I had heard for a while and on a few occasions that a young Japanese woman was making wine in the remote slopes of Auvergne on a very small surface, it's been whispered to me here and there, beginning with wine people met in Japan, and I couldn't resist tempting a visit and meet this winemaker. The weather was great when I visited and the terraced vineyard offered their nice side under the sun, I guess winter is more austere if very beautiful in its own way, but not an easy season on a motorbike. Here is another hard-working artisan winegrower who does her part to revive the age-old wine culture in this region (remind that Auvergne was the 3rd French wine region in terms of volume in the 19th century).
I met Mito in Champeix where she has her small cellar (she lives in Montaigut 3 km away) and if I was wondering before this day why she had come such a long way from Japan to settle in the region of Auvergne, I had aleady a better understanding when in the place : the region has these well-preserved villages and landscapes and she just felt like in a new home here. Plus of course, Auvergne has quite a few motivated artisan winemakers working the most traditional way and often without any sulfites, and there's a buzzing rebel scene among the remaining vineyards.
Let's start with the beginning : Mito first came to Paris in 2003 to learn French, and while there she came across many wine fairs as Paris is overwhelmed with wine salons (fairs) and dégustations (tastings), most of them almost free. That's how she began to make her wine education because when in Japan she didn't like wine much because of the headache when she had some. Later she'd understand that the excess of sulfites was why these headaches and she began to know better how wine was made. Once as she was beginning to be curious about the winemaking, she asked (this was 2004) to a vintner she had met about doing a training at his place, he was from Bergerac, but once there for her training during the harvest this was a shocking awakening : the winegrower was adding all kinds of additives during the winemaking process, she couldn't believe it and she wondered if this was what wine was about.
So she was tired of that and wanted to come back in France, which she did in 2007 with a working holiday visa, working a few months in Paris in restaurants and Valence. When in Paris she had met Pierre Beauger of Auvergne, she had discovered his wines back in 2005 (Champignon Magique, Potion Magique, she loved the wines) and since then she wanted to work with him and learn. She had a training there in 2008, after which she flew back to Japan and then took an other working visa in 2009 (Compétences et Talents) with which she could stay 3 years in a row, she then returned to work with Pierre in Auvergne. She went to work this time with lots of prime artisan vintners : Gilles Azzoni, Michel Augé, Christian Binner, Anne-Marie Lavaysse, Alain Castex, Clos Fantine, Axel Prüfer and others in Ardèche.
After all this experience and learning she thought it would be good for her to start make wine by herself, and for that she thought Auvergne would be the place of choice, so she came back here in 2011 ti vinify her first vintage. Of course it was arduous to find available parcels, as you may know, vineyards are scarce in this region where conventionally-farmed wheat and other crops now dominate. See this picture of Mito with Pierre (center) shot a month ago, I found it on this page featuring a gathering of rebel winemakers named Petites Rencontres autour des Vins Vivants.
On the picture above/right you can see a few grafts that she made herself and stores on the cellar stairs soaking in a bucket of water. This is a try with syrah and grenache but it's too late to plant now, usually she say's it has to be done by may, and now it's too dry. From what I understand she planted 38 such baby vines and it was quite tough to plant then using the pic to dig a hole.
Asked if she goes back to Japan regularly she says she hasn't gone there since 2010, she'd like to but she hasn't the time to, plus ideally she'd like to stay 3 months to have the time to enjoy the trip and see people. Maybe one day in winter after Les Dix Vins Cochons (the Auvergne tasting event where she drops each year), from early december to the following march.
Last year Mito lost much of her grapes because of the august hailstorm, like for Pierre Beauger, and that's why she made a single cask in 2013. Her vineyard surface is very small too, so even when frost or hailtsorms don't ruin her crop she still has a small production, her Gamay surface being 76 ares (0,76 hectare) and her newly acquired Pinot Blanc making a mere 10 ares. She works on the side for fruit growers (organic apples) to make a living, but this year the grower lost much because of hailstorms, so she doesn't know if she'll have work for the picking. She also works on Pierre Beauger's vineyard because he needs an aide.
To make things worse in 2013 the maturity was not good because it rained most of july and during the harvest, so her alcohol level is very low also
The wine is still "working", it is a bit turbid, with nice appealing light color. She had an analysis made in march and the malolactic was not completed yet. The wine was much more acidic than now, it changed for the better, she says with a laugh, feeling relieved by what she drinks today. Fruity notes, acidulous candy too. Sugar seems to be eaten by now, and it remains acidic, but not excessively for my taste, I like that. She says that a few months ago it was so more pronounced, she had people taste it at the Dix Vins Cochons 2013 (the Auvergne-most wine tasting event) and people had their eyes popping up asking, what's that ?!? they couldn't believe this was a red wine, it tasted so much like an acidic white.
