Preignac, Sauternes (Bordeaux)
We're here in one of the most iconic Appellation of Bordeaux, the Sauternes, less than an hour drive south of Bordeaux on the left bank of the Garonne (map).
The Domaine Rousset-Peyraguey is unique in many views (notice we have a Domaine here, and not Château...) this estate has deep roots in the area, with Alain Dejean's ancestors owning land in the area for 7 generations.
The total surface of the AOC is 2000 hectares with 160 producers, 1100 hectares being Premiers Crus 750 of which owned by 6 financial institutions or companies like LVMH (Louis Vuitton). With about 14 hectares the Domaine stands firmly on the map, especially that it is not only farmed organically and along biodynamics but almost as important, its wines aren't getting additives and technology input in the cellar, not even SO2, the lack of which being deemed an insurmountable obstacle for mainstream wineries dealing with these sweet wines, including the most prestigious here, Château d'Yquem which stands about 5 hundreds meters from the family winery (on the picture on the right you can see the Château building on the upper right).
Given the often-humid climate, conventional wineries rely heavily on harmful chemicals which incidently find their way into the wine as measurable residues, and the region made the headlines for having a rocketing cancer rate especially among its children (5 times the national norm), which should add another drop to the awareness push regarding these profit-oriented practices in the vineyard. But this story isn't about health issues, it's foremost about great wines made along age-old agricultural practices and eschewing the lesser-known shortcuts that wineries use in the cellar to produce square, formatted wines with the mutually-agreed color (which we'll learn is in now way natural).
As said above the total vineyard surface at Rousset-Peyraguey is 14 hectares, but they're spilt in 58 parcels, some in the immediate vicinity of the winery buildings and some at a distance, which around here is calculated in minute/tractor rather than kilometers, the most remote being 20 minutes by tractor. Roughly his parcels lies on 3 different geologic soils, the first group which make up the historic surface of the family is around the winery, sitting in the middle of the golden zone of Yquem, Suduiraut and Rieussec, then they have 4 hectares in the Barsac area with yet another geology, and lastly another almost 4 hectares near Fargues.
The grape varietals are of course the usual three for Sauternes, Sémillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle, Alain Dejean adding that Sémillon is sort of degenerating and reaching the end of the road. This variety was born toward the end of the 16th century and like all plants it evolved along the centuries and it became very fragile. Finding older wood would be a solution but he says that when you want to replant you're offered clones only, and if you can find massal selections of Sémillon they will also have these degenerative problems.
Alain Dejean himself joined the family domaine, became vigneron for good in 1995 and 3 years later he added more vineyard surface to the initial 6,5 hectares, some of it rented. Of course these parcels are all on the Sauternes Appellation area but for other reasons Alain Dejean dumped tha AOC and labelled his wines as table wine (today, Vin de France). What happened is that from 2008 the new Appellation system with the ODG (Organisme de Défense et de Gestion) were set up in Sauternes like elsewhere, abolishing in the way the Syndicats Viticoles all over France, the INAO (explaining this was because of European rules) created another control procedure to replace them. Under the new system the people de-facto in charge are the ones that lobby for conventional farming and winemaking and meeting their new specifications is now akin to inevitably to use correcting technology and additives, which of course pushedAlain Dejean to the door when before (with the "older version" of this AOC Sauternes) there was still room to get the AOC label. I think this is very interesting because you don't hear often about these bureaucratic intricacies with which the wine administration (here its new incarnation) keeps producers in line with the finger along the seams of the trousers. I understand that most domaines and châteaux are too afraid to loose the sacrosanct iconic word Sauternes on their bottles and comply dutifully.
All this bureaucratic process is enforced by another "administration" body [the exact nature and financing of these French bodies is fuzzy, but let's call it an administration as it's certainly financed by the taxpayer's money, be it the one of the producers] named Quali Bordeaux, this organization will then cme to the wineries to take the samples and check for the compulsory requirements in the wines, and there is no room to discuss here : while in the ols system you still could have real wine pass through in spite of "atypical" tasting features, now there's no hope for leniency. You have the Commissions Analytiques and the Commissions Dégustatives and the one which has the upper hand is the Analytique one, and natural, uncorrected wines never fit to these requirements, which, as said above have been established by the industry lobbies. To make things worse and kind of humiliate and ruin the rebelsthat might still present their wines for the AOC, the Sauternes system requires the wines that failed to pass the AOC requirements to be destructed and dumped.... It means that either you decide to bottle your wine as table wine (Vin de France) or you risk the destruction of your cuvée if you still attempt to get the AOC and fail.
