Saint-Père is a small village near Vezelay south of Auxerre with beautiful old houses (pic on right) and a bridge over the Cure river (pic on left). The Cure valley is in my opinion one the most beautiful and quietest regions of Burgundy and it is happily mostly under the tourist radar. Vezelay sits on the north-eastern edge of the Morvan mountain range, a remote and deeply wooded area of central Burgundy.
Vezelay is foremost known today for its abbey but the region has also been the cradle of the wine culture in Burgundy with of course the monks as the principal initiators of the trade. The wine and vineyard culture started with the Gallo-Romans and was further developped by the abbey of Vezelay, wine being at the time an exchangeable commodity. The landscape around here was for centuries dotted with planted parcels although there was no monoculture then, but winemaking was as relevant here then as in the Burgundy regions (Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits) now considered by wine amateurs as the sole roots of the wine tradition. This story is about the revitalizing of Vezelay's wine culture and about a man who was the principal actor in this rebirth.
Viticulture never recovered from the phylloxera in Vezelay, the Yonne region (we're here in the Yonne département) being the last French region to be struck by the vine plague. The down thing of being the last to have been afflicted is that instead of grafting Pinot, Chardonnay and Melon on American roots, the locals "benefited" (that proved to be a curse) from the frantic research led by the nurseries to release hybrids that allowed to promptly revive the economy and augment the yields. For the anecdote, the construction of the Paris metro (subway) in Paris created a big demand for cheap wine to satisfy the workers' needs and any wine made the deal. These hybrids were not only more productive but they were also more resistant to other diseases like mildew and oidium which happen to have started to be a real problem in the early 20th century. Locally, some growers even planted American vines right away, I mean, not American rootstock with grafted varieties atop of them, but whole American varieties which made terrible wines. Both experiments turned to be catastrophic in terms of quality and with on top of that the bloodshed of WWI which deprived all these villages of their male workforce, the viticulture dwindled rapidly in this part of Burgundy. The final blow (but most of you probably know all that already) was the creation of the PLM (for Paris-Lyon-Marseille) railway thanks to which the Languedoc and Algerian wines could reach Paris in big railroad tank cars (the excavation of the Metro tunnels reached a faster pace, then...).
Jean Montanet started to plant vineyards in 1986-1987 and before that he and his wife Catherine had a farm where they grew crops and raised sheep. His rented farm was a beautiful former leper colony dating from the 14th century and the owner, the Hospices de Vezelay took it back one day to make a golf course. As his wife's parents had vineyards in the area, he decided to work on the viticulture field instead of leaving for another region. He planted additional vineyards and helped found the coopérative in 1989 with a handful of other growers including Marc Meneau who was managing L'Espêrance, the gastronomic reference in the region. Jean Montanet was appointed as the president of this new coop, mostly because being an outsider (he is from Normandy originally), he was viewed as neutral in the local rivalries that you find in all farmlands. He stayed 15 years in the coop (15 years is the duration of the engagement when you join a coop). The Coop which is known under the name Cave Henry de Vezelay has now a total vineyard surface of 34 hectares and 11 members, most of its production being whites (Chardonnay and a bit of Melon de Bourgogne). But the initiative helped put the region on the wine map, as there were only table wines produced there before (see this picture on left, an old mural advertising dating probably from the 1950s').
Picture on right : main street in Saint Père
The early years of the coop were a challenge but thanks to Marc Meneau they got the help of Bernard Raveneau who came here from Chablis a few years to help make the coop's wines. Raveneau began to work here as a consultant in 1990 and when he left Régnard, the Chablis négoce where he was director, he came here for two full-time years, in 1993 and 1994 before going back to his family's Domaine Raveneau.
Jean Montanet says that Raveneau brought back the coops' growers back to earth, reminding them that wine was not made in the cellar but in the vineyard, and that an AOC label was not what made a good wine [the AOC Bourgogne Vezelay was to be created imminently, in 1998], and that every effort had to be concentrated in the vineyard. In short, he told them that as long they wouldn't work properly on their vineyard and soils, they would never have a chance to make good wines.
