Wine Tasting, Vineyards, in France: Sébastien David (Loire) |


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In a parcel of Cab Franc along the facility

The total vineyard surface of the domaine is 15 hectares, all family owned (by parents, uncles & aunts, no rentals), and mostly Burgundy-style parcels, some making only 5 or 8 rows. Being split in different places around Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, it helps limit the risk in case of localized hail or frost. It’s only from the generation of Sébastien’s grandfather & father that the family farm specialized on vine growing and winemaking, and speaking of his grandfather, he was among the people who took part to the creation of the AOC Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil in 1937 (he was very young back then). His grandparents kept a cow and other farm animals and if some of the remaing family vineyards of that time have a 4-meter inter-row, that’s because back then they were growing vegetables between them (the sandy soil was very good for certain vegetables) or had fruit trees.


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Fermenters (Grenier) in the chai

By the way there has never been a wine coop in Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil but there was a coop for fruits and vegetables, the region being a prime producer in that regard (many prime wine regions have an history of fruit production,
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I noticed).

When Sébastien
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came back to the family farm and launched his winery in 1999 they were only two domaines with Domaine du Mortier (the Boisard brothers) to work organicly, but now more growers have been following suit, especially from 2005 when large domaine converted. The total vineyard surface of the AOC is 800 hectares and the organic part is something like between 150 & 200 hectares. The area has a soil thick with gravel and sand as the region was regularly under the water of the unruly Loire before Napoleon had dikes built along it in 1830, something which made it easier for barge and flat-boat traffic as well.

Here you can see the main vatroom of the chai which he had built later when his vineyard size increased, this facility is a no-fancy unexciting building with easy access for the harvest load and wide doors. Behind the wooden fermenters you can see the cement vats. I visited the building with Lina who was a trainee at the domaine, and the good old dog of Sébastien was there too, he was wary of my motorbike and my camera at first but became quiet after a while (and a few conciliatory pats).


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Showing grapes & bunches

The vineyard near the facility makes 1,78 hectare but the 54 parcels of the domaine are elsewhere, although at a close distance anyway as the appellation land doesn’t go beyond the village of Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. Before taking over his parents’ surface in 2012, Sébastien worked on the 5 hectares coming from his grandparents, and new vignerons working
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naturally often manage this kind of surface, like Laurent Herlin (a former treainee at Sébastien David) who has 5 hectares or Xavier Courant who has 6 hectares. they by the way belong to his small biodynamic group (overlapping Bourgueil & Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil), making the preps here in the facility. Some biodynamic growers like Frédéric Mabileau do the biodynamic farming by themselves, without belonging to the group, but there’s always an exchange one way or another. The group is guided by an expert gardener on the biodynamie things, Guy David, who lives nearby in Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. Similar biodynamic groups can be found in other regions, like in Pouillé/Thésée in the Cher valley and through them the vignerons both learn, emulate and put their energy in common to get familiar with this particular organic farming.

Before coming back to the family domaine in 1999 (when he took one hectare from his grand parents’ surface), Sébastien attended the wine school of Briacé (a private institute in the Muscadet) in 1992, after which he worked in an industrial winery in the United States, Mellea, this (now defuct) group was a rival of Gallo and was making wine from fruits and other extracts.


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A well-aerated bunch of loose grapes

His grandfather was not certified organic but he was basically farming this way, so there wasn’t really a conversion to handle for his surface. He started working organic from the start, it was also some kind of reaction from what he saw in his experience in
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this big winery in the U.S. where they’d rarely make wine from grapes only, in the late 90s’for these big-volume cuvées that were called then “American blend” there’d be a Chardonnay base plus concentrates of various fruits including
1sebastien_david_fiat500_tractorcranberry for the rosés, they’d add sugar and also re-acidify. But the interesting part, oddly, is that he worked a lot with the chemists in the winery who were dealing with the gas balance in the wine, thus managing to add little SO2, the motive not being avoiding SO2 per-se, but every additive having a cost (they already used a long list), they had managed a way to at least spend less on this one.

