I'm more and more convinced that one of the best way to start a winery is to quietly put the pieces together while keeping a day job at another winery; this way, you'll not only preserve your financial independance by being less dependant on banks, but you'll also keep learning from the vintner you're working with, considering you chose one you're valuing the expertise of. Quite a number of the artisan vintners I visited these past years have started their career this way, and it took years for example for Thierry Allemand before he quit his day job and worked full time on his own vineyards and wines. Like for the making a good wine, patience is the key to setting up a winery, it seems...
I happened to taste my first Sextant wine as I was visiting Dominique Derain a few weeks ago, Dominique kindly pouring me one of Julien's wines among his own wines. I hadn't the opportunity to go to Angers for the Dive Bouteille or Renaissance des Appellations last january, otherwise like Aaron recounted on this story, I would have certainly tasted his wines to keep warm, Dominique Derain's table being swamped by tasters fighting for their pours...
Julien Altaber set up his négoce in 2007, making wine from grapes purchased here and there, and as he didn't have a facility of his own, he has been making the wines in a side cellar of Dominique Derain until he'd find a building to settle in (the French Customs usually don't like having two wineries under the same roof). So I visited him at Derain (picture on right) on my way back to Paris from Beaune. The weather was beautiful, the harvest season mostly over, and riding along the former N6 highway in the valley leading to Saint-Aubin was a biker's dream trip, with the swinging road alternating woods and vineyards.
The last grapes have been picked, including the Pommard and lastly Julien's Aligotés. This picture was shot in Dominique Derain's vat room which had transformed since the last time we visited, there seem to be more wooden fermenters, and there was a vertical press along the wall. For some reason I was asking if they cool the grapes sometimes prior to the vinification, Dominique says no, even when it's hot, he adds that as they're working with wild yeasts, they can adapt to whatever conditions they face. He also says that the acidity is a more important factor than the temperature at the harvest.
Julien studied at the Davaillé wine school in Macon and also at the Viti-Oeno of Beaune, where he was in the same class than Cécile Tremblay.
Julien shows me the small vat with the old aligoté. The destemmed grapes ferment quiety in there (they were among his last grapes to come in). Julien grabs a couple of glasses and rties to get some juice by laying down one of them among the grapes so that it fills up, but he ends up using a wine thief. I'm not an expert of predicting a wine from its juice but this is utterly delicious, the natural sugar is so sweet and somptuous (picture on left)... The grapes are very small and almost orange in color, that's why this particular sub-variety of aligoté is called aligoté doré. Aubert de Villaine who has been doing selection work on this variety, has lots of it in Bouzeron, it's a qualitative branch of aligoté. De Villaine gave him 200 grafts because he'd like to see this variety grown elsewhere than in Bouzeron. He used these grafts to replace the missing vines in the old parcel.
All he needs is put the lid on the vat and brush the clusters on it so that the grapes fall easily in the vat. He will later press the grapes, maybe with Dominique's Vaslin from what I understood. He found this vertical press pictured a few pictures above down in the plain in Epaty (near Chagny), it will make a good job on the reds. I'm amazed that it is still possible to find vintage vertical presses in pristine condition in 2012, but here is a proof...The former owner who used it for a small private plot died recently and it was still used two years ago. The only renovation he made on this press was to put a new paint on the metal base. This press is fully manual, meaning it doesn't have the hydraulic lever system on the top but it's still very easy to maneuver, Julien says : you just have to begin the press in the morning after emptying the fermenter and from time to time you tighten the press one or two clicks on the pawl, getting your pressing done bit by bit this way. As we're speaking of pressing modes, Julien tells ma about Cécile Tremblay who uses a modern vertical press where she adapted a multi-layer system of trays so that the grape juice when pressed doesn't have to go through the skins and must, but goes out on the side, keeping some of its properties intact. I try to visualize the thing and it makes me think immediately to the vertical press for cider, and its piled bags full of crushed apples (see the pictures and videos on this story). This seems a very promising way to keep the juice pristine...
