Montlouis, Loire valley
Welcome to Chenin country. Montlouis is a small town overlooking the Loire river atop a hill, on high enough ground so as to be safe from the regular overflowing of the river, which could be severe a few centuries ago, before dams and dikes more or less secured this untamed and wild river. The wine region is known for its Chenin, although there's also some red varieties around here, which is then labelled as Touraine wine.
Julien Prevel is not originally from a viticulture or winemaking lineage, he was intially in Angers then left for Rouen, Normandy for a degree in history & geography [makes you get a job in the teaching sector usually] and he came instead here near Tours in 2010 to grow vegetables, something which didn't work out for administrative reasons and he ended up at the employment services finding a job with a training on how to prune the vines, this was in early 2011 at Frantz Saumon near Montlouis and that was it, he was to continue on this path...
All the while working for the Domaine Frantz Saumon he got the opportunity in 2012 to tend a small, 20-are vineyard surface which was until then worked by Stéphane Cossais, a narural-wine vigneron who passed out unexpectedly in 2009. He had frost and disease issues on this plot for 2 consecutive years but that's how he trained his hands on both the vineyard work and the winemaking (it was uprooted in 2014). His real start with winemaking was with a 60-are parcel of gamay which he got in 2013, he still has this plot, it was planted along several years, between 1970 and the 1990s'. Then he got a sizeable surface of Chenin, making for a total vineyard surface of 2,5 hectares today (all is fermage aka rentals), to which he'll add another 2 or 3 hectares this winter. The vineyard management is organic, the sprays are done by a group of fellow growers, a CUMA who owns the tractors and tools.
He still does lots of work himself like the pruning and the grass/plowing management, he bought a used tracteur vigneron for that, a light and narrow tractor that can pass between the rows. It's pretty easy to find second-hand tools and machines in the French wine regions and this is also a way not to get endebted at the bank, thus leaving you room to make the wines you want. He still lacks a few things like a bottling line (he relies on the one of Frantz Saumon) and also quality pumps, and so for the racking he finds ways to work by gravity instead. Until now Julien has been keeping working for the domaine of Frantz Saumon to make a living but he'll stop after the harvest and concentrate on his own domaine as it is growing in size.
In the region he came to know other natural-wine makers like Ludovic Chanson and Nicolas Renard, and for him this is the way to make wine, eschewing additives and corrections. Of course he learnt the basics in the wine school, but that's conventional stuff and he learnt better stuff with the artisan winemakers whom he encountered around here, especially Nicolas Renard because he's an expert in vinifying without any SO2 adding, and that's precisely what he's intended to do with his dry Chenin wines. Last year his wines went fine and he's keeping vinifying this way but feels more secure with Nicolas' expertise and advice.
The cellar & chai is very impressive; like countless similar facilities in the Touraine region, it's certainly a former quarry that was turned centuries ago into winemaking cellar, with different rooms, the front part often being some sort of chai with the press in the corner and the deeper rooms the barrel cellars. Since Stéphane Cossais' death in 2009 it had remained unused and his family ended up renting it to him 2 years ago. The cellar has 2 parallel galleries, connected with a passage, it's cool and naturally stable in terms of temperature, no need to have aircon, and when it's too cold at this season for the fermentation to continue, he just leaves the door opened.
Here you can see where the basket press used to stand, the screw is still in place and it could be reassembled overnight I guess, but Julien uses another, more mobile basket press which he found at a retiring grower (he stores it outside), and he's looking for yet another used press. The one he uses makes 2 hectoliters of grapes and it's hand powered, so he can't press to the maximum [which isn't bad actually], he may loose 5 to 10 % of the juice because of that. He also can press at Ludo Chanson or at Frantz Saumon, as there's a lot of good will and help among artisan vignerons.
__ Chenin 2015, from a 400-liter demi-muids, grapes picked in his one-hectare parcel, he says it is finishing to ferment, there was 3 to 4 grams of residual sugar to go at the time we tasted, from the tests he had done on the wine. It took 10 months to ferment, some other barrels took 8 months, the picking was stretched over a few weeks. He picks typically the bunch, then puts away whatever grapes might not be good, either rotten or green berries, the green berries being put aside for the sparkling. Typically he's doing two passes per row, picking the ripe bunches and leaving the others for a later pick.