But well, I feel she's somehow relieved that the wine had changed toward a more civilized route compared to a few months earlier. I ask how much alcool this makes, risking a 10, but she answers not even 10, it makes 9,24 % from the analysis. And she picked the grapes along two weeks to select the ripest clusters but it was not ripening and she ended up picking them all. This was from mid october to early november, she worked alone for the picking because there was so little fruit to pick. Otherwise she gets the help of another picker but this year she could do almost without.
At one point Mito puts her ear on the barrel, she checks if the gamay is still bubbling, and how strong. I'm amazed she can hear anything that way, I usually put my ear over the opening on the top for that. She topped up the barrel recently with a bottle where there was still residual sugar, so she wanted to see if it somehow "awakened" the wine into fermenting again. She didn't do it purposedly but it happened that she only had this juice to use for topping up.
The bottles are closed with crown caps (no corks here), like Pierre Beauger who began working this way long ago. the color of the gamay is light and vivid. On the nose, fruit coming out. A bit turbid, Mito says that she never racks the wine before bottling, she does it by gravity straight from the cask, no filtration no fining. She isn't using a sulphur wick when she empties a cask, she just coordinated the timing. She kept some of the previous cuvée, Mitologie 2011 in the bottom of the cask (actually wine with lees) and poured the following wine/juice on it (Plume 2012). She found it was sad to get rid of these lees and kept them in the bottom as a souvenir, a trace of Mitologie to be used by the next cuvée.
there's more substance compared to the 2013 which we tasted from the barrel, there were more grapes with more maturity. This makes 13 % in alcohol but feels 11,5 or 12. She's a bit annoyed by this 13 % but I feel that's fine. She pressed some of the grapes for a pied de cuve and she put whole-clustered grapes on the top in the vertical white vat. She didn't spray CO2 over the top, there's just grape juice here. Someone said to her it looked like a Poulsard, not Gamay, she says with a laugh.
The grapes were picked in october 2012, but part of the fruit was eaten by the wild boars coming down from the woods. Mito says that she pressed part of the grapes and kept the rest whole-clustered, putting the whole together in a vat to ferment/macerate, for a total volume of a single barrel that year also. This year she asked the hunters to do something about them because they're too many in this area for the crops. She's also put in place some protection against the birds, using nets along the woods as their take a toll on the grapes too.
Mito does all her vineyard work by hand, she has no tractor, using a pick to till, a backpack sprayer and a trimmer wire to cut the grass. This parcel makes 76 ares (0,76 hectare) and it was farmed a few years ago by Fred Gounan who stopped using it because it was much lower than his other vineyards and he had problems adapting the tools. The parcel is partly surrounded by woods and the setting is very nice and peaceful, but sometimes conventional wheat growers come near there with their big tractors and Mito says that more than once she just turned around to avoid the noise and sprayings, coming back at a more quiet time. Sometimes they even spray when the weather is dry and there's no need, once she stayed while the tractor was spraying nearby down the slope and she had a headache all night, so now she just turn around when she falls upon the machines heading for her small valley. She farms organic but she is not certified.
Asked if she'd take an additional surface if given the opportunity, she says yes, but if the vineyard is in good shape, and it has to be at a reasonable distance from Champeix or Montaigut, not 50 km away.
The inter-row width is particularly big, something like 2,5 meters and she had the good idea to plant different varieties of vegetables including Japanese ones. The problem is that there's no well or running water around here, so she has to keep some sort of water reserves which she brings occasionally with her car and leaves near the improvised vegetable garden. Whenever she comes here, she pours some water on the vegetables when it's dry. There are risks with the rabbits and other wild animals but she planted her kitchen crops far from the woods in hope they'll not come down there, plus there are plenty of delicious weeds for them all over the vineyard, especially that the whole block is chemical free.
This woman is marvelous, she tends a garden in the midst of her vineyard in a remote corner of a valley, almost like she learning to live in autarcy with the basic ingredients. I remember an iconic Japanese movie from 1960 directed by Kaneto Shindō, The Naked Island (music by Hikaru Hayashi), where a family struggles to keep their crop alive on a desert island, bringing heavy loads of water for that. Mito says that her grandfather who is a farmer in Kyushu near Kagoshima (with an active volcanoe, by the way...), and I'm sure that this comes out in her genes.
Mito then walks me to a next field next to the parcel, it's full of high weeds and looks like an overgrown prairie. There, she goes straight to a particular spot where year after year a particular herb grows on about the surface of two square meters, this is horsetail (Prêle in French), it works well too against fungi, and to stimulate the vines also. she says it's rare to find this plant in this configuration (it's usually along sreams or rivers) but for some reason it feels well there, this could mean that there's water at a relatively shallow depth underneath.
Elsewhere she shows me the large leaves of burdock (Bardane in French) which look like rhubarb, she says it works well against mildew, this year she managed not to spray Bordeaux mix (copper & sulfur) and relied on the herbs instead. She doesn't like the Bordeaux mix even though it's sanctioned in organic farming, and sometimes when her skin rubs leaves sprayed with Bordeaux mix she physically feels bad. She'll use the mix only when disease really threats.
