Saint Yzans de Medoc, Bordeaux
Didier Michaud is an artisan vigneron in the Medoc, working on a small vineyard surface of less than two hectares (1,7 hectare to be more accurate) and happy with it. We visited him on a sunny and warm day of april, it was really like summer down here in the Bordeaux region, with the outside temperature peaking at 31 ° C (88 °F) in the afternoon for a couple of days.
Saint-Yzans is a quiet village located on the left bank of the Gironde, a handful of kilometers north of Saint-Estèphe and Pauillac. The village outlook is far from the fastuous Bordeaux imagery we all have in mind when thinking to this aristocratic wine region.
The best way to reach it when coming from the north is to take the ferry at Royan, the only alternative to this 20 minute ride is to drive 2 hours around further south through Bordeaux, a less pleasant experience because the highways through its endless overbuilt suburbs are often congested.
Like often when we deal of vignerons working thoughtfully in the vineyard and in an uninterventionist way in the cellar, Didier Michaud is an outsider in the region, he was born in Paris and began to work in the vineyard in the area in 1977 (for other growers) and set up this small domaine in 1981. Until 1997, he sold his grapes to the coop, he was just a grower and didn't make wine himself. His first vintage here was 1998. His small domaine is totally organic since 1998 and he took a certicication starting in 2002, actually, from the time he began to make wine here, it was totally organic.
Didier Michaud arrived in the region in 1976, he found a couple of parcels to purchase, which is not always easy in the Bordeaux region, but this particular corner of the Medoc was formarly made up of marshland, most of it having been drained and dried, but there remains a few islands of marshland here and there, one of them being near one of his parcels. The good point of these marshlands is that they host lots of life beginning with diverse insects and birds, protecting the immediate surroundings from the travails of intensive monoculture. The down side is that the area is more humid and it's difficult especially when you farm organic, especially that you have also the 11km-wide estuary of the Gironde and its humidity close by.
Didier Michaud shows us a half hectare of Cabernet Sauvignon next to a wooded plot, lots of wild life in there of course, with also alas some wild boars roaming now and then between the rows. The name of the parcel is Petit Maurac (cadastral name).
He says that fortunately the wild board don't eat the grapes here compared to other regions where the toll on the harvest can be disastrous, but they sometimes accidentally uproot vines while foraging into the soil to eat the roots of Arum, a wild flower that they seem to like particularly and which feels at home in Didier's vineyard (pic on right). The wild boars seem to be fond of its roots and their digging through the soil to get their delicacy sometimes end up with an old vine being uprooted or badly broken. Roe deers also come here and seem to love this wild flower plant too, the odd thing being that for us humans it's poison and we're said to wash our hands after touching it.
What caught my eyes as we walked along the rows was the high number of wild leeks (pic on left), I'm sure that if you picked them all that day there was enough to cook a delicious vegetable plate.
This parcel (which actually lies on the administrative land of the next village of Saint-Christoly-en-Medoc) has been plowed recently, Didier Michaud says that it was tricky because lots of rain fell on the region in february and they had to wait
until a week ago to have the ground ferm enough to stand the tractor's weight. Now they'll have to do a bit of tilling to take away the few remaining weeds under the row here and there.
Asked about the age of these cabernet vines, he says that for sure they're older than 45 : when he arrived in the region in 1976 this was already a producing vineyard but he could find more precise data on the planting sate of the parcel, because when he went to the administration for the purchase documents. The person who planted it was deceased then and it appears he hadn't filled properly the documents you're suppose to give the administration when you plant a parcel.
The soil for this plot is clay/silica and the lower part has more clay with thicker stones. Speaking of these old cabernet vines, he says that esca is a problem and many of them show the first signs of the illness. By the way, finding such an old parcel of cab sauv in the area is rare, he shows us the [conventionally-farmed] parcel next to his and he says that since he settled in the region in the late 70s' it (it's cabernet sauvignon too) has been replanted twice... Everything was dying fast there, probably because the soil was dead after years of herbicides and other chemicals being dumped on it, chemical farming accelerating the toll of esca.
