Gilles Azzoni's domaine sits at a safe distance from the noisy Rhone valley with its freeways and endless suburban sprawl, you need to drive winding secondary roads to reach the idyllic Ibie valley, the Ibie being a 33 km-long river running between sometimes-steep hills covered with Provence-type vegetation. If I had been dropped there with no clues about the location I'd say this is the Var département, same bushes and scents, and a river as vigorous, deep and refreshing as the Argens river in Correns (near Brignoles). The drive was particularly nice, with old stone bridges over the river and natural beaches where vacationing families enjoyed the sun and the refreshing water.
Although I stock Azzoni's wines regularly, like last time at the Rue89 wine fair (3rd picture in the story) and although I had planned to visit him one day, I had delayed this visit for a long time but my meeting with Mito Inoue recently reminded me of him, Mito loves Gilles' work, she had a training here and she made her very first wine (a white) in Gilles' cellar. I don't know why but her story made me tilt at last and pick the phone, as B. and I had the opportunity to drive by en route from Provence. But the real reason may be that I simply enjoy so much Gilles Azzoni's wines, they're liquid food that I really can afford (there are so many wines that are out of reach for regular consumption), these SO2-free wines are probably of the type that have cheered the heart of humans and Dyonisos since the antiquity, when wine was judged more for its gentle intoxicating properties than for fitting a rigid framework of codified and controlled aromatics. Open a bottle and there is a good chance you'll finish it right away, even by yourself.
The name La Bégude hints that the farm was since a long time ago a documented place where horses and farm animals could access to drinking water, possibly because of the easy access to the river brom between the bridge and the farm. Gilles told me that this name (Bégude) is pretty common in the south of France and it always refers originally to an access to drinking water, which was particularly strategic in the past centuries when transportation was horse powered and public water network was in its infancy. Here, by the way, he still relies on a well for his water needs including for the facility part, he's not connected to the local water network, which means that when he cleans a vat or the press, he's doing it with spring water.
Gilles Azzoni settled in this farm in november 1983, the agricultural rental (fermage in French) comprised the farm plus 6 hectares of vineyards backed to the woods and hills. The closest town is Aubenas (25 min from here) and then Montélimar in the Rhône valley (40 min). In this farm, Gilles Azzoni moved from a relatively-conventional farming to organic farming and then outright natural winemaking, using no SO2 at all all along the vinification. He is now part of the AVN (Association des Vins Naturels), the Natural Winemakers group.
Samuel Boulay when still living in Touraine was a neighbor of Michel Augé (les Maisons Brûlées). He says that Touraine is really very humid and wet and he's very happy of the offer to settle here and make wine. He'll sell some grapes to Gilles too, at least in the beginning. While Gilles is not into Biodynamics (except taking the moon phases into account), Samuel had done some since 2000 when he was in Touraine, making preparations with Michel Augé and his group. He saw that it definitely works, it's immediately easier to vinify naturally when the vineyard has been farm with biodynamics, he says.
Stefana Nicolescu on her side learnt a lot about artisan wines through the several years she spent working at Le Garde Robe. She says that making wine in this region was one of her dreams and she is so happy it came to life. The first time she really ticked for this area was when she travelled in the area 4 or 5 years ago and saw the terroirs with basalt, and in an environment that was really southern, she really loved that region. She had a great time at the wine bar in Paris but this is a life that is not sustainable on the long run. And she learnt to know the natural wines there.
The problem is first that hunters feed the wild boars but also there is speculation that years ago the native wild boars were crossed intentionally with pigs in order to yield more breed in each litter. While a "normal" female wild boar can have a couple of babies each time, these interbreds give birth to 8 or 12 babies, a bonanza for short-sighted hunting societies. This all reminds us how looking obsessively for high yields or high returns ruins a sector... Read this related article with picture about a finding of the putrefying dead body of such an hybrid animal in the woods of Ardèche, it weighed 300 kg and was 2,6-meter long (here's another pic found on Twitter). There's a special name in French for these prolific animals, people call them cochonglier, from the coupling of the two words cochon (pig) and sanglier (wild boar).
Gilles has put an electric wire in place (financed by the hunting societies) to protect his parcels, he says that female boars (or hybrids) are the big threat, they venture here to feed their breed and in may for example they walked in and ate young shoots of Grenache. At the Domaine des Deux Terres nearby this year they put down lots of green grapes, destroying vines in the way, apparently so that their young boars could eat these grapes and leaves directly on the ground. The problem also is that if the weather is really dry and if there's nothing to eat for them in the woods, they'll take the risk to get an electricity discharge.
