The Cheverny appellation area is located in a corner of Sologne south of Blois, on the western fringe of this woody region dotted with hundreds of ponds of all sizes and well known to the French hunters. The area has a good share of artisan vintners doing organic work in the vineyard and no work at all in the cellar, some say it has the highest percentage of organic vineyards, due in part to the small size of the appellation area.
The village lies along the Beuvron, one of these minor and gentle rivers of the Sologne (like also the Cosson) which eventually flow into the Loire. It is a beautiful village, quite well preserved from the upheavals of modernity in spite of the proximity of Blois.
I had certainly come across Christian's wines here and there but ever since I had what I remeber as being a terrific white of his at the solidarity gathering of vignerons for Nathalie a few years ago, I had this visit in mind. Christian has quite a long lineage of vignerons behind him, his forefathers were actually multi-crop farmers like it used to be in the past in the French wine regions, growing grapes being only one of the crops of the farm, and with the type of wines he's making he somehow pays tribute to their hard work, reviving a simple, non-interventionist winemaking.
I arrived at Christian Venier on a rainy february day (but not cold), Christian makes his wine in his family farm in the middle of the village where his father still lives. There has been a continuity over the generation and the place and cellar suits him perfectly. We first took a coffee in the kitchen where Christian's father was busy peeling potatoes on a newspaper smoking a cigarette. All the while peeling the potatoes he explained the multicrop nature of the farms here in the past, adding it's maybe only 30 years that you find growers dealing only with grapes, before they'd have had cows, hay fields and vegetables, the latter having stalled when asparagus production fell a few years ago (the region is still known for its asparagus thanks to the sandy soil). The family vineyard surface had dwarfed along the 20th century, Christian's father own surface went to 5 hectares to barely one hectare and mostly for the family consumption. Christian's brother Daniel (pictured in the midlle on right) also joined us at the kitchen table.
Christian's grandfather sold his wine directly though, before & after WW2, having barrels shipped as far as Noisy-le-Sec on the outskirts of Paris, people would order by mail and he would bring the barrels of red or white to the train station in Blois. Later, Christian's father says, the vegetable growers would use their trucks to deliver the barrels as well in Noisy-le-Sec (this town was a market-gardener hub). Then with the downfall of the vegetable production in this part of Sologne in the 1960s' the vineyard surface also shrinked, plus it was often planted with hybrids although they still had some menu pineau (Arbois), some chenin and gamay. There was more white than red here. Then the Touraine appellation norms were set up and now you have this forceful push for sauvignon, when Arbois (Menu Pineau) was the real historic varietal here. In the Cheverny appellation they were lucky that these minor white varietals were allowed in the blend, which helped them survive. As there was a wide range of varietals then, the Cheverny appellation allowed them all but without mentioning them on the bottle : there would be a Cheverny white and a Cheverny red, all these varietals being blended in their respective color.
At one point Christian walked me to the cellar door just outside in the courtyard, pointing to this old tree planted by his grandfather he says that this wise move easily replaces air-conditioning as the large foliage it develops each year protects the surface cellar from the sun heat, and it still does today.
Asked about his personnal cursus, Christian says that he attended a BEPA at the agriculture school in Amboise but didn't graduate and then worked in farms and domaines, doing also the harvest season in Champagne with Jean-Marie Puzelat (Thierry's brother), both being his cousins by the way, Christian's mother and the Puzelats' father were brother & sister (Les Montils is the next village like you can see on the pic on right). Once at this time someone who was also doing the seasonnal picking in Champagne saw that he was strong and told him he could become a sheep shearer like himself, which he did. He dis this job along other seasonnal jobs during 15 years, travelling as far as Spain and New Zealand to shear sheep.
In winter he'd come back here to prune vineyards between sheep-shearing trips, he worked for example at Patrice Colin in the Vendômois [well-kown for his pineau d'aunis], whom he befriended at the agriculture school.
Then he had children and stayed in the area, starting to work on two hectares of vineyard including the parcel "brin de chêvre", this was in 1995, his first vintage being also 1995. His seasonal job as sheep shearer allowed him to buy tools like a press without asking to the bank. At the time he says it was not easy to find winery stuff for sale, the domaines had gotten rid of their old tools and taken the path of modern, intensive work style, he says with a laugh that at the time the grower who didn't have a set of electric pruning shears was considered backward.