Jean Montanet got the message and loved this requirement of rigor in vineyard as well as in the vatroom. In addition to convincing the growers to change their mindset from high yields to smaller-but-better volumes, Bernard Raveneau had to find markets for these wines, which unlike Chablis hadn't buyers ready to buy blind whatever the quality. Jean Montanet says that Bernard Reveneau was a great help for the coop and for himself.
Picture on left : Notre Dame church near the Montanets' house and facility, in the village of Saint Père.
We walked to the cellar and began tasting a few wines from the barrels. The cellar has two large vaulted rooms full of casks, a very nice setting to taste, and as the winter until now isn't very cold, we could stand the ordeal...
__ Monthanet-Thoden 2012 cuvée Garance, from a small 132-liter barrel (feuillette). Pinot Noir, vinified whole-clustered. Should be bottled around july 2013. Some reduction notes with raspberry and rose petal notes. The mouth is refined, a bit sugary with a thin tannic substance. It's a blend of small parcels, we're explained by Valentin who joins us in the cellar. Valentin knows very well the vineyards and speaks at ease about the cuvées and the terroir properties.
Valentin says that after a few years of proper work on the vineyards they got a better substance in the wines, there was an obvious improvement since 1999, when the Domaine turned organic. The vineyards were conventionally sprayed between 1987 and 1997 and from 1999, they forced the roots to dig deeper.
Pic on right : the brick bread oven next to the cellar door
Finding available vineyards to rent was not easy, so he took what was available (the planted surface is not large here and the choice is limited). When he parted from the coop, he had 11 hectares of vineyards, in ownership or rented, and after that he got an additional 1,4 hectare. Recently he had to scramble to retake a surface that an organic grower decided to sell because he stopped his activity. The guy was among the rare growers not being member of the coop and he had trouble to sell his wines even though he farmed organic, that's why he threw in the towel; whatever Jean Montanet was OK to retake 5 of his 8 hectares but the coop tentatively maneuvered to prevent the deal (quite odd as they were themselves in a difficult to sell their own wines). The deal went through in spite of these hurdles and this was welcome because the Montanets and Thoden wines face a high demand. They may plant another 3 or 4 hectares and it will be fine. this is a long way since the first hectare that he planted in 1987...
Now, he has 13 hectares on his side and Catherine, Valentin and Tom Thoden manage 8 hectares on their side, making a total surface of 21 hectares (most being rented parcels).
__ Domaine de la Cadette, Champs Cadet 2012, also from a cask, but a large 400-liter demi-muid. Pinot noir with a color darker than usual. A bit perly, very nice fruit feel in the mouth. Generous nose too. Tobacco, B. says. In the mouth, more powerful feel with nice structure.
He kept vinifying with wild yeasts, something he already did at the coop for the upper cuvées, the grapes are of course hand picked, the white grapes go whole-clustered into the press without being sulfured and crushed beforehand (both things being important), and there's no chaptalization and no lab yeasts added. They only add SO2 if a malolactic fermentation lags with remaining sugars during the alcoholic fermentation, which happened by the way in the last two vintages, but the dose is one gram/hectoliter and it's very moderate. The olny SO2 addition apart from this exceptional one is before bottling because the wines will travel some distance to the end consumer. Jean says that for the wines that went through a year of élevage, the total SO2 amounts to about 50 and the free SO2 is between 20 and 25.
Jean says that his wines sell well in France and abroad and that they would need more wine, that's why he and his wife are also making some négoce wine (from purchased grapes). Some people in the coop think he went away with the coop's buyers, but it's rather the other way around, with the buyers knocking one after the other at his door because they wanted his wines and not anymore the coops' ones. This year for example the Domaine got only a half-volume of grapes compared to a normal year and Jean was happy retrospectively to have the négoce status to shift work on the purchased grapes. They can't source enough organic grapes on the négoce side and two cuvées are non-organic, a Bourgogne Blanc (white) and a table-wine Melon-de-Bourgogne.
