Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Anne, Françoise and Joseph: the real pioneers of natural wines

This is probably the most difficult piece I will write on this blog. It’s about an encounter I had with the two sisters Anne and Françoise H, former winemakers settled in the heart of the Loire wine region in France. The 6 hours that I spent with them on one icy cold Saturday afternoon-turned-evening has affected me tremendously for many reasons. I was slightly reluctant to enter their world, and I felt a certain kind of sorrow to see so much misery, combined with the disbelief of how cruel people can be towards the atypical among us. But above all, I have a deep respect for the fact that these women have spent their entire lives swimming upstream in the very conservative world of wine. They have worked so hard and lived in such inhumane conditions, that they both practically walk like cripples - hunched over a piece of branch which they use as a walking stick to prevent them from falling over and never standing up again. Fortunately though, they do have each other and it's been that way ever since they can remember. There was simply no time or place in their world to start a family of their own. To Anne and Françoise, the options were either to make wine in what was viewed as an 'extreme' way, or leave one another to raise children. Their outlook has been so hardened by the constant harassment they've endured, that they don’t care about what other people might think, and have no qualms with speaking their minds freely. I now know for sure that people mainly change under the influence of other people. They have certainly triggered things inside me, if only for the time being, most definitely for the better! I've grappled with the thought of sharing this precious encounter with them publicly, but have come to the conclusion that it would be a good thing to do, so long as I remain honest and integer. Of even more importance though, I felt a deep longing from Anne and Françoise's side, to tell the story of theirs as well as that of their deceased brother, Joseph.

The first time I heard their names, actually I read it, was via a label on a bottle of wine – there is a wine from Domaine Les Griottes called Anne Françoise Joseph, a homage to the family H, as the newly emerging winemakers were able to use a piece of their vineyard. A few days before my trip, I had lunch in restaurant Veranda with Wouter De Bakker, a famous sommelier and successful wine importer. The meal prepared by Davy Schellemans was fabulous, as always, and the wines were very juicy and pure, as we like them. So in short, the lunch was splendid and while drinking coffee afterward, Wouter told me the story about the two sisters and their wines. The description of the estate left me with the desire to pay them a visit as soon as possible, which happened only a few days later.

In the wine region Coteaux-du-Layon, somewhere in Anjou, a young man called Joseph started in the ‘50’s to make wine with the help of his two younger sisters. He wanted to produce wine without any use of pesticides and other shit in the vineyard and chemicals during the vinification. He could obtain 6 hectares of vineyard, mainly existing of Chenin-vines that never saw a molecule of non-natural matter. Why this pioneer was so obsessed to obtain natural wines, despite the increasingly relentless pressure of the other winemakers and growing wine industry, seems now with the ecological trend self-evident, but was for that time too crazy for words. The heavy lung problems of their father, due to chemical gasses used during the First World War has certainly left its mark on the entire family, as they had to move to a tiny cottage due to financial problems. It is a fact that brother and sisters saw it as a mission in life to make pure wines free of any additives, despite the many setbacks. They were poor as a church mouse, but they still insisted. It was the few compliments from occasional passengers that motivated them to continue that lonely road. The wine making process was very simple at first sight: after picking the healthy grapes they were pressed, so the natural fermentation could start of the juices, where after it was aged for 6-9 months in old barrels of 220 litres. The only intervention was the occasional heating of the cellar during the winter as they couldn’t afford that the wine wouldn’t be finish in time, as the year after they had to use the same barrels. Each year it was a battle to obtain the ‘appellation’(awarded by an organization composed of other winemakers who didn’t understand their wines), so that they wisely decided in 1989 to sell their wines as "vin de table". Since then their wines received a number on the cork, starting with 1 and ending with a 14 in 2003.

The day before I left, I had one of the sisters on the line who assured me that I was welcome to visit. A female navigation voice brought me to the small ancestral house right on time. The yard was a mess and full of old, used equipment and tools. There was clear evidence that indicated to the making of wine, and not in such a distant past it seemed. I also couldn't help but notice some clucking chickens, a few dogs, an abandoned old cow and a vegetable garden. Upon arrival the door was already open in spite of the winter cold. I guess they must have heard my car. My first thought when entering the living room was that no one lived there besides three dogs, five cats and two abashed beings. Clearly I was not expected. They probably thought that whoever had called them up on the phone, like so many before him, would not show up - especially considering the bad weather conditions. The tiny room was filled with rubbish (if you do not have much, you don’t throw anything away) and the table had not been cleared, for what must have been several days! Sometimes people lose their determination.

