Thésée, Touraine (Loire)
Olivier Bellanger graduated in 2000 from the agriculture school of Blois with a BEPA diploma, he had also begun working at Philippe Tessier and his stay there would last 5 years, then he worked with Jean-François Merieau for a harvest, then he made two harvests at François Priou, a lesser-known vigneron who works well too. In 2008 he got an opportunity to set up his winery here (he is a native from the region, from Monthou-sur-Cher near thésée 4 kilometers away) after he found in the classifieds ads that a block of 6 hectares of vineyards were available above Thésée. There was no cellar or facility with these vineyards, as the owner was just a retiring grower who had been selling the grapes to the coopérative. On the other hand this was convenient for him because the price was thus lower without the buildings and because his intent at the beginning was to sell grapes in order to generate cash, his long-term plan being to begin making wine little by little on the side. He found the cellar near Thésée in 2012, it was owned by a vigneron who didn't use it for some time. This is a cellar only, he doesn't do the pressing here, for that he relies on a friend's place who lets him use a room in his own facility 500 meters from here.
I heard about Olivier Bellanger because he is part of Les Vins du Coin (a group of artisan winemakers of the area), he himself knew this group since he worked with Philippe Tessier and he had followed their evolution and he began selling grapes to people like Hervé Villemade and Brendan Tracey, farming his vines along a like-minded philosophy. He still sells today the grapes of about 2 or 3 hectares.
When he took over the 6-hectare domaine in 2008 it was conventionally farmed and he converted it right away, like, he set up officially his business november 1st and the conversion started november 12th (when the certification body listed the surface as being in conversion).
Dettori is a mid-size winery located near the north-western coast of Sardinia (which is itself just south of Corsica). The emblematic varietal of Sardegna is Cannonau, a red grape which is also known as Grenache in France or Garnacha in Spain, and which forms large clusters of grapes tightly knit to each other. The climate of this Mediterranean island is hot in summer but the sea is never far away, bringing a cooler air especially
when the Maestrale blows across the area (this north-western wind is known in Provence as Mistral). The domaine sits at a dominant altitude, it has a direct view
on the gulf of Porto Torres and the sea shore is only 7 km away by road (much less as the crow flies).
It would be unjust to focus only on Cannonau, Sardinia also offers nice expressions of Vermentino, Carignano as well as several local varietals like Monica. Some of the varietals were imported a few centuries ago when Sardinia was ruled by Spain.
The viticulture on the island has been around for ages (it probably began with the prehistoric Nuragic civilization) and every expanding civilization, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans invaded Sardinia, each probably bringing the winemaking experience of their respective homeland. On the other hand, wine is said not to have played a big role in the Sardinian culture and you learn on Hugh Johnson/Jancis Robinson's World Atlas of Wine that the plantations were largely subsidized in the 20th century, encouraging the production of high-alcohol wines that were used on the continent for blendings with other wines. You learn further that when the subsidies fell in the 1980s' the vineyard surface plummeted by three quarters. Sardinia wine followed a different path compared to continental Italy, with somehow a loose connection with the fabric of the local culture, but there has been a comeback lately. Among the remaining cantinas (domaines) on the island today, there are a few good ones, the best making a handful of wineries in total.
Dettori is a cantina with a history of several generations, today its vineyards are farmed organic and along biodynamics, and the wines are made totally naturally, unfiltered and unfined, and often without added sulfites.
Yvon Métras has roots (several-generations deep) in the Beaujolais wine farms and he began to vinify his first wines in the family domaine in 1988 but in the early years he was mostly selling his grapes to the coopérative. Influenced by Marcel Lapierre, Yvon Métras changed his winemaking/growing practices and joined the vibrant group of natural winemakers who were only 4 at the time. Unaware to the wine world,
the History was on its way... Jules Chauvet had delivered them (before dying in 1989) the research and
knowledge that he had accumulated over the years. This man who was at the same time a scientist, a demanding taster and a winemaker (and a négociant), finetuned his technique that permitted to make wines without the modern corrections, without the lab yeast, the chaptalization, the filtration, and foremost without added sulfites, somehow returning to the wines that were made centuries ago, but with a more scientific precision and understanding of all the winemaking processes, when in the past the empirical approach transmitted by the elders brought random results of uneven quality.
The wines of Yvon Métras are not always easy to get, especially abroad where the demand is bigger than the alloted volumes of the importers, you must remember that his vineyard surface is particularly modest, it's 5 or 6 hectares.
