Beaulieu sur layon, Anjou (Loire)
Sébastien Dervieux, better known in the vinous circles under his surname Babass is a key player in the artisan-wine milieu, and you may know that Anjou is certainly with the Beaujolais one of the most vibrant wine regions on the scale of natural, non-interventionist winemaking. He is making wine on a small surface in Beaulieu-sur-Layon just south of Angers, near where the Layon river flows into the mighty Loire. Sébastien Dervieux was running a few years ago the domaine Les Griottes with associate Pat Desplats, they were among the first rebels in Anjou to eschew SO2 during the whole vinification. They parted in 2010, each of them downsizing to about 3 hectares, changing their agricultural status to one named cotisant solidaire where you're spared the brunt of taxes and administrative hassles if you agree to remain under a set surface and yearly turnover. He farms now 2,85 hectares, 30 ares of which were planted last year and are not yet in production. He can't purchase grapes with his status and also doing it would put him above a turnover limit and could nullify his new status. Anyway that a correct surface to make a living and manage the vineyard work almost by yourself.
Sébastien__ let's call him Babass__ has also been organizing for a few years Les Vins Anonymes with Jean-Christophe Garnier, one of the most interesting winefair in what the French call the Angers Off, which is a collection of natural-wine fairs happening at the same time than the historic Salon des Vins d'Angers (seems that they're now virtually more sought-after by pros than the original fair...). Les Vins Anonymes is a gathering of similarly-minded artisan vignerons making wine without sulfites and working naturally all along, included in the vineyard. You can see the participating vignerons here, a nice party to enjoy the whole day for a fee of 5 € (and you can keep yoour glass).
Babass is initially a musician (there are quite a lot in the artisan-wine milieu it seems to me) and he has this cool touch which isn't common among the grassroots farmers, he's doing his thing, doesn't try to polish his looks or the one of his facility, a little bit like Andrea Calek whom B. and I visited recently. I like that, really a different world from the communication-wise wineries, but all you need is experience the wine, the rest is media noise.
With his small vineyard surface he still picks the equivalent of about 80 to 120 hectoliters, considering
he's working only on 2,4 hectares, the rest having been replanted too recently to be productive. He says he likely can produce in a few years some 120 hectoliters of wine, which is OK especially that he sells everything in bottles. Of course when Pat and himself went separate ways they had to find the commercial circuits for their wines, it was like starting anew somehow but it passed smoothly, he exports most of his wines, like 90 % and for the rest some sales in Paris. The biggest export destination is Japan (Vortex), then Denmark, the U.K, Spain, Sweden (Vin Natur), the United States (Zev Rovine).
Babass also makes 3 wine fairs where he sells his bottles to the general public (good bargain I believe compared to shop price), les 10 Vins Cochons, Chassignoles (also in Auvergne) and Les Anges Vin (plus these are gems of natural-wine fairs, must-go without hesitation...).
We drove a short distance to his vineyards, they're conveniently grouped together, it's a 2,8-hectare block, it's both a dream for a grower, with the easiness of having all the parcels side by side (no need to drive kilometers in different directions with the tractor each time there's something to do) and a nightmare when hailstorms threaten the region (when you're hit you're more likely to loose a lot). But the place has good vibes, there are these fruit trees and you're less likely to get splashed with conventional spraying, a curse when your tiny organic parcel is stuck in hostile territory. He and his former associate Pat had got this block in 2001 when they were starting their domaine Les Griottes.
In the middle of his block there's a parcel of young chenin, he just planted it a few months ago, this parcel will need some time before being fully productive. The parcel belonged to the Hacquet sisters, who are well-known characters in the area, the two sisters (who are now about 90) with their brother Joseph were pioneers, making already so2-free wines from organic vineyards in the 1950s' without any support by local growers, by wine authorities or Paris wine bars. Babass & Pat met them by chance because therte was this isolated parcel which they kept all along until recently, they wanted to let it only to someone working naturally. So now here are these vibrant vines of Chenin that will certainly yield great wines...
This block is sitting on some sort of plateau or promontory flanked on its right by the Loire river and on another side by the Layon river heading to the Loire. There's a part on the block from where you can spot the Coulée de Serrant on the other side of the Loire, it's really close. Babass says that it's surprising how this promontory is deflecting the rainstorms that come from the west, forcing them to go left or right, often right actually, to Savennières... It doesn't work all the time though and in 2013 he got some hail damage here also.
Here it's another parcel from the Hacquet sisters, there's some Cabernet on the outside rows and in the middle it's Chenin. The parcel looks wild but from my experience you don't make good wine with squarely-tended vines, here they grow freely, there are a few missing vines, certainly because of the type of grafting used at the planting. He's making the cuvée Joseph Anne Françoise (named from the Hacquet siblings) from this particular parcel. He got many bunches with problems this year, with tiny, dried-out grapes because of the mildew. Babass remembers that there was a day in june or before june where it was so humid, it was like in a tropical latitude, perfect contitions to have mildew spread.
