Noella Morantin is originally from Brittany, but has been making wine in the Loire since first taking interest in the wonderful world of fermented grape juice. A random encounter with a professor of viticulture inspired her to start learning about wine, and this hobby quickly became an obsession. In 2001, she quit her job and started viti//vini school, where she interned with Agnès and René Mosse until 2003. In 2004, she met Junko Arai, the owner of the now defunct Touraine estate Les Bois Lucas. The two hit it off and Noella was eventually hired as head overseer of the estate.
Bois Lucas's vines had previously been owned by Catherine Roussel and Didier Barrouillet of Clos Roche Blanche. Working in close proximity to each other served as a natural way for Noella and Didier to get to know each other, and the two became friends. In 2008, the decision was made to downsize CRB in half; this coincided with Noella's plans of starting her own estate, and she jumped on the opportunity when Didier proposed she rent some of his vines.
Today, Noella rents 8 1/2 hectares of vines from the lieu-dit Clos Roche Blanche, as well as recently acquiring 4 hectares of ex-Bois Lucas land. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gamay, Côt and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown; the vines are tended organically (certified by Ecocert in 2008), and the wine is vinified without intervention or manipulation. Almost everything ferments in large wooden vats. The two Gamay cuvées macerate whole cluster: Mon Cher is full carbonic maceration, and grapes are treaded for La Boudinerie. The Côt is a blend of wine fermented in wooden vats, whole-cluster and destemmed grapes ("like a millefeuille"). Other than the Marie-Rose (a Cabernet Sauvignon rosé named after Noella's grandmothers), all wines are aged a year to a year and a half in old barrels, which differs from the vast majority of Touraine wines, which get released in the early Spring. Not wanting to deal with AOC politics, Noella intentionally declassifies all her cuvées to Vin de France.
This interview took place at La Boudinerie, Noella Morantin's home, in June 2011.
Tell us about your estate.
I currently work 8 1/2 hectares in Pouillé in the Loire-et-Chere. At the moment I rent 6 1/2 hectares from the Clos Roche Blanche and 2 hectares at the bottom of Pouillé. I work and vinify 5 varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gamay, Côt and Cabernet Sauvignon. I purchased all of my fruit for the 2008 vintage and I've been renting from Clos Roche Blanche since 2009.
Did you have a previous career before wine?
I'm originally from Pornic, a small town bordering the Atlantic ocean. My father always had a little vineyard, and I'd do the harvest every year. We'd make wine for personal consumption: a barrel of red and a barrel of white. I always drank and liked wine as far back as I can remember.
Anyhow, I used to be a marketing director for a communications company. I was terribly bored at my job and one night I randomly met a professor of viticulture in a bistro. He suggested I give it a shot, so I did. At that point I had no intention of becoming a vigneronne. I just wanted to learn more about wine. But things just progressed, happened naturally, and here I am!
How did you end up in the Loire?
I got my B.T.S in agriculture/oenology in 2004, at which point I was also working for Agnès and René Mosse (from 2001 to 2003). I then spent a winter with Marc Pesnot in the Muscadet. That same winter I decided to go to the Salon de Vins de Loire where I met Junko Arai from Bois Lucas. Junko lives in Tokyo and was looking for someone to replace Pascal Potaire as main overseer of the estate. She hired me in 2004, and in the first few months I was trained by Pascal. I worked there until 2008, and when I started looking for vines to work under my name, Didier and Catherine from Clos Roche Blanche thought of me.
How would you distinguish your wines from Clos Roche Blanche?
The approach is different. I follow my instincts and sensibilities and I think that makes my wines stand out.
What's the work like in the vines?
We work them how we see fit. My partner Laurent does a lot of the vine work and we make decisions together based on what we think needs to be done at any given point. I think it's of utmost importance to be in the vines every day in order to really grasp what they need. We work the soils, try to get rid of grass and make sure not to "rogne" too early so the wines can have a nice acidity.
And in the cellar?
As naturally as possible, and with no intervention. I follow my wines closely and stay attentive to the vinification process from start to finish. I also age my wines in barrel for a long time, which in 2009 was a big risk since it meant that I wouldn't have any wine to sell in 2010. Still, I knew it had to be done.
For example the Chez Charles and Terres Blanches were harvested in 2009 and bottled in March 2011 and the 2010 gamay was bottled in April 2011. And now that I can see and taste the result, I know I made the right decision and have no regrets.
For me it's about adapting to each vintage. I don't want my cellar work to follow a strict agenda. I don't want to say: "everything will be bottled in March!" If you don't adapt, you won't always reach the full potential of the vintage.
Have you always worked organically?
I would not be making wine if I wasn't working organic vineyards. And I wouldn't be making wine if it wasn't natural wine.
Speaking of "natural wine", tell us how you feel about this whole movement of winemaking?
It's become very trendy in the last few years in France and a lot of vignerons claiming to make natural wines are lying to their customers to help increase their sales. As far as I'm concerned, I fully support the movement and consider myself part of it. I make natural wine.
From the work in the vineyard to the bottle sitting on your table, there has been no chemical intervention whatsoever, just a tiny bit of sulfur at bottling to help preserve the wine.
Now maybe because I add a gram of sulfur at bottling some winemakers might accuse me of not making "real" natural wine, but those same people also tend to make a lot of vinegar. When I was at Bois Lucas, I made some sulfur free wine, and I made wine with a gram of sulfur at bottling like I do now. The sulfured wines were much better! They were more balanced and when I analyzed them a year later, that gram of sulfur had disappeared.
Once the wine is finished and ready to be bottled you can't really harm or manipulate it, and I don't think a small amount of sulfur will affect the wine negatively. You can keep a bottle of Chez Charles open for a week and it won't budge. It's very resistant to oxidation and won't fall apart. This isn't because of sulfur, it's because of the work in the vines.
