Rochefort-sur-Loire, Anjou (Loire)
Thomas Boutin started his domaine in 2008 with a tiny 80-are vineyard of chenin located in Saint Aubin de Luigné but he didn't have his own chai until last august when Christophe Gallienne who had started his own domaine 2 or 3 years ago let him use part of his facility set up under his own house at a short distance from Rochefort, south of Angers. Christophe is slowing down his domaine and Thomas is in the process of taking over Christophe's vineyards, something he began in 2011 when he took the relay on a 90-are parcel with gamay, chenin and cabernet franc. Then in 2014 he took over more parcels, some chardonnay planted near Christophe's house, plus a parcel of chenin previously worked by Sébastien Fleuret, another natural winemaker based in Beaulieu. Thomas' present vineyard surface remains low, with 2,4 hectares, the good side of it being that he can do all the work by himself.
Before starting his domaine, Thomas studied at the wine school (BTS enology) in 1998-2000 and from then on he worked here and there in different domaines, in the Dordogne département (Chateau de Fayolle), in the Bordeaux region near La Roquille (Chateau la Maroquine), after which he came back in the Angers region working in different places. Then he went to California where he worked 4 months at J. Lohr (Paso Robles) and also 6 months at Wild Horse near Templeton. He worked only on the cellar side, he says that in the United States they don't understand when you ask to work in the vineyard, this is kind of the job assigned to the Mexican workers and the managers don't see the interest of sending winemaking-wise staff there. Back in France, Thomas worked in Vouvray and in Chablis in domaines owned by de Ladoucette where he was cellar master. Back in Anjou he met people doing nature wines and this was an eye opening experience, his mentors being Xavier Cailleau, also Christophe Daviau, and lastly Benoit Courault who was the living proof that he could also make wine even with a small surface (this was around 2005-2006).
Pictures on the sides courtesy of the village's website
Thomas Boutin is one of these young vignerons who start with little surface and investment and nonetheless manage to make nice wines that sell. Until january 2015 he was still working on the side for another winery but since his total surface reached 2,4 hectares he began to work full-time on his own domaine, taking the appropriate time for the plowings, vineyard management and so on. Having a day job was useful to make ends meet and also to get the health insurance but now he is openly starting an independent venture, choosing first the easier status of small-size farming (cotisant solidaire).
This (pic above) is the
20-are parcel he got from Sébastien Fleuret,
Sébastien left him this one because most of his parcels were around the village of Beaulieu-sur-Layon and he also found a house with a chai for himself in Beaulieu (before that Sébastien was making his wine at Christophe's house).
These are chenin vines, not that old, maybe 25-30, but with lots of missing vines because of Esca. He tries to do some marcottage when he has time but he wonders if he'll be able to keep it or if replanting the whole is the best option. Right now it has good yields (although conventional growers might say the opposite : 30-35 hectoliters/hectare) and it makes a chenin with good substance, so he still ponders the best solution.
On the ground you can spot grey stones looking like slate except that you don't see ther slicing, these are phtanites. I remember by the way that the region of Angers has produced for centuries much of the slate (ardoise in French) used for the roofing (Ardoisières de Trélazé) accross France. Now as far as I know the quarries closed down and the roofing slates come from Spain.
Thomas says that the earth is pretty deep here, about 1 or 1,5 meters, then you reach the rock table, which gives water stress on dry years like 2015.
On the other side of a grass road there's his parcel of gamay making 35 ares, the vines look very low and Thomas says that these vines have no trellising, he thinks it may be that long time a go the owners wanted to uproot the whole parcel, took away the posts and trellis but changed their mind after all. There are still the head posts at the end of the rows, so there must have been a trellising system once. Last year he had lots of losses with the drosophila Suzukii on the gamay, especially that as he was still having his day job, he couldn't be enough reactive. This drosophila is a fly that dugs tiny holes in ripe fruits and lay eggs, triggering an acetic-acid contamination that endangers the whole harvest. As he and his friends could only pick on weekends he lost half of the fruit on this parcel.
A few rows further, we pass some more chenin, then another row of gamay and then a few rows of cabernet franc, which he says you differentiate with gamay because the clusters are longer (I should know that after years of walking the vineyards...). The parcel has here also this relax and unthreatening aspect of naturally-farmed vineyards, with dry grass all around. They plowed this plot but some of the weeds under the rows were spared by the blade. The age of the vines is around 35 years here too.