The yields are low of course on this parcel, which is OK for him because he isn't looking for high yields, he makes half the appellation-sanctionned yields but that the way to go to make good wines. Mildew is a problem in the region but oddly this cab sauv parcel is less prone to the disease.
Asked about how easy it is to find small parcels in this region, Didier Michaud says that a few years ago (in the 70s' and 80s' I guess) it was possible while now it's more complicated today. Here, the soil is quite unique because this is a geological area known under the name of Döme de Couquèques with limestone formed during the eocene era (read this page in French about the Bordeaux geology). Didier says that this area around here is the only place in the Medoc where an acient layer of limestone is surfacing. The area is also well know the world over for this old-limestone surfacing, he remembers that back in the 1970s' people would come from everywhere here including from America and Germany to look for fossils, people would look for urchin fossils especially when a farmer was deep-plowing for a replanting, but the petrified urchins they looked for were very different from the usual fossils as came from a much older geological era, the Dôme de Couquèques being the only spot where they could be found without digging. Now it's rare to find any after decades of plunder by amateur collectors and fossil dealers.
The conversations drifts at one point on Chateau names in the region, and Didier says that in the past it was common for a 30-hectare domaine with a single facility to bottle its wines under 15 different names of Chateau, one for a particular country or using a different name for each supermarket chain for example, this lasted for years and this certainly added to the mistrust of many knowledgeable consumers for mid-range Bordeaux wines. This was changed by law, now wineries can use two different names of Chateau maximum and the 2nd Chateau name must have been registered before 1983 [in short, the long-time cheaters still keep something...].
After that we drove to another parcel, a 50-are plot of Merlot planted on a lieu-dit named Barrail, the place is very peaceful and we can hear the melodious song of a nightingale (first time this year that I hear one). Didier Michaud says that last year they had devastating hailstorms that left their mark on the vines, and to this day you can see the wounds on many branches even on the winter wood. He remembers driving there in the middle of the night in june and finding the parcel completely destroyed, all the leaves and the future grapes were down with a thick layer of ice, even the canes were broken. It's the first time he sees that since he lives in the region. He had to cut some branches and leave others with scars. There will be almost no wine in 2014 because of that.
Speaking about the way to heal the vines and bring them back to normal production, there are two ways, first the one he chose (pictured on left) which was keeping the less-destroyed branches, prune relatively short if needed so that in the future the wood can rebuild, but the down side is that even this year there will be much less grapes.
The other way can be seen on the next block pictured on right [which belongs to the Benard Magrez group], here it's farmed conventionally as you can guess and the focus is obviously keep the yields high even following this hail damage, so they opted to keet two-year-old branches all over to make for the lost branches, the result of this short-term choice being that they'll get good yields in 2015 but it will weaken the vines and it will be difficult in the following years to bring back down the wood length on these vines.
We then drove to a third parcel on a terroir named Peyrat, with first a few rows of Petit Verdot making 30 ares, he planted this part of the parcel it in 2003, this is his youngest vines. There was no other vines around when he first took over the vineyard in this area, it was all fallow land and woods around here. This is a selection massale and the wood come from a friends's parcel (Patrice de Bortoli in Macau) with vines aged from 80 to 120, the petit verdot makes 3 or 4 % of his total surface. Patrice makes for example a single-variety wine with his old vines of Petit Verdot. Didier Michaud tells us an interesting thing about the Petit Verdot : he had it planted down the slope here because this varietal likes the cool, humid terroirs, it hates the water stress. And 200 years ago it was planted along the estuary of the Gironde river where it enjoyed an ideal fresh and humid terroir; now you don't find any vineyards on these places, because what happened is that when the Chateaus were built (around 1817-1855) the owners brought all their vineyards around their facility, on terroirs which were not suited at all for the petit verdot. Because of the water stress on these gravels the petit verdot would only yield nice grapes one every 10 years and that's why it almost disappeared. Plus since the 1960s' only one clone was selected for this varietal, a clone making huge clusters, which added one more difficulty to reach maturity. Normally, a massal-selection petit verdot has many small clusters but the clone selected by the INRA yielded only large, plentiful clusters unfit for good wine. These things are not fully understood today.