All this to say that I am not against sulfur free wine; the pétillant naturel I make is sulfur free, but that's because it has a lot of gas and the risks of it falling apart without sulfur are much lower.
You only bottle as Vin de France as opposed to the Touraine AOC. Can you tell us how you came to this choice?
From the get-go I wanted to make Vin de France, but a lot of people advised me against it. They told me that it was important to defend and take pride in your appellation, and I reluctantly started making AOC wines. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that the majority of the AOC wine being produced in my region came from conventional chemical farming and oenological manipulation in the cellar.
These people have appellation sauvignon because they've used an industrial yeast that makes the wine smell like cat piss. If it doesn't smell like cat piss, you don't get the appellation. That was my first big problem with the AOC system.
The final straw was last year when there was an issue with my Boudinerie 2009. It had 0.24 volatile acidity, and even though 0.9 is the level necessary for the wine to be deemed flawed, the board denied me the AOC for this cuvée because of V.A. I reanalyzed the wine myself and provided them with the results proving I was well within the limits allowed, and they told me that it didn't matter, that when they had tasted it they had deemed the V.A too high and I'd have to present it again in order to reevaluate it. So out of principle, because at this point I'd sold all my wine and there wasn't any left, I re-presented the wine and, low and behold, this time the wine was ok and they accorded me the AOC.
At that point I told myself I didn't need these people to tell me what to do. I'm perfectly capable of making the wines I want to make without having the AOC boss me around.
What do you like to drink?
Other people's wines! I'm always drinking mine so whenever I can drink someone else's I jump on the opportunity! I love Eric Pfifferling's wines. I love Marc Pesnot. I love René Mosse's Anjou Blancs.
This visit with Noella Morantin took place in July, 2013.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by John Kafarski and Jules Dressner.
I'm not sure if this is common knowledge, but Clos Roche Blanche, Maisons Brûlées, and Noella Morantin's houses are all extremely close to each other. So close, in fact, that if you look closely at the pictures from the visits, you will spot the same "Touraine" water tower in the background.
After breakfast, we decided to walk over through the Clos Roche Blanche to Noella's. Their is an obvious path you can take, but Didier happened to be in the vines and was heading home (he lives right next to Noella), so he showed us his secret shortcut.
After a beautiful 15 minute walk through the woods, we'd arrived to La Boudinerie, the old farm where Didier and Noella live.
The surrounding vines you see above go into the Chez Charles Sauvignon.
"It's very different than the rest. While the other parcels are on clay and flint, here it's very alluvial and sandy. A friend told me it reminds them of the soils of Sologne."
Upon arrival, we were immediately greeted by ex-Brooklynite Panache.
He didn't mind saying hello, but since he was in the middle of lunch, he promptly got back to chomping down.
Seriously, that looks better than some meals I've paid good money for!
We also got to meet Piggy!
As cute and adorable as Piggy looks, we all know what's going to happen down the line (eating him). Laurent and Noella's last pig was called Copain (buddy), and this time Laurent hasn't given him an affectionate name for fear of getting attached to the animal. As Didier Barrouillet stated the night before:
"I helped slay Copain, and it was a very hard experience for me. I'd done it once before in my youth, but with that pig I had no emotional connection. This was really tough. I have some chickens I have to slay in couple of days and I've decided to call them Thigh and Juicy, to remind myself of their alimentary purpose. You have to stay emotionally detached. Otherwise it's too hard."
For the record, I met Copain when he was alive and have eaten at least 5 different parts of his body in all types of various concoctions including the lunch that would follow this visit. He was delicious, and lasted Laurent, Noella, Didier and Catherine over a year. One pig a year to feed 4? Not too bad on waste.
After a bit of chit-chat, we set off to visit Noella's recently acquired 3 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc.
These vines used to be part of the now defunct Bois Lucas estate. And since Noella was in charge of Bois Lucas before starting her own operation, she is already extremely familiar with the land. Still, the vines had been pseudo-abandoned for years and were a total mess when she reclaimed them, with wild Acacia trees between the vines and an insane amount of grass everywhere. Fortunately, the vines were planted in 1948 and 1968, so their foundation was still strong. These will produce a yet to be named new cuvée.
Interesting aside: A small amount of young vines planted in 2002 spent 10 years buried underground from abandonment. Incredibly, they were still alive and Laurent was able to salvage them.
Just a bit further down, we visited a .8h parcel of very old Gamay.
Laurent explained that the very small bunches from these vines make very good juice. The soil here is composed of less compact clay with lots of rocks (these loosen the soil).
This Gamay goes into Mon Cher.
We then drove over to a new underground cellar space Noella is now renting.
What you see above is the totality of their whites in 2012. The biggest issue was severe mildew, which halted maturities.
"The sap just couldn't circulate."
Noella is very happy to have this underground space because it stays cool throughout the year. She was prompted to search for a new cellar after losing an entire cuveé's worth of wine due to lack of temperature control.
"One thing you never hear people talk about with natural wine is temperature control. It's SUPER important."
She's also very happy that she can pump the wine into the cellar by gravity through this little window.
After tasting the whites (all off to a good start), we drove to a nearby cellar where Laurent has his ONE barrel from the .2 hectares of Sauvignon he harvested in 2012.
There it is:
It was really, really good. This barrel will only produce a few hundred bottles, and he's thinking of calling it "Lucky You". 2013 should mean a bit more of this.
We ended the visit by going back to La Boudinerie to taste the un-bottled 2012 reds.
To wrap things up, Laurent prepared us an epic meal.
We had a hilarious conversation that basically boiled down to:
"The problem with wine is alchohol. Otherwise I could drink it all day."
I also got inspired from the wax top of Laurent's La Pause gamay, which resulted in this: