Welcome to the western-most region of the Loire, the Muscadet, where the only variety listed in the appellation area is the Melon de Bourgogne, a variety originating from Burgundy but now found mostly in the Muscadet. The white wine has been considered for years as a minor light wine fit to go with sea food, but a few vignerons have made a difference in a region plagued by mass production, first by keeping working on their soils, then by selecting particular terroirs of the Muscadet. Marc Ollivier of La Pépière is one of them.
After the difficult vintage of 2012 with yields much lower than usual because of the bad season that year, the growers are looking forward for what 2013 has in store for them. Until now all we can say is that the vegetation growth is late in much of France because of a relatively cold spring with covered skies. The vineyard needs also higher temeratures and more sunshine to grow leaves, and because there has been more rain than needed, it has on the other hand encouraged the weeds and also delayed the plowing to get rid of these weeds, because the ground was too soft and muddy to allow the use of tractors. Any long-enough lull between the rainy days is thus exploited to do these important tasks of cutting the weeds' roots, and I witnessed this routine spring operation at Marc Ollivier's La Pépière in the Muscadet.
Before we dropped at la Pépière, we had time to look around and to be frank the impression was quite appalling. Here above is the vineyard that we could look upon from the bed & breakfast, a vineyard probably owned by the people who managed this place as the farm was also a family winery. Much of the vineyards of Muscadet belong to this category, which I'll call of the grilled-grass type. The ground is cement hard and never plowed, and after years of weedkillers spraying there is virtually no life in there.
Note the obvious difference between the appearance of couple of inter-rows on the left and the ones in the center and right, the ones on the left being alive with weeds (and worms and other insects when you dig a bit) while the rest is worryingly flat and dead still. Growers with minsets still rooted in the 1970s' consider yet these vineyards with dead soils as "clean" (propres), and they are very proud of their job.
A 3rd variant of dead soil is the one I'll call the golf-course one (I'll post a picture in a later story) : the grower leaves a neat lawn-like strip in the middle of the row (sometimes every other row depending of the degree of "progressive" mindset I suppose)) and the grower concentrates all his weedkillers sprayings under the vine. The result is just the same for the udersoil but this way he feels like he's almost organic...
I don't know what is the rate of uprootings in the region but we fell upon several occurences where you could see piles of dead vines ot tractors hauling them to an unknown destination (pic on right, shot right near la Pépière). These vines may not be that old by the way, a heavy chemical use diminishing their life span and sometimes growers just replace the vineyard because the yields are not high enough.
All this uprooting has a lot to do with subsidies (named primes à l'arrachage for the uprooting), which play a large role in the conventional agriculture. I'm not familiar with this aspect of the vineyard growing (another typically-French labyrinthine system) but according to this document (in French) the grower in the Muscadet gets 1000 € per hectare to uproot a vineyard and an additional 8000 € to replant it. The money comes from a French administration body named France Agri Mer. I wonder how the economic situation of the growers can really improve if all this taxpayer's money is funelled to conventional agriculture without questioning the vineyard management. But, again, I'm not in the trade, just asking a simple (and probably naive) question....
The Muscadet like much of the Loire had lower volumes of grapes in 2012 due to adverse weather conditions, and this, for both conventional and organic growers. This article (in French) found in La Vigne, a wine-business magazine, estimated in september 2012 that the harvest volume would be 30 % less than in 2011. By the way, look at the picture on this article and you understand that in summer you can't fully appreciate how the soil is dead-soaked with weedkillers, compared with early spring.Of course, the wine mainstream media won't publish these pictures anyway. This article gives an important information about the bulk price in 2011 for generic AOC Muscadet (obviously made for example from the couple of dead-soil plots pictured above) : 60 € per hectoliter, which makes 60 cents per liter or about 50 cents per 75 cl...
The writer of the article ends his topic with a suggestion that the trade increases its volumes with yet a price light increase for the growers "without frightening the consumers", but I suggest that they just do the opposite : go see the vineyards behind these rock-bottom prices and maybe (after all I'm not in the trade...) work a little more in the vineyards : the wine is made in the vineyard and when the vineyard is alive the end of the story is that the buyers fight each other to grab the wines and not all the way around.
