Thésée, Touraine (Loire)
We're here on the north bank of the Cher river, in an area thick with artisan-minded vignerons on both sides, like Bruno Allion and Vincent Ricard on this side in the same village, or Les Maisons Brülées, Noëlla Morantin, Laurent Saillard and others on the gg other side of the river. Joël Courtault's father was in his time a grower who brought his grape to the nearby Coopérative of Oisly-Thésée, vinifying only a small share of his grape. On the vineyard side he was farming almost organic without boasting about it, taking care of the soil, eschewing herbicides and insecticides, and keeping in check the weeds through plowing instead. He wasn't rewarded by the Coop for that, his grapes being vinified together with the other, conventional loads.
Joël's father was for a long time the only grower at the Coop to bring such organic grapes, then came Michel Augé (who was also selling his grapes there) who made a conversion to organic farming, and much later Bruno Allion. There was also Alain Courtault in Thésée (not his direct family) who has started a conversion to organic at the time, the overall number of organic growers was far below what it has reached today with the new arrivals.
When Joël began to follow suit in 1999 he decided to officialize this organic farming and the conversion was much easier for the vineyard. Before that his father had used occasionally some chemicals against mildew but no insecticides, for example he didn't spray against grape worms (he had tried once but felt it wasn't worth it). At the time when he started there was a small group of vignerons around Michel Augé and through them he learnt about biodynamy, visiting growers experienced in this farming. This was very new to him and he began to apply these methods with the help of these contacts.
On the vinification side Joël vinifies without winemaking additives, relying on wild yeast only for the fermentation, and there's no added sulfites in his wines.
His Domaine du Bel Air is named from the small road going up the slope in the outskirts of the village. Started with 5 hectares, it reached a peak of 7 hectares years ago but with the 3 consecutive difficult vintages he's been through, he's considered downsizing possibly to about 3 hectares. 2015 was a quality year for the fruit, like elsewhere, but the volume was low, so it's in line in this regard with the previous difficult vintages. He jokes that the vines are tired also, like himself. Asked if doing some négoce to complement his dwindling volume of grapes he says he's not very familiar with this purchase mode, I was thinking to Les Capriades on the other side of the Cher river which is doing fine with its négoce part, smoothening the weather accidents through its grape purchases.
The wine farm is a cluster of buildings, barns and cellars sitting along the coteau with the vineyards at just a minute walk, you feel like in all these farms in the valley that winemaking has been here for ever, the cellars particularly, they've been dug in the soft chalk and each cellar has remains of fermenters dug into the stone and special rooms for the basket press. There's even a well at the door of one of these cellars (see on the left), meaning that the chai had unlimited access to water to clean the tools, amazing. Every vigneron I visit in the area sits on such gems that have the potential to be great assets if they were to receive visitors, which is not often the case. The cellars would need just a few cosmetic changes, the worst thing being to smoothen these places with cement floor outside, double glazing windows and sophisticated lighting (I've seen great places turn into catastrophic, pretentious shop windows elsewhere, and I'm sure the owners were very proud of their expensive remodeling...).
Speaking of these cellars the nature of the rock (you can see a close-up on the right) is very interesting : this is soft limestone [tuffeau in French] with tons of silex stones embedded in the mass, and as the soft chalk melted away along the years you can see the silex standing out. This is what I call visual geology, and the vines on the plateau a few meters away certainly have their roots digging in there.
Before walking in the cellar tunnels I spot what I like the most for the farm machinery, sitting under an open barn : a very old (but obviously still in operating condition) straddle tractor, this is a Loiseau 1968, made in Beaune, a super-light tractor with simple mechanic. Joël still had some repair to do on it, and the trouble is mechanics that can (and want to) work on these machines are retiring one after the other with no one to follow suit. Last time he has the gearbox and clutch to repair and you don't find the parts, so the local mechanics was crucial for finding ways and doing the job himself.
The other advantage of these old machines, from what I heard elsewhere, is that it needs much less gas than the powerful, modern ones. It's not even a second-hand, we could say, because his father bought it new back then in 1968. A brief look on the vintage straddle tractors on the market today shows that for only 2000 € you can find a straddle tractor. Look at this one while it's still on sale (at 1800 €), you can do everything with it, plow, spray and pull a cart, isn't that cute ? I'd almost exchange it with my old Citroën Ami 8...
But after second thought, my prize would go to the one driven here by Michel Guignier, as it is unbelievably powered by precisely a 2CV Citroën engine (listen to the surprising and familiar 2CV noise)...
We walked into several of these cellars, which were a century ago functioning as mini chais for a couple of families, complete with their press, ground stone/cement vat for setlling of the gross lees, fermenters embedded in the rock and barrel rooms to keep the wine and have it ready for shipping. And before basket presses became affordable for ordinary growers, many certainly had the grapes foot crushed by the family.
Here you can see the well-made air duct going from the ceiling of one of these cellars to the surface at the top of the hill.
You feel like in the ruins of a temple here, and by the way, Thésée (the exact name of the village is Thésée la Romaine) is sitting near a very old Gallo-Roman site named Monuments des Mazelles, a city (look at this wall !) that has been built in the 2nd century under the Roman Emperor Hadrian, this place being on a strategic Roman road at the time (Source)
In each of these separate cellar galleries (they don't communicate, you have to go outside to visit each of them) there is at least a corner room where they'd press the grapes, some timùes you just see square holes on the top of the wall where large beams would support the press structure (for the oldes press types), sometimes there'd remain a standing screw on a cement bed with a settling cement vat below. here you can see a naked screw, all you need is put the wood basket back and it's functional again.
