Ouchamps, Sologne (Loire)
I met Kevin Henry a few years ago at at Olivier Lemasson (les Vins Contés), a bustling domaine in the Loire doing sulfur-free wines, a winery which is a perfect example of the easy-going and friendly ways of these natural-wine domaines. Kevin began to work in the vineyard and wine world almost by accident : as I reported already back then, he was travelling across the region almost 10 years ago, hitchiking along a road in nearby Contres (a village in the middle of Sologne) when Olivier Lemasson gave him a ride. He was kind of adrift with no clear plan on what he wanted to do, then, having just dropped out his previous job. They chatted during the short ride and before being dropped further along the road, Olivier told him that if he needed a job in the coming weeks he could come at the domaine at the time of the harvest; Kevin didn’t really pay attention immediately but he remembered the offer and came back in time to take part to the vendanges. That was a good pick, and he was to remain for good...
I don’t know of any other profession or work culture when you can get a kickstart and initiation so easily, especially in France where access to work and careers is so difficult and protected, with an obsession from the part of the employers on cursus, diplomas and job references. But if there’s a common trend to be found in all these natural wine & artisan domaines (beyond the organic farming and non-interventionist winemaking), it’s precisely this openness to beginners and newcomers, this natural enthusiasm to share. On the opposite, I witnessed firsthand how conventional vignerons behave and that was so different : a couple of time I visited conventional wineries with young people who were eager to learn and start something in wine, they were looking for a small parcel to rent or buy (with the intention to work for an established winery on the side as a day job), and the people on the other side weren’t helping at all, they were almost suspicious that someone from outside with no family roots in the vineyard world could be interested in tending a vine and making wine. And when you told them that the project was to farm organic, that was the last straw, you just felt that you had just blown up your chances to get tipped on any available parcels, even the ones dismissed by the trade because their yield is too low.
Pic on right : Ouchamps is a village étoilé [starry village], says the road sign : this small (pop. 800), charming village has taken steps to fight light pollution, which means they shut out street lights early at night so that everyone can enjoy a real night situation. Too many villages try to copy towns and suburbs, keeping lights on all night. There’s nothing like a real dark night to enjoy the serene peace of the countryside and watch the stars...
When I visited Kevin at Olivier Lemasson, both Kevin and Olivier were busy checking a straddle tractor with a weak battery (Kevin still works part-time for Olivier even though he has started other projects since his start here). He broke his foot recently and is supposed to stay quiet for a while but his plaster was to be removed a couple days later and he couldn’t wait running outside and doing things.
The winery has moved a couple years ago, last time I visited for the gorgeous yearly les Vins Contés Open Doors they were still in the former place, which looked about like this one, with long single-story farm buildings (known in French as longères). By the way, these Portes Ouvertes (open doors) events are a must-do, it's a lot of fun, live music, great wines from several winemakers of the region, and if you think it's not safe to drive afterthen there's room to casually sleep somewhere in the attic...
The tractor was built in 1964, it’s a Loiseau, an iconic make whose machines are still running fine all over France decades after they were manufactured. Olivier says that compared to the other make Bobard (of which you can also find cheap, old models), the nice thing with Loiseau is that the driver seat is on the side, which is a great help to keep an eye on what you’re doing below with the plow. He also has a Bobard but rather uses it for trimming, because sitting in the middle is better in that case.
Olivier Lemasson says that he bought this tractor with Thierry Puzelat, from a retiring grower in the area. It was running fine even if you have to change things and parts from time to time. Here the machine seems to start fine, maybe the battery wasn’t tightly connected or something.
Also, Kevin works with this narrow Massey 145 (pic on left), a small tracteur vigneron well adapted for old parcels with narrow inter-rows. Some of the interchangeable tools for this tractor belong to Olivier, some to Kevin, it’s very informal, they use the machine and tools when they need them, Kevin says he tries to also invest in tools so that the relation remains balanced.
I started my interview with Kevin in Olivier’s kitchen, which is the de facto field command center, with a bottle of the domaine casually waiting open on the table (I’ll win any battle with this...). I asked him again on how he first met Olivier, this destiny ride along a country road in may 2008, Olivier was driving to Bourges and gave him his business card, not really sure he’d ever see him again, but Kevin remembered his offer to work for the vendanges and came back in time a few months later in september. He did the picking season, then came back again in 2009, then in 2010 [sleeping all the harvest season in a dormitory similar to this one on the picture above], and that was about the time Olivier’s other employee Jeremy Quastana was beginning to need more time for his own vineyard surface (he was starting his own domaine), and Olivier offered Kevin to work here along the year, on a TESA work contract, which is a short-term working contract specific to the farming sector. In France, the farming sector has its own, separate social security, retirement plan and working-rules enforcement and they’re managed by a powerful (and often despised) administration, the MSA. This lasted from 2010 to 2014, he worked alternatively for Thierry Puzelat and for Olivier Lemasson, and in 2013 he got the opportunity to farm 1,5 hectare of rented parcels, the grapes of which he’d sell. He thought then (and still think today) that if winemaking is a profession, growing grapes is also a profession of its own, and before trying to transform grapes into wine it’s very important to learn how to grow good grapes, so he focused on this side of the trade primarily.
Here at the Vins Contés he’d also help at the cellar occasionally while at Puzelat working with Jean Marie (Thierry was working on the négoce side of the winery) he’d be mostly in the vineyard and he liked that. When in 2013 he took a 1,5-hectare surface for himself as cotisant solidaire [another farming status where you can work with limited taxes and administrative paperwork if you keep your surface at-or-below 2,5 hectares__ the maximum surface allowed for this status varying depending of the region], selling the grapes to Olivier Lemasson. In 2014 he’d take another 60 ares, this time with chenin and he’d sell these grapes to Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme. And lastly in 2015 he took 5,5 hectares of vineyards in Valaire, near the well-known natural-wine restaurant [l'Herbe Rouge, a gem of a restaurant lost along a leafy side road], this was because of the opportunity of a retiring grower, who was farming his vineyard conventionally, the good thing was that there was a wide range of varieties, Côt, Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and also 2 rows of old Pineau d’Aunis (a rarity), pushing his whole rented surface to 7,6 hectares (or 7,1 if you count the parcel he plans to uproot). But now he plans to backtrack and downsize, realizing with his girlfriend that for the last two years they’ve been struggling in spite of all the work (and there's a baby in the young family), so he’ll give these newly-rented parcels to Olivier, who in turn will hire him back as permanent staff (this should be next year). He’ll keep the initial 1,5-hectare surface and will continue to sell the grapes all the while having this job with Olivier, which is a more stable situation when you raise a family, especially when you have to go through vintages with very low yields.
From 2008 to 2014 he wasn’t really eager to make wine, he was fine with just growing the grapes and doing the farming side of the trade, but in 2015 (last year) he made the first step in winemaking with this cuvée. He hasn't been using the grapes he grows for himself, and he made thus a cuvée for Olivier Lemasson, as a way to make a first step in that direction, his goal in the near future being vinify grapes from his remaining surface, for a volume of, say, 4000 or 5000 bottles.
He had of course some training in the cellar because along these years he also helped on the job and did cellar rat things, so Olivier gave him a batch of nice gamay so that he could make his own try. Asked if in 2016 he’ll repeat the try using his own remaining 1,5-hectare surface, he says no, he’ll certainly make another cuvée under the label of Les Vins Contés, there’s a technical reason for that, this is because he still has this négoce business until november and he prefers not to mix up the activities between his current grape-selling activity (with the 7,5 hectares of rented vineyards) and his winemaking start. I understand that he wants to keep the special status tied with very a low surface (under 2,5 hectare) and he waits to formally stop the négoce before making wine under his own name, then he’ll begin vinify the grapes from the couple hectares he’ll keep. This special status is fine when you sell 4000 or 5000 bottles, but as soon as you’re over 2,5 hectares you get the full range of compulsory taxes and paperwork. In France I saw quite a few valuable winemakers who chose this direction, because the costs and administrative pressure are a deterrent for growing in size.
Next year he’ll be employed at Les Vins Contés and he will also have this small-farmer status (which is allowed also when you have a day job) and he will make his own wine. As his own surface is mostly planted with gamay, he should be able to continue this cuvée which he first experiment with Olivier Lemasson [let’s hope the whole batch will not be shipped to Japan this time...]. And while he’ll keep selling his chenin to Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme for now, he may in a couple of years vinify the grapes also, adding a couple of white cuvées (possibly a still chenin plus a pet-nat) to his small production. He will certainly bottle his wines as table wine (vin de France) like Olivier’s wines at Les Vins Contés, and although he’ll farm organic he’ll not take a certification, his buyers know him and can check the way he works. I guess that also a certification process is costly for a very small production, and many natural-wine producers don’t go through the hassle because ther’s almost a personal relation with their customers and trust is central to it.
__ Kevin Gamay, vin de France 2015. We taste the first and only cuvée he vinified himself, it’s still not “his” wine technically, it is one of the cuvées of Olivier Lemasson’s Les Vins Contés. The grapes are gamay and come from this 5-hectare domaine near Valaire (it’s a 60-are parcel of which he used maybe 45 or 50 ares for this batch) of which he sells the grapes to Olivier’s négoce. Olivier gave him free rein to do as he wanted for the vinification, and the whole cuvée was exported to Japan for Junko Arai’s import company Cosmojun. The label is designed by an artist from Brittany who always features pigs, at least for this winery, the guy is named Daniel Coulliou, he also works for Vini Circus, the big natural-wine fair that takes place every year in Brittanny, he is a friend of Olivier and many of his works hang on the walls in this room.
This is a carbonic maceration (18 days) without pumping over, no pipeage, then pressing, then 2 weeks in a vat. At this point it showed some volatile and he added 3 grams to block it (there hadn’t been any SO2 until then). The following week they put the wine in 500-liter demi-muids (barrels). There were two bottlings (unfiltered of course), one in january and one in march (5 hectoliters each). Except for the small adding because of the volatile emergency there was no other SO2 added for this wine. At one time when the wine was in the demi-muids, he spotted acetic souring in the wine and he was of course anxious that the whole batch would turn into vinegar, but his experienced mentors reassured him, Olivier Lemasson first, but also neighbor Christian Venier who comes tasting regularly, he just told him with a calm voice “cool down, just wait, it will pass by itself...” This was in november/december and by may it had vanished. This is the kind of help and consulting that count so much when you’re through your first natural winemaking, using virtually no sulfur, imagine someone doing that for the first time with only conventional winemakers or enologists at his side, they’d ruin the wine with the security argument.
He applied the modus operandi he learnt here, noting every measure data starting with the picking date (sept 11 2015), then listing the juice data day after day, temperature of the juice in the bottom (for a given day : temp : 17 ° C (62 F) – density 1087), reaching the 18th of november 1001 density with a juice/wine temp of 10 ° C (50 F). The whole-clustered grapes were taken out of the fermenter sept 28 woth a 0,45 volatile and malolactic at O,27, all this day-today data helps remember the history of the fermentation, I guess you can look back and see a pattern for a given parcel.
We’re tasting the first bottling here, tastes very well, really the delicious thirst wine of gamay you never get bored with (and look at this color, it can’t lie...) : fruit, good level of natural acidity, you recognize the wine style of the domaine of course, as Kevin has learned the trade here. For a first try it’s certainly a success, too bad it’s mostly gone to Japan, especially that the price is very affordable (that’s Olivier Lemasson’s policy to keep his wines at the reach of all consumers). The few bottles that were sold here were at 5 € professional price and 8 € tax included, quite a good deal.
Speaking of Junko Arai, she comes now and then at Les Vins Contés, last time was may. I knew she had scaled down and basically closed down her Touraine domaine Les Bois Lucas but I learn this day that beyond going into politics in Japan for environmental issues (which I knew), she is also setting up natural sake production in Japan, some sort of equivalent of natural wine compared to conventional/commercial wine.
