There are grape varieties for which I have tenderness, like the Pineau d'Aunis or the Menu Pineau for example; these varieties that had well adapted to the Loire climate and terroirs over the course of several centuries but they were suddenly written off by the wine administration a few decades ago in their push to develop "noble" varieties like Sauvignon or Chardonnay, this, in order to "compete" with other more prestigious wine regions of the Loire. For this reason, the cultivated surface of these varieties has dwindled and a few parcels remain here and there.
When I called
Christophe Foucher the other day he told me he was about to do some routine work in his parcels,
beginning with his menu pineau, and I told him I'd love to see his parcel and what kind of spring work he'd do there.
I had written a story on La Lunotte a few years ago, where Christophe Foucher is managing a small wine farm with about 5 hectares of vineyards on the southern bank of the Cher river, near Couffy, a village east of Saint-Aignan in the Loir et Cher département. I often meet Christophe on the market place in Saint Aignan when I'm in the region for weekends (I also stumble on Catherine of Clos Roche Blanche as well as on Noella Morantin there....) and it's always a pleasure to chat about how things are going. Christophe is focused on doing the right thing on the vineyard management, which is entirely organic, and his cellar work is very simple in the sense that there is almost none except waiting.
Asked about when menu pineau was still easy to find around here, Christophe says that 30 years ago probably it was still a variety easy to find along the Cher river, then the winegrowers were encouraged by the conseillers viticoles and the Chambre d'Agriculture to uproot these low-yields old vineyards of menu pineau and plant sauvignon (high-yield) clones for the négoce and bulk-wine market, because at the time most of the wine here went this way. These clones were short lived because much more prone to diseases and, take the high fertilizers use and the rest, these sauvignon were often ripe for uprooting after a mere 30 years of intensive work. The odd thing, Christophe says, is that the winegrowers were encouraged to uproot well-adapted old vines and plant in their place high-yield clones that don't stand the test of time, and it is sad because the varieties written off by these wine authorities were also the Gascon, the Grolleau, possibly even some Romorantin although he is not sure this variety was common on this side of the Cher river, but whatever, these varieties had their own, recognized qualities.
I had come to Christophe's winery with my vintage Citroën because there was some episodes of rain, and we then drove in his car to his parcels. There, we saw first his parcel of Gamay de Bouze, a "teinturier" Gamay which was used in the past for its dark color because it was blended with light-colored wines. These are old vines, from 70 to 80 years old which he initially planned to uproot but eventually decided to keep. He decided to keep the parcel with grass like you can see on the picture because lots of vines are missing, mostly because of the tractor coming too close when plowing, so he decided to stop plowing (décavaillonnage) and just mow the grass to keep it in check. He makes rosé with this parcel, a vivid, bright-raspberry type of wine. He says that he doesn't do the same work on each parcel, he adapts his farming with the particularity of the parcel, and here, given the number of missing vines, he chose to bypass the plowing.
I notice the moderate size of these vines in regard of their old age, but Christophe says that for a long time they were farmed the old way, plowed with a draft horse and if chemically farmed for a few years they went through this ordeal quite well after Christophe took them over and reinstated them in a non-chemical farming management.
The Menu Pineau parcel is just in the background, you can spot the parcel with the bare earth as he plows this adjoining parcel.
Christophe says that when you work with an artisan mindset, there's a limit in the surface of vineyards you can handle properly, 5 hectares is a good size because there's a natural balance between the size and an organic farming with lots of patient care in the parcels. With such a surface he can work alone of with one or two aides and do the things without being hurried and risking neglecting the vineyard management.
Same for the volume of wine : when you have to vinify hundreds of hectoliters at a time you can't have the same care, there's a scale parameter that changes things, even if you're working organic. And most wineries with a big surface won't take the risk of long élevages of non-corrected wines, they need quicker returns and the risk if a batch failed would be costly. Plus if you have a large surface with an organic farming it means that you have lots of farm employees and the pressure to sell the wines on time is bigger, making it unlikely that you let a large cuvée take its time, like it happens now and then with wild-yeat fermentation and when you don't use additives like enzymes to speed the whole vinification.
Christophe says that the Menu Pineau is a very interesting variety, with well-balanced yields, plus it's disease resistant, the vine wood is much less prone to get esca or other associated diseases than Sauvignon. He says that if he has a few missing vines it's mostly because of the tractor taking away a vine by mistake when plowing, not because of an epidemic of esca. The variety of course can get affected by mildew but in a lighter way than other varieties. He also likes the types of juices he gets with menu pineau, all in delicacy and minerality, with less sugar than sauvignon, this way you can get ripe grapes still in the range of 12-12,5 or 13 % maximum, compared to sauvignon which often soars at 15 % or 16 % when ripe, on sunny vintages, and you can't pick it earlier because it's not ripe. That's why he likes the Menu Pineau, for its ability to offer the right thing without heaviness and excessive alcohol.
