Mareuil-sur-Cher, Touraine (Loire)
Julien Pineau is having his first harvest season on his newly acquired vineyards, and he has been very lucky because this first vintage went through an ideal weather throughout summer and harvest time (you'll hear that across all of France I think for 2015) : healthy grapes and sun all along with just enough rain to better the juice in time.
To wind back
a few years ago, Julien has no family in the wine trade, years ago he was doing some seasonal jobs in Ardèche, picking pears, apricots and so on, and someone there told him that he was going to do the harvest at a friend's domaine in Montlouis,
this was in 2009 and he went along. The vigneron was Bertrand Jousset, and he was to begin to get the virus there. He loved this experience and Bertrand offered him to hire him as a trainee if he enrolled at the viticulture school in Amboise (the curriculum includes 10 weeks as a trainee in the domaine of your choice). That's what he did, spending his training month with Bertrand Jousset in 2010 and 2011. His initial idea was not to become a vigneron, his father being a cook and all his family and friends loving good (and organic) food he kind of envisioned himself opening a wine bar or something like that, but little by little after months working in the vineyard he realized that this was what made him tick.
In 2011 after graduation from the viticulture school he left for Provence to work for Jean-Christophe Comor in the Var département. He had discovered his wine at Bertrand Jousset (vignerons always exchange bottles) and as a girlfiend was studying in the University of Aix-en-Provence where jean-Christophe Comor also taught, he got connected with him and went down to Provence 3 years in a row for the harvest season, working on the vinayard and in the chai as well.
Julien thinks the triggering moment for his espousing a farmer's life may have been when he was traveling abroad in the 00s', after going to the United States (in Seattle, not wine related) he spent some time in Sicily where people were deeply rooted in their region and culture, sharing many things together, and they kept asking about the French, what did they share and why had the people in France left their respective regions en masse to live in big cities. After that experience he kept thinking about the whole issue and looked for experiences in farms and backcountry, that's why he had gone for the Rhône to pick fruits. Later, he realized that working for other domaines was not enough and he opened up to the idea to start something himself and be independent, plus working for Comor he realized that he could handle the winemaking part as well and he felt more secure on this side too.
With this mindset he began to look around for a vineyard to manage, also with this concern about roots and sharing things like he learnt in Sicily, and as he had already connections in the Loir-et-Cher he looked around there and learnt that Catherine and Didier at Clos Roche Blanche were about to retire. That's when he settled in the area, working part time for Noëlla Morantin and Laurent Saillard in the winter 2013-14 along with his girlfriend Juliette who also had worked in Provence for Comor. They had good time together and he and Laurent began to ponder the opportunity to follow suit with the vineyards of Clos Roche Blanche and find an arrangement with Catherine, but the whole surface was too much for himself alone and with Julien who could take part of it this could be considered. After a few months the deal was done, he and Laurent bought the 13 hectares, which made 6,5 hectares for each of them, enough for a good start, Laurent having already a couple of parcels of his own in the area.
When I arrived for this visit, this was the third day of the harvest, the 14 pickers were just beginning to have their morning break with coffee, wine (two bibs to help yourself !) and a few things to eat along. Julien put all of this on improvised tables made with harvest boxes and the pickers enjoyed their pause at the end of the rows chatting and joking. They were all locals from what I know, both young and old, and one of them seemed familiar to me : I spotted Catherine Roussel (pictured above, with the grey hat) who was employed there for the occasion, she has always picked all along her winegrower's life but this was the first time she was doing it for a salary. She is on familiar ground as you can guess and for Julien that's a good point to have her between the rows for the first harvest. She'll not doing that for ever but agreed this time at least, she underlines she's going to have her first payslip ever, same for Didier who will help at the chai. I asked with a smirk if she's easing off since she is employed, Julien says no, she works just the same as if it was still her vineyard and her wine...
Julien told me at one point that what helped him start this venture was also the fact that he benefited from a system named Contrat de Parrainage which is designed to help people without family roots in farming to take over a farm or a surface : Thanks to this subsidy system, Julie could work for a year at Clos Roche Blanche, learning in the way the work on the vineyards he was going to purchase, and he was paid by the state instead of Clos Roche Blanche. The goal of the system is help the transmission of a farm or a surface when the buyer is himself a newcomer in terms of farming. Julien says it's not very well known but this helps a lot.