On the wild-boar-versus-crops issue, here is a French-German-Swiss expert study (Pdf - in French) on the mounting problem of outnumbering wild boars for agriculture (could be valid for many wine regions in France)
Asked about the weather this year which is unusually wet and rainy, Gilles says that there is more work in the vineyard to keep the grass in check, something that is normally not an issue in this region known for dry and hot summers. The winter 2013/14 was very mild and very rainy already, which replesished the water tables, then april-may-june was quite dry, then again rain fell abundantly, every weekd or two weeks. Otherwise the blossoming was nice and great, with lots of grapes growing.
Gilles says stopped spraying when the veraison started. He has some syrah, vionnier (with a few vines of savagnin that somehow landed here), roussanne, grenache gris, alicante, merlot, cabernet, some muscat. The soil is very rocky all around, stones and rock debris emerging from the redish earth. The wooded hills in the background is the beginning of a huge swath of natural zone going almots all the way to the Rhône valley itself, and much of this wild area is protected.
If august is drier than july which he hopes for a better ripeness they could pick early september, this vintage can be great in spite of the first half of summer which was wet, there's still lots of water in the ground. Right now there's a good load of grapes on the vines but this can lead to accidents if rains come early september, so you need to react quicly if needed.
Since that first experiment, he decided to generalize the high training for his new plantings, because even with an electric wire around the parcel, if wild boars are really hungry, they'll come in the parcel one way or another. You can see on this 8-year old parcel of muscat how high the grapes are, about 1,2 meter above ground, it's enough to limit the losses that would be otherwise enormous.
You can see this vineyard of Muscat from a distance the height of the vines is more striking (pic on left with Ibie, the grey dog smelling for leads). With this muscat Gilles is now making since last year a natural sparkling, he decided to do it after drinking a terrific pet'nat of muscat made by Isabelle & Jean-luc Chaussard (Domaine Jolly Ferriol), a refreshing and fun sparkling that goes down easy. He used the muscat in his white blend before. There's a good load of grapes in this parcel but a mere 11 % or 11,5 % is perfect for a natural sparkling, so it's fine.
On the picture right you can see a 2014 planting of Grenache Gris, just at the left of the muscat, it will be Samuel's job to vinify the first grapes.
We also pass a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon which has been planted in the 1980s', Gilles says that it's not adapted to the terroir and climate, it can ripen but there's not enough humidity which results in harsh skins. In comparison you find in the Bordeaux region the good level of humidity because of the frequent rains and the sea influence and the skins don't turn thick like here in Ardèche. Even the fermentation of the cabernet is difficult here (with indigenous yeast), they never finish their sugar. He says that outside Bordeaux you have few examples of successful implantation of cabernet, he thinks to Chateau Vignelaure in the Coteaux d'Aix (the Mediterranean is not far away either) with cuttings taken from Chateau La Lagune in the 1960s' (Vignelaure's owner was the former owner of La Lagune). B. and I tell him about Eloi Durrbach of Domaine Trevallon who similarly made a very beautiful wine with cabernet sauvignon in the Baux de Provence area where it was supposedly out of place.
On our way back to the Bégude, facing the valley and the village in the far, we pass a parcel of Vionnier (pic on left) of which he plans to uproot 10 rows because too many vines are missing, it was planted in 1989 (25 years), he says that he did the replanting without waiting several years so that the field rests, and that's why ity didn't work out well. The ideal thing is wait 5 years minimum and grow during that time alternatively rye, sainfoin and alfalfa.
As we were about to reach the farm, Ibie the grey dog made us an exhibit (pic on right) on the pleasures of splashing and bathing in a puddle, the bad boy was certainly eager to cool off under this hot summer afternoon. Sometimes I wish we humans had less restraint in similar circumstances...
When you look at this farm from the back (it has modest proportions when viewed from the other side) it really seems that at the time it was quite an important thing, this is a good piece of architecture for a farm nestled in a relatively remote valley of Ardèche.
So, here is the place where the cuvées "Hommage à Robert" or Brân were made, details like that count when you're familiar with a wine. Each of these large vats have a name : Camus, Brel, Chaplin and Zola, easier for him than a number. From a wooden pillar, a cast of Dyonisos
looks at us. On the side,
the modes horizontal press with which Gilles Azzoni makes his wine,
a wooden-cage Vaslin press from 1960 or 1961, he says, no electronics in there, it is very simple, it's one of Vaslin's early models that made the brand famous.
Gilles makes his reds in these 4 large fermenters with carbonic maceration lasting between 8 and 15 days
The white grapes arrive directly on the lower side, he has them pressed with the Vaslin, then the juice spends a night for the settling of the lees, then back in a fermenter with floating lid (like the red one on the left side of the press), and after that they have their élevage in 500-liter plastic vats, caged vats, like the ones used to keep water, if I remember well.
Gilles says they're very easy to move with a fenwick, which is convenient to make room or have the wine coold down a bit outside for example.
