Beaulieu-sur-Layon, Anjou (Loire)
This is quite an incredible story about two sisters, Anne, Françoise who are living in an old farm on the outskirts of Beaulieu-sur-Layon south of angers. The two sisters with their brother Joseph made natural wine without any sulfites as early as 1954, at a time when there was no such counter-culture around like today to resist the conventional unanimism. At that time there were no wine bars or restaurants to support vignerons who would dare to make such wines, there wasn't even no narrative like we have today and we do have been having a supporting discourse for a long time about organic farming, sustainability and the likes. But none of that then, the mood was on the contrary prety hostile to thos eschewing industrial/chemical shortcuts, I guess that after WW2 people including the farmers just wanted to have it easy after so many years of hard, ungrateful work, and when the chemical-industrial revolution came to the farmers (largely pushed and sponsored by State Agricultural Research bodies like INRA) and the winemakers, they just couldn't resist, and anyone appearing to stick to the ancient ways was looked upon as a dangerous retrograde.
When you listen to Anne and Françoise you understand that (with their late brother) they've been through lots of obstacles and wickedness from the part of their peers, and we all owe them a lot because somehow unknowingly they have been the pioneers of a huge movement, the movement which is rediscovering the real wine, the wine that has been made for centuries without adding sulfites. This was just a bit too early maybe, that's why they really had a hard time and even to this day they live in dire conditions with apparently no help from the authorities in spite of their visionary approach to viticulture and winemaking. THe few who have tasted these wines, like Rouge Tomate's sommelière Pascaline Lepeltier [a Chenin Haquet 1959, scroll at mid-page] were touched by the grace, because we don't have usualy such distance and hindsight with natural wines, most of them dating at best from the 1990s'.
I'll recount shortly the history of the family as I understood it, some mistakes may have slipped in : It all really started when Alfred Hacquet, the father of Anne, Françoise, Joseph (pictured on left a decade ago before he passed away in 2004, and on the right in the early 20th century at the age of 20, this was in 1906) and a 4th sister (who later left her siblings to live elsewhere) decided to settle with his family in this farm in part to cure his health problems, this was in 1935, really a long time ago in a country that was very different from what the one we know today, even in the countryside. A small village like Beaulieu-sur-Layon was really remote then, most of the roads weren't paved and the villages were much more inhabited and lively than today, even after the absence of all these young men who never came back from the trenches in World War 1.
Alfred Hacquet had been gassed like many soldiers in the trenches of WW1 and had a poor health with tired lungs, and his doctors advised him to live in the countryside, so he moved here with his family. This was in this very farm where the two elderly Haquet sisters are living today, except that it was more isolated because since then there has been lots of new houses around.
His family being relatively well off, they owned this house south of Angers and they setlled there, but the father soon found himself short of money (he even one day found a closed door at the local bakery because of a backlog of unpaid bills) and he decided to make the most of the couple of parcels that were part of the property, making ends meet also with farm animals to feed his family. He and his children were unknowingly to be the initiators of a legend in Anjou regarding farming management and winemaking.
The Hacquet family settled in this rustic farm in 1935, one of the sisters told me she was 9 years old when they arrived here, so this picture must have been shot at around that time, a few years after their arrival here. You can see Anne in the center, holding a young goat, she loved animals and she would be the one who would care of them.
The family stayed bound together all these years, except for one siseter who moved away. When the father and the mother were gone, the 3 siblings remained there, continuing the work in the small farm and resisting the hostile environment regarding their uncompromising organic farming and totally-natural winemaking, and on top of that none of them married. Eventually they were spotted by the nascent organic movement in the 1970s' and sold their wines to this new public.
This picture is interesting because you see the outbuilding where they've made the wine all these years and where they still keep their vintage bottles to this day.
I visited the Hacquet sisters with Babass and his wife Agnès who are their neighbors, they have been knowing them for a long time, because when Babass was managing with associate Pat Desplats their domaine Les Griottes, their parcels were right along the ones of the Hacquets, and they discovered these siblings who had been making natural wine for decades. Babass keeps helping them when they're in need because they're pretty isolated and destitute in spite of the presence of their adopted son in the vicinity. Their old house hasn't been renovated ever and in order to live in suitable conditions Babass found them a mobile home which was installed along the house waiting for the house to get essential repairs and renovations. The courtyard is pretty messy in the vicinity of the house and I think the village administration as well as the MSA (the state health insurance system for farmers) could do more to help them clean it up, we've seen the French bureaucracy find miracle solutions (like renovating chateaus overnight) for the economic opportunists we're supposed to call refugees, it's kind of sad they don't devote some help for this family.