You can see on the picture the two blades which cut the ground under the grass, and also the two metal rods that play the role of sensors : when they hit a vine, the blade tilts abruptly on the side, coming back as quickly as soon as it passed the vine.
One of the staff, a young guy working at the winery is in charge of the biodynamic sprayings. They use also dandelion (pissenlit) but one of the challenges is that for a surface of about 40 hectares they need lots of herbs each time. The herb-tea preparations are sprayed on all of their vineyards but the heart of the biodynamic preparations, the 500 and the 500P are only used only on half of the surface. The herb tea is usually mixed with the mildew treatment.
2012 is an interesting vintage because in spite of weather problems the quality is quite good.
__ La Pépière generic cuvée 2012. From a fiber vat with grapes growing on the Clisson-granite area. There has been a bottling made from this wine (last march) already and we're tasting the second part, not bottled yet. Quite rich. 2012 is a year with concentration, Marc says, the season problems with the flower left fewer clusters on the vines and there was more concentration with lots of sugar and also acidity, the average potential alcohol at the picking being around 12,7. This is an excellent vintage, he says, adding it's too bad there's so little of it. The wine is delicious indeed. Speaking of the yields which were particularly low in 2012, he says he made 23 hectoliters/hectare on average (instead of 45 on a normal vintage). On the cuvée domaine (generic), they could compensate the downfall by purchasing some grapes, but the Clos des Briords which had a usual volume of 30 000 bottles will make only 16 000 in 2012.
__ La Pépière, generic cuvée too, but from a cement vat (will be blended with the other one). Made from grapes grown on the chateau-Thébaud granite area. The generic cuvée here is usually a blend from the Clisson and Chateau-Thébaud granite areas. It is turbid, because they recently stirred it. Here he decided to make a batonnage because the wine was very closed but usually they do stirring only for longer-élevage wines, like Clisson or Chateau Thébaud. The first vat is more expressive and aromatic and this one will bring the structure in the blend, the first for the nose and the second for the mouth, he sums up.
__ La Pépière, cuvée domaine (generic cuvée), bottle from the first bottling (march 2012). That's nice. Speaking od 2012 compared to 2011 he says that 2011 was very difficult with lots of rot and sorting. The 2 vintages resulted in low volumes but the problem with 2011 was the rot, while in 2012 the surviving grapes were very nice. And the quality of the 2011 wines is well below the 2009, 2010 and 2012. No crus communaux for the 2011, no Clisson, no Chateau Thébaud, it went all to the generic cuvée (sold out now). They tried to vinify one vat of Clisson but it's not good enough to justify a separate bottling, The cuvée Domaine 2011 cost about 5,65 € retail. so it ends up in the generic cuvéé like the rest.
They use pumps to blend the vats in a large cement vat hanging above, and after resting there, the wine is bottled by gravity (see the picture on the left with the 2 cement vats used for gravity bottling).
__ La Pépière, Clos des Briords 2012. Bottled a month ago. Very floral and intensely mineral. Buyers will have their quota reduced because of the lower production in 2012. Marc jokes that at the winery they're the only ones who will keep drinking this wine without restriction... The 2011 costs something like 6,6 € retail (tax included).
__ La Pépière, Gras Moutons 2011. From the gneiss soils. Because of the more austere mineral terroir they make a longer élevage for Gras Moutons and this was bottled in october and relased on the market in the beginning of 2012. On usual vintages the production is between 15 & 20 000 bottles. Speaking of SO2, they add some in winter, not during a racking because they don't rack the wines, but to prevent the malolactic fermentation to start. The reduce the temperature of the wine during one month, and after that when the wine reaches backs 10 ° C, they do the SO2 adding.
