27 March 2008

A talk with some local wine-makers

Day before yesterday, I met some neighbors I hadn’t gotten to know before. I think I had seen them working out in the vineyards, but we had never spoken. I went to see them on the recommendation of some other people I have met working out in the vineyards and who own a lot of parcels of land and grapes out there.

The Guerriers said they don't have a business card, but
they
gave me an old label with their contact info on it.

Monsieur and Madame Guerrier — his name is Jean-Noël but I don't know hers — are grape-growers and wine-makers on a pretty small scale. They are both locals. He was born and grew up in the house where he has his wine cellar — his parents still live there. She was born and grew up about three miles up the road, on the other side of the village.

They live in the house next door to his parents’ place, which is about a mile from our house as the crow flies. I went to see them in their cave (cellar) and we sampled some of their 2006 and even 2007 wines.

Mr Guerrier told me that the grape varieties he grows are Côt (aka Malbec), Gamay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pineau d’Aunis (a local specialty used to make rosé wines). He and his wife do all the work of trimming and treating the vines themselves. They harvest the grapes too, many of them by hand. He said a lot of his vines are too old to be harvested by machine. The couple themselves must be in their mid-40s, and I assume they took over the business from his father (I didn't ask).

They do all the work themselves because, economically, it’s the only way they can stay in the business. Besides, Mme Guerrier said, it’s too difficult to find people who are willing to do the work, especially when the weather is cold and rainy, and who know what they are doing or are willing to learn.

The Guerriers make their own wine, and they sell some of it in bulk. Some they bottle for sale. They don’t export. And they sell a lot of their wine in bulk to négociants — wholesalers who bottle the wine and put their own label on it for sale. Two of the négociants he mentioned are Paul Buisse and the Caves Monmousseau over in Montrichard. I’ve driven past their signs and facilities over there hundreds of times.

Mr Guerrier joked that his name is a little strange and can put people off, but that he no meaner than most people. Guerrier means "warrior" in French.

This is a small plot of vines the Guerriers own and work on
the gravel road out back.
They said they haven't gotten around
to pruning these vines yet this spring. I noticed that the canes
are covered in buds, so I hope it's not too late.


I thought the rosé wine I tasted was excellent. It’s an assemblage, or blend, of wine from two grapes, Pineau d’Aunis (75%) and Gamay (25%). The 2006 Gamay was also very good — supple and fruity, and very drinkable. The 2006 Côt was much more tannic, but also delicious. He sells the rosé to retail customers like me for €1.65; the Gamay for €1.15; and the Côt for €1.30. If you do the math, you figure out that the wines sell for between U.S. $1.25 and $1.90 per bottle.

The Guerriers said that I should taste the 2007 Gamay red after tasting the 2006, but that I should be prepare my taste buds for a shock. And they were right — the 2007 was a sharp and thin as the 2006 was supple and rich. They said 2007 was a very difficult vintage to work with. We had a very cool, wet summer, with about a month of warm sunny weather from the 20th of August to the 20th of September. The same plant and even the same bunch had some grapes that were rotting, some that were not yet ripe, and some that were just right. That was a challenge. With a few months of age, the 2007 will probably mellow out at least a little.

Our wines are very different from year to year, the Guerriers said. They don't use any additives in the wine-making process, though the wines are not organic — they use an herbicide to keep the grass and weeds down in the rows between the vines.

A lot of their wine is sold as vin de pays, not A.O.C., Mr Guerrier said. That makes it less expensive and therefore more competitive. A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) means that the wines are inspected and analyzed by an industry group for quality, the wine-making methods are strictly defined, and the grapes are certified to have been grown on certain plots of land where conditions are ideal. Vin de pays is not necessarily inferior in quality, and it can actually be better wine than some A.O.C. wines from grapes grown nearby, but it is not as strictly regulated.

Even selling non-A.O.C. wines, Mr Guerrier said he has to take samples of his wines to a local lab at several points during the wine-making process to be analyzed for sugar and alcohol content and general quality and clarity. It gets expensive, he says.

Locally, the Guerriers told me, grape-growers and wine-makers are starting to give up the business. Whether this is really a trend, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that they know a few people who have decided to quit. They named three, two in our village that I do know and from whom I have bought wine over the past few years, and one whose vineyards and cellars are over on the south side of Saint-Aignan.

I think it is true that many thousands of acres of vines are being ripped out of the ground all around France these days. There is a glut of wine, and the strong euro can’t be helping sales in countries that are part of what is called the “dollar zone.” Competition from wine areas in the southern hemisphere — Malbec wines made in Argentina, Sauvignon Blancs in New Zealand... not to mention Chile, South Africa, and Australia — is fierce.

Yesterday it was raining overhead
but the rain wasn't reaching the ground.


The Guerriers say that thousands of acres of vines are now being planted in China. I’ll have to take their word for that. They didn’t seem to have much of an opinion about California wines or the wine business in the U.S. I’ll have to ask them about that the next time I go see them.

And I’ll have to take some pictures of their cellar too. It’s a dark, vaulted room maybe 75 feet long and 30 feet wide. There are big fiber-glass and stainless steel vats of wine at one end, and the whole room is lined with racks of bottles, some of them full and some of them empties.

They said the best way to do business with them is to call them and make an appointment when I want to come by. They don’t have any employees, and they both work out in the vineyard most days.

They also don’t have an answering machine (or a fax machine, so I assume they don’t have a computer) so they aren’t that easy to get in touch with. They didn’t mention a cell phone. They are almost always at home at noon and after about 8:00 in the evening, however. That's when people make phone calls here — at meal times.

8 comments:

Susan and Simon said...

Very interesting indeed. Our local winery is AOC and they are very pleasant to deal with, but I am looking forward to getting to know them better. The bit about Chinese vineyards is worth keeping an eye on. I quite enjoy telling French winemakers I am Australian - there is always a bit of mutual teasing to be had out of that.
Susan

Travel said...

The vintners should keep the faith, despite the exchange rate, I will pay the extra 30% for a good French wine. I find a fullness of flavor in many French wines that I don't find in many others.

DG

chm said...

The Guerrier seem to be a very nice and industrious couple. With such a name they should succeed. I wish them a lot of luck.

Evelyn said...

Like travel said, the french vintners need to keep the faith. French wines are the best still.

I was surprised when my friend in Tallahassee pulled out a Vouvray for us to enjoy when we visited her. That Vouvray seemed like an old friend.

I didn't know that "your vineyard" out back was a co-op of sorts. I do enjoy hearing about it and watching the vines change throughout the seasons.

I think Callie is happy to walk there also.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Hi Evelyn, yes, several different growers own different parcels of land out there in the vineyard. I know three of them now, but there are others I don't know yet. It's funny here how different people own small plots of land all around the village.

Gabby Walters said...

I very much enjoyed this piece. And I couldn't help but notice that the alcohol content was 11.5% on the label. Unfortunately, most American wines are much higher. In Napa "hot" wines are popular with alcohol content at 14% and up. French wines go with food. Vive la France!

Ken Broadhurst said...

Hi Gabby, I agree with you about wines that are made to go with good food. Most of our local Touraine wines are about 12% alcohol. Guerrier's come in at about 11.5% and they are good that way.

blueVicar said...

Wonderful to hear about your neighbors...and their rosé! On Easter I opened the next to last bottle that I brought back with me last fall. I sure miss having a delicious (and reasonably priced) rosé with dinner.

C'est la vie!

Meilleurs voeux!!