Thomas Pico started working on 2,5 hectares in 2005 and 2006 in the vicinity of Courgis on the edge of the Chablis Appellation, an area with maybe more woods and landscape diversity than much of the rest of this wine area. Thomas decided to farm organic unlike his father who was himself a winegrower here, and he ended up convincing his father (who had 22 hectares then) to make the U turn to organic viticulture in 2007 (the family domaine was certified in 2010). In his early years he was keeping a day job as an empoyee at his father's domaine while setting up his own wine farm. Year after year Thomas Pico grew his surface step by step, getting (mostly through rents) parcels from his relatives or acquaintances and reaching 6 ha in 2006, 8 ha in 2012 and 10 ha in 2013. At the end of this year he'll take over 5 hectates from his father, making a total of 15 hectares in total. Having started his winery separately from his father's own allowed him to farm organic unfettered on his (at the beginning) small surface and learn the different aspects of the trade like hand picking and long élevage.
Courgis is a small village east of Auxerre and 6 km south of Chablis (the Google map oddly displays "Laroche Sa" in the place of Chablis). Courgis is also home to a small artisan winery that shines well beyond the borders : Alice & Olivier De Moor, and Thomas knows them well of course, which must have played a role in his turning to organic farming. There are still 15 winegrowers in Courgis but only two sell their wines in bottles, the rest selling to the négoce or to the big regional coopérative (which is some sort of négoce in its own kind).
I visited on april 1st (fool day) and Thomas had just discovered that he went around unaware that he had a beautifully-drawn fish on his back, the work of his young (and talented) young daughter...
Right now Thomas is in the process of transferring his tools and vats in his soon-to-be finished (hopefully by next june) own facility which he is currently setting up alongside the family winery, with a striking view over the vineyard-planted slope on the other side of the steep valley (Courgis sits atop a hill).
Before 2009 he kept his casks in the middle of the vatroom here, which is too dry for a barrel cellar, and Since 2009 Thomas Pico had his cask cellar a few kilomerers from there in Chablis, under his parent's house, but he needed to commute the wine back and forth and the new cask cellar will be housed right underneath the new building so that he can work by gravity and in a single location. Chablis is a mere 6 km from Courgis but running the narrow road is not the best thing for his wines and for himself when he could have his juice and wine begin their life under a single roof. When he planned the new buildings he didn't first think to the cellar but it became obvious that he'd need to have one here one day and although it meant more debt he decided to go for it and have a large volume of earth taken away with this cool-temperature cellar in mind. The floor will remain dirt so that there will be a good natural humidity to go with the cool temperature and bask naturally the casks with the right atmosphere.
His luck, Thomas says, was that this winter was very mild, a dream for builders, and also quite dry these last weeks while the construction site gets busy, which is another welcome coincidence. The most perfect projects can be easily ruined by just untimed rains and bad weather, even in 2014.
There are a few cellar rooms connected between each other.
Thomas Pico has still some 85 barrels in there and he will transfer them to the new cellar when the facility will be completed in the next few months, in the cooler months of fall maybe. He is not too afraid of the wines having their élevage in a new place, virgin of yeast and bacteria, he says that the wild yeast are on the skins anyway and they will travel to the new cellar with the barrels. I guess the new cellar would soon build its own bacterian life from the interaction of the earth, the humidity and the yeast & molds. The new cellar surface will be 150 square meters, not that big but it should be OK, especially if he puts casks atop other casks (it's 3-meter high).
Down the stairs in the chablis cellar there is a line of Stockinger tons or demi-muids, he chose these big-capacity barrels because he keeps the fruity side of the wine. He says also that the staves got a light toast that fits well the kind of wines he wants to make. Asked about the drying of the wood at Stockinger, Thomas says that yes, they do it a particular way even if doesn't know the details. I come increasingly across Stockinger barrels during my visits and I think there are good reasons behind that. I heard also that their wood had a very thin and tight texture.
When he have moved all his casks to the new cellar, he'll use this cellar to stock and keep bottles in the right conditions.
Thomas keeps the history of his wines in this cellar but the problem is that his parents live above and when his father needs a bottle he doesn't really pay attention if the bottle he just grabbed is one of his own or one of his son, and Thomas jokes that if this trend continues he'll have no bottle reserve anymore here...
The bottle Thomas Pico
picks on the picture above is a Chablis 2009, a pretty old vintage for his domaine which was barely older, and we drank it afterwards. the wine has a gentle, smooth touch in the mouth. He says that the picking was later and laster later in the season, and the wine has a noticeable freshness. Thomas says that Chardonnay is a variety that benefits from the tertiary aromas of yielded by the malolactic. He says that this wine has evolved and has lots to say today. It was bottled with 20 mg of free SO2, much of it having probably vanished. Since 2008 he is filtering the Chablis Villages, using a light filtration with white earth, the reason being that this cuvée is vinified in stainless-steel vats and you dont get clear wines in vats like you can get with barrels after a long élevage.
