Marc Houtin, founder of the domaine (Chenin on left)
Soulaines-sur-Aubance, Anjou (Loire)
The Domaine de la Grange aux Belles is one of these fairly recent artisan wineries that make Anjou shine beyond its borders in spite of its humble table-wine status. This winery started a few years ago from scratch in the south of Angers without family backing, not even an old farm which is sometimes is a good help, and the result is simply very good.
I discovered them in an open doors a few years ago, their Chaussée Rouge was just a killing, a pure
pleasure of a red wine, connecting you back with what wine is supposed to be.
The facility is located near the village of Soulaines-sur-Aubance, this is a new warehouse, an efficient but bland construction. It is very difficult to find available buildings in the vicinity of Angers because of the real estate frenzy, people look for any ruin to renovate, they call it home and commute to work in Angers which has become a busy/noisy metropolis surrounded by a maze of freeways and highways. As a result it's sad to say, you see subdivisions sprouting up at the edge of what were not long ago quiet villages with charm and history. This often leaves the aspiring vignerons with little choice other than building something near the parcels.
This all began in 2004, Marc Houtin was a wine lover who was employed in a major oil company in his former life. His references were Patrick Baudouin, the trigger being the wines of domaine Léon Barral which he visited in 2002. To rewind back, he had quit his job in 2001 and enrolled in Toulouse for a DNO (enology degree). At the time he'd taste plenty of wines and visit vignerons he loved. Barral was a shock and remains a reference for him. The domaine is now managed by two men, himself and Julien Bresteau who joined the winery in 2007.
Pascal Potaire checking sediment in the bottle neck
Faverolles-sur-Cher, Touraine (Loire)
The Domaine des Capriades which was founded by Pascal Potaire is particular in the sense that it makes only natural sparkling, its entire production is centered on these bubblies where, unlike for Champagne, nothing has been added to make the wine fizzy, no sugar, no dosage and no so2 (all the wines here have no added sulfites).
The natural sparkling, dubbed Pet'Nat or Pet-Nat in the
wine milieu in France has become over the years of the natural-wine version of a bubbly, some sort of light-hearted counterbalance of Champagne which even if it is regarded as a more respectable bubbly is much less natural beginning its widespread farming management. Like said before, natural sparkling has actually deeper roots than Champagne historically, as it could be compared to the older Blanquette de Limoux, which was made in the early 1500s'.
The domaine's facility sits in a wine farm at the foot of the hill along the Cher river, with the ubiquitous cellar dug into the hillside. Faverolles is one of these winegrower villages along the Cher, like Mareuil or Pouillé a few kilometers east where Clos Roche Blanche and Noëlla Morantin are based. Every single house in this street was long time ago making wine in its respective cellar under the hill, the parcels and fields being conveniently atop of the hill. The area of Touraine is still very affordable for a young vigneron who would be looking for parcels to purchase or to rent, and the region is thus a magnet for artisan winemakers wanting to start a domaine.
Bruno Allion in a young parcel of Sauvignon (15 years)
Thésée, Touraine (Loire)
Bruno Allion and his family live in a quiet lane in the village of Thésée with view on the church in the distance. The area on both sides of the river (which flows into the Loire a few kilometers west of Tours) is now home to quite a number of artisan winegrowers who make wine without additives and from organic grapes. Bruno Allion is also part of a group of biodynamic growers who gather regularly to exchange and prepare herb tea for spraying. I tasted his wines now and then in the last few years and met him last near here in Montrichard, at the natural sparkling fair. I visited him on
a warm august day and we had first some refreshing mint syrup in the
It is noteworthy that Thésée is a very old settlement dating from the Roman times, there was a roman road going through the area and linking Bourges to Tours (named differently back then), and you have still-standing impressive ruins (monuments des Mazelles) near the village that date from the 2nd century.
Bruno Allion set up his own domaine in 1981, starting with a 2.5-hectare vineyard surface. He is from a family of growers along the Cher river east of Tours (named differently back then), his father was selling to the local coop since the start of his working life as a grower in the 1960s'. the coop (the Confrérie des Vignerons de Oisly et Thesée) at the time was working hard to achieve quality.