The first thing the family did here in the mid 1930s' was grow flowers for the local markets, then, the father Alfred being a good catholic he wanted to also make wheat and tend vines to make wine (with in sight the altar wine first), so they planted crops tended their vines, had farm animals and later got additionnal vineyard surface. The Haquet siblings continued to work along their father's philosophy, they were part after WW2 of the Jeunesse Agricole Chrétienne while te mainstream growers and farmers were into full-blown productivism, fertilizers and the chemical paraphernalia encouraged by the French agricultural authorities. In this regard their were looked upon like the back sheep of the profession, and the négoce or professional buyers snubbed their wines, this was the same nature of ostracism suffered much later by people like Olivier Cousin or Claude Courtois (and countless others), except that the Hacquet siblings didn't have the resources to fight back and again, there was not this conterweight of the growing public opinion backing natural/organic wine.
With the growing network of organic groups in France in the 1970s', the Hacquets had an ad published on the magazine of Nature et Progrès (one of the eraly organic movements in France) and they happilly found new loyal customers that way, people who would come here at the farm and buy cases of organic chenin wine made without any additives including no sulfites. You have to remember that whites (even dry whites) are among the most sulfites-soaked wines, and if even conventional wineries today try to cap somehow SO2 (to at least know how much exactly they put in...), back in the 2nd half of the 20th century especially in the 1970s' and 1980s' there was no moderation at all, to say the least...
From what I understand the Hacquets began to make sulfites-free wines in 1954. They had tried for a while adding some, but didn't like the wine much when it saw some sulfites. This was the only additive they had been ever using until then, all the wines being naturally fermented from the start with indigenous yeast. They were very opinionated in their stance, which possibly contributed to their black-sheep status among their peers. While very catholic for their education and style, they were (at least for the sisters) quite anticlerical, even considering that the Church colluded with chemical progressivism instyead of sticking to the respect of Nature that you'd expect from this established religion. Their feeling of being isolated and having the whole world against them certainly contributed to their keeping between themselves, and even to this day for example they only drink their own wine, sticking to a natural wine they are certain to be devoid of anything but grape juice.
The Hacquet sisters still have lots of bottles of their wines, including from very old vintages. Anne and Françoise wanted us to open a bottle and Babass was tasked to find a bottle, the tricky thing being to decipher the vintage, beginning with finding a bottle with a label, many of these labels having disappeared under the combined effects of time, humidity and mold in the surface cellar.
There's also red wine in here, but most is Chenin if I'm right, that's a real treasure that would make salivate any terroir-driven wine lover with all these vintages that have been left uncorrected and free of the iron cage of sulfites...
Babass tries to find a bottle, he spots one from 1966, here another from 1978, but he keeps looking, some of them really look like they didn't travel well through the years (leaking corks or things like that).
Here is the bottle we were treated with, a terrific wine, I can't believe this chenin never got sulfites and went through all these years alive and well, and certainly that it could even have waited a few more years, and the cellar isn't even underground, it's a surface room with important temperature swings between deep winter and summer ! That should be a lesson to all those people who say you can keep for a long time a sulfites-free wine, that you need strict cellar conditions etc... The wine is majestic, full-mouthed and incredibly vibrant.
This wine is also possibly the first example of the French wine administration giving the boot to natural-wine vintners : the Haquet had trouble with the Fraudes in 1989 and from that year on had to bottle their wine as Vin de Table (nowadays this table wine status is named "vin de France"). To keep check of their vintages (as they weren't allowed to print the year on table-wine labels) the Haquets printed a number on the corks, beginning with No 1 for 1989, with a growing number year after year. Today it helps a lot because when the labels have disappeared you still can see the numbers on the corks through the glass (for the years after 1989). This one here is a No 4, meaning that it's a 1992. The last vintage they made was a No 14 if I'm right, which was 2003 or about the year their brother Joseph passed away. After that the sisters stopped making wine, there already elderly and Joseph was also the one who had been mastering all the winemaking for decades, so the production stopped with him.
We all gathered with Françoise Hacquet who was bedridden but otherwise very alert. She and Françoise have a sharp mind and can recount many anecdotes dating back to decades ago, they have lots of humor in spite of the difficult conditions of their everyday life. They say they're very happy that people know their wines and appreciate it. During the conversation I learn from Anne that the fields around didn't have any fertilizers since 1928. She says it was so easy for the farmers with these products that they grew from 10 to 20 and to 30 hectares, there was no end, with today a large farm working on 250 hectares, which prevents the young farmers from having the opportunity to start something of their own.
Françoise explains about the wine, there's been no filtration at all, she remembers the vintage was a normal year. The wine was vinified in their old barrels and bottled in spring, they wouldn't even go through long élevage like I thought you had to when you don't add so2. Anne recounts that among the disappointments met over the years, there was this episode somewhere after WW2 when the local priest refused to buy their wine for the altar use, they felt that their wine was deemed as inferior even by church people because it was natural and free of chemicals.
