Thésée, Touraine (Loire)
I was enjoying a nice weekend along the Cher river when I stumbled upon an old 2CV Citroën fourgonnette that looked familiar to me in the main street of Saint Aignan on market day, it was haphazardly parked on the side and I waited a couple of minutes for his owner to come back. I'm used to see many winemakers/vignerons in the region when I attend the marketplace in Saint-Aignan on saturday mornings, Catherine Roussel (Clos Roche Blanche), Noella Morantin, Paul Gillet (Les Maisons Brûlées - pictured there recently on the right), Christophe Foucher (la Lunotte), more rarely Moses Gadouche (les Capriades), but I didn't remember seeing Bruno Allion although his village of Thésée is just a few kilometers away on the other side of the Cher river.
There he was, back from a short shopping stop in the cobblestone street, we exchanged news, he told me that the deal with the potential buyer of his domaine didn't work and he's quietly looking for a vigneron who wants to take it over. I was on the relax mood this particular weekend, I didn't plan to visit anyone but still asked if he knew about some young vigneron beginning his first harvest, and he told me about Damien Menut, who also lives in Thésée and just launched his young domaine. Bruno was about to help him pick his small parcel of Cabernet the same afternoon...
Damien Menut is working in the wine trade since 2010, he shared his time betyween Paris where he worked in a wine shop (L'Ambassade de Bourgogne), and Mercurey, Burgundy where he worked for a large Burgundy estate, Domaine Faiveley. He learnt the trade part on the job while in Mercurey and part in the wine school in Amboise (Lycée Viticole d'Amboise), he went there the very first year they had a curriculum centered on organing farming, these were courses designed for adults, for people already working in the trade or desiring to set up their own domaine. His time there was divided in two parts, the courses at the school and the training at a given domaine and he did his own at Bruno Allion's wine farm in thésée.
I rode my motorbike to Thésée the following afternoon at 2 pm, looking for Bruno Allion's farm downtown in the village where we were supposed to meet and go tother to the parcel on the road to Couddes. As i was slowing down and looking for Bruno's place, I saw a blue 2CV Citroën going out from a lane, this was not of course Bruno's car, it was more recent and not a commercial type, but I stopped anyway, looking at the people inside, this was indeed Damien who was driving to his parcel with Bruno's wife and son at his side, Bruno was to arrive a bit later with his lovely Renault tractor hauling the boxes. I had never seen such a concentration of vintage Citroën for a harvest, I should have brought bring my own vintage Ami 8 that day...
They had already begun picking, putting the grapes in the buckets they had brought along. The parcel like much of the region had suffered from a very difficult vintage, the region had terrible, endless rains in june, the vineyards were so muddy that the tractors couldn't get in for the sprayings, there was of course mildew with all this humidity and there was also the few terribly-hot days in the following dry season, with several days where the temperature reached 42 or 45 ° C108-113 F), something which literally grilled the berries that were directly exposed to the sun, the one on the other side or hidden under the leaves faring better and getting through the ordeal. Much of the work that day was putting down these tiny grilled berries down so that only suitable grapes reach the buckets.
Bruno brought his loyal tractor along, allowing me to gauge the maneuverability of the machine, a Renault "vigneron" that was made in 1950 and which is light and narrow enough to work in the old vineyards (which are planted with closer rows compared tp later plantings). Bruno says that he changed an engine casket a year ago, I understand he did it himself with just buying the gaskets. He uses the tractor for all his own harvests, pulling the trailer with the full boxes. You don't see many vintage Renault cars still on the road compared to Citroën but its tractors seem to stand the test of time.
There had been 35 mm of rain just 15 days before the harvest, bringing a welcome weight gain to the grapes, the vines "drinking" this water through both the ground and the foliage. Interesting detail on the farming management : Damien and Bruno say they noticed that when they prune on fruit days they later get more grapes on the vines.
The picking could go full throttle, so to say, because this was really a relaxed work day between friends, everyone doing the sorting on the spot by scratching the dry, grilled grapes away before putting the bunches in the buckets. I'd just listen and make pictures, helping from time to time by going to the tractor trailer and bring back empty boxes. The village of Thésée and Damien's chai is literally 1 or 2 kilometers away down the slope and these grapes weren't going to suffer from the trip. Damien had analyzed the grapes the previous day they were at 13,5 potential with good acidity. this was a small surface but with the shortening daylight in october they still had to hurry a bit if they wanted to finish the job between the 4 of them before dark.
