René-Jean Dard and François Ribo started their estate in 1984 in a back street of Tain-l’Hermitage. There was about 1HA from Dard’s family, all the rest was rented or slowly acquired over the years.
Born in the towns that face each other across the Rhône River, Tournon in the Ardèche and Tain-l’Hermitage in the Drôme, Dard and Ribo met in wine school in Beaune in their late teens. They work 7.5HA of vines scattered over 7 villages, with most of their holdings in Crozes-Hermitage, some in St-Joseph and a slice of Hermitage.
In their cellar, part of a large farm building in the hamlet of Blanche-Laine in Mercurol, they craft subtle, unextracted Syrah for immediate enjoyment, and several whites from Roussanne and Marsanne. “What we like is natural wine because it’s alive, wine that does not necessarily have to be kept – just drunk and drunk again.” (François Ribo, quoted in John Livingstone-Learmonth’s The Wines of the Northern Rhône , p.382)
What is different with them is that they view Syrah as a grape giving elegant and pleasant wines, rather than sturdy, big, tannic wines. They want their wines to taste well quickly, not after years of cellaring to dissipate hard tannins. They even make a cuvée called “C’est le Printemps” that is released in the spring following the harvest, almost like a nouveau of Syrah. They tend to vinify by plot, because they have such a wide varieties of terroir and vine ages.
Among the regular cuvées is a Crozes-Hermitage red from plots located mainly in Larnage, on red clay with gravel and alluvial stones. The white Crozes is a blend of Roussanne and Marsanne planted on a mix of glacial alluvial deposits, rolled stones and red clay. The Saint-Joseph red comes from different plots of sandy granite, red clay and gore (decomposed granite.) The St-Jo white is only Roussanne, an exception in an AOC where Marsanne dominates.
The spéciales include the Crozes Les Bâties from 2HA in red clay; the Crozes Pé de Loup from a soil of white gravel with kaolin (white clay); the white Crozes Les Karrières, from very old Marsanne growing on kaolin; “K”, from the same plot, when the vintage allows.
Also, from St-Joseph, the cuvée Pitrou, made from late-picked Roussanne when the season is right, and the grapes concentrate to a yield of 20HL/HA. If the weather is not exceptional, these grapes go into the Les Champs, the regular white St-Jo.
This interview with René-Jean Dard took place in his cellar in August, 2015.
Tell us about your estate.
Dard & Ribo is starting to get old! We officially started the estate together in 1983, but François (Ribo) and I have been working together since 1980. I started making wine in 1975, after inheriting my father’s vines following his death.
We started out with very little land. My father’s vines represented about an hectare of Saint-Joseph. But we got lucky and almost immediately found 3000 meters of Hermitage and 5000 meters of Crozes-Hermitage, so that was the beginning.
Your father was a vigneron?
He was not. He had vines, but it was essentially for personal consumption. Though he sold a bit to his friends.
So how did you get interested in viticulture?
My dad did this as a side project. He died when I was 15, and I just decided to keep doing it. I was still going to school, playing sports and doing things a normal 15 year old does, but I always took care of that bit of land and made wine from it. It was about an hectare.
Did you know François back then?
No, we met later in life. At the time I never thought this would become my job. It was after finishing my baccalaureate that a professor I’d become friends proposed I become a vigneron. So I left to Dijon to study oenology, but I found it quite boring.
So I went to Beaune instead to study a more practical program, and that’s where I met François. We instantly hit it off and became friends. He also started helping me in my vines, and from there we decided to partner up.
Is he a local?
You were saying you got lucky finding the land you started with. Could this be possible today?
It’s difficult now, mostly because the prices for land have really risen. I can’t imagine a young vigneron starting from scratch like we did in today’s climate.
So how big is the estate now?
We’re at about 8.5 hectares of vines. About 4 hectares of Crozes-Hermitage, 2 or 3 hectares of Saint-Joseph and some Hermitage. I’m not really sure of the exact amount of land, that’s more François’s thing. Oh, and each AOC produces reds and whites.
You mentioned earlier that you grow a lot of white grapes for the region. Is this a coincidence?
No. We planted a lot of whites because we like white wine. But it really helped that from a very early point, our whites were very popular and well received. It's what our clients were looking for, and since the region is only about 10% white, we decided to create a niche for ourselves with white wine. Our estate is about 35% white wines, which is a lot for the region.
How did your work philosophy over the years develop in the vines and the cellar?
When we started, we weren’t working organically in the vines. But I’ve been making sulfur-free wines since I was 15. I didn’t even know you could add sulfur to wine until going to oenology school! "You have to", they said! My dad never sulfured the wines and I basically just followed in his footsteps.