When I reached the facility of Yvon Métras, which is not easy to locate for an outsider, there was a cluster of cars and vans parked outside, obviously the pickers were having their lunch there (it was around 1:30pm). I parked the motorbike, shooting first this picture of a car with socks and shoes drying under the generous sun of this mid-september afternoon (there had been rain the previous day and I guess the grass was pretty soaked), and Yvon Métras who had heard beyond the lunch noise this lone vehicule stopping by walked out of the building to see what was going on.
Jean-Claude Lapalu is a Beaujolais vigneron whose parents and grandparents were growers selling their grapes to the local coopérative; he too became a grower in 1982, selling his grapes to the coop to make a living, but in 1995 he also took over a domaine (a rental) and this was his start as a winemaker although for sometime he kept selling grapes to the coop. He found his path gradually along the years, step by step through questioning,
from a conventional type of farming to one that eschews chemicals and same for the winemaking, toward a vinification reduced to the simple and natural process, with indigenous yeast and low intervention.
In the end of the 1990s' Jean-Claude Lapalu had two sharecropping contracts (vineyard rentals) plus a bit of land of his own and this gave him freedom to make wine if he wanted, all the while still selling grapes to the coop. In 1995/1996 he rented another domaine in addition to the sharecropping he already had and this led him to begin make wine (until then he had only be a grower). He says he hadn't a precise idea of the wine he'd make, he just had had some training at the viticulture school but that was not much. There was no one around him to guide him but he soon met a couple of people who would open a window on what wine could be, telling him things about wine like he had never heard before. These were not winemakers or vignerons. One of them was caviste in Grenoble (near the French Alps), François Blanc-Gonnet (pic on top of linked article) who was the owner of the wine shop Laiterie Bayard. He opened to him a whole universe where wine was very different from anything he had heard before. Meanwhile he began to make his own wine and it took him 5 or 6 years to get rid of all the additives he'd learnt to use at the wine school [this school was in the nearby village of Charentay, I think it closed since], he did that bit by bit, dropping the products one by one as he progressed. These additives were the lab yeast, SO2, sugar, plus enzymes, lactic bacteria (even if even at the beginning he actually never used these two). For the SO2 the removal was gradual as in a conventional winery it is added in several stages during the wine process (on the incoming grapes, during the vinification, at racking and at bottling typically), he progressed step by step, eschewing SO2 here, then in another vintage also here and so on until he made whole vinifications without any SO2 from A to Z.
When I arrived at the winery on my motorbike Jean-Claude Lapalu was moving an horizontal fermenter with a forklift (picture on right), his staff being busy taking care of various tasks in the vatroom.
Beaujolais is with Anjou (and the Loire at large) the most dynamic French wine region on the artisan-wine scene, and it has probably a lot to do with fact that the few winegrowers who initiated the natural wine culture with the guidance of Jules Chauvet (Breton, Lapierre, Foillard and Metras) were based in this region. This area turned around from a wine region in disarray and emerged as one of the most looked-after for the genuine wine amateurs of the world (those who care more about what's in the botttle than about the prestigious appellations
or estates), even though the vast majority of growers remain conventional and didn't really change their
Like in most wine regions, young vignerons keep popping up, people who follow the same hard-work philosophy in the vineyard with minimum intervention in the cellar, and certainly no additives except minimal sulfur (if any). Remi Dufaître is one of them, I met him a couple years ago in a Paris tasting (Les Beaux Macs) and liked particularly one of his wines, L'Air de rien 2011, a carbonic maceration of gamay, devoid of any SO2, an unfiltered wine that was a pleasure to swallow. I heard later several praising comments on his work by people I trust, including by France Gonzalvez (I happened to stumble on Remi at her place when I visited her).
Remi Dufaitre initially worked with growers and wineries here and there and he met his future wife Laurence during a harvest as she had come to take part to the picking (she was an Art student in the south of France then). Then he had a training at the domaine of Jean-Louis Dutraive, his cousin who is also the first domaine of Fleurie (Beaujolais) to turn organic. Then he had the opportunity to take over a domaine in 2003, the Domaine de Botheland on the outskirts of Saint-Etienne-des-Oullières with vineyards that were partly contracted with the local coopérative, so they began to work like that, selling part of their production to the négoce and the rest of the grapes to the coop (a contract tying a coop with a vineyards and signed by a grower/owner has to be implemented until the end of its term, and ties the successive owners if the vineyard changes hands). For the part of the vineyard contracted with ther coop he had to wait 5 years before he could vinify the grapes himself.