Damien has 15 rows of Cabernet here, planted 36 years ago, he thought initially that it was Cabernet Franc (that's what a local elderly grower thought) but after a closer look, Bruno determined it was Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety that has beautifully riped this year because of the long, dry and warm summer (it doesn't ripe properly all the years this north). He will get other vineyards soon (which he'll pick in 2017 if I'm right). Damien says that beyond Bruno Allion he also worked for two organic growers, Simon Tardieu and Alain Courtault who are also located in Thésée.
Damien explains that he took over this parcel more than a year ago but it was in poor conditions, the woman who had rented this parcel before him had stopped to spray against mildew, which was pretty harmful for the vines and the load, the parcel yielding only 9 boxes last year. He worked on the vines to help them recover and they'll really get on their feet again next year possibly, you don't recover overnight a parcel that has long been neglected. But the good side is that at least it hasn't been uprooted. He wanted also to do the plowing with the help of Bruno so as to learn how to do it but one day Bruno who had spare time and was driving his old tractor near there decided to do the décavaillonnage right away...
The slope here is prone to frost but happily he didn't get damage here, this could be because Cabernet Sauvignon is a late-flowering variety and thus went through unscathed at the time of the frost episode (the growers who planted it there were wise). Speaking of the sorting they're doing here with the grilled grapes, Damien says he already went along the rows the previous day to get most of the grilled berries down and save time today, they just had to brush off the few remaining dry dots.
Emile who is the Allion's son isn't following the steps of his father but he knows the trade, having worked many years with his parents for the harvest, and I guess in the chai. He and his mother followed the instruction of Damien who knew what he wanted to get sorted out, but they were anyway very knowledgeable about all this kind of work.
Bruno Allion makes interesting remarks on the way the vines are trellised, like the long branches are wrapped around the upper wires which keeps them safe when you pass with the tractor and also makes trimming unnecessary. Thus you get a better maturity and without the shoots and branches going up in all directions. He says that on old parcels like this one it helps the vines recover, feed themselves and grow wood for the following year. Damien adds that there's been studies on untrimmed vines and they found that they reached a better maturity on the grapes. Bruno emits doubts on the issue though.
Asked about how much grapes he expects to pick in this parcel, Damien says he'd like to get 20 boxes or enough to make a barrel of wine (the parcel is
recovering from both the past neglect of the former tenants and the corrective measures to revive it). Plus there are many missing vines, he took away 400 dead vines the past winter, either dead from Esca or from poorly-made marcottes. For the definition of marcottes in English, read The American Vine-Dresser's Guide (published in 1826) :
...a marcotte is a young rooted vine made by hinding down in the Spring a shoot of the last year, and laying it a little into the earth, and having two or three eyes turned up above ground; or in the last of June a shoot of the salme year with the difference, that this last shoot must not be pinched but left to grow by the end. Both these kind of marcottes will strike roots more or less, proportioned to the leaves they will have shot after the operation. tHe next Spring they may be raised and planted where they are wanted. Note that this was before the phylloxera and today if you want to keep your marcotte safe you better keep it connected to its mother vine (and thus not move it), if you cut the connecting branch your marcotte looses its protection from the American rootstock.
This wasn't a full day harvest but there was nonetheless a welcome pause with a glass, and not wine for a change, but craft beer. Natural-wine vignerons increasingly drink artisanal beer in France, not only because they face a shortage of their own wine but because there's in France like in many other regions a healthy revival of the beer culture with real beer being brewed everywhere in newly-founded facilities. This one was named La Bière des Faucheurs (the Scythe-wielding mowers ?) in an allusion to the group of anti GMO activists who illegally destroyed rapeseed trial crops a few years ago in France. The beer which is made by the brewery La Choulette in the north of France near Belgium is really delicious, silky and smooth with still a good inabriating capacity with its 7,5 % alcohol . To go with the beer, Bruno had brought a box of delightful figs that grow along his garden, right near where dozens of silica-filled horns were buried a year ago for future biodynamic preparations... The figs were blue outside and red in the inside, I love this job...
I asked Damien about his prospective vineyard acquisition during the next few months, he said next year he'll have a total of 1,5 hectare with this Cabernet Sauvignon, a little bit of Sauvignon, some Grolleau, some Cabernet Franc, and Gamay. Here on this parcel he also replanted 200 vines, most having survived the hot summer), he used the 3309 rootstock for the grafting, because it hasn't too big yields and it's pretty qualitative.