During all these years he had worked with Thierry Puzelat too, Thierry having begun to work on his family vineyards around 1990, he would do the harvest at his domaine, they were excited by the sulfur-free wines that began to appear among the small group of well-connected winemakers, they'd taste the wines of Lapierre, Gramenon and others and debating about what Jules Chauvet had discovered. He remembers having met the Philippe Laurent of domaine Gramenon (who deceased in 1999) at the Salon des Caves Particulières (a major wine fair taking place every november in Paris at Porte de Versailles). Christian was giving a hand to the Puzelat who also had a stand there and that was an opportunity to meet Gramenon's winemaker who was among the very small group of early natural-winemakers.
In 1995 as he was setting up his own winery he took a small loan and decided around 1996 to enlist in the viticulture school of Amboise for his BEPA training where he happened to have René and Agnès Mosse as shool mates (of course unknown then) and their teacher was Christian Chaussard, another person who was to have a leading role in the natural wine movement in the Loire... What was interesting is that most of the students were sons of vignerons and many didn't understood the organic farming, kind of rebelling against the idea of working without herbicides. They were still in the mindset of thinking that whatever grapes they'd get, they'd make wine with them, so they didn't get the no-herbicides, controlled-yields part.
Christian is another of these artisan vignerons who buys (almost collects) old tools, in particular straddle tractors, and this, for several reasons : first because this way he managed to never depend heavily from the bank as you can find cheap old tractors, then because they have the right size for his type of surface, they're small and light, manufacturers don't make these types of models anymore, they make only big, sophisticated tractors. Another reason is that you [at least himself, I wouldn't try to put my hands in the engines] can fix them very easily and there's no electronics or computerizing. He has now about 15 of these tractors (mostly made by defunct manufacturers Bobard or Loiseau), all somehow different and fit for a different job. He routinely pays 2000 or 3000 Euros for such tractors (this one above cost 300), something unthinkable when you plan to buy new (it's rather 60 000 €). He finds them on Agri Affaires or even le Bon Coin, the latter being the French equivalent of Craigslist. He found his pneumatic press nearby, he bought it in 2013 from a neighbour who stopped his business. There's yet another reason he buys second hand , he says that given the small size of his surface it would be crazy to invest large sums into new tractors or presses. He says he press works maybe one week per year and that's it. For certain tools like the filtration/bottling unit he joined a CUMA, a group of 12 farmers who buy in common machinery and thus share the purchase costs as well as the maintenance costs. But even on this issue of vintage tractors the EC regulations and norms prevents the manufacturers to keep making parts because these machines pollute [it didn't come to the bright mind of these bureaucrats that the issue is minor when tou work on a handful of hectares].. Christian had this problem for one of his old straddle tractors, a Loiseau (this company made tons of models), but there's a way around happily as there is a company in Bolivia that can provide them.
But I think that Christian has a talent to unearth these machines : Submerged under heaps of scrap metal and other objects, he has in an open barn two relics, a Farnall (pictured left) that he says came here during the Marschal Plan after WW2 and an even older Renault tractor (picture right behind the Franall) which from its esthetics could date from the late 30s'. After some research I found the picture a beautifully-restored model, this is a Renault 3041 (I found it on this page with other vintage gems).
Back to his school years where he frequented people like Puzelat, Mosse and Chaussard : Christian says that while there was this debate in the school with students whose fathers were deeply concentional, he considers that for him this natural-wine thing was just what his grandparents had ancestors has always done but this traditional way was kind of disregarded since WW1 or a bit later when farmers embarked on the train of "modernity". When his neighbours saw him plowing the vineyard again they joked that he should come back to the draft horse as well, but now, he says these people don't joke, they see that the wind is turning, they can't sell their wine or if they sell it's at the same price than many years ago, and this, with ever increasing operating costs.