Bruno's father had uprooted the hybrids farmed in time by his own father, replanting Sauvignon, Gamay etc instead. Bruno's oldest parcel is a plot of 80-year-old gamay which remains from his grandfather's surface. His total surface today is about 13 hectares.
Bruno's official installation was 1987, he did like his father, selling his grapes to the coop but he began to make wine on the side, competing thus on a small scale with the coop, and at the time it led him into trouble because he had a favorable article about his wine in Decanter following a sale he made to a UK exporter. The managers at the coop instead of being happy that the region and one of their growers was spotted abroad saw this as a blow on their own work, an unfair competition and he was pressured to keep a lower profile, especially, they said, that he wasn't supposed by contract to make more than a certain percentage of wine in his own chai. He was not farming organic at the time, he remembers that his father started using herbicides in 1976-1977 when he himself did his time in the military, and he stopped using them 1996, which makes an overall relatively short time. He was officially certified in 1997 (the conversion had begun in 1995). He has been vinifying his wines for a few years without added sulfites.
Somewhere in Provence
Summer is I think a time of the year you're more likely to drop your guard on your purchase rules regarding wines : you stay far from home without good caviste at easy reach, you have other spending priorities and will
fall easily into buying cheap vinous booze (namely rosé, or white) that can stand being had in the hot evenings and with which you know you'll not be restricted on the volume side. And there's also the factor like, nobody looks, let's try this crap for lunch...
In short, summer is a season you may be less regarding for the quality of the wine on your table, even if now and then you manage to get a bottle of worthy, real wine. This story which I typically make every other summer is about that contradiction and the challenge when buying cheap wine in supermarkets and discount stores.
Here is a wine which I picked in the wine aisle of the Leader Price chain, I thought it was from Alsace, its price tag was 4.12 € and I thought it might be better than a rosé in the same price bracket. I was right, except that the sylvaner was German (Rheinhessen), if bottled in Alsace. The mouthfeel was pleasant here, there was almost a tickling on the tongue like when it has very little so2, and whatever the way it was made it went down easily in the particular conditions of these late-afternoon apéritifs which are I'm sure the norm in the region in summer. Never forget the context, it's crazy how bland wines can come up pretty good when you have them in good company. This wine makes 11,5 % in alcohol which is a very good point, that may have been the reason why I chose it in the first place, beyond its price.
The rebuilt bastide (farm) in the center of the domaine
Tourves, Var (Provence)
It is important to remember that Provence is foremost a country of rosé wines, and this is not the region we think first when looking for a good red wine, except for Bandol of course, and even Bandol where you’d have found 70 % of reds years ago now make a majority of rosé. This is a broad-brush picture and you certainly will find good reds after spending some time, but figures speak by themselves : in Provence, 90 % of
the wine is rosé, and often early-drinking rosé,
this is a big share indeed and we can’t but think to the potential to make great reds in this region, like a few producers showed us, I think for example to Jean-Christophe Comor who could make his delicious reds from unsuspected vineyards in the back country of the Var département.
We come at it today as I heard about a fairly recent domaine in the same region which was set up precisely with a focus on quality reds.
I first heard about the Bergerie d’Aquino a couple years ago from a friend who lives in the area and told me about a small domaine making long-élevage red cuvées that were selling by the way at prices well above the norm of the region. We had tried at the time to visit the domaine but it was located along a remote road between Saint Maximin and Mazaugues and we never found the gate, having probably taken the wrong stretch of the road. This year B. And I had the opportunity to taste the wines of this small domaine while visiting the Maison des Vins des Coteaux Varois in La Celle, a place where you can taste for free dozens of wines of the region (and buy bottles too). Both the rosé and the red were gorgeous, if indeed priced accordingly. So we decided to try again visit the domaine, and this time I found the phone number of the domaine and left a message to tell about our visit. The Bergerie d’Aquino happens to have recently changed hands and I was called back by the new owner Eric Bompard who was about to leave for Paris and had a visit organized for us with the domaine’s enologist Emmanuel Gaujal, a man with a long experience in the region's wine development.