As for the official start of his winegrower activity (which is a long administrative process in France) he had just got the authorization of the French Customs the previous month, receiving an official paper stating that he was officially from this day a Vigneron-récoltant dans le but de commercialiser sa production.
Damien hasn't a tractor yet, he relies on Bruno's help for that matter, but he has a colleague vigneron in Thésée who told him he might have a tractor to sell him, he'll go see it soon because he may ask too much. It's a blue straddle tractor, a Bobard with the engine in the front. He'd have prefered a Loiseau because the seat is on the side and it's better to look at what you're doing, but if it's a good deal he'll still take it.
So next year he'll work on 1,5 hectares altogether and later he may grow and add some parcels but not much he says. Asked if he goes to wine fairs he says no that much, he's been one at the Dive two years ago, this year he's been to the Bio Jours de Bourgueuil where more than 50 vignerons gathered in a festive ambiance, he also attended Les Vins du Coin, a local gathering of winemakers. At the time he worked for the wine shop he used to visit more wine fairs for his job but now he doesn't.
Speaking of this parcel where they're doing the picking today, Bruno Allion says he knew it since his childhood, his family used to have a field nearby, they'd grow cereals, possibly also potatoes. He says that he recovered a few times parcels of vines that had been mismanaged or abandonned, the more years you wait to get them back on tracks if they're left by themselves, the more difficult it will be but he remembers having recovered one that was left alone 5 years...
Bruno knows indeed a ton of things on the parcels of the area and looking how he speaks about this particular parcel you may think it was his own, he shows a vine and explain why the frost gave it this shape, or for another one showing how it's been reshaped through the pruning toward recovery. Reading the wood inflexions and sap flows is certainly a very intuitive thing needing lots of experience on the ground. When this harvest took place he still had one more parcel of his own to pick, some Cabernet Franc.
I visited the cellar and the chai the following day, because they finished the picking quite late with the sun going down, and Damien hasn't the electricity at his chai, so he'd work on his grapes the following day. This cellar is a gem of a miniature facility, you reach it from the paved road walking along a high-grass lane going straight into the hill. He had to do some cleaning as the place was pretty messy but in its present condition it look spartan but with everything you need to work naturally, the chai on the left has a light roof, windows and a clean spotless cement floor, and the cellar dud into the hill was neat and looked balanced in terms of humidity.
I asked Damien what made him do the move from working in a wine shop to starting making wine, he says several reasons, first the desire to leave Paris, he's not from the Paris area (he's from Brest, Brittany) and longed to returning to a quieter region in the countryside; then there was this interest for all the nature wines he'd taste here and there in Paris, beginning to think that he could himself follow this path on the production side maybe. He used to taste these wines at L'Etiquette on the Ile Saint Louis, this was around 2013. In the wine shop where he worked there were good domaines of Burgundy but apart for a few of them (like Prieuré-Roch, Yann Durieux or Confuron-Cotetidot) most others weren't what we call natural wines, he says.
In the chai part on the left (the small tin-roof building) there's a fixed screw which was used also for the pressing. The former tenant of this chai/cellar facility was Samuel Boulay who left a couple years ago for the Rhone, he now works alongside Gilles Azzoni. The basket press going with this screw is functional, he just has to repair the hydraulic system as it leaks oil, he asked about it to Bruno but that's not easy to fix. You can see a square room/cellar in the background, it's distinct from the other cellar to which you access from the courtyard.
He'll work with this press, it's an old-time basket press that has been ingeniously mounted on a cement base, it's spotless and certainly does a good job. It can be taken apart in 3 pieces, it is very simple he says, it was just very heavy to drag it out of the chai. I don't remember having seen such a cement base before, it's very stable, easy to clean and unlike the wood/metal bases, it's virtually undestructible, it could be forgotten 20 years outside and put back to work after a short high-pressure water cleaning. This basket press will be inaugurated, sort of, with this first cuvée of Cabernet Sauvignon. He'll fill the one barrel of juice by hand, no need of pump at this stage...
Spreaking of his past experience on winemaking, his time with Bruno makes much of his experience. When he was working for Faiveley in Burgundy it was pretty conventional winemaking, adding lab yeast, adding SO2 onthe incoming grapes (in spite of the fact they were hand picked), but this said he loved the people he worked with, they also taught him lots of things.