But the pause and the chatting have an end and Julien directs his 14 workers to the next rows waiting to be picked. From what I learnt when I spent some time in the vineyards at this season, you have different types of picking teams, it's often good luck or bad luck because they're hired locally in the hiring offices of the next village or town, and you may fall upon a couple of unpleasant pickers who may ruin the ambiance, but Julien got a good team, people working together and in good mood, and of course Catherine on top of that. They're picking the Sauvignon here, with such conditions that there's no sorting to do, you may have some rot here on the clusters and there but that's noble rot, everything goes into the bucket, a dream of a harvest.
I followed the group as they were directed on certain rows to be finished before lunch. The two people managing the draft horse also spent time picking when they didn't have boxes to collect, and Julien himself spent time now and then to pick, preferably near Catherine [pictured here on left, don't tell her, she hates being on pictures]. On the same plateau a few rows away (a hundred meters away maybe) Noella was also busy with Laurent picking some Sauvignon, it's like this large block of vineyards is being managed by a new generation of winegrowers. About Laurent who bought half of CRB's vineyards, he keeps working for Noella this year, the part he purchased having being rented to Noella until this fall. From this winter on he'll be fully in charge and will make wine from these very parcels next year.
While the pickers were filling their buckets and the boxes, the team with a draft horse was busy to now and then pass between the rows and load the boxes on a sledge. The sledge is favored here because it doesn't compact the soil like a tractor with its trailer can do.
Here Geneviève is at the wheel, so to say, she is commanding the beautiful
horse, a 3-year-old Trait Breton, a French breed from Brittany, as hinted by its name. The horse is named Apollon, this is a lovely animal which seemed very obedient and good-mannered. Geneviève Remérand set up a structure named Cheval de Cisse which is based further east in the touraine (Chouzy-sur-Cisse, near Blois), and with several people and horses they work on demand for farmers and growers willing to use horse power, be it to carry boxes like here or to plow vineyards. Geneviève says that their customers are usually organic growers, they look to minimize the compacting of the soil but also the vibrations through the ground that can have an undesired impact on the vines. For the plowing they have the plows if needed. She says they begin to have customers in the Vouvray region, it is related also to the price bracket of the bottles, because in regions where the retazil price of the wine is very low [it is often aroundd 5 € in Touraine] there is no room to integrate these costs. But this is also a mindset and for organic growers and people into natural wine it's more important than just the cost issue.
They brought the horse with a van, meaning they can go work at quite a distancce from their base. Geneviève says that he spent the summer drawing carriages for recreational rides, and this was good for his muscle exercising. Geneviève says that the collar is an innovative model designed for draft horses, it's an Espedis and it's made by the Sellerie Percheronne, a company based in the region (Loir-et-Cher).
I was looking at the pickers in the middle of the rows when someone spotted them, a bunch of wild animals at the edge of the woods, behaving like if they pondered on the opportunity to eat a load of juicy clusters. They were kind of ambivalent because we were also there, but at what they must have considered a comfortable distance because they stayed put, just looking at us from time to time. they were just shy of walking the few meters to the first rows, probably aware that these tempting grapes are humans'grown fruits and that we two-legged animals may react with discontent. On the other hand I'm pretty sure that they knew they didn't risk being shot at, they know better than me when the hunting season starts...
On my side I was happy to at last capture their presence on my digital rolls. Roe deers, wild boars and several wild animals take a heavy toll on the fruit load in the vineyard, and as they're kind of demanding they're pretty fond of organic grapes and vineyards where it's much more alive and tasty (even the leaves and the weeds).
After the draft horse collected all the boxes from between the rows, Julien and one of his staff took them to the back of the tractor, this wasn't a tralier but some sort of attached bin which I think farmers use to collect heating-wood logs. You couln't handle a lot of boxes there but the chai is just at the end of this large vineyard block, on the Cher river side, just over the house and cellar of Clos Roche Blanche.
