François Ecot makes wine in eastern Burgundy south of Auxerre and north of Vezelay. The Yonne département is one of these "minor" Burgundy regions that you must watch closely as a few inspired vintners have been doing a lot to prop up the quality of the wines, often through just hard work in a cluster of parcels that they purchased or replanted. This area was also a vibrant wine region in a former life, say a century or a century and a half ago. François has old family roots in the area, he now by the way lives in his grandfather's house in Mailly-le-Chateau, but he came back to his wine roots through an indirect landing : François is the French half of François & Jenny, a transatlantic wine import business which is dedicated to artisan wines made the most natural way from healthy vines and soils. He set up his small winery in parallel with the import operation and to this day he keeps managing the company with his former wife Jenny, helping select new vintners in France or Italy.
François had met Jenny Lefcourt (who is from New York) in 1991 when she visited France a few years ago and at that time Francois used to go drink interesting wines here and there in Paris, for example at Le Baratin which was among the first bars/restaurants to offer these types of vivid and often-unsulfured wines which were not yet framed under the term "natural wine". Life went its course and they got the idea to share these great wines that they had been enjoying in a string of selected venues in Paris and which were not well-known in New York at all (and not even in France by the way). After a couple of test tries when Jenny visited a few cavistes in New York, François quit his job of accordion tuner and they set up their import business, first with French-only natural wines, then adding wines sourced in Italy, Spain and even more recently in the U.S.A., all these wines being made through a philosophy of truth and artisanship. In short, they imported the wines they loved themselves, wines which were mostly unknown in New York then.
Pic on right : the house (Google street view). On left : the village church and square.
Picture above : François' resurrected vineyard, which goes down toward the valley along a 260-meter slope.
There are also a few vines of Abouriou, a local variety which has a long history around there, it makes dark, César-like, Grolleau-like, Cot-like grapes with peppery notes and with Gamay similarities too. He got the massal selections from Marc Pesnot in the Muscadet, who has a good pool of this variety and even makes a single-variety cuvée from it. François Ecot hasn't much of Labouriou in his rows and he usually puts the grapes atop the vat holding the gamay with the pinot.
Last but not the last, he has some pineau d'aunis which are massal selections from Christian Chaussard in the Coteaux du Loir (Loire).
His pinot noir are alas not massal selections, but clones, and they ripe too early and the wasps tend to make a feast of them because of that.
He also has some Gamay, they are massal selections made by the Fornerot nursery in Saint Aubin.
The soil under here is sort of Oxfordian, François Ecot says, clay/limestone (the limestone part being obvious) with a shallow depth going from 15 centimeters to 30, and beneath it you find coral-reef tables, remnants of the sea bed that stood all over here. This geology is older then Irancy and Chablis, which are sedimentations atop of coral reefs. The part of the vineyard where stones surface the most may be the part with the thinnest soil, the meager earth having been flushed further down the slope along the centuries.
Of course François doesn't use weedkillers and he tries to limit the sprayings to 3 a year. First, he uses a brouette à traiter (a carry sprayer) which makes a more precise job than a tractor and with smaller doses. And actually he has not a high didease pressure here, in 2012 he lost a big volume due to the drought. He sprays 4 times, with less than 1,5 kg/hectare of copper (even in 2012, he sprayed only 4 times). He always begins with sprayings at low doses, like 150 grams, going up int the worse case at 500 gr or 600 gr per spraying, but he is rarely at more than a kilogram in total at the end. As fertilizer, he uses foliage-based decoctions that he mixes with his sulfur spraying.
He also uses migou or sheep manure to revigorate his soils, a natural fertilizer which can still be found in certain places. He met Eric Pfifferling who is among the vintners he admires the most and he learnt about this manure which can be found in the Massif Central.
This year (in 2012), the worst event was this heat wave in august when you had 35 °C during the night during 15 consecutive days (and 50 ° C on the vineyard during the day). It was from august 10 to 25 and it shocked the vines and the grapes.
He can bypass the bureaucracy reluctance to give him plantation rights by buying rights from farmers or owners who gave up making wine or tending their vineyards, that's the way he found the rights for his parcel, but it's a long research and negotiation and it's quite absurd that in this part of Burgundy that would benefit from the revitalizing of a qualitative wine production, there's no understanding of this common-sense issue.
The vatroom is a former stone barn, with large wooden beams and a wide access door.
He vinifies in a large wooden tronconic vat and also in several large open plastic vats that are stored outside and which look like the rain-water containers that I'm using in the Loire. Claude Courtois showed him how to use this type of plastic open vats for the macerations/fermentations. He plans to put a concrete slab or flat stones for a larger terrace with a roof over so that he can work both inside and outside. He'd like to have also an appartment or separate living quarters above the chai to accommodate visitors.
