When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

Some truly great wines sneak up on you, sip after sip, taste after taste—deepening, resonating, and ultimately resolving into your own realization that you are experiencing something profound. More commonly in my experience, however, great wines hit you like a lightning bolt, with a silent detonation that snaps every iota of your attention to the wine itself.

That’s what it felt like the first time I tasted the wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers, perhaps more than 10 years ago. I remember the moment well. I was sitting at a dinner table on the lawn at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, and two seats away from me sat the famed importer Martine Saunier, to whom I had been introduced a few minutes before. As we settled into our table, Martine retrieved two bottles from her oversized handbag and plunked them on the table.

The labels intrigued me from the very start, with their slightly amateurish label design and funky fonts. At the time, I had no idea where they came from. IGP Vin des Allobroges meant nothing to me. “Where the hell is Allobroges?” I thought to myself. Eventually, our attendant sommelier came by and opened them up, and then, at my first sip, the heavens themselves opened up, and I was hopelessly smitten for life.

Yes, I am a sucker for wines that taste like liquid stone. And few wines in the world manage to taste and smell more like pulverized stone than these, which are unquestionably among the very best that are produced in the little region of France known as the Savoie.

A classic U-shaped glacial valley in the Savoie

Nemesis of Ice

Few things can resist the power of a glacier that knows where it’s headed. When ten million tons of ice are headed your way, even at the creeping pace of a few centimeters per day, you get out of the way or you are ground to dust. Some of the world’s most spectacular u-shaped valleys are testament to this incredible power. Yosemite. The Fjords of Norway. Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland.

Occasionally, however, there are times when instead of obliterating, the ice embraces, flowing around and over a bit of stone instead of wreaking its slow pulverization.

Often, these snags of stone will become the sites of recessional moraines, buildups of soil and glacial effluvia that are left behind as the ice melts and the glacier seems to retreat back up the valley it has carved towards the cirque of its birth.

The glaciers that carved the Tarentaise valley started their grinding about 2 million years ago, and finished their retreat only about 10,000 years ago, leaving behind the beautiful valleys of the French Alps, and stunning lakes such as Geneva and Annecy.

And in a place that would eventually be called Cevins, in an otherwise beautifully scoured u-shaped glacial valley, as a glacier turned to water a small spur of solid schist gathered the stones and soil that the ice would no longer hold. Over time, a village sprang up in the shadow of the hill that rock and earth created, and the local residents, likely citizens of the Roman Empire at the time, planted grapes in the fractured schist soils. The vines were tended, some for better some for worse, and eventually, the townspeople placed a small chapel at the summit, dedicated to Notre Dame des Neiges, “Our Lady of the Snows.”

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

The Organic Visionary

Like many small-scale vignerons of his generation, Michel Grisard grew up on his family’s mixed farm, which produced wine as well as produce, eggs, and meats. The Grisard family, though, was perhaps a little deeper into wine than most, as they also ran a vine nursery, providing plants for new vineyards in their area.

 After studying Agriculture at university, Grisard joined the family business only to have his father pass away a year later, leaving Michel to run the nursery and winery. Once joined by his brother in the family business, Grisard decided his future lay elsewhere, and in 1982 he left to work with the small acreage of Mondeuse he had planted himself, renting the St-Christophe Priory in the village of Fréterive to use as a cellar.

Grisard’s approach to viticulture was quite traditional at first, in keeping with his university education, replete with herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, and fertilizers galore. However after meeting biodynamic consultant François Bouchet in 1994 through Michel Chapoutier, he quickly became the first biodynamic producer in the Savoie region and was certified organic three years later, and never looked back.

Soon after, thanks in part to having sold his wines to restaurant Paul Bocuse in Lyon, Grisard’s wines became quite sought-after.

As part of his explorations of nearby terroirs, Grisard eventually came across a tiny little town with a hillside full of derelict vineyards and crumbling stone terraces. The precarious slope over the little town of Cevins had been left out of the Savoie AOC region, in part because the narrow valley receives less sun than other areas of the region, and was thought to offer too much challenge in ripening grapes.