This sounds like a calculated ruthlessness from the part of the wine administration to force the wineries to keep making formatted wines and never dare make a try for real winemaking. Alain Dejean noticed that when this new system was put in place, several Sauternes wineries including a big player (a Premier Cru) which until then didn't take part to the Growers Syndicate activities of the Appellation, suddenly joined in and managed have these requirements listed in the Cahier des Charges, which de facto rendered technological winemaking compulsory for all Sauternes wines. Of course this winemaking style implies also a conventional farming including the use of hormones to boost the size of the grapes. On the chai side, according to the requirements all the juices have to go through cold settling and there are tasting and color requirements that can be reached only through the use of additives
If you have courage to spare today and want to get a taste of the French wine bureaucracy, you can have a glimpse at these ODG Sauternes rules, here and also here (you may drown your sorrow in a glass of conventional Sauternes after that for a complete headache).
What Alain Dejean bemoans is that sales of Sauternes have been down year after year in spite of the possibility to make gems in this Appellation. Sauternes has vanished from the wine list of many restaurants including top tables in Paris and it's increasingly sold off with rebates in the supermarket wine sales. Alain Dejean is the only one among the 160 producers to make [table-wine labelled] Sauternes wines that are the real version as opposed to the highly-corrected (call it industrial) Sauternes. The big player for example who heads the ODG Sauternes is supposedly farming organic but his vinification is high on additives and technology, but the consumer only learns about the farming type and not about the vinification tricks.
Alain Dejean says that they created a requirement list with the biodynamic certification and they can give test results looking for 500 chemicals, 58 heavy metals and 200 metabolites in their wines, in order to prove that this is not only a naturally-vinified wine, but it's exempt of any harmful residues. This residues issue in the wines is one of the hidden secrets (less and less hidden nowadays) of Bordeaux which like Champagne has been using chemicals on a much grander zscale than the other wine regions.
Alain Dejean makes wines that are totally natural, they got absolutely no additives including sulfites, which is certainly suprising for sweet wines likes the ones of Sauternes (he's possibly the only one in France to do that), which means a different type of work compared to the mainstream Sauternes, his élevage is much longer among other things, and there's not even any filtration. Under the ODG system (the new AOC requirements set up by the conventional-winemaking lobby) the administration considers that the wines ae ready after 3 years and pushed them on the market by taxing them, which is of course a punishing penalty for someone like him who needs more years of élevage, everything is done to encourage a brisk sale of the wines, including by the enologists who aren't comfortable with long élevages.
There is also no SO2 sprinkled on the incoming grapes on harvest day, he says he only uses herb teas on his vines. He says that sulfites are made with oil and ammonium acid, they were created around 1845-1850 when they were separated from oil (through bombing with ammonium acid) during the production of gaz for the first engines and automobiles. The resulting product is also a component in herbicides, detergents and paintings. With his Biodynamic group they use a volcanic type of sulfur to change the vatroom ambiance but that isn't going into the wine, it's the result of another resarch. It's been 40 years that he is doing studying the issue, he found a formula for this sulfur which he registered as a patent, positing a work charter for its use with associated lab tests.
Alain Dejean has 3 such surface cellars for the élevage of his wines, they're not even temperature-controlled and even if the thick walls and dirt ground have a moderating effect on the temperature swings, it's certainly warmer in summer, but these are real wines and they can stand the changes, I understand that it's even part of the process that will make the wines stand on firm foundations and stand well the years.
Typically, the grapes are pressed and the juices goes on the same day into the barrels where it will ferment untouched, Alain says it's left untouched for one year, he doesn't even tastes the wine, he doesn't even tops up the casks. Asked about what makes the stability of these wines possible, Alain Dejean says that it is connected to the soil life in the vineyard, he says that if a wine can't keep itself unspoiled without additives and SO2 this is because of shortcoming upstream, meaning in the vineyard/soil part. What often lacks in the wines because of a poorly-thought soil/vineyard management is the vitamin E, and with other people in the biodynamic movement they work on the soil strength, particularly with seeding bacteria, because that's with the right living soil that you make the wines. He says that when a grower uses fungicides against mycelium, mildew and oidium he kills in the process other mycelium living in the soil that are very useful for the soil life because they facilitate the decomposition of leaves and plants and the building of humus among other things. He says that for the conventional wineries to speak about terroir wines when the soil has lost its life is deceitful. This goes in line with the high density of surface roots in the conventional vineyards that don't feed on the "terroir" depth, all of this being even worse if it's irrigated and/or fertilized.