Thomas doesn't trim his vines, only when the shhot is too long and falls on the ground, and he does that by hand, walking along the rows, he doesn't have a trimmer system anyway and he as much as possible favors letting the vine grow freely.
He does all the work by himself except for the picking, he plans to hire 2 or 3 people for that. His surface is now close to 2,5 hectares but he may add other parcels if a good opportunity shows up. With 2,5 hectare he can make a living, if not get rich, and he likes the job and the wines he makes, the future will tell if if can grow with other good parcels, he envision reaching 3,5 or 4,5 hectares but he would like to be still able to do it without having to hire.
The parcel is kind of sitting on the top of a hill with a slope side, and Thomas shows me in the far what he says is the church of Epiré, the village near the iconic Coulée de Serrant and la Roche aux Moines, hinting that the Loire river is flowing there, although out of a direct view as it's hidden by trees in the bottom of the valley. And if you have good eyes you can also spot Angers and its cathedral further right from the village of Epiré. The parcel is on the slope and Thomas says that when it's been raining it can be slippery for the tractor.
Speaking of the color share on his parcels, Thomas says that he has more white than red, with 60 ares of red (gamay and cabernet franc) and the rest in chenin and chardonnay.
We walk back to the chai underneath the house (picture on top) and Thomas fills a glass of chardonnay from a fiber vat. He says he's not sure it finished its sugar, the wine had still 5 grams at the last lab analysis. He only uses neutral vats for his vinification until now, no wood yet (the few barrels in the chai belong to Christophe). He is not interested by the wood taste he experienced by tasting here and there including from the Rioja, but when he tastes for example the wines or Richard Leroy where the barrel is subtile and discreet he sees there are nice wines to do in barrels too. But he'll have to grow a bit in surface because you must have enough wine to make part in wood part in vat and blend the whole.
__ Chardonnay 2014, a bit turbid, Thomas hasn't stirred but it may "work" again. Now the nose has still some yeast aromas, in the mouth there's a bit of residual sugar, but nice wine nonetheless, especially that the tasting temperature is close to 20 ° C in this surface cellar. May be racked and bottled after the harvest.
This is a problem in Anjou, young vignerons without family roots in the area don't find old buildings or cellars, in good part because of the real estate pressure (Angers is pretty close), so they end up finding arrangements like for Thomas, or renting some sort of warehouse until they can build something for themselves, but in all the cases you often miss the traditional-looking chai with the feel of the past generations who made wine there (we're getting used to that magic). So here we try to focus on the wines and forget the modern, bland surroundings.
I spot a riddling table on the side of the chai, Thomas says that he makes year after year a small batch of natural sparkling, about 300 bottles, using both cabernet franc and gamay. He says the two grapes blend well, the gamay, tending to lack acidity but having a good aromatic presence, goes well with the sharp vividness of the cab franc, the whole wine making a well-balanced sparkling. He makes this cuvée since 2011, he sells to local customers, having not enough of it.
Back in what we can call the bottle storage room Thomas uncorks a bottle of Celsiane 2014, a white made with chenin. He's making this wine since 2008. Looks very clear, I ask if it's filtered but he says no, he doesn't filter his wines. A closer look at the glass shows there's actually a light turbidity. He adds a
bit of SO2 before bottling (the day before), 20 mg, the goal of this modest adding being to
counter the oxygen-related problems that could occur with the bottling process. Oddly, he saw wines that were not filtered and would oxidate quickly if much more SO2 wasn't added, it's like if the remaining substance when you don't filter protects the wine in this regard.
Very nice touch the mouth, glides very well down the throat. There's a saline side too, very enjoyable. Makes 13 % in alcohol. Volume for this cuvée : 16 hectoliters or about 2100 bottles in 2014, the retail price (tax included) here is 9 €.
Thomas takes out of the fridge a bottle of the same wine opened a few days before (he didn't use a vacuum cork here). We taste it to see how it changed. More oxidation feel here, vacuum corks are useful after all.
Asked about his other cuvées, Thomas says he makes 5 cuvées overall right now, a chardonnay which is the entry cuvée selling for 7 €, then a red named La Quillette, then Celsiane, then then Brind'zingue (the sparkling) and lastly Topaze, a moelleux, which turns on certain years ending up as a dry wine.