His Chablis 1er Cru are not filtered because he always gets a good sedimentation after 18 months, especially that the wine is not moved or stirred. He doesn't see batonnage or stirring favorably because it makes the wines too rich, plus, when he did it while working for other wineries he clearly felt that this mechanical action was like forcing something onto the wine, he disliked it, almost instinctly. He feels the same visual repulsion when he see the grapes being violently picked by a combine, it's so much violent compared to hand picking.
No need to say that when you drive through the vineyards, the ones that are farmed organic are the exception, it's herbicide and fertlizers country if I can judge with a quick check on the vineyards out there. Driving on a dirt road with Thomas' small all-terrain vehicule, we reach a second parcel of his : Chablis Butteaux 1er Cru. Here again, lots of yellow plastic hoses. The parcel has been plowed recently by Thomas' father, the last time being this morning. Thomas says that because there was no frost this winter (the winter was very mild), the clods resulting from the first plowing remain compact and they have to make another pass to try to break them into pieces. The baby vines here (also massal selections) have been planted in 2012 and they're still so small, I understand that he needs to wait 5 or 6 years to get a real-size vine... On this small parcel here, which makes 80 ares, they replanted 1300 or 1400 vines, that's a lot. The vineyard otherwise is about 30 years old here.
This particular parcel which is a Chablis 1er Cru lies at the limit with generic Chablis terroirs, and the soils are indeed different as well as the exposition. You can watch on this video on the left as we drive between these different Chablis appellations, not easy to guess for the unsuspecting visitor. You can see also that there are a few wooded parcels and a few remaining fruit trees near the vineyard, the ones in the vineyards having been uprooted I guess when the growers began to use tractors.
In spite of her young age (she is 28 but looks much younger) she is a very reliable worker and Thomas is very pleased with her work and skills, shas has been working for him and his father for nearly 6 years (she doesn't work for another grower). Thomas says that for him it's obvious, women do a much more precise and careful job in the vineyard. He trusts her completely and she organizes her work alone as soon as he tell her what needs to be done. She is a mother of two if I remember and doing this freelance service jobs leaves her time when she needs some. She does (in French) the taille (pruning), palissage (wire tying)) and effeuillage(leafing) for example, and 5 hecates fills well her time..
What Mélaning is doing today is épluchage in French, it's some sort of pruning (not the same than the one made in the middle of winter), it means cutting the last buds which are growing more than they should because of what is called the acrotony, and by cutting down the last two buds on each shoot you slow down the budding in these warmer-than-usual early spring, limiting the damage risk if a spring frost occurs. Frost is the feared thing this year as winter has been so mild, if the vine grows leaves to early it could translate into catastrophic losses if a severe frost then occured.
As we were speaking of Mélanie who is doing this vineyard-service job for Thomas and his father and who lives herself in the village of Courgis, Thomas says that at one point, he and his father employed 4 people who were also leaving in the village, making them the 1st employer in this village... There are maybe 15 winegrowers in Courgis, most selling their grapes to the négoce or the Coopérative. Again, only three wineries sell all their wine in bottle here, Alice & Olivier De Moor, Thomas Pico and his father, otherwise there are two domaines who sell a part of their production in bottles and the rest in bulk to the négoce. Here you can sell to the coop and sell bottles in parallel, something which is not allowed in some other wine regions.
At one point during that day Thomas Pico received at the domaine a visiting class from the CFPPA de la Brosse (known as La Brosse), the agriculture school from Auxerre, the large city nearby west of the Chablis area. These students (video above) are adults who took a side option on organic agriculture and viticulture. They were led by their teacher Sophie Dusseau who is very active in the school and heads the organic section there. The teacher as well as the students asked Thomas about what it means to be an organic farmer and what the challenges are excactly. These students will either tempt their luck later on setting up a farm, or they just need the agriculture-school diploma which is an entry pass in France to open certain types of farm-related businesses. They still obviously are interested into the organic work. Thomas explains about the conversion time needed when you convert a conventional farm, then he explains that organic farming needs more work and more precision in the vineyard if you want to have something to pick; he corrects the sentence by saying thart contrary to what many people believe, you can make a sieable production under an organic farming, it's not always super-low yields. And another side of the challenge is finding the market for whatver organic product you make.
Speaking of the MSA, Thomas told me later that recently the farms that are registered as businesses under the EURL rules with both a physical and a moral owner (a French registration type of business ownership) saw a big tax hike. They had their compulsory MSA (health/retirement insurance) tax doubled following a change of calculation mode by the French administration (instigated by the government) and taking place this january 2014. In other words, the authorities didn't create a new tax in this case, they just found a trick to double the amount of the existing tax, but the change is very heavy for the farms that didn't see it coming. Thomas is lucky to be registered in a type of EURL that isn't affected by the change.
Thomas warns the students about the fact that they'll need to really get an added value on their product, especially with the usual modest surfaces managed by organic farms or wineries.
Thomas also said to the students that from his own experience you were almost a marginal back in 2007 when you were doing organic agriculture, but nowadays it has become almost mainstream, people are almost looked at bizarrely if they don't buy organic food. The context has changed a lot in this regard in just a few years.