As said, Christian started with two hectares and then after he passed his exam at the viticulture school he was asked by the wine authorities to take more surface (he had to to get some farm subsidies), so he rented three more hectares in Chaumont-sur-Loire which he planted, and bit by bit he reached 12 hectares (in 2009), before downsizing these last years to concentrate on the best terroirs, and on parcels that are closer from the wine farm. His vineyard surface is now 6,8 hectares. He managed to stay away from banks in order to make the wine he wanted to make. Now, he says that just with taking part recently to Les Affranchis in Montpellier and La Dive in Saumur(two major natural-wine fairs) he sold half of his wine. Speaking of his prices, the pfofessional price of most of his cuvées is 6 e (he just raised it from 5,5) which puts a retail price on the shelves at 10 or 11 €.
Here is a 30-are parcel of Arbois, or Orbois, also known as Menu Pineau, Christian says that this year he took some wood here and there in this parcel to have the nursery make a massal selection in order to replace the missing vines of Menu Pineau . He doesn't do marcotage because this replanting process (putting a long cane in the ground so that it bounces back as a new vine while developping roots of its own) weakens the mother vine, and if you cut the tie when it has become adult, it can develop phyloxera because the new vine isn't grafted.
Speaking of his vineyard, Christian says that it's roughly half red half white, but in volume he makes more red. The reds are pinot noir, gamay, cabernet franc, and the whites are sauvignon, Arbois (menu pineau), chardonnay, romorantin, except that he just sold the latter (but he may replant chenin and romorantin). His surface of chardonnay and menu pineau is quite big in spite of the rule to have 60 % of planted sauvignon in Cheverny, but he bottles these two varietals as vin de France (table wine).
Because of the mildew pressure in 2012 he had to spray much more, that's why he is happy to have concentrated his surface, because in the past he had parcels at 8 km on one side of the village and others the
same distance on the other side. In 2012 they had to spray 3 times the usual rate, be it with backpack sprayer or tractor, Christian says that they made more than 15 sprayings along the year when the average is 7 or 8 and on good years 5 only.
In 2014 spring was awful, he sprayed early against mildew compared to others and thanks to a spray blower he bought recently he kept the disease in check. The cold temperature in august helped prevent rot or at least slow it, and the dry and sunny september saved the whole vintage, so his yields are correct, 30 hectoliters/hectare compared to 10 in 2012.
Christian Venier farms organic but he doesn't want to consider joing a certification, he says these certifications fall in the same traps than the appellation system with forcing the growers to go in certain directions in matters not connected with the organic work, plus there are many unclear operations sometimes in organic wineries, with négoce wines from grapes being purchased who-knows-where. His Japanese importers (Vortex) who are utmost interested in the organic quality of products don't mind, they tour the vineyard and check by themselves, plus the wines get an exhaustive lab analysis. And by the way Christian is very surprised at their ability to taste a wine long before it's ready and they rarely make mistakes in their anticipation.
Christian says that he labels 3/4 of his production in Cheverny and 1/4 in vin de France (table wine).
Asked about the Suzukii issue, this small drosophilia that damaged part of the fruit in the region in 2014, he says there weren't too much affected, except the pineau d'aunis.
The grass management is important, he tries not to have grass until the flower, while after the flower he doesn't care because it's less important, the grass doesn't grow back as much, and the competition is different. When he plows, in march, he uses disks that push the earth to the middle of the row, then later he'll make another pass to level the ground and bring back the clods that had been moved in the center.
At one point we passed a parcel of pinot noir that was planted by Christian's grandfather, and he says that according to his grandfather it was planted with gamay before that, this was before the hybrids were generalized. Right now he has about 1,5 hectare of gamay.
This terroir of Sauvignon is quite hot in summer, Christian says, and they avoid working in the afternoon in the summer months, at least on certain days. The terroir is also thick with flintstone (silex), and it's very sandy too. The flintstones are very thick and compact in certain parts of the parcel and when he passed with the tractor to decompact the soil they couldn't drive the blades into the soil, and the blades showed signs of wear after that, that's because these silex stones are so tight and compact under the upper layer of earth. The good side of this soil is that it drains the water well. The Sauvignon here is grafted on 3309 which also restrains the yields. Elsewhere people often use SO4 for the volume, but after 20 years the vines are exhausted and you have to uproot it and replant.
