The first time I tasted François' wines was in London, when a friend poured a glass of Hey Gro! for me and the wonderfully effervescent, vibrant fruit was intoxicating. This was long before we started importing wine, and we were fortunate that, for one reason and another, his wines had never been properly picked up by anyone in the UK. I got in touch with François through one of the people who had brought his wines to my attention, photographer Joe Woodhouse, with whom I drove out to the Loire for a first visit.
In the village of Berrie, François and his associates - the Rue des Belles Caves collective - have almost taken over. The village had previously been almost deserted, the classic tale of a rural village with a lack of jobs to keep people in the area. The people that did still live there have eventually started to come around to a bunch of people with dreadlocks and a certain new age vibe moving to the area, perhaps on seeing the restoration work they have done to the houses and cellar around there and jobs of course. A blacksmith and a carpenter are part of the collective.
Alex our main contact on email and the fixer and perhaps most organised of the collective has bought a house just up the road since working with François. Francois' sister Justine is an artist who draws the beautiful labels lives above the cellar.
The feel is of people trying to live as outside of normal society as possible, but doing so in a way which is actually restoring life to a ghost village. It's a spirit opposite, to the culture that dominates, more DIY than what can I buy, an ownership of your own means of production.
The hard work of restoration is perhaps best reflected in the cave where wine is made. A beautiful large wooden door lead into cathedral like space. Quite awe-inspiring having seen the tiny cellars of so many natural winemakers. Barrels filled with Cabernet Franc and Chenin from various vintages, kept cool by the natural low temperature owing to the thick limestone walls. It feels a calm space for wine to be allowed to develop and the wines are given that time, sometimes three years in barrel.
To the side of the cellar are two massive wooden wine presses apart at that moment, but on another visit towards the end of harvest, fully in use. The sleep-deprived faces of Francois, Alex and Hannah who was helping at the time tell the story of the slow press, certainly through the night and often for days that the grapes are given. This delicate, time-consuming work seems to give the ethereal edge to these wines.
All of this work is reflected in the wines which have perhaps moved on in my mind from the days of the effervescent Grolleau which I first tasted. They grow increasingly fine and precise without losing an ounce of the energy and vibrancy that made them so compelling to begin with. Take Bois Guyon 2016 for example pouring the colour of what you might expect from a poulsard, elevage in barrel for three years, the wine is still brimming with vibrancy.
In the vineyard, work is all done by two horses and while he farms the land for most of the fruit himself, they are rented vines. Recently he has found a plot to plant his own vineyards closer to the winery. A further step in the evolution of a winery with a long future ahead of it.