Another thing that help him decide to work naturally was that right near the wine school in the Muscadet there was the organic/biodyunamic domaine of Guy Bossard (who retired since) and where they’d handle the presses in the evening, that was at the time Guy Bossard with Nicolas Joly and Mark Angeli were setting up the group Renaissance des Appellations. At the time their teachers at the wine school taught them contempt for organic/natural wine and in the evening they would delight in these wines while helping Guy Bossard for the pressing, enjoying the difference of the tasting qualities of these wines compared to conventional wines…

Sébastien brought back the small vintage Fiat 500 (near the tractor on the left) from Italy, he stumbled on it when he went there to buy his amphorae, it’s from 1965 and had only one former owner, really good deal, they didn’t have any fixing to do on it.


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With brother-in-law Rodolphe at the tractors

Speaking of the vineyard management they keep the grass/weeds on all the vineyard surface (with 26 to 28 different plants & weeds per square meter), they just mow under the row, then bend, pitch the grass between the rows to slow its
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growth and kind of mulch it.
1sebastien_david_agriculture_toolSébastien says that in biodynamy there’s an important thing named verticality with the roots going from the earth depths to the sky (plants having their heads in the earth and their legs pointing to the sky) and to keep this verticalty active it’s better not to plow because the blade will cut off the energy flow between the earth and the sky, something on which the earth worms feed, and worms keep making galleries up and down which are very useful for the ecosystem. Plus, when you mow, the grass will pump nitrogen out of the ground which is detrimental to the vines, another reason not to cut the grass between the rows and do permaculture like he’s doing since 2012. And by doing so he keeps a better humidity level in the upper horizons, as he checked recently with fellow organic growers who mow every other row. This work needs several tools and plows and Sébastien does much of the tractoring with Rodolphe. They have several tractors including an old Massey Ferguson from 1979 which needs very little gas compared to the newer machines. When he needs a tractor or tool he looks on Le Bon Coin all over France, here just for the Loire region there are many tractors for sale, from recent models to old machines like this vintage Fiat (1500 €) in working condition. I shot additional pictures of the bizarre plowing tools they use.

This year they did only 4 sprays (this visit took place at the end of august), the first time they sprayed 10 gram/hectare of copper, 10 gr the 2nd time, 50 the 3rd and 100 gr the 4th, which makes a very low total input. That’s for the copper part, for the sulfur they spray 2 kg each time, trying to manage the black rot and oidium. Of course they’re also use the biodynamic preparations, the 500 & 501 as well.

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Veraison on loose bunch

Sébastien says that this grass management tends to yield bunches that are loose, not tight which is good for the maturity being reached with the rot risk. He also tries not to trim so that the vine finds its balance by itself, and for these vines he also can eschew the debudding. This is not only good because there’s less work to do at the end, but there’s a self-regulation of the vine through the grass balance that benefits the grape quality, the bunch being looser, the grapes can grow in cas of rain without resulting in a tight bunch. The conventional growers fight the rot risk on tight bunches with anti-rot chemicals which actually also impedes the maturity process which takes a toll of the grape quality. For the pruning he did it all with his 5-strong staff between march 22 & april 10 this year on the 15 hectares.


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The underground cellar complex

We then drove to the other cellar a short distance away, this is the Caves de Cochamtorille. You enter this vast underground cellar complex by driving your car down a dirt road in the middle of the vineyards and grass fields,
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at one point the dirt road goes
down a cement-paved ramp, you pass a metal gate if I remember and drive hundreds of meters along dark galleries (you’ve certainly to know where you’re going) until the door of your own cellar. This huge 2-level cellar was of course at the beginning just a quarry used to build all these houses, mansions and chateaux of the region, and afterthen it was used to grow mushrooms.

The whole place was then later converted into cellars with many different owners. We drove 800 meters until we reached Sébastien’s cellar at a depth of 27 meters, passing what looked like cellar rooms, some being walled with a door added, some wide open and unoccupied. His grandfather told him that before individual cellars were walled, creating some sort of main thoroughway, you could get lost easily because you could drive to any direction. Once you get out of the car the temperature looks cold, and it’s of course stable from summer to winter.