On this video, Christophe shows how he will do the épamprage in a couple of weeks (the stage of the foliage is too early now). Epamprage means the suckering of young shoots, when you have to take down the undesired shoots all around the vinestock and the branches. This way you channel the energy of the plant in the right direction, from what I understand.
Christophe told me also that he loves this parcel of old vines of menu pineau, he spent lots of time with them, they're well shaped, they have been well managed along their life span, and they have a life expression which he likes, they're nice and blooming.
He shows how suckering unfolds, looking first where the pruning was done this winter, which "poussiers he kept on this vine when he pruned. He'll keep the shoots growing out of the poussiers and will take down by hand (no tool) the shoots growing on the old wood elsewhere on the vinestock. there are also double buds which start from the same spot, and they usually keep the better-looking of the two and take down the other. He says that it's not good to do that too early because you might take down buds that could have been good ones. Thanks to all these leaves that you thin out, you bring also more air through the foliage, which takes the humidity out and the sun in. He considers this work as important as pruning, and the two are related. And you can't wait too much to do the suckering because the young shoots will harden and will not be able to that with your bare hands, you'll need secateurs and 10 more times. In two weeks from now when he'll begin the épamprage, he'll need a month to do it on his 5 hectares.
He also checks the oblical end post which is firmly anchored in the ground by the bride, a guide wire made of twisted cable and which is very important to keep the whole row tight and stable. When the small anchor post holding the guide wire at the end of the row is either rotten or uprooted by the tractor, it jeopardizes the stability of the whole row. Read this detailed page (in English) about anchored end post in a vineyard. very interesting analysis.
When a post isn't fit anymore for the job, he takes it out and lays it against the row so that he can spot it easily later, when he'll do a second pass with the replacement posts.
Last year, Christophe says that he had his harvest volume cut in half because of the vintage conditions. Asked if that means that this year will have more yields in compensation, he says that it could be, there's an old saying about a year with low fruit volume being followed by a year with generous load, but it's not a written law, and for example 2012 & 2013 were both low-yield years, so he hopes that his vineyards will be more generous in 2014. There are still weeks during which many things can happen, the frost seems to be over as a danger but the flowering will still be a pivotal stage and nothing can be certain until then.
The parcel is more windy. Christophe says that he plows every other row here, and he mows the grass on the other one. This is also the only parcel which he prunes à la baguette and not à poussier like his other parcels : he leaves a long shoot where the grapes will hang.
Many of the barrels in the cellar are empty both because the wines have been bottled and shipped and the volumes made in 2013 were particularly low, after 2012 were the volume was almost nil. The barrels are relatively old, something like 8 to 10 wines, he says he isn't looking into bringing wood character into the wines. He protects the empty barrels with sulfur wicking after washing them and rinsing them. He says that hygiene is very important on the barrels to avoid molds and other accidents in the empty barrels. Before using the barrels again he washes them again with hot water and another SO2. He also uses a big red resin vats for the harvest, to rack the juice. He uses other fiber vats for the maceration, several of the vats are hanging high above to allow gravity filling of the bottles. He often bottles in may or june but it depends of the years, the 2013 should wait later, like june or july 2014 and for the whites even later because they're taking their time.
__ La Lunotte sauvignon 2013. The first wine we tasted that day was precisely the massal-selection sauvignon which we had seen last. Turbid wine, yellow. The nose has some sauvignon character but also an intense, acidulous side, like certain old-time candies (like the Berlingot de Carpentras, I would say). Lemon aromas too, a bit of residual sugar waiting to be transformed.
Christophe says that this wine started its fermentation quicky at the beginning (on its wild yeast of course like all the wines here) but it stalled somehow during the winter, making a pause, and it only now begins to show some activity, adding that the malolactic may have not started yet. Most 2013 whites will take there time, he says. He had once a sauvignon taking a year and a half to ferment, and even if he'd prefer to avoid such a delay, the result back then was very beautiful, he likes the slow fermentations, the problem being here to wait to sell the bottles, but from I understand it takes what it takes and if needed, he'll wait.
Christophe optimist of the qualities of his 2013 whites, beyond this delay in the fermentations, the juices are pure and there's a good balance, he says. He will probably make a single cuvée of all these whites (except the menu pineau) for this vintage, given the low volumes.
What is nice with these sauvignons, Christophe says, is that at the end the alcohol level will be 12 % or 12,5 % maximum, when sauvignon usually jumps easily to 14 or 15 %. These wines will remain fresh, easy to drink and delicate also. tHat's what he noticed for many years.
