The Vignoble de l'Arbre Blanc is another of these small-size wineries that make the otherwise-little-known Auvergne shine on the map as a wine region. Frédéric Gounan works on a small surface (less than 2 hectares) of vineyards in a region that was a century or two ago a major wine producer (many bars in Paris were opened by Auvergne people who dealed the wines of their region.
Let's rewind back to the time, you can you read on the Wikipedia page about the Côtes D'Auvergne that in the 19th century, the département of Puy-de-Dôme was the 3rd in France for its wine production : 1 600 000 liters from 50 000 hectares (only Languedoc's départements of Aude and Hérault made more). Much of it I guess was hauled to the Paris region on barges using the canal de Briare. The vineyard surface in the area is now down to 1000 hectares, half being farmed by commercial wineries and the rest by private owners for family consumption.
A visitor driving through the side roads of Auvergne can't but marvel at the beauty of its villages. Avoid Clermont-Ferrand which is an ugly oversized metropolis with endless suburbs, shopping malls and lots of commuters in their cars clogging the freeways. This urban center owes in part its dynamism to Michelin which has its headquarters and facilities here. But take any village at an adequate cushion of distance from town and you will be rewarded by the beauty of these remote valleys and their villages. Apart from clusters of new homes built outside of certain villages, they're pretty well preserved. Remember that this region in the 19th century and before was known as being very poor and hard working, the Auvergnats hadn't an easy life a century or two ago, but watch this architecture and imagine the 1,6 million liters of wine produced back then, man, they sure had some good life...
But although he quit the motorcycle company, Frédéric Gounan remains a mechanic at heart (we'll see it helps for the vineyard management too) and these days he's working on fixing a Lotus 7, a car famously displayed on the trailer of the classic British TV series "The Prisoner"in the 1960s'. He's revamping the whole car (he had an accident with it), modifying the engine and other things in the way, I am sure that like me you consider these skills as out of your reach, but he's navigating in these matters like we routinely type on a computer keyboard.
The tool on the left (partly hidden by stuff he put atop) is another one showin his engineering skills, he welded disks on the side to plow under the rows, complete with the swinging stick to get around the vine and not uproot it. But there's more : forget the risky esthetics, the blue container with hose and electric wires is a compost-pellets sprinkler in full operating mode. The blue barrel had hoses coming out toward the ground and an ingenious system powered by a wiper motor salvaged from a car opens a small trap at regular intervals (you adjust the wiper motor for that purpose) and drops the compost all the while you plow between the rows. I tell Frédéric that he could work part-time with a manufacturer of agricultural machinery and be paid for his ideas. He says that later he found out that a similar tool existed on the market but it was very expensive when this DIY inventiveness cost him nothing.
Frédéric plans in the near future to improve this barn, first with pouring a concrete slab and then by closing it with a wall on the side so that he can do some winery work and vatting there.
Asked about the weather these past months, Frédéric Gounan says that there was no winter, the temperatures were unusually mild, and he had to prune earlier because the sap was pushing for an early budding. Then cold settled and things didn't move for some time, which as a result was a boost for the caterpillars that feed on young buds (when the bud grows instead of stalling, the time window for these caterpillars is much smaller). He sprayed once just after the storms not long ago.
Right now Frédéric farms 1,6 hectare of vineyards in total. Some time ago he had up to 2,3 hectares but he downsized because part of the vineyard was too low and he hadn't the right tools for that, forcing him to do all the work bent on the vines. He has the chance to have local family roots, so he may have opportunities to get access to a couple of additional parcels if he wants to.
Frédéric Gounan planted this large block divided in two by a grass road, this is family-owned land. He chose the trellis system because he considered that the fioliage surface counts a lot with a larger light penetration, in short, this delivers a better photosynthesis. There's no documented use of this trellis system in the region but he chose it because it is pertinent.
Speaking of yields with this system, he says he tries to get 30-35 hectoliters/hectare. The other advantage is to get a good air ventilation, plus the slope is always windy because of the hill and valley (we're walking on another former volcanoe, the puy de Saint-Sandoux). The soil is thick with volcanic stones, particularly basalt. Sometimes an enormous rock resurfaces for some reason and it breaks the plow.
Sometimes he jokes with visitors saying that the name of the domaine comes from this tree (arbre blanc means white tree) because it's covered with white flowers in spring. The less-glamorous truth is that the name derives from the wine farm's address, rue [street] de l'Arbre Blanc. This is also the name of a lieu-dit near the village, now built upon with new constructions. They found documents from the Napoleon era stating that his ancestor at the time, a rebel-minded who enlisted served years in Napoleon's armies in foreign adventures, received for his time the agricultural land on this lieu-dit of L'Arbre Blanc, so somehow he deserves the name even if the legal reason he uses it is the street name.
He planted the first vines in lyre in 2000 and the rest of the parcel a few years later. This is all Pinot Noir, on both sides of the grass road, with a total surface of 1,1 hectare on this slope.
Frédéric says that when he planted these vines with the lyre trellising system beginning in 2000 he did it in sort of being able to keep using the small tractor he had then (a Massey Fergusson). Then he was convinced at the time that there was a deficit in sunny days in the region and thus it was good to optimize the photosynthesis and the foliage surface, the idea of using the lyre system grew in his mind and he liked the prospect. there was a lot of work on this slope, uprooting the orchard, taking out the bushes and rocks. There an old saying here about these slopes, it goes like "there's a stone growing between two rocks" (entre deux pierres, il y a un caillou qui pousse), it speaks length about the rocky nature under the ground surface... These rocks often break the tools, the plows.
At the beginning he didn't plow this vineyard, letting the weeds root, but he soon realized that the competition with the grass cover was having a toll on the vividness of the vines, they seemed tired and painstakingly struggling, so since 2 or 3 years he began to do some plowing, bringing in the way some compost to help it. the idea in the mid-term is to get weeds that he partly chooses, like using some that can manage natural nitrogen and having the vines get their nutrients just through their environment and not sprayed compost. The plowing anyway is only under the row, not between the rows.
Speaking of the soil (he graps some earth in his hands) he told recently to a guy he knows and who is doing phyto consultancy, he told him to compare two handfuls of earth, one from the conventional wheat field down the slope and one from this vineyard [Frédéric hasn't seen "Natural Resistance" by Nossiter but he sounds like] and compare life with death, it's obvious just with your nose. The guy was stunned by the difference between two parcels close to each other.
Frédéric checks the foliage and he notices that they have to pass again in the vineyard to bring the shoots in line in the wires so that the air circulates feerly between the two arms of the lyre. The inside of the V must remain void and the breeze must pass throught it as well as the sun beams.
Speaking of the conventional wheat fields nearby he had once a problem with a grower who had spoiled a couple of rows of his parcel with 2,4 D (a hormon-based herbicide), he had to have an expert look into the issue and the conventional grower understood that he could loose this case as it was easy to prove the contamination. The guy changed his sprayings since, letting some grass grow, opting for lesser agressive herbicides.
These two separate parcels (the whites and the pinot noi) are harvested with a group of friends over the length of a weekend, like last year the pinot noir (1,1 hecare) on saturday and the white (0,5 hectare) on sunday. His total surface could be augmented one day, he took control of 25 ares above the pinot noir that could be planted with vines, but right now he is content with his 1,6 hectare.
Asked about the weather and vintage in 2013 he says that this was a crazy season : on october 15 it was catastrophic, he had to call back his friends to push back the picking from oct 20 to at leat a week later, it was all with bad rot, relentless rains, extreme acidity and astringency and this all turned around beween oct 15 and oct 27. That's when an unexpected phenomemon occured, some sort of indian summer with a southern wind that locals name Tsulèdre and it lasts usually 10 or 15 days and it cured all the wrongs : grapes that were o oc 15 with barely 10 % potential and and awful acidity and astringency reached 15 days later 15 % poteltial for the whites and 14,5 % for pinot noir because all the bad rot turned noble rot, with keeping good ph because tha maturity was unaffected, so he got against all odds great juices that year. Otjher growers didn't wait, it was very risky and himself thought he'd just loose this vintage, period. He didn't even set a foot in the vineyard for at least a week, he thought it was over. When he at last came back, the miracle was there (my word, I don't think he'd like the word miracle). In 2013 he ended up picking 60 hectoliters on 1,6 hectare, making yields of 40 ho/ha. He never had so many grapes and this was so unexpected.