__ La Pépière, Gras Moutons 2012. Marc says that the wine has now a small bitterness in the end of the mouth and that it will be really great beginning in about 6 months. I like that already as is, nice wine. The soil is gneiss with lots of clay. The vines start later on this terroir (a week later) because the soil is heavier (because of the clay) and stays cold longer. He has a 2-hectare surface on Gras Moutons. Among these 2 hectares they have a parcel on "Monnière Saint Fiacre" which is a cru communal, so they could make a separate cuvée from it. They hope to add this new cru communal cuvée this next vintage (2013).
__ La Pépière, Clisson 2010, bottled november 2012.Old vines, like 45 to 100 years, sometimes they use only the vines from 50 to 100 or 120 years. 13,4 ° in alcohol, like 2009, but more acidity than in 2009, Marc says. Nice velvety feel in the mouth, very nice. 2-year élevage. A longer élevage would not be good because it would make the wine too rich for a Muscadet.
__ La Pépière, Chateau Thébaud 2009. 30 month élevage, bottled in june 2012. The élevage in the bottles afterwards is inpoprtant too, it allows the wine to recover from the earth filtration.
The style of Chateau Thébaud is a wine with more freshness and vividness, Marc says. The wine is fresh in the mouth indeed.
__ La Pépière, Chateau Thébaud 2010. Sample taken a couple months ago from a vat. It should be bottled in 2 or 3 months, they're waiting it to open a bit. For me that sounds strange it's already very good the way it tastes now.
__ La Pépière, cuvée "3" 2009. A new cuvée, made once in 2005 and then in 2009. "3" because 3-year élevage on lees. They make this cuvée when both the vintage is good and when they have volumes large enough. This is a blend of two parcels of Chateau Thebaud and one parcel of Clisson, the whole with a longer élevage. It's isn't labelled cru communal because it's a blend of 2 crus communaux. in 2010 they're working on the cuvée but might tempt a 4-year élevage, they don't know yet. Very aromatic wine indeed.
__ La Pépière, La Pépie, Côt 2012. We're tasting the reds of la Pépière, which are among my favorite reds of the Loire valley, if little now and paradoxal in that region. As Marc leaves for a few minutes, Gwenaelle does the pouring and explanation of the wines. She is a wine passionate who recently joined the winery after a career in another field and she will become an associate in the winery, so at the end there will be 3 associates at La Pépière, Marc Ollivier, Remi Branger (the present associate whom you can see along Marc on the winery website) and Gwanaelle. This allows Marc to gradually have more time for himself. The weather was nice in august with cold nights and there was a nice maturity for the whites but because of the water they had less maturity and structure compared to other vintages.
__ La Pépière, La Pépie, Cabernet Franc 2012. Lighter color of course. I like this one. The reds of La Pépière are unfiltered and have about 10 mg SO2 total. There may be sediments in the bottle, Marc (who came back) warns.
__ La Pépière, Cuvée "3" 2010, from an underground vat at Remi Branger's family farm. The white made through 3 years of élevage (maybe for for this vintage). The wine is far from being ready now, says Marc.
__ La Pépière, Cuvée Granit 2012, from a cask (also at Remi Granger's chai). This is another iconic cuvée of La Pépière for me, if not a typical one for Muscadet. It is made from Merlot, Cabernet franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Côt, the Franc making 50% of the whole. Beautiful nose and very enjoyable mouth, easy swallow. Costs something like 6,6 € retail. For the reds they didn't go through shrinking volumes like they did for the Melon de Bourgogne. The blossoming happened when the weather was relatively nice and id they indeed picked a bit less for the reds, it was compensated by young vines that were joining production. It will be bottled in a few weeks or a month. This wine, like the Clos des Briords is available usually for 2 months and after that it's sold out. I understand that...
Marc says that he used to make traditional-methode sparkling (Champagne style) for some 10 years but it was not interesting much his export market (he exports most of his produvction). Now he makes natural sparkling (méthode ancestrale) because there a deep interest for these wines and also this winemaking fits better to their philosophy. They began making these 2 years ago. Most natural sparkling, 'pet'nats are made by small, artisan wineries.
La Pépière winery website