Soulaines-sur-Aubance, Anjou (Loire)
The Domaine de la Grange aux Belles is one of these fairly recent artisan wineries that make Anjou shine beyond its borders in spite of its humble table-wine status. This winery started a few years ago from scratch in the south of Angers without family backing, not even an old farm which is sometimes is a good help, and the result is simply very good. I discovered them in an open doors a few years ago, their Chaussée Rouge was just a killing, a pure pleasure of a red wine, connecting you back with what wine is supposed to be.
The facility is located near the village of Soulaines-sur-Aubance, this is a new warehouse, an efficient but bland construction. It is very difficult to find available buildings in the vicinity of Angers because of the real estate frenzy, people look for any ruin to renovate, they call it home and commute to work in Angers which has become a busy/noisy metropolis surrounded by a maze of freeways and highways. As a result it's sad to say, you see subdivisions sprouting up at the edge of what were not long ago quiet villages with charm and history. This often leaves the aspiring vignerons with little choice other than building something near the parcels.
This all began in 2004, Marc Houtin was a wine lover who was employed in a major oil company in his former life. His references were Patrick Baudouin, the trigger being the wines of domaine Léon Barral which he visited in 2002. To rewind back, he had quit his job in 2001 and enrolled in Toulouse for a DNO (enology degree). At the time he'd taste plenty of wines and visit vignerons he loved. Barral was a shock and remains a reference for him. The domaine is now managed by two men, himself and Julien Bresteau who joined the winery in 2007.
Marc Houtin who has no family roots in the world of wine started this domaine by himself in 2004, buying 9,5 hectares of vineyards. At the time (end of 90s' / early 00s') the Languedoc was the star region, the place to go and begin a winery, and at first he had been looking over there and visited a few places with this project in mind. But he and his girlfriend are anjou natives and somehow they realized one day that Anjou had a beautiful vineyard quality even though at the time there were not so many artisan vintners as today who had put the viticulture and the winemaking back in their authentic tracks [today it's a hub for natural-wine producers]. At the time you had already a few decisive actors like Jo Pithon and Mark Angeli he could inspire from. So he switched his interest to Anjou, came back here in 2003 and did some compulsory training under the jeune agriculteur status to get the subsidies when you set up a new farm. He heard about a coop grower who was retiring and that's how he found this 9,5-hectare surface with a medium age of 40. The vineyards were not the best he could dream of, he realized that later, and he had to rework them, replant partially and so on.
The former grower was farming conventionally and selling all his fruit to the coop. Marc spent years bettering the parcels, changing posts and of course he turned the farming organic.
At the beginning it was tricky, he didn't even know where he'd do the vinification, as the sale was about the vineyard but there was no facility or building with it (they built the present facility in 2009). He had little money and had to do with arrangements, like finding another winegrower where he could vinify. He got lots of help in this regard from the vignerons where he had his training prior to the start of his domaine, same for the vineyard tools and tractors because he had none then.
At the beginning he kept selling part of the grapes to the coop, he began making his own wine with 4,5 hectares and selling the rest of the grapes, but very quickly in the follwing years he vinified the 10 hectares and today they're making wine from 14 hectares. He could terminate the contract ealier, one of the legal reasons permitting this being that he's growing organic grapes and that the coop has presently no way to valorize their organic farming. Except for the first 2 years it wasn't very profitable for him to sell to the coop, considering his yields and the production costs anyway. And they had such a demand for the wines that it made no sense to keep selling grapes.
The first customers for the wines were family and friends, and then he began to visit cavistes to present his wines, he had very little time to do the commercial and sales part and still had to sell quickly. He was lucky, things went fine with cavistes/restaurants in Angers and Paris taking his wines. The restaurant Chez Remi in Angers was a loyal and helpful buyer, especially that at the time he started the winery they also opened a wine bar in Angers, le Cercle Rouge, then the good cavistes in Angers also took his wines. For Paris he went from door to door, he doesn't remember his first buyers there, they weren't cavistes clearly indentified in the natural-wine sector, especially that the domaine was also not clearly claiming that status then. Marc says that at the time he just focused on making hiw wines the best he could, he gained experience in the first years, admitting with a laugh that he lost a few cuvées at the beginning because the wine went down the drain. This was for example a carbonic maceration that had gone wrong or an excessive volatile, but that was a way to learn. Now while they're still doing uninterventionist vinifications they're nonetheless keeping a close surveillance on the vats, using the temperature if necessary for example.
