Northeast of Chablis, Tonnerre is a relatively new AOC in France (2006). The estate Domaine de la Chappe was started in 1988 by Vincent's father, André. When Vincent started in 2003, he was able to convince his father to convert to organic agriculture (currently also moving towards biodynamic practices) and vinifying the wines naturally, with no added yeasts and low sulfur levels. Vincent and André produce Aligoté, Chardonnay Tonnerre, Pinot Noir and a Mousseaux.
This interview with Vincent Thomas took place by a shady portion of his Aligoté vines in July, 2012.
Tell us about Domaine de la Chappe.
Domaine de La Chappe was started by my parents, who planted all 4.7 hectares of our vines in '88 and '89. This was during the renaissance of the tonnerois, and at first the grapes went to a cave cooperative that doesn't exist anymore. My father started bottling independently and under his name in the 1994 vintage. I came back to work with him in 2003, and took over in 2005.
How did you personally get involved?
I started studying viticulture quite early. I was 14, liked being outside and working around agriculture. And my early education in the very repressive Catholic school system made me want to get out of it as soon as possible! I learned every possible aspect of the viticulture, winemaking and the business side of things.
How has the estate changed since you took over?
Converting to organic viticulture happened very naturally. Prior to coming back home I'd been working at a biodynamic estate (Gramenom), and I knew that our small size, coupled with the fact we are a region with a rich viticultural history, would make it easy. My reasoning was that I wanted to make a wine of terroir, and to do that you need to first understand what terroir is by asking yourself questions. Namely: what do I have to do to make the most authentic wine possible?
As soon as I got back, I started working the vines naturally; my father had never been too heavy handed with herbicides, which helped. I started converting the vines, which to me is a purely administrative thing, in 2005. I don't communicate any of this on my labels, but now you have an idea of why I made this choice. As far as working naturally in the cellar, it was the logical extension of the work in the vines. A terroir is soil, sub-soil, climate and micro-climate, but it's also the work of man, both in the vines and in the cellar. And let's not forget the yeasts and bacteria that vary from parcel to parcel, from cellar to cellar…
But if I hadn't been introduced to natural wines, I don't know if I'd ever have asked myself these questions. When I was 18, I already felt that what I was learning in class didn't necessarily have to be applied. Around then, I tasted Darb & Ribo for the first time, and it was like a slap in the face! I had to know how someone could make a wine that not only screams terroir, but is also so pleasant to drink. After my stage at Gramenon, my friends and I organized an organic tasting in Beaune, where I got to explore the wines from Jean Pierre Frick, Fleury's champagnes and whole bunch of other things.
And when I started in 2003, I was helping other growers bottle their wines to make a little extra money. This led to working with a large amount of vignerons, and the work I saw made me reflect on their various techniques. I was particularly shocked by one guy who has has a pretty good reputation: not only would he filter the wine very harshly, but he would add 6 grams of sulfur per hl right before. A week after filtering, he would add 4,5 even 6 more grams of sulfur to the wine! After that, he'd let his wines age in barrel a year so that the sulfur would dissipate. This seemed completely absurd to me! At the same time, I was tasting more natural wines and meeting locals like the De Moor's and Thomas Pico, locals who were working well. This confirmed that I could and should follow my own path for the estate.
How did your father react to all this?
It wasn't exactly easy. What I wanted to do suited him fine, as long as the term "organic" wasn't brought up. Working the soil, not using herbicides: that was fine. But I was the first vigneron in Tonnerre to start working organically, and this led to a bit of a backlash. A lot of our neighbors started thrash-talking, and this worried my father. He worried our yields were going to be pathetic, that the vines would get out of control, that if I didn't use preselected yeasts the wines wouldn't ferment… I understand: he was just trying to secure his past work. Here I am changing everything when he started everything from scratch!
But after a while, my father saw what I was doing and started reevaluating his own work. He also grows a lot of cereals, which aren't organic at all (the surface is much too large and very rocky, so it would be very complicated), but he's incorporated a much cleaner work ethic. And he loves natural wines! He drinks buckets of Gramenon!
What's the work in the cellar like?
For me, there is no reason to use preselected yeasts. When I was in school, they made us bring packets of yeasts with all sorts of commercial names (BR-Whatever!), some to make fruity reds, others for age-worthy whites, etc… It was like having a little chemistry pack, and it felt like having the choice between making Coca-Cola classic or Cherry Coke. These yeasts were designed to change a wine's taste, and selecting how a wine will taste is the opposite of terroir!