Alain Dejean works with several people on these soil studies, including Lydia Bourguignon who with her husband Claude have a long record and expertise on the matter, and to help a given soil to recover from its deficiencies, they seed it with bacteria, the research helping them define the right bacteria needed here. Seeding bacteria is not an istant, miracle solution, as the soil will still need about 12 years before fully recovering from the lasting damages caused by chemical vineyard management. Of course there's the organic certification that states officially that such or such parcel is organically farmed but he dubbs it "mathematics for the bureaucrats", these certifications are not enough in the long run, you have to make your soil healthy again, and there's no real school to teach you how to do, that's why they work with other people and find ways to save the soils. He even says that certain soils are in such dire state that they may need 50 years to recover, some may even never recover...
Around 2008, before the new ODG process of the AOC were in place, Alain Dejean went to all the commissions asking if his wines that are different from the mainstream Sauternes would fit in the new cahier des charges, the requirements listed in the future ODG, and he was told "don't worry, everything will be fine like before". He says he naively believed it, although he had already a feeling through what he saw in these commissions about what these "new" Sauternes wines would be like under the ODG settings. Comes the harvest 2009 and months later the ODG-derived Quali Bordeaux checks, and his wines were said not to fit to their requirements, and this, with no possibility to present them a 2nd time and on top of that the order to destroy the wines as required in these new ODG rules.
Being ordered to destroy his batch was the last traw, that's when he decided to fight back fiercely, he says his strength may have come from his former life as excecutive in a supermarket chain when he was routinely going through tough fights behind the scenes to help his chain expand. He says that had his training and background only been agricultural he would have been unable to fight back and avoid the destruction order of his wine, meaning a potential bankruptcy for his domaine, in short these people could coldly tell him to go bankrupt, and they knew what they were doing. He will not elaborate how exactly he could go around this destruction order, he just says he didn't go to the courts but used other means that were very effective, and against all odds his 2009 wines were spared the compulsory destruction. Another positive fallout of this battle behind the scenes is that, he says, "they" will certainly think twice before attacking him again, not about the same issue as he now bottles everything in table wine, but they couild be tempted to go after him again because even with his table-wine labels, he is a threat to their fame because his wines are the living proof (by contrast) of their doomed vinification and soil management.
His 2009 wines are still in the élevage stage, and he plans to sell them when the head of the ODG will be gone, he will just have to go through an analysis check which he should pass unhampered, and they'll be labelled as table wine of course, all his customers lining up to buy them even without the Sauternes magic word.
Because the 2009 is still not available he's releasing his 2010 in the next few months so that his customers can see what they get under the new Vin-de-France label, he exports 70 % of his wine and his customers will probably remain loyal even with the loss of the Sauternes seal, given the certitude that they're actually
the only real Sauternes left around, made naturally through 7-year-long élevages and without chemical residues and any SO2. He filled this glass a few hours earlier and you can see here the color of a real, non-corrected Sauternes, he says that when you see a Sauternes of this
age with a clear, golden color it's not natural, you have to use additives and corrective technology to get it.
On the table-wine label he has to follow the punishing rules of the AOC, meaning that no word may hint at its prestigious Sauternes origin or relation, he even eschews the village name, Preignac which is one of the 5 villages of the Sauternes area, the name of the domaine is of course verboten, he just risks the words Paysan Viticulteur which the wine-wise consumer will understand as hinting at natural-winemaking [the AOC might ban that one day if they realize it...].
This wine here is a 2008, it's a micro blend from several caks, it has 13,5 % alcohol and 16 grams residual sugar (320 in enological measurement). The wine is just delicious and so vuluptuously delicate, my stomach make the typical noise I feel each time I get a true, living wine, I noticed that several time. Aromas of dry figs an apricots, the acidity is beautiful, it's all so well balanced. Its color is the natural wine of a Sauternes after a few years, and when you taste this sapid, pleasurable wine you forget instatly your first withdrawal feeling with this redish color, this wine rocks !... For the AOC this wine shouldn't exist at all and that's a shame.