__ La Quillette, Vin de France (table wine) 2014, bottled june 2015. Blend of Cabernet Franc and Gamay. By the way, all of Thomas' wines are labelled as table wine. Speaking of SO2 he says that he had lab analysis done for his exports to Japan and the sparkling had a total so2 of 20 mg, and this red had a total so2 of 34 mg with 10 mg free so2 (may not even remain any free so2 today). He makes this cuvée since 2011.
Very nice vivid color with tile shades. On the nose, appealing aromas of ripe peony and wilted roses, generous and suave. Thomas says he's doing a short maceration, like one week on the separate batches of whole-clustered cab-franc and gamay, and both grapes finish their fermentation together. 12,2 % in alcohol. In the mouth, nice wine with a nice energy and touch on the tongue. Got small so2 but tastes like having had nothing. Total volume, about 1200 bottles, retail price 7,5 €, very good deal.
We also here taste the same wine from a bottle opened a couple days ago. Nose, fine.
We taste now a wine that changed its planned course from mouelleux to dry white. This was bottled the day before. It was picked in 2014 in order to make a sweet wine, with botrytised grapes and 15,5 % potential. He didn't try to concentrate more and
decided to pick after the reds. The wine ended up finishing its sugar (remains 1,9 grams) and it makes a very interesting wine with energy and refineness too. Actually it's kind of an accident, he should have waited to pick, until the potential reach 18 or
19 like he did every year, but fate made him choose an ealier
picking and he likes the results. The mouth is pretty nice indeed, the sort of wine you feel immediately will pair with Comté cheese for example, I really felt like wanting to reach for a slice of Comté around me when I swallowed this. Could even go along "harder" types of cheese, like stinky cheese maybe. Aromas of compoted fruit, almost like semi-dry candied orange, very interesting. It remains light and refined in spite of the alcohol. This wine got 20 mg of SO2 only. When he tasted this after the wine was finished he made him remember Le Bel Ouvrage from Damien Laureau, on a minor scale, he specifies, adding that Laureau's wine is more refined than this.
The wine will be on the market next november/december, but with another name than Topaze (pictured on left), which he uses for the intended sweet cuvée, he'll alter the name to Extaze (label not out yet). Actually he likes this wine enough to maybe try to "reproduce" the accident.
Thomas also offered me to taste Topaze 2011, from a thin 50-cl bottle (pic on right). Bottled in august 2014. Exciting color like you see, gold/orange. Delicious wine, but moelleux is difficult to sell, especially that it's more expensive, this bottle costs 23 or 24 € tax included, and he's not sure he counts all the work and time in this price. Really nice, fresh, not syrupy, no spit. This wine is unfiltered, and the so2 is not that big for a sweet wine, he has put between 60 and 80 mg total so2 (he'll make the lab analysis soon before beginning to sell in november).
Before leaving I asked to see Thomas' tools, which are parked outside the house. Here he poses along his own tractor, a Case International. During the first two years he didn't have any tool of his own and it was a problem because grass grows and you need to react
in time. I guess he could borrow tools from someone else but
you often need the tractor and plow when the other guy need them too...
Behind the tractor there's a disused Berthoud sprayer (picture on left) which doesn't work anymore and which he intends to modify and turn into a small trailer to hold the grape boxes at the harvest. He'll have the tank and hoses dismantled and just keep the frame for a low rider trailer on which it's easy to pull the boxes. He has a friend who knows metal and welds, and he thinks it's doable, plus he'll retrieve the other parts for the still-functioning sprayer (same make if not same model). The future trailer looks narrow to me but that's the good point he says, it passes between his rows.
On the right you can see a cultivateur plow to be attached behind a tractor, that's what he uses to plow between the rows. Most of these tools were Christophe's and he's buying them as Christophe stops his winegrower activity. We saw also a red rotavator but he doesn't use it because it's putting the horizons upside down, which is not the best thing to do.
Lastly, I saw the press, on the level just above the chai. This is a small traditional screw Vaslin, making 10 or 12 hectoliters, which is good for his small batches because he can almost fill it each time, plus it's easy to move around. This press is included in the rental cost for the chai and he will certainly purchase it later as Christophe doesn't use it. The nice thing is that because the chai stands above the chai he can have the vats below filled by gravity, without using any pump.
Thomas Boutin exports 25 % of his production, mostly La Quillette and Celsiane, to Japan (Hiroshi Ozono via oeno Connexion) and the United States (Thirst Wine Merchants via Terrel Wines).