Montlouis-Husseau, east of Tours (Loire)
François Chidaine is the vigneron in Montlouis who did a lot along several decades to get the Montlouis appellation out of oblivion. He now farms 40 hectares split between Montlouis (majority), Vouvray (the sister region of Montlouis) and Touraine. The domaine has been farmed on biodynamics for 17 years now, it's among the large organic/biodynamic domaines. Organic farming requires much labor and François Chidaine says that his permanent staff (not counting the administrative part from what I understand) is 13 and it goes up temporarily depending of the season to 16 or 18, plus of course the short-time spike when the pickers come for the harvest.
Montlouis is Chenin country, the 370-hectare appellation area covers 3 villages : Montlouis/Husseau, Saint Martin le Beau and Lussault on the south bank of the Loire east of Tours. This appellation is white-only and Chenin (also named Pineau de la Loire here) will show up as a dry wine, a sweet wine or a sparkling.
There are close to 60 vignerons in the region of Montlouis, among them artisan vignerons like Bertrand Jousset, la Grange Tiphaine, Frantz Saumon, without forgetting another outstanding vintner, Jacky Blot (la Taille aux Loups, and he has a domaine in Bourgueil too). There's a coop here too, the Cave des Producteurs de Montlouis which was created in 1961 and gets its grapes from 12 growers.
Husseau, the village where François Chidaine is based, is located 5 km east of Montlouis (which has the size of a small town with a population of 11 000) and both dominate the Loire (see satellite view). At the end of WWII here in Husseau there were more than 410 growers (multi-crop farmers) and today there are maybe 6 growers.
The villages along the Loire there all sit on the plateau, at a safe elevation in order not to suffer from the famously-unruly flow of the Loire (especially in the past when there was no river management). Long time ago the farmers in the region would use the Loire river for transportation, they'd make wines from the vineyards on the plateau, plus other crops, and from the lower land along the river bed which was a rich alluvial soil thanks to the changing level of the Loire they'd grow vegetables, and all these products could be shipped quickly thanks to barges or flat-bottom boats to major cities (this was before railroad construction changed the rules and other transportation means were introduced). Still today you can see remains of these vegetable gardens (pic above shot in Montlouis) that were in the past very active, they're separated by walls making them look like clos.
François Chidaine's father was also a vigneron (working on about 12 hectares) but François set up his own domaine separately in 1989, first with a few parcels belonging to his parents, then with additional surface he bought along the years. He started from 4 then jumped to 9 hectares, then to 17 hectares, 27, 37 and lastly 40 hectares today, with the successive addings along the years. They started working on biodynamics in 1998, it was much less mainstream than it is today, he was a pioneer in the Loire region, and before that year there was a gradual change already to organic farming; they were already plowing and working the soils from the start, his father having always kept doing that, he father even kept using a horse for the plowing (also long before it was trendy) until 1979, he was the last vigneron in Montlouis to use a draft horse. He used the horse for tricky parcels and did the other parcels with a tractor, he was very at ease with his horse. Before setting up his own domaine François Chidaine came to work in his father’s vineyard in 1984. At the time he started on his own around 1990 it was not easy to find available parcels, then later with many growers retiring at the same time (and their children having gone to town for an easier life) there was suddenly a lot of vineyards to choose from.
Speaking of the subtilities of the local appellations, Montlouis was actually part of the Vouvray appellation until 1936, in 1937 the regional AOC were created and the vineyards arounf Montlouis lost the right to be labelled as Vouvray, which already at that time made lots of growers give up and go work in towns because while Vouvray meant something for the consumer even before the AOC creation, Montlouis was kind of obscure even though we’re speaking of what was initially the same wine region. The choice to separate Montlouis from Vouvray was political, François says, actually the political, economic and financial heavyweights were based in Vouvray and Tours (the large regional city) and they didn’t feel any connection with the eastern wing of this small region even though this had been historically a whole and single wine region. In the 1940s’ all the elite of Tours were living or having land in Vouvray and they didn’t see any interest to keep Montlouis in the club. Then much later in the early 1980s’ as the Montlouis vineyards and domaines were not in good shape and if nothing had been done it would have become exctinct, so local growers and the appellation body tried to improve the situation to revitalize the Montlouis region. On the other hand with the construction boom in those years, many vineyards and agricultural fields had their status changed to constructible by some short-sighted politicians and the region lost in the way some very good terroirs to the suburban sprawl coming from Tours. In the 1980s’ thanks to working on a better winemaking and better commercial and sales markets the Montlouis wines began to slowly emerge from the gloom.