On the right you can see the fine print on his Cuvée Aletheia 2010 which is the first release after his virtual banning from the Sauternes AOC, the translation is here below. The AOC guys and the prestigious Chateaux might not like reading this. Underthe rules of his downgraded labelling Alain Dejean can't name Sauternes anywhere on the label and on this text he found a way around to still speak about the Appellation ("the AOC where Rousset-Peyraguey is located") and their fiendish ways :
The people who now run the AOC where Rousset-Peyraguey is located don't wish to have in their midst the tasting features associated with an additives-free vinification.
In order to remain loyal to my natural-wine vinification (according to the Dynamis chart), without using additives or cryo-extraction, osmosis, lab yeast and so on, I decided to get out of the Appellation system (harvest 2010).
This wine is labelled under the SIGP label
I understand that the men who head the ODG purposedly forget to ask a derogation to the INAO, thus requiring wines with mandatory addition of synthetic products and not accepting natural diversity.
Nobody can suppress through blacklisting the project of making a sweet wine without tricks
Just one word : Bravo. Don't let this bottle pass if you have the opportunity, this may be the only real Sauternes you ever had....
Asked about the peculiar picking for this type of wine, Alain Dejean says that they begin to pick when the noble rot begins to setlle on the grapes and in the course of one month and a half they pick an eighth of a cluster at a time, leaving the rest for the next pickings. This means of course much higher manpower costs compared to "regular" hand picking. Asked if his mainstream colleagues work the same way, he doesn't answer to that question, saying he focuses on his own work. His wines are of course non-chaptalized but he'll not say anything when asked about the practices in this regard among the Sauternes wineries. It seems from my own research that chaptalization and cryo-extraction are routinely used by mainstream wineries in the region (be sure all these domaines don't face any problem getting the AOC label though). Mainstream Sauternes wineries including the most prestigious ones don't communicate about the technological winemaking they may use, same for the vineyard management. If you check the website of Château Rieussec you learn close to nothing, they invested in a new chai and on the vineyards there's nothing more than the surface, the varietals and for the vineyard management it says "Les techniques utilisées sont traditionnelles au Sauternais" [means : they work along the traditional techniques used in the Sauterne region), a vague sentence meaning bluntly they work conventionally like elsewhere, pretty poor information indeed. For Château d'Yquem I scrambled through their flashy website without finding anything about the vineyards at first, I sent them a message through the website and got a link to the vineyard management page. If I read under the lines they're not organic but never spray herbicides, they plow all along the year and put compost. On the vinification side we learn among other things that the élevage doesn't go beyond 26 to 28 months.
Alain Dejean bemoans that the media and the public are focusing on the big brand names of Bordeaux and not looking for the domaine owner who really lives in his vineyard and does the job himself, he says that he himself is also in the spotlight because he is a rebel and makes natural wines but he says there are also family growers in, say, Entre-deux-Mers (a vast AOC area largely disregarded by the amateurs of prestigious Bordeaux) who nonetheless love their parcels and azre doing a great job in spite of the low prices in their AOC.
He says that there's no school where you're taught ultra-natural farming in France, so there's no way even the big, prestigious domaines can work better than the way they do. The viticulture schools do have an organic section in their teaching but it's mostly laughable as it is largely off the mark compared to what is needed to properly handle such a type of farming. Even if these rich domaines wanted to hire workers for this type of vineyard/soil management, the problem is they'll not find any as there's no school that deliver that expertise. He himself is helping others train but he can do it on the edge all the while running his domain and the teaching/training needs can't be fulfilled by the few growers like him who accumulated a long experience. As a result these prestigious domaines use winemaking technology and cover their tracks by using a few marketing tricks like using plow horses or other things. Same for ultra-modern chais with special vats being moved up and down carefully so as not to move violently the wines, this is nonsense when you look at how the wine has been made upstream, that is in the vineyards and through its soil... The proof of this deception is that these wineries need to add SO2 and Potassium Sorbate otherwise their wines would turn into vinegar, and that's directly connected to the shortcomings of the vineyard soils. Alas, the problem for 98 % of the Bordeaux wine is that it can stand on its feet only because the additives and technological enology, everything has yet to be done upstream in the soil and vineyard for real winemaking to be possible.
