The Ferme de la Chappe sits on the top of a hill just west of the city of Tonnerre, you reach it after going up a side road winding through woods along a small valley with a few parcels of vines. The wine region of Tonnerre is located near Auxerre in northern Burgundy, it is certainly lesser known than its prestigious neighbor Chablis (16 km by road) or the Beaune area at a much bigger distance further south but has similarly long roots in the vinous history of the region, with the abbeys of Quincy & Saint Michel managing through their industrious monks the settlements of farm and wineries as well as selecting the best planting slopes. The Cistercian Abbaye Notre Dame de Quincy (another casulaty of the French revolution, only a few buildings remain) which was located near Tanlay in the same area as Tonnerre allowed the start of viticulture and winemaking as early as the 12th century and was managing farms all over this region as well as mills and cellars (celliers à vin) in Epineuil, Auxerre and Chablis. Since then especially after the phyloxera the vineyards of Tanlay disappeared with no return, but there has been a revival beginning in the early 1970s' with the vineyards of Epineuil and in the mid-1980s' with the ones of Tonnerre, the latter thanks a large part to the father of Vincent who iniated the rebirth of the Tonnerrois.
The Ferme de la Chappe is a multi-crop farm, Vincent's father was growing also wheat when he lobbied a few other farmers in the Tonnerre area to replant vines some 30 years ago. Today, he and his wife keep running the wheat farm but his son Vincent took gradually over the 2,5 hectares of vineyards in 2003. He turned the vineyards to organic farming although his father was already working on a pretty traditional way, and he extended his vinification capacity by purchasing organic grapes in the area.
When B. & I dropped at the farm winery for a very short visit around noon, Vincent was with friends who are also mansons, planning for some kind of renovation of the chai and the surface cellar, because the rooms weren't very convenient for working, plus there are a few annoying differences in the floor level of the vatrooms and cellar rooms. Otherwise he planned to keep the building mostly intact, in particular its awesome beams and roof (pic on left), just rearranging the different floor-level rooms and erasing the steps from one room to the other. Vincent says that unlike the Loire there are no troglodyths or deep cellars in the hills because it's very clayish here and as soon as you dig underground you can fill a swimming pool, more or less...
Vincent's chai and tools look very simple and old time, there's a large tronconic fermenter in a corner, a couple of vats and lots of barrels, with more vats stored outside at this season, they'll be back inside at harvest time. The whole farm feels like it remained true to its age-old values, the kind of place and house you feel welcome in. There's a large vegetable garden surrounded by wall in the farm, it's tended by Vincent's parents I think and just looking at its old tools and vibes you understand you stopped at the right place.
They do everything in this building with thick walls, in the first room on the left they vinify the wines with the fermenter and the vats, and that’s where they bottle the wines too, using a multi-spout filler that works by gravity. There’s sometimes a lack of room like with the 2014 wine that was longer than usual to ferment and finish its sugar, and when the harvest 2015 came the 2014 was still in the barrels all over the place.
To set things straight, Vincent makes wine from a total of 6 hectares of vineyards, among which the 2,5 hectares of his family farm to which he adds an additional 3,5 hectares of puechased grapes. His own vineyards are planted with Aligoté and Chardonnay and he buys different things to other (organic when possible) growers like Chablis, Petit Chablis and Beaujolais grapes, it all depends of the years and of what he finds. The Ferme de la Chappe was the first domaine in the Tonnerre area to be certified organic when he converted the domaine from 2003 to 2005, but later, he dropped the certification even though he kept farming organic. He says organic farming is viewed suspiciously by other farmers, like if he was to lecture them about farming management, people have been working for years in a certain way and they just don’t accept the idea that they’re off course and that a young guy [or an outsider like it’s often the case for organic farming] is doing the right thing. Now they get more pressure to change because it has become obvious that conventional farming is a dead end option and it’s understandably painful for them, so yu have to show diplomacy and keep a low profile as a way not to exacerbate their reluctancy to change their farming. Vincent says that what’s important is that farmers realize by themselves that a change is necessary, even if through just a small step in the right direction.
Vincent says he felt highly encouraged one day when he had the visit by a wheat farmer from the Dijon area (major town in Burgundy), the guy told him that he was years ago doing intensive agriculture and one day he decided to change course and farm organic, the main motive being economic : he would spend lots of money in chemicals and still not produce enough and at price too low, so he decided to get rid of this pressure and turn organic, now he sell at higher prices, also he's rotating the type of crops, he may plow more but on the whole he feels the pressure on his life is gone and he even begins to earn more money. After the economic aspect was successfully reversed he began to ask questions and realized that he also hadn't anymore this physical unease an coughing which he used to experience after spraying when he was conventional. His visit to Vincent's wine farm was also a result of his new quest, he was now looking for different products.