We first go visit a first parcel named Les Bournais, it’s on the plateau overlooking te Loire river with a steep (25-meter) cliff on one end beyond the thin hedge. The place is very peaceful and with the wind that day the few bee hives generated little traffic compared to usual, François said. The soil here is clay limestone and of course it’s Chenin Blanc. The flowering is beginning already compared to 2 days ago he says, the weather is dry and healthy but François still notes that there a few grape worms but it’s minor apparently. On organic farming he can use bacteria against grape worms but he doesn’t use that, he’ll just let it go. I ask him about the drosophilia damages here in his vineyards, he says he had minimal damage on Montlouis but more on his Vouvray parcels, he doesn’t know why the difference because the parcels are worked and farmed the same way. The leaves look healthy and full of a vibrant energy, like often when a vineyard is farmed on biodynamics. François says that the parcel got a 501 spraying some time ago. As a try this year he sprayed part of the parcel late may (the part we’re in) and a part at the end of june instead (there’s only one spraying yearly for this preparation) to see if a different timing brings some interesting results.
All the while we wander among the rows the two dogs of the Chidaines frolick around, lying from time to time as if to enjoy the contact of the ground with their belly. François says that always love going to the vineyard and when he takes the van they kind of guess they’re about to have good time running around in a parcel. These vines here on Les Bournais are 17 and they have been farmed with biodynamy from the start.
This parcel of Les Bournais makes 4 hectares and at the end of the block he has 30 ares of ungrafted Chenin, planted at the same time, this was a try then and he can now make a couple of barrels of wine which he bottles separately. Until now he didn’t get any trouble with these rows, no phylloxera even though the soils are not sandy here. We walk to these rows, 21 of them, it’s always impressive to see ungrafted and grafted vines side by side, he it’s obvious that the trunk of the vines are thinner than the ones with American rootstocks, they look younger, and the foliage will not get as high also on the ungrafted vines. François says that when the flower is well opened the canes stop growing and the small branches will keep quiet while on the grafted vines the canes and shoots will keep growing. For the grafted vines he used Riparia rootstock which is rather qualitative. A few vines are missing and they replace them in continuum.
At the other end of the block he got one hectare following an agricultural land restructuration (farmers exchanging plots for convenience) and he replanted it in 2O10, 2015 being really the first regular producing vintage for this part of the block, this is massal-selection chenin also, the vines are still
We then drove to another parcel aged 50 and planted on flintstone and clay (argile à silex) soil. The surface here is 2,5 hectare. Most of his vineyards are planted on silex/clay soil. The vines look like they were in goblet in the past but François
says that initially they were in Guyot and along
the years they were moved to something between Goblet and Cordon. Each vine seems to be different, with the branches going in different directions.
The yields are not that bad here considering the age, they're certainly less productive, they give more fruit at 20 for sure.
Speaking of the grass management he uses two options depending on the parcels, some parcels keep their grass and are regularly mowed while on some others he sows weeds, Leguminous plants, grain crops and other plants that bees like, in order to encourage insect activity among the rows. There's a permanent worker who overlooks the parcels and does the soil management at the appropriate time. If the grass management between the rows varies, the strip under the vines is always plowed.
It wasather dry when I visited, the last rain was in may when they got 100 mm, I ask François Chidaine about the weather in 2014 at the same time, he says that the weather last year was awfull, from may to the end of june, 2015 looks very easy compared to 2014. And thanks to the wind these days, in addition to the lack of rain, they have no fungi pressure, the vineyards remains very healthy.
I ask François Chidaine about the issue of him and Jacky Blot being banned from labelling their Vouvray wines as Vouvray (read the story on Decanter), he says that the lawyers are taking care of the case. He and Blot were initially open for a compromise or a discussion, especially that what they’re imposed can be considered abusive, because they’re the only Montlouis-based vintners that are banned to label their Vouvray wines (made from vineyards growing on Vouvray) under the Vouvray AOC. There are other Montlouis-based producers in other villages adjunct to Vouvray who also vinify their Vouvray parcels in their respective Montlouis facilities, but they weren’t bothered, the wine syndicate of Vouvray (Syndicat des Vignerons de l'Aire d'Appellation Vouvray) coincidently banned only the producers based in Husseau, the village which (also coincidently) is home to both Jacky Blot and François Chidaine, two vignerons who (also coincidently) make Montlouis wines shine well beyond the region and thus overshadow the established reputation of Vouvray.