Speaking of tractors and simlar heavy machinery, Julien and Laurent are buying back these tools to Clos Roche Blanche, which is nice because they've (especially Laurent) have a long experience working on them and fixing them if necessary, and they can count on Didier's help if there's something they've never been confronted with on these machines. This tractor is a Fiat 55-76, made in 1991 if I'm right, this is the type of tractor you can find for a fraction of a new machine on the second-hand market (I found a 55-16 on this page but there was no price).
It took us maybe 3 or 4 minutes to reach the corrugated-sheet building at the edge of the plateau along the large vineyard block of Clos Roche Blanche. At some point the guy and me had to go down from the back of the tractor because the grass road turned rocky an uneven, and we'd risk tilting too much.
This semi-open chai is not very fancy indeed, bland-looking metal, just some sort of simple hangar sitting at the edge of the woods, but it's strategically located just above the cellar and vat rooms under the hill, so that when you press the juice it can just flow through a dedicated hose going through the rock. Julien and Laurent will be able to use this facility for two years, after then they have to move somewhere else, that's why Julien is already looking for some building, possibly with a house wherre he could live himself. Laurent has already a cellar where he makes/stores some wine but I think he also looks for some old farm to renovate (unlike Anjou the're no shortage of empty buildings in this part of Touraine).
If you remember from this story shot in this very building, the press is a few meters below the tractor/vineyards level, so that there's kind of a gravity use here too when they load the press. Julien had just to back up the tractor to the slide where he'd empty the boxes. Didier Barrouillet who of course was the winemaker at Clos Roche Blanche was around to help and see if everything was going fine. For Didier like for Catherine this is now retirement time, although he's still very active with consultant job and his analysis lab working around the clock. Julien has his own winemaking style but I guess Didier can help in the transition for all the tools and tricks to use the cellar resources.
They didn't fill the 40-hectoliter press totally with this first load this time, another couple of tractor runs would certainly do the job. Before leaving the press Julien grabs a CO2 canister to protect the grapes before the next grape load comes in. There was no occurence of drosophila threat this year and with the Sauvignon in excellent condition he is very happy. This sauvignon will be part of what Didier and Catherine would have called a "Sauvignon N° 5" cuvée, meaning that he'll also vinify it along the same general lines. The parcels for the "Sauvignon N° 2" which has been already picked the days before will be vinified in neutral vats and this "sauvignon 5" will go into the wooden tronconic vats.
What you can see in the cellar in the heart of the hill is in part Julien's vats and fermenters as he will buy back several of these tanks to Clos Roche Blanche, moving them in his new cellar when he'll have found it. There's already a fulltank in the bottom of the cellar, the white one on the front is also full, but temporarily as it's just to settle the lees (Sauvignon N°2). He shows me also a white fiber tank where he puts all the fins de presses, the part of the juice at the end of the pressing, which may be less qualitative, he plans to use this juice for an early-release Primeur.
I wasn't at risk to get intoxicated during this cellar tasting as all of this was pure juice only beginning to ferment but you hardly could notice it, the harvest having begun only for maybe 3 days before. Here Julien kneeled in front of a stainless-steel tank and filled the bottom of a jar, this was what Didier would have called Sauvignon N°2, it was settled already in the white fiber tank and later it will go into the tronconic wooden fermenters. Asked if he follows a protocol observed at CRB he says no, he does how he feels it, even though he keep the tronconic-wood thing for the grapes of this parcel.
The juice is not bernache yet, this sweet, lovely and lightly-intoxicating liquid in-between the grape juice and the wine. Here we'll still on the juice side, it's lovely, sweet and onctuous, very nice. Julien says he's happy because from the tasting and the lab analalysis the balance is very good. He was afraid that with the sunny weather he'd have high-alcohol potential like 13,5 %, the future wine will rather be at 12,5 % and the acidity level is about 5,5, which is quite well balanced. The skins are a bit thicker this year because of the dry hot summer but it's OK. With the rain the grapes got the needed additional volume, on the Pineau d'Aunis he says he saw a few grapes that burst but it's fine on this side too. I ask about the Aunis which I know was affected last year with the Suzukii drosophila aetic attack, but he says that this year nothing happened, I guess the overall dry weather didn't encourage its demographics. The local agriculture authorities made checks on this issue in the parcels and they didn't find any problem this year. Julien says that a good indicator in this regard is that the cherry trees weren't touched by the plague either (strawberries and cherries are prime targets for this drosophila).