There's a tickling on the tongue but this is delicious, tastes very well for me already at this stage. Should be blended with most of the other dry Chenin and bottled in spring 2017. There's not been a single addition of anything including SO2 at this stage, and he intends to add none later either, even at bottling. He made a sample blend this morning to see how the future blend might taste when he'll put all this wine together.
__ Other barrel (220 liter), which tastes different, nice vibes with bitter edge, he says it's higher in alcohol and it's good that it'll be only a part of the whole. The bitter side comes possibly from the hot summer, could be the tannin of the white grape.
__ Chenin from another barrel of Chenin (220 liter), was intially a try for a vin jaune, a veil wine, Jura style (aborted since). From the start he had left the barrel 10 or 15 centimeters short from full and he had not topped it off until march (when he aborted his experiment). He changed his mind because he realized last spring that he would not have enough wine after the frost of 2016 and he'd need to postpone the experiment. The nose is not "vin jaune" yet, but in the mouth there's such a concentration, this is delicious. He picked bunches and grapes with the good rot in the one-hectare parcel for this barrel, passing alone between the rows the day before he was supposed to pick with his team of pickers, as it would have been difficult for the often-unexperienced pickers to understand what good rot is.
__ Other barrel of Chenin 2015, parcel named Maison Marchandelle, will be blended with the rest too. In 2014 this was his only parcel of chenin, the other being gamay. On this barrel he had an issue with volatile (he noticed it by tasting) and he add to rack it, put 1 gram of SO2, after which the fermentation stalled but at least the volatile hike stopped. Otherwise fermentations run smooth, with the malolactic unfolding and regular topping up every week. The cellar is humid enough so that he hasn't too much wine to add (the more humid a cellar, the less wine evaporates through the wood).
Tastes well too, a bit lactic feel with the malolactic, this barrel will make 10 or 15 % of the whole blend, shouldn't be an issue.
__ Sweet Chenin, from a barrel. Julien is also doing some try with a sweet chenin, he racked a barrel into this vat with a floating lid, leaving the lees and looking if it starts fermenting again, then racking again so that the yeasts calm down and give up. This is a longer process than using SO2 and you don’t filter either, the sweet wine is much better because of this, I understand. Then at bottling the choice is either to bottle without SO2 and take the risk, or put a bit of SO2, albeit in smaller doses than the norm, the norm for conventional sweet wine being 60 milligrams minimum. He’ll try to do it without SO2 adding but he’s in unchartered territory. Also he says that conventional sweet chenin is often picked at 13 ° potential and the sweet wine is blocked at 11°, a level at which wines are not stable at all, that’s why conventional winemakers add a lot of SO2; for his own he picks at 15° potential and he stops the fermentation at 13° or slightly above, the resulting wine will be much more stable and will stand better the lack of SO2 at bottling.
This beautiful corner or passage in the cave is where Julien began to stock a bottle library of his wines, bottles which he’ll try not to give, sell or open for a few years. It’s often difficult when you start a domaine and you’re small size, to keep track of your early cuvées, because first you don’t have lots of wine to sell and need the money, or you end up giving way to the temptation to open the bottles (even one by one) for friends or potential buyers, or even fellow winemakers who are curious about your work. This corner was so dark that I almost didn’t see there were bottles lying there, and I hope Julien manages to keep these bottles safe, this is very important for the future to have samples from your first batches... And I’m sure the wine will age even better in such a harmonious setting, i’m convinced this makes a difference in the wine even if science doesn’t prove it today...
__ Sample blend of all the chenin casks. Julien made a few hours ago a mini blend in a bottle with the respective proportions of the different barrels. He's not even close to make this blend in real size (will be blended next spring probably) but he checks from time to time what it'd taste like if he was to do it imminently. Tastes vivid, with a nice intensity and ripeness, the part that had this small bitter side is smoothed with the other parts, sounds like it's well on its way. Julien says there's about 5 gramsq of residual sugar in this blend, and as he's eschewing SOé he has to wait whatever it takes for it to be dry. He says the wine is fine but lacks a bit of tension, that's why he added a new cask among his older barrels, especially that his chenin have higher alcohol. He bought a new cask to a good artisan cooperage in Burgundy, the Tonnellerie de Mercurey, which he discovered through Nicolas Renard, they make very light toasting when asked to (the lightest around), and other artisan winbemakers around, like Ludovic Chanson and Michel Autran and it looked like great vessels, the small cooperage is a rising star I begin to hear about here and there.