__ La Cadette L'Ermitage 2012, from a 500-liter demi-muid. There is a bit of César with the pinot noir. I feel a sucrosity but there' no sugar left. The César was picked later and blended later with the pinot noir (there's 15% of it).
Asked about the number of cuvées on average, Jean Montanet says that for La Cadette there are La Chatelaine, Les Saulniers, La Piecette and the Melon. For La Soeur Cadette (the négoce), there are Vezelay Les Angelots, Bourgogne Blanc Les Angelots and Vin de Table Les Angelots, plus one white from Montanet Thoden, that makes 8 whites every year. In reds : La Cadette : L'Ermitage, Champ Cadet, plus the Garance of Montanet-Thoden, which makes a total of 3, and a total of 11 cuvées with the whites. This year 2012, there'll be an additional red from La Soeur Cadette (a Bourgogne Rouge Les Angelots).
Jean Montanet hasn't a favorable opinion about the regional appellation bodies, you know, the promotional agencies like the BIVB in Burgundy, which are financed through a tax euphemestically called in French "cosisation volontaire obligatoire (CVO) or "compulsory voluntary subscription". This tax is collected at the rate of 4 Euros per hectoliter of wine here in Burgundy, which makes 4000 € a year for 1000 ho, and that's a sum Jean would prefer spend to pay for his yearly trips to, say, the U.S. and Japan. The BIVB isn't of much use except to justify the autopromotion of these people living at the taxpayer expense. That is, to be frank, also the impression that I have regarding the action of these public entities, nobody really pays attention to their promotional campaigns either in the media or in the wine fairs, it's mostly empty words and slogans with flashy pictures.
At one point we asked Valentin, Jean Montanet's son, about his training. He's 26 and he joined the family Domaine two years ago, working with Montanet-Thoden, the separate estate set up by his mother Catherine and the Dutch associate Tom Thoden (the wines of both estates are actually worked the same way). He got his training at the Ecole d'Ingénieurs de Changin in Switzerland. This is quite a good wine school he says, even though it's a very technological philisophy, and they learn basic things from A to Z, like checking yourself different parameters in the wine, something the French schools don't bother to teach. There's also a good training on pedology (soil study) and microbiology (microscope analysis of the fermenting juice).
We began to ask who was the artist behind the beautiful labels of Domaine de la Cadette, he says it is Claude Stassart-Springer, a woman who also manages Les Editions de la Goulotte, a fine art publishing company dealing with linocut. I like her touch on the labels, there's something akin to Henri Matisse here.
__ Domaine de la Cadette, Melon 2011. 3600 bottles only for this cuvée. The Melon was the simple local wine in the past. Farmers like the melon because it's a strong, rustic variety and because it has good yields, they could count on it year after year. They grafted a vineyard in 1994 with woods taken from a 1924 parcel (the oldest parcel of the area). They have only a 30-are surface. 1994 is still young but since 3 years ago they're yielding more interesting wines.
__ Bourgogne Vezelay 2010, dubbed "Les Angelots " because of the two characters on the label's drawing. Purchased Melon grapes, vinified stainless-vats. Costs 12,5 €, like all whites here, price tax-included at the Domaine Light filtering (the wines never fully get clear in a stainless-steel vat), bottled in march 2011 (the first wines they sell). Lemon color. 2010 was a nice vintage in the Yonne. They have another cuvée of Melon made from non-organic (purchased) grapes and which is labelled as table wine. These whites get SO2 at bottling but the remaining sulfur is low. Good drinkability
__ Domaine de la Cadette, La Chatelaine 2011 (chardonnay). Label with a woman character. Made from 3 parcels side by side. Green reflections. Honey notes. In the mouth, refined and with minerality, friand. In general, Jean says that they vinify the parcels separately and makes the blends before bottling.
__ Domaine Montanet-Thoden, Bourgogne Vézelay Le Galerne 2011. Another white. Pale yellow color. In the mouth, light menthol notes. Fleshy wine, good substance.
Back to Les Saulniers 2008. The wine is more austere because of the terroir and its red clays. Nice structure, certainly a long-keep wine. B. likes it a lot.