The end of harvest is always a special turning point in wineries, a big part of the wine job has been made, I'd even say most of the wine job has been made for wineries making uncorrected wines (because the vineyard work is central there), and everyone rejoices in the courtyard in front of the chai, the pickers because they could hold through
long days of arduous work and the staff because they could manage all the timing with the weather conditions,
ordering schedule for the different parcels and taking care of the food & board for the pickers. Here at Dominique Derain, the pickers had "reserved" their job since may (I guess they'd been queuing until the ban des vendanges otherwise), they're housed upstairs above the chai, a prime location with no loss of time after- and before work, and considering what I think the food is, their working conditions are pretty enviable.
I had come across a couple of downpours on my way from Paris to Chalon-sur-Saone, which is not very pleasant on a motorbike but in Saint-Aubin it was dry even though the sky was grey. When I dropped unannounced this friday afternoon toward 5 pm at Dominique Derain, I was thinking there might be a chance to see some kind of activity at his facility but what I saw exceeded my expectations.
I had not called ahead because it's only while en route that I realized I'd pass next to Saint-Aubin (and anyway nobody answers the phone in these days). Outside, I spotted what was obviously a picker's car decorated with flowers (pic on left), a hint that harvest could be approaching its end. This happened to be indeed the last harvest day and all the pickers, staff and Dominique Derain of course were gathered, having a few glasses and celebrating the moment. There were still a couple dozens boxes of white grapes at the back of a tractor waiting to be loaded into in the Vaslin press and as it was still early Dominique had set up this festive apéritif.
We had a few weeks ago this very nice rosé des Riceys, a still rosé from Champagne by a Maison named Champagne Horiot Père & Fils. Very few people know about the still rosés of Champagne, and the domaines who keep doing them in the appellation area are quite courageouis because they could make more money with making 100 % of Champagne (I mean regular sparkling).. This was a delight, and this was also surprising because the wine was almost 11 years old and 2003 was supposed to be such a devastation for wines if you kept them in the cellar.
The wine which was maybe still approaching its peak was delicate and suave, I couldn't stop helping myself along the lunch. Both B. and me had bought wine there and this was the last bottle of rosé we had from this estate if I'm right (my cellar is not well organized).
For a big harvest, use a bit of Fluolite...[Pdf file of this page]
The 1930s', dawn of the insecticides era ?
Street flea markets give you the opportunity to put your hand on gems, sometimes it's by pure chance that I find something. Recently (this was in Mont-Saint-Jean, Burgundy), I found this 16-page prospectus which was printed probably around 1938 or 1939 as it recounts the harvest conditions of 1937, and the insecticide in question was apparently first released on the market in 1936. This pamphlet for which I paid 1 € targets the growers and the copy bears on the lower-right corner of its front page the stamp of
an insecticide dealer, M. Harant, based guess where ? in Reims...;-) - I didn't make this up !.
The product here, Fluolite, seems to have ben short lived, there are no traces online and while I found a few references for
a product named Fluolite (and patented by Zeneca and Imperial Chemical Industries), it seems to be
pointing to another type of chemical, a fluorescent whitening agent. The insecicide promoted by this 16-page prospectus is manufactured by a company named "Groupement des Industries Chimiques pour l'Agriculture" (GICA), with its head office at 11 bis rue d'Aguesseau Paris 8th arrondissement (in the 1930s').
Leafing through this 13,3 X 21 cm prospectus is very interesting because it immerses you in between the agrochemicals dealers and the unsuspecting vignerons of the 1930s', and at a time when growers where still working on a very traditional way, tending their vines and plowing their soils. We learn about the type of pests and trials they go through, the yields they make, with or without these products. The vignerons at that time were often living with more modest means compared to today and I guess selling them this stuff was not so easy, but given the testimonies printed here (if they're authentic), some could afford. This advertising literature points unusually to the different wines regions of France, with testimonies that are supposed to come from real vignerons of these regions. Among several interesting details from these testimonies, we see that all regions were exploring the use of insecticides, and the people who testify of the benefits are often major wine players, presidents of local coops, mayors or other local dignitaries...
It is rare to find such a long text (16 pages) to vaunt an insecticide (the chemical companies learned modesty and prudence since), the tone is very reassuring, no danger, very efficient and so on. Note also that at the time the vignerons were willing to give their testimony, praising the chemicals they were using, we'd be happy to have a similar openness today for the massive use of vinification additives that are used by conventional wineries. Alas, if we read today's advertising pamphlets vaunting additives we see only the manufacturers' and the dealers words, the users (especially the wineries) prefer to keep a low profile and stay in the dark...