They use wild yeast and some of the terroirs are sluggish for the fermentations, they noticed that. They found out it comes from a nitrogen deficiency and a lack of vigor in the vines. Marc admits that he was so afraid to have excessive yields at the beginning (the former grower being conventional) that he had not provided any compost for 5 years, and the vineyard expectedly kicked back with this anemia problem. They later corrected this deficiency after the worryingly-low volumes of 2008, using cow-manure compost and chicken droppings.
The turning point for his farming approach was when he enrolled in a short 2-day training on the Herody method in 2009. The method is a soil diagnosis designed by a Jura-based geologist named Yves Herody. It changed a lot the way he works on his vineyard. here is a video on a training with the geologist in the Basque region in the Pyrénées range. There's a group in Anjou at the Chambre d'Agriculture which provides lots of information on the organic, biodynamic, Herody method, even on organic vinification. Following what he leant at the Herody training he put low doses of compost on the soil at the end of winter to relaunch the microbial activity, plus burying the glass and doing a few other things and the following harvest they could already see improvements in terms of vine vigor and yields.
Speaking of the vineyard of the domaine, he praises the fact that they have many red varieties, Gamay, Grolleau, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon (he says with a laugh that it was not the best part), and Pineau d'Aunis. They planted the Pineau d'Aunis in 2009 and also found a planted parcel in 2012, making a total surface of nearly 1 hectare for this varietal. For the white part he has some Chenin plus half an hectare of Sauvignon which they're going to uproot this winter (they'l plant additional Grolleau in its place). they love Grolleau and the customers samely, they have this cuvée Vin de Jardin which is in great demand and basically sold out before even being on the market, that's why. The good side of Grolleau is also that it can have yields at 40-45 hectoliters/hectare even with a well-thought pruning (it can make 110 ho/ha when farmed conventionally). The varietal is well adapted here, it is rustic and resistant.
Years after having started this domaine, they're still planning in the long term because they can't make changes that fast in the vineyard : some parcels are still way behind in terms of yields (sometimes only 15 ho/ha) and replanting takes a long time and is an investment.
Asked if the option of finding available parcels isn't better than replanting his own surface, he says that this is pretty difficult to find vineyards in the area of the Aubance which is pretty close to the big city of Angers : there's a real estate pressure making land owners & farmers believe they can make tons on money by just waiting that the land destination plan changes and that agriculture fields will turn into a building zone. Even if there is no chance in the foreseable future that such an administrative change occurs, owners are shy of selling their parcels and take the risk.
The other thing is that in the Aubance there are big-size, wealthy domaines that are ready to snatch any available parcel if that happened.
Speaking of the number of cuvées they make from thir 14-hectare surface, Marc Houtin says about 10 with atleast 6 reds, a sparkling rosé and 3 whites. They started the natural-sparkling rosé with the future associate Gerald who was eager to make one, they've done almost 1000 bottles of it for the first year, doing everything themselves including the disgorgement. It's made with gamay and grolleau.
Today they're two asssociates on the domaine but next year there will be a third associate as they're taking in their permanent employee. It's been 2 years that they have a permanent staff and he will join the group, Marc says that it's in line with the way he views work relations, he didn't feel like heading a business and giving orders to his staff, he likes that everybody shares the venture on the same level. Of course there are also seasonal workers in spring and for the harvest, but he and his associate work also a lot in the vineyard, in addition to the chai and administrative work. He likes being on the ground too and he'd hate spend his time behind his desk and on the phone.
The vineyard surface is partly around the facility (4,5 hectares) and the rest is spread in different locations, sometimes because of opprtunities thay got : in 2013 for example they took a beautiful terroir in Mûrs-Erigné where they planted 1 hectare of Chenin, they have great expectations for this terroir when the vines will be productive. He'll not make liquoreux from this chenin even though he like making them at the beginning, so he'll make dry chenin, especially that both of them love drinking dry wines. He says Julien and himself are fans of Richard Leroy and his wines, Richard Leroy being the man who helped put dry Chenin on the map. Very early in 2003 when he was about to start his domaine he visited him and the guy is very friendly and ready to help. Marc says that Chenin is a wonderful varietal, they're very happy to have some, and on a very valuable terroir.
