For the first time in 18 months I was back in France last week and it was such a pleasure to catch up with some of our producers. Here is the first of a few reports on our visits. Starting in Bugey, though not our first stop of the trip, but the first to producers whose wines are currently available in the UK. Reports on Champagne and Burgundy to follow later in the year, as those wines arrive...
Bugey is a very exciting place to visit at the moment, with many new winemakers setting up here. It's a place with very interesting terroir, altitude and vineyards often nestled in the mountain forests, isolated and awash with biodiversity. Perhaps most importantly, unlike the Jura to the north and Burgundy to the west, it's possible to find affordable and available vineyards to buy or rent here.
Our first visit was to see Louis Terral, the first producer we worked in the region and one of the first in this part of the region to focus on still wines. His first vintage in the village of Merignat was 2016.
Louis is a very driven individual with an intensity to his philosophy and work that pushes him constantly forward. He has big ideas and is a romantic at heart, constantly striving to be better, to find happiness in his vines, wines and life. He has already achieved a lot.
Why Merignat, and not Beaujolais, where he learnt his trade with the likes of Julie Balagny & Michel Guignier? Well, for Louis it was a number of factors, driven primarily by the fact that his wife is from the village. Through visiting her family he discovered the region, dotted with beautiful isolated mountain vineyards at altitude, that are often walled by forest. Very different from the ‘sea of vineyards’ that you can see in much of France, where vineyard after vineyard appears - much them not cultivated organically and with much less diversity of landscape and plantlife.
Climate change has changed the wines you can make here too; Louis thinks that part of the reason the area traditionally made the famous off-dry sparkling wine - Bugey-Cerdon - is that historically the fruit would not reach full maturity, would have more acidity and less ripeness, which they balanced by making a wine that still had some sugar. In recent times, it is generally a lot warmer than it was; indeed in 2018, he made a wine with 14% alcohol, unheard of historically.
There are more and more winemakers seeing this potential. In this part of the region there is the elusive Antoine Couly and a new couple we met over dinner, whose first vintage will be the difficult 2021. Further afield of course there are the likes of Francois Grinand, Gregoire Perron and Caroline Ledédenté.
Though Louis was, until recently, the virtually the only winemaker making still wines in this part of Bugey, he shares a farming philosophy with most of the village: in Merignat there is only one producer in chemical viticulture now.
Upon arriving in Merignat, we quickly went to Louis’ new cellar, just a couple of minutes walk from his house. We tasted through most of the 2020 wines, the majority of which are still in barrel, it looks a wonderful vintage, light in alcohol, but with lovely maturity to the ripe autumnal fruit that shines from the gamay in the region. As always there is a taut line of acidity that runs through his wines, which seems to keep the fruit so focused and taut.
His Chardonnay Einar has taken on a new dimension as he experimented with a couple of days maceration, bringing a touch more elegance and structure to the powerful fruit. Over a delicious vegetarian dinner we got to taste, among other things his first wine, Marianne 2016, a wonderfully delicate, fragrant expression of Bugey gamay.
In the morning we went to see his new parcels of gamay, which he can walk to from his cellar and will replace the vineyards for Vera & Marianne. In one of these which will become a wine called Hildegaard, he has planted tomatoes, chickpeas and potatoes. He is also planting trees, which he is training the vines on, particularly in an experimental small plot which used to be his vegetable garden. The agroforestry and co-planting is very inspired by a visit to see Pat Desplats, who Louis describes as a ‘shaman’.
The work that went into the Vera & Marianne parcels will not be wasted - Vera has been taken on by the new couple we met over dinner and Marianne, by Antoine Couly.
The future looks bright and ever intriguing in the region and with Louis himself, who is already making delicious wines, but treads increasingly radical paths and it will be wonderful to follow this journey over the years ahead.
While we won't see the 2020 wines for a little while, the 2019 wines we have now are starting to really sing, and we still have a few bottles of Vera 2018, which is in a great place right now. Take a look here.
Our next visit was a drive south, meandering through the mountain roads to Artemare in south Bugey to see Caroline Ledédenté, who has been making wines under the Grain Par Grain label since 2018. Starting up on her own in 2018 in this sleepy town is a pretty radical step, but she has quickly found an audience for her pure energetic wines, alive with minerals and fresh fruit.
She enjoys posting a lot about her work on social media, with the conversational and questions of her followers providing a kind of companionship as she works alone in the vines.
Like Louis she hadn’t quite started harvest, but it was coming very soon, the first to pick will be a new parcel of Pinot Gris she took on this year. Her cellar in this very sleepy French town is large enough to contain a feverish curiosity, which reflects in the myriad of wines that are made every year. In this part of Bugey there are many more varieties planted and along with the pinot fris Caroline works with aligote, jacquere, molette, mondeuse, chasselas, gamay, chardonnay & altesse.
All of the 2020 wines are in bottle, but only for about 6 weeks, what we tried was already looking great, including a lovely fragrant mondeuse, her supple soft gamay Comme Ca and Premier Grain, from a parcel of chardonnay, the first she took on herself. We'll likely see some of these wines towards the end of this year.
We took a trip to see this parcel in the commune of Gevrin, La Cote. The vines were planted in 1985, facing north at a 450m altitude. The parcel is very remote and as Caroline says ‘the animals they love to pick the grapes before me. All on clay and a thick seam of limestone. 2021 hasn't been easy for anyone in France and here she has had to deal with frost, mildew & more recently - badgers.
Recently we have released come of the 2019 wines which we have been cellaring including a bright, fresh chasselas - Le Bon Blanc, the intensely mineral altesse - Sans Titre and my current favourite, Grain De Minuit, a Jacquere which full of citrus, with intense, refreshing acidity. We also have a little of the earlier releases left, which are really getting into their groove now. Take a look here.
Next stop.. Beaujolais!