Sometimes a warm place keeps you there. In Dominique Hauvette's case, a month long vacation to Provence somehow turned into 30 years and counting! As far as wine, it wasn't exactly a first calling. After working odd jobs in Provence through her 20's, Dominique decided it was time to move on; the plan was to move to Paris and go back to school, but things quickly took a turn for the unexpected...
Around this time, Dominique's father had retired and purchased a house in Provence to be closer to his daughter. Another property became available, and included 2.5 hectares of vines. He proposed this land to Dominique, and though she had no viticultural or oenological training whatsoever, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up. The early years were marked by trial and error; defeated but unwilling to give up, Dominique realized that she would need to go to viti/vini school to make things work, and subsequently got her degree over four years of studies in Montpellier.
Dominique has worked organically from day one, a decision she attributes more to being a "late blooming hippie" than an actual work philosophy. Today, biodynamic practices are followed in the vineyard, where Carignan, Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Roussanne, Marsanne and Clairette are grown for a total of 17 hectares. The parcels are spread out, but all in close proximity to each other. All fall under the Baux-de-Provence AOC.
In the cellar, the wine is made in utmost respect of its terroir. Spontaneous fermentations are the norm, and if everything goes smoothly (which is almost always the case), a minimal amount of sulfur is added only at bottling. The Roucas and Canalie cuvées are aged in old oak barrels, but the majority of Dominique's wines ferment and age in concrete, a method she prefers due to cement's neutrality in affecting flavor.
This interview with Dominique Hauvette took place in Bordeaux in June 2011.
Tell us about the history of your estate.
I started my estate with 2.5 hectares of vines. After 5 years, it doubled to 5 hectares, then 7, then 14. I'm glad I started small because it gave me the opportunity to stay afloat economically in the beginning and to grow at a steady pace. If I had started with 14 hectares, I doubt I'd be here 30 years later.
I came to Provence in 1980 for what was supposed to be a month long vacation and never left. Back then my parents had a hotel in Val-d'Isère and I was a ski instructor. My dad eventually left the Alps around 1986 and bought a house out here and I moved in with him.
By 1988, I'd been in Provence for close to a decade living off whatever little job came my way and decided I couldn't do this for the rest of my life. I made the decision to leave Provence and move to Paris. Right around this time, my father told me that our neighbor was selling his house and 2.5 hectares of vines. He was thinking about buying the house, and told me that if I was interested, I could work the vines and make wine.
I said yes, and started out with no idea what I was doing; no viticultural/oenological studies, no experience at another estate, no tasting experience, nothing! When we'd buy wine for the hotel in Val-d'Isère, the sales guy would tell us: "This is good." and we'd say "It's not bad. Let's buy it". It didn't go any further than "I like it" or "I don't like it". We knew what we liked and what sold in the restaurant, but that was it.
That was in 1988. The first few vintages were a bit complicated. I learned by getting my hands dirty in the vines and reading oenology books every time I had a problem, which was pretty much all the time. By 1994, I realized this approach just wasn't enough and decided I needed to study oenology. I got my degree over the next four years in Montpellier.
What was the work in the vines like back then?
From day one I've worked organically. At the time the decision was more about being a late blooming hippie than an actual work philosophy. But it also just so happened that Noël Michelin -one of the pioneers of organic viticulture- was my neighbor, as was Trévallon. Not only did their work correspond to what I wanted to do at the time, but having them as neighbors showed me that it was possible.
It took a while to convert those 2.5 hectares because the previous owner was obsessed with microbiological disease and insects, so the vines had been heavily treated with chemicals. To give you an idea of how bad it was, I threw out 7 truckloads of left over chemicals when I took over!
I've been certified organic since 1988 but refuse to put it on my labels. Back when I started in the late 80's, people thought you were joking if you told them you worked organically. It was marginalized, as if you were a guy who tried raising goats in Larzac, failed miserably, and decided you'd try making wine instead.
Do you think certification is important?