The work in the vineyard is very important in the sense that Alain Dejean is very demanding for the pruning (see video below), that's why the staff is stable year after year for this work. They're 4 or 5 in total to work in the vineyards year around including himself. This Semillon Blanc is about 50 and in the Bordeaux region it's considered as worthless and time to uproot in order to replant a new, more productive vineyard. Speaking of the yields tha maximum authorized yield in Sauternes is 25 hectoliters/hectare (which nobody reaches since 2010), the biggest yields in the area being 20 ho/ha while at Rousset-Peyraguey they get from 3 to 6 ho/ha. On the other hand he sells a bottle 40 € while the average conventional domaine here sells for, say, 7.95 € on the supermarket shelves, which means that if you take out the store margin means almost nothing, which is sad when you think to all the chemicals dumped in the soils and vineyards for such a poor valorization at the end.
Alain Dejean says that he wants the vine to open itself to the sun, and he will prune accordingly, bringing step by step the vine and the wood to open more compared to its ancestral training. I'll not translate all his words because pruning is an arduous thing to describe (at least for me) but you can feel in this video that he is genuinely part of his parcel life, he understands what is going on year after year and helps the vine go in the right direction. You need ti vusualize the sap flow through the vine and the wood and then your pruning comes naturally by deduction.
Regarding the grass management Alain Dejean says he uses now and then a liquid derived from lacto-fermentation which will freeze the grass and keep it in check. Later in the rainy season the grass will dry quickly because of the sandy nature of the soil. He doesn't plow much overall, he just scratches the surface with tools that act like claws and keep^s a small mound all under the vines in order to enhance the bacterial life : the inter-row space has been lightly lowered and the earth moved under the vines where it will stay year along. He says bacteria multiply when the soil is going up, this is related with what Rudolf Steiner teaches.
Here no need of technology, even for the pressing, this press was made in 1820 as testified by the engraved marks on the wheel hub, Alain Dejean got this basket press 5 years ago and he says they make outstanding juices out of it.
The other press (pictured above in the cellar) is of the same type except that it is fixed and electrified, and in the center of an open tiled container where the juice flows before falling into an underground vat for a short decantation. This one was bought by Alain's grandfather in 1952, and they just change a stave or two when necessary but nothing else, it's working fine. Asked about the volume you put inside such a basket press he says that for botrytized grapes you don't count like for "normal" grapes : here the workday of 12 pickers will fill about 55% of this press, this isn't much but day after day there will be another load.
After the juice has gone in the underground vat it'll be pumped the same day into the casks. The selection of his cuvées will go along the moon and planet positions which will determine entirely different wines, and this is an issue which again is not taught and on which he's done an extensive research.
Regarding the start of the harvest it begins when at the end of august they notice small spots on the grapes' skin, that's when Botrytis settles. The strain of Botrytis in Sauternes is extrordinary because it yields lots of penicillin in the grape flesh, you don't find that elsewhere in such amounts. Typically for example in 2015 they began picking october 10 and finished mid november. As a comparison his prestigious Sauternes neighbors started august 28. Asked why, Alain Dejan says he has nothing more to say about it... [My understanding is that they certainly found ways to speed the process in a way that is far from being natural].
Once in the barrels he doesn't touch the wine, it will say put until the following september where they'll be pumped into barrels of another surface cellar. The temperature changes of course in these surface cellars but Alain Dejean says that wine is a living thing and it's natural that it experiences the 4 seasons. He adds that if a vigneron tells you that he is making natural wines and yet he has air conditioning in his barrel cellars, it's that something is wrong.
Have a look at this visit report made at the domaine during the harvest and pressing, you will understand through the pictures that we're light-years away from the high-tech vinification of his prestigious neighbors...
Alain Dejean's wines can be found in many countries and in Paris you can find his wines at Lavinia and the Caves Augé, possibly la Cave des Papilles and a string of other cavistes, he has the chance to have virtually no competitor making SO2-free liquoreux (sweet) wines and because of this, even if the demand for sweet wines is much lower than for other wines, his own are well positioned for amateurs looking for the real thing in the bottle rather than the AOC seal or the name of a prestigious Château on the label.