Gonfaron, Var (Provence)
October-early november is certainly a very nice month to be in Provence, there are fewer tourists there at this time although the side roads are still busy with locals who often live in a village and commute to work in developped areas. We were in the middle of our couple of weeks there when the 2nd lockdown order was announced. I had two other visits planned in the area and could barely make this one by advancing the date at the last minute (the other ones will be for next time). In summer you can barely ride a motorbike in the day time because it's so hot, in october-november (and certainly september) it's much better especially inland where it's less populated and the light is so beautiful most of the time. The domaine is located between Gonfaron and Flassans-sur-Issole in the Var département, a region with valleys and rolling wilderness prone to forest fires every summer, although there hasn't been any big one these last few years, possibly thanks to preventive forest and undergrowth management.
Chateau Gasqui is interesting in many ways, first, the domaine is farmed on biodynamics, second it has quite a large surface with 32 hectares in production (it's always worth to keep in mind that this type of respectful and holistic farming is not reserved for tiny surfaces), and third (and this is not the least important reason), the domaine isn't a rosé-centered one like alas many wineries of the region, it is working hard to make beautiful, long-élevage reds, something most commercial wineries in the region have renounced because rosé is so easy and profitable. As a side note : in spite of favorable climate conditions, there are only 3 Demeter-certified biodynamic wineries on Côtes de Provence, Chateau Gasqui, Clos Réal and Domaine des Fouques, which make less than 80 hectares altogether compared to the 20 000 hectares of the appellation...
The domaine which sits at an altitude of 280 m has very old roots and owes its name to one of the three families that reigned in the 13th century on what we now call the Var, the Gasquy (alternatively spelled with an i). There have been archaeological excavations done here on the property land in the 1950s' and they found a Roman stele referring to a Roman legionnaire who was apparently given a piece of land here after his time as a reward after the successful pacification of what we now call France under Julius Caesar. This stele can be seen at the Musée des arts et Traditions Populaires in Draguignan. You'll see there as well tons of artifacts there on ancient viticulture and agriculture. François Miglio himself has founds lots of item on the property, like old coins, funeral urns... Bouncing back on the subject of biodynamy, he says that this continuous human presence and work on the land is important in this regard, with the emphasis on intention and human values. He says that he is irritated by the constant references nowadays by politicians to the environment issues, as if environment was something by its own and could be viewed separately from the rest. Biodynamy changed the vineyard but also the wines with a better harmony, it's been now 14 years since they're doing biodynamics and the wines' acidity also kept improving, it's particularly noticeable in years like the recent vintages, with very high temperatures all along summer.
There's usually no frost risk here but in 2017 trhey lost 90 % of the potential fruit (only the old parcel was somehow spared) when on the 21st of april it froze down to minus 7 C (19,4 F) in the early hours. François says that he prunes late (beginning early january depending of the variety), when conventional domaines in the area begin in november (he adds that they also put nitrogen in january, plow in february and often freeze in march), but even with pruning late, this unusual 2017 frost was terrible. He says Grenache in particular likes to be pruned late and go through winter, and in 2020 as there was no real winter he pruned them in late march / early april. Speaking of biodynamy he noticed along the year that it helps the vines endure climate change, they adapt and have more resilience.
Pictures on the sides : the villages of Flassans-sur-Issole (left) and Gonfaron (right)
When this 35-hectare property was salvaged in the 1990 after a few years' limbo it was in dilapidated condition, with the building abandoned and with leaking roofs. This property had been in the same family for maybe two centuries at least, but France's confiscatory inheritance laws made it impossible for the domaine to be managed and continued by one of the heirs, and it had to be sold for a fraction of its value after a few years, to investors from outside the region. The good thing is these investors were ready to invest what it took to restore the property, not only the stately manor but also the facility and the vineyard, which was farmed organic from the beginning, at a time (1990) when it was much less mainstream and fashionable. Since the start the vines got only copper and volcanic sulfur, but they took the organic certification only in 2012 when they also applied for the biodynamic certification. François Miglio who is born in Brignoles (a small town of the Var) has been in charge of managing the winery/vineyard part of the property since these years; as of now, he has vinified 29 vintages in this domaine and eventually converted the surface to biodynamic farming. Some parcels have been worked by the tractor recently because wild boars had cratered the soil with irregular holes between the rows, but otherwise they normally leave the soil by its own, without plowing. François Miglio says there's no competition with the few weeds (which are already dry by july in this region) because the vine roots go deep. The best proof is tasting the 2019, a year where it was so dry and hot, these dry-farmed vines yielded very nice and balanced wines that year too. He says that a mediterranean soil should never be bare because the UV and heat would sterilize it, the few weeds you leave act like a buffer in this regard.