On the left there was this large unplanted stripe at the border with the neighbor because the Hacquets wanted to keep the conventional farming at bay, and he chose to plant it with a row and make the most of his small surface, especially that he knows the farmer and asked him to be cautious with his sprays.
Babass has also some old chenin in this parcel (pictured here). In total he has almost 1 hectare of chenin in production (not counting the recently planted rows), add to this 90 ares of Cabernet and 63 ares of Grolleau. He uses an old tracteur vigneron for his plowing and soil/grass management, he keeps it at Jean-François Chéné's facility, it's a 4-wheel drive machine he bought in 2011 second-hand in the Charentes. It's a 30 years old Same Vigneron (similar to the one on this classified I guess) and it works well because the ground here can be humid and sticky at times, with the clay. He found a way to get an even better grip on slippery ground, he puts water in the tubes for the back wheels, he says it makes a more powerful traction on your plow.
In some places there's no more vine and you see the American rootstock crawling on the ground, he plans to graft them with the help of Alain Castex of Casot des Mailloles, a weathered artisan vigneron from the Banuyls area. He'd just have to select the wood somewhere around and Babass says he saw what Alain did on his own terraces, he mastered this grafting technique, it's much better to have him do it when he comes here than risk messing up with the whole thing. You need also to put the wood in the cellar in advance, with the right humidity, that's also a parameter that is tricky for grafting, but it's also possible to graft directly the same day you cut the wood.
We walk along his Grolleau, some of these old vines (planted around 1956 or 1957) have a nice load of bunches, but some don't, so he'll have less volume in 2016. The grolleau is traditionally very productive and thus hasn't always a good image, especially when young, but knowing what artisan vignerons (among them Babass) can do with this variety, the high yield issue doesn't matter much.
Speaking of the way to replace the missing vines here and there Babass says he's doing some marcotage which he experienced in the Grolleau. He doesn't own all these parcels and this is an affordable way to work, you just let a branch grow and put the apex (the tip of the shoot) in the ground on the spot where the missing vine was standing, this branch will drop its own roots all the while being fed by its mother vine. The trick is to prevent this young branch from being uprooted accidentally when you plow or cut the grass.
Babass then drives me to the facility, it's an old farm building where they used to store wine at the time of the Griottes, his former domaine co-managed with Pat Desplats. When they went separate ways in 2010 it was the obvious thing to do for him to use this building, Pat keeping the other. He doesn't own this building, it's rented to him by a friend, Martial (pictured on top, the guy with a blue T shirt). It's 10 km away from his vineyards but it's not that far, 10 or 15 minutes by truck and once the grapes are here they don't move. The Angers are has a pretty tight real estate market because of all those people working in Angers who look for a house to live in the vicinity, and he feels lucky to have this barn. With its thick stone walls it's a fine place to work, there aren't underground cellars in the area, unlike in Touraine.
The place was not yet ready for the harvest which was still weeks away when I visited, but you can guess the beautiful basket press hidden behind the cardboard. This
10-hectoliter basket press was part
of Les Griottes, he just had the metal bottom custom made by the local black-smith, it makes a better job with the flowing juice.
In the place of boxes for the grapes at the harvest, he uses black trash bins (pic on right) that make a good job, it's not very fancy but when know the wines of the domaine you understand that these details aren't harming the wine, it's just like a laid-back vineyard as opposed to a squarely tended one, you're more likely to drink better stuff from the former one.
The building has wide doors and it's easy to bring the bins to the press, even by driving the truck inside.
This is a smaller, 4-hectoliter basket press which he doesn't use as often as the larger one, but it helps now and then. These presses are not that old, they were probably made just after World War 2, before the horizontal Vaslin was created, after which you began to find lots of discarded vertical presses in the backyards of the farms, which turned to be a windfall for artisan vintners at the end of the 20th century, these presses being easy to resurrect, you only have to change the wood parts.
This is the bottling line that he and other artisan vignerons bought together, Damien Bureau, Kenji Hodgson and Jean-François Chéné. It's a small unit, it's easy to load on the trailer and move to whoever needs it. Babass says he makes 9000 to 12 000 bottles depending of the vintage, and this bottling line is fit for his kind of volumes. The last bottling he did was the liquoreux 2013, which he bottled in thin, small 37,5-cl bottles.
Babass shows me the bottle of the liquoreux, we'll taste it later, that's just delicious, only 11 % alcohol and not a single drop of SO2 anytime, you can look around for sweet wines, there are very few vintners who can do that, and I suspect that the reason so few people drink sweet wine is that it has been soaked with extreme doses of sulfites for years by commercial wineries. Ironically, this sweet wine made the most naturally possible and free of the iron cage of so2 is labelled as a humble vin de France (table wine) when it should get granted automatically the AOC Coteaux du Layon status, and with a red carpet....
