Olivier Bellanger graduated in 2000 from the agriculture school of Blois with a BEPA diploma, he had also begun working at Philippe Tessier and his stay there would last 5 years, then he worked with Jean-François Merieau for a harvest, then he made two harvests at François Priou, a lesser-known vigneron who works well too. In 2008 he got an opportunity to set up his winery here (he is a native from the region, from Monthou-sur-Cher near thésée 4 kilometers away) after he found in the classifieds ads that a block of 6 hectares of vineyards were available above Thésée. There was no cellar or facility with these vineyards, as the owner was just a retiring grower who had been selling the grapes to the coopérative. On the other hand this was convenient for him because the price was thus lower without the buildings and because his intent at the beginning was to sell grapes in order to generate cash, his long-term plan being to begin making wine little by little on the side. He found the cellar near Thésée in 2012, it was owned by a vigneron who didn't use it for some time. This is a cellar only, he doesn't do the pressing here, for that he relies on a friend's place who lets him use a room in his own facility 500 meters from here.
I heard about Olivier Bellanger because he is part of Les Vins du Coin (a group of artisan winemakers of the area), he himself knew this group since he worked with Philippe Tessier and he had followed their evolution and he began selling grapes to people like Hervé Villemade and Brendan Tracey, farming his vines along a like-minded philosophy. He still sells today the grapes of about 2 or 3 hectares.
When he took over the 6-hectare domaine in 2008 it was conventionally farmed and he converted it right away, like, he set up officially his business november 1st and the conversion started november 12th (when the certification body listed the surface as being in conversion).
There were no barrels in here when he bought this cellar and he bought the vats and casks, some new, some used. He buys 400-liter demi-muids too (he bought 3 of them last year new, two from Adour and one from Centre France, two lesser-known cooperages which he discovered respectively through Sébastien Brunet and Vincent Carême who had had good results with them. For the reds he buys second hand 225-liter casks here or there. He likes to keep the wines in casks because they keep in better condition than in a fiber vat (with a floating lid), he works with very little sulfur and he had in the past oxidized wines when he kept them a long time in a resin vat, this never happened in a cask.
This cellar is a single deep gallery, it makes about 300 square meters, it's 50 meters deep, there is a small side room at mid depth with a rectangular opening like a house door (pic on right) where he stores his own bottles, some offered by visiting winemakers, it's cute in there like in some sort of mysterious sanctuary in a lost temple. There's also a vertical vent (pic on left), some kind of chimney through which you can see the light of the outside world. It seems pretty easy to climb down to the cellar with a rope but Olivier is confident, he says this opening on top of the hill is very difficult to find if you're not familiar with the terrain. I'd be less confident having all my wine sleeping there with this open vent linking it directly to the outside world, I imagine some sort of vinous Indiana Jones dropping his rope ladder from the top and heading through spiders, snakes and traps to the wine reserves... This vent is yet very useful to have the air ventilated in here, that's also why he keeps it unobstructed, and even with the renewed air the temperature stays cool just the same.
The fiber vats above are closed vats, not the ones with a floating lid which he doesn't trust very much (he kind of lost a 8-hectoliter volume of sauvignon with very little SO2 in 2010 because it unexpectedly oxidized).
Speaking of the temperature of the cellar it's stable on the whole but there's still a light difference between summer and winter, it peaks at 12 °C (54 ° F) in summer and goes down to 9 ° C (48 ° F) in winter.
This year, considering the low volumes he took in, all the reds with go into barrels, 225-liter casks and tronconic vat.
Olivier has very different vats and fermenters, the format and shape of these red ones are very interesting, I saw one of them recently at Lapalu (the one he was moving with a forklift). He bought these two fiber vats second-hand also, this was last year. Asked what difference they make with other, say vertical, vats, Olivier says that the contact surface with the lees is bigger because the bottom is longer. Each of these red vats make 16 hectoliters, the only thing he changed on them was the stainless-steel tap at the bottom left because the original metal tap was a bit oxidized and could have had a negative imprint on the wine especially when you want to take out a bit of wine to taste it.