For Grisard, the unusual schist soils, steep southerly exposure, terraced plots, and a seemingly ancient history of wine growing were too much to resist.

Grisard created a company, solicited investment, bought or rented the majority of the land on the hillside, and between 1998 and 2002 he planted nearly 13 acres across the hillside with Mondeuse, Persan, Altesse, Jacquere, and perhaps some of the region’s first plantings of the little known Mondeuse Blanche.

As the first plantings began to yield fruit, Grisard made the wines under his Prieuré St-Christophe label, but as this unique hillside matured, it became clear that it needed its own identity.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
A steep bowl near the top of the Cevins hillside

The End of a Journey, Beginning of a Calling

In the early 2000s, winemaker Brice Omont was working at a big production facility in Champagne, but while his hands were busy, his heart was somewhere else. He was both spiritually and literally searching for somewhere to make wine. He thought he might eventually end up in the Loire, given his interest in organic and biodynamic winemaking, but he made several trips to Anjou the surrounding areas and didn’t find what he was looking for.

Then some friends suggested he look at the Savoie. “I said ‘oh, you mean vin de raclette? I don’t think so,’” recalls Omont, referencing the Savoie’s (unfortunately still lingering) reputation for cheap, ski-resort swill. “I was prejudiced. But eventually, I took a vacation in 2003 and came to the region, thinking that I would just have a look.”

During his visit, he stopped off at the local Ministry of Agriculture office and explained that he was interested in organic winegrowing. “They said to me if that’s what you’re interested in, there is only one person for you to speak with. His name is Michel Grisard.” 

“I called Michel Grisard and I visited,” continues Omont. “I tasted his wines and…” he shrugs. “Wow. The Mondeuse, the Altesse. I realized immediately the brilliance of his approach. His wines were superior to every Savoie wine I had ever tasted. So I talked with him, I told him I was looking for a place to make wine, and he told me that a young vigneron he had been working with had recently left.”

Grisard then went on to describe a small hillside of schist in the Tarentaise valley.

“I came back to Champagne, and I told myself, ‘This is it. It’s not the Loire, it’s the Savoie.’ And I knew that if I didn’t do this that I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

One week later, Omont was back in the Savoie, gazing up at the little hill of vines with a tiny white chapel at its summit.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

Ardoisiers Against All Odds

“On my first day,” says Omont, “I thought that this was no problem. The second year I realized what kind of a hill it was that we had to climb. It was very high, and very difficult, and I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to do it. We didn’t have the means at our disposal to achieve our ambitions.”

The bank agreed. When Grisard and Omont went looking for more money, no one was willing to give them a loan. “I told Michel it was a shame, but it looked like we needed to win the lottery in order to make it work,” says Omont. “Three years later we were completely out of money.”

Omont describes calling their first and best customer and breaking the news that the banks had turned them down. “He said to me, ‘What is the plan?” And I told him we didn’t have one. That we were done.”

Click the images in the gallery below for larger views.

But that customer called 10 other customers—some retailers, some restaurateurs and some consumers—and as a group they came back to Omont and told him to open a bottle of wine, and when he did, they said they would collectively co-sign for a loan, and that they would all come to help whenever the winery needed a hand.

“I pinched myself because I couldn’t believe what was happening,” says Omont. “The bank did not understand, but these people did. They had a passion for wine. Many people told me we were crazy to do this, that we’d lose control and that these people would run everything. But these people wanted no salaries, no investment returns. They just said, ‘take your time, don’t worry, do it the best way. We are just happy to drink it. If you want to give us some bottles, we’ll be happy,’ but no more than that. It’s the opposite of this kind of jungle economics you hear about. There are times when you’re scared of humanity. And then there are times like that where you just shake your head and say, ‘Fantastic.’”