Further on the same parcel there is more cabernet sauvignon (40 ares). Here also lots of esca casualties, he just picked this one out recently and will take it away soon, he regrets that his neighboors leave these dead vines in the vineyard which may help spread the disease. When he bought the parcel tyhere was already some esca losses, that's why so many vines are missing, he had some replantings done but the younger vines are even more likely to get the disease.
The traditional pruning in the Bordeaux region is two canes, Didier says, but also with 2 coursons, the one-year-old branches that grow from the vine. The Guyot-double pruning where you have two additional wood growths (retours) is not right for the vine he thinks, it yields an excessive volume of grapes, sometimes 8 clusters more per vine. Here for each vine his target is between 6 and 8 clusters maximum.
Further as we walk closer to Didier's wife who is tying the canes, we pass along a few rows of merlot (pic on right with wild leek)
We drove back to the village to taste a few wines, the Michauds live in a nicely-renovated house with their office and facility buildings around at just a few-seconds walk. The name of the street (rue de l'Abreuvoir means Trough street in French) made us thirsty I think...
Didier says that most of the time they do the picking with the two of them, he and his wife, first because the surface is small but also because they pick along the maturity and may pick part of the row and come back later for the rest. He tastes the grapes to determine the right time and also the grape seeds and maturity can come in just a few hours apart. He remember that in 2003 they had this heat wave which blocked the vine life, nothing would ripen and at the end of september the seeds weren't ripe when tasted but in a single day it tilted, he says it was september 27 and only then he and his wife could begin pick the grapes. In 2003 you had lots of sugar, no ripeness and usually a low acidity, but on these terroirs he says he is lucky to always have a good acidity and oddly when in 2003 all the winemakers had to deal with low acidity juices, this was the year he had his highest natural acidity. 2003 was the year the administration allowed the growers to acidify their juices, he himself didn't need it, he had lots of natural acidity, and he likes wines with high natural acidity, that's what helps wines to age and allows to add virtually no SO2.
Asked about the suzukii incidence (the drosophilia that wreaked havoc across several wine regions in 2014) he says that there was some damages here and there, pârticularly for example in the parcel of Maurac, the one that was not hit by the hail, But he relativizes the issue saying that 2014 was a year with acidic rot which was brought by differents pests, not only the suzukii, he says that in the next years they'll look closer to see if this drosophilia is making a difference.
Speaking of the labelling of hiw wines, Didier Michaud now doesn't ask for the AOC, he got problems with the appellation for 10 years because his wines were different and because he doesn't put SO2, plus you have all this conventional farming which is shared by all the wineries selling in the AOC, the fact that for the plantation rights in the AOC you were obliged to use clones instead of massal selections, that was really too much, and while we were walking in the vineyards he show a parcel next to his and says, this is in the Médoc AOC and pointing to his own parcel, this is not in the Médoc AOC, I don't need to tell you exactly how these two contiguous parcel looked like and which one should really deserve the AOC... On the last year he asked for the AOC (in 2008) he had a wine that hadn't any of the defaults that the AOC guys like to pinpoint but they still refused to give it the Médoc. In 2005 he adds, he got the same wine accepted in the AOC (avec les félicitations du jury) and in a later agreement check another batch had to be labelled as table wine (deemed akin to vinegar and oxidized) because the two samples were not tasted by the same team.... From 2007 when rules changed and the agreement samples were to be taken from already-bottled wine he decided to quit especially that in the Médoc your bottlings need to have corks with the word Médoc printed on the side, so if by bad chance he had again the AOC refused by the agreement commission he would have to uncork all his bottles and rebottle them at his own cost.