At least one of these red fermenters was filled with sauvignon in full-blown fermentation. The reds will probably replace the sauvignon when they'll arrive here.
When this visit took place all the whites were already busy fermenting in various vessels in the cellar and the reds were still up there in the other building.
On the side I spot a couple of metal cages full with bottles of rosé, some of them broken, this is obviously sparkling wine with which an excessive pressure in the bottle led a few bottles to break apart. He makes natural sparkling every year (not in 2012 though) and for this particular batch (2013) things went wrong. This is a blend of gamay & cot and he says his indiginous yeast are particularly strong which makes the managing of these sparkling a bit tricky. He wanted intially to leave a bit of residual sugar but the yeast were very active and tough and they kept working the sugar to the end, which led to an overwhelming pressure. Olivier shows me a bottle (pic on right), you can clearly see the lees and sediments on the bottle neck. The surviving bottles are safe especially that after he'll have disgorged them they'll loose part of the pressure. This wine should be on the market near the end of the year I guess. The previous year he made some was 2011, he sold them to Paris and also a bit to the U.S. This year he'll make a pet'nat of chardonnay probably.
The baby vines seem big for less than a year but when he planted them earlier this year they had already made a year in the nursery, usually the vines always make their first leaves in the nursery when they plant with bare roots, and so they made their 2nd leaves here this year and by law it is allowed to harvest the young vines on their 4th leaves which will be in 2016. The nursery is very close from here in the village of Thésée, he works with him regularly when he wants to plant a new vineyard. This year was tough for these vines, many suffered from mildew and next year because of that they shouldn't give lots of grapes anyway.
He uses often massal selections for the grafts but he also opted for clones sometimes, also favoring less productive types. He planted Fié Gris for example recently and used clones, learning too late that Jacky Preys had massal selections of it. Otherwise this year he planted some Menu Pineau and he used wood (massal selections) that he took from one of his existing parcels. He tries to keep a large diversity of varietals on his surface.
Stopping a few minutes at a barn where he stores his tools, I spotted a vintage Citroën with the same color as my own Citroën Ami 8, but here this is another model, a Citroën Dyane, dating from 1976. He says he has some repair work to do on it before it can move again, a gas leak, probably a hose to change. Olivier says that his two young boys love it when they all go driving in the woods with the Dyane for fun.
Olivier says that he loves using this type of tractor because the visibility is very good, you just bend a little and you see the ground underneath as if you were walking between the rows. He says it is pretty simple to fix, he does it himself, he already changed the clutch. This tractor was made by a company named Loiseau and you find lots of such old straddle tractors for sale (I think Olivier paid much less than what is asked on the linked page...).
Asked about the grass management which is known to be difficult on rainy seasons, Olivier says he keeps grass on every other inter-row so that the tractor can drive safely on it when spraying (otherwise with the mud it may be a problem). He is yet still thinking about taking away many such grass lanes because he thinks this contributed to the struggling of the vines at the end of the season. His grass lanes between the rows are natural and diverse, not sowed but it still has to be well handled because it can cause a severe stress on the vines. He uses occasionally some plowing tools to keep the weeds in check. He also does the classical buttage-décavaillonage under the rows which moves the surface earth and cuts the weeds under the vines. He passes 4 or 5 times in the rows with his tractor to tend the soil properly.
Olivier says that it is pretty easy to
find these machines, he regularly looks on the Internet to see the vintage machines available. He says that he has 6 old straddle tractors, at one point they rebuilt one with dismantling another one which was not fully operational, but even the one that was partly dismantled will maybe be put back in working co,dition, her says. It seems to me that fixing tractors and selling them in mint condition could be a profitable side occupation for Olivier, but he does it just for the fun... He says these machines need very little diesel, something like 3 or 4 liters per hour compared with the modern tractors or combines which need 10 liters an hour.
