The French wine landscape keeps improving year after year thanks to the many young growers and winemakers setting up shop with the aim to work organicly in the vineyard and without correcting tricks in the cellar. This is a win-win situation for everybody, the wine bars and cavistes (both domestic & foreign) need more producers of real wine, the neglected vineyard parcels [always under the threat of being grubbed out with EU subsidies] get a new life, derelict farms are taken care of and also the hard working new grower will get for himself a thriving job bringing hope and other indirect jobs to many of these otherwise struggling rural areas. Sylvain Leest is a perfect example of this in-depth change which does what public campaigns (be it from government or mainstream-wine communication lobbies) never could : Give new impetus to the wine regions with higher-quality artisan production. It's all up to you, by the way, and what kind of wine you drink and buy : you have a good time and help reshape our rural landscape for the best...
Sylvain Leest became a grower here in Touraine around 2013, you may not know his wines as he's just beginning to vinify a couple of batches this year, but if you drink the natural-sparkling wines from Les Capriades you may well have had a bubbly made from one of his parcels, as he sells his grapes to Pascal & Moses.
Sylvain Leest's first experience with the wine trade was when he did a harvest season in a family domaine Gevrey Chambertin (Burgundy) in 2005, he did also some vineyard work there afterwards, thinking he'd just stay a couple of months but this experience lasted 3 years, getting him trained with pruning and other vineyard work as well as with some vinification. After that, he came over here near Loches where he had friends, most weren't into wine but the parents of one of them were vignerons and he tipped him about visiting Michel and Béatrice Augé at les Maisons Brûlées (a domaine now managed by Paul & Corinne Gillet). He ended up working 3 winter seasons with them, doing the pruning with them, inching toward a more natural approach in the trade. Then he worked at the chateau de Pont in Genillé, a 12-hectare domaine, almost the last sizeable domaine of the Lochois region (they sell their grapes to the coop), then he worked for Régis Mandard in the Cher valley. He also met Catherine & Didier of then Clos Roche Blanche, befriending them and working regularly for them. He wasn't really looking hard for a vineyard but he was eying out opportunities and at one point in march 2013 as he was having a training with the Confédération Paysanne (a militant small-farmers group) on how to set up shop, he was called over by Régis Mandard who asked him to come with him and visit the vineyards of a retiring grower and multi-crop farmer (Jacques Nerault).
He loved what he saw, these parcels planted with different varieties, some being now-rare ones, plus there was an additional parcel of white available belonging to another elderly farmer, these were the typical old-time parcels from an era when farmers had a diverse production, Jacques Nerault himself had farm animals and goats for the family needs. Sylvain says that's exactly what he was ideally looking for, an opportunity to do several things in parallel, grow vines and other crops and keep farm animals, that's the way he thinks agriculture should tend with of course more modern tools than in the past. The retired grower looked for someone to rent these parcels and they agreed on a deal.
As soon as he started in 2013 and took over these vineyards he got the help of Pascal & Moses of the famed pet'nat producer Les Capriades as they bought him all his grapes from 2013 to 2015. Pascal Potaire's facility is about 30 kilometers away, it's oddly also located in a village named Faverolles but it's Faverolles-sur-Cher instead of Faverolles-en-Berry. The name Faverolles is said to derive from Féveroles, a variety of beans (fèves in French) widely used in the Middle Ages to feed the farm animals, you can see the winemaker Oronce de Beler in Burgundy feed his brown pigs with féveroles (scroll down 10 pictures to the video).
In 2016 Sylvain also sold his grapes to the Capriades but he kept some of them for himself as he's beginning to make wine, the idea being to keep on selling grapes to other natural winemakers and progressively increase his own vinification share. I came a bit early for this domaine profile, Sylvain hasn't bottled anything yet, he has a vat of red and a vat of white and the wine is quietly on its way (he says it should be bottled at the end of summer if everything goes fine).