At a short distance from Orléans along the Loire there is a discreet wine region which few people know, it's not Cheverny or Anjou, but the Orléanais. A century ago or more it was certainly providing lots of wine for Paris as with the straight road to Paris through the Beauce they didn't even need here to use barges on rivers and canals. The existence of the wines of Orléans is documented as far as in the 5th century with an apogy during the 12th and 13th century when they were poured at the court of the King (source). The total
surface of the vineyards of the Orléanais is
said to have been 30 000 hectares in the 17th century. With the mass production needed for Paris in the 19th century, the quality of the wine went down compared to a few centuries before, and at about that time, with the railroads making Languedoc wines easy to ship to Paris, the production and surface of the Orléans region dwindled, pushing the wines of the Orléanais into oblivion. But there's still a great potential to make excellent wine here, and even though the region today has only 200 hectares, you can find a couple of good producers here to prove that. Reynald Héaulé is one of them.
Reynald Héaulé started from scratch after studying accounting, a field which he didn't feel he'd really consider doing a career in, he worked at several wineries, first in Burgundy then here in the region, particularly at Claude Courtois where he still works part time.
His own domaine makes 2 hectares but with a quite high plantation density, like 12 500 vines per hectare; he grows 15 different varieties on this small surface and 2 years from now you'll find 20 varieties, 10 reds and 10 whites. This doesn't fit really what we call complantation (where vines are planted together randomly) because here he planted whole rows of a given variety (he planted his whole vineyard himself by the way). To tell a few varieties, he planted Pineau d'Aunis, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Gascon, some hybrids, Romorantin, Pinot Gris Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling (Chenin next year, he just gave the wood to a nursery) etc...
From what I know there's no other natural-sparkling fair around, which makes the event unique. The festive and healthy bubbly has gained popularity these last years although it usually can't brag any prestigious appellation, and certainly not the one of Champagne anyway (these vintners would make a weird face if you compare their sparkling with Champagne...), and natural sparkling is probably closer from the Blanquette de Limoux, which is actually the oldest French sparkling chronologically, much older than Champagne.
This was the 2nd year of Bulles au Centre, and the Pet'nat fair was taking place like last year in the charming city
of Montrichard, a mid-size town sitting along the Cher river,
between Saint-Aignan and Tours.
The tasting took place mid-july in the middle of the small town, in a string of connected cellars, some of them with ancient vaulted ceilings making you feel like in a church. More than 50 vignerons were taking part, presenting in person their natural sparkling(s) along at least another still wine. Entry was free of charge, you only had to pay 5 € for the specially-issued glass, which you could keep afterwards. Pours were generous, you could pause outside and have some food, and with the good vibes of the assembly this was a great event (not to miss for next year).
Developped informally among the natural-wine vintners (read this page
by Jacqueline Friedrich), Pet'nat wines, or natural sparklings are "natural" in different ways, first, unlike Champagne and similar bubblies, natural sparklings didn't get any added sugar to produce the second fermentation in the bottle (the one behind the bubbles), the fermenting wine is just bottled in crown-capped bottles before all the original sugar is eaten, and of course without lab yeast. Plus, natural sparkling doesn't get any other corrective additive, and it gets either no sulfites at all or very small doses of it. And to begin with, the grapes used for this type of wine are organicly farmed, like for other natural wines. And lastly, there's no dosage in natural sparkling, meaning no sugary addition to replace the disgorged lees, the bottle being just completed with some of the same wine. And more because we're dealing here with small-volume cuvées than to make the beverage even more natural, the disgorgement is almost always made by hand, which makes this type of wine even more artisanal. From what I know, some of these wines aren't even disgorged and they might get cloudy when you open them, adding to the magic. Don't expect flashy bottles with shiny wrappings, foil and muselet (wire cage), the bottles are often sealed with simple crown caps, but the public who buys this wine usually cares more for what's inside the bottle.
Forced by Chester to resume her usual life, Ketty gets courage by pouring herself whisky...
Light summer photo [novel] story...
I found this Western photo-novel some time ago in a street flea market, it was published in 1968 by Star Ciné Aventures, at a time when the genre was very popular in Europe (long before the VCR changed the game), I think the scenes were shot in Italy because from what I know the country was an active producer of such novels. What took my attention in this one was the whisky-loving female character, who (after getting a few whisky shots) is not shy of aiming and shooting at the bad guy when threatened....
These romans-photo like we call them in French were pretty cheap (both by cost and in terms of reputation) and they seem to have a price today (but I paid one euro or less if I remember, for my copy).
