Rablay sur Layon, Anjou (Loire)
Kenji & Mai Hodgson (see profile made a few years ago) have moved yet again and settled in this house that is now their own and where they'll also vinify their wine in the building in the back, making it much easier. Until now they had been living in one place (which they changed occasionally) and they had vinified in another, a rented facility (which they shared with other vignerons) at a distance from their home. Not very easy for the two expats with roots in both Canada's British Columbia and Japan but with their shared passion for real wine and the support of fellow vignerons sharing the same philosophy they could make Anjou their home and find at last the suitable house to both live and work.
The house is beautiful, there'll be plenty of roms for the kids, I'd say it was built somewhere in the late 19th century and they're renovating it piece by piece, for example they changed the windows, but overall that's a solid house like the ones that were built at that time, can last forever as long as you keep the roof in order.
This visit took place in mid may, just a couple weeks after a harsh frost that took a heavy toll on the vines of the region.
We drove to a first parcel (La Madeleine) which suffered a lot with the frost, it's on the lower adge of a slope, close to the woods and river, and the bad news is that it happens the second year at about the same time. This is Chenin, they've been farming this parcel since 2013, through a lease first, then recently the owner told them he wanted to sell it,
so they bought it, knowing there was a risk of frost but
they've been making nice wine with it otherwise when they're spared by calamities.
In order to prevent or limit frost damage they sprayed valériane extract (known as Valerian as well in English) before frost came (they had been warmed on the incoming drop in temperature), some people have tried other things, it's hard to know in which extent it avoided the damage to be worse. Also they didn't touch the soil for 10 days because doing some plowing before could have made things worse; they didn't have much grass at that time, which is good because grass is kind of a magnet for frost, and everything was pretty dry, which is a positive factor also to avoid frost. Kenji says that the worst day (the frost has run over the course of several days) was the 27th of april, in the early morning. The previous week they had already survived one frost, then again on the morning of the 26 but without being that damaging. The problem is that in the evening of the 26th there was 2 mm of rain,, then the sky cleared and the temperature dipped again, too bad, the rain factor was certainly what caussed the frost to have its toll. They burned stra on each side of the parcel but this was a week earlier when the first frost occurence came on the 20th, and Kenji didn't have anything to burn on the 27th. Valérianr certainly helped a bit but the temperature was really very low, much lower than for a usual frost in this region. There will be a long reconstruction of productive wood through pruning for the next years.
Here on the picture on left you can see on the slope above Kenji's parcel (the whole slope belongs to a conventional domaine, Domaine des Quarres) where the fros hit the worst, it's on the lower rows, at some point you see much more foliage on the vines, the rows above are just high enough to be safe.
There's another parcel that was damaged by frost, making a total of 60 ares that suffered most, makes 20 % of their total surface, whioch is more manageable than last year in terms of damages & cost. Last year they had 35 % of their vineyard surface that suffered from frost. Last year for example they made a total of 55 hectoliters of wine when normaly they'd make 75/80. This year isn't finished yet, Kenji says, but you can reasonably predict they'll make 60/65 hectoliters. Asked if they can purchase grapes to make for the missing volume, he says yes, although so many producers have been affected and will also look for some. For example just after the frost he got an email from a vigneron asking for grapes, aknowledging it was early for the enquiry but he wanted growers to already know he was a buyer if they'd have any for sale...
Here on this picture we're on a planted parcel of 40 ares (chenin) which they name Belle-Vue because of the chateau nearby, but the real name is Clos des Grands Champs. They purchased this in 2011, the whole site was abandonned, part fallow land with bushes like what you can see behind, and on the cadastral books they saw there were many tiny other parcels with weird shapes and they could get several of them, but they had to conduct a research of the owners from a list made by the vigneron to whom they bought this first parcel. It took them all this time from 2011 to this year (2017) to contact all these individuals, get the signatures, and by chance everybody is ready to sell, but it's all fragmented in surfaces making 6 ares, 10 ares etc... It's funny, Kenji says, because he proposes the regular price of agricultural land (it's covered with bushes now) and some people try to negociate a bit, saying it's on Coteaux du Layon, so more or less everybody is OK with the price, with some punctual adjustments. Among the already purchased additional plots there's one they replanted (chenin, a few rows being selection massale), making 30 ares, and on the fallow land they've not yet cleared there'll be another 30 or 40 ares to replant. The soil is fine here, it drains well but isn't getting too dry in summer. For the replantings they still think about the training, whether in goblet or with palissage, or also they do trellising with candle vine, or guyot simple like in Burgundy, he says this is very good for the sap flow because it pulls the sap every year.