Most of the investors remained silent partners, but eventually, two became advisors to Omont and Grisard, helping them think through the structuring of a healthy business, to plan for expansion, and in 2010 helped them secure the somewhat ramshackle building with a rare underground cellar that Omont located in the village of Freterive,

Around this time, Omont and Grisard had a falling out, and Grisard, who would retire from winemaking altogether in 2014, stepped away, leaving Omont solely in charge.

Soon after Omont joined, the wines were given their own identity, named after the slate (ardoise) roofs of the small vineyard huts that dot the hillside.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

A Song of Schist and Clay

Ardoisiers farms 38.3 acres of vineyards located in two primary places, the fractured schist hill of Cevins and several plots surrounding the villages of St-Jean-de-la-Porte and St-Pierre-de-Soucy, which feature the typical Savoyard mix of clay and fractured limestone tumbled from the cliffs of the Combe de Savoie. From these two areas, the domaine has historically made five wines, named primarily for the soils in which they grow.

The Argile Blanc is a blend of Jaquère, Mondeuse Blanche, and Chardonnay farmed from 4 different locations around the village of St-Pierre-de-Soucy, some of which include some schist in addition to limestone. Some newly acquired vineyard plots that include some Roussanne plantings mean that a fourth grape may soon join the blend.

Its red counterpart, Argile Rouge, is mostly Gamay, with Mondeuse Noir and Persan, and comes mostly from around St-Jean-de-la-Porte.

The Schiste white wine, an unusual blend of Jaquère, Roussanne, Pinot Gris, and Mondeuse Blanche comes from the hill at Cevins, as does the 100% Altesse wine named Quartz.

The red blend named Amethyste is also overseen by Our Lady of the Snows, and features a blend of Mondeuse Noir and Persan.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
The mica-schist stone of Cevins.

The simplicity of Ardoisiers winemaking will come as no surprise to fans of biodynamic and organic wines. Harvests by hand proceed slowly, and the variety of exposures across his sites means that a month or more can pass between the first grapes harvested and the last.

I thought wines that were so good meant I had to know a thousand things to get them right. But in the end it’s just easy. You just have to take care of your grapes.

Omont uses whole clusters, presses his whites gently, and ferments with ambient yeasts, adding no sulfur until just before bottling. If the wines take 3 months or even 6 months to finish their fermentation, Omont is happy to let them do their thing. Malolactic conversion occurs naturally, and the wines age in enamel tanks or in used oak barrels. After the 2004 vintage didn’t go through malolactic, Omont has worked to reduce his use of sulfur to a minimum.

“I take my time. You have to let fermentation construct the layers of aromas in the wine. And the wines need time,” says Omont. “In the end, it is not complicated. When I started I told Michel that I wanted to do pump-overs. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Let it go.’ I thought wines that were so good meant I had to know a thousand things to get them right. But in the end, it’s just easy. You just have to take care of your grapes.”

Omont farms without pesticides or herbicides, applying compost to the vines, occasionally some copper and sulfur, and some (though not all) of the biodynamic preparations, choosing to pay more attention to his vines than any particular regimen of treatment.

But no matter how well he cares for his vines, there’s one thing Omont can’t control.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
A steep section of the hill at Cevins

Climate Insurance

“Ten years ago, we had nine good years, and then one bad year,” says Omont. “Since 2018, we have had one bad, one good, one bad.”

Indeed, the week before I arrived in the Savoie in mid-July, the region had been hit by serious rainstorms, not to mention some frost in the spring, leading Omont and many vintners to estimate mildew-driven crop losses approaching 50%.

“We need to make sure that if I invest to make improvements to the building, and if we continue to sell our wines overseas, that we are OK. If tomorrow we lose 80% of our production, we are dead,” says Omont. “We have to prepare for the worst.”

In formulating his strategy for climate survival, Omont took inspiration from some winemakers in the Jura, where he saw small established players going to other parts of their region and leasing vineyards as a hedge against weather calamities.

“In the next ten years, we will for sure have more difficulties,” says Omont, “so I am preparing now to make more stock.”