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Walking into the temple

Well, I’m used now and then to see terrific cellars, places that put you almost into a devotional mood, I remember the cellar of Jacky Blot or the one of Lenoir for example, both being not far from here, but each time it’s a shock : wines can’t be indifferent in such a setting and atmosphere… The main room here is maybe 10 meters high (7 meters, Sébastien corrects, plus 20 meters of rock and earth to the surface), it’s really like in a church, with the right humidity that covers the vessels with mold, especially on the lefthand side. Sébastien has lots of room with his different types of vessels, clay & wood. This place or cellar room was among the latest to be dug, around 1850, but the first rooms close to the entry of the underground complex were dug in the 17th century.

Sébastien always had his cellar here but at the beginning he’d do only élevage in barrels and foudres; he began with foudres only, like this Grenier here, and he has also the others in the chai for tyhe vinification (fermenters). In 2009 he started using Nomblot eggs and amphoras in 2013. The interest of the egg or amphora is, because of their shape, they work like what we call in French a thermosyphon, and because of the fluid mechanics laws, there’s a central axis with a warm current pushing the lees up after which they go down along the cooler sides, it’s all natural and related to the shape of the vessel. He says you can adapt & choose the shape (for example a thinner or wider base) for the goal you’re looking for in terms of exchange with the lees, it’s very interesting. he also uses globe-shaped clay vessels (7 of them, made in sandstone) made in Puglia, Italy.


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Large tronconic vats

__ Vin de France 2016 (could be labelled as Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil if he wanted) : We first taste here in a Grenier vat the “rest” of all the cuvées : Sébastien racks here all the barrel and other vessels bottoms (where the lees are thickest), and after the lees settle again, this results into some sort of simple wine he sells in bag in box, mostly locally. He’s done that from the start, and his grandparents always did this sort of cuvée with the lees of all the barrels. At the beginning he’d add some of these lees in the fermenting juice of the follwing vintage, as some sort of pied de cuve.

Don’t try to order this unless you visit the domaine, it’s an excellent deal but not a commercial thing. I had the chance to buy one but haven’t opened it yet.

Smells very good, I love the lees aromas, very hearty, there’s a tannic feel in the mouth but very civilized and enjoyable, delicious wine. Sébastien says that he has rather low yields in the vineyard, he has an optimal maturity if not high alcohol, with a balanced triangle tannin/acidity/sugar. To dedcide when to pick he looks at the seeds, which can be classified in 5 different color, from green to black, and he kind of looks for color shades between 3 & 4. If you add that parameter with the grass & vineyard management you reach a nice tannin & bitterness quality. 80 % of the job for the wine is done in the vineyard side.


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Tasting from amphora

Sébastien says that actually he hasn’t actually a base cuvée or an entry cuvée, he doesn’t pick on a parcellaire way but does it along the maturity factor which he chooses, some parcels may end up in different cuvées depending of the vintage. Sébastien says an interesting thing : considering that the wine gets itself on the right track if you manage the vineyard correctly, that’s not that difficult
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to make a grand vin, but that’s more difficult to make a petit vin, a simple wine, that will be easy drinking very quickly.

__ Coef 2016. This cuvée will be a blend of all the amphorae, clay & sandstone. Modus operandi : picking in boxes, the whole-clustered grapes of Cabernet Franc are delicately put inside the amphorae until the top for 3 months (90 days), taking out the grapes around Christmas but keeping the grapes immersed in juice from the start (they fill the amphorae with juice pressed separately until all the air is gone). The grapes with thus go through an infusion and macerate. After 90 days they take out the whole thing, press the grapes and put the whole juice back into the same vessels, leaving just 10 centimeters of whole-clustered-grapes in the bottom.

Nose : almost peppery, and blind I might have thought there was an élevage in wood here. Sébastien says that the barrel history in France is certainly 2000-year old, adding that by the way the barrel culture did not originate in France but in Hungary, but further in the past in Mesopotamia from Iran to Georgia it was rather clay vessels that were used for the vinification and the transportation, and these now come to France as well. Sébastien spoke with Georgian vintners in London and he says for them wine is foremost food, compared to us, wine is part of the food and that’s why they leave the skin & lees, giving the wine another level of richness and substance, and if we also had this aspect of the wine long time ago in France, we lost it along the last centuries on the pretext of better refinement, the use of oenologists even worsening the trend.