The 32 hectares are planted with a majority of Grenache and Syrah which allow to make both excellent rosés and excellent reds.
Here is the oldest parcel of the domaine, 2 hectares of Grenache, these vines were planted in 1967 (they're 53 years old). Very beautiful, majestic old Grenache, basking in a sea of mustard plants which as you can see are blossoming in the mild climate of october in Provence...These things haven't been sowed, they grew spontaneously, and the good thing is that mustard happen to clean up the soil naturally, it's like the earth is finding by itself the cure for its deficiencies. This old parcel is behind the high-end, long-élevage cuvée of the domaine, named Corps et Âme, which they don't make every year, only on years where conditions are really optimal (on average they make this cuvée every 4 years). The cuvée, when they make it, has a volume of 4000 bottles. The rest of the parcels were replanted in the 1990s.
I asked François about how is it easy (or not) to do biodynamic farming on what could be considered quite a large surface, namely 32 hectares. He answers that the question is interesting because people assume biodynamics suits only artisanal-size domaines, but he says you can work this way on a 30- or even 80-hectare domaine : biodynamy doesn't ask for more work than organic farming, there's the specificity of the preps that have to be sprayed at precise times of the year, the workers have to be flexible in this regard and motivated. the domaine has only 2 full-time workers, not counting the seasonnal workers of course.
This old parcel of Grenache has many missing vines, so after dismissing the idea tu pull up the parcel he decided to replace the missing ones by first replanting rootstocks that they let grow by themselves for 3 years and in may 2020 (3 years later) they grafted them with massal selections. Next year they'll have a normal production with these newly planted vines. Wild board take their toll on the fruit but mostly they're interested in what's in the rich soil, which is why they have sometimes to level the ground with tractors. François says that from a total volume of 200-220 tons they may eat 0,8 to 1 ton of grapes, that's all.
Let's go back to this outstanding trait : Unlike most commercial wineries in Provence, Chateau Gasqui makes a negligible volume of rosé, only 25 % of the bottled part of the turnover, when it's more than 90 % for wineries around here. He says in Provence there's been such a commercial success story in the last decades that wine there has become an industrial product that is ready for sale in just 3 months, but this model is now over in his mind. On the other hand, he recognizes that until now during these past years the domaine could fund the heavy investment needed for biodynamic farming and the ageing of the higher cuvées through the easy sale of rosé in bulk. This said, this rosé is still vinified naturally like the other cuvées : no additives, no lab yeast and often (depending of the year) long fermentations like the rosé 2019 that took 9 months to ferment (until late june). He says that's why the wine is very different from the Provence rosé you find on the shelves (I could soon appreciate it myself, what a pleasurable wine).
Among the things they do here also is they don't trim the vines, they tend to let the apex grow. François says that if you don't put nitrogen the vine will work & grow in accordance with what it gets from the soil and at one point it'll stop. Central to biodynamy is the ide that the apex works like the brain of the vine, and if you cut it, it will start a plan B with horizontal growth in the place of vertical, resulting in loss of energy through the surplus growth. The apex is some sort of antenna between the soil forces and the cosmic forces, and you must let it stand.
This said François says he doesn't reach these occasionally-long fermentation through temperature. He does indeed cools the fruit at the beginning but he now tends to leave the fermentation temperature go its own way, he says the natural yeast from his parcels where the temperature reaches easily 38 C (100,4 F) in summer don't seem to like being blocked at lower temp during the fermentation, so he now leaves the juice mostly unbridled. He says that he studies enology in the university and didn't learn about Steiner and biodynamy there but he later learnt about it through encounters like when he met Jean-Pierre Frick in Alsace and he now considers Steiner to be a pioneer.
The dynamizers here make 250 liters each, as they need about 45 liters per hectare to dynamize a parcel, which means that in three mornings on fruit days he can have the biodynamic preps sprayed on the whole surface. He says these wooden dynamizers are often found in France, there are maybe 350 of them.