Before opening a couple of bottles, François dissects what was so weird in this harsh 2012 weather. He says that when this heat wave hit the region around august 10, it wiped out the humidity almost instantly : there's no water reserves on his slope because the earth layer is so thin, compared for example to Chablis where there's 2 meters of clays which keep a good reserve of water for the vines in case of prolonged heat. Here within two days the moisture in the ground was gone with only 15 to 30 centimeters of soil. On the lower slope the situation was better and the gamay there suffered less, but they're grafted on 5BB rootstock which are well adapted for these shallow soils. He says that in place where the mildew pressure had been high, the vineyard was beautiful, while in places where there hadn't been mildew, the vines were more advanced and faded. It's like if the vines had decided to get rid of their grapes and cut the supplies, the grapes looked as if it was november, dessicated and dead (see the picture on the side above). Usually, the microclimate in Mailly is a blessing : the wind goes north to Chablis and it is attracted by the granitic mass of the Morvan and it just turns around Mailly without harming it. The rain and hailstorm also often doesn't go beyond Les Raboulins, a strategic hill with woods west of the village, it's like if the village with the Cure river had a protective wall from the elements. There has always been a drought problem in Mailly because of this microclimate and that's why people had water reserves for ages under their houses.
__ François Ecot Pinot Beurrot 2011 with a bit of Gamay. From a large-volume cask, a (new) demi-muids. There's a pepper side in this wine. Some raspberry notes too. Very enjoyable wine with candy feel. Supple wine with light bitterness at the end. Labelled as table wine. He doesn't print on the label that it's pinot beurrot but in 2010 when he made the cuvée L'Insolent he wrote on the label about the 6 varieties in there.
The grapes are picked by hand in 15-kilogram crates, he starts like a carbonic maceration with whole-clustered grapes, either in the Grenier wooden vat or in the large plastic open vats stored outside. He doesn't add any SO2 on the grapes, this would be nonsense to do that when you make a carbonic maceration. The pinot beurrot usually goes into one of the plastic vats now stored outside. He saturates the vat with CO2 and lets the whole thing macerate until it begins to warm up by itself, checking from time to time with the hand deep inside how the hot and colder zones interact. The particularity of the pinot beurrot is that its stems stay always green, even when very ripe, so this can at times translate into green aromas, but he doesn't want to destem because in that case if you liberate the juice early you loose the fruit side of the carbonic maceration. He doesn't even check the density because there are no taps on his open vats, and after a while the temperature whole thing rises and then the attachment of the stems with the grapes begin to ease and he takkes the stems off like that, one by one and by hand, leaving the grapes by themselves. The whole thing lasts 3 wxeeks, after which he recovers the juice through a dripping. He fills his press (pictured on right) with the pinot beurrot and completes the filling with other grapes, so that he knows that the first juice that will go out of the press is pinot beurrot's, although there is also pinot noir and gamay in there. By the taste, he says, you recognize here the pinot beurrot, the resulting wine bears the marks of the variety.
When he needs to rack from a cask to another (or to a vat), he does that with air pressure, "pushing" the wine through the lower opening, he learnt that from Pacalet. Using this pump-less mode, he could rack this pinot beurrot without SO2 adding and he's very happy about that because thanks to that he avoids the heavy, reductive side in winter. He looks for wines which have a story top tell, which have aromas and their own "music". This wine we're tasting never came in contact with any sulfites, and there'll be none at bottling. His goal is to not even use a sulfur wick when racking these demi-muids, he'll probably keep the pinot beurrot there until september, just in time to entonner the 2013 juice in its place. The empty casks in the bottom of the cellar have been méchés sur lies, which means he left the lees in there and burnt a big sulfur wick (5 grams) inside, leaving the cask closed, in the way winegrowers do in the Beaujolais. Then when he needs the cask, he opens it, he checks if everything is fine, cleans it with high-pressure water and fills it again with water to make it tight.
__ The other 500-liter Stockinger demi-muids : pinot noir and gamay. Here the tannins are more obvious, but partly because the wine in the glass is cold, plus he says that the moon may play a role. François makes a mini-blend by adding wine from a 3rd, smaller (450l) demi-muids (not a Stockinger), because that's what the final blend/cuvée will be. The resulting wine has prominent raspberry notes, interesting. More supple, more velvety, here is a wine which yields lots of pleasure after you warm your glass. In another mini-blend, he adds a bit of pinot beurrot and he says that it does a good job, adding a menthol note to the wine. He'll keep a small batch of pinot beurrot (probably in magnums) for the diehard fanatics (like me) who love having these now-rare varieties bottled separately (my advice is, register early if you want some...), but most of the pinot beurrot will be blended.
__ François Ecot, Seconde Nature, red vin de France 2011. Gamay (majority), Abouriou, César. Bottled september 2012 (900 bottles in all). Darker color. Appealing nose, I don't know if opening the bottle in advance counts but the wine definitely opened itself. In the mouth B. and I recognize the gamay but there's obviously something different with the abouriou and the César, something like liquorice in the taste.
B. ads about the bitterness at the end of the mouth, and François says that this appeared when the climate change became obvious, around 2003 or 2005 on hot years, that's what Eric Pffferling says that The grapes lost some malic acid and gained some bitterness. The aromatic range has been sliding from the pear, apple to the arbutus fruit like you find in the south for example in Alain Castex's wines. A wine is foremost the result of a place and of a vintage and the indigenous yeasts render that well. This said, he says that it is possible and allowed to partly blend several vintages, although most wine amateurs aren't aware of it, it is in line with a long tradition and he does it occasionally.
François awakened to the large-size barrels when he visited with Jenny the Domaine de l'Abbaye du Petit Quincy in Epineuil (north-east from here). The winemaker there was fond of using large-volume casks because his parents had used these containers for their vin de pays. He doesn't plan to change his demi-muids even if they get older, and he'd like to have or two larger, oval casks making 1500 liters each (of the type you see in Alsace) in the bottom of his vatroom, but they are expensive when new (at Stockinger and Grenier). He has contacts in Alsace or in the Jura to find second-hand ones at a good price. You can also find very affordable such oval casks if you look in German-speaking Switzerland.
François makes from 1200 to 3000 bottles every year, sometimes less if the weather conditions are difficult. He basically never added sulfites except maybe a couple of times when he added 1 or 2 grams in a single cask because it seems to veer astray, but this 228-liter volume would be blended at the end into a 2000-liter volume, so it's as if his wine never saw SO2.
François first pours us a glass of white wine, a try of his, with a nice golden color. It spent time in the Stockinger barrel. It had camomile notes like crazy he says, but the minerality side should come out, you need to wait one year and a half. There's an oxidative side with also exotic notes, B. says.
__ Montebruno 2010, Oregon Pinot Noir. One of their finds for the Jenny & François business. Made by someone named Joe Pedicini who grew up in New Jersey and came to Oregon to make wine from purchased grapes. In 2010 the guy worked without SO2. Nice wine, easy drinking. Citrus notes, tobacco also, says François. Fresh wine too. We taste also another cuvée from this vintner, a more serious wine, one you need to eat with.
__Then we have a glass of his cuvée L'Insolent, vin de France 2011. This red is a blend of 6 varieties : pinot noir, gamay, pinot beurot, abouriou, césar and pineau d'aunis (Union de six cépages de la vigne à la quille). 12 ° in alcohol. The wine has a bit of reduction of the nose, which eases up after time. The drinkability is good, the wine is a bit perly, it a thirst wine with an easy swallowing, without second thoughts. François sells his wines for 7 Euro without tax, and for less to the individual buyers who come to the winery.
What François appreciates in a wine is when you can drink it with the certitude that you'll not be knocked down after a few glasses. One of the reasons he was excited to work with people making wine without SO2 was that their wines didn't smash you like conventional wines often do. Around here he says, he remembers that when they had wine with friends years ago, they were smashed by the wine after a while, after just 3 glasses : it was like if your brain was frozen still by the stuff. Plus, when they make wine on kimmeridgian soil like in Irancy, not really ideal red-wine soil, it gives the wine a nervous, unpleasant side which makes it harder to digest. SO2 addings don't help of course, he says, and also sugar (chaptalization) which is routine around here. He jokes that you shorten your life by drinking this stuff on a daily basis, it ruins you, you can feel it after a couple of glasses. I think that it's an important point, we all had these supposedly-trusty appellation wines which are often not only boring but downright tiring, I mean you physically feel exhausted and joyless after a couple of glasses when you're normally expecting the opposite from a wine.
François recounts me when he was scouring the wine fairs like the one of the Porte de Versailles in Paris. He befriended then Jean-Christophe Piquet-Boisson, who is a famous wine broker in France, and thanks to his intuition he discovered several real artisan vintners who had interesting wines in their back room (not always the ones they were selling on the market). He says that the trick is to get to know the people you feel are doing a good job, and there's a chance that when visiting them you stumble on a cuvée which is even better than the wines you already tasted at their stand.
François Ecot's wines can be found in Paris in restaurants like Le Grand 8, La Pulperia, at Autour D'Un Verre, at Chateaubrian, Aux Deux Amis, Le Bistral, Les Fines Gueules, L'Agapé. He also sells to cavistes like Au Nouveau Nez (two shops), La Cave des Papilles.
His wines are exported to the U.K (Aubert & Mascoli).
Watch Aurelia tasting and commenting François Ecot's wine in Quebec