In advance with the time, the Hacquets had an articulate back label explaining their philosophy and the difference on their wines. You can see an old back label on the left, it has mostly vanished with the years but Babass helped the Hacquets reprint such labels word for word for the last vintages they sold, here it is on the right. It says it guarantees this wine to be unchaptalized, to be chenin blanc for the white and cabernet franc for the red, that it's color is naturally clear, without fining, without filtration, without S.O.2 and that it has been bottled on the estate. It says the only sprays on the vines were the Bordeaux mix (copper) against mildew and sulfur against oidium, it says they don't use chemical fertilizers nor hebicide as well as no insecticides. Can you imagine, they've been working that way since the 1950s' ...
Anne says that she was the one who took care of the animals and the cows, even though she also took part to the vineyard and cellar work, doing the pruning for example. They had 6 cows which was a good number in the mid-century for a family farm that had relied only on the family manpower. Françoise would guide the draft horse, and before it, the ox, as for a long time they weren't rich enough to buy a horse. They still bought that horse later, then a 2nd one to plow the vineyard and fields. They had also 6 hectares of vineyards, plus the other crops and the vegetables, there was work all day that's for sure, and you had to do the hay by hand, there was no machines like you find today. And Françoise says that they sold the wine in bottles very early, like starting in 1945, much earlier than the norm (most vignerons would sell in bulk to the négoce until, say, the mid to late 1970s'). Françoise says that some people from Paris travelled here and understood the value and specialness of their wines, of the uniqueness of having a wine made without additives or chemicals for the vineyard part. Françoise was also in charge of the commercial and administrative work, receive the visitors and so on.
On this facture or bill (I hope I don't invade the privacy of these wine lovers) made by Joseph Hacquet in 1976 you can see that the price per bottle was 7 Francs per bottle. I'm sure that was pretty cheap for such quality of wine, and the people who drove here to load cases of wine knew they were making a great bargain. I found a way to convert the price in today's euro value : I think in those
years the minimum wage was about 1400 FF while now it's 1050 € or 6500 FF (taken home, state health insurance/retirement paid), so the bill for 100 bottles is 700 FF, which is half of the minimum wage, this means today it would cost about 500 € which means the wine would cost 5 € a bottle, tax included ! An incredible treat for this price ....
The bili on the left which was made in 1980 shows prices per bottle lightly above the 7 € of 1976, at 9,5 €, but this doesn't reflect (it seems to me) these inflationary years.
I understand that when they settled here in 1935 there was a small family parcel of vines but that was only after WW2 that Joseph planted more surface to reach 6 hectares. Knowing from my experience meeting artisan producers, I can say that 6 hectares is a lot when you don't rely on chemicals and machinery.
For the SO2 they gradually reduced the amount in the wines, Françoise remembers that Joseph told his clients, his buyers that he'd offer them to taste two versions of the same wine, one with a regular addition of sulfites and the other without any, and the response from the public was obvious, they all preferred the sans soufre. She doesn't recall the year exactly but this was shortly after WW2, may be 1946, 1947 or somewhere near 1950.
Anyway from 1954 all the wines were made without SO2, possibly even earlier. Françoise also recalls the visits by families who would come here to buy wine, they came by whole families, often the wife wouldn't taste the wines because she said she didn't stand wine in general, but after a few visits and probably after tried the Hacquet wines, the same wives would now drink the wines, they had discovered a real wine which didn't make them sick compared to the heavily-doctored conventional wines. This reminds me what I heard in Japan recently, with many Japanese women that had always eschewed wines began to drink some when they first stumbled on natural wines, something which partly explains the huge success of so2-free natural wines in this country.
Anne remembers that when people came to their house to buy some wine they'd first go see her while she was taking care of the farm animals (in winter particularly when they were in their respective stables), that was a tradition, and then they'd go see Françoise or Joseph for the wine. she's also take part to other cellar tasks like the bottling, Françoise filling the bottles, Joseph corking and Anne soring them in a proper place. Joseph was of course deciding on the winemaking but he also consulted his sisters to know their opinion. Anne remembers that Joseph was standing firm against all those who tried to convince him to put SO2 in his wine, some would suggest he add just a gram and they'd take his wine but he resisted and the two sisters with him. Then they were banned from the AOC Anjou and also Coteaux du Layon, this was well before 1970, possibly even before that, in the 1960s', they don't remember exactly. Anne remember a benefit auction at the church, where they had brought their wines, 60 bottles, this was in 1965, and there were wealthy people from the city in the auction, possibly from Paris also and some said, what is this wine, this is very good ! The next year, from what I understand they hadn't their wine at the same benefit auction and the same people were saying, no we don't want this wine, we want the one that was there a year ago, this was a clear acknowledgement that thir humble wine were approved blind by amateurs in spite of its humble labelling.
Visit report at the Hacquets by St Etienne's World