Damien had expressed the hope to pick 20 boxes on these 15 rows of Cabernet Sauvignon but Bruno who gave a more conservative estimate of 12 to 15 boxes was right, the parcel had suffered too much from the mildew and the grilling sun, not speaking about the long recovery process after a few years of neglect by the former tenants. He'd not make easily a full barrel for his first vintage.
They had finished picking just as the sun was going down the day before, and Bruno brought the boxes to his chai, and he just put tyhe grapes quiet here for the night, with the cool temperature they'd not spoil and anyway he has no electricity in this small facility, just running water. He'll see later if he needs to get the electricity but for now it's perfectly OK for him.
In the background behind the boxes you can see a square hole in the whole, it's a small cavity in the rock that had been turned in the mid 20th century into a fermentation tanl, complete with a thin-textured cement lining so that the wine/juice doesn't leak, you can see better pictures of such tanks found in a similar facility about which I wrote a story a few years ago, this was just a few kilometers from here.
Damien had told me while on the vineyard how he planned to conduct his vinification. He planned to leave a layer of whole-clustered grapes in the bottom of a fiber vat, then destem the rest box after box through a grid, something that works very well is is used by many vignerons for small-batch cuvées. He planned to get the fermentation start with a pied de cuve because he was not sure the yeast ambiance in the chai was strong enough (there hadn't been wine or fermentations in the place for a while). He will keep the maceration for the time needed for the sugar to be converted, the potential alcohol was pretty high and he was ready for long fermentation time.
For the SO2 he doesn't want to add any SO2, including before bottling. He's been learning for a year on the ground with Bruno and he feels confident, having understood that when the grapes are healthy and balanced you can just trust it to follow its way without fearing accidents. He says humbly that he's learning and that probably even after 10 years of practice he'll face each vintage with different conditions and parameters, thus still learning at this point.
The custom-made metal grid, complete with its wooden frame is Bruno's, and it's an easy job, just rub the bunches on the surface and the berries fall through. He tries to make more juice at the beginning, pressing a bit with the hands all the while destemming, and then when he feels there safely enough juice he just destems and lets almost intact berries fall in the bottom. He says it's a good thing that there's not more than 15 boxes because the stems of Cabernet Sauvignon are pretty hard on his bare hands, he remembers that Côt was softer when he did the same thing for Bruno. Some do this job with gloves but he says this is the only time of the year when you can touch your grapes so it's better to do this with bare hands.
He hasn't canisters of CO2, he just will leave the juice make its own, after putting a couple of liters of juice that is already in full-blown fermentation at Bruno's chai, a Gamay or a Côt, he'll see.
This is the other cellar, this one is really 100 % under the hill, it's maybe 10 or 12 meters deep, it's not that big but perfectly healthy and clean, a great "first cellar" when you set up your own dolmaine with a small surface, and if Damien keeps working with a small vineyard surface that could do thez job, I think he might even go up to 3 hectares here. Plus, this stone is very soft (tuffeau is really a tended limestone akin to chalk) and he could have some one dig a few more meters deep to get additional surface. There's no heating system (some of these archaic cellar/caves have one, like a fireplace with a chimney going all the way through the hill to the top) but Damien can open the doors at spring to help the fermentation restart if they somehow lagged in the winter.
This is where Samuel Boulay was working, otherwise originally this must have been used by a farmer for his own consumption, this fits the pattern of family facilities used by multi-crop farmers who would make their own wine on the side, there this fixed press and also this vat carved into the rock, very typical of the regular, long run winemaking of someone who owns a few rows of vines.
When he'll have his own tractor he'll not park it here because there's no building or roof to put it under (it's humid in winter and machines have to be kept dry as much as possible), and he has a barn where he lives where he'll have parking space.
In the bottom of the cellar, on the left, there's another room with already 2 barrels waiting, it's conveniently away from the light (when you open the door), you might store bottles there too I guess.
Asked about his labelling for his wines he'll make undoubtly Vin de France only (table wine), given the difficulties encountered by Bruno Allion at the agreement commission where his wines were refused the AOC for no reason, just that the fellow vignerons who man the tasting committees don't like wines that taste different than their own wines. When they don't small the usual thiols associated with conventional Sauvignon, your Sauvignon gets a refusal, they're used to a smell/aroma that is directly linked to higher yields and SO2 addings as well as early bottling. When they have to taste a longer-élevage, no-SO2 Sauvignon made from lower-yields vines, they don't recognize what they think must be a "typical" cat-pee Sauvignon.