For the Domestique vacation, I made my inaugural visit to the Loire Valley to learn more about the producers and region that are the heartbeat of the shop. I spent six whirlwind days meeting new people, grasping at the French being spoken around me, and drinking wine. And I went solo. Traveling alone is often extremely rewarding. It's also, many times, challenging, especially as a young woman. I'm constantly explaining how I got there and why I belong. But then there are experiences like mine with Ariane Lesne.
Spending a day with Ariane was the highlight of my trip. She's new to the Selection Massale portfolio and also breaks the mold by focusing on Pineau d’Aunis. In the spring of 2015, she took over Domaine de Montrieux, in the Côteaux du Vendômois, from Emile Heredia. And I fucking love her. She is bold, smart, and unapologetic. Her Pineau d'Aunis is beautifully aromatic with acid structure and tannins that radiate.
During a week spent by myself in rural France, Ariane made me feel brave and want to be bolder. She's one of the few female producers in the Côteaux du Vendômois and she does all the vineyard (and cellar) work by herself. I was amazed and inspired by her.
“Nothing sweet for me.” Nothing? Really? No late harvests, all ripe and lush? No demi-sec? No Moscato? No partial ferments?
I don’t understand you.
What is it about that tongue coating goodness that disappoints you? What makes you frown and push your glass away in disgust?
Granted, I get an aversion to dessert wines with savory food. I’ve poured a glass of syrupy, sweet wine (on accident...) to enjoy with a meal. It overwhelms the palate and suppresses, rather than uplifts, flavor. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking in subtleties, like hints of honey and flora on the finish of an otherwise dry wine. Light sweetness balanced with bright acid and lush fruit.
“It’s all in the pairing,” I say. ‘RS,’ as we affectionately abbreviate ‘residual sugar,’ is a spice and fat-loving foodies best friend. Spicy Thai with Auslese Riesling, demi-sec sparkling with foie mousse or rich cheeses, juicy, fried hot chicken with late harvest Chenin. These are the pairings I dream about. Balanced with brightness, oft-misunderstood, I will forever fight to show the world that ‘RS’ does not equal ‘dessert.’
Okay, truth be told, I’m no Star Wars expert, but conventional winemaking can get pretty shady. While reputable AOCs can mandate winemaking practices from vine spacing and yields to aging and final alcohol levels, chemical additives are still largely unregulated - and there are many! Here's a brief overview so you can know what you're not drinking when you shop at Domestique.
The most well-known additive is Sulfur Dioxide, used to stabilize and preserve wines at bottling. Sulfur often gets a bad rap - under 50 ppm and you’re sitting pretty; the wine is stable in bottle and there are no negative health impacts. However, industrial wines tend to add three times that amount at bottling, up to 150 ppm! And consuming excess sulfur dioxide can cause flushing, hives, and even digestive problems (aka 💩).
In the US, sulfites are the only additive that you’re required to disclose on a label. Curious what else could be lurking in that grocery store bottle of vino? All of these are common additives used in commercial winemaking:
* Ammonium Sulfite - another stabilizer/casual neurotoxin that is known to cause nausea and vomiting. * Commercial Yeast - creates a uniform and superficial flavor. Also known to contribute to headaches. * Sugar - we’re talking pallets of Domino, people. Added sugar helps boost the final alcohol content if grapes weren’t able to fully ripen. That’s why good wine starts in the vineyard. Also known to contribute to that pesky hangover. * Mycotoxins - additives used elsewhere to dissolve plastics. In winemaking, they’re used to clarify cloudy wines. News flash! "Clear" wine has nothing to do with taste and everything to do with aesthetic. * Fungicides - this is common with any agricultural product not organically farmed. * Arsenic??? (Actually) * Mega-Purple & Ultra-Red - concentrated grape juice syrup used to add sugar and color to a wine. If you’re drinking red wine and your teeth start to stain after a single glass, you can bet one of these dyes has been added. These are often used to boost the perception of quality. * Gelatin, Animal Byproducts, and Eggs - all used as clarifying agents.