As far as sulfur, it was really a trial and error thing. There have been some missteps, but you never progress without trying, and rarely get things right the first time. I tried making sulfur free wine in 2005: it worked really well with the whites, but the reds were very bretty. Now I choose "intelligent sulfuring", meaning that I deem if it's necessary. If there was a lot of rot one year, even after we've sorted the usable grapes, I might put a gram or two when while racking in barrel. Or not. It all depends on the sanitary state of the grapes. But I always keep in mind that the wine needs to be alive, to not block everything with sulfur. The yeasts need to do their work, because native yeasts are not just one strain like a preselected one (which kill all other remaining yeasts before taking control of the fermentation), and some are quite fragile. As far as enzymes and all that stuff, I don't see the point since we do a natural débourbage; its important to leave some gross lees in the juice to feed the yeasts.
And filtration shouldn't be systematic. I've filtered four of my wines since 2003, and do so with cellulose membranes. These are very light filtering gears that remove any deposits that might prokove the wine to referent in bottle. It's important to work naturally, but it's also important not to have any aromatic deviance. If you have a wine that smells like urine you can't go around telling people that it's great because that's its natural odor! Wine comes from fruit, and you should be able to taste that. Anyway, the reds are never filtered, and very rarely -for example the 2011 Aligoté- I filter the whites.
Let's talk about the Tonnerre A.O.C, which started in 2006. It's a pretty new appellation many might be unfamiliar with...
As far as the back story: before planting their vines, the majority of Tonnerre vignerons used to be cereal farmers. They were never fully exposed to vineyard work, and so many of them took night classes with Véronique Valnaut -an oenologist who doesn't get cited too much- who really helped a lot of people in the region. Three or four times a week, they would all gather to talk about their cereal quotas, but also about what they'd learned with Véronique! They would go visit other vineyard sites, both new and old. They would taste wines from all over...
Because of our geographical location, we were recommended to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. My dad thought it would be fun to have some Aligoté, which he planted in a very clay heavy soil most would consider more suited for reds. But I think it makes for very interesting wines. They are more ample, less mineral and fruity than most Aligoté that we're used too. They are unfortunately clones and not in massalle, but my father chose to plant "qualitative" clones over "productive" clones, particularly the Pinots. Working organically, I only get about 30 hl/h yields, so no they are not steroid-injected wrestler vines who produce 60/70 hl.
What about getting the A.O.C title?
The Tonnerre A.O.C was validated in 2006, but the work dates back to the 90's. When we fought for the A.O.C, it wasn't to have a commercial means to sell the wine, but rather to validate the fact that Tonnerre is a unique viticultural region. Staying in the Bourgogne A.O.C meant not highlighting this. If you go to Côte de Beaune or Côte de Nuits, a lot of these vines border big roads and are poorly situated. Here we have coteaux, nice parcels, a unique terroir… It was actually a single vigneron from Epineuil, Olivier Refait, who fought arduously for almost ten years!
It's also important to point out that this A.O.C exists only for our Chardonnay. The Aligoté is in Bourgogne Aligoté, the reds are Bourgogne. There is still a debate as to whether the reds will become Bourgogne Tonnerre or Bourgogne Epineuil. No one's quite sure what will happen.
Is it important for you to have the entirety of your production under a Tonnerre A.O.C?
It's pretty complicated. I really want to have Bourgogne Tonnerre reds, because my vines are much further than many of my neighbors, and I feel that they have a real typicity that differs greatly from those who are closer to Epineuil. Therefore the problem lies in how accurately we situate ourselves: logically anything around Epineuil would be Epineuil, but the vines of Tonnerre are far more spread out. Some definitely produce a wine closer to the Epineuil style, while others are a completely different wine. So I defend the idea of a Bourgogne Tonnerre red. I understand the argument that bunching everything together simplifies things, but I disagree.
Your new labels are a big departure from the very traditional looking ones used up until now. Can you tell us the backstory, but also which cuvée is which?
When I got out of school, I was that overambitious prick who wanted to leave his mark. I was all excited that my name was going to be on a bottle, and I wanted to change the labels. My father used to have rectangular ones with our farm drawn on it. I thought it was too classic so I redesigned them into ovals. I still wasn't satisfied and had some ideas, but I'm not a graphic designer. I eventually met Xavier Champion, who designed Nicholas Vautier's labels (I believe is reworking some De Moor labels as well), and we hit it off. I asked him to design labels that were classic but a bit more colorful; nothing as flashy as what I ended up getting!