The air exchange is very different depending of the vessel : in a barrel, it’s 0,4 mg of dissolved oxygen per year/liter, in a cement vat 09-09 mg including for eggs (PET egg has only 1,1 mg), sandstone amphorae 1,5-2 mg, clay amphorae 15-200 mg depending of its nature


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Sandstone amphora

We now taste from a spherical amphora, this has a 255-liter capacity, like a regular barrel. Sébastien chooses vessels that have more or less the same capacity, from 225 to 260 liters, so that he can compare the same wine vinified and aged in different material. Like for a barrel, he manages to fill these containers right after they’ve been racked from the previous vintage, so that they remain always full.

You can see here in the background the thick mold covering the foudre and the bottles, this part of tyhe cellar room is particularly humid.

__ Same wine & parcel than the clay amphora tasted before, but the sandstone vessel yields a different style and structure. Very different indeed even though the vinification (whole-clustered grapes immersed in juice), the wine is very pure in its expression, very impressive.


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The eggs – the Serex on the left

We now taste from the eggs, first the one at the far end, which is not a Nomblot like the ones in the background, it’s not cement but PET and it’s made by Serex Plastics. Sébastien says that the exchange with the air in this 575-liter plastic egg is 1,1 mg
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oxygen/liter per year compared to 0,8-0,9/year for the 677-liter Nomblot, but the important thing is that the shape is the same, it’s lighter to move (60 to 80 kg compared to 1200 kg for the Nomblot) and much cheaper. There’s a single big difference for these platic eggs, it’s that the inner wall of the egg has a smooth surface, unlike the cement which is rough. Actually the quality of the wine in these vessels depends a lot of the granulometry of the inner surface because the lees keep turning upside down along these walls and get brushed all along, influencing the exchange with the wine in the process : the wine literally “eats” its lees, getting enriched by the process and degratation of the tiny particules.

It’s the 3rd year they use this plastic egg and for erxample at the end you get only one liter of lees on the cement egg comared to 3 to 4 liters on the plastic one, this is because the lees haven’t been brushed and degrades on a rough inner wall. The good news is that this plastic egg was a first try by the plastic maker, and they’ll work on creating a “rough” inner surface in the egg, which shouldn’t be a problem, you do everything you want with plastics. As you understand this egg was some sort of prototype but now Serex is going to make more of them. He was recently in the United States and some people are working on their own plastic eggs there too.


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The eggs

__ From a big Nomblot, Kezako 2016. This is the only part of the harvest here with Kezako where the Cabernet Franc is destemmed. They vinify in barrels, putting the grapes inside through the hole and turning the barrels around once a day to keep the grapes in contact with the 20 liters of juice of the barrel, some sort of remontage. After 50 days they take out the whole, they press and put all the juice from the 27 barrels in the 3 eggs where it finishes its fermentation and work. The wine has a different structure and style, I really feel the stone here, tastes very mineral. Will remain here for still a long time, more than a year, and Sébastien will bottle the 2015 this september 2017.


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Tasting a few bottles on a mold-coated barrel

__ Coef 2015, bottled 19 april 2017 and on the market since early june, it’s the blend of all amphorae. No SO2 added at all any time from the grapes arrival to the bottling. He hasn’t added SO2 for years. The only SO2 in the wine is the one that was produced by the wine itself during the vinification. Sébastien has now bottle shapes that resemble the one of an amphora (the bottle in the background/right), and he says it’s not only for the esthetics but also because he learnt in Georgia that it’s important not to seperate a child from his mother, meaning keep the wine in a same-shape vessel when bottled, it’ll feel at home. It’s not much more expensive than an ordinary bottle and these were actually at the origin prototypes made by a bottle maker for Bradd Pit’s winery in Provence, Chateau de Miraval and as a rival bottle company from Italy won the market, Sébastien was proposed the design.

__ Kezako 2013, vinified in Nomblot cement eggs (he has these eggs since 2009). The wine is a bit more austere, 2013 was asmall vintage with hail, no sun, but the wine can age. And this bottle was opened 5 days before, with just the original cork in between.