Here is another parcel, that the one they use for the cuvée O Galerneau, the yields are always low on these Cabernet Franc. On this parcel it's tricky to pass the tractor on the wet season because the ground gets muddy. The age of the vines is not fully known as it's often the case with old parcels where the administrative data is sketchy, Kenji thinks 50 or 60, I'd say 80 but I'm not really an expert...
Here is yet another parcel (chenin) they're just beginning to work with last year, it's a rented vineyard, we say a fermage in France for these long-term agricultural contracts (secure 9 years). The parcel was farmed conventionally before, and the soil was completely compacted, there was obviously no life in it, so they thought about plowing but they had had an issue with another parcel they converted and for which the change came too quickly with the plowing of the surface roots, especially for the old vines and the vigor & productivity had fallen as a result (happilly it eventually rebounded on the following years). So this time on this particular parcel they did a much much slower change; when they got this vineyard there was herbicide every other row and grass in the others like it's now the trend on chemically-farmed domaines. This was not just weeds, but plain grass with selected seeds, and Kenji broke the grass clods with a very wide rotovator and they didn't pass with the plow for now.
This year he passed a very light surface plow in the middle with an actisol which works just a few centimeters deep and they'll keep be careful for still some time about deeper plowing. The surface here is 46 ares, it's a beautiful parcel, the soil which has schist stones is easy to work, Kenji says, they like it very much (they already made wine from it). the vines were pretty well taken care of on the whole, they don't too much corrective work on them apart from the soil. Yesterday he sprayed sulfur and coppe because the rain was coming (drizzle began when we were in the vineyard). If it's up for sale one day they might purchase it.
We went to the small facility devoted to winemaking in the back of the house, Kenji wanted us to taste a few wines there with visiting family from abroad and the young trainee who was helping him. The first official vinification in this attached building took place in 2016, in Kenji's own words, it's small but it's fine and it works well. They still for now keep a portion of the older building they used before, in particular for the pressing of the chenin, bringing the juice over here afterthen. Here in their new home they pressed all of the reds with the basket press pictured below.
This room was a former garage, so they insulated the rook and did some improvement on the floor with a cement slab and drainage for the cleaning, hygiene and forklift use. They store a few barrels here, mostly barrels several-wine old, just that they buy a new barrel every year from a small cooperage in Sancerre.
They're macerating the reds 4 or 5 weeks here and they used this basket press afterthen, they brought it over here from the former chai as they still use part of this other chai now, including for the big press which they share with other vignerons. They have also another basket press similar to this one here. For the newt vintage when/if they work with more volume again they'll devise a solution. There may be someone in the village of Rablay who could help them use a pneumatic press.
__ We taste a Chenin 2016, taken from a barrel if I remember, the blend of all Faia chenins. Still fermenting and turbid, nice feel still. Kenji says that 2016 was a tricky vintage because they had a very cold start of the year including frost late april, both things making the vineyard come out very late, then they had lots and lots of rain in main and june; it only started to dry up late june, abruptly going from wet to dry throughout summer with heat where the vineyard grew back again, but still being late overall. In 2015 for example they harvested this same Faia Chenin on september 11 while in 2016 it was september 29/30 which makes a 2-week delay. And for the other cuvée they picked in 2015 on september 18th and in 2016 on october 3rd. On the other hand, 2015 was also an early-picking year to be honest, so the delay was maybe not that big. In 2016 they picked with a potential of 13,7 which after the fermentation gets to the end will make quite a rich wine. They knew that the maturity.
__ Here we taste a separate barrel made from the last parcel we visited, they isolated it just to see how the chenin shows by itself on this terroir and soil. Eventually by the time of bottling they'll blend it with the rest. It's quite dry now, pretty good. With the warming temperature the wine has certainly lost much of its residual sugar by now. Kenji says that they did 3 different pickings; when you take iover a vineyard you never know how it will happen, they had introduced a lot of natural nutrients in the soil by the light plowing and the vines had responded well and with vigor. They got huge bunches with uneven maturity, so they did 2 pickings plus another one for a sweet wine because of the botrytis.
__ Chenin les Aussigoins 2015 (not visited that time) from a blend vat. They got this parcel in 2013. The wine tastes pretty nice, a well-structured chenin, they'll send a sample to the lab and may bottle it some time soon. The soil is very clayish with schists also, it's on the top of a hill. Actually I saw briefly this parcel a few years ago when i visited Richard Leroy (scroll down 6 pictures, it's the images on the sides, one with a rabbit running in front of Kenji's tractor...). There are 2 parts in this parcel, one with 10-year old chenin, the other 35, we taste here the blend of the two.