Pic on right : old, disused mid-20th century Mabille press (made in Amboise, loire valley)
Here in the tools barn he shares with his father you can see the light tractor he uses for the 2,5-hectare of the farm's vineyards, it's a light, 400-kg something machine behind which he can attach all sort of tools, some being home made, his father is skilled for welding and fixing things and for example hid created the plow on the left, it's some sort of vibrating plow that make the iron sticks move up and down with flexibility, which helps break the clods. You can find this sort of plow on the market but at quite a high price at around 800 or 900 € and here they did it themselves for maybe 150 € or less. For the décavailloneuse plow they buy it ready made because that's more tricky to build.
From the tool barn which sits at the end of the house we had a good view on the chai (pic on right). This barn with thick stone walls (at least the one with the dark roof) was build in the 15th century, the long house being possibly older. This farm was part of the string of farms controlled by the monks of the Abbaye de Quincy. For example there's a parcel of Aligoté on a terroir
named Les Vaux de L'Aumône and at the time of the monks it was considered as a Premier Cru/Grand Cru, the monks had their own classification back then.
The yellow press is not in use now, Vincent says he's about to get another one, second hand.
When Vincent did his conversion to organic farming, his father himself began to limit the use of products on his wheat fields by doing semis sous couvert which is, if I understand correctly, sowing without fully getting rid of the previous crop (that has been harvested) and without doing a prior sanitization of the field with herbicides. By skipping a step of the usual protocol, he'd at least spare the soil from a sizeable amount of chemicals and interference, and even if he remained conventional, this was a step in the good direction.
Speaking of his purchased grapes, Vincent says that finding organic grapes is not easy in the immediate area, he used to work with a young grower on Chablis & Petit Chablis, Adrien Roux who was working fine but he stopped his activity since. And in 2016 there's the problem with the frost which accentuate the scarcity of available grapes, plus there was a very heavy downpour of hail the previous day in the area. He usually relies on the Agence Bio, a state-funded group through which you have the list of the organic producers (in the matter you just click on "Viticulteurs" on the inked page) who took the pain to register and you can contact them and ask them if they have some grapes to sell. Vincent says that he found barely more than one page for the Chablis organic growers but 3 pages for the Beaujolais and he'll have more chance to find grapes in the latter or even in yet another region further south, he's thinking about sourcing some Grenache in the Côtes du Rhône.
We didn't have time to go see the vineyard, this visit was almost impromptu as we were going through the region heading for another area of Burgundy and Vincent's schedule's was tight that day. I still managed to take a few shots of some vineyards (right & left) along the winding road leading to the farm (not Vincent's from what I understand), one thing is sure is that the topolgy of this wine region is slopes and diversity, that's not a monocrop landscape.
We have to put in perspective the past importance of the Tonnerre vineyards and their present scarcity in comparison : according to this page the area of Tonnerre (the Tonnerrois) had almost 6000 hectares of vineyards at its peak, until the phylloxera devastated them, and today you have only 240 hectares, a minuscule surface compared to the 19th century.
Asked about the differences with Chablis which is so close (Chablis is 16 km by road from Tonnerre), Vincent says that the Chablisien (the terroir of Chablis) is scattered on a large region with a common value of minerality which had it dubbed historically "sone wine" or "stone water", almost thirst wine but with a complexity. The Tonnerrois wines on the other hand are also mineral but with ampleness, more on the richness, gras character.
The white AOC Appellation in Tonnerre was created in 2006 and it is named Bourgogne Tonnerre, otherwise the Aligoté here falls in the Bourgogne Aligoté AOC. For the reds you have the Bourgogne Rouge for the Tonnerrois, and the higher-value Bourgogne Epineuil for vineyards located on the Epineuil area. Tonnerre and Epineuil aren't very well-known appellations even in France although the AOC is now 10 years old and in spite of the long history and management by the monks since the 10th century, plus there are few producers and many sell their wine to the négoce, so there is room for progress. The bulk-wine price of the négoce is much cheaper in the Tonnerrois, for example the Chablis producers with average yields of 64 hectoliters/hectare sell their bulk wine for 5,5 € a liter while in the Tonnerrois (with similar yields) they sell for 2,8 € to 3 € a liter.