__ La Lunotte sauvignon Les Rossignoux 2013, made from older vines with another character. The Rossignoux parcel makes 2 hectares. Turbid, clear yellow wine. Aromas of ananas and other exotic fruit, still with a good natural acidity which Christophe says will be making a good balance in the wine at the end. He likes the wines with a strong acidity component, not the soft, linear ones, even if this means they're trenchant, incisive. Asked if to get this type of wine he has to pick at a certain time, he says no, he just tastes the grapes and when he likes it, he picks. He says that the overall character of these wines with this strong acidity is rooted in the terroir of these vineyards, the climate and everything. Even in parcel which he picks at 14 or 15 % on certain years, there's this acidity in the juices that keep the wine afloat, and he loves that. He says that this chai plays also a large role in the way these wines become and show : In the early years when he set up his wine farm this double-room chai was "new", meaning he had whitewashed the walls with slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and it took a few years before the yeast or mold population settled on the walls and in the ground, then the wild-yeast vinification was easier. He says that this life activity is utmost important, he takes care not to disrupt this ambiance and apart from taking away spiderwebs from time to time, he doesn't wash these walls. He adds that it's the same thing when you do cheese refining (long élevage in cool cellars), you don't do that in sterile rooms, same when you make raw-milk cheese, the best are made in rooms covered with indigenous microbian life. Christophe says that considering the norms that are hammered all around on the food production, authorities might as well require one day the wine farms to have sterile chais and fermenting rooms...
__ La Lunotte Menu Pineau 2013. Only one cask this year when usually he can have 5 or 6. There will be a tight competition for the buyers and exporters. He still has enough wine on the side to do the topping of the cask. This will be the cuvée Le Haut Plessis.Tastes very good, with an energy of its own, a sharpness which I like at this stage, it's very pure and droit too. The nose is more discreet, more like white flowers maybe.
The wine is not turbid, I notice, but Christophe says that is the problem, the alcohol fermentation is over and the sugar transformed but the wine hasn't started its malolactic yet, and he'd like it to take this step otherwise he might have to wait after the harvest. Malolactic is good for stability and bringing some ropundness, because without it the wine can be a bit dry and shap, but until now along all these years his wines always made their malolactic one day or another, so he's confident. The problem here is the wait. He may put a bit of another juice in the barrel to jumpstart the malolactic, he'll see.
__ La Lunotte, Cabernet Franc 2013, from a cask too. Made with destemmed grapes. There's a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon too, a few rows. Darker color. Inspiring nose with pepper and other things, I almost feel like I can discern the tannin on the nose, some sort of thin texture, maybe just an impression. Nice, fresh mouth, tannins are discreet. Christophe says that a better maturity would have helped. He destemmed because the stems of cabernet franc bring green, herbacious notes which he prefers not to have. Overall, considering the young stage of this wine, I'd say it tastes well already. This wine not be filtered or fined, no wine here is ever filtered or fined.
He feels more and more that you can have good results in the region with cabernet franc even if the variety is not the favorite around here. 90 % of his own red production is cabernet actually, gamay is just a small proportion. He has two regular-size casks of this wine, or half the volume of a normal vintage. The cuvée is named La Flou, from the nickname of the woman who owned this parcel in the past
__ La Lunotte Sauvignon 2011. It was in casks before during more than 12 months and actually he never felt it good enough for bottling. The fiber-glass vat is full, safe with a floating lid, there is 20 hectoliters of the wine. He just waits for the feel that it's now ready. He feels as of today that it lacks in acidity and has a higher feel in alcohol. Otherwise the wine is technically finished, there's no sugar and the malolactic is completed. Compared to the other 2011 including another Sauvignon, he never felt the magic, the balance he likes in his other wines, he considers this sauvignon as a bit heavy and lacking refinenes so he decided to just let time pass. In the mouth the alcohol is more forward indeed, you don't get the sharpness and freshness, I see what he means, you'll not drink the bottle as easily as the other ones. There's an oxidative side coming up now and he waits to see if it still can change for the better. On the other hand, it could be a winter wine, for a season when the higher alcohol could pass, and this said, compared to what is on the market in terms of alcohol and heaviness, I think that Christophe is a bit tough in his judgement and restraint.
Today, Christophe exports between half and two-thirds of his wine abroad, beginning with the United Stated today (Chambers Street Wines / David Lillie as well as Percy Selections Joshua and Keith Eubank), then Japan (Oenoconnexion / Mr Ito), Denmark since recently (Rosforth & Rosforth), Belgium (True Great Wines Laurent Melotte). He used to sell in the U.K. but hasn't sold there recently. His total his maybe 15 000 bottles, peaking at 20 000 bottles on exceptional years so it isn't very difficult to sell.