A lawyer’s research has resulted in the re-establishment of a historic vineyard in a French region more famous for apples and cheese. For publication in week starting 1 August 2016.
Gerard Samson, a renaissance man with interests in landscape architecture and apiculture, visited the United Kingdom from his native France in the early 1990s to study gardens and meet beekeepers. He was amazed to discover that the country was developing a wine industry. If it is possible to make wine in the UK, he thought to himself, it is definitely possible to make wine in Normandy.
Normandy? That lushly-grassed, northern part of France noted for Camembert, Livarot and Pont-l’Évêque cheeses; for apple juice, cider and calvados; for mussels and oysters. For historic and cultural reasons, it is not a wine-producing region.
As a student Samson had discovered from the 1761 Carte de Cassini (the first ever map drawn to scale) that there had been a vineyard in the pretty village of St Pierre sur Dives, in the shadow of the village’s abbey. The vineyard, Arpents, had occupied a unique piece of terroir. This land was an ocean about 60 million years ago, which explains the limestone and calcerous soils, the same as those found in Burgundy’s Cote de Nuits.
Samson’s vision to re-build a vineyard on this plot was an ambitious one in a region with no existing wine culture. Agricultural laws are notoriously cumbersome but as a lawyer (Samson was formerly a notaire, a real estate solicitor), he was able to navigate his way through the regulations. He began planting the 6.6-hectare site in 1995 and in 1998 produced his first vintage under the estate’s name, Arpents du Soleil. He has his own IGP within the Vin de Pays du Calvados-Grisby classification.
The use of the word soleil (sun) in the estate’s name celebrates the warmth of this part of Normandy. The vineyard is in a meso-climate that gets only 600 mm of rain a year – dry by Normandy standards – and vine roots can go as deep as 60 metres. Wild flowers, bees and butterflies are in abundance in the vineyard, but not all flora and fauna are welcome: there’s a fence around the vines to protect them from the deer, badgers and rabbits which live in the forest that borders the vineyard.
Might others begin to plant vines in Normandy? Samson is convinced he has a unique site, and that if plantings were extended the resultant wines would be completely different from those he can make at Arpents du Soleil. For him, terroir is all, and he says that the New World’s emphasis on grape variety ahead of terroir is wrong. For him, the grape is the conduit of the terroir, and he cites a friend in Alsace who has four different plots, all planted with Riesling. This friend makes four wines, each according to identical winemaking practices, but the four wines are completely different.
Samson studied oenology in Beaune in the Burgundy region. Given Normandy’s cool-climate, he has selected early-ripening grapes: principally Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Auxerrois, Muller Thurgau and Pinot Gris. Even then, the growing season is longer than in most countries in Europe. Veraison, when grapes start to ripen and change colour, only takes place in the second half of August. Compare this with Portugal, for example, where harvesting begins by then. Sometimes the harvest at Arpents du Soleil does not start until mid October.
Samson operates a cellar door next to the vineyard. It is open to the public, but people need to book in advance. He offers on-line ordering but most of his sales are in France, to restaurants and retail outlets – though his wines have already found favour in Japan.
Samson is a man of precision and order, possibly the result of his training as a solicitor, and his wines reflect this approach. The 2012 Arpents du Soleil Auxerrois is the current vintage. This is Samson’s “vin de garde” – a wine which takes time to reach its peak. Auxerrois is a relative of Chardonnay, and gives an orchard fruit nose and distinct umami characters in the mouth, with softened acidity.
Chardonnay is the main grape in his barrel-fermented Arpents du Soleil Connivence 2013 blend, and gives this apple-y wine its rounded body. He plans to increase the proportion of Chardonnay beyond its current 30 per cent. The Arpents du Soleil Pinot Noir 2013 is a light, bright wine with soft tannins and wonderful maraschino cherry flavours. Samson is judicious with his use of oak – eight months in mostly old barrels for the Pinot Noir and Connivence.
He now makes around 25,000 bottles per annum, though this varies from year to year. This year’s vintage is looking good so far though, like almost all producers in northern France this year, they’ve had the unusual problem of humidity. This has caused leaf fungus which requires spraying.
All Arpents du Soleil wines are in 50cl bottles, as opposed to the 75cl or 37.5cl that most wineries use. At the outset this was to make the wine “go further” because quantities were limited. Now it has become something of a unique selling point – making a virtue of necessity – a clever approach in a market unfamiliar with the idea of wine from Normandy.
Thank you to Dominique Vignot in Normandy, who told us about Arpents du Soleil and helped with translation when we toured the vineyard.
Video about Normandy’s only vineyard