I do, because "organic" is a legally protected word that not everyone can claim. Biodynamic, on the other hand, is not, and anyone who wants to say he works biodynamically can, because their is no way refute this. I believe that if you say you do something, you need to be able to prove it. In my case, organic viticulture is a work philosophy and not a marketing tool.
What's the work like in the vines?
We work the soils, but are very careful in not overworking them because otherwise you inverse soil profiles. I say this because the living layers in the soil vary greatly: micro-organisms that are 5cm deep will be completely different than those at 15cm or 30cm. If you shift these microorganisms from where they belong, they have to migrate back, and this traumatizes the soil.
This is relatively new information: in the old days everyone worked "organically" because there was no alternative, and this included plowing the soil in the vineyard. Now we make an effort to work the soils, but only on the top layer as to not upset its balance.
And in the cellar?
I work with indigenous yeasts. I never sulfur the vines or the juice during vinification. If the fermentation goes well, with no more malo on the sugars and if the volatile acidity is stable (which is almost always the case), I don't sulfur at all save for a very small dose at bottling.
I use wood, which replaced clay amphoras in the Middle Ages. We cypher in one or two barrels of new oak each year in each cuvée. The goal is to age these for an average 20 to 30 year life cycle, not to add wood flavor to the wine. Heavily oaked wines are not my thing.
Around 1800, cement tanks were created (I consider these a part of wine making's history at this point) and I use these as well. Unlike wood, they don't add a flavor to to the wine, and I like that the wine remains neutral.
Both wood and cement containers are magnetically neutral, so I use these over stainless steel tanks, because all stainless steel containers generate magnetic fields. Wine consists of suspended particles that contain either positive or negative electric charges. As soon as these particles come into contact with a magnetic field, they are aromatically affected, and I don't want that.
How do you feel about the French AOC system and the idea of a region's "typicity"?
"Typicity" is a recent concept created by the INAO because they need arguments to defend the appellation system. In my region, wine dates back to 1840: it's not Bordeaux or Burgundy, two regions with a millennium of winemaking to fall back on. In Provence, vineyards were initially planted for personal consumption. In such, people started making wine here by planting varietals from other regions. It was a question of planting what they wanted to drink.
Nowadays everything needs to have a context and be classified. I think this is foolish because in doing so you're closing the door on all possible evolution for the future. Wine is where it is today because people took risks, tried new things and things evolved from what we had then to what we have now. In my eyes, the AOC system is the death of progress and evolution in French winemaking.
For someone that has been making wine from indigenous yeasts and farming organically since 1988, how do you feel about the recent "natural wine" movement that many people would include you as a part of?
It's complicated because the term has been galvanized and a lot of people will tell you a lot of different things about natural wine. For me, natural wine is a wine that reflects a terroir, a variety, a vintage and the individual who made the wine. I would also add that a natural wine would be a wine where no mechanical or chemical intervention was made to alter, modify or nullify the four factors I just listed.
Today I feel there are two distinct types of wines, the first being industrial wines. These wines are standardized as to not shock or disappoint the consumer. Every bottle tastes the same, you know exactly what you're getting, you're not taking any risks, and in turn you get a wine with zero personality.
Then there are "natural" wines: maybe a better name could have been conjured, but it's always hard to find an adequate designation for something with such subtlety and nuance. These are wines backed by the personality and the emotion of the person who made them, and when you work with this philosophy, you hope that you will give your consumer a distinct emotion or feeling they couldn't have gotten anywhere else but in that glass of your wine.
This visit with Dominique Hauvette took place in July, 2012.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Maya Pedersen.
Ten minutes away from the thriving touristic town Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Dominique Hauvette lives off the back road of a back road. You have to know where's you're going to get there, and once you figure it out, the first thing you'll spot is a modern cellar. On the front door, a sign says:
"ABSOLUTELY NO RENDEZ-VOUS WITHOUT AN APPOINTMENT."
If you follow the dirt road to the left of the cellar for a kilometer or two, you find yourself in a huge open space.
In the middle of that space is Dominique's house, which overlooks the field where she holds some of her horses.