The vineyards were being rented without any facility or farm building and so he looked around for a farm or house with outbuildings and he found this great deal at the foot of the limestone cliff on the edge of the village and he bought it last september (he was living in an appartment in Saint Aignan before). The last owners had been operating a garage here, there was a mechanic workshop in the back under an unisolated roof plus this deep tunnel cellar where the garage could store many vehicules if needed. There's no lighting in there, Sylvain will renovate it but it's in perfect condition compared to several of his other cellars (where he'll have to secure the ceiling because the soft limestone cracks). I didn't shoot any pictures from the inside of this deep cellar but it's really impressive and beautiful, with several large side rooms all the way down till you reach the bottom (it's on a light slope).
The whole place needs some renovation (there has been no one living here for a few years) but the roofs are mostly fine and he can do it at his own pace without, I guess, depending of the banks. The big work will be foremost the wastewater/sewage system (there's none), he'll figure out if he can put up an ecologically-friendly system. There's even an oven to cook the bread, certainly ready to use, no maintenance needed, and at one point in a cellar I think I saw a filled-in hole in the rock that might be a sealed well, I guess Sylvain will have time to discover the hidden architectural treasures of this place, as there's still stuff to clear from the many smaller cellars.
For his first vinification he gets some help from Didier who after the closing down of Clos Roche Blanche has set up a lab where local vignerons can have their juices and wines analyzed. Didier and Catherine help him if he asks but they're not directive and he likes that. He can also get the advice of Michel Augé. By the way they all came here for the harvest, Michel, Catherine and Didier.
There are many more cellars and former quarries in this cliff which Sylvain could use for many different purposes, bottle storage, barrel cellar, tasting room or why not one day, some sort of summer bar in a bucolic setting... This particular cellar/cave here had its entry blocked by a landslide that happened last year after heavy rains, he'll need to have all this earth removed and he plans also to secure the cliff and the trees above so that this doesn't happen again, but he wants to keep the place as much as possible in its original look, not barricade it with cement.
The property seems endless, you have all these scattered buildings, outbuildings and barns sitting at the foot of the hill with the manificent woods hanging above the cellar doors, and at the end of that you have more land where Sylvain plans to grow many crops and vegetables (he already started to) for his own needs, all at easy reach around the house; makes certainly a lot of work for him and his girlfriend but it's not like you're going to work kilometers away or drive to shop at a supermarket, your vegetables are right here near the farm and you know what you eat. Children who've been taught to tend leeks will not feel comfortable with buying the supermarket equivalent.
In terms of vatroom space there's a lot of potential room right now that needs just some fixing and possibly roof insulation. There's a very large potential chai space where the former owner had its car mechanic workshop with a nice cement slab, it's also backed to the hill like this one but there's still some mess to clear (he's done already a lot of cleaning in the whole place, buildings and courtyards), he has also a leak to fix where the tin roof connects to the cliff before he moves his vats in. But right now this vinification room works pretty well, it's just that it's not enough protected from the cold, making it difficult to raise the room temperature if he wanted to.
And the nice thing is whatever building or tin-roof structure you choose, there's a cellar/cave right next to it in the cliff, see here behind the fiber vat with the blue blanket, you can guess the door of one of them, it's just very convenient, most are at the same level and you can move the wine almost instantly into the stable-temperature quarry rooms under the cliff.
For this first year where he'll be making wine Sylvain is vinifying the equivalent of almost one hectare, there will be a white, namely a 40-are parcel of Sauvignon including a bit of complanted Fié Gris (pink-skin Sauvignon) and also a little bit of Orbois. There will be also a couple of reds, with a 30-are parcel of Gamay, plus 30 ares of Cabernet, Côt & a little bit of Pinot Noir. at this stage he doesn't plan to blend the two reds because they stand apart. He says the Gamay should make a nice spring wine, something easy to drink, even though he says he should have done less pigeage on it.
Right now Sylvain is working with this old Vaslin which is fine if you know its limits, he'll have opportunities later to get a better one, there's no hurry. The thing is with this model, the pressing plares are turning, not just the screw, which means you have to work with healthy grapes, but anyway considering the way he works on the vineyard side he certainly gets healthy grapes, and he always picks by hand.
Speaking of the picking he's doing all the pickings himself with a team of friends, and Pascal Potaire visits the parcels twice a year. He uses 22-kilogram boxes for the picking and he has 175 of them. The parcels aren't far away, just a short distance to his chai, I didn't count but that may be a couple of kilometers no more.
