Yannick Pelletier's estate currently consists of 10 ha in the Saint Chinian AOC that he has been working with since January 2004. He currently grows four varietals: Syrah (15%), Mourvedre (5%), Grenache (50%), Cinsault (16%) and Carignan (14%), and has recently acquired 0.5 ha of 50 year old Terret Blanc vines which he plans on vinifying by 2011. The parcels are relatively distant from each other which lets him take advantage of many different types of terroirs: 65% schist, 23% clay and limestone and 12% round stones. The youngest vines are 15, the oldest 70. The vines are in their third year of conversion to organic agriculture.
For the most part Yannick does goblet pruning in the vines, which applies to the Grenache, Carignan and CInsault. The Syrah is trained in Cordon de Royat, and normally he leaves six to eight spurs with one bud each.
The soil is worked with one or two plowingss and a possible hoeing by hand. He fertilizes the soil with an organic compost; about 500 to 1500 kilos per hectare. Yannick and his team do as much of the work as they can manually, for what he describes as two reasons: the work is more thorough than if done mechanically, and also avoids the passage of tractors which pack down the soil.
Pelletier's property is relatively small; about half the size of the average estate in his area. In his own words: "This would allow me to mechanize all the work and not employ anybody. If I did this, however, the wine wouldn't be made as well and wouldn't taste the same. You need one person for pruning, two people for debudding, six for the harvest and four to sort the grapes, not to mention the occasional help of friends and family."
To protect the foliage, he uses contact treatments, copper and sulphur, that don't penetrate the plant and therefore are not present in the grape.
Debudding, or green pruning, is the most important work done in the spring. It entails eliminating non fruit-bearing shoots (called gourmands, or suckers) or those which grew in the wrong spot, especially in the center of the vine. This allows air to circulate through the plant, control yields and concentrate the sap for the best shoots.
Pelletier's guiding principle in the winemaking process is to preserve the integrity of the grapes and wine: manual sorting of the grapes, use of gravity (yes!), indigenous yeasts… If the grapes are clean, pure, healthy and of good quality, he sees no reason to alter them with chemicals or oenology.
Yannick's wines are made, aged and bottled without sulfites. They are not fined or filtered and should be stocked in a room or cellar that does not exceed 18 C (64.4 F).
This interview with Yannick Pelletier was conducted through a series of emails in November 2010.
I've recently started to work with a half hectare of Mourvèdre on clay and limestone soil since 2009. I also plan to plant 0.7 ha of Grenache Gris and Blanc on schist this winter in hopes of blending it with my Terret Blanc and Gris in hopes of making a more complex white.
How did you end up a vigneron?
When I was in high school, my plans were to start a business selling French products abroad. When I was done with University, I decided to do a formation in the commercialization of wines and spirits. I worked retail for a few years at various shops around Lyon and got the opportunity to work in some vineyards between jobs.
I started to realize how much I enjoyed it, so I took some oenological classes in hopes of eventually starting my own estate. Many internships followed, mostly in conventional agriculture at first, and I eventually started working for Leon Barral, where I started to feel a true understanding of the vineyard and wine. I then worked another year at a small estate in Faugères before starting my own operation in 2004.
What is the work process like with the vines? What do you think of your terroirs?
I don't have a "process" other than working well and favoring the life of the ground and the plants. The terroir in itself is great; the schists are fantastic. The climate however, is quite challenging: scorching sun, wind, and in some years violent rain or heat waves… Not to mention the terroirs are tainted from many years of brutal mechanical work, chemicals and the plantation of "vine on vine", in other words not giving the ground time to rest and replenish itself.
The judicial term for an estate is an "agriculture exploitation". Usually, when you exploit something, you use it without caring for it or respecting it, and inevitably what you are exploiting ends up suffering in the process. Such is the human condition… Still, I'm working hard in order to restore the terroirs to where I want them to be.
What about the winemaking process?
Sorry, but I don't have a vinification process either. Whole cluster or de-stemmed, pigeages or remontages, maceration time: their are no rules, just instinct. I function heavily on instinct and taste, from choosing when to harvest right down to bottling. I make wines with the grapes, terroirs and the weather of that year. I think they've greatly progressed in nuance and complexity since I started in 2004. Of course I hope to perfect them even more in time. For example a current focus would be more finesse in tannic structure.
How do you feel about you AOC, and more specifically your wines in regards to the "typicality" of your region?
My AOC is a "political appellation" because the many terroirs are heterogeneous and have nothing to do with one another. Of course I feel my wines are "typical" of their terroirs because I do everything I can to respect them.
Have you always worked organically or biodynamically in the vineyard and with the least amount of intervention in the cellar? If yes, then why and if no, what made you change your mind?
During my many internships, I often worked in a "chemical" or "technological" manner and found no real worth or pleasure in it. When I started working for Barral I started to gain an understanding of how soils and terroirs worked, of the complete process of winemaking, from the vine to to the bottle. It just so happened that Barral worked this way and in turn I began working organically myself.
What's your take on the "natural" wine debate?
These days, everyone is making organic or biodynamic wine, "natural" wine that is also "environmentally friendly". Wine should distinguish itself by its' own merit. Certifications can't do anything and do not exist for "natural" wine.
My goal is to make a wine that lets the drinker experience his own senses, to ask themselves what they are drinking, why they like it and to want to come back to it. If they get that far, only then should you explain to them why and how wines like these are made.
What wines do you enjoy drinking besides your own?
Jura and Beaujolais.
This visit with Yannick Pelletier took place in July, 2012.
Words and photos by Jules Dressner.
After meeting Yannick in front of his cellar, we stepped in to taste the unfinished 2011's. Nothing had been bottled or blended yet, but this should be happening soon to make room for the 2012 harvest. With the exception of a few old barrels and some fiberglass, the vast majority of Yannick's wine is vinified in large cement tanks.
We started by tasting some Terret Blanc and Terret Gris harvested in late October. The alcohol was surprisingly low, only 12.3%. Some of this is fermented in fiberglass, the rest in wood to add structure. It will be bottled as L'R de Rien, a crisp table wine that hasn't made it stateside yet (for quantity reasons).
Next we tasted Cinsault from different concrete tanks; Yannick believes these will all turn up in the 2011 Oiselet. The prominent characteristics were red fruit on the nose and palate, with a nice tannic structure and finish. We also tasted a fiberglass fermented Grenache that will probably end up in L'Engouvelement -it was showing darker and deeper fruit. We ended on some Grenache Gris from barrel: it had a smoked meat quality on the nose, was a little marked by the oak, but overall showed concentrated fruit and a tannic finish.
After tasting the 2011's, Yannick proposed we revisit 2010 with lunch at Cave Saint Martin, an excellent wine bar, retailer and restaurant in the neighboring town of Roquebrun.
This place is run by the infamous Raymond Lecoq, the guy who sells his charcuteries to all of our favorite restaurants in France. Also, our waitress was none other than Marcel Lapierre's daughter Camille! Lunch consisted of a lot of seasonal, local fish and various forms of pork and cheese. Yannick loves the fact that a place like this exists so close to his house.
"In the summer, I eat here almost everyday for lunch."
Denyse and I hadn't seen Yannick since the Dive Bouteille, so it was a good time to catch up. Fresh with memories of the Roussillon, I started describing the great energy I felt there: the ever increasing amount of estates starting up or converting to organic viticulture/minimal intervention winemaking, everyone getting along and helping each other out, the enthusiasm to break free of the region's bad reputation... Yannick -while happy to hear about this- informed us that the good vibes haven't really spread up North yet.
"We are maybe two or three here (Saint-Chinian) who have the same priorities."
Case in point: the Saint-Chinian A.O.C board recently declassified the 2010 Oiselet into a Vin de France. Why? Because Yannick used more Cinsault than is legally allowed in the blend...
This puts him in a tough position: though all his good customers still bought the wine, not having the AOC can have devastating effects on sales, particularly in France. Still, Yannick is considering intentionally declassifying all his cuvées in future vintages. It's a decision many of our growers have made in the past: it's a risk, but at least it gives them the freedom to make the wines they want to make. Either way, Yannick doesn't see his relationship with the INAO getting any better.
"I can feel that the AOC has a problem with me, and I don't want to fight to be accepted in an institution that doesn't want me around."
After lunch, it was vineyard time! First stop, Yannick's only Mourvèdre vines.
These are grown on very dry clay and limestone. The vines were acquired in 2009, and are 30 years old. The Mourvèdre ends up being blended into the Coccigrues. For the last year, Yannick has been experimenting with biodynamic techniques, and wants to start making the preparations himself.
Next, we visited a schist parcel, a mix of 60 year old Carignan and Grenache vines on the top and some much younger Syrah vines at the bottom.
In the case of these schist soils, the first 30 centimeters are very hard stone. But once you get past those, the schists are completely shattered, so this where the vines' roots truly take. The Carigan portion is particularly rocky.
Next was Yannick's baby, a parcel of Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris he completely planted himself.
These were planted last April on schist and clay. 63 ares total. The soils here had been resting for 15 years, which was a big factor in Yannick's purchase. The other? A very nice panoramic view!
The last site we saw was Grenache on dark clay. This parcel is in an isolated clos.
L'Oiselet is a blend of Cinsault (1/3), Grenache (1/3) and Carignan (1/3). The Cinsault is destemmend and macerated for 15 days, wile the other two varieties macerate from three weeks to a month. It is aged for 18 months in cement vats. Though ready to drink now, the wine can easily age 5-6 years.