Didier Michaud usually doesn't do barrel tastings as he likes the wine to stay undisturbed until bottling, but as he had recently opened this barrel for a soon-to-come bottling we could taste it. Usually he has more bottles ready to go but now it's almost empty, the vintage 2014 having been very low in terms of volume. this room was originally a cellar but later at some point it was changed into a stable for cows. Presently the cellar holds two vintages, 2012 and 2013, plus a couple of casks in total for 2014.
__ Chateau Planquette 2012, the single cuvée of the domaine. The yields were low also in 2012 (like in 2011), there was some sorting. Nice inspiring nose. Swallowed : delicious, elegant with refined tannins. Didier Michaud says this will be bottled between april and june, then after 6 month élevage in bottles he sells the wine in september and usually in november it's sold out. His wine go through 2 years and half of élevage plus a few more months in bottle. No new oak here, he orinally buys new casks but then keeps then, so all these barrels are old even if he may change one from time to time, for example he has a couple of casks have seen only two wines but others date from 1998, 1999 or 2000. He says the problem with second-hand casks is that they may be polluted either by conventional grapes or by the lab yeast.
Didier Michaud still uses a sulphur wick between two wines in a barrel but that brings no real SO2 addition, 2 mg total. He doesn't do rackings or almost never now. When he has to empty a cask he doesn't use a pump, he uses air pressure at the top of the barrel to get the wine pushed out at the bottom, and at the end he uses what is called in French an esquive, a tool that helps tilt lightly an almost-empty barrel to get the last few liters in the bottom. This tool you can see hanging above the barrel on the picture is custom made (with a pulley fixed to a metal frame and hooks), it helps him to at the same time tilt gently the cask while checking with a torch light held behind the flowing wine at the bottom if it is still clear. When the first signs of turbid lees appear in the wine, then he stops the flow, the goal being not to have to filter afterwards. He used to empty the barrels with the help of his wife but if the tilting move get even lightly jerky by accident, then all the lees will go up and turn unnecessarily the remaining wine turbid.
The lees are given to the French administration which will distill them for industrial alcohol. Now the law has changed a bit and he could theorically use the lees as compost but you have to fill so many administrative papers for the French bureaucracy (they're probably afraid you may use these lees for your own moonshine...) that it's not work the hurdle.
Asked about the SO2 he says he is not fanaticly against SO2, he uses a sulfur wick between two wines, and before using it for another wine, he rinses the cask which actually eliminates much of the remaining SO.. At bottling, it depends of the vintage, if he thinks a particular bottling is tricky he may add a maximum of 5 mg. But the 2011 and the 2010 in the bottles here got nothing. He publishes the lab analysis on his website (bottom of the main page, Pdf links) every year and you can trace down the wines contents (acidity SO2 etc) back to 2002. Here is the lab sheet for 2010 and the one for 2011 for example. The so2 levels are indeed very low, I wished all the wineries (especially the mainstream, commercial ones) had the same transparency for their bottled wines, we'd have biiiiig surprises....
__ We taste the 2011, it was bottled may 9 2014, all sold out now (usually december is the deadline). More powerful, big-bodied wine, more tannic too, nice wine. 14 % alcohol (2012 is 13,5 %). The bottle was opened earlier in the day, he says it should need more natural decanting.
__ We taste now the 2010 which he opens before us, he says 2010 was a great vintage, there was nothing to do at the picking (in 2011 they had sorting to do). Bottled 2 years ago. The nose is even more appealing here. Mouth and swallowed : delicious wine, the long élevage in cask and bottles really makes a difference I think, in addition to the good vineyard management.
In the beginning Didier Michaud sold his wine direct to the consumer, doing the open-air markets in summer in the towns and villages around, driving as far as the Dordogne. He still sells at the domaine, retail price for Chateau Planquette is 14 € tax included at the winery.
Now Didier Michaud's wines are exported in the United States (Chambers Street Wines), in Japan (Vin Nature Selection by François Dumas and also in Sapporo/Hokkaido Ken & Yuki Kobayashi, see story), in Canada (Quebec, Vinealis), in Belgium (True Great Wines), in Denmark (In Vino), Italy (Vino natural Durante and Sarfati) .