My first year with François, we made wine the way we were taught to in school and knew that this was not our style. It did not interest us. So the reflection in our work actually began through vinification: what we had been taught in school vs. what my father always did. From there, we started working in what we considered to be the old-school, local way of making wine, and this eventually led us to reconsider our vineyard practices. But it wasn’t a complete 180, and took some time.
Can you elaborate?
We liked the idea of working naturally in the vines, but the reality of converting everything was extremely daunting at first. We have a lot of very steep coteaux, and the learning curve is much higher than working organically on flatland.
We are obviously of the philosophy that the less you pollute, the better the situation. But our goal has always been to make the best wine possible. And the only way to do that is to be clean in the vineyards. It’s as simple as that.
So who were your first clients?
We always made wine that we liked to drink. It might sound selfish, but we never thought about what our customers would think about the wines. It was about what we liked, and we were lucky in finding great clients that shared our taste.
Again, this was luck and good timing. We happened to start our estate right when the first natural wine bars were popping up in Paris. In fact, the term natural wine didn’t exist back then, and our style of wine was simply called "sans souffre" (sulfur free).
We were on the scene in Paris as early as 1985, but back then there were only a handful of places. We were a tiny estate, so even 4 good customers was enough. But then we were fortunate enough to grow side by side with Paris’ natural wine scene; once there were 10 places we happened to get an extra hectare, and when there were 20 we grew some more...
For a very long time, we sold 70 to 90% of our production to Paris in these types of establishments. This very small hub eventually began to expand, and with that business we were able to up our production. It was completely natural in its progression. So now we import wine to 17 countries. Even though the natural wine movement has spread worldwide, it’s still a niche and we still remain a small estate.
You talk about the global popularity of these types wines today, but you must have been rather isolated in your early years.
Completely isolated. In fact we’re still kind of isolated in the region! François and I have faced countless instances of backlash from neighboring vignerons, from customs, the repressions des fraudes (ed note: an office in France that focuses on fraud)and by syndicates like InterRhône. Honestly, this still continues to this day.
Yet you still stick to the appellation system?
I’ll admit that we are still attached to our appellations. It’s a unique place we work in and it would be sad to not let people know where the wine is from. Our job is to bring the terroir into the bottle, and that terroir has a name. So I want it on the bottle.
I’m not critiquing producers that intentionally declassify their wines. In fact there are moments where we should have done the same. But it can get complicated: if everyone is making Vin de France, how do you know where anything is from?
I guess that’s partly the responsibility of importers, restaurants and retailers now. It’s a different context.
Today, natural wine is recognized in the entire world. You can sell just by the fact that you make natural wine and that your name is so and so. But 20, 30 years ago, if you brought in a Vin de Table to a restaurant at the price of a Saint-Joseph, the owner still had to sell a Vin de Table at the price of a Saint-Joseph. Customers back then could not accept paying so much for table wine.
Did any wines along the way shape your feelings about how it should be made?
When François and I were young, we were obsessed with tasting wine. We would get bottles from the four corners of France, do blind tastings and just discuss our impressions. As far as wines without sulfur, there weren’t many people making them.
What about meeting like-minded vignerons?
We’d basically only see them in Paris. Even in the early days, there were small groups who promoted sulfur-free winemaking but we never participated in any. We’ve always kept our distance. Obviously, today we are more known so we get out a little more to shake hands.
But you guys don’t do any tasting events right?
We don’t. If we are known today, it’s only because of our wines. Very few people actually know what René-Jean Dard and François Ribo look like. Getting to the cellar is pretty complicated, and we almost never accept appointments (ed note: I guess we’re lucky!) We don’t feel our job is to do sales.
We sell 3% of our wines to consumers, so their is no incentive to have them visit us. But I’m not saying we do commerce! We just do it differently, by visiting our customers, having dinner or a glass at their places. Sometimes (very rarely!) we’ll visit another country. We’ve never been to the US though.
Whenever you want to come to the States, we’ll be happy.
I’ll give you a burger tour.
I dream of eating a good, real burger. I’ve never truly understood them, because they are terrible in France.
Getting back on track: did meeting any of these like-minded vignerons affirm or confirm anything? Did it influence your work?
It confirmed that this was in fact a different way of making wine that worked. None of these guys were from our region though, so it was hard to compare techniques.
There were producers from Beaujolais, Alsace, the Loire, the lower ends of the Côtes du Rhône, Bandol... But most were from the Beaujolais, and since we never used carbonic maceration, it was difficult having vinification discussions. It was more about just general ideas, and drinking good bottles together.
You’ve been using synthetic corks for a while. What prompted that decision?
Not to name them, we started using Nomacorcs in 2002. Without getting too much into it, traditional corks are a huge rip-off. They look like cork, they have the color of cork, they feel like cork but the truth is that the actual cork is only in the middle. The edge of the cork is painted and treated chemically.
