Twenty minutes into our bike trip around Sancerre last July, as we wended south along the left bank of the Loire, the rear innertube of the Native Companion's bike blew itself to shreds. It had been the one thing I'd asked some bike shop scheisters near Sentier to fix, but in their enthusiasm to bilk me for a thousand other tune-ups and grip replacements, they had apparently forgotten my original request. The back tire had a hole, macgivered with a piece of leather, through which the innertube had become exposed.
We had to postpone our rendezvous with Chavignol legend François Cotat, whose wife was extremely helpful in suggesting places nearby that might stock innertubes. We found one at a motorcycle supply shop a few miles up the road. The shop was permanently closed, but its owner was constructing an amateur Museum of Antique Bicycles in the shed space, and he happened to have a stock of innertubes out back. No tires, though, so the hole remained precarious, with just an unfixed piece of leather between us and further rural hassle.
It was also swelteringly hot, and in my inexperience I took us on a laughably circuitous route up and down the insane inclines of Sury-En-Vaux to the domaine that had become our first appointment, that of natural winemaker Sebastien Riffault. I say all this to explain why the winemaker arrived in his car to see us cheering and doing donuts in his driveway. We had survived! I don't mean it as faint praise if I say we appreciated the ice cold water Riffault gave us almost as much as his deep, wizardly Sancerres.
I was very familiar with Riffault's wines long before visiting Sancerre, because his wines are almost ubiquitous in Paris natural wine bars. Partly this is due to Riffault's circumstantial position in the wine market : he's practically the only person making natural versions of an enormously popular wine. (His counterpart across the river in Pouilly-Fumé is Alexandre Bain. The two are good friends and share plow-horses.)
But Riffault's wines are a curious introduction to Sancerre, in the same way that Plastic Ono Band would be a curious introduction to the Beatles' discography. While his wines sell in Paris, and are highly regarded among natural wine afficionados, they remain extremely challenging wines for lay drinkers, because they fly against all conventional (mis)conceptions of what Sancerre should be.
In my role as wine editor of the Paris By Mouth website, I lead tours of natural wine bars, and I find myself often presenting Riffault's wines as a demonstration of just how different a natural wine can taste from its conventional counterparts. It is an entirely different beast.
In the Anglophone world, Sancerre tends to be marketed, along with all other Sauvignons, as the anti-Chardonnay. This is a vast oversimplification of both grapes, but the misconception is self-reinforcing: industrial producers make the wines their consumers expect. In the case of Sancerre, lay drinkers demand a crisp, grassy, glassy style that excludes, along with Riffault's beasts, even the established, Parker-approved legends of the appellation, like François Cotat and Edmond Vatan. All these winemakers typically harvest about a month later than their neighbors, yielding a much more voluptuous, lozengy wine.
Riffault recalls harvesting his 2011 vendange tardif selection of his cuvée "Auksenis" at late as mid-November. It was snowing. The resultant wine had 20° potential alcohol and fermented incompletely, yielding a rather hot and prickly vin liquoreux.
At the other end of Riffault's range is his basic young-vine cuvée "Les Quarterons," which at this point is the only cuvée into which he puts sulfur (10mg) at bottling, mainly so that it can be promoted as a glass-pour for restaurants. But even this steel-fermented cuvée contained about 5% botrytised grapes in 2011, giving it a gooseberry / lime lushness not found in most conventional Sancerres.
|A slightly overpriced bottle of Les Quarterons I recently shared over lunch at Tsubame in Paris.|
I have in the past had difficulty making sense of Riffault's range, which bears Lithuanian cuvée names in tribute to Riffault's Lithuanian wife. So I thought I'd insert a handy rundown here:
Les Quarterons: Young vines, sulfur added at bottling. Steel-aged for two years before release.
Akméniné: 30 year old vines on portlandian limestone. Late harvest. Name means 'made of stones' in Lithuanian. Two years elevage in oak, and six months in bottle before release.
Auksinis: Low yield 40 year old vines on Portlandian limestone. High proportion of noble rot. Name means "golden" in Lithuanian. Sees skin maceration. Two years elevage in oak, and six months in bottle before release.
Sauletis: 50 year old vines on Kimmeridgian limestone. Name means "sunlit" in Lithuanian. Two years elevage in oak, and six months in bottle before release.
Skeveldra: 50 year old vines on clay - flint soils. Name means 'stone fragment' in Lithuanian. Two years elevage in oak, and six months in bottle before release.
Raudonas: 10 days' maceration, no pigeage, some noble rot. Name means "red" in Lithuanian. Two years elevage in oak, and six months in bottle before release.
Interestingly, Riffault defines his craft in very absolutist terms: for him, "Les Quarterons" is not a natural wine, because sulfur is used in its production. He has ceased using sulfur in all his other cuvées. Talking to him as my sweaty friends and I froze in his very cool cellar that day, I was impressed by his frankness and radicalism. More diplomatic vignerons typically leave it to journalists to place their wines within the context of a global struggle against agro-industrialism. Not Riffault ! "To make natural wine," he says, "is to refuse to particate in that system." Meanwhile he has no patience for winemakers who decline organic certification, insisting it costs "trois fois rien," or three times nothing.
Riffault began working independently of his father in 2002, with just 2ha. Now in his early thirties, he has taken on more of the domaine, which he works according to biodynamic principles. As you might expect from the general tenor of his dark, unsulfured Sancerres, he has on occasion been denied the Sancerre appellation for certain of his cuvées, though it didn't prove an obstacle to selling them.
My own experiences of his wines over the last few years are admittedly mixed. "Les Quarterons" is reliably tasty. I greatly enjoyed a smokey, truffley, downright ghostly bottle of 2008 "Akméniné" late last year at Le Siffleur de Ballons in Paris.
Other oak-aged cuvées approached at different times have occasionally lacked complexity beyond a certain oxidative, honeyed heft. And I'm no fan of the "Raudonas," having always found it a bit graceless and overly redolent of grapefruit skin, a sign of oxidation in red wine.
Yet I'd sooner call all Riffault's Sancerres Sancerres than those of most of his neighbors. I think his work represents the future of the appellation, which would do well to lose the shackles of its popular conception.
Does that make me a radical, too?
|I ran into Riffault again outside Le Garde Robe on the night of Beaujolais Nouveau in Paris.|
Domaine Etienne et Sebastien Riffault
Route de Sancerre