Beyond the two horizontal presses they also have a vertical press.
Right now there are a few pallets and other things in the chai but possibly already now as the harvest nears it's all empty except for the presses and the fermenters. For a good month this room will be fully centered on graps reception and vinification. The place lacks the charm of an historic facility but this apparently doesn't prevent them to vinify truly authentic and living wines. they also have 2 cement vats which they use for the reds. Outside along the building they also have a stainless-steel milk tank which they can use to cool down the juice/wine if necessary. It is connected to the vats inside so that you can cool different vats at different temperature with adjusting the water flow.
We walk to the first parcel along the facility, this is an old vineyard of Gamay, about 50 years old, it's a 33-are parcel, and they make the natural sparkling with it. Marc tastes a few grapes and he seems satisfied with the result.
They keep grass, and since 2012 generally on one every 3 or 4 rows, because the soil can be pretty muddy when it rains and the tractor will have trouble passing between the rows. Also when it's a bit rainy at harvest time it's more comfortable for the tractor and the trailer wit the boxes.
Along the Gamay you pass a wide stripe of grass and the next parcel is Chenin, I like its freedom feel with the weeds flowering on the ground and the shoots going up casually here and there toward the sky (I frankly don't feel such good vibes in a squarely
trimmed vineyard). This parcel has pretty good yields,
they tried to prune shorter to better control
the yields but were not satisfied with the result. Some vines don't have grapes and the ones who have some often have clusters that are too big. Things like that happen when you buy an existing vineyard which you didn't plant yourself. The vines look old but they're not that old, they were planted probably around 1980, their size may have to do with the rootstock they chose at the planting, probably SO4. I guess if the previous owner used fertilizers this may also have been a factor.
I ask about the trimming if they do it or not, Marc says that on certain parcels they leave the frail ends of the shoots, the apex, grow until they stop by themselves. He says that the apex behaves like the brain of the vine, it is the part of the vine that will decide when to stop growing further.
This chenin will go into the cuvée Les Moyens du Bord.
After these rows we reach a 30-are parcel of young chenin which they planted in 2011. This is much better vineyard quality here, it is a massal selection and they chose a Riparia rootstock so that the yields will much more moderate, like 30-40 hectoliters/hectare when the vineyard will be fully mature.
I didn't mention it yet but we also passed Marc's house while doing this short walk in the vineyard near the facility, he and his family live in a modern house in the middle of these parcels with the woods not far in the distance. They even see a roe deer sometimes wandering along the first rows, he says they nerver go far inside but keep themselves content generally with what they find on the first row.
Then, walking ever closer from the woods at the end of the block, we reach an old parcel of Cabernet Franc, aged maybe 40 years. This is the parcel behind what I consider an iconic cuvée : la Chaussée Rouge, a blend of Grolleau, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Here also they leave the shoot grow until they stop by themselves, they just pass between the row and gently put the shoots between the wires. Marc looks at certain leaves and spots a few pests, cicadelle, but it's not an issue he says at this stage, as long as only a small percentage of the leaves are affected. He doesn't like the organic-sanctioned pesticides and prefers leave the vine unharmed at this stage, adding that the organic product, the Pyrèthre, is in his mind worse than the conventional products, it doesn't make any difference between the insects and kills everything.
Speaking of pests I ask about the damages made by the Suzukii drosophilia last year and Marc says that they lost some grapes particularly on early-ripening varietals, like the gamay and the grolleau. the drosophilia dug holes in the grapes, damaging the fruit and they had to do some sorting. The thing is he says is that with the Suzukii you don't always spot visually the damage on the grapes, compared to the usual drosophilia, but the clusters could be nonetheless affected by acetic rot and jeopardize the rest of the load if not sorted out.
Lastly, we stop at a parcel of old Pineau d'Aunis which was planted in 1979. This parcel wasn't part of the initial vineyard surface Marc purchased, he added it later. He says the grandpa who owned this parcel was very happy that they were taking it and that his Pineau d'Aunis would survive. Marc says these vinesl has a superb balance, with clusters well spread on the vines with a good ventilation. On the wine side there are great fruity aromas with bitter-orange notes. There is also the usual spicy edge of the Aunis but an unusual orange juice side.