The good news? Natural, organic, and biodynamic wines eschew nasty additives to produce seasonal, terroir-driven wines that are reflective of the hands that made them.
As a minimum requirement, all the wines at Domestique are organically grown, fermented with wild yeasts, and bottled with minimal sulfur if any, so you can knock back a glass (or three) and feel pretty dang good about it.
My desert island grape is Chardonnay and Chablis is a major reason why.
In the time of fleeting insta-stories and poundable glou glou, Lilian Duplessis' wines are the other side of the coin. These wines are full of nuance and patience. Elegant and thoughtful producers like Lilian are the reason that I became infatuated with wine. Just as important, they're why I read about vineyards, soil types, and history. Below, I've jotted out a little information about the 12 new wines we have in the shop with the hope a few more grungy kids will want to drink Chablis with me.
Domaine Duplessis is located in the heart of Chablis and is a 5th generation estate founded in 1985. Lilian Duplessis recently took over for his father, Gerard, and has been instrumental in converting the estate to organic farming. The vineyards have been farmed organically since 2007 and in 2013 the estate was certified (a rarity for the region). Lilian farms eight hectares all located in the Chablis and Petit Chablis AOCs. All vineyards used for village, Premier Cru, and Grand Cru wines are Kimmeridgian limestone, with the Petit Chablis coming from Portlandian limestone. Each plot is vinified separately in stainless steel and the Premiers Crus and Grand Cru spend six months in used barrels.
Lilian Duplessis' lineup provides an intellectual yet accessible way to explore the nuances of different sites from some of the best terroirs in Chablis (and in Burgundy period, for that matter). I hope that you'll temporarily abandon glou glou, buy a few, and come discuss these beautiful, serious wines with me.
My answer to someone asking if I’d like to buy eleven (straight from the domaine) back vintages of classic Bordeaux at ridiculously good prices would be an unflinching, unwavering vote in the affirmative. I'm aware that there are people out there who don't share my robust enthusiasm for the region, viewing it as passé or, even worse, boring! But what makes wine so much fun for me is that: 1) it's very subjective and 2) there's always an opportunity to change someone’s mind on a subject, region, or specific varietal. The best part of anything is often the discovery. Anyway, about Maison Blanche... With the family having roots in the Bordeaux area for 300+ years, it's safe to say that what Maison Blanche may lack in notoriety it makes up for in consistency and perseverance. The house as we know it began in 1875, a product of the union of the Constant and Pineau families. Amélie Constant and Octave Pineau built an elegant white stone home that was a stark departure from the blond stones found throughout Saint-Émilion at the time. From there, Chateau La Maison Blanche was born.
In 1917, the land was passed down to their son André, a doctor who managed the property from a distance. André passed away in 1923 and everything went to his son, Fabien, who was then handicapped by a serious wound suffered in World War I and forced to sell. Just as luck seemed to be at an all-time low, Jean Barroy purchased the land from the Constant-Pineau family, only to turn around and sell six years later after several disastrous vintages. Then 1938 comes around and Louis Rapin from the Marmandais takes the helm and his endeavor leads to the resurrection of Maison Blanche. His ingenuity leads to expansion. The size of the house on the grounds is doubled, the farm buildings refurbished, and the vineyards replanted. From 1938 to 1959, Rapin’s vision for Maison Blanche was fully realized and became a model for excellent Bordeaux. From there, his son-in-law, Gérard Despagnes, took over and doubled cellar space, shed off useless land, and created another six hectares of land under vine. The domaine of Maison Blanche is currently run by Nicolas Despagnes, who took over from his father in 1999. Nicolas immediately began pushing for organic and biodynamic certifications, both of which he now has, a true rarity in the region. His wines are blends of Merlot and Cabernet Franc that hang on the edge of ethereal. They're enchanting, classic, and provide tremendous value. They're real, natural Bordeaux. And they remind you of the reasons that Bordeaux has been held in high regard for so long and why we are fighting for people to fall in love with it all over again. In that fight, we always begin with the White House.