In this room, some of these wooden fermenters are his, some belong to Dominique Derain, thee's one big fermenter that Julien bought and another which was given to him by Dominique. He will use the small fermenter on the side to make his Maranges from grapes purchased to Jean-Yves Vantey (Domaine des Rouges Queues) who is making wine in Sampigny-les-Maranges (when I visited Julien, the harvest was to take place in one or 2 days). Julien will bring his crates and Jean-Yves' pickers will fill them. He's been working with this guy for years, making biodynamic preparations together and so on. The guy also works on a small surface but he recently got an additional vineyard surface and found himself with too much Maranges, that's why he could sell part of his grapes to Julien. Plus, it's a marvelous slope in a clos, it's "les Terres Blanches", a terroir thick with limestone, so he's very happy with this opportunity to work on such Maranges. The previous owner before Jean-Yves took over the parcel was not organic but he didn't used weedkillers and he plowed. It seems that in this world of organic growers making wines without corrections, there is a tradition of brotherhood and mutual exchange of grapes. Julien also says that it is always interesting for a vintner to see how a friend will work and what type of wine he will yields from a parcel he knows.
The fermenter on the picture on top contains the Bourgogne rouge 2012, it's the first open-top wooden fermenter he bought. These grapes were picked 2 & 3 days before (when I visited). He doesn't correct the temperature and doesn't add CO2. What he does to have more CO2 from the start is that he never puts 100 % of whole clusters : there's always a minimum of 10 % to 20 % of destemmed grapes (that's where the wicker lid is important) in the bottom, which will drown the rest of the grapes into CO2. Now, that's what he does now, but he's still open to variations in his practice, dictated by how the vintage is unfolding. This year for example, the substance is concentrated compared to the volume of the juice, the skins are rich and the grapes small, plus he had this new destemming lid which he was happy to use, so this year the destemming percentage was higher, like about 50. This Bourgogne rouge vat hasn't been foot-stomped yet, he doesn't feel the fermentation has reach the full-blown stage, so he checks it from time to time, it smells good and it's encouraging and only if after a few days it's looking as being starting too slowly, then he'll do something. It could be a remontage (pumping over) or a pigeage, he doesn't know yet, he looks and decides according to the inspiration.
Julien shows me then the fiber vat (pic on left) containing the Bourgogne blanc (the Chardonnay), it's the first time he has it ferment in a fiber vat, not in wood. The surface of the fermenting juice shows the activity of the wild yeasts. This chard has been in there for 10 days, Julien says that this year the fermentation is slow to start, and particularly on chardonnay, and his colleagues say the same. But the fermentation started at last. We taste the juice, it's beautifully onctuous, a delight. (pic on right). This chardonnay comes from several parcels, one he has on Puligny and from which he got the equivalent of one cask, and another volume of two casks that he got from Vincent Talmot at the limit of the Côtes Chalonnaise and the Maconnais, so this chard is an overall small volume. Finding Chardonnay around here, Julien says. was so difficult, growers don't let their parcels easily. Philippe Jambon who works near the Maconnais tipped him about the marvelous terroirs farmed by Vincent Talmot and he made a deal with him. His estate has always been organic, which is also a priceless advantage.
Julien also has a 30-are parcel to plant in the Puligny area and he will put some chardonnay there.
This said, he could opt for a table-wine label for certain atypical cuvées, like this maceration of old aligoté grapes which he is being testing for the first time.
We're walking to the cellar behind this cramped vat room, it is a traditional cellar with a vaulted ceiling covered with molds. His future facility a couple streets from here also has this type of cellar which was the norm when these vigneron houses were built. It will be a bit wider, there will be a higher ceiling too, and a door connecting the main cellar room to two other cellars nearby. He says it will be a very good work tool for him, with the vat room upstairs just above the cellar.