On the right you can see a 30-year-old parcel of gamay which he rented over from an elderly grower about 3 or 4 years ago. These parcels weren't well-tended the farmer was growing a large surface of other crops and the small parcel were a distraction. This is a good parcel, Christian says, these are massal selections on 3309. They needed lots of work to put it back in order and uproot the bushes, but there are still lots of missing vines.
We walked by a parcel of pinot noir, the baby vines being protected against rabbits, which do more damage than roe deers here. These are clones because he wanted to safeguard the harvest, but from now on he'll plan massal selections. These clones are on Riperia rootstock in order to limit the yields.
The parcel on the left is the Clos des Carteries, it is the first gamay which he planted (around 1990), on 3309, he says these are clones, 105, but they grow very little wood and the grapes are very small and the foliage as well. He jokes that in the natural wine milieu he may be looked upon for having planted clones but it was important for him then to secure the harvest on bad vintages. He says that if you cultivate the parcel correctly you can make interesting wines. Yet, he plant massal selections for his next plantations.
Here is a parcel Christian cherishes a lot, even if he just rents it, this is La PLante Aux Loups, this 30are parcel lies on a gentle slope going down to the Loire river, he dreamed for a long time to work on a parcel near the river, and if he hadn't rented it the owner would have uprooted it . The owner was happy actually that Christian took it over and restored it because he remembered that his chardonnay was always very nice, even if he used to sell it in bulk to the négoce, it had always a pleasant character. They had a lot of work to uproot the wheatgrass. The soil is very poor, the farmers never really grow other crops, or with very low yields even with fertilizers. Oddly, mildew never encroaches here, possibly because of the draining ground and the breeze.
This is very hard to find or buy such a parcel on these slopes because the farmers wait for zoning to change because when building will be permitted here they'll make big money. But Christian says they hope in vain because the zoning rules are very strict near the Loire river, no new roof must be visible from the river and it may never be allowed to build here as the zoning rules have tightened recently.
The upper soil is very sandy, Christian says that farmers used to grow asparagus here.
We first taste some Arbois 2014 (Menu Pineau) from a fiber vat, it's a 15-hectoliter volume made from a 30-are surface, which was picked around the 25th of october, quite late. The wine is very fresh, there's a feel of minerality, and Christian says that it is a direct consequence of the work on the soil. Claude Courtois told him this one day when he tasted his wines, he understood immediately that these vineyards were plowed and worked. The mouth touch is also very enjoyable, Christian says that making a nice wine is the result of many small details. He also likes to leave the wines on their fine lees. This wine still has a bit of sugar left, about 4 grams, but he says it's up to the wine, if it needs time, let it be. He doesn't warm the wine to speed up the process, he trusts the mild temperature of the surface cellar to help.
We walk back to the vatroom and cellar. Christian says that while there was a vertical press like elsewhere, his grandfather had already bought a modern press back in 1922, a pressoir continu Colin (Colin being the manufacturer), it was designed to press continuously, without to do it by batches, it used a screw system. I found old documents about this type of press, this one and also this one, they're undated but these are of the screw, continuous type. I am amazed at the inventiveness and diversity of techniques used at that time, in the early 20th century. Christian still has the press but it's behind lots of scrap metal and I couldn't see it. At about that time right after WW1 his family had ordered the construction of several cement vats with glass tiles inside (see pics on the left & right), they were made by itinerant Italian workers, the same guys probably who made all the ones found in the Muscadet. These vats make 50 hectoliters each and he doesn't use them much today.
Speaking of Christian's work, at harvest he brings the grapes in 30kg boxes from the vineyard, the boxes (the red ones on the pic on right) are brought atop the vats with a conveyor belt so that he only has to empty them into the vats. This way, The grapes haven't suffered any damage. He says that to make a good wine such details in the care are very important. It reminds me how Jean Foillard works, I saw that firsthand a year and a half ago (see story) when he used a forklift to bring the intact grapes on top of the fermenters.
Same for the pigeage, Christian says that he doesn't do any, (except if there is an issue of deviant nail polish aromas, acetone) same for the pumping-over, he uses them very rarely. Samely, to take the clustered grapes out of the fermenters he does it by hand in boxes. He says that the use of mechanical means that are violent on the grapes yield something hard in the wines.