Asked about the use of CO2 for the beginning of the macerations, Gilles says that he has a big vertical canister of CO2 which he uses only for the whites because at that stage there's no CO2 in the chai, but later, as the fermenters produce their own CO2 he set up a system to use the CO2 produced by the fermenting vionnier (the 1st variety to be vinified): the lid over the fermenter being put in place tightly, he lets just a long plastic hose out and he puts the other end over the fermenter (with red grapes for example) where he wants some CO2. By simple pressure, the excess CO2 of is brought wherever he wants, and for free.
He says these canisters cost a lot of money to fill and it was too bad to waste this natural CO2 produced by the first fermenters of the season. In just 2 hours using such a hose, he says, the receiving fermenter is overflowing with CO2. He says that he didn't invent the system, Jérôme Jouret and other winemakers had already used it for a while.
He also used the lees of Muscat and Vionnier for the fermentation of the first reds, as a pied de cuve.
Gilles Azzoni is bottling all his wines as table wine since 2000, since he makes natural wine and uses no additives. Before that, he was making wine conventionally and he used the AOC Vivarais appellation and also the Vin de Pays de L'Ardèche appellation [table wine is almost better for me compared to these tepid and dubious labels...]. To rewind back at the beginning, Gilles is originally from the Paris suburb and he went to the Macon wine school in 1976-1977, working then one year in Pommard at Gilbert Violot, then at La Bastide Blanche in Bandol and Chateau de la Bégude in Aix-en-Provence. He started his own winery here in 1981, following the steps of "Robert", the owner of the farm who had all the agro-chemicals of that time. His neighbors meanwhile used the local ways of that time for the vineyard management, meaning that they plowed between their rows and used sheep manure as compost. Gilles loved the plowing thing, so he plowed his land too but still used some herbicides and tried other products but these products didn't satisfy him, they weren't that efficient, plus they were expensive to make things worse, so beginning in the early 1990s' he began to question this vineyard management, coming back to the simple Bordeaux mix (copper-sulfur), and from 1997 he farmed organic, all the while still bottling under the local appellation (his wines were still formated and could pass the agrément.
In between he met other winemakers who helped him make the leap to natural winemaking and his first cuvée was refused the appellation. This was 2000, precisely the year his owner passed away at 86 and that's why as a tribute to him he named this first cuvée of natural wine (and also zero sulfites) "Hommage à Robert' (hommage means tribute in French). At first he was disoriented to have to label his wine as table wine, wondering how-and-where to sell the wine and so on.
At the time he realized through this excusion by the people of the Appellation commissions that he was in the cold, on his own in another world. That year, all his harvest was banned from the appellation, a shock especially that he didn't expect it. But he held on, 2000 was his first year without any SO2 [and of course without any of the other usual additives] and to this day he never changed hiw ways. Back to this fateful 2000 vintage : things moved pretty well then in spite of his fears : He bottled a first batch of 12 000 bottles in april 2001 and they were all sold out by july. He felt relieved suddenly, thinking that the situation without the cozy cover of the appellation status was not that bad after all. He sold to Japan and in Paris to Le Verre Volé (Bordarier, the founder is from Ardèche) and a few others of the early natural-wine venues of that time. Gerald Oustric had made a terrific cuvée before that that had sold well in Paris, so the demand for such wines was mounting. He named another cuvée "Le Raisin et L'Ange" and later this name bacame the domaine's name, things found their place little by little.
Asked about his new cuvées, he says there's Zébrure 2012, a 11,5 % alc. white table wine made without any SO2 addition, it is actually a blend od white grapes (1/3) with syrah (2/3), destemmed and poured in a fermenter alternatively : one box of white then two boxes of syrah and so on, that's why the name zébrure, it makes stripes. the grapes get a 15 days maceration in the fermenter before being pressed. Gilles got the idea from Gérard Brignot [the legendary Jura winemaker] who made once a cuvée named "Rayures" which was also a white-red blend pressed together, the result being more white than red.
An other new cuvée is Bruine, a 12 % alc. natural sparkling made from Muscat, and for which he used previously marsanne and roussanne.
The other (still) white (but not new) is Nedjma, it is a blend of marsanne, roussanne and another variety I don't remember the name of. He called this cuvée "Blanc" [white] before but ended finding a real name, and Nedjma is a first name in arabic (North Africa), it means star and he liked the name. He says that for natural wines, names are very important because there's no appellation or glamorous village name on the label, and you need a name that catches the attention.
Artisan vignerons exchange a lot between themselves and this bottle comes from Patrick Bouju, a colorful vigneron from Auvergne (seems like Auvergne wines and vintners have a long reach), the sugary rosé sparkling wine was as delicious as its color was flashy, a real candy, it's made with gamay (see Patrick Bouju' cuvées on this page).