Asked about the weather so far, Marc says that this year is very dry [it may have rained a few time since this interview took place though].
Even april-may was quite dry thanks to which they could use the tractor and plow comfortably. Then they had a 50mm rain in june but since that almost nothing.
In the past they had a similar situation in 2005, 2006 2011, but on this type of terroir here it isn't really worrying because the clay underneath keeps some humidity reserves, that's a chance, there is no maturity freeze like it may happen under hydric stress and that's why they can make reds with supple tannins. Still their Grolleau didn't like too much this rainfall deficit and the yields will certainly suffer.
The domaine is not into biodynamics but Marc says they're doing the usual horsetail herb tea as well as Bourdaine herb tea, the latter being efficient when there is a mildew pressure, he did some this year. The Bourdaine is some sort of tree that grows at the edge of woods and they use its leaves. They mix the herb tea with the Bordeaux mix which allows them to lower substancially the copper dosage. They now lowered the copper use to 1 kg/1,5 Kg per hectare total per year instead of 4 kg authorized in organic farming (it was 6 kg not long ago). In terms of number of times they sprayed this year, Marc says not that less compared to the other years, in fact because since 2 or 3 years he changed the protocol and prefers pass often but with low doses, keeping a total cumulative copper dose at the end of the year which is under the norm. He may beging with 50 gr copper in may and use 300 grams in the last sprayings. The last spaying was july 15 this year.
Back in the large chai to taste a few wines.
Marc shows me the new labels for Fragile, the cuvée of Chenin. They asked an artist named Marilou Turmeau who propsed these three designs and because they couldn't really choose they kept the three, so the same cuvée will be indifferently bottled with one of the three labels, you may randomly fall upon one, or several of these...
__ Fragile, Vin de France [table wine] 2014. This is 100 % Chenin, for this cuvée their protocol is using the grapes selected in a second picking, with the best maturity. In the first picking in the given parcels they take grapes that will be vinified in the cuvée Moyens du Bord, with an end wine being on the fresh side and with a simpler aromatic range. The 2nd picking for Fragile will yield a wine that is richer, that will go also through a longer élevage in barrels (all the white go into barrels but for a different time). The wine begins to ferment in the vats and finished in wood. After years of farming in this vineyard they learnt where such and such types of grapes grow and through that experience they found the way to make two different wines from the same parcel.
Nose : pear, ripe grapes. Very enjoyable. Marc says that the wine is closing these days, it was bottled in june and tasted very well right after it, Marc says, but it is closing right now. Nice mouth touch though. Alcohol level : moderate, the label says 12,5 % but I'd say less. Plus, Marc says that they don't wait for high potential alcohol to pick, they focus on the Ph and these were quite high in 2014 hinting at low acidity and they didn't want to wait more. The wine had a light filtration on earth, the point being to avoid reduction risks later in the bottle. They also correct the CO2 level with notrogen in order not to have a wine that is too perly at opening. No SO2 on the incoming grapes and normally there's no SO2 during the vinification, the only adding being at bottling, with 1 to 2 grams.
The retail price is 14 €.
__ La Chaussée Rouge, Vin de France [table wine] 2014, a blend of cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grolleau, blended together and sometimes vinified together. 8-day carbonic maceration, whole-clustered grapes picked in 25-kg boxes and put into vats saturated with CO2. The thing here is that the juice is taken out everyday so that there's never any contact between the juice and the grapes.
Very exciting color, very bright and vivid, Marc says with a laugh that they're trying to make Poulsard wine here... After the color, the nose is similarly exciting and appealing, with almost a peppery side too. Marc says that Grolleau can yield this spicy note as well as notes of crushed dry laurel leaves [Laurus nobilis]. He's right, I feel this aromatic character in the mouth too. tHe mouth is gorgeous, fruity and suave. Makes 12,5 % but I'd say 11,5 %, maybe acidity helps lower the alcohol feel, he says also the volatile is doing is part. Man, I certainly love such volatile then, I tell him. He laughs and says that in Barral's wine you always find lots of volatile and it brings a good freshness feel. This wine is unfiltered, in part to keep some chew and balance the wine with the volatile. Man, I love this wine... And it costs only 10 € retail at the domaine. Can be foundin Paris at the Cave des Papilles and at the Cave d'Ivry, among other cavistes.
