More than half of France’s independent wine estates are members of a special association committed to terroir – and family. For publication in week of Monday 15 February 2016.
When Sebastien Robin took over the family’s estate from his father, he wrote a poem dedicated to his father about one of the wines of Champagne Jacques Robin, the Secret de Sorbee. “My skeleton is made of stone,” it reads in translation from the French, “sprinkled with fleeting thoughts of family who planted me.”
Champagne Jacques Robin, established in 1973 on the Cotes de Bar (Aube), is a member of the non-profit association Vignerons Independents de France, which has 7,000 estates on its books. It would surely be impossible to generalise about this number of wine producers, which includes everyone from an Englishman in Bordeaux to a retired doctor in the Languedoc; from a two centuries old estate in Bandol to a five-year-old one in Burgundy. Yet Robin’s words strike at the heart of its core philosophies: terroir and family.
Vignerons Independents de France (French Independent Winegrowers) was established 37 years ago by a small group of producers in Chateauneuf-du-Pape who decided to take their own wines to show in Paris, rather than work through a negotiant. The fact that producers sell their own wines remains an important part of membership criteria, but key criteria start in the vineyard.
Members must grow their own grapes, make and bottle their own wine – and then sell it into the market place. Almost all members are from family-owned estates. They are encouraged to use the association’s logo – a stylish but simple representation of a figure with a basket on their shoulder.
According to Raphael Dubernard, the association’s Paris-based project manager, this logo is readily identifiable in France, and equates with quality, even though Dubernard admits that the wines from potential members are not actually tasted. Wines made with these principles at the fore are almost certain to be of good quality, with an emphasis on transmission of terroir.
This is certainly the case with Champagne Jacques Robin. The young Sebastian trained in Beaune, learning there how to “build” a wine. His Prestige, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, has an amazing breadth and mouth-feel and is utterly fresh but, critically, smells like wine. The Kimmeridgienne is as intensely mineral on the nose as a top-class Chablis. Rubis, a rose, is a long and determined wine; the iron fist in the velvet glove we associate with top red Burgundy, but shows a delicate wild strawberry nose which moves through to an almost bitter, pistachio finish.
Words like gentle, subtle and purity similarly apply to the wines from fellow member Domaine Francois Schwach in Alsace. Even the grand cru Gewurztraminer Kaefferkopf 2012, which has a classic rose-lychee nose, and is round on the palate with sweetness and warmth, shows restraint and, in particular, a clean finish without any sense of cloying. The acidity on the Riesling Muelforst 2012 is juicy and limey and errs in the direction of light dryness rather than overt crispness at the back. Grand cru Riesling Rosacker 2012 shows marvellous acidity but is a wine defined more by density, richness and length.
Domaine Roger Perrin manages a wonderful acidity on its white Chateaneuf-du-Pape, bringing perfect balance to this rich and round, predominantly Grenache Blanc-based wine
Organisations such as Vigneron Independents help smaller estates that often do not have marketing know-how or marketing budgets to reach the broader market. With carefully staggered membership dues that vary according to region and hectares under vine, it also allows for lesser known villages and AOCs to become recognised. Famille Laurent make wine in Saint-Pourcain which is officially part of The Loire, but is actually closer to Beaujolais. Indeed, here they grow Gamay in addition to Pinot Noir for aromatic, balanced and medium-bodied reds. For whites, they have Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc as well as Tressallier (Sacy), a grape native to Saint-Pourcain, and a sibling to Chardonnay.
And the wines of Domaine de L’Olivette in the appellation of Bandol definitely need exploring. The 50-hectare vineyard has been in the same family for two centuries, passing variously between cousins, siblings and offspring. Their white Tradition 2015, based mainly on Clairette (with a touch of Sauvignon Blanc, which comes through on the nose), has thrilling acidity for such a southern appellation.
They tame the tannic Mourvedre which accounts for the majority of the red Tradition 2012 (with some Grenache). It is a spicy, fruity, meaty and leathery wine on the nose with a huge mouth feel and lovely flavours of blackberry and redcurrant, but has a structure based on acidity and a long finish. Owner Jean-Luc Dumoutier puts the success of this wine down to the local micro-climate. In other words, the expression of place which is so central to the philosophy of the Vignerons Independents de France.