In 2018, Omont debuted a Jacquère named Silice Blanc, and in 2020, he made a Silice Rouge from Mondeuse Noir. Both are labeled with the name “Maison des Ardoisiers” and are made with grapes purchased from organically farmed vineyards that Omont has identified and contracted around the Savoie.

As the wines of Ardoisiers have seen increased demand, these new wines are an attractive proposition that allows more people to try Omont’s wines, but without him feeling like he is sacrificing quality for the sake of commercial scale.

More importantly, the diversification of his vineyard sites has already proved out Omont’s strategy. “With this year’s rain and frost, we’d be dead without Maison des Ardoisiers.”

Custodian of a Voice

At 45 years old, and with just over 17 harvests at Ardoisiers, Omont is in the prime of his winemaking career, and the wines reflect his confidence and the understanding of both the grapes and the sites he has to work with.

One day I will die, and this terroir will continue. Have I listened correctly to the terroir? Have I expressed correctly the terroir? I am lucky enough to have the chance to do that.

“My biggest regret is that we didn’t build a library of these wines,” he says. “I know these wines will last 10 or 15 years or more, but at the beginning, I had no choice. When someone called and asked for more bottles, I was happy to help them.”

Altesse in particular, says Omont, has the capacity not only to age but to develop and improve with time. Like Riesling, Semillon, Assyrtiko, or Catarratto, Altesse begins with chiseled acidity and deep stony qualities, but it gains a fleshy weight and an attractive buttery, saline richness over time, undergoing a transmutation that seems almost magical.

Persan and to a lesser extent, Mondeuse Noir, also have the ability to develop attractive secondary and tertiary characteristics with age. “People say Persan ages like Pinot, and Mondeuse ages like Syrah,” says Omont.

Eventually, perhaps, Ardoisiers will be able to hold some bottles back, but with a production of only a few hundred cases for its top wines, that will be slow going.

In the meantime, Omont seems content with his progress, and quite comfortable with the direction he is headed.

“We are just messengers,” says Omont. “One day I will die, and this terror will continue. Have I listened correctly to the terroir? Have I expressed correctly the terroir? I am lucky enough to have the chance to do that.  Each vintage, I ask myself, did I do a good job expressing what this place has to say?”

For those of us who love to hear the whispers of magical places and taste the majesty of a landscape in the glass, the answer is an unqualified yes.

* * *

I am particularly indebted to Wink Lorch and her tremendous book Wines of the French Alps for some of the background information about Michel Grisard that I have included above.

Tasting Notes

In case it is not obvious from the above, or the scores below, these are some of my absolute favorite wines in the world, and (at the risk of making them harder to get for myself) they come with my highest recommendation.

2020 Maison des Ardoisiers “Silice Blanc” Jacquère, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Palest gold in the glass with almost no color, this wine smells of green apples and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, green apple, grapefruit, and a hint of white flowers are bright and juicy with fantastic acidity. Great wet chalkboard minerality. These grapes come from the limestone studded soils of Apremont. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.

2020 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Argile Blanc” White Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apples, wet stones, and white flowers. In the mouth, deep stony flavors of green apples, white flowers, and citrus pith are welded to wet pavement. Incredibly stony and delicious. A blend of Jacquère, Mondeuse Blanc, and Chardonnay. Comes from 4 locations around the village of Saint Pierre de Soucy which feature limestone studded clays referenced by the wine’s name. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Schiste” White Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of star fruit and a bit of unripe greengage plums, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, gorgeous star fruit, wet chalkboard, lime flower, and lime zest flavors are wonderfully mouthwatering with faint salinity. Mouthwatering and stunningly mineral. Like drinking stone. Comes from the vineyard on the hill below the Our Lady of the Snows chapel, along the Rue des Ardoisiers in Cevins. A blend of Jaquère, Roussanne, Pinot Gris, and Mondeuse Blanche. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Quartz” Altesse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus pith, warm hay, dried herbs, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, grapefruit pith, dried herbs, and wet stones swirl in a wonderfully deep stony cistern of flavor and mineral expression. The crushed rock quality continues in the finish with some pithiness and a hint of lemongrass. These grapes are also from the Cevins vineyard. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $120. click to buy.