Marc says that it's a big challenge to make reds that can be drunk easily. He says they tend to do shorter and shorter macerations as time goes by, going a bit against the trend in the area where long vatting time is getting popular. This cuvée is their biggest volume, about 10-11 000 bottles. The cuvée is named from a lieu-dit where they have their cab-franc and their best parcel of grolleau, and it is also the location of an episode of the Vendée war during which the central government sent revolutionary militias to crush and exterminate the rebels there, Vendée being the sole region in France refusing to abide to the new toltalitarian ideology. It is now documented that the Vendée war was the first modern genocide decided by cold blood by a regime against its own citizen for refusing to abide. For me it's very symbolic that this region today also stands first in its resistance to the modern standards of AOC and conventional farming/winemaking, it's puzzling to see today so many rebel vintners living in Anjou and Vendée. The Grange aux Belles is actually located in the middle of what was then the counter-revolutionary lands. But they named this cuvée because it was the lieu-dit and it was more a stand against the AOC then than a direct reference to the historic events.
__ Cuvée 53, les Vignes anciennes [the old vines] Vin de France 2014. Cabernet Franc mostly, there may be a few vines of cabernet sauvignon in the parcels. Mostly old vines, including a parcel planted in 1953 that's why the name. Destemmed grapes, short maceration (6 to 8 days) with minimal intervention except
a délestage in the early fermentation, that is taking out the free-run juice and putting it
back in the fermenter at the end of the day, this allows to re-oxygenize the vat and break the cap, redistributing the juice with the grapes. After that they just leave it all quiet and undisturbed. In 2004 they tried to keep the stems but the wines need 5 to 10 years to be fully appreciated because the tannins tend to be green in the early years. Usually no wood here but if they feel it needs a bit of élevage they put it in barrels for a while. Total volume for this cuvée : 4 to 5000 bottles. Costs 11 € retail here.
The wine is darker here. Super deep wine with notes of prune and meat notes. The bottle was opened a couple days ago Marc says.
I asked about the use of barrels, he says the whites go into casks, the lower cuvées going into 10-year-old casks for 4 to 5 months so that the wine gets an exchange with the air, he adds they hate reduction in the whites. Through this they reach aromatics which they like. For Fragile they use 2 cooperages they like, first they 600-liter Stockinger barrels made with thick staves and they also also barrels from Adour. Their objective is low wood aromatisation and give structure to the wine. 3 cuvées in total spend time in wood. They plan to build an underground chai in the future but for financing reasons it shouldn't be before 2017, they should be able to have longer and better élevages then.
__ Anjou Princé 2013. This is one of the last AOC cuvée of the domaine you can find, because they stopped asking for the AOC in 2014. Before that and since the start of the domaine, Princé, 53 and Fragile were bottled under the AOC Anjou but they were tired of having all the time to pass a second time in front of the agreement commission to get their AOC status, and this for each of these cuvées. Also they weren’t happy at the AOC administration with the vineyard management here [!?!?], they don’t want to see grass between the rows, considering it’s not aklin to qualitative work… At the beginning Marc and his associate were eager to still get the AOC status for these cuvées because they deserved it and they liked the concept of being rooted in Anjou through the appellation, but it had become impossible to manage every year with the increasing pressure and disregard for their work. From the part of the AOC commission. The people over there clearly don’t understand them and don’t want them in their team , so they ended up giving up on this AOC labelling. What we taste here had two passes in front of the commission d’agrément, was stamped as having two major faults and so on, and you have to pay for each pass.
The wine here is more peppery, beautiful nose, Marc says it’s with notes of blackcurrant bud, he says they always have this blackcurrant style in this parcel, either compoted blackcurrant for hot vintages or blackcurrant vegetal for lighter vintages like 2013. I find aromas of prune. Very fresh in the mouth too, Marc says the vinification mode is the same than for 1953. In 2013 their focus was to get an aerial, light wine, it was out of question to try to extract tannin or other thing, and he's happy with the result. Me too, this is a very rejoicing wine, love it. 12 % alcohol on the label, he thinks it's right for this year. It was lightly filtered, he says.
