Years ago, we visited an old vigneron in Chavignol who had made fabulous Sancerre before his retirement: old-vines vineyards in Monts Damnés (Sancerre’s greatest vineyard site), élevage in old foudres and unfiltered bottlings. We asked him who continued to work in that style and he said “Cotat and my friend Claude.”
One thing led to another and we were off to meet Claude Thomas, who was busy pruning his vines in the rain. His wife dragged him into his cellar where he stripped off mud-caked boots and served us several vintages. Thomas was then 73, and wished to retire, but he was holding on in the hope that his daughter and son-in-law would take over. This finally happened when Jean-Paul Labaille, son-in-law, quit his civil servant job and became a full-time vigneron (for the previous ten vintages, he had taken his vacation during the harvest to be the assistant winemaker to Claude Thomas).
Only minimal changes have occurred. The vineyards remain among the best in Chavignol, with a large proportion of old vines. The old barrels are not in use any more, but the vineyard and cellar work follow the same time-honored techniques. The Monts Damnés plot is too steep a slope to ever consider machine harvesting, which is now the norm in the appellation, and it requires intensive, non-mechanized vineyard work. But drainage and exposure are excellent and ensure the best ripeness for the vintage. Labaille has somewhat tidied up Thomas' facilities, which used to be in sharp contrast to most cellars in the area: instead of a hyper-hygienic room, with wall-to-wall tiled floors and stainless-steel vats, his was a Burgundian type of cellar. Some cuvées still age in large concrete vats, others in stainless-steel, and the oak barrels have been re-placed by newer ones, mostly second-hand, 2 to 3 years old, not in order to impart any oaky character to the wine, but to let it breathe and evolve slowly on its lees.
The resulting wine is sensational: rich, fat, round, with layered aromas, a subtle nose and a long finish. Not a typical bistro Sancerre, but a graceful wine meant for ageing and pleasure.
This visit to Domaine Thomas-Labaille took place in January, 2015.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Noah Oldham, David Sink, Patrick Capiello, Hadley Foss and Josefa Concannon.
RIP to Buster, the best dog ever.
If Louis/Dressner Selections was a band with a greatest hits album, Thomas-Labaille's Cuvée Buster would probably be Track 3.
We didn't have much of a sunlight window, so after a big group greeting with Jean-Paul Labaille, we headed straight to Sancerre's best and most terryfying vineyard, Les Monts Damnés.
Before getting into any details about Les Monts Damnés, we need to talk about Jean Paul's jacket. It is without a doubt the freshest jacket ever worn by a human being. And if its insane color combinations weren't enough, the brand's "manifesto" on the back is all the proof you need:
That is the best testimony for the life itself. Fact.
If you've never met Jean-Paul, the act of so effortlessly pulling off this jacket should cue you in to his extremely confident nature. Because let's face it; that shit is hard to pull off.
Ok, so have you seen or heard of this Mont Damnés vineyard? It's shockingly steep!
Monts Damnés is within the commune of Chavignol, and faces full South. About 80% of the vineyards in Chavignol are planted on steep hillsides, and are intentionally planted with grass to avoid erosion. Monts Damnés is the most extreme example of this steepness. Along with a majority of Sauvignon Blanc, a little bit of Pinot is planted on the hill's red clay. Due to the steepness of the hill, everything is done either by hand or with a mechanized hand-tiller that is still a ton of work. When they prune the vines, they leave the cuttings on the ground in order to create a natural fertilizer.
From Les Monts Damnés, we headed over to a vineyard called Cul du Beaujau.
Jean-Paul doesn't own this vineyard, but considers it one of the best views of Chavignol (which you can easily spot in the above pictures' backgrounds) and an apt contrast between the village's Southern and Northern hills, with the latter pictured below.
Of course, there's two sides to every story, so we then drove to the northern vineyards to check those out.
Here's a good pic of the view of the southern vineyards:
The sun was setting, so we decided to head to the cellar.
When you enter the relatively new Thomas-Labaille cellar (the facility is barely three years old), you immediately bear witness to this glorious work of art:
Some things you can't un-see...
Still, if you don't at the very least find this painting amusing, I don't know if we can ever be friends. I can only imagine the reaction of prudish tourists visiting the winery for the first time! Kudos to Jean-Paul for owning the boldest jacket AND self portrait IN THE UNIVERSE.
It was time to taste the 2014's!
The vast majority of Jean-Paul's production ferments and ages in these fiberglass tanks:
"They're not the most beautiful things in the world, but they get the job done!"
As with the rest of the Loire in 2014, everything was showing really well. Unsurprisingly, the highlights were the barrels of Monts Damnés, particularly the Cuvée Buster from a single barrel from Jean-Paul's best parcel of old vines within the "damned hill".
Someone spotted and decided to photograph this inspirational calendar:
After tasting the 2014 juices, we were treated to a truly next-level tasting of back vintages.
Jean-Paul pulled out all the stops. We tasted 12, 08, 06 and 01 Monts Damnés, 97, 96 88 and 85 Sancerre (later renamed L' Authentique), as well as a 99 and 97 Cuvée Buster. 1997 was the first ever Cuvée Buster, so this was an especially special bottle to try.
If having such an amazing tasting wasn't enough, Jean-Paul's wife Laurence prepared us a true feast that was one of the best meals of the trip!
Look at the size of that cheese plate!!!
When I complemented Laurence after the meal, she told me:
"It's easy. I'm used to it."
Oh my god can she cook! Jean-Paul was in a really good mood, and ended the night with 85 Mirabelle marc and 83 grape marc that happened to be kicking around.
Man that was a fun night.