I ask if long élevage is the scret to make sulfites-free liquoreux he says yes, that's why he bottled the 2013 the previous monday. He makes less than 200 liters of it. He doesn't brag about the no-added-sulfites nature of the wine on the label, these guys are too modest, I tell you. It's not on the market yet. The previous vintage of it was the 2011 if I remember, he doesn't communicate about it because of the small volumes and he sold it mostly to Japan, Denmark and also some in Paris. They very different depending of the vintage and harvest-time weather conditions, some are higher in alcohol (the 2011 is the one at 11 %).
I ask about the number of cuvées at Les Vignes de Babass, he says there's a Grolleau, a Grolleau/Cabernet-Franc, sometimes the dry white (chenin) La Navine (last time was 2011, he will make 25 hectoliters in 2016), then the 100% chenin natural sparkling Nuée Bulleuse, and lastly Joseph Anne Françoise, another dry Chenin. He says with a laugh he got tired with doing the disgorgement and slowed down on pet-nat lately... Good news for the still-Chenin volumes...But he corrects somehow, saying he'll have Pascal Potaire do the job for him (for the disgorgement)...
__ La Navine, dry Chenin 2015. Babass filled glasses for us from a fiber vat of dry chenin that is not yet finished, it's still a bit turbid and has about 5 grams of residual suger. He's considering bottling it like that, with a crown cap just to be sure, although it will probably not referment, he says. Asked about what he sells right now, he says he bottled recently Roc Cab, the Cabernet Franc, but lots of it is already reserved. In the mouth it doesn't feel like having 5 grams of residual sugar, very nice although it's at room temperature and could be an ich colder, it's fresh with lemon style aromas or citrus. It will not be filtered, and again, not a hint of SO2 added anytime in there. Makes 11,45 % alcohol, even if the 5 grams of residual sugar were "eaten" it wouldn't be much higher than 11 % (you need 17 grams to make 1 %). The color is lovely which is one more good reason to like it. Will be sold 8,5 € without tax (professional price).
When we showed up at the chai there were a couple guys in there, the owner of the buildings (the guy in blue), a friend of Babass who helps now and then at the picking and at the chai, and who seems to know well what makes a good wine (on the far right) and a fellow winemaker, Adrien. We tasted with these nice fellows in a laid-back way, you wouldn't have thought the guy in blue was the owner, they all behaved like long-time friends, which they are foremost. I guess they often play together on this Baby-Foot, a vintage model (Stella Champion) made in France after WW2 by Stella. These things were very popular in the bars and cafés in France in the 50s' and 60s'. There are world champioships for this sport, see the world champion 2011, a guy from Strasbourg names Sébastien Meckes.
__ Joseph Anne Fraçoise 2015 (vin de France), the dry chenin made from the parcel of the Hacquet siblings. Nose almost Sauvignon, very interesting. Here the residual sugar is only 3 grams, but the malolactic has not yet started, there's no lalic acid, he says. This yields of course an unusual vivacity and sharpness in the mouth. Unlike the other cuvée which has 5 grams left, here he'd not bottle it like that, it could turn unpleasant, so he just waits. He got a similar problem in 2013 and he just blended some 2013 with some 2014 and the malolactic was kickstarted right away. He says the mild winter like the 2015/2016 one can explain that malolactic stalling issue, when the winter is cold, it settles the tartar in the wine, changes its milieu and acidity and the malolactic has more favorable conditions to unfold by itself. He says natural swings in temperature help the wine move and get where it has to go.
The wine is still pretty enjoyable to drink, with a healthy vividness.
Les Vignes de Babass are having new labels (pictured on right) and Babass had another musician do the design, this is Ben Nerot who is starting to make wine further east in Touraine, there's something about music coming out of these designs, Metal maybe...
__ Roc Cab, vin de France 2015 (table wine) made with Cabernet Franc. Was bottled the previous tuesday (we were on friday). It tastes alreadywell, he says and will not need to wait in bottles apparently before reaching the market. Very clear color, and an exciting one. He sips before us and nods approvingly : "impeccable !", correcting immediately by saying "impec-cab"... There's a pepper thing in the wine which I love, he says it's because of the maceration probably.
Tastes very good, here also, there was not a single use of so2 during the vinification or bottling. He says he has 3500 bottles of this cuvée, he says he prefers to bottle each cuvée in one go, not stretch the bottling over several batches, and for the customers that's better, because they don't have to figure out which bottling they want if they already had the wine. Alcohol content is 12,6 % here. Will sell for 9 € without tax.