Dominique Belluard's wines are probably the most important wines in the world to me. That's not to say they're my favorite wines. I think they're probably too distinctive for that. But no wines have had a larger impact on my life.
In early 2011, Guilhaume brought a bottle of Belluard Les Alpes to Heart, my wine bar and retail shop in San Francisco. I don't think I'd ever heard of Gringet before he mentioned it was the varietal. Working in wine, new experiences are incredibly rare after a while. They're ether. But Les Alpes was objectively unlike anything that I'd ever had before. It was lush and creamy yet tasted like brackish water and stones. It smelled like jasmine and orange blossom and white button mushrooms. Drinking it was like hearing Sgt. Pepper's or Pet Sounds for the first time. It made me question my reference points.
I immediately ordered as much of every Belluard wine as Selection Massale would sell me. They were a fledgling distributor. My wine bar wasn't much older. Looking at it now, I don't think it's hyperbole to say that these wines are largely responsible for Domestique.
There are 20 hectares of Gringet in the world. Dominique Belluard grows 10 of them in Ayse, nestled at the foot of Mont Blanc. He took over his family's domaine in 1988 and slowly expanded its Gringet vines through massale selection plantings. The vines are in a mixture of limestone, iron, and marl soils and sit between 300 and 450 meters, high enough to make these mountain wines but low enough to achieve full ripeness.
Dom is a meticulous grower and vigneron. All his farming is biodynamic. Everything is fermented with native yeasts and sees very small quantities of sulfur (volcanic only). Elevage is done in concrete eggs, keeping the wines very fresh but providing enough oxygen exchange that they always develop a sense of layered density.
I make it a ritual to drink one bottle of each current release of Belluard every year. I want to remind myself why it matters. Hopefully with this offer some of you can too.
After a wonderful morning and early afternoon, Adrien Baloche took me over to meet with Quentin Bourse from Le Sot de L'Ange. The roughly translated 'Idiot Angel' couldn't be anything further. Quentin is meticulous, determined, and committed to his vision for wine. His brain remains razor sharp despite moving at a clip that's honestly somewhat difficult to comprehend. The portion of the day that I spent with him was a complete whirlwind from the time we arrived. We started out by tasting through some of his new releases (they'll be here later this week!) and finished with a few too many brown spirits. A quick stop by the vines (certified biodynamic) for a brief stroll and then Quentin dropped me off with Frantz Saumon and Marie Thibault, just down the road. Frantz received us and kindly handed me a much-needed glass of water. We moved out back and into the cave where a handful of broken wine glasses littered the dirt floor.
“We had a few friends over last night.”
We breezed through some of Frantz's exquisite whites, with the ambient soundtrack of Marie’s wines fermenting in the background. She returned and took us out to her vineyards, with the wind ripping between the vines and the sun setting beautifully in the background. Our return to Chez Frantz and Marie was greeted with a beautiful, simple dinner. Fish stew, a salad, baguette, and of course delicious wine. That paired with the company of a loving family made for a day that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
I was fortunate enough to get to spend a day between the communities of Rivarennes and Azay-le-Rideau with a few of our friends who happen to be exceedingly talented vignerons. This was not my first visit with winemakers, but ended up as one of the more rewarding experiences I've had in my life in wine.
The day started with a six AM wake up and a taxi across Paris to the train at Gare Montparnasse. Roughly two hours and a transfer later, I found myself at Azay-le-Rideau hoping for another taxi to help me to my first destination, a meeting with Adrien Baloche. Of course, there wasn't a taxi in sight, which made for an entertaining walk to the town center roughly a half kilometer away. So, I called Adrien, who was gracious enough to come out and pick me up from the post office. Our conversation in his hatchback Ford was a comical exploration of both French and English as we'd both speak to our limit and then switch to the more comfortable tongue. We pulled onto his property via a narrow road with two way traffic. As a couple of trucks passed us, Adrien made sure to acknowledge each of his neighbors on their way out. He pulled off onto a gravel bit where he and everyone else parked when visiting and we got out.