He got this yellow press from Régis Mandard who didn't use it, it was manufactured in 1972. Getting second-hand tools isn't an issue in France, anywhere you look there are available vats, presses and tractors, and for almost nothing, sometimes for free as colleagues just give them. You can look on the web also on this website for example for tools you didn't find around you, and there's for example a Vaslin Veritas for only 700 € there.
For the vats, Sylvain got several of them from Jacques Nerault, the retiring grower who rents him the vineyards, he got a couple others from his brother-in-law, others come from yet another former vigneron in Chateauvieux, the village nearby. He says that when you're looking for such small-volume vats they're everywhere, every farmer/grower family used to make a bit of wine for themselves and they now sit idle in barns or cellars.
This one is very good, first for the exchange between the lees and the wine, and also they're easy to move with a forklift if you want to love the vat to a warmer/colder area in your facility, or if you want to make a gravity bottling. He says that even if he vinifies more wine in the future, this will be always be small-batch cuvées, no more than 30 hectoliters each. Right now he hasn't reached this point but when he will, that may be very interesting as he has 12 grape varieties in this vineyards...
We're now tasting the Sauvignon. As said, there's also some Fié Gris (pink-skin Sauvignon) and some Arbois (also known under the name of Orbois or Menu Pineau) in the parcel, which makes it even more interesting. The wine isn't finished yet, there's still the sweet side, he raised the temperature to have the malolactic completed but afterthen the cold weather settled in and the alcohol fermentation stalled. It should start again as soon as spring comes. Beyond the sweet edge there's a vividness in the mouth which I don't know if it related to a renewed activity or else. It's a generous wine and you feel it, he says that the potential at picking was 13 % and he didn't want to pick later. Sylvain says that the last lab analysis by Didier Barouillet was made some 3 weeks before, the volatile was at 3,35 which is nothing, he doesn't think it moved much from that since.
Speaking of the labelling of his wines, they'll be all table wine (Vin de France). If he'd try to get an Appellation, in this area it would be Valençay AOC or Touraine for single-variety wines but he isn't thrilled by the prospect, he has already lots of things here to fix and concentrate on and having to deal with the intricacies and the potential hassles of the appellation system is not on his program. Plus he'll vinify naturally and on indiginous yeast and such non-intervention wines easily get in the crosshairs of the local agreement commissions, it shouldn't be an issue to sell the wine, there'll not be a big volume. His main concern is making a nice wine, without default, that can be liked also by people that are not familiar with natural wines.
The vines are old for the whites, Sylvain says they're 60 or more. His youngest vines are the ones of Pinot Noir and they were planted in 1992/1993 which doesn't make it that young either. On average his parcels were planted in the 1950s' or the 1960s'. I ask about Esca (Black Measles) but that's OK he says, they aren't much attacked by Esca. From his own experience, there's not much Esca incidence on old parcels, but more on relatively-recent plantings. Just as a
comparison he's been offered recently to get a 15-year-old parcel but it's been 30 % destroyed by Esca. He's not in a hurry to replant, he has already a nice range of varieties, pretty old and in good health, he says for example that his 20-are parcel
of Pineau d'Aunis is gorgeous. I asked if he was not tempted to try to vinify this Pineau d'Aunis for his first vinifications, but he says he may wait much longer before beginning to vinify it himself because the maturity is difficult to reach for this variety. Plus for example in 2015 there was the Suzuki drosophiles that were a plague in many vineyards of the region (and across France, possibly because winter was too mild) and they targetted this variety, forcing him to call Pascal Potaire and push for an early picking. Some of his organic peers who waited for the maturity had all the fruit destroyed by the insects. When he'll begin working with it he will probably make a rosé first.
You can see on the left the manure he's given by neighbors who have horses and goats, he'll make a good use of it in time.He says with a smile that there's a long non-venimous snake living underneath that occasionally terrorizes pickers or even himself when it wanders around unexpectedly while he works on the vineyard.