Julent now takes a sample of the juice from the fiber tank, the one where he puts all his fins de presses, the end-of-the-pressing when you have more sediments and lees, some sort of less-refined must. To my surprise that taste so beautifully too, for some reason I feared something like herbal, green or harsh notes, but that's even sweeter if maybe certainly less refined. Julien like all weathered winemakers and cellar rats is certainly better than me at distinguishing the future developments from the juice stage.
The juice is more redish, more turbid. He'll put the press ends of the reds too and this primeur will certainly be one of these bright red wines, like he says the one we tasted during the lacto-fermentation session he made with Laurent Saillard a few months ago. I checked the wine on my story and looking at this energizing, bright color I think I'll try to find a few bottles of his primeur before his batch dries up... The wine should be available in november, if it's completely fermented of course.
Given the faxct he'll keep adding new juice/lees along the coming days and weeks, he may use a coil to augment the temperature of the juice and let it ferment properly. An important detail on his future cuvées : they will be all labelled as table wine (Vin de France).
Julien now goes to the débourbage tank, an horizontal fiber vat that looks from afar to a milk tank. There's been zero SO2 at this stage, in any of the juices here. Julien's approach on the issue is per-per-case but overall he plans to use sulfur the least he can, certain cuvées being possibly bottled without any. This juice here in the débourbage tank is another batch of Sauvignon N°2, it was picked two days before, macerated a night in the press and it will be vinified in a stainless-steel tank. Another delicious amber-color juice, still with slight differences, a bit more nervous, more acidity maybe, but Julien says this is the same range of balance he saw in the other juices. He is very lucky with this vintage, he says the weather was so nice they made only 3 sprayings in 2015, a dream for a first vintage. The only thing they had to review was the grass which had grown too much, especially under the vines. The weeds diversity is important on these vineyards, Didier and Catherine having worked for that along the years. They noticed an important colony of Orpin de Nice, a southern-France varietal that seems to have called the vineyards home since a few years. .
I asked Julien how many cuvées he plans to make for his first vintage, he said 8 cuvées : 2 sauvignons, 2 côts, a pineau d'aunis, a cabernet (franc & sauvignon), a pet-nat rosé and the primeur. Asked why 2 côts, he says that's because there's a 120-year-old parcel (planted by Catherine's grand-grandfather) which they vinify of course separately. The other parcels of côt are not that young, they're about 40, but this makes a big difference with 120 years. The Côt was to be picked a week later. While in the vineyards we saw a fallow field with high grass, Julien says it's a 7(-are parcel he uprooted and where he''l replant in the appropriate time (in 3 years) with Menu Pineau, this will make an additionalr white in his range.
While on the dirt road on the large vineyard block surrounded by woods we passed near Noella Morantin who was herself checking the picking of her Sauvignon. This is actually the parcels she rents from Clos Roche Blanche and which were purchased by Laurent, she picks one last time here and next year Laurent will follow suit. Noella will then regroup on her other vineyards, a 6,5-hectare vineyard which makes a still comfortable surface to manage. That was her goal from the start anyway, and she'll keep buying some additional grapes like she did before, so the overall real surface will be a bit bigger. 2015 is also the last year Laurent works for here, next year he'll be too busy managing his own surface to get a side employment elsewhere. I could see him that day commuting with the tractor between the vineyard and the chai, which is located on the other side of the woods.
I asked Noella bout the vintage conditions but no surprise, the grapes are perfect, it's a gorgeous year, very healthy. She says she even chose to pick certain parcels at 12 % instead of waiting because you already have botrytis and there's such a nice concentration, particularly in the Bois-Lucas parcels, the ones she bought to the Japanese owner/importer Junko Arai. She says that for the first time they'll probably finish picking the whites before beginning the reds, usually ther two overlap for a few days but in 2015 it'll be in a well distinct time frame. The reds are a more easy time because like usual they're all through their maceration for a while, you don't have to rush to the press like with the whites, so they'll overnight get a more relax stage when they begin with the reds.
On the right you can see Noëlla's nice work shirst with the words Vignerons stitched on the back, it's made by a woman who gives a new life to work clothes, adding here own touch (link added soon if I find her webpage).