The wines of François Pinon are considered among the finest of Vouvray. François, a former child psychologist, took over the estate from his father in 1987, and has steadily made a name for the estate over the past 10 years. He is a serious winemaker whose main focus is "to keep the typicity of both the appellation and the vintage" in all his wines.
The vineyards are in the corniche of the Vallée de Cousse. The soil is clay and silica on a base of limestone (tuffeau) with flint (silex) and the area is rated among the top sites in the appellation for Vouvrays of distinction and long life. Pinon follows a discipline of plowing the vineyards, not using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and, of course, he harvests by hand and uses no cultured yeasts. All new plantings are done by selection massale and no nursery clones are used; the vines are an average of 25 years old. The estate has been certified organic since 2011.
The alcoholic fermentation occurs in wood barrels. Then the wines are aged in stainless-steel or foudres (big casks, about twice the size of bar-rique Bordelaise) to obtain a balance between fruit and reduction. There is one racking to remove the heavy lees and the wine remains on its fine lees until bottling, which takes place a full year after the harvest to “finish” the wine. Rather than use a large dose of SO2, Pinon prefers to filter his wines to insure their stability and aging potential.
The Trois Argiles cuvée is what is termed a vin tendre; the sweetness is between a sec and demi-sec. It has a delicate sweetness in the attack that gives over to a pleasant citrus finish with resonance and length. It has flavors reminiscent of apples and quince with a slightly spicy accent. This wine will continue to develop with age, but is affable and charming when drunk young.
When the weather in September and October creates the right conditions for noble rot and/or passerillage (sun or wind-dried grapes), Pinon makes a whole range of Vouvrays: sec, demi-sec, moëlleux, and, more rarely, a grain par grain selection that results in a liquoreux.
This interview with François Pinon took place in a bus travelling from Los Angeles to San Francisco in March 2011.
Tell us about your estate.
I work about 13.5 hectares. It's stayed in the family and has never changed in size. In the last three years, we've focused on highlighting our two distinct terroirs: on our slopes we have a rocky flint soil, and the rest is clay. In both cases, about 1.5 meters below the two soils is a layer of chalky limestone. So these are our two principle cuvées: the Silex (flint) and the Trois Argiles (clay).
The sparkling wines are produced from grapes on more "neutral" soils as well as our youngest vines. The weather of the vintage will affect the amount of sparkling we make each year: if it was a rainy year, we'll make more sparkling because in drier years, the grapes reach a nicer maturity and I'll want to incorporate them into the still cuvées.
For the demi-sec, we've picked out 3 specific parcels both from the flint and clay so the wine comes from 6 different parcels.
How did you end up becoming a vigneron?
Before making wine, I used to be a professor. This led to a career in psychology and psychoanalysis. When my father retired, I took over the estate. I was 35 at the time. It was a point in my life where I wanted to start over, to fully invest myself in something new.
When I was 20 year old, I wasn't ready to work with my father. It was petty teenager stuff. And though we never worked together, I was always able to stay on good terms with him. The year I took over, we worked together so he could show me everything, but after that I was on my own. If I had any questions he would gladly answer them, but it was up to me to get the work done.
What's work like in the vineyards?
We work closely with our soils through extensive plowing. We do our best to not dig very deep, so grass grows back faster and we are basically always plowing. This is fine during dryer spring seasons, but if it's humid out, it makes life a lot more complicated. Every year we slightly modify our techniques in accordance to the weather.
What about in the cellar?
In the cellar my approach is to intervene as little as possible, or as "nicely" as possible. Before any work can start in the cellar, it's imperative that we harvest our grapes at optimal maturity. This is easier said than done: a few days could change everything.
When I vinify, my main focus is to not lose any of the juice's potential. We do everything very slowly and methodically, and make sure that no oxygen reaches the juice. Again, this is easier said than done, and requires a lot of thought and effort. For example, when you rack your wine, you can't do it alone. You need another person to hold the other end of the pipe so that he can lift it and avoid any air getting in contact with the juice.
The wine's maximum potential comes with optimal maturity and nothing can be added during the winemaking to make the wine better: it's already all there. So instead of adding anything I make sure to not detract anything.