Dominique has loved horses for as long as she can remember. Between her house in Saint-Rémy and her property in the Roussillon, she has close to 30 of them! Wine came much later:
"I always dreamed about working with the earth, but back then it could have been with anything. But wine is like a healthy appetite: there is always something new to taste, learn and discover."
When we arrived it was lunch time, so we all sat down to eat ratatouille and octopus salad (all the produce was from Dominique's garden). An old friend of hers was hanging out prior to our arrival. He spoke pretty good English since he'd been living in Los Angeles for awhile before moving back to France. In between singing the praises of Dominique's 2006 Améthyste, we talked about this and that, eventually finding out this man created GPS technology. CREATED IT. Like most technologies, it started out for the military; when the first commercial GPS's were produced, his company was bought out and he moved to L.A to develop the product for car navigation.
"Today, this technology is available for free on your phone. I had to move on."
Now pursuing a more academic route, he is currently using satellite imagery to analyse geographical and weather patterns around the world. It was very funny hanging out with this guy (Michel maybe?) and Dominique at the same table: hearing them argue on the merits of biodynamics vs science was quite entertaining. And while it was clear the two couldn't disagree more with each other, they still managed to laugh it off and have a good time.
Lunch was also time to ask the classic question: what's up with 2012?
After spending the first half of July in the rainy North, none of us were expecting to hear someone complain about too little rain. But it's true: it hasn't rained once in 2012, and the vines are suffering from it. In a new plantation of Grenache, Dominique finds herself having the water the plants twice a day. It's also gotten hotter over the last decade, but temperature is not what worries her the most:
"It's gotten hotter everywhere, which in itself isn't that big of an issue. But what people don't talk about is how much more we're exposed to the sun than even 20 years ago. We've exhausted a huge amount of the ozone layer, which has always protected us. Today, 15 minutes out in the sun is the same as 2 hours in the 70's. I notice it on my horses: every year, their sunburns are getting worst and worst, to the point of blistering and getting infected. This never used to happen..."
After lunch, we headed to the cellar to taste. It was built in 2009, and is still a work in progress because Dominique didn't want to borrow money and put herself in debt. The first thing you'll notice is the large amount of concrete eggs.
That's her new employee Jean-Phillipe, btw. In another room, she has way more of them:
Dominique is a huge advocate of the concrete egg; she likes them because they are made with porous cement. This creates a slight, desired oxidation but doesn't affect the flavor of the wine like wood barrels. Casks are used for Roucas and Canalie, and she uses some new and old oak. Though Dominique is not a fan, for logistical reasons she also uses a bit of stainless steel. From her interview last year:
"Both wood and cement containers are magnetically neutral, so I use these over stainless steel tanks, because all stainless steel containers generate magnetic fields. Wine consists of suspended particles that contain either positive or negative electric charges. As soon as these particles come into contact with a magnetic field, they are aromatically affected, and I don't want that."
Dominique takes her cellar work very seriously, but acknowledges that great wine comes from great vineyards:
"If you have a good terroir, it will work."
We tasted the 2011 Rosé, 2010 Jaspé (a new cuvée made with young vine Roussanne), 2009 Dolia, 2008 Roucas, 2008 Cornaline and 2009 Améthyste. Guess what? Everything was really good.
Dominique had to go, but Jean-Phillipe had us hop into his 4x4 and check out the vines. Our first visit was a mixed parcel of Roussane, Marsanne, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
In all the vineyards, the Alpilles mountains loom majestically in the background.
Despite this year's dryness, Jean-Phillipe says the grapes are looking good.
Next up was a parcel of young Clairette.
Driving to the next site, Jean-Phillipe explained that the 17 hectares are spread over many different locations, but all are close to each other. Curious to know, I asked if they have any problems with neighbors using chemical treatments in their vineyards.
"All of Dominique's parcels are isolated, but even if we had neighbors, everyone around here works organically. The only one polluting is the night club when it throws its old whiskey bottles out!"
The short drive brought us to a Carignan/Cinsault parcel on much rockier soil.
Look at that contrast between the soil and Maya's New York Knicks colored Vans! Finally, we visited the new plantings of Grenache mentioned earlier.