There are only two producers making natural wine in the Tonnerrois, Les Larmes de Divona by Amaury Beaufort (from the Champagne Beaufort family) and the Domaine de la Chappe. There was also Vini Viti Vinci (Nicolas Vauthier) who is based in Avallon and who used to vinify some grapes from here, from Vincent himself who before vinifying all his own grapes would sell him grapes and from another grower who later stopped his business.
For a relatively-small surface (almost 6 hectares when you include the purchased fruit) Vincent makes a large number of cuvées, 12 of them, not all been displayed on this picture because some of the wines aren't ready and aren't bottled yet. That's prettty impressing, many are sulfites free, like the Joseph 2014, a Burgundy Pinot Noir, Vincent says about the many cuvées that he likes to experience diverse appellations and terroirs, for example there's a Bourgogne Tonnerre cuvée (a white) named Ghislaine which is still in its vat which he likes a lot, it's a very different type of wine compared to the cuvée Thérèse, also a Bourgogne Tonnerre white. All the wines bear a first name with a funny portrait-like label, they're invented names except for André which is a reference to his father and Joseph, his grand-grandfather.
__ Apoline 2014, Bourgogne Aligoté, made from the domaine's vineyards. These vines were planted by Vincent's father, the vineyards of this Tonnerre region made a comeback in the 1980s' and most of the farmers who planted them were wheat growers, same for his father André Thomas who kept
growing wheat along with resurrecting the local viticulture that had vanished after the phylloxera
disaster [and the early-20th century railroad development that allowed the easy transportation of Languedoc wine to Paris]. Vinified in barrels.
This Aligoté is what I call a nice juice, very enjoyable with a good acidity but also round and flowery.
__ Thérèse, Bourgogne Tonnerre 2015, a Chardonnay from the domaine's vineyards. Not yet bottled, Vincent warns us that it may have somme bubbles because he had filled this bottle early may with yet some unfinished sugar for a collective wine tasting event organized every year by natural-wine makers of the region, Chai l'un, Chai l'autre (it often takes place at Oliver De Moor's facility in Courgis). Speaking of
The wine is indeed fuzzy, you feel it's still in the making (the vat may have progressed faster than the bottle here, because of the closure holding the gas in the wine). On the 2nd sip I notice a nice maturity in the mouth, but on the whole it's still in the making.
Vincent says the this Chardonnay parcel is very clayish indeed, you have 15 or 20 cm of earth and then plain clay deep under, which yields quick maturity for the grapes, attaining ripeness well before the other parcels. He says the good point is you have tender wines with which you can get acidity through an élevage on its lees but on the whole you get wines that are very ample and rich. He says that in 2013 which in spite of the hail was a sunny year he got such a lack of acidity on the tasting level that he intentionally left gas in the wine because it brings some freshness all the while allows not to add SO2. Interestingly when you opened this Chardonnay 2013 he says you had a first feeling of a Chardonnay and after a while and the wine had aerated it felt almost like a Viognier, it was very interesting. B. asks him if picking earlier could be an option for this parcel but he says the result would be rickety,he prefers to have a tender, ample wine, and that's the character of this parcel.
Speaking of SO2 for example Vincent says that in 2014 and 2015 he didn't add any SO2 at bottling, the only instance he added some SO2 was in 2015 for the Chardonnay, he put some SO2 on the grapes because there had been rain on the grapes and for some unknown reasons the grapes were dirty during the storage because of the wind, it was an exceptional instance, he doesn't use SO2 and what you find in the wine as SO2 is
the one that was produced naturally by the wine during the fermentation process (that's why even non-SO2 natural wines have to display "contains sulfites" on the label, but these are mere traces).
__ Marcel, Chablis 2015. Very tender wine with richness and no mineral edge, this is the vintage character, 2015 being a warmful year. You feel a sugary edge but Vincent says there's less than 2 grams of residual sugar. I feel also a nice bitterness that wraps the whole experience. Vincent says that during the vinification of his first vintage in 2003 [that was the heat wave year when it summer was so hot that the vinification turned tricky for most winemakers] he was advised by an enologist to re-acidify because the wines lacked acidity. Vincent was already determined to vinify naturally even then and eschew conventional corrections. He remembers watching the enologist taste the wines in the vatroom and saying there was no acidity in there and that if he didn't add acid the wine wouldn't stand time, but he resisted the fear, for him the terroir isn't only the soil nature, it's also the climate and micro climate and it must be reflected in the vintage. He ended up being right to have said no to this incitation for acid correction as he later regained freshness in this wine without forcing it, the wine ended up somehow recovering by itself.