2012 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Quartz” Altesse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of melted butter and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, saline flavors of lemon oil, wet pavement, and seawater take on a shimmering ethereal quality that is simply and irresistibly mouthwatering. Rich on the one hand, and then also light and zingy on the other, this wine is utterly compelling. This bottle demonstrates what happens to Altesse with some age: it fattens up and to the searing liquid stone minerality it adds a layered buttery caramel quality. Boom. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $120. If you can find it, buy it.

2020 Maison des Ardoisiers “Silice Rouge” Mondeuse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of boysenberry and aromatic herbs like lavender and pennyroyal. In the mouth, stony bright flavors of boysenberry and dried sage are suffused with a cloud of powdery tannins that fill the mouth and leave a chalk-dust minerality lingering on the palate. Fantastic acidity. This is the only wine at Ardoisiers that is destemmed. After a week of maceration, this wine is fermented and aged in steel tanks. 10.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Argile Rouge” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of berries and bramble, green herbs, and a hint of sawdust. In the mouth, gorgeously bright acidity makes flavors of mulberries, redcurrant, and plum mix with the faint bitter sourness of plum skin. Wonderful tangy flavors and faint herbal notes are welded to wet pavement minerality and a long finish. Whole bunches of 65% Gamay, 25% Mondeuse Noir, and 10% Persan macerate for 10 days before fermentation. Ages in large oak foudres for about 9 months before bottling, and then released the following year. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2018 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Amethyste” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberries, and aromatic green herbs. In the mouth, saline flavors of mulberries, sour cherry, and herbs swirl and crackle with phenomenal acidity and stony minerality, with the saline notes making for a mouthwatering finish for minutes. Incredibly delicious. Stony faint tannins. A blend of Persan and Mondeuse Noir that I could drink all day long. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.

2016 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Amethyste” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried sage and other herbs with sour cherry, mulberry, and dusty road notes. In the mouth, deeply mineral flavors come through a haze of chalk-dusty tannins and a core of sour cherry and mulberry fruit tinged with hints of citrus peel crackles with mouthwatering acidity. Wonderfully long, juicy finish. Outstanding. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
Winemaker Brice Omont and the lineup of Ardoisiers wines

The post When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers appeared first on Vinography.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet

Can you taste integrity? Spend enough time thinking and talking about wine, especially great wine, and inevitably you have to move beyond the merely tangible. Wine is more than just geology, chemistry, and botany. Like any human craft, honed over lifetimes and generations, it begins to contain something of us, to reflect something of the human spirit behind it.

All of which is why my answer to my opening question is unquestionably yes, just as you can taste honesty or love in the bottle as well. Sometimes subtle, sometimes electric and deeply powerful, the sensation of these (things? forces? principles? ideas? energies?) isn’t extremely common in my experience, even for those who drink selectively with deliberation and care. Their perception in wine, like a psychedelic experience, depends heavily on set and setting. We easily bring as much to wine as we get from it.

I recently got a deliciously heavy dose of bottled integrity on my visit to the Savoie region of France. On a crystalline-bright morning, I found myself wandering one of the more remarkable vineyard sites I have ever visited, listening to a very young man speaking (and acting, and farming, and winemaking) with a level of conviction and vision that are rare in winemakers twice his age.

On every wine trip I take, I hope to encounter at least one producer whose story and wines make the whole trip worthwhile. My visit to Domaine Curtet, was definitely one of those moments.

Florian Curtet hasn’t been in the world of wine for long. At a mere 30 years of age, he’s basically just a few years out of school. A local Savoyard, originally from Annecy, he studied enology in Beaune before returning to Annecy to continue his studies of Agriculture, in part with an internship that found him working with the well-known organic producer Jacques Maillet.

Florian Curtet in the vineyard.