This tractor is already more modern and less easy to fix by oneself compared with the other models above, he doesn't venture to deeply into the engine here, but there are experienced mechanics around whom he can trust in case of problem.
The pictures on the sides are about the straddle tractor used by the friend grower with whom he shared this building, it is also a Loiseau like the one pulling the gondola. Olivier says that with Loiseau there's something quite incredible, it's the fact there is almost as many models as individual tractors produced, the reason being that they were built on demand and that each grower had his own specificities and requirements, the sizes, the tools ergonomics, sometimes the engine is central, sometimes it's positioned on the side, sometimes the driver's seat is more in the front or the chassis is longer etc... On this one the driver's seat looks quite outcentered and close to the ground but it has certainly a direct view on the left row and also the ground between the rows.
Speaking of his vinification style, Olivier says he doesn't fine his wines, he just filters lightly to take away the gross sediments, he likes to have wines that are relatively limpid, while admitting he could do without and that's a habit for him to lightly filter. His rteds though are not always filtered because as he does long élevage in barrels the wines are often enough naturally sedimented so that they're naturally limpid. But spring bottlings are filtered as well as whites even when they've gone through a long élevage. Regarding SO2 he's under 40 mg total SO2 and even less on the reds, it's usually around 15 mg total SO. Now he works with CO2 like for example when he racks at the end to help protect the wine from oxidation, it helps him keep the SO2 lower.
__ Heading to the white vats standing outside behind the press, we first taste a gamay which is still in its bernache stage, a velvety grape juice with only a hint of nascing alcohol. Hard to judge for the future wine but so delicious. The gamay will not be the thirst wine of last year as it has a 14,5 % potential alcohol, it will be different. Olivier says that he controls the fermentation temperature in order not to stay too long on low fermentation temperature on the must which may yield to undesirable aromas, he heats the juice a bit if necessary. Right now he checks the temp in front of me and it's 22 ° C (71 ° F), he says it's a bit too low, it should be around 24-25 °C (75,2-77 ° F). He also bought these white vats second-hand, he found them on classifieds websites like this one. I found for example used casks at 70 € apiece there, seems to me very affordable. There seems to be several websites specialized in second-hand winery tools, here is another one, and yet another one with the page for plastic vats (they don't display the prices here but I suspect you can make an offer even very low, as there are so many such tools and containers to sell in France)..
__ Then Olivier walks inside the building to take a sample of his Pineau D'Aunis 2014 which is still fermenting. Usually he vinifies it in red but this year he made a direct press. The color is very aerial and delicate, almost tile. He says that this juice is quite colored for an Aunis, usually they're almost gris (grey) a wine color associated with thinly-colored whites like Fié Gris (a branch of Sauvignon), the now-rare varietal resurected by Jacky Preys. The darker color than usual may come from the fact that he initially macerated part of the batch 2 hours with the goal to make a red and then changed his mind. I notice a higher acidity here compared to the other juices, he aknowledges, saying that in parallel to the richness there's a stronger acidity, which is good for a rosé. He'll filter this wine too (I asked), I suggest him to make a small batch of this cuvée unfiltered to test the market and his customers. He aknowledges that filtration is a shock for the wine, at least for a while, but when the filtration is very light, targetting only the gross deposits it recovers more easily. But he nods that he might indeed try to bottle part of the cuvée unfiltered just to see (I'll be proud if this turns out to be a good option for the resulting wine...). This wine is made from 2 parcels, one making 30 ares (0,3 hectare) of old vines and another one making 50 ares and which is the first vineyard that he planted 6 years ago and which happened to be pineau d'aunis. There was cabernet sauvignon before on this parcel which he uprooted. Second sip of this pineau d'aunis : superb juice/wine... Usually he makes two separate cuvées of these pineau d'aunis but there has been an acetic attack lately caused by an insect named suzuki which did some damage on the grapes by biting them which later turns the sugar inside the grapes into volatile acidity. The suzuki threat is quite a new thing here and it has a lot of wine growers in France wondering if it's a new plague or it just came out temporarily this year because of unusual weather conditions. The insect is said to be around since the beginning of the 21st century but it's only this year that it made so much damage, and it seems targetting particularly the pineau d'aunis and also the chenin. Because of this there will be only 1500 bottles of this. It will not be ready soon but before the end of the year he'll bottle some pineau d'aunis 2012 (cuvée Toucheron) blended which had its élevage in a 400-liter barrel, he'll bottle tyhat in magnums.