Vincent says that for the picking you have to respect the AOC norms which state that you have to reach a minimum sugar level in the grapes (Vincent didn't remember if it was 9,5 or 10,5) but the issue with these norms is that they're taylored for conventional winemaking using lab yeast, and the yields of indigenous yeast is completely different than the industrial selected ones. Lab yeast are like programmed little soldiers doing their job efficiently while when you use indigenous yeast you have in the same batch 5 or 6 strained of wild yeast working side by side or one after each other, and the result is they don't convert the sugar into alcohol with the same ratio. For example he remembers he had a juice of Chardonnay with a potential od 12,2 % and he endedup reaching more than 13 % through natural vinification, so the AOC guidelines are off the mark for natural winemaking, they're taylored for conventional winemaking and lab yeast.
__ Thomas, Bourgogne rosé 2014. Bottled in magnum, neutral non-colored glass. Rosé de saignée made from Pinot Noir, 5-day maceration and one year élevage in casks. This is a vinous rosé, more a gastronmy rosé than an apéritif summer drink. Nice enjoyable rosé even by itself, I see myself like drinking it alone too, thre's a toasted aroma which is enjoyable too, Vincent says it has to do with the long élevage in barrels (athough these were 5- or 6-wine old), the wine having taken longer to finish its fermentations including the malolactic. Vincent buys his barrels from other vintners, preferably from people working naturally like Nicolas Vauthier, sometimes he buys from cooperages who themselves sell second hand barrels they recover from the domaines.
Asked when and how he ended up working naturally, Vincent says that he discovered natural wines at Domaine Gramenon where he landed one day almost by accident : He had enlisted in 1994 at the age of 14 in the Lycée Viticole [the wine school] in Beaune and later around 1999 he passed the Bac Pro diploma with Maxime-François Laurent from Domaine Gramenon, a class mate who was also studying there that year. At the time Vincent didn't know Gramenon (few wine people knew back then in 1999) and as he was due to find a training somewhere during this last year before the school diploma, Maxime told him to come do his compulsory training time at his parents' domaine. Vincent was reluctant to do this training because from what he has already experienced in previous trainings what you do there is just recipe protocols where you make typically an estimation of the percentage of rotten grapes, then calculate the related amount of SO2 which you spray all over the grapes, then you do 15 minutes of pumping over and 15 minutes of pigeage, often using a chronometer to follow the book. Vincent felt tired of this recipe process which he felt was more as a reassuring way to calm anxiousness behind a strict methodology.
When Vincent showed up at Gramenon in 2000 this was in summer first to work in the vineyard, take down leaves, do some labelling in the chai and bottlings, and now and then they'd have him taste some wines and he liked their drinkability, they were easy drinking and he felt good the following day. They were telling him also how they worked in the vineyard but at the beginning he didn't pay attention, then harvest and the vinifications came and he asked them what was the program, he thought that like elsewhere there'd be a protocol with a pied-de-cuve, the lab-yeast adding, in short what he had been taught in the school. They answered, why lab yeast ? there are already wild yeast on the grapes you don't neeed to do anything, same for the pumping over and pigeage, they had no recipe program, they just go by feel, stomping the top of the vat a little bit, no more. For him this empirical, let-it-go way of vinify was entirely new and suprising and it opened his mind, especially that he was beginning to connect the dots with the quality of the wines he had enjoyed at Gramenon. Meanwhile they also had him visit Dard & Ribo nearby and step by step he began to gain interest in this organic, non-intervention winemaking. Back in Burgundy he went to Aux Crieurs de Vin (a restaurant-caviste in Troyes, where Gramenon has its wine) and he discovered many other natural wines which he loved, convincing him even more to follow this natural way.
__ Paulette Bourgogne 2014, carbonic maceration, Pinot Noir vinified in tronconic vat and then in casks. 11,3 % (says 12,5 % on the label, but in reality it's 11,3 %, the labels are printed in advance). Lovely, delicious wine. Delicious meaty aromas in the empty glass, love it ! Sells for 15 € tax included
After this discovery of new wines at Gramenon and in the Troyes wine shop he organized with friends an ephemeral wine fair at the wine school in Beaune in 2001 or 2002 with the help of wine writer Jean-Charles Botte and during this event he discovered Champagne Fleury, Dominique Derain, as well as Jean-Claude Rateau (one of the 1st organic domaines in Beaune then). Through the Toyes wine venue he also discovered Nicolas Vauthier who is almost a neighbor in Avallon and who became a friend, same for the Domaine De Moor in Courgis.