__ My Sweet Navine 2015 (pictured on right), from a barrel. Will be ready in 2 or 3 years. Again, that's the sweet, or liquoreux chenin, made without any so2 and there will be none at bottling. Amazingly fresh in spite of the residual sugar. Late harvest, he says, but no sorting, he just picked the grapes together with often several stages of ripening conditions on the same bunch. He tries to have something like a potential of 20 ° and there's a natural balance between the green berries, the very ripe, the light rot and the advanced noble rot.
For this sweet chenin wine, he leaves 3 to 5 rows of chenin unpicked when he wants to make a liquoreux, but this year there's little chance that he makes one although the sweet wine sells well, his volume of fruit is too low, so maybe next year again. Speaking of price, he sells the 37,5-cl bottle 32 € without tax.Speaking of alcohol level the 2011 was at 11,5 % but he has yet to check the alcohol on this one. It's still a baby he says, it has another couple of years to wait.
Speaking of sulfites-free wines, Babass says that some vintners who say they don't add so2, add in fact lots of lysozyme which is a trick to be able to eschew so2, lysozyme is derived from eggs and it has the property to stabilize the bacterial activity, replacing in fact the so2. Conventional wineries of course use it but he says that some vintners of the natural-wine milieu also use it without communicating on it. Lysozyme is a wine additive, a shortcut which you shouldn't have in a natural wine, and its use may be unsuspected, unlike sulfites which your system can detect easily.
Tha day we had lunch at the Auberge du Layon in the village of Rablay sur Layon, this is a place I wanted to go for a long time (since Kenji Hodgson told me about it), this is a pizzeria where not only you find great artisan-made pizzas, but also where all the wines are natural wines (except a few that are just organic-farmed), that's twice unusual, first because this is a pizza joint, and second because we're in a tiny village with probably just a few hundred souls. Anjou rocks...
The venue was opened 5 years and a half ago by Christophe and his wife Gaelle, they began to have the wines of Les Griottes plus other natural wine from Ardèche in addition to more conventional stuff and quickly they decided to serve only these wines, and the response from the customers was so strong, people would come here from far away, they're very happy of having made the first step. The prices are great too, the large pizzas cost 10 or 11 € (you have a dozen to choose from if I remember), we all took a pizza, a glass of craft beer and shared a bottle of Laurent Lebled's "Ca c'est Bon" and the bill for each of us didn't even reach 20 €. We'd have that in Paris it would be terrific...
The red we had with the pizza was terrific (my own pizza was a "Poulet ma Cocotte", this is the type of bottle I'd down by myself right away. Wine by the glass was often at 3 €, otherwise here are several bottle prices listed on the printed wine list (price for drinking in the restaurant) :
Some reds :
Les Copains D'Abord Grolleau 2015 16 € - Le P'tit Clou Cabernet Franc 2015 Bruno Rochard 18 € - Le Zu de Fruit Grolleau 2014 Jérôme Lambert 24 € - Le Roc Cab 2015 Babass 24 € - Grololo Grolleau 2014 Pithon-Paillé 22 € - Les Essard Grolleau 2014 Les Roches Sèches Davraye Mâchelles 18 € - Les Saint Martin Grolleau 2013 Les Roches Sèches Davraye Mâchelles 24 € - Roulpapille Cabernet Franc 2014 Didier Chaffardon 24 € - Gamay Sans Tralala 2015 la Garrelière 22 € - Ca C'est Bon Laurent Lebled 22 € - Le Gam Cab du Bled gamay/cabernet 2013 Laurent Lebled 22 € - Cuvée Larmande Syrah 2013 Le Mazel 20 € - Vie Cinsault/grenache Moir/carignan/syrah Pierre-Nicolas Massotte 22 € - Cartouche Marselan 2011 domaine de Thuronis 24 € - Orion Carignan 2014 Vinilibre 30 € - Sirius Grenache 2014 Vinilibre 30 €
Some dry whites :
Fleur 2015 Patrick Desplat 21 € - Les Feuillettes chenin 2015 Bruno Rochard 18 € - Matin d'Automne Anjou 2014 domaine de Rochambeau 20 € - Les Varennes Chardonnay 2015 Les Roches Sèches Davraye Mâchelles 22 € - Le Chemin Jaune Chenin 2015 Les Roches Sèches Davraye Mâchelles 21 € - Charme du Loir Chenin 2007 JP Robinot 30 € - Sans Prétention 2014 Auxerrois/Sylvaner/Pinot-Gris Hubert& Heidi Hausherr 21 € - Le Temps Fait Tout Ugni-Clairette 2013 Remi Poujol 26 € Solstice Dry Blanc Viognier 2014 Domaine Viret 22 € - Magie Blanche 2015 Cyril Le Moing 23 €... There are more of them but I'm type of typing, there are also the rosé, the natural sparklings, the craft beer... Anyway this sort of wine list is not good for our health, it makes us salivate too much.
If you come to Angers you have to make a detour here (it's only 28 km away) !!!!!