Speaking of the varieties in his parcels he tried to remember the list : Sauvignon, Fié Gris, Arbois, Chenin (a little bit), Gamay (4 of them : Gamay Beaujolais, Bouze, Chaudenay, Fréaux, the 3 letter being teinturiers, meant for darkening the wines), Côt, Pineau d'Aunis, Pinot Noir, Cabernet France, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grolleau [makes even 14 varieties if you count them all]. He hasn't any Chardonnay but he'll make without it, it's already great to have gotten this opportunity.
We didn't taste the Côt/Cabernet blend but Sylvain says he's optimistic about it, it's well structured with tannins. In the future he'd like to at least once make all his wines as single variety, but this will ber later. The Côt he loves the most in the region is Bruno Allion's cuvée Carnyx, that's his reference, he remembers the 2012 as being just magic, a wine you could crunch into voluptuously.
The first parcel we saw had several varieties including the Gamay. Very beautiful old vines with majestic wood and expressions. The vines weren farmed conventionally of course, but in the early years the soil was plowed which means that the roots go certainly deep enough. When you look at the soil you can see that there's been some sort of earthing-up (buttage, when you push some earth under the row with the plow) being done years ago, but Sylvain estimates that may be around 2000, possibly even before, and after that they used herbicides to control the weeds. But the most important thing is that during the 30 first years this vineyard was plowed and taken care of, this means the vines developped the right rooting, which remains in place even they later used herbicide and fertilizers.
Here Sylvain explains that the narrow orchard standing between two of his parcels is part of the block, which makes about 2 hectares. It's typically this type of family orchard that you found in the middle of vineyards years ago. Most growers prioritizing efficiency and profit (at a time when even farmers prefer to buy their fruits in the supermarkets) grubbed them up and it's heartwarming to see one still in place, even if the owners probably don't pick their fruits anymore, at least they kept it alive.
Sylvain says that there are 2 apple trees, a cherry tree and a pear tree, and he says that oddly, fromwhat he could observe after working 4 years on this vineyard, the most vigorous rows, the ones that are the healthiest are the ones growing along this orchard, when you'd presume that the competition of the trees would weaken them. These two rows seem to be in perfect harmony with the trees, could be the insect diversity but he points to the larger roots of the trees which leave more room for the tiny roots of the vines [at an intermediate depth I guess].
On both sides of this orchard there is Gamay, be it Gamay Beaujolais or also the three coloring sub-varieties of Gamay, plus there's some Sauvignon, then Cabernet and Arbois.
When there's a void between two vines, because of a missing vine or because the vine grows in the other direction, Sylvain plants a sauterelle, a word which means grasshopper in French but in this context related to marcottage it means the end of a long-reaching cane : you plant the hanging cane in the ground and lets it go out so that it roots down and becomes a vine by itself, even if still connected to its mother vine. This is a cheap way to replant missing vines, especially when you don't own the vineyard. This one on the picture is particularly vigorous and healthy. Some of these sauterelles are in waiting stage, he has to let the cane grow over several years until the time for putting it in the ground comes, costs nothing but needs patience. He says that you can do several sauterelles with the same vine, the maximum he made was 5 from the same vines, Iguess there were 5 consecutive vines missing and he just had canes of different lengths grow until they reached the right spots. I tell him that because of Phylloxera I guess he has to keep the connecting cane alive well after the new vine grows mature, but he says yes or no, in certain cases he cuts the link, even if there's a Phylloxera risk for the new vine after it's been cut off from the rootstock. When he decides to cut the link he does it progressively, in 2 or 3 years to soften the shock for the new vine (but it'll change nothing for the Phylloxera risk).
Watch this video where Sylvain explains on an other vine how he'll proceed to plant a sauterelle for a marcottage, it's different for every case.
This beautiful and elegant old vine here is certainly a Fié Gris, the pink-skin sub-variety of Sauvignon. Fié Gris was much more common in the past in this region but its surface dwindled as a result of the AOC ignoring it. Here it's complanted randomly in the parcel and Sylvain puts stones on the ones he spotted, which helps him remember in winter where they are. The pickers "marked" the vines with a stone because at that time with the color of the bunches it's so obvious. He'll take so wood from it and have it grafted, so that he can have more of Fié Gris. Right now he hasn't pruned, he'll do this Sauvignon in march, he says.