About the organic farming, wether he's certified or not, he says that he ended up joining a certification in spite of his distrust for the quasi-rekigious tone of words like conversion [to organic farming] which makes him think to the reverse procedure, apostasy which brings you the death penalty under certain religious circumstances [laughs]...
Frédéric shows me how the shoots are wilder and less disciplined in the Pinot Gris compared to the Sauvignon (which grows more moderately and rather in line), amazing difference in the plant's behaviour.
He otherwise uses large-size fermenters, both in wood (Burgundy style) and in cement. The one in cement is surprising, it looks like a wooden tronconic vat but it's plain cement. Frédéric says that it is doing a good job, and no need to water it for a wekk or more like it's the case with wooden fermenters that haven't been used for a year.
We begin with tasting a first white :
__ Sauvignon-Pinot Gris, Les Fesses (name of the parcel) 2013. Free-run juice. From a 500-liter barrel (demi-muid). Color : copper shades. He has 15 hectoliters of this wine, in different vessels. In barrels since 2 months, will stay there until april next year and bottled without filtration or fining. Just time and gravity to settle the wine. Interesting wine, very classy and unusual.
__ Sauvignon-Pinot Gris, Les Fesses Other vessel, a 225-liter cask. THe nose is a bit more expressive, the wood maybe. More majestic in the mouth. Nice power too. Aromas of Cognac or also scotch. We taste it at about 20 °C (it's warm outside) but it's better at 16 °C he says. There are aromas of fruit pasrtes and quince here too, he comments. He plans to try making skin macerations in amphorae too, using the cellar for that and see what it gives without wood imprint.
__ Press juice of the Pinot Gris 2013 (end of pressing). From a fiber_vat with floating lid. Turbid, still fermenting, the malolactic is on its way probably. Very nice. I understand why he says he likes these more austere but strikingly-expressive presses. Very interesting to taste that separately even though this will be blended later. Very elegant, nice tension, very neat, with some sort of striking minerality.
He likes to experiment because in fact this is almost his first white, the first ones he worked on were when he worked with Emmanuel Giboulot in Beaune (in 1999). Making tries with the end of the presses goes against the common narrative, as people often say that these yield herbacious and other unwanted aromas and mouthfeels, but here it's actually very nice. He began last year with his then-very-small harvest (one barrel in total on this parcel of white), he had kept aside the end of the presses that were quite awful and herbacious, he had kept a full magnum of this weird juice just to see and a year later he opened the magnum and this was just great, so he understood that the pressing can go further than convenyionally thought, given that you keep the result for a while and give it the time to mature. The pressing takes also a lot of time, it took for example 4 to 5 days to press the macerated skins, adding a bit of pressure manually from time to time. At the end the juice was almost brownish with oxidation and they got back a nice color in a few months of élevage in a separate vessel, things went back in place.
We're going to taste the pinot noir :
__ Pinot Noir 2013, from a 500-liter barrel. Turbid. Appealing nose, the color is relatively light and a bit turbid. Mouth : still working, tickling on the tongue, delicious already at this stage. Will be bottled in 2015 around early july, on the market in fall 2015.
__ Pinot Noir 2013, smaller cask, from the lower-slope parcel. A bit of reduction, the wine is more turbid. All these wines had no SO2 at all, of course, and were fermented on indigenous yeast. Mouth : delicious, goes down like silk, and with this milky, turbid colr you feel that you eat a gorgeous food at the same time, I love that. I always bark at winemakers who filter their wines, particularly their reds, they take off the substance of the wine for "security" or "esthetic" reasons (no sediments in the bottle), it's so sad and ridiculous. Of course here the wine is still fermenting, we wouldn't be at the filtration stage anyway, but that's when you taste this that you understand the exciting qualities of a living wine, and even after it has calmed down and the fermentation is over, it would be self-defeating to filter the wine, especially with a minimum time of élevage. Very fresh wine, Frédéric remembers that the ph here was around 3,2. He likes also the menthol and liquorice expression in this wine.