__The next cask we taste is a Saint-Aubin 1er Cru, it was picked 4 days before and it was entonné (put into casks) the following day. He will have 2 casks of this. The mouth is very different, not only because it's Chardonnay and not Aligoté, the parcel is on a slope. He likes the end of the mouth here, with something neat and mineral, and this acidity which comes forward. For me it's such an early stage that I have a hard time trying to foresee the future wine.
Julien says that he wanted initially to go to Auvergne make milk in his uncle's farm, when he was a teenager, but as he parents opposed the idea, he decided to overcome the obstacle by choosing the wine section in the agriculture school, knowing that when the studies would be completed, he'd be allowed legally to run whatever type of farm he wanted to, even a milk-cow farm. But these wine studies eventually caught on him, especially after the first harvests and training sessions, and his fate was sealed...
__The 3rd white, from another cask, is a Puligny. The nose yields lots of ripe-fruit notes, and I find it very elegant at this stage. the wine is less on the sugar, but it's a feel only, that's because of the acidity. The vines are 40 years old, located on a slope in Blagny, above the 1er Crus, just under the woods at the top. The slope is very draining, it's tough for the vines in summer. He has only one cask of this, and we pour the rest of our glass in the cask (we're doing that most of the time anyway).
Speaking of SO2, he doesn't add any on the incoming grapes, and for the rackings, it depends, he may add some if for example he is racking a white with relatively-high volatile. The objective is then to be at 8 or 10 of free SO2, and then there will be none added at bottling. He says that for sure he will never add SO2 at bottling because SO2 doesn't mix in the wine, that's why it has to be done long time ago, at a racking for example. He also tastes the wine samples that he brings home from his cellar, wines that are mostly devoid of added SO2, and as he's tasting the same bottle along several days, storing the bottle casually and without particular protection, it helps him determine if the wine is stable and can handle being let without SO2. If on the other hand the wine turns weird after a couple of days, or the next day, he will either decide it's not yet the time to bottle it, or he's take precautionary measures like SO2 adding at the racking.
I then went to his home in the village of Chagny in the plain en route to Beaune or Chalon for a sandwich before taking the road back to Paris. It was also the opportunity to taste a red, his Bourgogne rouge 2011. The food was a treat of terine, bread and cheese, some of them coming from auvergne. The real bread, whis was also gorgeous, is made by a woman who works at the Ferme la Gauloise in Dijon, she comes every week to make bread in Dominique Derain's traditional bread oven, so they get several of these great breads every week. And once the oven is still warm, they also cook dishes, terrines and other delicacies in there.
Dominique Derain has a friend who by the way revived the use of traditional bread ovens in Chaudeney : the village which has otherwise no other shop had 4 such stone ovens and he set up a non-profit group named Aux Fours Citoyens with the aim to get people use these bread ovens again. Every first weekend of the month, they make some fire in these ovens and ask people to bring anything they'd like to coo, a dish, terrine, bread or tart. He used to make some bread there himself but they're now so used by the village people that he has to do it on other days. Great initiative indeed...
I didn't take notes about the Bourgogne reds but enjoyed it more and more after the 15 or 30 minutes it had been opened, I had to resist drinking more because I had some distance on the roasd that afternoon... I brought back home a couple of bottles, so I'll add notes on this Bourgogne rouge. Pictured on right is an appealing delicacy that Julien wanted me to try but that I couldn't, it was time to leave. These tripoux which are an Aveyron delicacy made out of veal tripes and mutton looked like pebble stones and I know that if I had said yes I'd be there for another hour, pouring more wine to go with it...
50 % of Julien Altaber's Sextant wines are exported, to Japan first, (Oeno Connexion), then to Denmark (Pétillant), Canada (Quebec - Labelle Bouteille), the United States (New-York - Ten Bells), Italy (Caves de Pyrène), and soon the United Kingdom (Gergovie Wines - Harry Lester) and Australia (Living Wines).
In France, you can find his wines in Paris at Le Verre Volé, Kevin's Autour d'un Verre (he says he sold lots of wine at one of his tastings), le Garde Robe, also Le Tire Bouchon in Rennes.