Speaking of the grass management he mowes it, plus he plows part of the inter-row with disk blades and for now this is enough to contain the weeds. This parcel is thze first he saw when he visited the vineyards and he loved it at first sight, these healthy old vines, the setting with all the trees, the slope and exposition.
Sylvain works by himself to tend his vineyard, which has a total surface of around 4 hectares. He will get the help of his girlfriend who joined him in his recently purchased farm, and to make ends meet he also works for other growers, for example in an organic domaine in Noyers-sur-Cher and Saint-Aignan, doing pruning and other vineyard jobs there.
We drove to another block of parcel (his surface is split in 3 separate blocks) where there's 30 ares of Pinot Noir, some Cheenin plus more Gamay. Here also you can see the marcottage in progress, with this sauterelle in the middle going up and which he'll redirect to the ground later. For many of these vines with Marcottage he'll have to till by hand to prevent damaging the new vine with the plow. He says the good season to put them in the ground is november.
We walk further among the Chenin part, Sylvain says that the former grower was fond of high yields and these vines have certainly beeen "pissing wine" like crazy, like we say in France. As I marvel on the convoluted vines, Sylvain says that the Grolleau are particularly expressive either, he says one of the vines obviously was long time ago damaged by a tractor and it survived, keeping a shape that hinted at its past misadventure. This Chenin looks like twins having been planted side by side.
You don't see that very often, another proof that the former grower, if conventional, was reluctant to erase entirely all the ageless tradtions of viticulture, even if he didn't use them anymore : Here is a bush or a tree you'd see along most vineyards in France a century ago or more, that's where you'd cut your wicker ties to later attach the shoots, either on the wires or on the posts (like it was done before mechanization & wires were introduced). Farmers were then self-reliant and they had anyway little money to spend except for essentials, the natural environment provided for these things, and year after year these bushes kept popping up their fountain of ties...
Plus, Sylvain says that wicker bark is used as a preventive treatment against mildew, you make a wicker tea and spray it in time on the vines.
Walking a few rows away, we reach the Pineau d'Aunis. I guess Sylvain was euphoric when he toured all these parcels with the owner the first time, I'd be like thinking, "don't show you excited by all these beautiful old vines, the guy is going to ask for more..." I'm looking forward for the first time he's vinifying this parcel, and hopefully for a red, I promise I'll keep lobbying for that when I visit him again. This parcel is well planted, he says, easy to pass with the tractor, plus there are very few missing vines here. He shows me how you recognize Pineau d'aunis in winter, from their white velvety buds on the red canes. Here he says the soil is more stony, especially in the lower slope, he saw that when he and a neighbor-farmer plowed the ground. There's an empty plot which he plans to replant one day, he wants also to plant more fruit trees.
Driving yet in another direction, we reached the 3rd plock of parcels, it's along a side road and woods, there a large tree, a nut tree if I'm right, and a first parcel aalong the road with low-hanging vines where Sylvain took away the trellis and posts. He says this seems to be a family parcel of the type locals used to make their own wine, it's apparently a complatation en foule of various, still-to-be-determined varieties. There are probably 4 or 5 different grape varieties in this triangular parcel, in his opinion.
For Sylvain it's obvious that this parcel never got any herbicide, it may have been the parcel tended by the grandpa of the family or something like that. He plans to make some sort of experimental parcel here, planting among the vines more fruit trees but also grow vegetables along the different seasons.
Right next to this small old-time parcel there a more "regular" looking parcel with posts and wires, that's where he has more Sauvignon, plus some Arbois (Menu Pineau). The parcel here also is bordered with woods at one end, and the area is partly forested anyway, on the other side of the small road there this large woodland. Again, I'm amazed at the many nice old-looking vines here, it is at least 45 years, he says. The age of parcels is not always certain, the growers are supposed to have that information in a document but for the older parcels this is sometimes not clear, especially if the parcel changed hands.
Sylvain has been working on this parcel since 2013, this is the first one he worked on when he took over this scattered surface. I comment that having parcels in 3 locations help limit the risk of loosing the grapes from hail for example, but he says that from what he knows there's never been hail damage in that area.
Otherwise Sylvain is also keeping bees, he has 3 or 4 beehives (he has 7 last year).