François says that this decision is probably motivated by the age-old mindset of the wine authorities in Vouvray, they have always considered Vouvray as a superior AOC compared to Montlouis. I ask about the risk that this suit could last years but he says no, as there are also obviously a few legal flaws in this case, so they hope the Syndicat des Vins de Vouvray will change their mind, and they’d better do it fast because if they let the suit go too far the Syndicat could end up having to pay big fines. For his part, François Chidaine doesn’t look for getting paid these retributions, he’d prefer that their work in Vouvray is recognized. Right now alas this appellation body plays the autist card and the 2014 Vouvray wines of Jacky and François will likely be bottled as table wine (Vin de France) as a result. Unlike other producers he considers he (and Jacky as well) has always work hard to do the best for the Appellation of Vouvray and this is pretty sad. This said, he is hopeful one way or another for the 2015 labelling of these wines. He laments this disproportionate and sudden obviously-hostile decision, noting that if the other party had been more intelligent they wouldn’t be in this legal fight.
Speaking of the vineyard status, most of François Chidaine's parcels are in ownership but he rents also 3,5 hectares, and separately he makes wine in Spain, actually he partnered in 2010 with friends who own vineyards there, helping them vinify and making wine from himself there too. With the different timing of the respective harvests he can manage to work at this time in both the Loire and Spain. Now someone is beginning to manage the vinification by himself, so he may not get there that often.
François Chidaine says that 2012 & 2013 were pretty bad years regarding the weather accidents, in 2012 he had some frost plus rain, bad weather, bad flowering, very bad conditions. In 2013 they had frost again on both appellations, on Montlouis with 40% of loss (but still managed to have yields of 24 ho/ha that year), and on Vouvray he lost 100 % of the fruit that year. In 2014 on Vouvray he made about half the volume of a “normal” vintage and in 2015 the vines should recover and he should get these “normal” yields.
We drive back to the winery in the middle of the village of Husseau. On the other side from the modern facility on La Grande Rue, the main street going down the slope straight to the Loire, Chidaine has several old cellars consisting of 3 tunnels going deep into the hill. We're obviously in a wine country and like elsewhere in Touraine the hills and cliffs are full of caves, tunnels and former quarries that were probably converted in cellars. The place is beautiful and the dogs seem to love it.
The cellars have a regular, non-insulated door and the sun beams through on the sides, if the light was off we'd still manage to see the cellar.
All the still wines are vinified here he says, he vinifies everything in large-volume barrels (600-liter), called demi-muids here. He began with old barrels and then renewed them with new such barrels along the years. His father also used demi-muids to vinify his wine, they were really old barrels like often in traditional wine farms and he had got them used from Portugal, long time ago you could get such used Port barrelms at the Entrepots de Bercy, a walled warehouse area with rail freight terminal which was until the mid 20th century the hub for wine trade near Paris. In the early 20th century there was a cooper in each of these wine villages (Husseau, Montlouis etc...) but in the 1940s' they began to be rare and Bercy was the place to find alternative barrels. When he began, François Chidaine worked with these used Port barrels (some oth them making 720 l. For 3 or 4 years until 1995 he tried regular-volume casks but he felt he prefered the style of wine made in large-volume barrels which were softer on wood input even when new. Asked if he prefers a cooperage he says you had to be alert because like for cork suppliers the quality varies, but still he says he's quite happy with the demi-muids made by Seguin-Moreau, by Taransaud and by Centre France (again a vigneron who lauds this cooper). He has only one Stockinger, he didn't like the result on its first year but the second year (which is now from what I understand) is very good.
For the vinification there is 10 % of new oak and the barrel stock is renewed along 10 years. Some barrels look quite old but after 4 years he says, depending of the cellar, some casks get covered with mold which makes them look older than they are really. The Vouvray wine is vinified in one of these tunnels and the barrels are managed separately also.