We use CO2 gas tanks to initiate the grapes prior to pressing them into the vats. We also occasionally use CO2 to give the natural yeasts a boost if they need it. Again I do all this so that I don't have to manipulate the wine later.
Are you certified organic or biodynamic?
We started converting to organic agriculture in 2003. As of 2007 most of the estate is worked organically and I anticipate having the estate certified by the 2011 harvest.
I've always worked this way, but it came to a point where I felt it was time to get certified so the work would be clear to the consumer. This way, it confirms what I do and avoids confusion or doubt.
It's simple: if you voluntarily use chemicals in your vineyards, you might be making your work easier, but you're voluntarily polluting the ground, water and the air. I see guys in the vineyard wearing space suits to protect themselves from the chemicals they are spraying on their own land. If they're taking those precautions, then they know it's bad. Yet they'd still sell you their wine and continue to harm the planet. It's hypocritical nonsense.
How do you feel about Vouvray as an AOC, and more specifically do you feel your wines fit in to the notion of "typicity" of a region?
I'm rather comfortable with the Vouvray AOC. As long as you're using Chenin Blanc, anything is possible. We're the only appellation in France where you can produce the wine you want on any given parcel. Sparkling, still, sec, demi-sec, dessert wines: the choice is the vigneron's.
I think that Vouvray is an AOC where if the work is being done right, you will end up having wines that reflect their vintage. I go back to the example I used earlier about making more sparkling wines some years than others. Because their is no AOC based specifically in sparkling wine from the area, the vigneron can make a conscious choice to produce more sparkling wines that year and not be reprimanded for quantity.
As far as the general state of the AOC system, I think most regions are getting bombarded with paperwork, with rules and legislation on how to make their wine when all anybody should be doing is making authentic wines. When you are being told that your wines need to be this or that way to be accepted as AOC wines, I can see why some vignerons would feel obliged to manipulate them in the cellar so that they fit a certain profile.
What's your take on the whole natural wine debate?
This term has become popular because of an excess of chemical use and cellar manipulation. I think the original point of defining these wines as "natural" was to point out just how many artificial additives were being put in "conventional" wine. An appellation will tell you that its goal is to express terroir, but vignerons are somehow legally allowed to use commercial yeasts that are not indigenous to the area and will modify the wine in a way that terroir will be lost.
So to me, "natural" wine is a reaction to wines that are too sulfured, too concentrated, over extracted, over filtered... Over-everything! It makes sense that certain people would want to let the world know that you can make great wine without manipulation.
I still think "natural" wine is a flawed term. Man makes wine. The grapes can be natural (organic or biodynamic) but the minute you decide to make wine, a process of intervention begins. From the harvest to the cellar, human decisions in the winemaking will affect the final product.
What matters to me is to intervene but not manipulate. Of course I use indigenous yeasts because I want my wines to reflect their terroir. So maybe we should talk about wines of terroir instead of "natural" wine!
What do you like to drink?
Locally, I really enjoy the balance of demi-sec Vouvray: the Chenin's acidity and the residual sugars work harmoniously. Outside of the Loire, I'm a big fan of Rieslings.
This visit with François Pinon took place in February, 2013.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Susie Curnutte and Bonnie Crocker.
Places like Vallée de Cousse, the village where François Pinon resides, make me question if spending the majority of my time in a New York is really the way to go. I mean, look at this place!
Can anyone argue this DOESN'T resemble something out of a fairy-tale?
We arrived to François' house in the early afternoon, where the group was introduced to Emmanuel, the young man who has been working at the estate for a few years now. The guy is full of passion and enthusiasm, and it was nice to get to know him better.
It had rained heavily the night before, so the vines were soaked. Under the overcast skies, we drove up a nearby hill to visit a vineyard that goes into the Silex Noir cuvée.
This parcel was originally planted in 1944. François' grandfather must have been quite the optimist, planting a vineyard before the end of the war and all. Vouvray wasn't exactly out of the line of fire either, confirmed by the fact that an American jetplane gunned down in Montlouis crashed directly into this vineyard that same year.
"It happens less and less, but for many years, it was totally normal to find bits of wreckage while working the soil."
Silex Noir translates to Black Flint, and if you look closely, you can spot bits and pieces in the soil.