Maillet was good friends with fellow Savoie producer Gilles Berlioz and with different harvest dates between their estates, Berlioz and Maillet were in the habit of helping each other out occasionally during harvest. One day Berlioz brought with him a young woman named Marie who had recently come to two important realizations. The first was that she wanted to make a life for herself in wine. The second was that the Savoie was where she wanted to make her home. And after meeting the young man working alongside Maillet, she would soon come to a third realization.

As they say, one thing led to another. Florian and Marie fell in love, and George Maillet decided he wanted to retire. Lacking any interested heirs, Maillet asked Curtet if he wanted to take over his property. Being handed 12.3 acres of perhaps the most immaculate organic vineyards in the area was more than fortuitous for the Curtets, who leaped at the chance to pursue their dream of a domaine to call their own.

Their first vintage was 2016, the same year their first child, Lily was born.

Both Florian and Marie believe strongly in their approach to winemaking and winegrowing, which is remarkably clear-sighted and unique, given their youth.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet

The Forest Vine

Curtet believes strongly in the synergy between grapevines and their surrounding ecosystem. Having purchased a set of what most people would have considered pristine organic vineyards, he is busy returning them as close as is practically possible to what he believes is their natural state. But instead of anchoring on the concept of a holistic farm with animals, plants, and people working without outside inputs (as biodynamics often does), Curtet chooses to focus instead on something that might best be described as… wilderness.

“My philosophy is not organic or biodynamic,” explains Curtet. “It is the philosophy of the green place. Green is carbon, it’s nurturing the soil. If you nurture the soil, you will have good fruit. My work begins with and continues constantly to understand how nature functions. It’s important to see how a forest [ecosystem] functions, and when you see that, you realize that agriculture, as we practice it now, is crazy. It’s the opposite of the forest. In the forest, you have leaves and branches and plants all falling to the earth and it’s never turned over. You see the fertility, you smell the mushrooms. The soil is dark. It is soft. The soil of the [average] farm is not like this, it is very poor, and yet we’re eating this poor fertility all around the world. Geology doesn’t create soil, vegetation does.”

I started by doing the opposite of what I was taught in school.

Curtet prunes during the winter, but other than that, he does no canopy management. Not content to have his vineyards merely surrounded by trees, Curtet has planted hundreds of trees in between the rows of his vines, around and among which he expects his vines to eventually climb and twine. In the meantime, he’s cobbled together branches in places to make what can only be described as arbors that he hopes the vines will climb. The vines are encouraged to sprawl, creep, and flop to the point that they can be difficult to distinguish from the chest-high mix of cover crops that populate the rows. He plans to keep the fruit in the 3- to 6-foot zone, while letting the vines wander where they will, fulfilling what he says is his obligation to let the plant express itself.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Tree seedlings planted mid-row in the vineyard.

“For me, it is important each year to produce and protect a lot of leaves,” says Curtet. “The field must be green. Green is diversity, a sign of life, energy, and growth. Green means roots are at work down in the soil, which will bring balance to the grape.”

When I asked him where these ideas came from he shrugged. “I started by doing the opposite of what I was taught in school,” he says. “I tried to do it my own way. No one told me or taught me to do this. I read some books, I visited some organizations, went to visit some winemakers some farms who were doing things differently.”

“It’s all about how you think,” he continues. “For me, plants, if you respect them, they will respect you. If you understand nature, you don’t have problems. But in school, they teach you that you will have problems, and then you come up with expensive solutions. School, for me, was not objective. Schools depend upon the money of the people who are selling you products or the tractor. There are forces at work there that are about harnessing people into a commercial culture, making them slaves of that culture.”

A Personal Vision

Standing in Curtet’s vineyards, it’s a little hard not to feel a sense of joy and delight, perhaps not unlike watching a group of very young children at play with their imaginations and nothing more than the random items they find around them. The vines and their surrounding vegetation are bursting with life and simply doing what they do, blissfully growing as best they know how. Not being particularly given to mystical, metaphysical, or spiritual expressions, I nonetheless can’t deny the vibrant energy evidenced by the riot of green life on display.