Lets's see a few dramatic scenes of this story...
The Domaine Bobinet was founded a dozen years ago by Sébastien Bobinet, a native from Saumur with a long lineage of growers behind his grandfather. He took over in 2002 the small vineyard surface of his grandparents (1,78 hectare) plus the old deep cellar cave under
the hill. Most of the vineyard was red grapes,
with 40 ares of white. He kept working with this small vineyard surface until 2010, after which he bought grapes to make wine from other varieties and he also rented more vineyards on fermage, reaching 4 hectares in total that year. Emeline Calvez joined the domaine in 2011 and they took more rented parcels in 2012, reaching today a surface of 6,5 hectares.
Almost since the start (after a year or so), thanks to his meeting some of the first innovative artisan winemakers of the region, Sébastien followed a non-interventionist philosophy, using wild yeast, farming organic, adding little or no sulfites and none of the usual additives and tricks used by wineries nowadays. The first time I may have met him was in 2006 at a street tasting inParis organized by American importer Jenny Lefcourt around several of her vignerons (see this story, 4th picture from top). I remember that evening as being very festive and friendly, Olivier Cousin had his share too and Sébastien Bobinet was not outdone in the vinous performance. When Sébastien had had a training in his youth, so to say, by just helping his grandfather and grandmother in the vineyard and in the cellar. His grandfather didn't sell his grapes to the coop or the négoce, he used to vinify his grapes himself and sell the wine directly. Sébastien Bobinet also got a formal training later, but the person who helped him the most when he started his own domaine was Olivier Cousin whom he met in 2003 through Sylvie Augereau, a wine journalist who was a decisive actor in the nascent natural-wine movement.
How much French fine wines were costing not so long ago
Here is a photo (or scan-) story following a good pick on a street flea market in Paris. This is a 1951 catalog of Nicolas' fine wine list with the respective prices and vintages. you may know Nicolas for it's ubiquitous franchised shops around Paris and elsewhere but the old Maison used to have also a high-end cellar for the demanding amateurs and it issued every year a small book listing the wines they were releasing after the appropriate cellaring time. Each year, the book would display a different illustration theme which was not necessarily
linked to the wine world (people were more balanced at the time and less monomaniac). In 1951
the theme was "La Vierge Folle de Strasbourg (the foolish virgin)", a specific theme found in the religious sculptures of the Middle Ages. We may think the iconography choice for this catalog was a bit amateurish and unadequate for such high-end wines but after second thoughts I like that : Again, unlike our modern times this era seemed less obsessed by wine-geek posturing, it seems to me people then just wanted to enjoy good wine when they could afford to, they didn't need an expert jargon to convey their impressions and as you will see along these pages, they even hadn't to be that rich to buy these bottles. In 1951 France was slowly recovering from the war and the wine market was still largely domestic, keeping prices pretty low compared to nowadays.
This catalog allows us indeed to see how affordable even great wines were at the time : In order to have a better picture, you'll find a chart on this page listing the value in contemporary Euros (as of 2014) for the French Franc in each year of the 20th century, and in 1951 a Franc was worth 0,02397 € of 2014. This means that a Chateau Haut Brion 1945, at 600 Fr was worth a bit more than today's 14 €. Or a Romanée Conti 1924 (27 years old in 1951) at 1500 Fr was costing 36 €. To countercheck this travel in time I tried to know the typical monthly salary in 1951, I had several answers, one found on this page (#230) saying that the minimum wage for a worker was 87 Fr/hour which would make (quick math check) about 15 200 Fr/month or 365 €. Another indirect source on the issue was found on this other page where it is said that the average monthly salary was 21 000 Francs in 1951 (or 500 €). There's a gap between the sources but it seems overall that it leaves some room for a few of these good bottles for an average person...
Just a few conversions from 1951 Francs into Euros :
300 Fr -- 7,2 €
500 Fr -- 12 €
1000 Fr -- 24 €
Now you can salivate retrospectively, thinking how easy it was for our elders to get these wines... Had they just made a one-time spending worth a month's wage on these wines and stored them in a good cellar, you'd be rich today...
Pic on right : Nectar, Nicolas' iconic deliveryman, holding 32 bottles by the necks. His character was created in 1921 for the retailer's posters and was known all over France.