There are a few stainless-steel vats in the cellar but now the wine is directly pumped from the modern facility on the other side of the Grande Rue to the barrels in the cellar, he had a sytem built under the road through which he can pull hoses at will. The spontaneous fermentation takes place with natural terroir yeast, it lasts from october to january. Asked if some fermentations stall sometimes and take longer, he says no, he understood along time that the cellar temperature has to be managed from the start of the fermentation, they make sure that it doesn't drop too low and if necessary they keep this temperature between 15 °C and 17 °C (59 °F to 62,6 °F) otherwise in winter it could go down to 8 °C (46 °F). They use an odorless gas heater at the door of the cellar to do that, to keep the cold out.
Years ago there was a press here plus another above outdoor, and these presses would be for the setlling of the juice, now they may be used for fermentation and foremost that's where they blend the barrels at the end.
Speaking of the grapes, they're hand picked (they pas 2 or 3 times in a parcel to pick only the grapes that are ripe), there is some sorting on a table at the end of the row. Then the gondolas are emptied into the pneumatic press, the pressing time being from 4 to 5 hours. The press is a Willmes, he says it's a Rolls Royce, adding that the technology is old but hyper efficient because the pressing is oriented inward and not outward, keeping the juice always in contact with the skins and avoiding the excessive flowing of the juice on the outside which you have with other presses. The settling of the lees takes place during 12 or 24 hours at the cellar temperature, no need to force the temperature down. They pump the clear juice into the barrels and filter summarily the bottom with the deposits (the resulting juice being immediately reunited with the former). At the beginning he tried to vinify this part separately be he now thinks it's better to keep the batch whole.
They usually then just check the fermentation from time to time, stirring a given barrel if they need to encourage the yeast, that's the only stage where they might stir, later during the élevage there's no stirring at all, they keep the CO2 in the wine at the maximum. Before filling the barrels after the pressing they suck up the air in the empty barrels so that it's replaced with the yeast ambiance of the cellar which helped the whole process. The first barrels will need 3 or 4 days to start fermenting the the following will start in one day thanks to the fermenting ambiance in the cellar after a while.
At one point we pass a door opening on what happens to be a small bottle cellar, that's where the vigneron would keep his own bottles, most of his wine being sold abd shipped in barrels. The vaulted door dug into the rock is so beautiful. Inside it's not very big, you can guess shelves, some sort of doorless cabinet carved into the rock, this seems to be an ideal resting place for a long élevage in bottle. Functionality and elegance rhymed with indestructibility then.
Today there's one-month interval between when they empty the barrels and when they fill them and in the future he'll like to invest in the logistics, vats and so on so that the barrels are never empty, this way they wouldn't have to use a sulfur wick in the interval.
The fermentations are usually finished in december and the wine gets an élevage on its lees in these barrels until bottling which generally takes place around august/september. This year they had to bottle a first batch earlier because there was no other wine available for sale. The bottling is done with earth filtration, no fining. Regarding the SO2, there's some added at the press stage, during the élevage, and at bottling.
To get into the cellar tunnel for the Vouvray you just have to go back to the street and open another door behind which you find a similar deep cellar lined with barrels, in the matter it's the 2014. On Vouvray the average yield for him is 30 hectoliters/hectare but in 2014 they made 20. This autumn they'll probably get 300 hectoliters of juice and he'll have to order more barrels.
He's been renting this cellar for years to a grower who then passed away and in his will he bequeathed it to his grandson at the condition that he keeps renting it to Chidaine without time limit. The bottle cellar at the bottom is still the grandfather's bottle cellar, and the grandson comes there now and then. He and François Chidaine are now friends and he is to visit soon. The bottles and glasses on the table in this bottle cellar are probably the remains of the elder's last shared bottles, François says, and his family left the scene untouched...
On the other side of the street facing the cellar doors, the big modern facility offers large volumes and enough room to move around, be it the stainless-steel vats or the bottle pallets. I guess that for the shipping it's much easier, especially give the size of the winery today. Thanks to the slope they can work by gravity, the press being on the upper level and the juice flowing directly into the vats after that for the setlling stage. They also have a few vats (these ones here if I'm right) for their Touraine wines. The place if not very attractive looks very clean and efficient.
There's so much room they can store the pallets with the empty bottles 2 weeks in advance so that when they do the bottling they are at the same cool temperature as the wine. He says that often by lack of room the emplty bottles are left outside and the difference in temperature can be an issue for the wine. Even before he had this new facility he'd do like that, bringing the empty bottles inside the cellar long time before bottling.