There it was, La Ferme du Plateau, an actual farm on an actual plateau where a man and his family lived in two combined circular yurts. Before his abode was a corrugated metal structure resembling a warehouse. This was where the goats were housed. Surrounding us was nature by way of forest, and, of course, vineyard. Adrien is clearly connected to farming as his land is filled with lush greens and beautiful, dense trees surrounding everything. He has a charming dog on the property, Tully, who was responsible for touring us through the vineyards and baby orchard. After a short walk, it was time to meet the goats. His girlfriend is responsible for them and the production of the cheese made on the farm. The goats are a cast of characters.
Next, back to the car to head to the chai for tasting. Adrien has many vessels; fiberglass, terracotta, stainless steel, but no oak. He carefully released liquid from the first, then second, then third, fourth, and fifth. The white, from Chenin, was vivacious, racy, and fruit-driven. This was the first white I had tasted from him and I was impressed. This, from his fifth vintage, was stellar. We moved through the reds, all full of that Baloche agility. The new vintages of both the Ovin and Grolleau showed the maturity he has gained as a vigneron, more expressive and precise than their predecessors. The entire time I spoke of my love of his wines, which I could tell made him a bit uncomfortable, but as we tasted through even he was surprised by the quality he had produced.
Tasting is tiring work, so we decided to relieve ourselves to lunch with his family. His aunt had put out a delightful spread of meats and terrine from the one pig per year that they butcher. A salad of butter lettuce that had been traded for cheese offered a touch of levity to the meal. We all shared conversation in a curious melange of French and English punctuated with laughter. We drank freshly bottled offerings from the new vintage while I played fetch with Tully in front of the yurt. I took in the winter sun in the expanse of Adrien's farm and thought about how this was only the start.
Domaine Tessier was founded by Philippe's father, Roger, in 1961 after he decided to plant some vines amongst the asparagus on his farm. As happens, Philippe returned home in 1981 to take over from his father. Over time, he expanded the farm from its humble roots to 23 hectares of land under vine between Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny. He's planted Romorantin, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Côt, Gamay, and many other varieties over a mostly limestone bedrock, with some areas featuring a bit more clay, some adding some silex, and even a touch of sand in the older sites. He farmed traditionally until 1998 when he decided to try his hand at a style of agriculture that was more respectful of the earth and would be a way to give back to what has given him so much. He gained his organic certification in 2002 and holds true to the belief that wine should: be expressive of place, bring pleasure, reflect the climatic challenges of each vintage, and, above all, be a sound and healthy natural product.
We began talking about this newsletter last year. At the time, we were still hatching plans for Domestique. But we knew that we wanted our very first producer-specific mailer to be about Julien Labet. In our minds, these are some of the most exciting natural wines in the world right now. They’re expressive of Jura terroir. They are “classic” wines. But they also have a combination of transparency and expressive, abundant fruit that feels like a burgeoning trademark. A signature in the making. Julien has a little less than 15 hectares in the Sud Revermont, the Jura’s southernmost area, a stone’s throw away from Ganevat and Domaine des Marnes Blanches. He farms organically and has a light hand in the cellar. No fining, no chaptalization, no acidification, super minimal sulfur. Julien's father, Alain Labet, was one of the first vignerons in the Jura to make ouillé style whites. Nearly half of the domaine's vines are more than 60 years old(some of the Poulsard was planted in 1895!) and the vast majority of them come from massale selections. The vines are harvested by hand with yields of just around 10 hl/ha. The wines below come from different parcels and represent a range of soil types (clay, limestone, schist, sandy loam) scattered with these old plantings. They are all beautiful expressions of the Sud Revermont terroir. And we’re proud to offer them to you. Also, on that note, we’re now shipping to a number of states around the country. Check our website for more information. Happy new year. - Jeff Segal