Dry farming is, like many places in France, de rigueur in the Savoie, and surrounding vegetation plays a key role for Curtet in ensuring his vines have enough to drink throughout the year on his unusual (for the Savoie, which is mostly limestone and glacial till) decomposed sandstone soils.

Things have become very commercial, and now there’s an industrial organic culture, where basically all you have to do is not use systemic pesticides or herbicides and you qualify

“Plants create moisture,” says Curtet. “Without vegetation, there is no morning dew. You don’t have water returning from the air to the soil. Trees also pull water up from into the shallower parts of the soil, nurturing plants with shallower root systems. I believe most water problems in the vineyard can be fixed with vegetation.”

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
The “molesse” sandstone soils of Curtet’s Le Cellier des Pauvres Vineyard.

Curtet farms roughly what might be considered biodynamically, with no herbicides or pesticides, and up until recently he has maintained his Organic/Bio and Demeter certifications as a way of generally signaling what his wines are all about. But with the coming vintage, he says he has decided to drop the Demeter certification.

“These labels and certifications are less and less restrictive these days,” he says. “Things have become very commercial, and now there’s an industrial organic culture, where basically all you have to do is not use systemic pesticides or herbicides and you qualify. And now with biodynamics, Demeter says they want a farm to be autonymous but then they allow people to buy treatments from outside. If you’re biodynamic, for instance, you can go in the vineyard with a tractor whenever you want. It’s crazy. I don’t respect this philosophy, so I don’t use the name biodynamics anymore.”

Interestingly, Curtet doesn’t believe in compost piles, which he says heat up to the point that it kills some of the life within the compost.

“They’re sterilizing life,” he says, “if you’re putting that compost on the vineyard then you’re putting something not very dynamic in the soil.”

Place Not Variety

In the two vineyard plots that he works, Curtet has planted or grafted a massale selection of Jacquere that he has gathered from what he considers all the best sites in the Savoie, along with a number of other white varieties including Gringet, Altesse, Mondeuse Blanche, Molette, and Savagnin, many of which will be harvested for the first time in 2021. These are all planted in a 7.4-acre vineyard named Le Cellier des Pauvres (The Cellar of the Poor). In a 4.9 acre vineyard named Les Vignes de Seigneur (The Vineyard of the Lord), he also has some very old Mondeuse (a number of vines more than 100 years old) as well as Gamay and Pinot Noir.

Curtet says that at some point he’s interested in farming all the immediate genetic relatives of Mondeuse, as if there’s something about having a complete family tree growing in one place that provides a sense of completeness and harmony. At the moment, the scientific jury is still out as to whether Mondeuse Noir is the child or the parent of Mondeuse Blanche.

Despite making several single-varietal bottlings in his first few vintages, Curtet says he has decided to make only two wines moving forward, a white field blend (he feels confident harvesting all his white varieties simultaneously and co-fermenting them) and a red blend assembled after fermentation (as Mondeuse and Gamay ripen at very different times).

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Curtet’s two wines

Curtet says he never plans to make more than the roughly 2000-2500 cases he produces each year, though some of the trees that he has planted in the vineyards are heritage apples, and he has plans to make cider, in part a nod to his wife’s Brittany heritage.

Simple but not Natural

When it comes to winemaking, “I don’t use any artifice in the cellar,” says Curtet. “I only use sulfites at bottling. I don’t want mouse [taint], it tends to make customers not happy.”

Curtet ferments with whole clusters (preferring what he says is a slower, “less dynamic” fermentation that way) and ambient yeasts in large concrete tanks, where the wines age without racking until they are ready for bottling.

“I don’t have oak, I don’t want oak,” says Curtet. “I want the expression of soil and grape, not the ‘style’ of oak. I prefer the wine to live in larger volumes, too. I think it produces more harmony, diversity, and balance.”