He uses a taille à courson pruning, leaving every year two shoots with two coursons on each, which limits the volume of the harvest. I notice that the horizontal level of the branches is quite close to the ground, maybe 30 centimeters. Asked if there's a reason, if it's the tradition in the region, he says yes, and it is good to optimize the foliage surface which grows about a meter above that level. For the exposition of the foliage to the light it is imortant to have enough width between the rows he says, here he has 1,55 meter which is the norm in the region.
At one point as we walk along a row, we find a few forgotten grapes (the picker was obviously distracted along several vines) which was a good opportunity for me to shoot a picture of a well-shaped cluster of pineau d'aunis. His picker team is usually 10 people strong with another couple of back-basket carriers.
Asked about the weather this year, Olivier says that the winter was dry and mild there was very few sub-freezeing temperatures, then the turn between winter and spring was relatively warm which brought an early foliage growing. Because of that they thought in may that the harvest would come early but then came rain beginning in early may with for example 50 mm of rain falling on the 3-day Pentecost weekend. They had a big push of mildew later and they never could get rid of it, it took away a good share of the harvest. This rainy weather lasted until the 3rd week of august, the rain fall coming with mild, humid air which was contributing to the disease spread. Then rain stopped at the end of august and the weather remained dry almost until mid october, which cured the disease or limited its extent but on the other hand took away the water from inside the grapes, bringing the yields further down, these yields having been already down because of the disease. The good side is that the quality of these remaing grapes was pretty good with a higher concentration, a very nice maturity, nice levels of acidity and lots of sugar. Speaking of yields he says this year he'll be around 22 hectoliters/hectare (compared to 30 ho/ha last year which was already too low).
Speaking of Les Maisons Brûlées and biodynamics, Olivier says that he has not yet made the step to biodynamy but he waits to be ready, having still many other things to manage in his young winery.
I asked Olivier about what I heard elsewhere including in Beaujolais at Yvon Métras, about the worryingly-higher humidity and rainfalls which makes it very difficult for growers. He says that indeed the spring is very wet and humid with mildew and black rot pressure as a result. Since he bought his vineyard he witnessed this trend, particularly since 2008 and he make now routinely between 11 and 15 sprayings a year. 2009 was OK except for the hail, 2010 & 2011 while not easy were also OK, but from 2012 the three following years were very tough and he aknowledges that it seems getting worse and that humidity in spring/summer is here to stay, it is likely a durable cycle, the growers will have to be very strong, very attentive and reactive in this context. Those who are not attentive including the conventional growers risk having nothing to harvest.
__ We then taste another barrel, 100 % sauvignon this time, this one probably fermented later, it's still very sweet and velvety, with a darker color close to a ripe ananas. Very onctuous. He likes the balance here with a bit more acidity, it is rich also with more structure, more power and substance which makes a better volume in the mouth. I felt myself another dimension here but he words it better than me. The wine will be bottled probably in september 2015 after a one-year élevage, he'll blend several
of these casks and this will the cuvée Nuit Blanche.
Speaking of appellations, Olivier bottles his wines as Touraine wines with a few as table wine like the natural sparkling for example.
__ We taste a Chardonnay from a resin vat, there are only 7 hectoliters of this wine, it's the one he's like to make a natural sparkling with. Tastes like a sweet candy, Olivier says that it's quite slow in its fermentation.