Yes, there are real, 100% corks but they cost a fortune. We decided fuck it, let’s pass to plastic. We also chose to have black ones to make a statement: we are definitely using plastic and not trying to trick you that's it's cork. We did some experiments in 2002, and in 2003 all of our wines were bottled with black, plastic corks. We find it efficient.
I drank a 2006 Les Champs the other day and it was delicious. People often say wines can’t evolve with synthetic corks...
They are not completely wrong. But the principal passage of oxygen into a bottle, which in turn brings evolution to the wine, doesn’t go through the cork: it goes through the space between the cork and the glass. The current models of plastic corks have been thoroughly designed with this in mind. The corks we use have the exact same exchange rate as a traditional one.
We taste our wines, see them evolve and still taste great. And we don’t have to worry about corked wine or leaky, stained corks.
I’ve heard rumors that you intentionally print our importation backlabel upside downn because that way the only way to read it is once you’ve finished the bottle. Is this true?
Actually it’s because we bought the roller in the wrong side. We’ve have to manually roll everything to get it the right way, so we just end up having them upside down. We’re a little lazy is all!
In the interminable debate about natural wine, where do you stand? I ask because you are one of the most seminal, often cited producers from the early days of this movement.
Overall I am very happy, because it simply means there are more drinkable wines. The problem, of course, is that there is a lot of hideous stuff out there as well. A lot of people are hiding behind the word "natural" to escape criticism from their lack of serious work in the cellar. The wines are jam packed with volatility, they are muddled and murky; that's not wine. Just because you didn’t do anything to the wine doesn’t mean it's good.
Making "natural" wine should not be a goal unto itself. It should be a tool to make qualitatively superior wine. At Dard & Ribo, our goal is not to put a label on our wine so it sells easily. We want to make the best wine possible, and have come to the conclusion that this is the way to do it. We want to make wine that is easy to drink and doesn’t give you a headache.
So when a wine is prickly and sour, don’t tell me: "Oh that’s because I’m natural." But at the same time, it’s hard to criticize these extremists, because conventional vignerons have been acting like such jack-asses for so long that I almost want to root for these guys.
You guys didn’t have any issues in your early days?
OUU LAH LAH! We had every problem imaginable! We’ve made wine with bubbles. We’ve make wine that was so reductive it was undrinkable. The fact is that when you make wine like this, it’s alive: if the sugars don’t finish, or who knows what you can be in serious trouble.
But this forced us to reflect on our errors and to me much more careful in the cellar. And it’s still a constant challenge for us! The truth is that sulfur is the vigneron’s sleeping aid: you put that in the bottle and everything stays put! Us on the other hand, it’s constant sleepless nights!
But it’s the risk you take.
What do you like to drink?
I love beer and sake. I still love wine of course!
This visit at Dard & Ribo took place in June, 2012.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Maya Pedersen.
Driving over to the commune of Mercurol, we ended up getting there really early and decided to visit the neighboring towns of Tournon and Tain-L'Hermitage.
The two towns are separated by the Rhône river, but you can walk across the bridge pictured above in five minutes. The river also separates two departments: Tournon is in Ardèche (where Jean-René Dard was born) and Tain-L'Hermitage is in the Drôme (where François Ribo is from). As you can see, Tain-L'Hermitage has a great view on some of the steepiest, best placed Hermitage vines. The main drags are very touristy, but getting lost in the little side streets was a lot of fun. We also saw this very strange Kebab place:
"Hygiene, Quality, Service". MMMMMMMM, appetizing!
The Ardèche is also a huge player in French apricot production, and this time of the year is the peak of the season:
After killing some time, we set off to the small village of Blanche-Laine, where Dard & Ribo have their cellar.
In the 8 or so years we've worked with these guys, no one has ever met François Ribo; René-Jean takes care of everything on our side of things, and apparently François does the same for certain customers. So, you guessed it, René-Jean was our host. I would describe him as a lovable grump: he grumbled about us visiting on a Sunday ("and the day after the 14!"), but then spent 5 hours carefully showing us the vines and tasting through the 2011's. He likes to complain a lot, but it's always with a hint of amusement; he also has a great sense of humor and would be a shoe-in as a New Yorker. He's actually never been to the U.S, and says the only reason he would come is to have a "real American burger".
The first vineyard we visited was a parcel of Hermitage.
Roussanne, Marsanne and Syrah are co-planted together here. And while the Marsanne and Roussane are a bit hard to distinguish from one another, René-Jean grabbed some leaves to show how to easily spot the vines of red (left) and white (right).
Besides size, the white vines' leaves are more undulated, and their "butts cross"...
