Finding a Home in France
A Canadian writer starts a winery in the Loire Valley
Following behind the tractor, grappling with the creaking arms of a timeworn décavaillonneuse — a plow consisting of a pair of oscillating blades — I turn over the soil around the feet of 40-year-old cabernet vines. I work the half-hectare plot, feeling the warmth of spring on my back. Several hours later, the grass under the plants is cleared, reducing competition for precious water and nutrients the vines need to produce this vintage’s crop of grapes.
A few years ago, farming a vineyard in France was the furthest thing from my mind. I adored the wines I tasted from France — Alsace, Roussillon, the Loire, the Languedoc — but I didn’t know why.
It was this question that drove my wife and I to apply for visas, take a basic course in French and embark on our investigation of what goes into making French wine. We travelled the country tasting wines, exploring appellations and talking with wine growers. After a couple thousand kilometres on the odometer, we were starting to understand why we were there, but we weren’t yet prepared for what we were about to find in the Loire.
With a few addresses of small, organic domains in hand, we explored the Touraine, Chinon and Anjou regions. But it was in Bonnezeaux, one of the famous subsets of Anjou, where we encountered the pioneer Mark Angeli.
Landing on the renowned winemaker’s doorstep on a September afternoon, we were intrigued by his conviction to organic farming, the unique high-density planting, the vertical basket presses and, most certainly, his captivating cuvées of chenin blanc. We didn’t hesitate when offered a spot for the harvest.
It quickly became apparent that the vineyard played a role that overshadowed the winemaking. Grapes were sorted on the spot; botrytis trimmed and unripe clusters left on the vine for a later pass.
And Angeli didn’t want to miss a minute of it. He’d start his presses, then hurry back to the vineyard to pick alongside his crew. Through picking and pressing the grapes that year, we began to understand that there was a method — a philosophy — that wasn’t taught at schools or in textbooks.
Vineyard health was the foundation, starting with organic techniques and putting emphasis on working the soil, preventing mildew through natural means, hand-harvesting and always thinking about the terroir.
The winemaking was simple, even ancient, in its appearance, making me reconsider all that I had learned so far. Indigenous yeasts were embraced while sulphur, fining or active stabilization were avoided in the hope of producing a truer wine. The science of winemaking was auxiliary.
And the result was all the better for it.
By the time we were done, we couldn’t imagine making wine any other way. It didn’t take long to discover a small but tightly knit community of wine growers farming in this manner. Though the birth of the movement — some call it “natural wine” — goes back about two decades, more recently a wave of winemakers from a younger generation has emerged. Not surprisingly, this unconventional style of winemaking has taken hold in the areas of France where land and vines are cheap due to their AOC anonymity, and where the newly initiated are greater in number.
Thus, our wine travelling stopped when we landed in Anjou — affordable vines, a like-minded community and the home of chenin blanc in the shale-based terroir that supports it so well.
Being foreigners settling into a conservative French countryside is difficult enough. However, looking for chenin on some of its greatest terroir, with the intention to farm it against convention and on a shoe-string budget, is as challenging as finding a screwcap in Burgundy.
Alas, for our first vintage in 2010, we had only reds, easier to come by in this region, and, though grateful to find even cabernet and grolleau noir on the fly, chenin remained an enigma.
“When you’re working in your vines, people will see you and know you’re serious,” was an encouraging point made by a colleague. And whether it was that, or luck, or all the petites annonces we left on every bulletin board we could find, one fateful day we caught wind of a prospect that took months to broker. But we finally found our southwest-sloping, shale vineyards of chenin.
Everything they say about red tape and bureaucracy in France is true. Despite our paltry three hectares, the humble cellar that we rent and, at the time, not a single bottle for sale, suddenly no less than four major administrative bodies were very interested in what we were doing.
Specifically, interested in having us fill out a ton of paperwork. We suppose it would be asking a lot for the Chamber of Agriculture, the Department of Territories, Social Security, and Customs to coordinate their efforts, but one can bounce between offices for an eternity — fill out Form A, get it stamped here, deposit it there, send a copy somewhere else, only to find out Form A is just a prerequisite for Form B. . .
Surviving the paperwork and administration (we’ve since found that writing copious letters stuffed with stacks of photocopied documents keeps them quiet for awhile) meant that we could get back to growing grapes and making wine.
Working with rustic plows and spraying nettle teas is enough of a throwback to a simpler era, but the icing on this bucolic winemaking is in the cellar. For all the technocrat wine-crafting out there, all we have is our old basket press (300 euros [$390] on France’s version of Craigslist), an array of old barrels and fibreglass tanks (1,500 euros [$1,952] for a combined capacity of 6,000 litres), one rarely-used pump (100 euros [$130]) and a manual de-stemming table (60 euros [$78]).
The simple set-up connotes the straightforward nature of this kind of winemaking: grapes are picked, pressed or macerated, and, once all the yeasts and bacteria have done their thing, the wine is bottled. In practical terms, the start-up cost is minimal and less cellar work means more time in the vines.
The caveat is the need for patience, as in some years nature works quickly, and other years a little slower. In short, don’t count on s. cerevisiae (wine’s favoured species of yeast) in a business plan. Where the math gets challenging is the realistic price one can expect from an Anjou wine, artisanal or otherwise.
We’re in a wine buyer’s paradise, where even an organic, lowyield, handcrafted, barrel-aged red won’t cost more than 10 euros ($13). While financially this is the only way we could have launched our own project, the return on investment comes at a leisurely pace.
So with business plans more useful for lighting the stove, French ministries after still another fax or photocopy, and the local herbicide unit on alert, it’s never easy swimming against the vinous current.
But it would be hard to leave the Loire as impulsively as we arrived, not least for the proximity to nature and the opportunity to make good wine. For now, season-to-season, with conviction in the form of pruning shears, a hand hoe or a plow, we are content to heed the rhythm of the métier.
Photo by Grace Hodgson