Olivier says that he got the help of an enologist since recently, it's a woman whom he trusts because she is making wine herself and she works like himself. Anne-Cécile Jadaud (her name) teaches at the wine school of Amboise and she has a precise palate to give a diagnostic.
__ We now taste Nuit Blanche 2013, a sauvignon which was racked 2 weeks earlier and will be bottled soon (end of october, so it has been bottled when this story was published). Mouth : strikingly saline and mineral, very nice. Olivier agrees, he says that it's the result of working the soils and he feels the result in the wine more and more year after year. The wine makes 13 % in alc. which is more than average for 2013, he had lots of sorting to do on the grapes at harvest. Olivier says he doesn't wish the malolactic to unfold on his whites and although he doesn't block it his whites usually don't do their malolactic but this one for some reason is an exception and you have this butterish end of the mouth and the whole is fine, it adds roundness.
__ Touche Ronde 2012, also sampled from a fiber vat with a floating lid, also waiting for its bottling I guess. This is a blend of 3/4 gamay and 1/4 pineau d'aunis which
had their maceration together, the wine stayed in a 400-liter barrel for two years without any move or intervention and it got only 1 gr of SO2 and there will not be more. Speaking of SO2 he doesn't use sulfur wicks in his casks, he leaves them on lees and to clean them he calls a service company which uses steam and high pressure to disinfect them.
The wine is more structured and will hold better. He'll make probably 250 magnums of this. I still feel something a bit hard in this wine, that could be the 10-day-old SO2 addition, wines usually need wine to recover.
For the bottling he does it himself by gravity for small cuvées otherwise beginning this year he'll use a service company which has a good record in the area, they come with a truck and park in front of the cellar.
__ Touraine white Le Clos 2012, blend of sauvignon (2/3), menu pineau and chenin (1/3 together).
The terroir is clay/limestone (argiles à calcaire) on limestone table. The menu pineau and chenin are 50 years old and the sauvignon 30. the color is like straw, the wine was raised in three 225-liter barrels. Bottled a year ago. After a few months the wine recovered from the bottling and it sold very quickly. Mouth : powerful. The public prices of his wines are between 7 and 13 €. tHe pineau d'aunis costs 9 € (but the rosé will be cheaper).
After 2016 he'll be barred to have the Touraine appellation because of the menu pineau and the chenin in this cuvée. Olivier says that the appellation people want to focus on sauvignon only and erase the rest, and they're even bothered by the reds... And to make things worse even if he still theoricall can find parcels of menu pineau and chenin to purchase, it's getting quite impossible now because the growers get subsidies from the French and European bureaucracy. For example if you uproot a parcel of reds (the wine-appellation administration doesn't like the reds) and replant sauvignon in its place, you get subsidies amounting to (take a seat) 12 000 € per hectare ... So every money-conscious grower will fight to get his hands on whatever parcel planted with reds or menu Pineau and it raises the stakes for quality-driven artisans who just want to make good wine with indigenous varieties. He saw himself neighbors uproot 60-year old parcels of Arbois (menu pineau) and replant generic sauvignon, that's quite sad. The fact is, they didn't know anyway how to use this menu pineau because with the yields of 80 hectoliters/hectare they used to make the wine was a hard sell. He watches every year this heritage vanish because of these subsidies.
Olivier Bellanger sells 60 % in France and mostly in Paris, plus 20 % abroad and 20 % direct sales. In Paris among other cavistes he sells to 18 sur Vin, Mi-Fugue Mi-Raisin, Le 117, L'Etiquette.
He also makes several wine fairs including one in Belgium (in Olne near Liège) and the next Les Vins du Coin in Blois (december 6-7 2014) which will feature a good number of outstanding winemakers (for an entree fee of 5 € you get a glass and can taste everything and chat with the vignerons).
For his export he sells to the United States (N.Y. Massanois Imports) and to Belgium (Troca Vins Naturels).