Speaking of the tractors they're not here but I still saw this old Renault in the back, that's the one the repair shop lended them while their other one was being repaired. It's a narrow tracteur vigneron dating I would say from the late 1970s maybe.
Actually they sold their old tractor initially : the mechanic had told them he had a newer one that was a bargain, and instead of waiting this tractor to be ready first, they put their old tractor on sale on Internet (their banker advised them to), thinking it would take months to sell, but within a week it was sold (the single call they had, the buyer was from Le Mans) and they found themselves without anything, so the mechanic gave them this one to use until he has time to fix the newer one.
What's funny is that they're getting used to this older model and like it (they joke that they might get back to him and tell him that they changed their mind and prefer this one finally, which costs certainly a small portion of the other, more recent tractor...).
Here on the left you can see a few plows that were stored outside in the garden, but they might have other tools in the former location, possibly shared with other growers.
__ Galarneau 2016, a Cabernet Franc that fermented only in tank, here sugar and malolactic are finished. Nice shades of red. They're ready to bottle this cuvée. Nice bitterness with coffee notes. Part of this was vinified through carbonic maceration (a third), part of it was destemmed and another part was kept whole-clustered, the two latter being mixed together and stomped. In 2015 they did not make carbo because in 15 the reds were very ripe and rich, he changes the process depending of the vintage and condition of the fruit, here in 2016 the reds will be very easy drinking, more fresh. They switched to tank-only in part because their barrel fleet begins to be old and they were not fully satisfied with their style, so they wanted as a trial to use tank only to see if they could get a "cleaner" tasting that way. They eventually get back to barrels next year, they'll see.
__ Blend of Grolleau & Gamay (50 % each), from a barrel. Usually they make a cuvée of 100 % Grolleau but in 2016 the volume of wine is so small that they thought better to make a blend to augment a bit the volume, which overall still makes a very small volume for this wine, 3 barrels altogether. Cuvée name : La Grande Pièce, they keep the name usually used for the 100 % Grolleau, it'd be too complicated to create a special cuvée name & labels for this temporary digression.
Look at this color, very exciting...Nose with aromas of morello cherry (the small acidic cherries). In the mouth and swallowed : very nice, easy drinking, a pleasure to drink. Kenji says they picked the Gamay early (early/mid september) because the grapes detoriated very quickly with the humidity of the region. They typically pick the Gamay first because of this, even before the Chenin. No carbo here, whole clusteres but stomped, by the girls he says with a laugh, relatives from abroad were visiting at the time and they loved it...
__ Chenin 2016 late picking on Quart des Noëls, with the grapes with botrytis, they picked this at the same time than the last Cabernet. Potential was 19 %. Delicious sweet wine, and it is totally without added sulfites, they'll not filter it either, it will have a 3-year élevage in order to make sure that the yeast don't awake back. They have only one barrel of it.hh
We then walked to the kitchen table for a hearty lunch beginning with this lightly-pink pet-nat named Blue Flowers. I noticed their nice wood cookstove in the kitchen, they use it although they've also central heating here and from what I remember they made a very good deal. The rillettes are home made, actually they're made with friends with buying a pig together with the help of a retired butcher who comes to the farm and kills it, after which the next day he cuts eveything up and they can prepare all the pôrk delicacies. The rilletes were gorgeous, great texture.
__ They made this Blue Flowers cuvée in 2015 only, the previous year they made a red gamay and in 2016 they blended the gamay with the grolleau as said above. They made 300 bottles of this, initially for the birth of their son, they're supposed to keep some but Mai sounds stunned to learn from Kenji that there are only 60 left. She aknowledged that they had a bunch of them for his 1st birthday, and I suggest they keep a bottle cellar a few kilometers away to keep the temptation at bay... They still exported a little bit of that in British Columbia and Holland.
__ Faia 2015, chenin. Kenji says that before bottling it was more linear and it close down a bit after then, but it is already coming back and after one month or two it should readjust to the bottle and be back in place.
__ Les Aussigoins 2014, chenin also, sold out. I haven't notes here and we tasted a few more chenin wines, lovely, but also no notes sorry. But I was certainly distracted by the glossy magazine on the left...
Yes, of course you learned about Kenji & Mai on Wineterroirs first but now (recently) Kenji and Mai have been featured by the prestigious if mainstream Revue du Vin de France in a special issue focusing on the best Chenin wines, with even a small insert and picture as a profile about this couple, with the words on the portrait, "Une Japonaise et un Canadien, cela donne un Remarquable Chenin ! [I guess that's understandable even for non-French speakers]....