Christian says two days a go he got a call at 10 from Philippe Quesnot who is part of the Glougueule team, he just wanted to tell him that he and buddies were having a Hauts de Madon 2010 and it was just so great. He loves when he gets such feedback from wine lovers.
We then tasted from another red fiber vat with Sauvignon (pic on right), he keeps part of his sauvignon in there, part in wood. there's a sugary feel but he says there's no sugar left. The aroma is a mix of the usual sauvignon notes with also English candy. This is not an ordinary Sauvignon, but Sauvignon Gris also known as Fié Gris. The wine stays on a layer of lees. Until bottling, he doesn't use sulfur, except in rare occasions, and the dose at bottling is 10 mg, sometimes 20 mg. His importers tell him that as long as it's under 50 it's fine for them, but the 10 mg are combined quickly after a few weeks and vanish. He says that since the last 20 years he saw lots of change in the natural wines, at the beginning there were lots of accident and weird wines but now it's much under control, people understand better how to make them and how to use minimal sulfur. On the other hand he says since 2 or 3 years there has been a return of the wild wines with reduction and volatile, or oxidized without return, and under the pretext of being natural, and he tasted a few wines like that in the wine fairs.
In the vatroom there were these 3 unusual cement vats (pictured above), these are 18-hectoliter Italian cement vats that reminded the ones I saw in Sardinia at Dettori last year, the plaque on the vats read Cementi Vibrati Cantiere "Tri Plok" Gorlago Bergamo. They're filled from the top and they have a good inertia thanks to the concrete. They are the very first vats that Christian bought at the beginning, he got them from a vignerons who was stopping his activity.
We're tasting the same wine (sauvignon) from the 18-hectoliter Grenier vat, Christian says that he's not interested in making a 100% wood élevage, he looks for blens, mariages like his father used to say, part wood, part neutral vat, the latter bringing more fruit and energy and the former more roundness. This Grenier vat is full to the top. The malolactic fermentation is probably completed here, there shouldn't be sugar left.
Christian says that he's making a 100 % pinot noir, a cuvée named la Pierre aux Chiens, it's not really allowed but it's kind of tolerated, the former president of the Cheverny Appellation who in spite of being a conventional grower waqs rather open and tolerant, and he considered that these pinot-noir cuvées were OK as long as they didn't take a large share in the wineries, he understood that there was something interesting with pinot noir although single-variety wines weren't officially allowed in the appellation, the only thing is you don't tell the varietal on the label, About the filtration issue, it's case per case, he tends to have wines that are clear, and if it doesn't clear by itself he may filter, and the whites are generally filtered here because when he doesn't, he may have some oil phenomenon, which is not harmful for the aromas, but pose a problem for the customers. And the odd thing is that certain parcels only get this potential problem, like the Brin de Chêvre, so now he is careful about the issue. And SO2 doesnt correct the problem (he tried higher doses once), only the sterie filtration does the job.
Then Christian led me to an underground cellar, it is probably as old as the house, and that must be where people had kept their barrels for family consumption. That's where he keeps the pinot noir for the cuvée Pierre aux Chiens. He brought the wine down here for the end of its fermentation, for the malolactic fermentation.
It's been 4 or 5 years that he's been making this cuvée, he used to lat the wine apart a,nd not blend it at least in the early months, and people would taste that and they loved it, so he decided to bottle it by itself.
This pinot noir which he used to blend with the other pinot was so different that he decided to bottle it separately, it comes from a tiny surface of 40 ares, the vines are barely 20 years old but the terroir is why the wine stands out.
Christian fills a couple of glasses with this pinot noir, it has this real, light color typical of pinot noir, it still a bit turbid. I tastes so good with pepper notes and a very good length, and this, in spite of being still cold as I didn't take enough time to warm the glass in my hands. The later sips will be even more enjoyable with the rising temperature.
We taste the same wine from another barrel. These barrels all date from 2008, he bout them from the tonnellerie [cooperage) Blanchard who in turn gets them secondhand from good wineries in Burgundy. The cooperage was purchased by a bigger company after jacky Blanchard retired but they keep working along his ways.This second barrel tastes differently, it's softer and maybe with these whisky notes that oak can bring; I like that. Christian says that each cask will bring its character in the blend at the end.