__Sec Machine, the natural sparkling with chenin (picture above). He used the early-picking grapes, the ones with both green berries and botrytis, which he couldn't use for the still white. Bottled in november and disgorged 2 months before this visit. He made 600 bottles of it and he sells it to cavistes in Tours & Nantes, to restaurants, and he exported half of it to Denmark (Melin Vin). He sells it for 12 € tax included. Full-mouth sparkling, easy drinking, with a little bit of residual sugar (5 grams). Speaking of exports, he also sells to Japan through Junko Arai's Cosmojun (although on a standstill right now) and to the United States through Paris Wine Company (Josh Adler). In 2015 he made 5000 bottles overall but in 2016 he should have even less, like 1500 bottles or 2000, that's because of the frost and the mildew. He should rebound in 2017, especially with the augmented surface, with the soon-to-reach 4-hectare surface he should make 10 000 to 15 000 bottles. Having no mortgage at the bank, he should be able to stand this difficult situation. He will try to reach yields of 40 hectoliters/hectare on his vineyards in the next few years but today, because of the weather issues and also because of the many missing vines, he’s at about 15 ho/ha.
__ Perlant Free, pur gamay, vin de France 2015. The wine not being overtly sparkling, he put a normal cork, he just left 5 grams of residual sugar at bottling, just enough to make a lightly-perly wine with 5 kg pressure. This is mostlt gamay teinturier, the dark-colored gamay used in the past to darken red wines, he pressed the grapes, then he does the débourbage and puts the juice into the casks by gravity for the vinification. This is unfiltered, all his wines are unfiltered including his whites. There’s usually a note on his labels saying “non filtré – non s ulfité” (unfiltered, no added sulfites). Costs 10 € at the domaine. Nice substance and nice tension, goes down well by itself and long enough in the mouth to eat while drinking it too. Surprisingly the other “pet-nat” sells more easily because people consider this one like a rosé and in the common thinking rosé is much cheaper than that.
To sum up the production for the 2015, he will have rosé pet-nat, white pet-nat, a dry white (chenin) and a sweet chenin (also sulfur-free, this is important to note), plus this light-red rosé gamay sparkling and a still red, as he has a barrel of gamay also. The red is not bottled yet because he’s not satisfied with it.
We tasted this red gamay which he wasn’t satisfied with, it was still in cask, it will be bottled of course as table wine (vin de France). He says it has a mousy side some time ago, and it still has this fault today, he says you just have to wait and see. He says he there’s no improvement he’ll keep it for private consumption, for the pickers. He did 2 rackings to help correct the issue, brought the cask closer to the door but that’s not solved. He’ll wait more. With the expected ultra low yields of 2016 he’ll not make reds, he’ll make again some in 2017 if the conditions improve. Nice experience though, the mouse character didn’t jump in my face, I envy the pickers if that’s their daily wine...
__ Jus Brifiant, vin de France 2015, a natural sparkling made with Gamay, made from his first parcel of gamay.
Tastes indeed like a red/rosé sparkling with a welcome vinous bitter edge. Goes down pretty well too.
On the Montlouis appellation area he can only have chenin wines, he could bottle this gamay as Touraine wine only, other than table wine. Speaking of the appellation administrative process for his whites, he passed it successfully, except that they managed to fine him 30 € for some fuzzy, Kafkaian reason : in the vat room you’re supposed to have twice the allowed yields for your surface, meaning that for one-hectare surface you need to have in your chai a total vat capacity of 120 hectoliters, which is ridiculously oversized, given his yields of 15 hectoliters/hectare. When the wine bureaucrat came to check his cellar/facility, he had only 100 hectoliters in capacity, that’s more than twice his 40 hectoliters of juice, but below the compulsory floor capacity (for his 2-hectare surface he should have 240 hectoliters in vats and tanks...), so he was fined 30 € for this infringment of the rules. That frankly doesn’t make you warm for the appellation system...
Following this, they were also making trouble for a parcel of his which he’s renting, and for which the owner couldn’t find the papers proving its appellation status (the owner remembered the AOC status was valid until 2028 but had trouble locating the related document issued 30 years ago), so Julien wrote to the AOC administration that he’d just quit asking for any AOC and would just make everything in Vin de france (table wine), after which the AOC people backtracked and told him that was OK for the missing papers, they’d pass on this one. Looks like they’re beginning to worry about the growing number of artisan vignerons leaving the AOC as a result of administrative harassment...