Kevin also found a piece of (not black) flint to show the group.
Though the vineyard was planted in 1944, the vast majority of the vines producing grapes today were replanted in massale in 1981.
"There is not a single clonal selection in this entire estate."
Our next stop was a clay heavy parcel that goes into 3 Argiles (formerly known in the US as Cuvée Tradition). It was really, really wet, so we couldn't venture too deep into the vines.
You could take a bath in there! The oldest vines here were planted in 1948, and none of them survived last winter's frost.
The rough winter led to a conversation about the ever increasing amount of dying vines due to esca.
Interestingly, according to Emmanuel and François, the fungal illness might not be the issue at all: there is mounting worry that the vines were already dying before anyone could tell, and the esca mushrooms snuck in later. Because esca does not effect every grape variety in France, very little research has been done up to this point. François half-jokingly pointed out that:
"If it's not affecting Champagne, then no research is going to be done."
François' theory is that the problem lies with omega grafting, since these mass deaths have been occurring in the 15-20 years since this technique has become the norm. Emmanuel elaborated that with a poorly executed omega vine, the graft is the equivalent of a clogged or corroded artery: the sap is still flowing, but not the way it should. Furthermore, the grafts might not be healing properly, permitting esca to sneak in and finish the job.
After visiting the vines, we drove back to the vinification cellar.
2012 was a very tough year for François, and he just didn't feel the quality was there to make a Silex or 3 Argiles. In such, 90% of the 2012 production will be produced as sparkling, the rest being a small amount of still Vouvray reserved for his French customers.
We tasted the base of what will be the 2012 bubbles (from grapes that are always used to make sparkling). The alcohol was just 10,5%, but François explained that this is an ideal level for sparkling production.
We then tasted from a parcel that would have gone into Silex Noir . I thought it was very good, but François insisted it was lacking depth and complexity. Ahhh, le perfectionnisme...
We then walked back to the storage/aging cellar, which is adjacent to François' house. Like many estates in the Loire, the cellar is built into the region's famous tuffeau limestone. Here, you can easily spot the many large chunks of black flint, which is unique to this particular area of Vouvray.
Kevin aptly pointed out is the exact subsoil of the first parcel we visited, since François' cellar is directly underneath it.
Everyone got to check out some old bottles of bubbles.
We then returned to the main tasting room, where François broke it down with a geological lesson on the region's soil composition.
As you could see in the pictures above, the tuffeau limestone in Pinon's area contain layers of black flint. Just like limestone, flint is a sedimentary rock left by ancient seabeds. Millions of shells and other organisms made up deep layers of limestone (or chalk), while more complicated chemical interactions between silica (contained in seawater) and organisms such as sponges created nodules of hard flint, which embedded itself into the chalk.
In Vallée de Cousse, these flint stones vary from very dark brown to black. The Silex Noir cuvée comes from vineyards where erosion has crumbled the softer limestone, leaving the harder stones on the surface. Some of Pinon's other soils contain flint, but the layer of clay (i.e decomposed chalk) is too heavy, so they remain in the subsoil.
After our informative lesson, it was time to taste currently bottled wines. François had them all decanting outside for us.
Before tasting, Emmanuel made sure we had rillettes to munch on.
We tasted all of the 2010's and 2011's, which were unsurprisingly great. What WAS surprising was a 2011 PET' NAT' attempt!!! That's right, you heard it here first! Emmanuel convinced François to give it a shot for fun; this, the fact that we saw Mr. Pinon at the Dive Bouteille and that he has the best collection of ascots in France = François giving Williamsburg's finest a run for their money!
The PET NAT itself was pretty austere, and they both agree they let the sugars go too far into fermentation. They might add a little moelleux to even out this current batch, and will try again in the future.
We then did a flight of Tradition, which for many years was the only dry wine François produced. 1997 was rich and honied nose, with a candied finish. 93 tasted "older", but still had a fresh nose and great acidity. At just 11,5%, it was holding up very well, and had a bit of botrytised grapes in it. A 93 Moelleux was delish.
We ended with a 1953 Moelleux made by François' father that was lip-smacking jolly good. Average American Consumer Joe Dougherty was able to correctly guess the vintage before it was announced.