and it took some time to find its way. Thz fermentation stopped by itsel and was kept unfiltered, he just racked it in glass containers to sediment the wine. Very fresh wine with good acidity, very pleasant indeed. It's not yet on the market, it's still in the cellar and will be sold next winter. It's all bottled now, with some SO2 but in moderate amounts. This is a table wine because the parcel had been downgraded years ago (he doesn't know exactly why, this was before he got the vineyard) to a non-appellation status.
This year the weather has been very rainy but oddly mildew which is usually the main ennemy here has been discreet and he sprayed twice only [this was some 15 days ago]. This is because if it rained a lot, the temperature was not that high and mildew needs higher temperatures. But this rain translated in "dirty' vineyards, he means lots of weeds, and he has to plow more.
Being an agronomist by training, he has often different views from what some growers say or do, even if he farms organic, his agriculture backgrounds help him get a distinct approach on certain practices. He likes to remain pragmatic and isn't shy of saying what he thinks, including when he tastes the wines of other vintners.
The soil has schists underneath but he hasn't had time to investigate more precisely. What he knows is that the upper slope is very rocky compared to the lower one. There are also a few volcanic-type of stones here, and someone told him there was a deas volcano in the area.
He plowed the area 2 months earlier but he has still another round to make, to finish off the weeds. Otherwise the area is natural and diverse enough for them to ask to join an LPO Refuge program (bird protection program) which will be a plus, he says, for the vineyard. He already waits very late to mow the high grass along his plots to protect the birds who nest there, like pheasants and quails.
the vines are like humans, Toby says, they give a lot of juice when they're young but it's not necessarily of a very interesting quality, while when they age there's less juice but of a higher quality. Speaking of the vineyards in the region, Toby says that oddly they're not hard to find (buy or rent), which may be why so many new vintners working organic settle here. What's hard to find is a built facility, or even any kind of building or barn, because of the residential real estate boom. There are no underground cellars here like in other regions and when you look for a building to set up your facility you find often places needing lots of remodelling and repairs, and at high prices. He thinks it's now finacially wiser to build from scratch than renovate an old building. he shows me along the road an old building (a nice one though) that was for sale, the owners asked 65 000 € and there was probably as much to spend to remodel it into a chai.
Toby sells his own wine since 2007 when after taking over one hectare of vines, his first vintage was made from very old vines of Grolleau on Faye D'Anjou, which he vinified in red. Member of the small artisan vintners group Anges Vins, he found his first customers there through the different tasting events of the group. The philosophy of the group is to make wine from organic grapes and without tricks (sans artifices) in the cellar. Otherwise, he exports a lot, most in Scandinavia (Denmark and Sweden) through Rosforth & Rosforth. He now began to export to Holland (David Bolomey). He has very little wine to sell yet : 3000 expected bottles for 2011, 2012 will see more output because the young vines are growing.
[Edit 2013] Toby's wines are now exported to the U.S. (Return to Terroir, California) and Australia (Living Wines).
The 10-hectoliter resin vats are very convenient because he can move them at ease when empty for cleaning, and they're neutral, that's everything he needs. There are a few cement vats here but he doesn't use them. The ground is already a cement one but he plans to lay a concrete slap over it to get the right slope, and use a thinner type of concrete, easy to hose.
He bottle his wine with a simple gravity bottle filler, a 4-spout. He says with 2,5 people, he can bottle 20 hectoliters per day, including the crown-cap crimping, which is perfect for the size of his production.
In addition to his 3 main wines he makes experiments now and then, like here for a small batch of Pet'Nat or natural sparkling (a sparkling made without sugar or dosage addition), a 2011 made from Grolleau. In 2010 he didn't put the bottles on these riddling tables and he didn't disgorge the wine, but when he opened a bottle there would be too much wine bursting out. His challenge for the natural sparkling is to find his place between a spontaneous, innocent wine and something more elaborate, like for example what he gets after disgorgment : the wine is more elegant but may loose its simmple, spontaneous appeal. He's still pondering the pros and cons of both vinification ways. In a certain sense, he faces the same challenge for his other wines. He likes to keep the wine as is, that's why he doesn't filtrate also.
We tasted the pet'nat, it's gentle, very pleasant, although served at a higher temperature than the ideal one for this type of wine. There may be a bit of sugar left but that's fine for me, it's delicate, ample and refreshing. Some sparklings are too dry, this one is not harsh in this regard. He makes this sparkling with a parcel which he thinks is better fit for this sort of wine than for a red. for a still red you need a better terroir, and this one is not the best compared to his other plots.
I spot a few magnums in a box, and Toby tells me that he had a special order from Denmark for sparkling Chenin. I'm afraid Denmark is going to be a problem if people there make a clean sweep of artisan wines...