And there are of course many, many fermenters in here, and as buying wood fermenters was probably beyond the means of all these small farmers, the option of choice was build a fermenter that would last for ever : in the bedrock, putting a softening coating of cement to make it leak proof. This way you'd also have get the best temperature inertia withought the slightest modern technology, really smart. Here you can see also in the background what maybe either an air duct or some sorte of chimney with a slide at the end to funnel the grapes directly from the top of the hill 10 meters through the rock. Can't beat this in terms of short connection between parcel and winery...
Joël Courtault does barrel élevage although I'm not sure all these ones were full. They look old but that's just because of the mold that develops easily in the humid cellar conditions. Look at the harmonious proportions of this cellar room. From what I know these cellars were originally quarries where they'd take the stone to build the nearby farms, and when they'd have all the limestone blocks they'd need, they'd do some finishing on the walls and convert these quarries in winemaking rooms and storage space, including for vegetables by the way. You can guess the air duct further awxay in the ceiling. Good to ventilate the place and keep humidity lower than what it would be otherwise.
At least two of these cellars had a bakery corner with an inbuilt oven embedded in the rock : it's a large dome with a ceiling coated with tight-knit bricks and a single opening. They'd put some wood to burn with embers until it's hot enough deep into the bricks and rock, then they'd take the embers and ash away and put the bread and whatever other dish to bake, that was slow cooking before our modern hype discovered it.
On there right they reinforced the ceiling with an elegant vaulted arch, using the same limestone blocks extracted from the quarry.
We taste a sparkling, Rose des Sables 2011, a neutral-glass bottle with a crown cap. It's made with Cabernet Franc & Cabernet Sauvignon with a bit of Gamay There aren't much bubbles but the wine is very tasty and enjoyable, with a thin tannic texture and aromas of Berlingot and possibly nut. Joël rediscovers it and says it sort of changed along the years, displaying today some of its original aromas. For me it's a gastronomy sparkling with a sizeable lenth and for me its almost bubble-less mouth is a plus.
Surprisingly he still has a few bottles of this to sell, as well as some 2009, 2010 and even 2006 and 2007.
Speaking of prices, Joël's wines cost from 9 to 12 € retail. You can taste his wines at the Pet-Nat Fair in Montrichard in july (the only one of its kind) He has a few other cuvées which I didn't taste this time and I tasted some still wines at the Anonymes wine fair in Angers at the end of january (scroll down 6 pictures on the story) which he attends (in my mind it's a must-vist event if you're in Angers at that time of the year).
Incidently, and I'm thinking about it because we're into natural sparkling, one of Joël's mentors when he started to make wine was Pascal Potaire who works on the other side of the Cher and is considered the King of Pet'Nat.
We then walk between the farm buildings toward the slope and about one minute later we're already among ther vines, the first parcel we see being old Cabernet Sauvignon. it's exposed on south, facing the Cher river and we can even see on the other side the tower-like family house of Catherine Roussel (ex Clos Roche Blanche), on the picture on top you can guess this house in the far, it's the white patch on top-right.
There's a grass issue in the region with the high humidity and Joël has tried here to cover the inter row with cardboard in order to slow the growth by stopping the light. The vines are pretty beautiful even though some are missing. They were planted in the 1970s' he says, I'd have thought them older.
You just have to bend on the ground when there's an opening in the grass cover and you find plenty of these silex stones of about the same size and proportions as the ones embedded in the walls outside the cellars.
The block here close to the wine farm makes about 2 hectares, the other parcels being 1 or 2 kilometers away (we didn't go there).
Right after the cabernet sauvignon we reach a parcel of gamay which goes all the way to a wooded block, it's less slopy here, it's already the plateau. This gamay was planted in the 1980s' (by his father I presume). Very nice-looking, low-hanging vines. He gets a few grapes eaten by wild animals when harvest nears, the woods being occasionally home to a few roe deers. He jokes that they also do some pruning of their own, not particularly the one he's doing.
As Joël's neighbor after his own rows of gamay is farming conventionally we walked there to see the difference, it's always interesting one way or another. Here in addition to experimenting under the feet how hard the soil is, we could see the "proof by the water" I'd say : the ground has become so compact because of the herbicides and lack of aeration of the upper soil that the water clearly stagnates on the top. Otherwise you have of course the usual green moss that covers the chemically-sprayed parcel. Growers working organic tend to avoid when possible such a toxic proximity but the rest of the block is well preserved, in good part thanks to the woods bordering it, another side (the lower slope) being the orchard and the farm grounds.
Before leaving Joël shows me his Sauvignon, aso very nice-looking vines. Asked about when he prunes his vines he said he began 2 months ago, he burns the canes with the usual custom-made wheeled barrel. He used to chop part of the canes but after downsizing he quit the CUMA he was part of and thus doesn't have access anymore to the shared tools.
In Paris, Joël Courtault's wines can be found at the Cave des Papilles, one of the best wine shops in Paris for natural and artisan wines.
Read Emily Dilling's (the American expat who moved recently around here) report on a visit to Joël a couple summers ago.