This cellar has a very stable temperature, 15 °C [59°F] Christian says, in spite of not being that deep, there a breeze flowing continuously through the cellar between a small vent at one end and the trap door at the other end, and this air flow keeps the air healthy without warming it in summer (it may peak at 17 °C) or cooling it in winter, that's very strange.
We taste yet from another cask, pinot noir again. Here again this peppery nature, and there's still this bright acidity, nice refined wine, that goes down so well already.
We then tasted the only barrel of white (third picture above with the stairs in the background, and pic on right), this is chardonnay. This is a try, he has to think about it because raising wine in wood needs an investment and he tends to keep his bottle prices low (on the range of 10 or 11 € retail). The wine still has sugar to go, Christian says it's not hurried to finish the job, la feignasse [French slang for lazy], he says with a grin after listening to the fermentation chant through the opening of the cask... It may waken up again in april, but nothing is sure.
Christian then pours me some wine from a much-older-looking cask, it's the mystery wine he says. I ask if this is a solera, he says, sort of, without adding a comment. The aroma is like these French candy named berlingots, also the glue we had in school, very interesting, I like that. This is Romorantin and it has been in this barrel since 2006, of course it's been topped up with a later vintage, a 2005, that why he joked it was kind of a solera. He picked this Romorantin on a 3rd or 4th of november with 18 % potential, it took a year and a half to ferment, it was hand pressed with a small vertical press, just enough for a barrel. It comes from 800 vines scattered among his chenin. The wine changes along the seasons, it has cycles and they discover it under a different light each tame they taste it, sometimes it's barely srinkable says Daniel (Christian's brother) who joined us, and some days it's outstandingly beautiful. He has a friend near Béziers (Languedoc) who does soleras and when he tasted this wine he found it oxidized and told him to let it on the side just to see (but with little hope for any recovery), and when he came back 8 months later he was divinely surprised by how fresh and tasty it was, he was himself surprised of the turnaround.
Back from all these adventure we seated at the kitchen room with Christian, his brother and his brother's wife, his own wife being at work that day. The saturday lunch is a tradition enforced by Christian's father : steak, fries and oysters and of course nice wine to go with. Christian asked me to stay and I frankly didn't resist very long. It was the opportunity to taste (and drink) bottled wine, beginning with this very nice La Pierre aux Chiens, the unnamed pinot noir of the domaine (we're in Cheverny and we don't speak varietals).
I asked Christian if beyond la Dive and les Affranchis he went to other winefairs and he said that he went to Vini Circus, a successful general-public wine fair in Brittany where people can buy wine, he also attend a wine fair in Riec sur Bélon also in Brittany where some 40 vignerons (many being conventional) take part. He also attends a small wine fair near Limoges (Montrolle if I'm right), he likes the ambiance, and by the way Jean Foillard also comes there.
Asked if he goes to the Vins du Coin, he says with a laugh that he can't because he isn't certified organic. On the other hand he says he may not be certified but he works with his own grapes, and the only time he purchased grapes (in 2012 when the harvest volume was miserable) he named his cuvée of white frankly : le Raisin des Autres, which means "other people's grapes". The Japanese importer loved the move, knowing that Christian always works otherwise with his own fruit.
Le Raisin des Autres is a sauvignon, he bought the grapes from a guy who sells his wine in bulk, but he chose the parcels which were more qualitative. There's a part vinified in wood (Grenier) and a part fiber vat. This was the biggest cuvée that fateful year. The wine pairs so beautifully with these big # 1 oysters.
Christian Venier exports from 40 % to 60 % of his production depending of the years, first to the United States (Savio Soares), then to Japan (Vortex), then Belgium (Troca Vins & BHV), Denmark, Finland, Australia (Charlie Simpson), Canada (Plan Vin)
Christian has been working with Vortex for a few years, before he had yet another importer (enoconexion) and then a period when he didn't sell to Japan. The guy from Vortex came here with Hirotake Ooka (as a translator and facilitator) to taste the wines here and he now works with them because they offer a continuity in the relationship.