Their Crozes-Hermitage vines are at the very edge of the appellation. They are 20 years old, and were planted by René-Jean and François; when they took over in 1984, the preexisting vines were nearly 100 and unproductive. They ripped them out but were still able to get some selection massalles out of them, which is what was replanted. This particular parcel is one of many (but not all) that François works with a cable pulley and horse. The soils are deep, granitic sand.
The way they acquired this parcel is a cool story. Both the guys were participating in a traditional night of singing and dancing, with the party constantly moving from farm to farm. At around 2 AM, they found themselves drinking at an old farmer's house. In passing, he mentioned his imminent retirement and how he was hoping to sell his vines. Hungover, they woke up early the next morning to sign a contract with him. No one could understand why the guy was so adamant about selling his vines to two young nobodies who were just getting started, but he must of seen something special.
We also spotted some vines René-Jean is picking out his massalles for replanting:
Even in the Northern Rhône, there has been a lot of rain this year and therefore a lot of illness. This has forced them to do more treatments than usual. At the time of our visit, they'd done 5, but most in the region were well above 15. They were also hit with hail three times, which did some damage.
Our next stop was at les Karrières.
This parcel has the particularity of being on kaolinite soils. This is the same clay that is used to make porcelain, and just a few minutes from the vines, kaolinite is mined for just that.
We also checked out a parcel in Crozes-Hermitage called les Bâties.
Over the course of the visit, René-Jean kept bringing up his constant struggles with Inter-Rhône, an organisation designed to promote every aspect of wine in the region from A to Z. They claim to exist in order to maintain a certain quality in the vineyards and in the cellar, but according to what René-Jean told us, it seems like little more than a legal, administrative imposition of laws and regulations attempting to uniform an entire (rather large) region. The latest incident: Dard & Ribo recently got a 17 euro fine for letting too much grass grow...
"You need to let it grow when it rains this much. If you work the soils, you spread more illness."
But this is only a minor offense. Recently, the Dard & Ribo wines were tasted by an Inter-Rhône pannel who told them their wines were deviant and atypical, and now they're busting their chops about the winemaking, trying to send a guy over there to see what they're up to. This from the same institution that allows chaptalisation, acidification, and just passed the use of wood chips!
Unrelated but just as ridiculous, the cave cooperative of Tain just converted to organics, so they called Francois to tell him "watch what you're putting in the vines" so it wouldn't overlap into theirs. I guess they didn't know Dard & Ribo have been working organically since the 80's...
"But they never called us to tell us: hey we're using chemicals. Watch out!"
The same cave later got mad because the A.O.C forbade them from spraying the organic treatments via helicopter.
Crozes-Hermitage factoid: did you know that 70% of Crozes-Hermitage's vineyards are on flat land? In fact, up until fairly recently it was used as a bistro wine served at the counter. Traditional Crozes red was always light and pleasant, but in an effort to build up the region's reputation, many vignerons began making fuller bodied, more extracted and heavily oaked bottlings.
"Crozes was never meant to be a serious wine. It's supposed to be easy to drink."
In the cellar, we got to taste all the 2011's.
As many of you know, Dard & Ribo are amongst the pioneers of sans-souffre winemaking in France, and the reds have been this way since the 80's. For the whites, René-Jean explained that up until a few years ago, they'd always used to add a little bit of sulfur at press. But over the last decade, they have developed a technique where they rack the juice after press WITHOUT doing a débourbage. As the wine ferments, the gross lees are physically pushed out through the top of the barrels. This means they have to constantly clean up the overflow until fermentation is over, but this way, no sulfur! Once the fermentation is done, they then rack the wine.
We also got to taste Rouge Divers, a Crozes-Hermitage nouveau!
This bottling, which they've been doing since 2005, consistently infuriates their neighbors and probably Inter-Rhône if they knew about it. Why?
1. It's a primeur, so it is released in January. Not very serious Crozes!
2. It's in a transparent Bordeaux bottle, which is not typical of Crozes! And look at that color!
3. There is a big stamp that translates to "Drink Now" on the label. That's just not serious Crozes!
That was the visit. I wanted to do an interview, but René-Jean's lady-friend showed up and things just progressed into drinking some 2010's and hanging out. There was so much I wanted to ask, but I'm sure there'll be another opportunity. As we were about to leave, I stepped out for a second to check on Zaggy. Just then, a very tall, curly haired man with glasses was parking his tractor. Having no idea who it was, I politely said hello and went back in. It turns out it was François Ribo! By the time we'd figured out it was him (after all these years, Denyse wanted to meet him), it was too late: he'd gotten back on the tractor to work some vines! The mystery continues...
A.O.C Crozes-Hermitage White