For purely economic reasons, Curtet’s first few vintages have aged for only 9 months in tank on the lees, but Curtet says he will be moving to 18 months of elevage soon, as he feels two winters in the cellar will make the wines “more finished.”

At first, Curtet was making his wines in a rented facility while keeping his eye out for a property reasonably close to his vineyards. A couple of years ago, he spotted one, and now he and Marie have a small farm in the town of Châteaufort where they have built a modestly functional winery, remodeled a stone cellar into a little tasting room, and are busy rebuilding an old farmhouse for their family to live in.

Small is Beautiful

“Our philosophy is to be small,” says Curtet. “If you are big, you have a lot of people working for you, and you don’t know your own work. My work is to be in the vineyard and in the cellar, to meet my customers or journalists like you. We take time to do that, and to reflect on our system of culture.”

In addition to Florian and Marie, the estate’s workforce consists only of Florian’s sister, who has been working with them for the past couple of years, and an occasional additional harvest hand. While his sister helps out in the vineyards when there is work to be done, Curtet says her main job is to “develop the commerce within 100 kilometers.”

Part of Curtet’s “small” philosophy involves an attempt to sell 50% of his wine close to home. “There’s a lot of carbon and pollution involved in selling farther,” he says. “Now with all the problems in the world we are trying to sell differently in addition to working differently.”

Paying off the Philosophy

I walked the vineyards, explored the cellar, and heard all of this before I had ever had a single sip of Curtet’s wine. And I must say, that when I finally did sit down opposite Florian in the little whitewashed, vaulted stone room they use to welcome guests, I was nervous. After being so impressed with Curtet’s clarity of thought, so dazzled by the vitality of his vineyards, and so charmed by the scale and dedication of his operations, I was dreadfully scared that the wines might not measure up. Or simply that they might not be to my taste.

But I am happy to say that they both handsomely paid off my anticipation while deepening my appreciation for Curtet’s vision. Were they the most amazing wines that I tasted while in the Savoie? No. But they were really damn good. And as an expression of Curtet’s ideas and skill they were an incredible beacon suggesting possibly profound things to come from this little family estate.

I’ll put it bluntly. I don’t think I’ve met 30-year-old vigneron with more promise or conviction in my life, and I can’t wait to see what Curtet and his wife will have managed to produce in 10 years, when their vineyards look more like wild orchards, and his new plantings have some more complexity that comes with maturity.

Mark my words, this is just the beginning of something truly great. And if, indeed, you want to know what integrity tastes like, just go find yourself a bottle of Domaine Curtet.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Florian and Marie Curtet

Tasting Notes

2019 Domaine Curtet “Tonnere de Gris” White Blend, Savoie, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of apples and chamomile and bee pollen. In the mouth, bright lemon and apple and grapefruit flavors have an electric, dynamic quality with bee pollen and lemon oil and gorgeous acidity. There’s NOT a heavily mineral core here, which is what you might expect from these grapes grown on limestone. A roughly equal blend of Jacquere and Altesse. 11% alcohol. Tonnere means lightning. Gris refers to the soil. Bottled lightning, indeed. Score: between 9 and 9.5.  

2019 Domaine Curtet “Frisson des Cimes” Red Blend, Savoie, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wild berries and herbs, with a floral perfume resembling something like walking through a flower garden in summer. In the mouth, gorgeously bright berries, herbs, and flowers make a seamless whole that is remarkable. Faint, velvety tannins hang in the background and caress the palate while fantastic acidity keeps the berries, herbs, and flowers vibrant and juicy on the palate. A blend of Gamay, Mondeuse, and Pinot Noir. Fermented in concrete with 1 month of maceration of whole bunches, no pump-overs or punch-downs. 11% alcohol. Cime is the outline or shape of the mountain. Frisson is the “sensation of being on the crest,” according to Curtet. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

Unfortunately, these wines are not yet available in the United States, and earlier vintages are all but sold out. The US importer for Domaine Curtet is Martine’s Wines.

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