After the fading of the initial embarrassment and after presenting them with two boxes of Belgian chocolate, the atmosphere became very open and amicable. I discovered two very strong personalities, who had an opinion about everything. I was really amazed by the eloquence of both women. They complemented each other very well, to the extent that when one began with an argument, the other automatically completed it. This must be the result of living in such close quarters! There was a big need for them to talk.. and talk, but never was there a moment where I was bored. Anne was 86 and the younger sister, Françoise, was close to the 84. They were genuinely pleased with my visit, my interest in their wine and my knowledge of natural wines. I was able to taste all the vintages they had in stock and this was a huge challenge. The wines are stored randomly in a sort of stable. There is little light and you must try to decipher the vintage on the cork. I found the 1975, 1976, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001 and the outsider, the 2004. Not bad for a first encounter with a wine estate during a first visit, and of course incredibly fascinating to have a tasting of real natural wines from many different, yet all very specific years. Both sisters used their elephant-like memories to remember each year as if it was just last week. I was pleasantly surprised by the aging potential and stability of the wines without any added sulphur as an anti-oxidant. I won't divulge any tasting notes, even though I wrote down many impressions. But I will say that 3 wines were phenomenal, some 'very good' and some just 'good' and that you can taste the effects of global warming very clearly when moving gradually from the ‘70’s to the ‘90’s. The region of Anjou gives of very rich wines and this you could taste clearly, especially when tasting younger vintages. Most of the wines tasted fairly young and some bottles still contained carbon dioxide, which is the perfect prevention of oxidation of the liquid. Longer aging periods in barrels would have rounded off and completed some of the wines, but I have to admit that I do like this sleek style. The theory that you should store your wine at a temperature inferior to 14⁰ C has now been proven to be false for good, as those so called 'sensitive natural wines' saw fluctuations between 5⁰ and 30⁰ C and for 20 or 30 consecutive years at that.

We spoke of the wars, about a famous forest in the area, about faith and religion, about the 'others', about burglars and of course about real wine, because that’s how Joseph labelled his own. The rest should not be called wine! It is noteworthy to realize that those 3 people began and continue to make natural wines totally isolated from other pioneers. The names of Pierre Overnoy and Jules Chauvet didn’t ring any bells to them. They vaguely remembered a visit of Eric Callcut, an incredible winemaker between 1995 and 1999, but they were not aware that after 4 years he left Anjou to do something completely different, as far away as possible from the world of wine. About Claude Courtois, they asked me if he was "the big man with the long beard" but they couldn't tell me more than that about him.

At the end of the day I had bought some of their wines, wines that I will cherish for the rest of my life. My fear was that by writing about them it would entice people to invade their premises, like a kind of tourist attraction. This is not just a selfish reflex, but rather a clear conclusion after observing that those beautiful old souls are not equipped to receive and deal with people, let alone to sell bottles of wine. It took more than an hour to prepare only a few bottles, including manually writing and sticking the labels on the dirty surfaces. I encapsulated all the bottles myself, as they lacked the necessary power in their shaky hands. During the farewell, they asked me if they could kiss me and of course, I allowed this. It is after all the French way, two kisses, one on every cheek. Anne made the symbol a cross on my forehead with the movement of her thumb, exactly as my grandmother did to me before bedtime, and Françoise gave me one of the sweetest compliments you can receive as a father. A few minutes later, sitting in my cold car, I saw in the reflection of tears in my eyes in the rear view mirror.


In 2005, Joseph passed away due to a combination of poor medical treatment and the absolute refusal of taking antibiotics to combat a wound to his right hand. His last vintage, the 2004, remained in a forgotten barrel for five years until some visiting winemakers questioned what was inside it. After tasting the wine they begged to bottle it: the wine had received a ‘voile’, which gives it an oxidative character. Some abhor it. Myself and others are fond of it. So much later than expected, the 2004 was born and it was decided that it would not be given the number 15, since the wine was not in line with all other wines from the family H!

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