This prairie is not sprayed with chemicals and she likes to explore it for plants. She points me another plant which she says is good to heal insect bites (bees, spiders and so on), you just rub the weed against the sore spot and it vanishes away. Then she shows me another which is edible but when picked at a younger stage.
I'm amazed, this knowledge of plants is gold, especially in France where herbalism is not as mainstream as in Germany. The French government edicted a law in 1941 to limit its use and it was never repealed (some say it was to promote the pharmaceutical industry). This all reminds the lawsuit by the French state and the seed industry against the non-profit Kokopelli for helping distribute seeds of ancient vegetable varieties, which ended up with Kokopelli being fined 35 000 €, and this under the pretext that these varieties were "unregistered in the official catalog of allowed seeds" (sic). We find here the same pattern to curtail real products and promote industrial groups, and the European Union follows exactly the same policy.
At one point Mito says she'd like to have hens on the vineyard, they'd find their food along the rows and leave their beneficial droppings, all the while providing eggs, but the problem is having a small coop here, a fenced shack to protect them from foxes and other predators, and having to be there in the morning and evening to open and close the door and pick the eggs...
She was to do the debudding soon after this visit, she also takes down a few leaves here and there by hand, so that there's a good ventilation through the foliage. There are not many clusters per vines, maybe two or three. The shoots don't go up too much, this is not Syrah, and she don't trim them, her philosophy is to as much as possible leave the vine live its life. Ealier in the year she put some manure at the foot of the vines when she tilled, in order to stimulate a bit this old vineyard. She has this vineyard since 2011 and she didn't use Bordeaux mix (copper-sulfur) in 2011, using whey instead, but it doesn't work here. She uses macerated nettles tea with also horsetail and burdock since 2012 (works well against mildew and black rot), in addition to some Bordeaux mix at low doses. On organic farming you're allowed to spray 3 kg per hectare/year and she used only 500 gr. She never had oidium, just a bit of mildew here.
She was given the use of this vineyard by a non-profit group, Les Pailhats de Courgoul, which is restoring ancient terraces (Pailhat means terrace in the local idiom) used in the past by local farmers. The terraces and their stone walls had been overgrown with bushes and trees after decades of neglect and the non-profit group was allowed by the park authority to bring these slopes back to their former life. They did it with hard manual work and planted this vineyard on a few of these terraces. Then they looked for a grower to take care of these vines and they found Mito, through Pierre Beauger who couldnt add this parcel to his own workload. The surface is very small : 10 ares (0,1 ha) with 400 vines (it's not been all planted) but this is still a hard work for Mito because she has to walk a long distance from the village carrying her tools, but she loves the place, it's so peaceful and beautiful, a dream of a vineyard. There will be more vines planted here this autumn and a few years will be needed for a normal harvest. The soil is thick with basalt, this is a volcanic area.
These vines have never been sprayed, either by the non-profit group or herself and until now thery seem healthy and fine. If she needs to spray she'd have to bring water up to this terrace and she doesn't want to, it'd be indeed a tough job. She may build a small shack one of these days under the sade of the trees along the terraces, if she is allowed to, the place is so peaceful you just want to sit and look at the valley, and then she could store a bit of rain water maybe.
The pinot blanc is split on 4 successive terraces, the other good thing with these terraces is that there's no frost here in spite of the altitude, the fros happening usually in the lower part of a valley. Hailstorm is rare too, she says, although she farms it since this june only. Like you can see the vines grow along a pole, on the échalas trellis system, it could have better been trained in goblet but the people who planted the vines didfn't know, and now it's a bit late to change the vine training, so she keeps the echalas. She is still wndering if she'll tie the shoots or not, last year some of the shoots that hadn't been attached to the pole gave more fruit than the others, so she still ponders the issue, she may keep both to see what yields the best result. Some vines seem very happy and one of them has 16 separate clusters, she'll have to tie this one otherwise with the weight it'll lay down.
There are a few vines of pinot noir too, maybe ten, they'll be vinified with the white.
The last terrace is very small and the pinot blanc was planted last spring.
In this video you will have a better understanding of why she really loves this vineyard, the long walk from the road is tempered by all these medicinal or aromatic herbs that she spots along the way, and the more you climb the better the view on the narrow valley and the village of Courgoul. This particular valley is named Gorges de Courgoul, gorges meaning canyon in French. The small river running along it is the Couze de Valbeleix. In the 19th century this valley was a busy road, sort of, connecting two regions.
Mito Inoue's wines can be found in Paris at the Cave des Papilles, Saturne, Vivant (she hasn't sold at Vivant lately though).
Her wines are exported to Sweden (Vin & Natur) and Denmark (Hvirvelvin - but not lately)