__ La Niña, Vin de France 2010, Marc says it's the UFO of the wine range here, they made this gamay cuvée in 2008, 2009 and 2010, after that they blended these grapes into their pineau d'aunis cuvée. Marc says it is a wonderful parcel of gamay planted on shallow soil (shists) and making small yields. The vines are more than 40 but their size remain small, the soil being so poor they never could grow substancially. The thing here he says is you can have both a good maturity on the grapes but always with lots of acidity, and 2010 was particularly marked in terms of acidity. This 2010 needed 2 years to finish its malolactic, the Ph being so low that the microorganisms could develop. At the time they didn't ask for the appellation Ajou Gamay because this appellation is considered minor anyway for the general public.
The nose is deep and appealing, Marc saying that this bottle had been opened a couple days ago. Mouth and swallowed : delicious, fruity and fresh. 13,5 % on the bottle but you have a hard time believing it. Got 1 year in barrel then 2 years in vats to finish its malolactic. Marc says that this wine is undestructible, he never saw it get oxidized or take volatile, it's very particular from this terroir, always making wines that are well structured, tannic and savory. Vinification : destemmed, 15-day maceration. Marc says with a laugh that it's a beautiful wine but you better open the bottle a couple days before having it. They made 15 hectoliters of that. They still have some of it to sale, but they it's more expensive (20 € retail at the domaine) because it is the last such cuvéée.
__ Brise d'Aunis, Vin de France 2014. The first time they did this cuvée was in 2012 but they had it labelled as table wine already, as the Pineau d'Aunis was thrown out of the authorized varietals in 2009. This is another odd move by these AOC people, especially when you know, Marc says, that the Pineau d'Aunis was along the Cabernet Franc the historical varietal here in Anjou. Marc says that he and his associate love Pineau d'Aunis, the wines of Simonutti and of Emile Heredia, and they're so happy to have some. But historically here in Anjou this grape was vinified as a rosé and was not given its full potential, Anjou being rooted in sweet wines made with Chenin.
Nose : exciting with freshness and pepper notes, unexpectedly. Mouth : The wine is more powerful, more serious here, Marc says that it has to do with the Gamay part, the one that was until 2010 vinified apart with La Niña. So easy to drink although the low-yield gamay gave it a more serious edge. Marc says they love Olivier Lemasson's cuvée Poivre et Sel, which is also a vlend of Aunis and Gamay. marc says that there's a nice synergy between the two grapes.
You feel a tannic end, something like dust.
Destemmed, one week maceration. Some so2 during the vinification because the fermentation wasn't smooth but there was none at bottling. SO2 adding is only if needed and case per case. Volume : 30 hectoliters, and sadly it's hard to find more parcels in Pineau d'Aunis, so it sells quickly and without hope to augment the volume in the near future. Costs 12 € retail at the domaine.
__ I've Got the Blouge 2014, Sauvignon. 2nd vintage of this They used to make a moelleux (sweet) sauvignon with 50 to 100 grams of residual sugar, it was selling well but he and his associate never drank it (they're not into residual sugar) and they wanted to try something else : a maceration white. It indeed tastes like a red, with tannin in the mouth you could mistake blind with a red. 45-are parcel but yields at 15 ho/ha. Thzy make 7 to 8 hectoliters of wine from it. 15-day maceration in demi-muids (the Stockinger), not easy to take the grapes out but the barrel has a door. Zero SO2 because the wine stands oxygen well. tHe wine has a light oxidative feel, but indeed very light. Got a light filtration. Marc says this wine is a baby, should be kept some time so that the tannin get softer. Tastes very well already for me, no spitting even if I have to ride my motorbike after that...
About 30 % of the wines are exported at La Grange aux Belles, mainly in Europe, Scandinavia : Denmark (Niche Wine), Sweden (Vin & Natur), the United States (Fruit of the Vine), Germany (Vins Vivants), the United Kingdom (HG Wines), Canada (Quebec - Plan Vin), Belgium (Titulus Pictus).
They do several wine salons : La Dive Bouteille in the Loire, Les Affranchis in Montpellier