Back at the beginning of the rebirth of the Tonnerrois : two people were at the origing of the replanting move, his father André Thomas and Emmanuel Dampt the latter having become a big company. André Thomas was genuinely interested in tending vineyards (his own father had been reluctant to let him do it), that is in plowing them and doing the real vineyard management, that was just for the sake of diversifying his farm business, he wanted to make nice unfiltered reds, he'd taste here and there to compare the wines. He wasn't really into natural wine but for someone of his generation who had evolved completely outside this culture he was already on track for a good work.
Both André Thomas and Emmanuel Dampt launched the project in the late 1980s' and created a coopérative as this was a prerequisite to get plantation rights back then (remember, the region had become totally devoid of commercially-operated vineyards and you had basically to restart the wine region from scratch and pass the administrative barrier). They convinced other farmers to join and plant some vineyards along.
The mayor of Tonnerre was Minister of Agriculture in the government back then which helped a lot for the whole adventure. In this new coopérative his father layed the rule that if a grower was able to lower his yields for their red from 60-70 hectoliters/hectare to 40 ho/ha he should be paid more for his grapes, and this was very innovative for a coop. The first vintage from this coop came out in 1992 or 1993.
__ Joseph Bourgogne 2014, 100 % Pinot Noir, négoce wine. Not a carbonic maceration except for the very start, there were a few pigeages here and 3 weeks of maceration. Clear color. Very easy-drinking with a light bitterness.
Vincent uses this gravity filler for his bottlings, you put the vat hanging above and connect it to the filler. This tool was made in the 1970s' and working in tandem with an aide he can fill 1200 bottles per hour, he got it from his buddy Adrien Roux, the fellow grower who stopped his activity for now [I exchanged a few text messages with him and he told me he might start something again in the future, possibly in
another region but nothing is decided yet].
Vincent had also bought with him the semi-automatic corker Asked about what I think is a decisive factor of slow gravity filling for the enduring quality of wines [with the prerequisite of them being left unfiltered], Vincent says that if he had 25 000 ot 30 000 to bottle he's not sure he'd use this, he'd have a mobile bottling line come here, but he'd choose the right service company, adding that some of them if you ask them to, can do gravity bottling, or they can also work with counter gravity, pushing the wine out of the cask with neutral gas, that's the modus operandi used by Nicolas Vauthier. You can also ask the bottler to work slower, you're the one asking for the service.
__ André Bourgogne 2015, different soil for this Pinot Noir, more stones on this terroir, more mineral, makes a sharper wine, even if with the 2015 vintage it's more on the tenderness side. The wine makes 12,8 % (not 12,5 % as printed on the label) but it feels very light with a welcome freshness feel, nice juice, goes down so well... Atomas of peony flower.
In general Vincent finds otherwise the 2015 wines to be too flattering, to easy at the approach. In 2013 he got superb juices on Petit Chablis and Chablis which he bought to Adrien Roux who was still in activity then, the grapes had been pressed at Adrien's place with his pneumatic press, and the gross must was settled without adding sulfur, he just froze plastic bottles of whater which he plunged into the juice to get the must sediment in the bottom (the must was so-so in 2013, that could have been an issue) and the resiulting juice was extra.
Speaking of carbonic maceration (I was so favorably impressed by his carbonic-maceration cuvée Paulette), Vincent says that the risk with the carbo fermentation is that it denaturates the terroir, he says this isn't common to do this on Pinot Noir, he does it from time to time but not systematically. For the Paulette 2014 he made the choise to do a carbonic maceration because the parcel in question was yielding super light and easy wines, he used to make rosé most of the time, and he thought he might as well try a carbo. Good intuition. Of course you loose this pinot charachter he says, the wine tends to gamayter like vintners say, meaning it'd express almost a gamay typicity.
The Domaine de la Chappe's wines can be found in Paris at A la Renaissance, Le Verre Volé, L'Oiseau sand Tête, Le Ciné Louxor, Gravity bar ( a cocktail bar), la Cave Marcadet, the Cave de Belleville, the Cave des Papilles, the Cave à la Bastille and other places, all serious venues for natural wine as you can check.
Vincent is a young father of a baby boy whom we saw briefly in the farm.