When I first saw them I was pretty shocked! But at the same time, I quickly fell in love with them. As far as the cuvée names, some are arbitrary while others aren't. The Joseph is named after my great-great grandfather, and the guy with glasses and a mustache corresponded exactly to my vision of him. The André cuvée, named after my father, used to be called Tradition: the idea being I was making a more classic wine, the way my father used to make them. Apoline is just a name I find pretty, and it starts with A like Aligoté so there! Thérese is a little old lady name, which is the way I imagine my Tonnerre Chardonnay, which used to be called "A la Longue" because it needs some time to develop. Finally, Paulette replaces Cadette and stays with the -ette; this is my carbonic Pinot. Three girls, two guys, that's it!
You've used the term "natural wine" a few times. Where do you stand on the term, the wines, the people, the movement?
I'm not not part of the A.V.N; I asked for an application and never filled it in! I know that they have set some criteria to define what they mean by "natural wine", so maybe I need to go back and check up on that.
For me, the term "natural wine" isn't perfect or even correct, but there is still a coherent philosophy behind it. It's a wine that is not produced with oenological products. It's a wine made from vines that have been worked cleanly. As far as I'm concerned, a natural wine isn't trying to defend ecological and sanitary virtues as much as being a real wine of terroir. It's highlighting a terroir, the identity of a parcel (which Burgundy has become famous for). Let's not forget that wine in a beverage. It isn't an elitist product that you drink in an expensive suit while describing it with fancy words. It's a beverage meant to be shared. A wine shouldn't be complicated: you should be able to drink it without overanalyzing everything. If you want to do that, great, but you should also just be able to enjoy a glass.
What do you like to drink?
I drink all types of wine, but I love the Loire and Rhône wines. I love Darb & Ribo, my favorite Champagne is Vouette et Sorbée. I love Nicolas Vautier's wines; I'm not going to list every other buddy of mine whose wines I like, but I really feel that his fit his personality. They are very generous and easy, just like him!
This visit with at Domaine de La Chappe took place in July, 2013.
Words by Jules Dressner, pictures by John Kafarski and Jules Dressner.
"People who arrive on time have no lives!"
This is how Vincent Thomas of Domaine de la Chappe jokingly greeted after arriving over an hour late to our appointment. I blame it all on Olivier Horiot for making us hang out so long at his sister's place!
After exchanging helloes, we agreed to take a tour of the vines, but not before Vincent could load up the truck with new releases and some paté made from one of the two pigs he recently raised. Though he assured us it was delicious, Vincent forewarned the group that he could not bring himself to eat any himself.
"When you have that connection with the animal, it just feels wrong to eat them. But I love pork and will eat one if I didn't raise it!"
The first plot we visited was 1.5 h of Pinot Noir called les Rouquins. It's very rocky on the top of the parcel, which it makes it near impossible to work the grass.
This is especially challenging in years like 2013, where there has been LOTS of rain. Still:
"Better to have a lot of grass than a desert!"
As you can see from the pictures, it's kind of growing wild everywhere. The good news is that the constant freshness has made them avoid a lot of potential hail; 10-15% of Vincent's 2013 harvest has already been lost to those icy bastards from the sky.
"The problem with Pinot is that when it's stressed- for example by hail- it grows like crazy."
On the bottom part of the hill, the clay gets heavier so it's easier to plow.
The rocky top goes into the André cuvée, the bottom into Joseph. These vines were planted in 1990, 91 and 92.
We then drove to a parcel of Chardonnay.
Heavy, soft clay here. It's much easier to work. Except when it rains...
"It's so wet you could make pottery."
Just like the Pinot we visited earlier, the vines are completely surrounded by woods. Vincent doesn't have many neighbors, and some of them work organically. If not, he sells the grapes of rows with chemical overlap to a négociant.
The last parcel we checked out was the famous Aligoté!
It was about time to re-taste Alimonade:
This bubbly bad boy is part ancestrale, part traditionelle, ALL refreshing.
That was probably the corniest thing I've ever written. Fuck it, it's staying...
We also tried a whole bunch of other stuff, including the 2012 Thérèse. The 2011's flew out of inventory when we had them last (Maya and David sold out in two weeks), and it's too bad there will be so little of this precise, lively Chardonnay in 2012.
Speaking of not a lot of wine, Vincent started a small négoce last year so that he could have a little more volume. The purchased fruit is all from organic growers, most of whom are his close friends. From this project we tasted a 2012 Bourgogne Tonnerre aged in barrique that was fresh, bright and alive, a carbonic Pinot that was juicy and easy and a 2011 Epineul that macerated in 35l oak tanks.
Our outdoor tasting ended with André 11 and 12, both of which were great. Oh, and the paté was delicious!