Julien’s parcels are spread over a few areas around the cellar, the farthest being 5 km away from the cellar, the closest being the gamay, just above the hill (you still have to drive some distance though because it’s not direct). He bought this small tractor with 3 other growers, they use it informally when they need it (without using the CUMA system, a regulated co-ownership format often used by farmers in France), sharing the costs of maintenance. The tractor is stored at the domaine formerly known as Les Loges de la Folie, which changed hands and name since.
There a few other tools near these machines, different types of mowing trailer or plows which you switch and attach behind the tractor; it’s not clear if all of them were bought with the narrow tractor and belong to their group or to one of the growers, but I like this spirit where you feel that you work with relaxed rules of ownership, this is how young vignerons get encouraged and supported, they know that they also can call a colleague out of their small group if they have a problem and need help.
I asked Julien wether he thinks about buying grapes and making wine from them, he says yes that could be an option in the future but not now. He says that with the hardships of 2015 many vignerons and growers close down, some retiring earlier maybe than planned. One of them for example sold his domaine to Jacky Blot.
Julien says he had a problem with the tractor lately, that’s why he wanted to check it while we were passing by. It started without problem, but there had been an issue with the moving up and down of the tool in the back, it had stopped mid-course, but now it seemed fine. He says the three other guys who share the tractor use it less than himself because they also each have a straddle tractor. They bought this Renault 80 Tracto Control in the Charentes (south of Nantes), it was made between 1968 and 1972. I searched on the used-tractors website Agri-Affaires but there aren’t many of them, but when you find one it’s often a good bargain, even if young vignerons are looking for them, retiring vignerons usually ask not too much, it may be a couple thousand euros.
Near the tractor there are a couple of straddle tractors belonging to one of the vignerons of the group. Looks very light also, so thin I thought there was no engine.
We stop at a first parcel of chenin, right near one belonging to Bertrand Jousset, a vibrant natural-wine maker of the area, we took the road to Husseau where many well-known growers live and work, like also Blot and
This is a 10-row parcel belonging to the family of Stéphane Cossais, there were many missing vines there, he replanted or regrafted here and there to refurbish the parcel, he can do it in spite of the rental status of this parcel because it’s a long-term rent and he trusts the owners. When Cossais was working on it the parcel was wider and it has been partly uprooted since, this last section was supposed to go also because of so many blank spots.
With the grafting it should be faster to get grapes, as early as next year, slightly more for the plantings. Some still have to be grafted, they’ve been cut at ground level and you see the leaves of the American rootstock going up, he shows me the difference between the leaves [pic on left], it’s not obvious at first glance but when you put two of them side by side that’s clear.
Lots of the empty spots and missing vines are the result of Esca, not long ago 10 % of the vines would die every year, it has certainly to do with faulty grafting methods and the resulting difficulty in the sap flow.
Some vines like this one for example display the difficulties he faces in 2016 with the frost, mildew and other problems, there’s only one bunch on the vine instead of 8 (he pointed to the different places on the vine where there should have been grapes). You can also see mildew attacks here and there on the leaves.
He leaves the grass, he says it’s a good competition for the vine, espicially when it rains, then it also keeps water when it’s dry; later he’ll do a décavaillonage.
Driving further we reach another parcel, this is the 60-are parcel of gamay, on the plateau above the cellar, there’s more grass here, Julien says he’s late for the mowing. In this parcel you find different ages of vines as well as different types of gamay, there’s for example a couple of rows with gamay teinturier, a dark-colored gamay that was used in the past to get darker reds [this was before our modern techniques of color extraction through heating the juices or color additives], then there’s the gamay Beaujolais.This parcel sits on a different terroir, the previous parcel was silts with deep limestone and here there’s a layer of clay that keeps the humidity, that’s why it’s greener here. He doesn’t trim the vines, they grow freely (makes a nice change with the conventional parcel in the area which are square and bare), he just bends some shoots around the wire here and there when they’re too long. The parcel is well isolated from the conventionally-farmed parcels, with woods on one side and fallow field on the other.
You could see also the stains of mildew on the leaves (pic on right), he says on the gamay leaves it’s easier to spot. It’s very dry he says, there hadn’t been rain for quite a long time when this visit took place. There seems to be less occurences of Esca, the vines were grafted on Riperia, that’s why, while the previous parcel must have been grafted on SO4, which is more vigorous and because of that, more fragile (and also, some varieties, including chenin, are more fragile by themselves and thus prone to Esca). He has less trouble with gamay also because it’s precocious compared to chenin and rot has less opportunities to make some trouble.