I asked Gilles if he considered later apply again for the appellation, but he said that he actually realized that there was no common ground with this other world, the one behind the appellation wines and the wines made without correction, and he adds that he understands things better now, and all the way and the gap that separates them. There's no way, with the type of work he and other natural winemakers do in their vineyards and in their non-interventionist vinification, they could have the same labelling on their wines, this is two different worlds.
Another question I asked is wether there are available parcels in this region for young people who might like to start a winery like he did, I'm thinking to Anjou in the Loire where it's not difficult to find vineyards, and it's cheap. Gilles says no, here the base problem is real estate demand, the area is much sought after for tourism and residence purposes and farmers wait for the possibility to sell whatever land they own at building-land prices which are way above the ones of farm land. These fields and vineyards may never pass from farm district to residential district (the administration prevents the suburban sprawl in this area) but the owners won't sell, they still wait for the bonanza around the corner. There are still a few terraces where you could find usable surfaces but there would be lots of work and you'd need to have enough money to wait the result of your replantations.
I asked again which encouter among his colleagues helped him make the leap in 2000 to vinify without any correction or additives, he says Gerald Oustric and Christian Chaussard. Gérald Oustric who works not far from here was then still selling his grapes to the coop but he made his first wine in 1997 in his garage and Gilles tasted the wine, Gerald having given him 6 bottles to drink home, he didn't really pay attention at first, thinking that the wine was a bit different and bizarre but somehow he liked it without really focusing on the issue and he drank all the 6 bottles pretty fast. Something changed at that moment in his perception, he was beginning to feel that this wine had something else, even if he didn't formulate it right away. This very same year he met Chaussard during a tasting session organized in Montbéliard on the theme "Vins de Paroles" where each of them had tp entertain the public in an artistic way around the wine experience and they both realized that they were sharing the same philosophy. Chaussard was making wines without SO2 at the time while Gilles still used some (even if really in minimal doses already), but the gap was narrowing already. And then there was this wine that moved Gilles's wine references immensely, he says, it was a Magnum 1996 of Crozes-Hermitage by Dard & Ribo which he drank around 1998 or 1999, this was a revolution for him, this wine was what he wanted to make from then on. Bit by bit, he changed through all these experiences and the result is the wines he began to make in 2000.
The Roussanne is turbid, Gilles says it is also unfiltered and devoid of SO2. It is usually bottled in the spring following the harvest, he just waits that the sugar is finished, sometimes he has to wait till august. Gilles says that there's a bit of volatile here but it is not a problem for the drinking experience.
This is quite an experience to have a sip of a wine and just walk a few meters to see the vines at its origin. This video adds another dimension and you can appreciate by yourself how nice and relaxed the area is, Gilles' rooster, Samuel's hens, the dogs, the farm, the hills with the vineyards and the beautiful linden tree with the table in its shade to enjoy the whole thing...
We of course had also some "Hommage à Robert", sitting there in the shade and sharing a meal, this red cuvée is a blend of 65 % syrah, 35 % grenache (vinified separately), carbonic maceration, 11,5 % in alcohol, one of my favorite cuvées here to be frank, goes down so well... The blend is never the same year after year, the only thing which matters for him is make the wine that is the most easy to dring (le plus glouglouteur). This cuvée makes about 10 000 bottles on average. He says his yields are not particularly low, they're between 50 and 60 ho/ha. This is very interesting because the wine is so delicious, it proves that low yields are not the prerequisite to making nice wines. Gilles says that when he sees colleaugues with yields as low as 15 ho/ha he understands that their bottle priices are much higher than his.
I asked if he ever envisioned to take augment his vineyard surface beyond 7 hectares [I'm a bit worried about my future supplies, to be frank...] but he says no, the size has to remain workable. For some time he had 9 hectares (from 1998 to 2008) because a rented vineyard had been suddenly available but this was too much, plus the parcel was quite far from here. He has a part-time employee in addition to his son but still, he can't really hire more.
60 % of Gilles Azzoni's wines are exported, he says he could export 100 % but clients in France must have some wine too. His total production is 30 000 bottles and at an average of 5 € without tax per bottle (you pay 6,5 € to 7 € tax included at the winery or when buying from him in Paris wine fairs). I understand that with this quality the demand is strong.
He sells to Japan (Yasuko Goda, Racines), the United States (Jenny & François first, then Camille Rivière), Denmark, Sweden (Wine AB Sweden), the United Kingdom (Harry Lester, Gergovie Wines), Belgium (Vincent Damien, Fruit de la Passion & Les Trésors on the Flemish part), Germany (Surk-ki Schrade in Köln - La Vincaillerie and Olaf Schindler in Hamburg - Vin Bien), Canada (quebec, Les Importations du Moine).