The chai and vat room dates from 1898 was renovated but the frame with its large beams is period. When the facility was built it was with gravity in mind obviously, because with the building leaning to the side of the hill, the carts and later the tractors could unload the grapes into the fermenters from the upper slope. It's nice to think that already in the late 19th century they designed the building so that the grapes could be processed from top to bottom, with this gangway (which had a wood floor initially). François adds that given the size of this facility, at the time they probably vinified from 350 to 400 tons of grapes. When he took over the management he could have built another brand-new facility from scratch but he loved the idea to continue with this architectural heritage and just adapt it with some modern tools and vats. Otherwise they keep working by hand, pouring the 20-kg boxes of grapes into the fermenters or the press. Gasqui produces 180 000 bottles yearly.
Not to mention the top-of-the-range cuvée (which is aged in this cellar), all the bottled wines at Gasqui are released after a long élevage, including the rosé, which is very rare in the region, for example François Miglio says that the youngest wine they're selling now is a 2015, the others being 2009 or 2012.
I ask if they sometimes sell a cuvée as Vin de France (table wine), François says that the last rosé was refused the AOC by the tasting commission, but when this edict fell all the wine had already been sold in advance to importers and buyers who loved it. The commission has to find faults to justify its refusal (they can't just say "atypical" or something like that), so they say it's oxidized or turns vinegar, when such a bottle is sold and praised on the best tables of the French Riviera or in Japan... What he could tell this commission is that nothing in the AOC forces him to add yeast or make a high-thiol wine (like most yeasted wines are), but they won't recognize their bias. The problem also comes from the fact that the tasters in these commissions are often retired growers who were selling their grapes to the coop, this is because active winemakers are often busy in their vineyard at the time they're asked to participate to the tasting commission.
We taste a white from a tank, you already feel the wine there, nice substance and suave mouth feel, although the malolactic isn't done yet, and although the temperature is about 20 C there's no turbidity in this wine (the cold termperature in winter is credited with clarifying the wines), there's already a natural clarification. Speaking of the malolactic, he lets it unfold naturally, compared to what's widespread in the region on conventionally-farmed vineyards, where the wines are routinely high-alcohol and with low acidity as a result of the tired soils in this climate, so they block the malolactic to kind of retain some acidity.
Asked about filtration, François says he filters the wines (although not the reds), he considers the emphasis on no filtration and no sulfites as pure marketing. With the harmony he reached through biodynamie he can limit the sulfites to a mere 1 gram per hectoliter but he will keep filtering. He says filtration brings droiture (uprightness) in his wines. During the first 10 years he bottled the frirst hundred bottles of each cuvée unfiltered and opened bottles side by side filtered-unfiltered, tasting blind a month later, 6 months, a year later. One month later the unfiltered version would fare better, but one year later the unfiltered would prevail. He uses sterile filtration, even though there's no residual sugar and they're stable.
Here François shows me the white cuvée Corps et Ame 2013, a high-end cuvée which is a blend of Grenache Blanc (majority), Clairette, Sémillon and Vermentino. This wine fermented a year in demi-muid (large capacity barrel) and had a further 2-year élevage in demi-muid without post-fermentation racking. So we have here a 3-year élevage without stirring and in this case there's just a light filtration. This white is at the level of a great white Burgundy he says, proof that Provence could make more quality from its whites.
All the bottles here (not only this cuvée) are sealed with cork sourced in the region (Forêt des Maures), not Portugal. 15 years ago François Miglio that in 1905 Cheval Blanc and other great Bordeaux were using cork from around here including Gonfaron, and he saw that the region has even less humidity than Portugal, yielding slower-growth cork with more density and stability for long élevage wines. So he now works with Prima-Liège. There's another local cork producer, Lièges Junqué. He says another good side of using their cork is that it helps maintain the forest in Provence and keep in check the undergrowth, which in turn limits the risk of forest fires (a risk that hangs permanently over the region due to dry summers and occasionnal strong winds).
Speaking of the barrels used to age the cuvée Corps et Ame (here pictured in their cellar room), François Miglio works with a cooper in the Bordeaux region (Doreau Tonneliers in Cognac) who tastes beforehand the wine and then choose the oak and barrel style that fits best, considering these barrels will be used only for a vintage. The demi-muids also come from there. 3 months after the cooper tasted the wine, the barrels are shipped to Gasqui and the wine will continue its life there. They top up the barrels (and foudres, but the staves are thicker on these, resulting in less evaporation), François does the ouillage usually every friday and it may make 5 % of the volume per year, quite a lot of wine.