Going down a steel staircase we reach the bottom level with more room including for the bottle storage. Some lay in caged crates without their labels while others seem to wait for shipment. He says they don't have to use airconditioning, it's naturally cool, around 14 ° C and the wine can wait here safely. Before they had this facility remodeled they had to move back and forth the pallets of bottles into cellars a few kilometers away and it was really a waste of energy.
From the street side the facility looks like a building but actually it's dug deep into the hill with the slope.
François Chidaine brought 3 bottles for tasting in the vatroom, he opened them the day before with visiting vignerons. The bottles have no labels and probably never ventured outside except for crossing the street briefly.
__ Les Choisilles 2010, Montlouis, a dry chenin on clay/flintstone. Bottled 3 years ago. Nice greenish color. Delicious, no spit. He says the fact he opened the bottle yesterday helps. Very enjoyable, neat with a good balance.
__ Les Bournais
2010 grafted vines, dry Montlouis. He bottles separately the grafted and the ungrafted versions of this parcel.
More impressive and powerful, more maturity maybe also. He says the maturity is the same but the clay/limestone soil makes the difference for the rest. The previous wine was more on the light side, this one is more into power. I like this one very much too.
__ Les Bournais 2010, from ungrafted vines. Now that's very different, with such a sapidity and chiseled mouth, super wine. I enjoy this rare opportunity to dring the two versions of the same parcel of chenin (same age for the vines), the grafted and the franc-de-pied. Such a lovely wine. This wine is a little less powerful (athough the power of the former wasn't a problem for me) and there's more refineness, a gliding mouth touch that is very enjoyable. He says that the ungrafted version has more minerality, some saline edge too. The grapes were picked the same day, he noticed that the grafted yields grapes that are richer but on the maturity side they're on pair. The ungrafted is lower in alcohol, like he says this one must be at 13,2 % alc. while the grafted makes 14 % (only in 2011 for an unknown reason this was the other way around).
Lastly I asked François Chidaine to see his machines (I discovered that seeing the parcel is good, but the machines are too rarely looked upon although these silent monsters can tell a lot), I thought I'd see only big straddle tractors but there were also a couple of antiques that are running fine, proof again that these low technology tractors (no computerized systems in there) last for ever and can do jobs the oversized and overpowered modern machines can't.
The Mc Cormick F 240 (Verger Vigne or orchard vineyard) was his first tractor and again it's in perfect shape, in 1989 when he started that was his only machine to work in his parcels. Asked about the fuel consumption he says it's nothing, like 2 liters of diesel per hour compared to 10 liters for the new ones. It may weigh a bit more than a ton. He says Mc Cormick encountered economic trouble precisely because their machines were efficient and enduring, and farmers would keep them without renewing them. There are two other vintage Mc Cormick F 240 on the left, he bought them when given the opportunity and one is for his daughter the other for his son.
The story is that he first bought an additional one for one of them and the other was jealous so he looked again and found another one in Bordeaux through the classified website Le Bon Coin. The old-tractor thing is taking hold on vignerons whatever the size of their estate, meaning it's not only an issue with spending less but also because these machines have a plus, they're reliable and easy to get with. François says that as it's American you have to have the appropriate tools as the wrenches and bolds have different sizes from the European ones, but outside that there's no problem fixing these babies, he sums up what they need : water, oil and diesel. There's also a Renault R60, also from the 1960s', samely a very narrow tractor designed for vineyards and orchards of that time, with limited space between rows and trees. Speaking of the Mc Cormick he says that its width can even be decreased by changing the back wheels and putting a thinner hub, very ingenious. But he prefers his daughter keep the wider mode because you can easily turnover on sloppy terrain.
Of course the Bobard straddle tractors are there too, next to the old tools
I checked on Le Bon Coin for Mc Cormick tractors in the region of Bordeaux and found plenty of them with prices starting at 850 € (even as low as 350 € if you were ready to fix it yoursef)...
François Chidaine exports 55 % of his wine, first to the United States (Polaner Selections -- Beaune Imports), Canada (Quebec), Scandinavia, Japan (Bonili, Kinoshita and a third one) , China, Australia, New Zealand, Estonia, Russia, Tunisia, Morroco, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Italy, Spain.