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From a barrel

__ From a barrel, Vin D’Une Oreille 2016, Cabernet Franc from the 3 parcels that are a hundred years old, with the vines planted on clay/limestone on mid-slope in circle to get the optimal exposition. He says what is interesting is that with the roughly 3 expositions there’s always a balance in terms of maturity. He picks in several times, leaving 2 or 3 days between the less and more exposed. For this cuvée they use 14 barrels of which 2 new. Delicious wine with terrific substance and chew. Even when you mouth is empty, you’re left with a deliciously vinous aroma…

__ Vin D’Une Oreille 2016, same wine from just an older barrel [2011]. This wine is vinified in large open fermenter at the chai making 1,40 meter high & 2,10 wide, almost bathtub proportions, this makes a huge exchange surface which is great as you don’t need big pumping over or pigeage. There’s a 6-day maceration here. This second wine is more square, less easy, Sébastien says that’s because there’s been less oxygen exchange and the tannins have been less rounded, but the coming months of élevage will do the job and the blend of these casks will also make a difference for the end wine.

__ Vin D’Une Oreille 2014, from a bottle (was bottled april 19 2017 also). The élevage is always very long at Sébastien David, but they don’t do the cuvées on all the vintages, for example they didn’t make this cuvée in 2015.

The wine is so beautiful, velvety, beautifully balanced and very refined, delicious. Sells for 36 € tax included. The vines are very old and when you look at the bunches and their tiny berries and bunches you could mistake them for Pinot Noir. For the pruning they have a Guyot simple, they alternate the cane every year.


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Hanging egg

Sébastien David wines are mostly labelled under the AOC Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, except a couple of them like his cuvée Hurluberlu which was refused by his peers (who man the tasting sessions for the AOC) for tyhe Appellation, estimating the wine has a major fault. At the time (this was february 2011) such a penalty at the tasting session meant that your wine had to be dumped for distillation,
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so his answer was not to fight on the reality of the judgement, good or not-good, [it’s always tricky to fight on this ground, these guys will have the last word] but he opted to fight the INAO sentence and the ODG (the Syndicat des vins) on the fact that the appropriate protocol hadn’t been respected for this wine-tasting session by the committee (samples & selections, they hadn’t followed the book rules). Using this legal way, and without going under the spotlight of the media (which would have been another option given the lauded quality of this wine for demanding amateurs and wine writers) he could have the sentence lifted after 5 months of discussions, he had anyway already sold the wine, which was legal. As a precaution, he would change the size of his batches from then with very small volumes at a time, eschewing this way the tasting hurdles.

Sébastien says that the Appellation system isn’t loyal to its founders, he says when you look at the original document of the decree made in 1937 (his grandfather was one of the initiators of the Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueuil appellation) you can read that the yields had to be 35 hectoliters/hectare maximum like for the Grands Crus in Burgundy, when today the authorized yields are 58 ho/ha + 5 (the 5 ho/ha being a security volume supposedly spared in case of hail), this makes 63 ho/ha which is almost double the original yield planned by the decree. And you have commercial growers today who every year declare 63 ho/ha, which means that they certainly managed the vineyard to produce more, 70 for example (possibly more) and did a green harvest to reach exactly the maximum yield…

I found this picture on the right, shot between 2007 and 2010 (can’t find when this tasting happened exactly) at Christophe Guitar’s La Contre Etiquette wine shop, that’s when I discovered his terrific wines.


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Intriguing thing

I zoom in on this intriguing insect hanging, looks like a spider waiting on its corner of a wall… This is the first try they did here, with last year’s wine (it’s a 2016) because he is very interested in the hartmann grid and energy fields coming from the ground. He’s working about the issue in the vineyard, with a guy who is knowledgeable in this science, also with Thierry Germain and Bruno Dubois in Saumur, laying some sort of terracotta plates in the vineyard to channel the energy in the mmiddle of the parcel. Here in the cellar there’s an electroconductivity because of the humid ground and he wanted to do this experiment with an amphora without any contact with the soil. They’ll monitor the wine at the end, blending most of the volume with the other amphorae but keeping a batch of bottles of this wine as a test through time. They’ll have another amphora to be hanged soon, they already see some results but they’ll need 2 or 3 years to assess the quality of this élevage mode.

Sébastien David

8 la Gardière

37140 Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil

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