The old foudres on this picture were initially made for beer, they're from Germany, with sizes going from 26 hectoliters to 42 hectoliters. These foudres were used for a long time in Germany for beer, for some kind of marketing image because there was an epoxy lining inside, and beginning in the 1970s these vessels were not fashionable anymore and many were sold on the secondhand market and reused for wine. After a cooper peeled off the epoxy they were almost new again and many wineries still have them, adding stainless openings in the process for an easier use. In these, Gasqui ages the other, more traditional reds, the vessels allowing the wine to breath, these are Rhône style wines (Grenache-Syrah) with extraction that need long élevage, the shortest élevage (for the simpler red) being 18 months, the longest being 4 years, it is a foudre (7000 bottles) with the cuvée Point G, made with the Grenache de Gasqui de Gonfaron, a serious, 15 % Rhône style wine that needs aging. The clay-limestone quaternary geology here gives a terroir that is very similar to what you find in the southern Rhône. Asked about Mourvèdre, he says some had been planted but he tried to do something with it for 15 years, even rosé, but it's obviously not made for here and he gave up, it needs to be close to the sea. Grenache, by contrast, is fully at home here, and the blend Grenache Syrah gives the best results.
I tasted the rosé Silice 2019, indeed a gem of a rosé, well worth the 12 € they sell for, the harmony and wholeness feel here is outstanding, and incidently as François grabbed the bottle from a box, it was not refrigerated and it helps better gauge the wine in my view when it's basically at room temperature. The color is unusually darker (more like amber) than commercial rosé where the trend seems to be extremely pale pink. I love the viscosity in the mouth, very nice length as well, he says this mouthfeel comes from the soils and so many years of biodynamic farming, it also comes from the fact that he picks at maturity. Great value at 12 €. Around here in Provence people are scared of having color in the rosé and the growers pick in august, like beginning around the 20th this year, but grapes are meant to reach their maturity in october.
Actually, when like in many conventional domaines you have an exhausted soil by august 15 because of the drought and because the conventional farming deprived the soil from its resilience to drought, then at veraison, instead of having the normal maturity process, the grapes are cooked, they're not sweet through the transformation of acids into sugar, they're just kind of sweet though more concentration, which is different. And in Provence the Préfet (Government representative in the département) allows them anyway every year to add what is called concentré-rectifié (or MCR); François has been working 30 years in the region and every single year the Préfet delivered this authorization which amounts to chaptalization. This proves that there's no interest in terroir, they're just looking for a neutral, cheap raw material and on top of that they add the sugar, lab yeast, the PVPP (for the color adjustment), the fining, in order to have a square predictable product. To be sure not to get color they also do dynamic drainage by using special micro-perforated pneumatic presses where the juice gets out immediately.
This is a rosé de saignée, meaning this wine never saw the press, they filled a vat by gravity with stomping on the top, there's majority of Grenache here (almost 80%), the rest is Syrah, with a little bit of Cinsault, Tibouren, Vermentino. Except for the Syrah that gets less time, the other varieties stay 3 days in the vat on cold temperature, they bleed the vat by opening the tap and that's all,
the juice flows into another vat and the resulting wine is bottled 9 months later. No lab yeast of course, only the skin ones. SO2 is a mere one or two grams per hectoliter. François reminds that the maximum allowed on rosé in France is 160 mg for conventional wineries (16 grams/hectoliters), 120 mg for organic (equivalent of 12 grams/hectoliter, here he has 70 mg but as smoothed average over 5 years. For example on this rosé if you count the naturally-produced SO2 and the added, he's around 25 mg. There's also a sterile filtration (0,65 micron). The conventional domaines by contrast use a tangential filtration at 0,2 microns, and they do it very early, in december, depriving the wine from its potential qualities.
The wine is just delicious by itself, very vinous and actually if given another opportunity I'll again have it at room temperature. But François Miglio says it's a gastronmy rosé and it can be enjoyed after several years in the bottle. Pairs well with different foods including the Japanese (they sell a lot there). The maceration here brought (in addition to the unusual color) the aroma precursors the glycerol, which are behind this volume and this wholeness, and he adds also, this capacity to age : he still has a few bottles from 2014 in rosé, magnificent rosé, he says, although unsaleable because people are scared of old rosé.
Pic on left : the Corps et Ame cuvées (not made every year)
François Miglio was kind enough to give me this bottle of Grande Reserve 2015 which we had a couple days later. Very nice extraction in this wine, with a suave mouth feel and an acidity that makes the power very enjoyable.