__ Pinot Noir 2013, from the upper part of the parcel (from a 500-liter demi-muid). Milky, cloudy too, but less perly. Very enjoyable already although it's still in the making. Frédéric loves the end of the mouth here with menthol and anise notes. Superb, I love that. The lower slope and the upper slope are very different, in part because the rootstock in the lower part is different from the upper part (the type of rootstock was not chosen wisely for the lower part when he started with the plantings, but he manages to work with this).
__ Pinot Noir 2012, les Petites Orgues, from a fiber vat. It was before that in barrels. Mouth : very nice wine, other aromas here, Frédéric says that the pinots we tasted before with reach this character after the élevage. We're not on fruit aromas here but more on sap and vegetal notes. It goes down by itself as you can understand. Zero added sulfites again. 600 bottles yearly, this is a selection made at the end of the élevage among his casks, he makes a special tasting with a friend caviste et they taste all the casks, they first target a cask which will be the base of the Grandes Orgues and then a 2nd cask to blend with it, making micro-blendings to see what fits best. The rest will be blended into the Petites Orgues. The yields were probably around 22 or 24 ho/ha in 2012 on this vineyard.
This wine will reach the market next fall and a bottle will cost around 12,5 € reatail. Great value for sure, not to miss.
Asked where his wines can be found in Paris, he says La Cave des Papilles, Le Dauphin, Chateaubriand, Le Verre Volé, Le Vin en Tête. In Clermont Ferrand he sells his wine to 2 or 3 cavistes. He doesn't sell at the winery usually, he hasn't the time to deal with visitors. He says he likes to do other things too like work on his automobile workshop for example, wine is just a facet of his passions, he isn't a monomaniac type of guy. That's why 1,6 hectare suits him well, there's room for another life on the side. This is also why he managed to run his winery without taking mortgages at the bank, for the sake of independance. When for example he quit Voxan (the motorcycle manufacturer) he enrolled for a year of training (known in France as CIF, or Congé Individuel de Formation, a training that is paid by the employer) in Beaune (Burgundy) at the CFPPA, learning with Emmanuel Giboulot during that time. He spent the week in Beaune learning and on weekends he was back in Auvergne working on his nascent domaine, setting up his facility and tools in his family premises, planting vines and so on. This way he could sustain the creation of his wine farm without being hostage of the banks [you're usually pushed to make conventional, corrected wines in that case]. With the unemployment benefits when he departed from the motorbike plant, he could make the transition with the smooth running of the small winery, including a 2-year élevage of the wines from the start. When you start such a non-conventional winery you can't rely on credit, even the ones granted by special organisms devoted to small agricultural ventures, because one way or another they push you back on the tracks of commercial practices and its cohort of shortcuts and wine correction. I tell Fred about Thierry Allemand who also built his wine farm stone by stone the same way, without relying on credit or banks.
__ an unexpected treat : the very first white made in 2012 (pictured on right), the vines being planted in 2010. Now decanting in a fiber vat, very small volume, maybe 250 liters. Orange color. Very powerful white, that's why he has me taste it after the reds. Rounder than the first white we tasted, this wine is mature now, it helps guess what the 2013 wil yield. Still lots of sap notes in the mouth, he says he loves this sappy and vegetal side, it brings a vivid energy to the free-run juice. Very interesting wine indeed. Unfiltered and unfined here, and it will not have any. The lower lees will be blended with the following vintage, he says that's a way to build a memory in the wines, where they get traces of the former vintages, year after year. I love this idea, great thought !
__ Frédéric opened a bottle before I left in the evening and we sipped it in the garden with his wife Caroline, it was a rarity, I wonder if it was maybe his last bottle : a Gamay 2009 from the Vinzelles vineyard, an old vineyard with a low training which he stopped working on since when he dowsized a bit. Super fresh wine, a treat. The vineyard suffered from frost in 2009 but it could yield this quality after its endured miseries.
Fréderic Gounan takes part to a handful of wine fairs : the Salon des Vins Libres in alsace (every other year, the next is 2016), Les Dix Vins Cochons in Auvergne, Une Autre Idée du Vin in Auvergne too and the micro wine fair La Fête du Vin de Chassignole (Auvergne), a gem of a small and casual wine gatherting (from what I heard), it's held by British expat Harry who set up his restaurant there. No need to add that you find only real wines in these events...