There are some skills you need to have when you’re an artisan grower, it’s in mechanics and tractors/tools maintenance, and Kevin says he is able to do quite a lot of things in this field. Here is the domaine’s workshop where he does things regularly, like welding broken parts, usually plows (they can break easily when it’s dry, with a stone-hard soil). He learned a not with Jérome, the guy who built the external staircase going up to the dormitory in the attic, for the pickers at harvest time (also used for guests who think they can’t drive after a party...). It’s a custom-made spiral stairway which needed lots of welding and planning. Kevin was already a good handyman before he landed on the domaine but he finetuned his skills, especially on the welding side. As you know there’s also a culture of solidarity in the milieu and fellow growers are also ready to help and share their experience in fixing tools & tractors.
Here is a plow that broke down with the hardened soil recently (because of the drought) and Kevin welded it back. Speaking of the weather conditions this year, Kevin says that this year they had frost in spring, which has triggerred the apparition of new buds on the vines, replacing partly the frozen shoots, but these buds and replacement foliage are more fragile and more prone to mildew outbreaks. Mildew is really the threat in this area, what Kevin deplores is the fact that certain varieties which are easily threatened by mildew, like chardonnay, have been encouraged in the region by the appellation authorities although they have no historic roots around here. On the other hand, a local variety like Pineau s’Aunis which resists better mildew has been virtually written off by the same wine authorities. If there’s a “foreign” variety that should be planted here instead of Chardonnay, that should be Aligoté as it fares well against mildew. But the wine administration only thinks in terms of what it considers “noble” varieties that can sell easily on the market, both national & international, and Aligoté (like Pineau d’Aunis) is an unwanted underdog [the other shameful thing is that conventional/commercial wineries follow blindly the AOC directives instead of resisting through labelling certain cuvées as table wine]. Kevin says that if the local varieties (that are well prepared to resist mildew) were encouraged instead of banned, the AOC would also this way help reduce the use of sprays and thus protect the soil. Today it’s good to remind that when you plant sauvignon or chardonnay in Touraine for example you get state subsidies and you get nothing if you plant pineau d’aunis, that’s mind boggling...
Here is the small uninsultated room where Kevin kept his couple of demi-muids barrels (this was his welding workshop before), he had to do the élevage in a separate cellar from Olivier’s, not for legal reasons (it’s technically not yet “his” wine but Olivier’s) but because he wanted to make his first experiment without depending of the yeast ambiance of the main cellar. When you don’t seed your wine with lab yeast the juice is very sensitive to external factors like the air bacterial life and he wanted to keep his wine in a neutral, sort of, atmosphere.
Kevin speaks further about what he likes in this natural-wine vigneron’s life : it’s a whole life where you’re active with the plants in all seasons, you preserve life and you’re also connected with your tools which you learned to know and repair. It’s both cost-effective and rewarding for the man-tool relationship, something deeply related I think with the farmer connection with the earth and his hand-made tools. He also loves this friendly relation with fellow nature-wine vignerons and workers, there’s a generous, win-win relation with both nature and colleagues in this new life of his.
Here is the domaine’s press he used for his first cuvée, an ordinary Vaslin (not pneumatic), several decades old which does a good job. He presses no more than 2 bars, there’s a first pressing at 1 bar pressure, then push a couple of times to 2 bars, then they open the press and repress at 1 bar, then 2 bars; on some occasion they do a last pressing at 3 bars at this stage and that’s all. The thing is, they don’t try to press or extract the stem, they try to keep its tannins away. The resulting pomace goes to distillation for the state’s profit. Until last year they were authorized in this region to use this pomace as compost but a law passed during the summer last year (when nobody was loosking, more or less) and they now must give the whole of the pomace/must for distillation.
You can reach Kevin through Les Vins Contés, the domaine of Olivier Lemasson at 9 rue Toussaint Galloux 41120 Ouchamps (phone +33 2 54 44 13 88)