The broader picture that emerges from this reading is that (you'll leaf here through all the other insecticides made by this company) in the 1930s' French growers were apparently already prolific users of insecticides including arsenic-based ones and that they were already wary of their health effects.
Notice the picture above with the moustached vigneron and these hills covered with vineyards, this is a typical monoculture situation (possibly depicting Champagne) where pests proliferate easily. The sign in the middle of the drawing says " Fluolited vineyards = pest-damage forbidden".
I've translated a few lines for each page, and you can click on the Pdf link to get more details of these pages.
The hand-written notes in blue on certain pages seem to be a marketing trick to attract the attention of the reader, these notes have ptobably been printed with the rest.
Pictures on the sides : advertisements for Fluolite (the one on the right which suggests to fight the doryphores __Colorado beetles__ comes from this page of the Journal de Vienne et de l'Isère (Rhone) - 21st of august 1937)
Bueil en Touraine, Coteaux du Loir (Loire)
Bueil is a charming village on the westernmost side of the Coteaux-du-Loir appellation area, the northernmost wine region in France which is home country for Pineau d'Aunis and Chenin. The Coteaux-du-Loir area sits on two départements north of the Loire river : 16 villages in the Sarthe and 6 villages in the Indre-et-Loire. This lesser known wine area has still deep roots, its origin
unsuprisingly going back tho hard-working monks in the Middle Ages.
When writing on the region, I always link to the extensive Coteaux-du-Loir page by Richard Kelley where you'll learn what is the Loir compared to the Loire (no mispelling), the peculiarities of this terroir and more details on when the Pineau d'Aunis was first planted by Benedictine monks near the village of Chahaignes (9th century).
On the Loire-region map I linked to above, the Coteaux-du-Loir area is roughly in the center near the top, this is the separate red patch above Tours, standing together with Jasnières and the Coteaux du Vendômois with which it shares more or less the same history (Chanin and Pineau d'Aunis being the major varietals there).
While the region of Bueil is mostly cultivated for mainstream crops like corn or wheat (because the vineyard part has dwindled since the phylloxera devastation a century ago), you still find a few parcels planted with vines here and there and there are everywhere architectural remains in the villages or at the foot of the hills proving a long winemaking history through the presence of many cellars, often former quarries conveniently turned into chais and cellaring facilities.
Renaud Guettier, whose parents are in the teaching sector, was trained originally as an agronomist specialized in plant physiology, his initial purpose being to work in the research sector in that field. But he understood quickly that the life in the research labs was not what he ticked for, and he soon left for Africa where he did some development work. Back in France in 2003 with his wife he looked upon working along his father-in-law who was a multi-crop farmer in Bueil, at the edge of the Coteaux-du-Loire. Wine was just one step away. He now makes beautiful Pineau d'Aunis and chenin wines without any added SO2.
Saint Maurice d'Ibie, Ardèche (Rhone)
Gilles Azzoni's domaine sits at a safe distance from the noisy Rhone valley with its freeways and endless suburban sprawl, you need to drive winding secondary roads to reach the idyllic Ibie valley, the Ibie
being a 33 km-long river running between sometimes-steep hills covered
with Provence-type vegetation. If I had been dropped there with no clues about the location I'd say this is the Var département, same bushes and scents, and a river as vigorous, deep and refreshing as the Argens river in Correns (near Brignoles). The drive was particularly nice, with old stone bridges over the river and natural beaches where vacationing families enjoyed the sun and the refreshing water.
Although I stock Azzoni's wines regularly, like last time at the Rue89 wine fair (3rd picture in the story) and although I had planned to visit him one day, I had delayed this visit for a long time but my meeting with Mito Inoue recently reminded me of him, Mito loves Gilles' work, she had a training here and she made her very first wine (a white) in Gilles' cellar. I don't know why but her story made me tilt at last and pick the phone, as B. and I had the opportunity to drive by en route from Provence. But the real reason may be that I simply enjoy so much Gilles Azzoni's wines, they're liquid food that I really can afford (there are so many wines that are out of reach for regular consumption), these SO2-free wines are probably of the type that have cheered the heart of humans and Dyonisos since the antiquity, when wine was judged more for its gentle intoxicating properties than for fitting a rigid framework of codified and controlled aromatics. Open a bottle and there is a good chance you'll finish it right away, even by yourself.