Asked by the students about what to do to avoid using additives for the winemaking, Thomas says that first, to be able to handle things properly you need to have vines that are not over-vigorous otherwise you can't manage the vinification especially on difficult years. It means that he is reasonable about the manure on the vineyard, spreading about the equivalent of 15 to 20 notrogen units per year. He doesn' make this manure himself, he buys this organic compost. What is also important is to have a grass-less vineyard until the flowering and then let grass grow until the picking, because the grass, as long as it is kept in check and doesn't grow too high is the best tool against rot, it will also drain the water and make a competition pressure on the vine.
It is interesting to remind that today only 6 % of the vineyards in Chablis are farmed organic, and while I looked around on this dry day I could see indeed lots of straddle tractors doing their spraying work. Ans speaking of nitrogen, I noticed while walking alone in the area tiny white-blue balls (maybe 5 to 7 mm in diameter) on the grass road (picture on left), there was a long line of these odd things on the middle of the track, like if a tractor or vehicule had lost them in the way to a parcel. I picked one between my fingers and showed it to Thomas, and he said that this was precisely nitrogen balls used to fertilize the vineyard. And remember that when you increase the vigor with fertilizers you are likely to also counterbalance the imbalances in the wine with a related reliance on winemaking additives. I am amazed about how much I learn when I wander in the vineyards in april, this is the right season to check the vineyards...
Asked by a student about copper in the vineyard, Thomas Pico says that it is important to know the difference between copper sulfate, an hydroxide, a Copper Gluconate, the action is slightly different and depending how you use them and when you use them, you can have a synergy. There are also some very lightly-dosed copper preparations that are doing a very good job. On the opposite you have some copper hydroxides that are very agressive, and just by opening the packs you can feel it, he says, it jumps at your face that it's hard chemicals, and even though this product is also certified organic, he doesn't buy it anymore.
__ Pattes Loup Chablis Villages 2012, 100 % stainless-steel vat. Bottled early march 2013, it had one year élevage in bottles. Nice richness.
__ Pattes Loup Chablis 1er Cru Côte de Jouan 2012, also known as Landes et Verjus. the nose hints at the élevage in casks for this cuvée, but no new casks, Thomas says. I tasted the wine a second time at the end and loved it.
__ Pattes Loup Chablis 1er Cru Vaillons 2012. Thomas has been buying the grapes to a friend since 2012, Lilian Duplessis. He bought enough to make the equivalent of 6,5 hectoliters, he purchased the whole yield of this parcel. He picked the grapes himself on his friend's 25-are parcel and pressed here in Courgis. This is his first purchase of grapes and the parcel is currently in the process of being certified organic (will be effective for the vintage 2013). He will buy these grapes every year normally, being interested in a long run relationship when purchasing grapes. This friend sells wine in bottle but also wine in bulk to the négoce, like often in the region. He is doing a very good job in the vineyard and Thomas is happy to buy his grapes.
Nice wine, with a silk-paper touch in the mouth, Goes down well, no spit.
By the way, a couple hours earlier, Thomas told me an interesting opinion regarding minerality or rather what many people put behind this gustative term, as we hear often comments refeing to the minerality of the wines [beginning with my own]. Thomas says that in his mind, some people mistake minerality with sub-maturity or an excess of sulfites. While you can feel the rock in certain wines, the term minerality is applied to wines that in his own feel don't show it. He adds that tasting is a personal experience, and the drinkability, the ability of a wine to be swallowed easily, is nor enough appreciated by itself. I can't agree more...
__ Pattes Loup Chablis 1er Cru Butteaux 2012. This cuvée was vinified in new casks, Thomas says that it was not planned but when he realized that instead of spreading the new casks over all the cuvées he had left them on the side and at the end he had only these casks for Butteaux. But there's enough structure in this wine to handle the challenge and the result is good.
Asked about his wholesale price (without tax) for these cuvées, Thomas says that they cost between 9,5 € to 15,5 €. For individual buyers at the Domaine : 15,5 € to 25 €.
Asked about the weather for the vintage 2013, Thomas says that they picked only 28 hectoliters per hectare in spite of having had no frost and no hailstorm damage, but the flowering went bad plus a bit of sort at the end of the picking, with thin skins that facilitated the rot, they had to sort this out. They hope to get a good harvest in 2014, and they're looking closely the temperature (which is fair these days), as the fros danger remains high until may 10th. Most of his parcels as well as the ones of his father are on a higher altitude, which is good to avoid frost, but for example on the 24 hectares he and his father have in total, there are 4 hectares that are more prone to suffer from frost (the down side is that 3,5 of these 4 hectares are his...). Asked if historically they had lossed with frost, Thomas says that in 2003 his father lost much with frost, people only speak about the heat wave of 2003 but there was also a hash frost here. Otherwise 2007 was a year with big losses from hailstorms.
Thomas Pico sells his wines half in France, half abroad (in 28 countries).