Côme Isambert is a winemaker we have worked with from the start, he is a teacher in a vinification school who makes his own wine in his spare time. Every year we get a different set of wines according to the fruit he can purchase or gets given from other Loire vignerons. The cellar is set up underneath a Chateau in Saumur, at the entrance of an old mushroom factory in caves built into the rock. He gets to use the space as the owner of the Chateau doesn’t want people breaking in and using the space for underground raves. It all sounds a bit DIY and it is, but what marks Côme out is his talent - every year he comes up with distinctive and delicious wines from whatever fruit comes his way. Below we chat with him about how he got into wine, the story of one of his latest cuvées and plenty more.
How did you get started in wine?
I grew up on a farm in the center of France helping my dad on most of the seasonal work that he had to do. My dad was not a vine grower but a cereal producer. I always found funny that he would do so much for his grains without getting a better price for all the efforts. I studied viticulture and enology at SupAgro Montpellier, a school of Agronomy and agricultural sciences. I also pass my degree to become an oenologist. I had my first experience in the wine sector in 2002 in Bordeaux (Chateau Tournefeuille - Lalande de Pomerol). Then I had 3 years of travelling around France (Burgundy, Corbières, Loire Valley), Europ (Austria) and overseas (South Africa, New Zealand). I won't say that I have been influenced by someone in particular but I think I grew up through those experiences with the conviction that I will create my own organic winery one day, to be free to do what I want with grapes but not only with grapes. I wanted to go with agroforestry and seeding barley or other plants between vine rows.
When did you decide that natural wine was the way you wanted to work and were there any wines you remember drinking that moved you, made you decide to work this way?
I always had a huge respect for nature and natural process. To me nature is deciding what you can do and the quality of the product. Sometimes you can do so much for so little results or the opposite! My first experience of natural wine was not really pleasant: I just remember me saying: "They all taste the same, you don't recognize the cultivar, the vintage or the region. What a disappointment". But the more I tasted the more I appreciated natural wines, first by being involved in organic wine vinification. It s funny, but I never "learnt" to make natural wines or ciders, I just tried it knowing what I like and what I dislike!
Could you tell us the story of how you came to be in your Cave, an old mushroom factory underneath a Chateau in Saumur?
Funny, I used to leave just 50 meters from the cave and everyday when I was walking to the school of my kids I was passing that old green gate thinking: " i would like to have a look inside". And one day the landlord was busy cutting trees and I push my luck. If I had to bet that 5 years after I would have to rent the whole castle to attend an "international" cider fair inside that cave, I would have lost my money!!!! The funny way of life! I love and hate that place so much that I feel good to be there until I leave it!
I really love the Cabernin 2017 wine you made, with grapes from Xavier Caillard, is it possible for you to share the story of how it came to be?
Well, that is a strange story because at the beginning I wanted to make a rosé wine. The vineyard of Xavier was managed in 2017 without treatment so very very natural. He didn't to do anything with the grapes because he was about to sell the place. So I helped him to prune and take care of the place and in exchange he asked me if I wanted to take the grapes. I could sort out the vineyards the way I wanted. Most of the areas were Cabernet Franc and because of the year we had no downy mildew but a lot of powdery mildew on the bunches. The result was that we had berries but sometimes very small and berries that couldn't ripe to the end. After analysis, I realized that those white berries of Cabernet Franc had a very high acidity and a good level of sugar. So I decided to sort out those berries out of the rest. That is how I did the Cabernin, a white wine mostly made from red grapes (2/3 Cabernet franc- 1/3 Chenin). And the taste is very different from a white wine made from Chenin, different aromas, more structure and a bit of bitterness balancing everything.
The same year I got the same problem with Chenin blanc full of powdery mildew too. And with some crazy Swedish we decided to blend the bunches with apple cider. The cuvée Tour de Fruit was born!
So all the Cabernet Grapes you used were white?
Not all of them but none of them were really red. The berries have been affected by the development of the fungus, so they didn't really turn red after veraison (the onset of ripening), but they accumulated sugar and lost acidity, just a bit! The problem is that the juice can have a dusty mushroomish taste. Not in this case... I was surprised so I kept the juice as a white wine. The lees helped to clean the color even if the wine look a bit more gold.
I did the same with Pineau d'Aunis in 2018: that year no disease but the crop was so huge especially in vine plots who had heavy frost the year before that the ripening of the skin was tough and the color was not very stable. So I had a white juice too pale for a rosé! So I blend the Pineau d'Aunis with Chenin Blanc and I did too cuvées: a sparkling and a still wine. I am still looking for a name for that cuvée knowing that we also call Pineau d'Aunis = Chenin Noir and Chenin blanc = Pineau de la Loire!
You have in recent years worked with fruit other than grapes, Pears, Apples, Quince, Raspberries, even Carrots What are the major differences in using fruit other than grapes?
Fruits other than grapes have got the same characteristics but we are not aware of it also because they have been "transformed" If you get fruits from old trees and standard fruits from abandoned orchards, you can really do good stuff. Pear to me is the queen of fruits: acidity, sugar, tannins everything to get a good balance in the blend. That is why I blend pear in most of my ciders and Fruit & Veg Pet Nat. Carrots if still an experiment for me: I did a 50% carrot - 50% pear cider (with a maceration of quince) last year, and the result is surprising: earthy, sweet and acidic with a taste of pear/carrot. I like it! Next year will bring more experiment if I can get fruits and vegetables.
What is your opinion on the Souris / Mouse phenomenon that we have seen in natural wines over the last decade become so much more prominent?
I really would like to answer that question but I don't have the scientific answer! Some years it is more problematic and I think it is mostly due to wines doing their malolactic or fermented produced involving malolactic bacterias. In general I don't have mousiness in carbonic maceration wines because those wines don't do a proper malolactic fermentation. And they have less problems with mousiness. For the white wines, it is never a problem by me. For the traditional red fermentation, it can be problematic at some stage but when you wait the wines are balancing themselves.
At my first fair in RAW London in 2014, I remember talking to Gilles Vergé about that mousiness and he told me that the best thing to do is to wait and if you are lucky that can get out of the wines after a couples of month otherwise you have to wait longer. Now I keep my wines a long time on lees before bottling. I don't know if it s the proper way to do, but I realise that I am not tempted to add sulfites like before even if I still hate mousiness in wines. Long story!!
What will be your next releases from your cellar?
I am bottling on 26th May: reds and whites from Chenin, Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Grolleau Noir. Everything is tasting good this year. My problem is more to have enough volume of the same cuvée so I am doing a lot of blending sometimes with different years because with the last frosty year we had in the Loire Valley it is harder to find grapes.
Ciders 2019 will also come later this year, maybe in summer!
How was the Covid19 situation impacted on what you are doing?
Before and after the fair Tour de Fruit that I have hosted in my cellar, I did a lot of labelling and delivered a lot of orders so most of my sales were made before spring. So I didn't suffer at the beginning but my customers suffered a lot especially the restaurants! I hope that summer is going to be good for all of us otherwise we might have a weird harvest this year and producers that are desperate for cash-flow. I am really supporting the producers and restaurants situation. I hope everybody will find its way out of that crisis.
Thanks Côme! You can find his wines here.