__ Domaine de la Cadette, La Chatelaine 2009. Vinified in vats, like 90 % of the wines here. I shot this picture above before leaving, the vatroom is located in another building on the other side of the courtyard from the cellar.
Chewy wine, comes from lighter soils. 2009 was a hot year and they began that year to put whole-clustered grapes in the press. They made an important change between 2008 and 2009, Jean Montanet says : until 2008 they filled the press with a foulo-pompe (a combined crusher and pump) and in 2009 they began to fill the press with intact wholle-clustered grapes. He says that this was definitively a plus. This was thanks to the young Japanese woman (Kei Kimura) who was having her training at the winery and wanted to make this experiment for her wine-school thesis.
__ Domaine de la Cadette, La Chatelaine 2006. Another hot-summer year. Thanks a lot to Jean for opening this other vintage. Gold color. Even though it was a rich wine with about 14 ° in alcohol, there's still acidity and freshness in the wine. Ripe aromas here. Jean remembers that they should have picked two days earlier that year, he says that every year it's an important issue. I am ipressed of his memory, for example he remembers that in 2004 (his 1st independant harvest) the last harvest day was october 11.
A few reds now :
__ Montanet Thoden, Bourgogne Rouge Cuvée Garance 2011. Semi-carbonic maceration with whole-clustered grapes, a small part being destemmed so that the volume fits the vat size. No SO2 added on the incoming grapes. CO2 in the vat in the beginning. Dense color. Nice nose which make you want to try the mouth. They bought a former garage along the road which they turned into a favcility for the Domaine Montaney Thoden. They joke about what name they could give to the winery so that passing car stop : Chateau La Pompe, Chateau Total [Total is a major gas station chain in France] or Chateau Renault ? The cuvée Garance makes 70 hectoliters or 10 000 bottles. Cherry aromas. Stone dust. Refined wine with a neat end.
__ Domaine de la Cadette, Champs Cadet 2010. These reds get 3 grams of SO2 before bottling, which translates into less than 40 mg in total SO2, the free SO2 disappearing after a while. There's something I like in this wine compared to the previous. 2010 was a colder year, there's more acidity, Jean says, it's more chewy (croquant).
__ Domaine de La Cadette Bourgogne Rouge L'Ermitage 2006. Pinot noir (85 %) & César. A rare bottle, again thank you to the Montanets for opening this. The wine is cold from the cellar and we're warming the glass in our hands. I feel already notes of meat juice. Chocolate notes too, B. says. The wine seems a bit turbid, Catherine says that the filtering was very light that year. The wine makes only 11,5 ° in alcohol, another interesting thing at ther credit of this cuvée. Jean says that even though there was also a hot weather that year, the pinot noir didn't get heavy, the vines responded by blocking the process.
Speaking of the early vintages of the winery, Jean and Catherine recount how the Saulniers 2004 made their reputation in Paris, the guy at Le Baratin bought lots of it and it made a hit at the bar. Their early wines may have had defaults but they had passionnate followers. This was a time when people loved these faulty but vivid wines that had a story to tell when you swallowed them. I understand because I still like them too. Jean recounts how one day Didier Dagueneau was not shy to let him taste the faulty wines that he had made in the past, picking purposedly the bottles he'd not dare to make later in his life. Like everyone else he made tries and errors at the beginning and he was not ashamed to taste them restrospectively with his fellow vintners...
The wines of Domaine de la Cadette are imported in the U.S.A. (Kermit Lynch), Quebec (Oenopole - Aurelia Filion, Alex & Theo), Japan (oeno-Connexion and Racines), Belgium (Jacques Masi), Holland (De Loods, one of the associates being the son of Tom Thoden), Denmark (Pétillant - Jean ads with a self deprecating humor that his Melon is served at Noma, which is supposed to be the world's best restaurant), Sweden (Vin & Natur), Norway, Australia (Living Wines), the U.K (Caves de Pyrène), Switzerland (Le Passeur de Vin), Germany (Vins Vivants)